How can I found out more about history grad students?
March 8, 2019 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Any suggestions about how I can find people to answer my questions?

I asked this question last week, which helped me decide that my character is a history grad student. But now I have more questions about history grad students, mostly about who studies what and why. Why does someone study 17th century science, or medieval styles of self-presentation, or a thousand other things? For the last few days I’ve been randomly contacting history PhD students at major universities (my novel is set in Berkeley), finding their names on their department website, emailing them, explaining my project, and asking if they’d be wiling to answer a few questions. I had excellent luck when I did this with sociologists, probably because sociologists know what it's like to bother strangers and ask them questions. But so far, the history students have been non-responsive.

Is this the best way to get what I need, and thus I should just keep at it? Or are there other ways to find people who might be able to answer a few specific questions? Metafilter has been invaluable, but I need something a bit more tailored and in-depth.
posted by swheatie to Education (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Academics ignoring email from unknown people is a pretty common survival strategy.

If you're near a research university, looking up the history department colloquium schedule and chatting with people at the wine and cheese event afterwards is a great way to make contact. You can show up after the talk and nobody will notice or care. (Convincing them you're not a scary crackpot is key. . . but, if you're observant of social norms and hang back for a few minutes before engaging, that shouldn't be too hard.)
posted by eotvos at 9:41 AM on March 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

There are a ton of active historians on Twitter. #twitterstorians should catch the attention of a number of those folks.

I'd be happy to share my personal anecdote with you, although I'm not sure it will provide a great deal of insight.

I got my PHD in public history in 2012 and I wrote my dissertation on adaptive reuse of historic buildings for archives and libraries. I basically chose that topic because I'm a working librarian and I was fascinated by old buildings. Libraries and archives tend to end up in older buildings and for a library or archive to function correctly, there are some specific features that a building should have. Old buildings have a lot interesting features and sometimes those don't overlap with the needs of libraries. So I was interested in how this tension plays out in real life.

Prior to that, I did a good bit of research and intended to write my dissertation on the development of African American communities after the Civil War and what role Contraband Camps played in their growth. But, after writing about African American experiences during slavery and Reconstruction, I was overwhelmed by the repetitive nature of the stories and the injustice. I knew if I continued to write about that topic, I might not finish. While I'm deeply interested in the community building and how they grew in a time of change, I just couldn't handle being absorbed in the injustice. I was initially into the topic because I worked on a project to document landownership post-war near a battlefield.

A number of my historian friends have gone into their fields because a certain topic just interested them. I've got a peer who studies American road culture because she loves to travel. I know two historians that study African American foodways because they want to honor their grandmothers. Sometimes it's something as simple as a personal connection to the topic but other times it's an interesting question that you need to answer.
posted by teleri025 at 9:41 AM on March 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

they may delete it, but you could post your query at r/askhistorians over at Reddit
posted by thelonius at 9:43 AM on March 8, 2019

I have a history grad friend at a large university who told me the history department at her school (and several others) was recently targeted by someone pretending to be a curious prospective student, but who was actually a conservative reporter asking loaded questions to write an article on how extremist these departments are and how they don’t actually study history. So people are pretty unwilling to talk to random strangers right now. I don’t know how widespread it was, but that may at least partially explain why you aren’t getting responses.
posted by brook horse at 10:26 AM on March 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

You might have some success on Tumblr. There is a quite active community of grad students, to be found via #gradblr. You can search by different tags and browse their posts for background info, and many people have their ask inboxes open for direct questions.
posted by bluloo at 10:28 AM on March 8, 2019

In my experience (I have a PhD, but not in history, but I study a specific and small area of the world), people tended to have studied a particular topic or region as an undergrad and kept going deeper and deeper. For example, I've never met a post-Sovietist who didn't do Russian language and/or studies as an undergrad. This is partially due to the fact that one would need to have a fairly solid language foundation before undertaking graduate work. In my direct experience (as well as the students I've supervised), it can be hellish starting a foreign language during graduate school because of the schedule intensity. (Although to be fair, lots of people do a 2nd or 3rd language or do advanced language student during grad school.)

I think that in general for people in my neck of the woods, they broadly learned about a topic/era/whatever as an undergrad, did an honors thesis in it, and then were gently pushed by their undergrad advisors into an area of study at the graduate level. This is sort of what happened to me, but I pushed back as being more interested in doing contemporary research.
An advantage of having this undergrad-grad continuity is that when people go on the job market, they have a longer pedigree than in other disciplines. For me even, my undergrad training (15-20 years ago) is frequently mentioned when I am hanging out with other post-Soviet scholars. But in my primary social science discipline, no one cares where you went to undergrad or what you majored in, it is all about where you got your PhD and then where you get your first academic job. I only know where my colleagues/friends went to undergrad if they are especially visible about following their alma mater's sports team. But I can tell you precisely with whom my post-Soviet scholar friends worked with 2 decades ago!

I don't know if this helps much, but this is my experience related to choosing a topic.
posted by k8t at 11:37 AM on March 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Can you pay them? Buy them food? Food often works for grad students.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:29 PM on March 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

At my university it is getting close to dissertation defense/finals time so it might be possible that folks are just too busy right now. Maybe try again over the summer?
posted by forkisbetter at 5:38 PM on March 8, 2019

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