Year in Review: Inaugural Year Features New Work, Intellectual Excitement
Posted: July 7, 2009
Institute Fellows 2008-09
Great history departments, like great universities, have reputations that are larger than the sum of their parts. In its inaugural year of programming, the Institute for Historical Studies (IHS) at the University of Texas History Department took a vital step in the direction of enhancing the role of the department as a site for intellectual community on campus as well as nationally.
With emphasis given to its Global Borders theme for 2008-2010, the institute hosted a variety of workshops, a six-part public lecture series, and a major conference, among other activities.
The bi-weekly workshops featured visitors, resident fellows, and department faculty. The visitors were primarily highly visible and influential mid-career faculty presenting new work.
Medievalist Jay Rubenstein, University of Tennessee, whose work on the crusades has won numerous accolades including a McArthur Foundation fellowship—the so-called “genius” grant—presented before a packed house in February.
Michael Kwaas, an influential French historian from the University of Georgia, presented his work on smuggling and border violence related to the global—and often illicit—trade in tobacco in the eighteenth century, relating a dynamic with many contemporary resonances.
Resident research fellows joined with history faculty to explore themes whose historical roots are of critical importance for the contemporary world as well as for the historical profession. David Kinkela, IHS resident fellow, assistant professor at SUNY Fredonia, whose work centers on the history of environmental politics with a specific focus on the history of the highly-controversial pesticide DDT, remarked, “The workshops have provided me with a variety of methodological approaches (and source material) that have enriched my work. As I move forward, the IHS workshops will be tremendously important to my career.”
Another resident fellow, Ruben Flores from the University of Kansas, who worked on his book manuscript about school integration in Mexico and Texas, added, “It was good to wrestle with questions that historians outside of my specialty areas routinely think about. I don’t spend much time thinking about Constantinople, Australia, or Northern Europe, but it was a valuable experience for my career to converse with scholars who study subject areas far away from my own.”
On average the workshops drew between 45-50 people, including history faculty and graduate students, as well as visitors from many other departments across campus. The intellectual energy around the workshops has been very high, as American Studies Chair Steven Hoelscher noted, “This is the best 90 minutes I’ve had on campus since I’ve been at UT.”
The IHS also designed a lecture series for the university’s Odyssey program in the fall. The public lectures featured some of the History Dept.’s most dynamic professors drawing upon concepts of borders—political, philosophical, cultural, social—to provide participants with a fascinating look at some of history's most compelling people, places and stories, from Jefferson to concentration camps, and from the black freedom movement to the mix of science, technology, and politics that went into the making of the first atomic bombs.
The IHS hosted its first major conference on environmental history, The Nation State and the Transnational Environment, to coincide with Earth Day 2009. It has become a matter of conventional wisdom that many of the most urgent global challenges—resource scarcity, mass migration, and environmental degradation, for example—defy the ability of individual nation-states to resolve.
"Keynote speaker John McNeill of Georgetown University, the author most recently of Epidemics and Geopolitics in the American Tropics, 1640-1920 (Cambridge UP, 2008) reminded the conference participants and other attendees of the interconnectedness of environmental problems and international history," wrote Chris Dietrich, History Dept. grad student. "Delineating what he believed were the most pressing changes modern society has wrought upon the global environment in the past half-century, McNeill emphasized the massive increase in energy use beginning in the early Cold War era and continuing into the present.
"McNeill specifically called attention to the relation between energy—as produced, consumed, and regulated—and concerns with national economic markets and environmental degradation." The situation is unquestionably dire, but it is not as unprecedented as much recent commentary might have us believe. In fact, nation-states have been struggling for centuries to manage challenges that far exceeded their scope for effective action.
The conference explored the ways in which nation-states have attempted to find solutions to one crucial set of global problems—namely, environmental problems—that, by their very nature, require international solutions. The papers from the conference are now being revised for a book. Both conference and forthcoming book will increasingly position the History Department to become a national leader in this field.
The IHS also co-sponsored several history conferences, among them Making Race, Making Health; American Crossroads: Migration, Communities, and Race; and Black Atlantics: An Urban Perspective.
On the heels of a noteworthy first year, one might wonder what the future holds in 2009-10. Institute Director Julie Hardwick maintains that a combination of the unique programming from the past year, paired with initiatives to expand the department’s conversation beyond our campus nationwide—from alumni and members of the community—will capture the interest of an even broader audience.
“The IHS looks forward to continuing to foster a creative and productive synergy between the profession’s most prominent practitioners, its rising stars, and the department’s own outstanding faculty,” Hardwick said. “And we are looking forward to a roundtable on Global Borders at the national meeting of the American Historical Association in winter 2010 and promoting the profile of the department across the country.”