French Historians under the spotlight: Joan Wallach Scott

Welcome to a new academic year of Under the Spotlight, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

Joan Wallach Scott is professor emerita in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.. She is a founding editor of the journal History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History.  Her new book, Sex and Secularism, will be published by Princeton University Press in November 2017.

Joan Wallach Scott: ‘Think critically and against the grain of orthodoxies of all kinds’

In the length of a tweet, what is your research about?

The question of difference in the construction of society and politics, particularly the vexed relationship of gender to the universalizing force of democratic politics.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I was drawn to the history of a country that was characterized (18th and 19th centuries) by a succession of revolutions.  It seemed much more dramatic and exciting than the calmer political histories.

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

I’d want to join the debates at one of the women’s producer associations either in Paris during the Revolution of 1848, or during the Commune of 1871.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

I’ve learned the hard way that people I admire from afar don’t always make good friends, or even dinner party conversationalists.  Better to idealize them than to make their acquaintance.  So I think my invitees would be people I already know or knew.  Perhaps Natalie Zemon Davis, Louise Tilly, Michelle Perrot, Olwen Hufton, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber—a group of “old girls” who helped create and legitimize women’s history in France.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Most rewarding are graduate students I’ve worked with who have joined the ranks of historians, published terrific articles and books, and who represent hope for the future of critical scholarship.  Next are the institutions I’ve had a hand in creating, especially the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University, and the journal, History of the Present.

Most frustrating is watching the liberal arts university, once the home of critical thinking and intellectual risk-taking become a bastion of neo-liberal corporate ideology and practice.  I’m not sure, if I were starting out now, that I’d go into academia.  Not only have the ranks of tenured faculty been reduced, replaced by increasing numbers of exploited contingent workers, but the principles and values we admired have been traded in for vocationally oriented courses; faculty governance has been undermined if not entirely abolished; and the role of money in driving university policy, while always a factor, has become inordinately important.  It is terrible to watch this happening.

What one change would you like to see in Academia during the next 5 years?

More courageous defenses of academic freedom (against lobby groups of all kinds) by university presidents and administrators.  The exercise of public intellectual leadership by these administrators instead of the cautious and sometimes craven submission to the power of  politicians, trustees and donors.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

I’m afraid I’m incapable of doing anything else.  Maybe I’d be a journalist who brought history to bear on contemporary events.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Think critically and against the grain of orthodoxies of all kinds—there lies both pleasure (originality, challenging ideas) and danger (rejection, not being taken seriously). But do it well, with discipline, rigor and care.  And be sure to know who your allies are, those with whom you can exchange ideas and criticism, as well as enjoy the comraderie and comfort of thinking hard together.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Memoirs, letters, interviews with living historical actors.  But also theory (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Freud, Lacan, etc) to help understand what it is those sources can reveal.

Writing in silence or to music?

Silence. I have to be in a tight bubble with no sound to distract me (except maybe, if I am in my country place, the occasional bird).

Tea or coffee?

Coffee; but decaf only.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

Oh dear, conferences are always so uneven.  But I’d probably say the ones organized in Sweden by Hans Ruin and his group at Södertörn University on history, representation and memory.

Typed or handwritten?

Since I started using a computer, typed.  I might draft a few first paragraphs by hand, but the rest is on the machine.  The cursor beckons and my thoughts respond. On the other hand, I take notes only by hand.  If I type them I don’t remember them at all.  I think the brain/eye/hand connection is somehow more focused when my pen transcribes the notes.

Éclair or saucisson?

How about tarte au framboises or chèvre?


If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.


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