Following my graduation from IWU, I went on to Eastern Illinois University where I graduated in 2010 with an MA in Modern European History. Ah hah! Things are getting more specific now. But Modern European History is still a bit of a misnomer for what it is that I really studied. Breaking it down:
Russian History: I’m including this here in the efforts of full disclosure, but don’t ask me about Russian history, pre-Lenin. Unless you want to know about that guy the czar shot out of a cannon or Peter the Great’s dental practice.
Early Modern to Victorian England: Surprise. My anglophile tendencies didn’t die out in my master’s program. If anything, they broadened. I spent my time picking apart topics that I had basically been taking for granted. Sure sure, British Union Jack women get the vote empire. But it’s really about six hundred kinds of more complex than that. Here are some aspects of British History I spent time on at Eastern:
- Gender: I read on women’s struggles for equality, focusing on Divorce Law and John Stuart Mill’s advocacy. I also read on the so-called “crisis” in masculinity at the turn of the 20th century, which utterly fascinated me. Still does.
- Revolution: Back to the Cromwell years, y’all, but this time with theory. I also pushed my studies of revolution forward into the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which became one the main focuses of my MA Thesis.
- History of Crime: Yes, this is just as cool as it sounds. It gave me a basic understanding of English criminal law, assize courts, and the prison system, and it provided the analytical basis for a very important part of my MA Thesis—namely, the part where I spent months and months immersed in 18th-century court records from Old Bailey. This field also led me to an interest in transnational migration, due to the fact that England spent a lot of time shipping its criminals out to colonies and dominions.
- Labor Studies: Did you know the first organized labor union in Britain, the Chartists, took off in 1832? They wrote out a petition advocating universal male suffrage, among other things, put it in a carriage, and marched it straight up to Parliament. Badasses. (Elliot was there.)
- Political Theory: I had a brief introduction to 19th century Liberalism, here, but it wasn’t until later on in PhD work that I really started to make sense of it. 19th century Bizarre Hodge-podge.
- Identity Studies and Nationalism: Who are the Britons? “We are all Britons, and I am your King.” Well, I didn’t vote for you…
- Empire: I really had just an introduction to the topic at this point. I looked at the economics of empire, comparing domestic policies (the metropole) with imperial policies (the periphery). I also considered the culture of empire, all its pomp and circumstance, and then questioned just how aware ordinary Britons were in terms of their imperial knowledge. Finally, I wrote on India as a case study for the transformation from colony to independent country, and for the first time ran into the work of Edward Said…who for better or worse, has remained with me since.
- The French Revolution: The French. They had a revolution. Starting here, I have studied the French Revolution in at least one class per semester. Turns out Europeanists think it’s really important. Even the British.
Irish History: Irish legend, am I right guys? So, part of the problem with studying Irish History is that it’s about 1/3 “neutral,” 1/3 written by detractors, and 1/3 written by the Irish. There’s a whole lot of providence in this history, a lot of vitriol and violence, and some seriously horrible moments that even historians have taken a while to break down and revise (read: IRA and Irish Famine). So, while I was studying the Irish Rebellion I had to tread very carefully as to my findings. And in the end, my conclusion (that the Irish in 18th-century London were treated not as racial inferiors but rather as geographically separate and culturally pariah) would have left me defending myself and ducking shillelaghs at conferences from the here to the ever-after. Not to mention my conclusion that the United Irishmen made life difficult for those Irish in London who just wanted to go about their business, working jobs and staying out of trouble.
If my heart had been in this project and invested in my conclusions, you better believe I would have gone forward with it. But despite its moments of excitement (United Irishmen vaulting the witness stand and running straight out into the street to cause a riot) I couldn’t quite love it the way one needs to love a long-term project. I was also developing those guilty little side obsessions which nagged at me constantly and would lead in a roundabout way to my PhD project.
Still, I’m immensely proud of finishing the thesis.
“The lower class of traitors have also their architects of plots:” The London Irish, The United Irish, and the Creation of Irish Identities, 1780-1800
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My minor field of American Intellectual and Cultural History focused on the following late 19th- and early 20th-century topics:
- Consumerism: Yes, people buy stuff, but why? My work here focused on the fading Protestant work ethic and the advent of therapeutic shopping in the early 20th century.
- Intellectual tradition: How have Americans, historically, thought about problems—social, cultural, and political?
- Industrialization: I’d faint over Rudolph Valentino, too. Which is to say, this time around, I looked more at social and cultural developments than I did at economics.
- Advertising: Before Don Draper there was Roger Sterling. Before Roger Sterling there was Bert Cooper. And before Bert Cooper there was Edward Bernays, the real life nephew of Sigmund Freud and the real life founder of American advertising agencies. He revolutionized the way people thought about the products around them in that…he made people think about the products around them.
- Mental Health: Part of my studies here concerned the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s and the Culture of Narcissism. But by far my most thrilling moment came with my readings on neurasthenia as a historical and cultural phenomenon. What is neurasthenia? Neurasthenia is the disease Americans created, round about 1890, when they decided they were the most “modern” of countries and began to feel a bit stressed out by that designation. And who suffered from neurasthenia? Well…initially, businessmen. And here I’d thought the whole history of mental illness was the story of hysterical women, a la Elaine Showalter. But no! Trouble in the waters of male mental health.
I was hooked in my guilty little side project. Two seminar papers later, I’d changed my PhD applications to insist on a brand new focus—male mental health, comparatively, between America and Britain (although, I would soon drop the American focus) at the turn of the 20th century.
It was terrifying and wonderful.
I hope everyone experiences something as liberating as this—some massive realignment of your life after at least three years of intense focus. It’s like coming up out of the water into the sun, appreciating the warm liquidity around you—bouyed by it—but ready for that unapologetic light, dangerous and fruitful.