The CLAS New Heads Series talks with incoming heads and directors of departments, centers, and institutes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We ask them questions about their department’s research, education and outreach mission, and how they fit into the multidisciplinary context of a liberal arts and sciences education.
Associate Professor Mark Healey begins as head of the Department of History in January 2019.
What would you say are the history department’s areas of strength in your field?
Our Department has always been strong in U.S. history, especially early America, and has long been excellent in Latin American and European history as well. Over the last decade, we’ve really deepened our offerings in Asian and Asian-American history. We also have several cross-cutting strengths, in gender history, race and ethnicity, history of science, urban, public, and environmental history. We have a wide range of scholars working on the African diaspora. We’re also one of few departments that has for decades had a serious commitment to teaching and researching Puerto Rican history.
What interests students in studying history?
Our undergraduate students are always a mix, from long-time fans of the History Channel to those interested in tracing the roots of contemporary phenomena to those simply fascinated by the strangeness of the past. We welcome everyone, from those looking for military history to those exploring gender, and in their time in the major teach them to find, analyze, and hopefully produce some new knowledge with historical sources.
Graduate students have already caught the history bug, and succumbed to “the allure of the archive,” as one lovely book puts it. And to be really be drawn to graduate study in history you need to have a certain passion for books. You also need some zeal to change the world, or at least to change the way the world has been understood.
What are the most loved classes taught in history?
It’s hard to say what courses are most loved, but three great classes that always fill right away are Professor Sherri Olson on medieval Europe, Professor Alexis Dudden on war and diplomacy in East Asia, and Professor Jeff Ogbar on the history and politics of hip-hop. That also gives you an idea of the range of our teaching.
What types of jobs do students pursue after attaining a history degree at UConn?
A few years ago, I did a study of where our doctoral alumni ended up working, and we found a striking range of success, from vice presidents of insurance companies and clergy to consultants, businesswomen, and, of course, scholars at a wide range of of institutions, from peer universities to high schools. And these were those who did a doctorate in history!
Our undergraduate majors can be found in business, in government, in consulting, in the arts and museums and fundraising, and of course in our obvious strengths in teaching and law. I think the variety of outcomes suggest that learning to think carefully and critically about how societies change turns out to be a valuable skill in an ever-changing job market.
Have there been recent changes in the history department that have strengthened the Department?
A number of really stellar faculty have recently joined the Department. We’ve built up some real strength in the study of slavery and abolition with Draper Chair in American History Manisha Sinha, Assistant Professor Dexter Gabriel, and Stamford Assistant Professor Ricardo Salazar-Rey. A few years ago, we dramatically strengthened our cohort of Asian and Asian-American historians, with Professor Alexis Dudden joined by Associate Professor and Director of Asian and Asian American Studies Jason Chang, Associate Professor Brad Simpson, Associate Professor Victor Zatsepine, Assistant Professor Nu-Anh Tran, and Professor Peter Zarrow.
Beyond that, there’s a slew of new talent who have joined us, from classicist and Assistant Professor Joseph McAlhany to human rights and public health scholar Assistant Professor Sara Silverstein, historian of incarceration Assistant Professor Melanie Newport to Caribbeanist Assistant Professors Ariel Lambe and Emma Amador.
What do you see as upcoming challenges or opportunities for your Department?
We’ve always been good at public history – State Historian and Associate Professor Walt Woodward is a major figure in our Department, Associate Professor Fiona Vernal has been doing splendid work on Caribbean immigration to New England, and for many years we had a very lively oral history program, established by the late Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Emeritus Bruce Stave.
But I think the often frivolous use of history in contemporary political life, and the evident hunger for deeper engagement with our history, even its hardest parts, suggest that we can and should do more in this area.
I suspect this will also mean linking up with the great work our colleagues in UConn’s growing digital humanities initiative are doing on digital history and public humanities. Several colleagues have been very involved, especially Professor Brendan Kane, but I think we need to do more and in a more coordinated way.
Another area where we have strength and real opportunities is environmental history. It is such a powerful way to understand global dynamics and the history of development–and to help thoughtfully address some urgent climate challenges that are clearly here to stay.
Are there common misconceptions about the field of history?
No doubt the biggest misconception is that history is just memorizing dates. So many of our students come out of high school with this sadly impoverished idea of what the study of the past can be. We try to tackle this from day one in our classes, teaching history as a method for asking questions of the past, for opening up new lines of inquiry, for launching new debates. And we try to bring primary sources, the material through which the past reaches us, into our classes from very early on, for close and careful analysis. Our colleague Erin Bartram, adjunct faculty teaching at Stamford this semester, recently recast her class as a kind of police procedural, a mystery about the past. I love that idea, another way of opening up questions to reckon with evidence, hypotheticals, rival interpretations – never just finding “facts” or reciting dates.
My hope is that we’ll continue down the path of some of the best work of recent years, asking big questions about race, nation, markets, and environments in ways increasingly attentive to global connections and rigorously tied to new archival work.
What first interested you in history?
Probably the experience of moving to another country–I was born in Germany and raised in New Jersey, Minnesota, and Argentina–and experiencing another culture, as a child. The shock of the new, my adaptation to it, and thinking through that adaptation later on–all those things sparked an interest in culture, in politics, and ultimately in their roots in the past.
What’s your favorite place on the Storrs campus?
I love Horsebarn Hill, for the sense of peace and perspective it always offers – and also the reminder of what a sprawling and varied place UConn is.