Alex Hofmann: Introductory Remarks for "Celebrating History" 2011
Hi everyone and thanks for coming out to Celebrating History! As a history major now entering my fourth—and hopefully final—year and the co-President of Clio & Phi Alpha Theta, USC’s general and honors history societies, Professor Accampo asked me to share a few remarks about my experience with the department.
Before I do that, I wanted to tell you about Clio & Phi Alpha Theta. Clio is USC’s undergraduate history organization open to students of all majors and disciplines. We meet bimonthly and are event-oriented, participating in campus programs and planning excursions around Los Angeles that highlight our members’ diverse areas of interest. Through events such as the 500 Days of Summer walking tour around Downtown LA, movie nights, and behind-the-scenes tours of both the Getty Museum and the Early Modern Studies Institute at the Huntington Library, which are often led and attended by professors, we aspire to foster a closer community among fellow students interested in history and the history faculty. We have a sign-up sheet in the back if you are interested in joining our listserv and attending events this semester. Phi Alpha Theta is USC’s honors history society, which has specific academic requirements to join and will be having an initiation ceremony in October.
Although it may appear my remarks are a piece of trite and insincere propaganda for the history department, nothing could be further from the truth. For the history major is genuinely close to my heart. It would difficult to find a department with more personal mentor-mentee relationships or opportunities than this one, or a major that can teach you so many skills. When we think of the tools studying history gives us, we often toss around catch phrases such as “critical thinking” and “research” without pulling them apart to examine their full meaning and to detail what these skills actually enable us to do.
Through history, we are able to make sense of the world today—to see its problems not as isolated hiccups in the historical narrative but issues that have existed over centuries. True, they may be clothed differently, but they are not altogether foreign. From this realization and subsequent analysis we may be able to grasp some suggestion or solution from the past that will enable us to move forward.
We are taught to question how we know what we know—and how contemporary events influence scholarly writings. To dissect events like the American Revolution, which we tend to accept as inevitable—a presumption that comes as a cultural byproduct of political races and pop references—is to stop taking them for granted.
Through Research Assistant positions and the Honors Program, where you write your own thesis on a topic of your interest with the help of a faculty advisor of your choosing, we learn a new type of learning from independent discovery. Throughout the process, we are taught to listen to the voices—to succumb to the Sirens’ call, internalize it, and then critique it. In the words of one professor from whom I have had the pleasure of taking a course, we are “promiscuous lovers of books,” flirting with thinkers from Plato to Jefferson, from Mao to Che, from Walt Disney to Andy Warhol. In the process, we learn as much about their times and their lives as we do about ourselves.
Two years ago, I had an experience that I suppose will resonate with those of you who are already history majors and minors. What was supposed to be a brief stop at the Sonic Drive-In on my journey back to ‘SC from Disneyland turned into a two hour ordeal thanks to a dead car battery. (Whatever else the history major teaches you, the perils of running your iPod through your car speakers with your parking lights on while the engine is turned off is not one of them.)
Eventually, a AAA worker came to jump my eco-slaughtering Nissan Xterra, whereupon he saw a USC sticker on my car and asked me about what I was studying. When I told him I was majoring in history, our conversation stopped abruptly with a quiet but forceful: “Oh.” He proceeded to ask my now ex-girlfriend what she was studying. When she told him “Industrial Systems Engineering,” he gushed: “Oh wow, in 5 years I’m gonna come to jump your car and you’ll be all rich sitting in a pimped out Mercedes!” This instantly gave rise to bitter inner-monologues along the lines of “Yeah, well at least I love what I do and this isn’t a major my parents forced me into.”
That incident stuck with me, and for the next few months I was bent on expanding the common repertoire of job possibilities for history majors. At parties, in classes, or wherever else people would ask me what I wanted to do after college, I’d say: Detective. History Channel CEO. Picker. Or, my personal favorite: Treasure Hunter. See, that to me is the greatest part of being a history major. It allows us to try on a whole lot of verbs—researching, reading, analyzing, writing, discussing, teaching—you name it—without locking us into a single noun. And that, as a Professor I had a few semesters ago would say in conclusion to his course, is the true purpose of any university education.
One woman who has not had to stretch her imagination so much to think about the prospective careers for a history degree is our guest tonight, Deborah Harkness.
Professor Deborah Harkness has taught courses on early modern cultural and intellectual history in the Department of History since 2004, and has received a teaching award for her very popular general education course, History 103g, Early Modern Europe. She is a historian of science and medicine, specializing in Early Modern Britain. Her first book, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels, examined how a single Renaissance figure—John Dee—found answers to his questions about the natural world in his library and private study by turning to magic. Her second book, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, explores the thriving, complicated scientific culture that could be found on city streets among ordinary people. This book won the Pfizer Prize for Best Book in the History of Science; it also earned the Prize for Best Book at the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies. Professor Harkness's new project, Living the Experimental Life in Early Modern Britain seeks to understand the intersection of scientific and domestic cultures in the 17th century.
But this is not all. One day in September of 2008, Professor Harkness began to wonder whether there really are vampires, and if so—what do they do for a living? The answer to that question resulted in her first work of fiction. Her novel, A Discovery of Witches, draws on her years of experience doing research in the history of science in Oxford’s Bodelian Library. It is there that her main character, a young historian from Harvard, opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript . . . and the magic begins. A Discovery of Witches debuted on the New York Times bestseller list as #2, and in February 2011, it was named Amazon’s best book of the month; it has been translated into 32 languages and has been sold in at least 34 countries. This novel, the first of a trilogy, will soon become a movie. Some elements of this story sprang directly from Prof. Harkness' own life: in the course of her research in the Bodelian Library, she discovered an ancient—and long-lost—book of spells, the Book of Soyga—also leading, perhaps, to the title of her talk this evening, “Fiction and the Archives.”
On behalf of our student organizations Phi Alpha Theta and Clio, I am most pleased to present Professor Deborah Harkness.