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Robert J. Cottrol is the Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and professor of history and sociology at the George Washington University. Cottrol lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and has been an AHA member since 1976.
1. Alma mater/s: Yale University (BA, PhD); Georgetown University (JD)
2. Fields of interest: Legal History, Race Relations, Comparative
3. When did you first develop an interest in history?
My interest developed fairly early as a student in high school. I was always an avid reader and was particularly interested in what is now called African American history, because it was an area that was often conspicuous by its absence when I was in elementary and secondary school. I was fortunate to be admitted to Yale College, a rarity then and unfortunately now, for a graduate of an inner city high school. I had the opportunity first as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student to take courses from some of the nation’s and indeed world’s leading historians including John Blassingame, John Blum, Emília Viotti da Costa, David Brion Davis, Howard Lamar, William McFeely, Edmund Morgan, Richard Morse, and a number of others. I also worked closely with Kai Erikson, who was one of the pioneers in the field of historical sociology in its modern form. It was an intellectually exhilarating experience and one that has greatly influenced the direction my life has taken.
4. What projects are you working on currently?
I have been doing a lot of work in recent years looking at the issue of race in Latin America and how it is different from and similar to our experience with race in the United States. I am particularly interested in how the different slave societies of the Americas reacted to the challenges that liberalism and the enlightenment posed to slavery and how those reactions influenced patterns of racial inequality after emancipation and indeed down to the present day. I have a book coming out exploring this theme, it is titled The Long Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race and Law in the American Hemisphere (University of Georgia Press, Studies in the Legal History of the South series, forthcoming).
5. What books or articles are you currently reading?
I always have a million things on my desk that I am trying to get through. Right now I am reading Alan Bullock’s fascinating dual biography: Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. I am also about to start Antonio Carlos Wolkmer’s História do Direito no Brasil (History of the Law in Brazil). I am also going through the latest AHR with particular attention to Ada Ferrer’s article “Haiti, Free Soil, and Antislavery in the Revolutionary Atlantic.”
6. What do you value most about the history profession?
My background is interdisciplinary. I received my PhD in American studies. My primary teaching appointment is in the George Washington University Law School, and I have secondary appointments in history and sociology. In my view, the strength of history as a field is that it is, or should be, less agenda-driven than other disciplines. Lawyers spend their time marshaling arguments and evidence for the side that they are supporting. Social scientists spend much of their time trying to verify or disprove hypotheses. Historians as a group are more free-ranging. We will start off with some basic assumptions about the subject we are studying, but we are more willing to let our inquiries go where the evidence leads us, at least that should be the case.
7. Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote?
When I think back on AHA meetings that I have attended, I of course, remember the sessions, the scholarly interchanges both formal and informal. But I also remember two rather humorous encounters. The first occurred at one of my first AHA meetings. It was in San Francisco in the late 70s. A group of my friends and I were going around to the different receptions—they were called ‘smokers’ then for the inevitable and I might add entirely pleasant pipe smoking that went on at these events. My friends and I were newly minted PhDs or ABDs who had gotten our first jobs and were early in our careers. I think all of us had done our graduate work at Yale, so naturally we went to the Yale smoker first. It was a rather staid affair, men in three piece suits, women in equally stuffy attire. People were discussing their research, latest article or book for the more established scholars, dissertations and how to turn them into books or articles for those of us who were more junior. It was all rather serious and formal. After a while my friends and I left the Yale reception and went to one that was hosted by the Stanford History Department. There we found the same level of intensity in terms of scholarly conversation, but something was different. People were dressed casually, most were sipping white wine. There was a little lively music, playing on some device. One of my friends remarked, “I guess this is the difference between Connecticut and California.”
The second anecdote involves a session I attended, not as a panelist, but as a member of the audience. The session was on the crowd in history. After the panelists had made their presentations and comments, discussion was thrown open to members of the audience. A number of people in the audience made comments about various points relating to the topic. Many of those who did so mentioned the work of George Rudé, one of the premier students of the crowd and collective protest. Finally one man stood up and said “I am George Rudé,” and proceeded to give his views on the subject. It wasn’t exactly like the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen brought in Marshall McLuhan to explain why the film critic was misinterpreting McLuhan’s work, but it bore some resemblance to that scene.
8. Any final thoughts?
History as a discipline is tremendously important. Historians have a sense of the fine texture and the messy details of particular times and places that provide a necessary correction to our tendency to over generalize or to develop broad theories that all too often take real people out of the social sciences. The cliché among historians that “the sources speak to me,” tells of the real commitment among the best of historians to understand the past on its own terms. But I wonder if this very real strength of historians can, at times, become the discipline’s greatest weakness. I wonder if at times historians can become too wedded to particular times and places and miss the necessity to try and draw broader conclusions from our research. This can start with the earliest entry into the profession. Students in graduate school naturally enough have particular fields. No one can be expected to make all of history one’s field in either graduate school or one’s professional life. Still I wonder if we prepare people entering the historical profession for the possibility that their fields and their interests can and perhaps indeed should change over the course of their professional lives. Consider two examples. In many graduate programs we have been eroding, almost to the point of invisibility, the foreign language requirement for students working on PhDs in American history or American studies. Are we saying to the fledgling American historian the issue you are working on—populist politics and racial exclusion, the tension between judicial independence and democratic governance, women’s education and ethnic stratification, and many others—have no foreign counterparts? That a person contemplating a career as an American historian should not prepare herself or himself for the possibility of exploring those questions that engaged their interests in the U.S. context in the context of other societies?
I think the problem of over particularity also is seen in the hiring process, particularly of junior faculty. Hiring in history tends to be incredibly field-specific. I wonder if this is good for junior scholars. Does it heighten the tendency for people to think of themselves as very narrow specialists, rather than as historians who have learned a great deal about a specific time and place and who might choose to continue a particular inquiry, or might use their insights to shed light on some new historical problem? I also wonder if overspecialization in hiring is good for the historical profession as a whole. Are departments prevented from hiring the best of the junior historians that come on the market in a given year precisely because field plays too large a role in hiring? It is interesting to contrast hiring in law schools with hiring in history departments. Law schools in hiring junior people tend to go after what they deem to be “the best athlete” in a given year. This is not always the case—certain fields, tax for example, require specialists. But there is a view that a significant percentage of new hires can be seen as generalists who can develop a teaching expertise in a wide variety of areas. Obviously this model cannot be directly imported into history departments. We don’t want a person who has just completed a dissertation on race relations in New York in the Gilded Age to teach a graduate seminar on the Ming dynasty in the 16th century. Even granting that, I wonder if history departments would be better served with more flexibility with respect to fields. I will take the field with which I am most familiar, American history and ask if we get too field specific in our hiring. Should we advertise for people who do Jacksonian era politics or would we be better served by looking for the best young person on the market in 19th-century U.S. history, or perhaps even the best young person in U.S. history? I think we would do better by history as a discipline and as a profession if we did the latter.