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Center for Historical Studies Goes International

Historian T.H. Breen accompanied four graduate students in history to Ireland for a mini-conference.

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December 2, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In a new, international initiative sponsored by the Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University historian T.H. Breen accompanied four top graduate students in history to Ireland for a two-day workshop with graduate students from the National University of Ireland, Galway and Trinity College Dublin.

The result: a whirlwind trip and an exhilarating opportunity to work closely not only with veteran Irish historians but also to participate in lengthy discussions – both formal and informal – with Northwestern's Breen, Center for Historical Studies director and a well-known Early American historian with interests in the history of political thought, material culture and cultural anthropology.

The president of the National University of Ireland, Galway welcomed the group in Irish and English, and expressed hope that this could be the start of an important cooperative venture.

Titled "Surprises in the Archives," the Irish mini-conference was about the discovery and interpretation of unanticipated sources of evidence. "Typically when you are doing a research project, you find sources you didn't imagine were available," says Fernando Carbajal, a fourth year graduate history graduate student who participated in the mini-conference. "The trick is once you find those kinds of sources is figuring out what they actually mean."

Carbajal presented a research paper on the Chicago Red Squad, in which police intelligence units spied on, gathered evidence and infiltrated so-called "radical" political and social groups. In going through highly restricted material at the Chicago Historical Society, he came to see how, in the sixties, the Chicago Red Squad had undermined a War on Poverty project on the South Side.

For Carbajal, it was "eye-opening" to get input from the Irish professors and students who, while unfamiliar with this country's Red Squads, suggested ways he might internationalize his dissertation on American conservative movements in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the Irish student presenters discussed playwright Clifford Odets, whose plays "Waiting for Lefty" and "Awake and Sing" were written in the 1930s and who, in 1952, was called before the House-Un-American Activities Committee.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Carbajal and Marygrace Tyrrell, a Ph.D. student who also went to Ireland and expects to finish her dissertation this academic year, both pointed out the resulting "fraternity" or "collegiality" that resulted from the trip to Ireland.

"Graduate school culture doesn't always allow the kinds of exchange that we had among ourselves or with Professor Breen," said Tyrrell, who called the experience "the most positive of my graduate years here."

"We were talking history all the time. Whether in the car or at one of our meals, about issues in our research, about issues in grad school, about how we're going to frame our research for the conference," says Tyrell. "We learned to constructively give advice and constructively pose questions about other people's research. In turn, that helped us think about our own projects."

"Doing research can be an incredibly lonely activity so having the chance to share not only with students in your cohort or department but also with students and professors far away establishes a fraternity that makes you feel connected to the profession," Carbajal adds. "That's something you can lose sight of after being in an archive for weeks on end."

In May, the Center will offer a second international mini-conference. Titled "Contested Narratives in an American and Transatlantic Context," it will bring Breen, Assistant Professor Michael Allen and a handful of graduate students working in American history to Ludwig-Maximillians-University in Munich. There, they will network with German academics, explore vital issues of the profession in their countries and discuss the challenges and rewards of archival research. A workshop is tentatively planned for Cambridge, Great Britain next year.

In an effort to open the conversation about the core challenges of "doing" history to all parts of the world, the Center envisions hosting similar workshops in Evanston for selected graduate scholars from South American, African or Asian universities. After each workshop, the Center also hopes to present a panel, open to the public, to report on what participants bring back from their encounters with international peers.

"Our experience in Ireland fulfilled our most ambitious expectations. No other center focusing on the discipline of history has attempted to reach out to students and faculty working in cultures outside the United States," says Breen.

The international initiative is an outgrowth of faculty/graduate workshops the Center has convened that are mini-conferences on important questions facing a subfield of history. The first such conference was on current trends in environmental history; the second addressed the challenges of reconstructing social history in a post structural world.

"It was the success of these workshops that propelled us to launch a new program of mini-conferences outside Northwestern and the United States," Elzbieta Foeller-Pituch, associate director of the Center for Historical Studies, says.

The Center, which was established in 2006, acts as a focal point for addressing the core concerns of history as a discipline and sponsors lectures, workshops and other events related to theory, methodology and evidence.