Curiosity Kills the Cat's Career

Katrina Gulliver reflects on the limits disciplines impose on scholars based on specialties.



December 4, 2014

In what sense does branching from your original field come with a punishment? Does the academy really want intellectual curiosity?

I am a historian, and I have published in Asian, Pacific, urban and American history. I don’t really consider myself an Asianist of the hardcore variety, (my Mandarin is rusty and my Malay limited), and for all that World History is touted, hiring in that area is often more the old-style “Empire” (“Britain and the World,” “France and the World,” “Iberian Empires” or sometimes “America in the World” which as far as I can tell is the new way of saying diplomatic history).

But unfortunately the academic world still has a need to pigeonhole us. A department will be hiring someone to teach (for instance), colonial North America, or Modern Germany. So obviously they want someone with training in that area. (Never mind that fact that many of us, once in a job, will end up teaching things that are a long way from our specialization.)

Back while I was still at the University of Cambridge in 2007, Simon Schama published a book about the transatlantic slave trade. At a conference, one of the speakers held up the book, slapped it, and said, “How could he write this? He’s an expert on 17th-century Holland!” I thought my Ph.D. was a license to go anywhere in history. Hearing that comment, I wondered whether I had made a huge mistake.

My Ph.D. topic was stumbled into, rather a compromise based on source availability and timing. I am proud of the project (and the book it became), but it’s not an area I wish to pursue further. So I work on different things. Fortunately, I’m in a department now where they don’t seem to mind what I research, as long as I’m publishing. But to grant agencies, I think I look a bit flaky.

And certainly to people like that conference speaker, I present an odd figure. I assumed that my training in history (in Susan Stryker’s words, a “black belt in looking shit up”) meant I could turn those skills to any period of history (language issues notwithstanding). I never realized I would be shackled to my Ph.D. topic for the rest of my life (perhaps because the historians I most admired, like Schama, are those who had displayed broad intellectual curiosity and turned their focus on widely divergent regions and periods).

In terms of history outside of the academy, the general public wants broad declarative histories. Books on the theme of “The X that changed the world” are common (even histories of apparently small things have to be on the grand stage). Meanwhile in academe our focus remains narrow. There was once a time when academic historians wrote broad narratives for dissertations. Then we turned to ever smaller elements of history, to be examined to a microscopic level. David Armitage and Jo Guldi have suggested we may be returning to the longue duree in academic works, but it may be slow in coming.

I still believe that the training of a doctoral program should allow us to use those skills anywhere, allowing for the time required to get up to speed on the scholarship in a new field. After all, if I could do that in three years as a fresh graduate student, I should be able to do it again now (and probably quicker since I’ve done it before). It disturbs me that there are people who believe our ability to learn and grow as scholars should end the second we are handed our Ph.D.s (with our future publications just being further iterations of the same subject as our dissertation).

With the growing need for Ph.D.s to consider careers outside the academy, a broader perspective is useful -- nonprofits, think tanks and museums want broad skills and flexibility, not narrow interests. This means also having open-minded professors -- open to careers outside academe, and open to different fields.



Katrina Gulliver is a lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales. You can find her most of the time on Twitter @katrinagulliver.


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