U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Notes on a Conference

Last month, I took part in Crossings and Contentions, a conference at Princeton University marking the retirement of Dan Rodgers, who was my PhD adviser. I’ve been meaning to post a few thoughts about the conference on the blog.[1]  I’ll just start by saying that the conference was a truly wonderful experience. Many thanks to Sarah Igo for organizing it!  Dan insisted that the conference not be about his work, so instead Sarah asked Dan’s students to talk about our own work.  As you’ll see if you follow the link above, we were divided into a series of four panels, each very loosely connected to one of Dan’s books — The Work Ethic in Industrial America, Contested Truths, Atlantic Crossings, and Age of Fracture – plus a final roundtable on doing history.  

Although some of Dan’s graduate students couldn’t come to the conference, those in attendance represented Dan’s entire career training historians, from his first grad student, Dan Czitrom, who studied with Dan Rodgers at Wisconsin in the early 1970s, to Chris Florio, who’s currently pursuing his PhD at Princeton and who will be Dan’s last student. My years in graduate school—from 1988 through 1994 – fell roughly in the middle of Dan’s career.  For me, the conference was both a chance to reconnect with people I already know and an opportunity to meet people whom I’d never met before, including some who came before and some who came after me. The experience in many ways resembled a family reunion. As at a family reunion, some of the attendees are people were people whom I’ve been extraordinarily close to over the years (there’s nothing like the crucible of grad school to bring people together). But just as notably, I felt a kind of kinship with the many participants that I hadn’t met before.

What that kinship consists of is complicated. As a number of people noted at the conference, Dan did not, in any way, try to found a school. Indeed, a visitor to the conference would have been struck by the extraordinary diversity of things that the participants study – from Henry Yu’s work on the digital representation of Chinese immigration to Canada to Sally Gordon’s consideration of the fate of colonial Church of England glebes in the post-revolutionary United States, from Yael Sternhell’s study of the creation of a Confederate archive in the decades after the Civil War to Carl Nightingale’s discussion of the role of colonial Madras in the international history of racially segregated cities, from Brooke Blower’s close reading of the famous photograph of the Times Square V-J Day kiss to Nicole Sackley’s study of villages and international development during the Cold War. Though we all enjoyed the fascinating mix of projects that we glimpsed at the conference, I doubt many of us were surprised at that diversity. One of the joys of studying with Dan, as many of us at the conference noted, was his willingness, even delight, at supporting each of us in whatever project we chose to pursue. Dan was an incisive—and often tough—critic of students’ work. But he always encouraged his students to follow their own instincts.  What binds us, then, to Dan and to each other, is not any easily definable body of material, or even historical approach.  Instead, we’re connected not only by a profound gratitude to Dan, but also by a kind of intellectual kinship that’s much harder to define, but which felt quite profound to me (and I suspect others at the conference).

My guess is that this experience—also like that of family reunions—is far from unique. Though each of our little micro-communities of adviser-plus-graduate-students is, no doubt, unique in many ways, such micro-communities probably all have fairly rich shared features.  But while family reunions are a very common occurrence, gatherings of such intellectual families are, I think, much less frequent, at least in this country.  I think this is a shame.  Historical work is, usually, a pretty solitary affair. And when we historians do gather together, it is usually along other lines (department and subfield being the most common).  I hope that we Dan Rodgers students devise some way to continue our contact with each other.  And I hope that other academic readers of this blog come up with ways to make similar connections to their Doktorgeschwister.

As Sarah Igo noted to me on the last day of the conference, a whole generation of intellectual historians seems to be retiring. In addition to Dan, David Hollinger and George Cotkin are both stepping away from teaching.  As readers of this blog know, Tom Haskell has also retired fairly recently.  What the retirement of this generation means for our profession is also worth considering…but I’ll leave that to some future post.

[1] This post has been delayed by the illness and death of my father, Paul Alpers, who died on Sunday, May 19.  My dad arguably played a small role in twentieth-century U.S. intellectual history, but he played a huge role in my own intellectual development.  He had been ill since last July.  I mention his passing both because it affected the timing of this post and because his illness had an impact on my experience of Dan’s retirement conference, which I attended immediately after seeing my dad for what turned out to be the last time.  I don’t have any current plans to write anything more about my father on this blog. Those interested can find obituaries and celebrations online (one that seems somewhat relevant, in various ways, to the interests of this blog can be found here).  May his memory be a blessing.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, thank you for this lovely, wise, encouraging post. So moving and inspiring.

    You say that your father was a huge influence on your intellectual life — for that grace alone, his memory would always be a blessing.

  2. Condolences, Ben.

    We just had a similar affair for David Hollinger in Berkeley, which was lovely.

    I’m wondering if you care to elaborate further on this family reunion idea. Because if one image of family reunions is of warm embraces and shared commitments, the other equally dominant cliche (dare I say inevitable flip side?) of family reunions is of always-threatening-to-erupt animosity between people who are forced by those same shared commitments to pretend to abide each other.

  3. Ben: Thanks for these reflections. It is always interesting to compare and contrast professional experiences—i.e. formation, connections, remembrances, etc.

    Your description of Dan Rodgers’ diverse interests reminds me of my own, less-renowned mentor, Lewis Erenberg. Lew retired just a few years ago, but I believe a mark of his legacy will be the diverse topics and endeavors of his students all across American history. He was extraordinarily tolerant of the wishes of his students, but he always directed those wishes to the standards of the field (in the best way possible). Like Rodgers, Erenberg won’t be remembered as developing any school of history. But both seem representative of a multicultural/pluralist/tolerant age in the history profession (from say the 1970s to 2010). I think our mentors were stimulated by the diversity of exploring new things with their students.

    I would love to hear more about the paper you presented. Do you care to summarize in these comments, or provide another post on it? – TL

  4. What a great conference! Looking at the list of names and topics, I see some of the very best and most interesting scholars in American intellectual and cultural history of the last 30 years. While you’re right to say there is no “school” here (and really, Christopher Lasch is the only figure I can think of in the past several decades whose students could be described as forming a “school”), Rodgers clearly attracted some of the most original and sophisticated historians of the last two generations. Any plans for a festschrift? Or are university presses even willing to do such a thing anymore?

  5. No more schools? Nonsense! There’s going to be a rumble at the conference between the Wickbergians and the Ribuffians. The Hollingerians are going to make sure everybody fights fair, and the Kloppenbergians are going to crown the victors. Beer and cigars for everyone!

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