Growing up on a farm in west-central Illinois, near the town of Augusta where I attended high school, I never imagined that I would become a professor of history at a major university. My father taught history at a different high school, but I took only the required course in this subject as it was less interesting than math and science. After graduation in 1959, having won a four-year state scholarship that would pay my tuition and fees, I enrolled at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, as a pre-med student in its new Edmund J. James Honors Program.
Category: Formation Essay
My interests in global politics were sparked at a young age while growing up in north central Iowa. Farming communities are keenly aware of events in world politics that can affect the price of crops, land, and equipment. My parents were informed and engaged in politics and got me interested in participating in and studying politics at a young age. My mom helped organize local caucuses, usually at neighbors’ farmhouses, and she volunteered at a voting site at the fertilizer plant where my dad worked. We bumped into political candidates in nearby cities and we experienced incredible access to political candidates as the first caucus state for presidential elections. We moved to the “big city” when I was 16 and I lived across the street from a retired schoolteacher (Vivian, also my daughter’s name), who invited to me her house for coffee to discuss politics. I didn’t fully appreciate those early access points to the study of politics and international relations (IR), but my background profoundly shaped the questions and theories that I found compelling in my academic journey. It is perhaps fitting that I am now the F. Wendell Miller Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa, a named chair that was funded by an Iowan farmer.
At the beginning of my career, I had strong ideas about what I wanted to do and research, none of which outlived the realities I met. Unexpected adventures, enormous opportunities, huge historical shifts, and serendipitous encounters helped me ‘learn the scholar’s craft.’ The drive of my own intellect may have been the least important factor. So I adapted. I have a willful temperament, and that was difficult, but luck and key mentors helped. Along the way I have never been bored.
We should be wary when we look back at our own lives and try to discern a pattern. Historians know that one of the common fallacies in looking at the past is to assume that things were bound to turn out as they did, to see a chain of causality in what may be random events or simple coincidences. And we should also remind ourselves that success or failure is not due to the individual alone but to circumstances, timing and luck.
I was born on February 9, 1946, the same day that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave a speech which U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas famously called a “declaration of World War III.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, but the Stalin speech was certainly one of the opening shots in the Cold War. And the great conflict that was about to begin would have a profound effect on my life, in more ways than one.
I never imagined I’d become a political scientist. As a child, my passion was for paleontology, and I pored over my books on fossils and dinosaurs until the pages were tattered all along the edges. Today, while I do have an impressive rock and mineral collection and I know where my loupe and rock pick are, I never became a paleontologist. As an undergraduate major in geology in the late 1970s, I discovered that jobs in that field were created with men and men’s lives in mind. I refused to accept either/or choices when my male peers would have only both/and choices. At the same time, General Education requirements forced me to take classes in anthropology and international relations, and I discovered that people and the societies they build were much more interesting than rocks, which were typically only dynamic if one lived far longer than the average human being. With nations and peoples, on the other hand, a lively soap opera of change fixed the gaze. It was almost impossible to look away once one understood the players, their interests, and their histories. From that detour when I was a young college student came an unexpected journey as a social science researcher.
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment at which I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science or to focus on political theory. I think of it more as a slow drift. I grew up until 13 in Ethiopia and Botswana. My dad, a biologist, taught at Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the University of Botswana, but while I had an academic parent, it never occurred to me that it would be my path too. My dad’s trajectory was part of a generational experience. He attended AAU at the height of the Ethiopian Student Moment and right before the Ethiopian revolution. In a Cold War context, he won a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) scholarship to study in the U.S., which allowed him to escape much of the repression of the 1970s. Yet, like many of his friends and colleagues, he pursued this opportunity with the intention of returning home to support the work of transforming his native land. Both his research and pedagogical preoccupations were tightly wound up with Ethiopia’s developmental project.
Reader: this H-Diplo series is full of great examples. Outstanding scholars with inspiring and even heartwarming stories that might inform your own journey. This one is the counter-example. I must confess: I did everything wrong.
Becoming an intellectual historian of France’s modern overseas empire, and its legitimating discourses, was perhaps overdetermined in my case. I was born in a small Midwestern town near Peoria in the late 1950s, and my family of seven (the fifth sibling was still in utero) moved to the Netherlands for five years when I was five. My father was a manufacturer’s representative, peddling American-made work gloves at a time when mighty little companies were still thriving in rural Illinois alongside odiferous family-owned hog farms and acres and acres of corn. In the 1960s, European nations were just beginning to develop the North Sea oil reserves, and their workers were my father’s target market. Within a couple of years of our arrival in The Hague, my parents decided to send their twin daughters (I was one of them) to the Lycée français, on the theory that learning a foreign language was a good idea and that French was a more “useful” language to acquire than Dutch.
When I was about eight years old, I asked my ten-year-old brother what he was doing. “Writing a book,” he replied. So, I sat down and started to write my own. I have no idea what it was about, and I’m sure I abandoned it quickly, but at that moment I began to think of myself as a writer. Believing I was destined to be a novelist, I devoured fiction and kept searching for that great story that was mine to tell. During my high school years, dominated by sports and marked by a studious avoidance of homework, I scratched my authorial itch by editing the sports page for the school newspaper.