French Historians under the spotlight: Michael Kwass

Welcome to 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.

Michael Kwass is Professor and Chair in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University. He is one of the invited speakers at the annual SSFH conference, this year to be held at Warwick, in July.

Michael Kwass: ‘I’d like to see Academia become more responsive to the great moral challenges of our time’.

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

I’m interested in the political and economic culture of early modern France.  My research stretches from the age of Louis XIV to the French Revolution, concentrating on state formation, elite and popular politics, political economy, the French Atlantic, and globalization.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

As an undergraduate at Penn, I read Natalie Davis’s Society and Culture in Early Modern France and was amazed by her ability to conjure a past that was distant and foreign but still intriguingly accessible.  I was also drawn to the intellectual boldness of the Enlightenment and the radicalism of the French Revolution.  And then there was French food…

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

I’m torn.  I could visit the town of Valence on 26 May 1755 and slip into the crowd to witness the execution of Louis Mandrin, a legendary smuggler about whom I’ve written.  I’d be curious to hear what people said about him and to gauge their reactions to his punishment.

On a more personal level, I’d love to travel to 1940s New York to visit the homes of my maternal and paternal grandparents – and maybe hear some jazz.

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

I’d gather a few Enlightenment economic thinkers and let them go at it.  The list would include Émilie du Châtelet (translator of Mandeville), Diderot, Hume, Turgot, and Necker.

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

The most rewarding aspects of my career have been getting to know France; engaging in the back-and-forth of historiographical debate; and writing (on the good days).

The most frustrating parts of the job are administration; the constant evaluation of peers, graduate students, and undergraduates; and the limited impact of the Academy on the broader public (see below).

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

I’d like to see Academia become more responsive to the great moral challenges of our time: climate change, social inequality, racism, and sexism.  We need to find ways to ensure that the knowledge we produce is put to good use.

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

Public interest law?  Journalism?  Working with children?  Driving race cars?

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

Take the time to revise your dissertation before publishing it as a book.  It’s important to reflect, consider new perspectives, push yourself to develop original arguments, and polish your prose.  Too many first books are published prematurely.  Take the time to get it right.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

I like both, but some of my most thrilling discoveries have occurred in the archives départementales.  I wish more graduate students would consider consulting provincial archives rather than going straight to Paris.

Writing in silence or to music?

In silence: I need to hear the words in my head.

Tea or coffee?

Neither: my stimulant of choice is chocolate.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

I’m not sure I can name the best conference I’ve ever attended, but I do prefer those which encourage discussion.  The traditional format in which panel members read papers and leave little time for Q&A needs to be rethought.  Why enlarge our carbon footprints by flying to so many conferences if it is not to have genuine dialogue?

Typed or handwritten?

I type, but I find it useful to outline first by hand.  My graduate advisor, David Bien, suggested this exercise.  It worked then and I haven’t stopped since.

Éclair or saucisson?

Saucisson – no question.



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