AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected by AHA staff or nominated by fellow AHA members.If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.
Molly A. Warsh is assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She has been an AHA member since 2006.
Alma maters: BA, Cornell University; PhD, Johns Hopkins University
Fields of interest: world history, Atlantic history, Iberian and British empires
When did you first develop an interest in history?
I loved history from a very early age. Perhaps it was partly due to growing up in Boston, with all its historical pride. I had a children’s book I adored about Deborah Sampson (who disguised herself as a man to fight in the American Revolution) and on grade school field trips we played Red Coats versus Colonists near the North Bridge in Concord. My family still teases me about how we used to drive through New England towns and I would always ask, “See that old stone wall? Who built it?” I had a number of good teachers in high school who introduced me to the fun of arguing about history, but it was really my experience as an undergraduate at Cornell University that solidified my love of the discipline. I had a number of amazing history professors at Cornell, but it was particularly the experience of writing my senior thesis under the supervision of Prof. Mary Beth Norton that cemented my love of the archives and historical work. The dedicated and inspiring teaching and advising I experienced as an undergraduate and as a graduate student continue to shape my career. My professors at Cornell and Johns Hopkins made being an historian seem like a wonderful, important way of inhabiting the world; I try to bring that passion and perspective into the classroom and my own scholarship.
What projects are you working on currently?
I’m focused on finishing my book, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700. It considers how modes of natural and human resource exploitation in the Spanish-run Caribbean pearl fisheries shaped the emerging Spanish imperial bureaucracy, as well as expectations and practice of maritime empire in Spain and beyond. I am also finishing up a co-edited anthology of essays called Early North America in Global Perspective, and I’m just about done with an article on the political ecology of the early Spanish Caribbean.
Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?
My interests have not exactly changed, but they’ve certainly grown. My first job at Texas A&M University gave me the chance to think and teach about the Iberian world. This experience made me realize my commitment to considering the global dimensions of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. The two years I spent as a postdoctoral fellow at the Omohundro Institute were extraordinary: not only did I reconnect with the rich world of scholarship on the British Atlantic world (my first route into history), but the feedback I received on the dissertation transformed the project and made me fall in love with it all over again. My time at the institute helped make sense of what it was that interested me and what I wanted to write about. It was a tremendous privilege to have those two years in such a dedicated, generous community of scholars.
I am now in the process of branching out once again, learning how to be a world historian here at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s thrilling to be in a place that is so committed to this challenging, exciting field. So in sum, I feel that in the four years since I finished at Johns Hopkins I’ve become more certain and confident about my long-standing interests and my ability to explore them meaningfully, but I’ve also come to embrace these interests in an ever larger framework. I don’t think it can get any larger than world history, but perhaps I’m wrong.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
It is hard to choose; there are so many historians producing great things in a variety of different venues. But I just read the memoirs (History in the Making) of the eminent historian of Spain, J.H. Elliott, and I found them moving for a number of reasons. Not only has his career been extraordinary—they don’t unfold like his anymore, for better or for worse—but he has such insight into the evolution and future of historical practice. And he writes so beautifully, of course.
What do you value most about the history profession?
That it continues to value careful thought, precisely expressed; that books (in the conceptual sense, not the material sense) still matter; that there is a field-wide recognition that it is hard, and time-consuming, to elaborate complex arguments and to convey them clearly and convincingly. It is a thoughtful profession that continues to resist the sound-bite culture; it takes so much hard work to do it effectively, and yet there is more good history being written than one scholar could ever hope to read.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
Now, like most people, I love going to the AHA because it gives me the chance to catch up with all my old friends from graduate school whom I no longer see regularly. But in some ways the most memorable AHA was my first: I had only just begun graduate school, and was totally overwhelmed and shell-shocked by the whole experience. This general feeling was compounded by the fact that I’d teamed up with no less than three friends to share the cost of a single room! It was a circus-like atmosphere—somewhat terrifying and exhausting at the time, but it brings a smile to my face when I remember it now.
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
Traveling with my husband; losing myself in novels; working with kids in after-school programs and thinking about how to build bridges between university and K–12 education. And, sipping red wine with old friends on any terrace in Spain.
Any final thoughts?
I feel so lucky to do what I love for a living, but for as much as I enjoy the archives and my own work, I think a critical part of our job is to share our passion not just for our particular specializations, but for the discipline at large. I admired the forceful clarity of Anthony Grafton’s 2011 essays in Perspectives on the question of historians’ responsibilities in the classroom and beyond. I agree that we need to do a better job of explaining—to our students and to the public at large—why it is that history matters. It is not just that the past is interesting and important, but that learning to think critically about the range of human experience prepares us to be informed and engaged inhabitants of the world.