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.
Robert W. Foster is a professor of history at Berea College. He lives in Berea, Kentucky, and has been an AHA member since 2001.
Alma maters: BA, Kenyon College; AM, PhD, Harvard University
Fields of interest: Asian history, particularly Chinese and Japanese, but expanding into Silk Road studies and South Asian history
When did you first develop an interest in history?
I have been interested in history since childhood, beginning with Native Americans, but that was really an interest in the past. My father was an Egyptologist fascinated by ancient cultures, so the house was filled with a wide array of historical writing. My fascination with the discipline of History was sparked by my high school AP American History teacher, Mr. Al Mumbrue.
What projects are you working on currently?
Pedagogically, I’m converting my lectures for my surveys of Chinese and Japanese histories into videocasts. My hope is to get those posted online as the homework to lay the foundations for the next classroom session. In class we can then tackle the fun part of history: developing interpretations off of evidence (primary texts, material goods, art, etc.) linked to the context provided in the videocasts. Most people I know who enjoy history are drawn to the puzzle-solving quality of it, so I want to engage students in that process during class.
In terms of scholarship, I am compiling an annotated bibliography on Neo-Confucianism in China for the Oxford Bibliographies series.
This summer I will be participating in an NEH Summer Institute in New Delhi, focusing on Indian history.
Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?
Being “the Asianist” in a history program with five faculty meant broadening my horizons quickly. The first couple of years as a tenure-track faculty member, I needed to pull together my China and Japan courses. Since those have settled into a good rhythm, I have been able to delve into new areas and approaches to teaching history. Given how poorly Asia is understood generally in the States, I find myself drawn more and more to publicly talking about Asian history.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
In terms of thinking about the discipline of history, I enjoy working through Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. I use it with our senior history majors. Cohen looks at the Boxer Rebellion from three angles: the depersonalized, factual event; the lived experience of personal accounts; and the biased use of the past as myth to support political agendas of the present. I also appreciated William Cronon’s presidential pieces in AHA’s Perspectives. Those articles were useful to both me and my students for thinking about the practice of history. Dr. Cronon’s website “Learning to Do Historical Research” is also an invaluable tool.
What do you value most about the history profession?
Through the study of history we can study all facets of the human past to which we have access. Whether we are looking at art, or statistics, or literature, there is always something to hook my interest. It’s hard to get bored with history when one can delve into any field and make connections between pieces of the past that seem discrete and unrelated at first glance. Making those connections in the past, and then further connecting them to today’s world, enriches our understanding of the variety of human experience.
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
Fly-fishing, ornithology, drawing, and travel.