Friday, November 16, 2012

An Interview with William Fowler, Professor of History

Professor William Fowler is a Professor of American Colonial, Maritime and Revolutionary War history at Northeastern University. He is also the author of Under Two Flags: The Navy in the Civil War, Rebels Under Sail: The Navy in the Revolution, and Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan, which came the closest of any book that I've read to explaining the enigma that was Samuel Adams. He was kind enough to sit down with me one cold October night and tell me about his work and his professional life.

AD: I’m speaking with William Fowler on October 5, 2012. Hi Professor Fowler, how are you?

WF: I’m well Aaron, and yourself?

AD: Well, thank you. Just to give us an introduction, would you tell us where you work and what sort of position you hold?

WF: Well, I hold the wonderful title of distinguished professor of history in the History department at Northeastern University.

AD: Can you describe a typical workday in your position?

WF: Sure. I usually arrive in the office usually around 6:15, 6:30 in the morning. I arrive early because that way I can avoid traffic, and I have an opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee and read the paper. Around 7 or 7:15 other people start to arrive, sometimes students who have made appointments with me. And then I have a class at 8:00, which goes until 9:00. After that I return here to the office. Usually more students come by; I’m also the undergraduate advisor, so I see a number of students. Quite often at this time too graduate students come by, working on a Master’s thesis, directed study, dissertation or some such thing. Sometimes there’ll be some sort of meeting, but I don’t go to too many meetings, thank God! I then try to grab a few minutes to go through my email. On an average day I’m probably getting between 50 and 75 emails. I’m also, at the same time trying to write a book proposal. I need to keep researching and writing. Then there’s lunch. Sometimes lunch is 10, 15 minutes, sometimes lunch is 2 hours. Depends on where I am and who I’m meeting with. And then after lunch, come back to the office and the pattern is pretty much the same. By this time I may in fact be over in the library picking up some books; I do quite a bit of work with inter-library loan. And then I return to the office. I find that because of students’ schedules and the schedules of other people as well, sometimes it’s easier to meet in the late afternoon, after classes. So again I’ll probably be talking to some students. Now in the midst of this, depending on which day it happens to be, I serve on several non-profit boards. And so I go to those board meetings probably 6 or 8 times a month. Most of the non-profits I serve on are here in Boston, so usually it’s just a subway ride or a walk. I’m also a trustee of the Rhode Island Historical Society, so that means once a month I’m down to Providence, and occasionally down to places like Concord. So that’s Monday through Friday. And I work here on Saturdays, which are a little different. I use Saturdays primarily for writing. I arrive a little bit later; traffic’s not so bad. So I’m in the office by about 8 or 8:30 and usually spend as much of that time as I can trying to write, and then I’ll go home by about 3 or 4. Sometimes during the week I have evening obligations, mostly here on campus with various student groups. So I don’t know if that’s an average day, but that’s a day. Yeah.

AD: Sounds like even in your position as a professor you have quite a bit to do with the local non-profits.

WF: Yeah, I get great fun out of that. Great joy. One of the things I really enjoy doing, aside from teaching students, which is probably the most enjoyable, is to be working in the community bringing history out beyond the walls of the university. So yeah, I think that’s valuable. I think that’s very important for professionals like myself. Whatever expertise we have, we share that, and I learn a lot from these boards. I serve with a variety of men and women, and so the board meetings are always interesting, and the perspectives that other people bring to the issues at hand are always quite enlightening.

AD: How did you come to get this job? The position that you’re in right now?

WF: Well, Aaron that’s a long story. It’s a bittersweet story, in an important kind of way. I went to Northeastern as an undergraduate, and I graduated in 1967. People can now do their calculations on age! I went off to graduate school, to the University of Notre Dame, received my PhD there in 1971. At the time, when I received my degree, I had expected one of two things would happen; either I’d be in the army, which I was in the army at the time, I was a commissioned officer. Or I was perhaps going to end up teaching in some small school in some remote place. And then a very sad thing happened. The person who had been my mentor here at the university, Bob Feer, passed away, and Bob’s death left a gap, an opening here at Northeastern for an early American historian. And so they asked if I would come back to take Bob’s place, and I of course immediately said yes. And that return here to Northeastern is how I got to be here. And that was in 1971 that I began teaching here, taught here from 1971 to 1998, and then from 1998 to 2005 I was the director of the Massachusetts Historical Society. And then in 2005 I was fortunate enough to be able to come back here, to resume my career here at the university as a teacher.

AD: What skills would you say make you successful in this job?

WF: Patience. Lots and lots of patience. Patience with myself; that is to say, when you’re a scholar and when you’re a writer, you really want things to get done. You want that book to get done. And you have to remind yourself that it’s a careful kind of business. You don’t want to rush it; you want to do it methodically. Push yourself, but not to the point of carelessness. And secondly, patience with the people with whom you work. You work in an incredible environment, a university environment, in which there is an incredible diversity of opinions, of people, of students, etc. etc. Not all of whom you agree with, and you need to be patient and understanding and listen to others. Particularly with students; they’re here to learn, and sometimes you may think that they’re not learning fast enough, or learning the wrong things, or misbehaving, or whatever judgment you come to. It’s a mistake to act too quickly in that. So you need to be patient with yourself, patient with the students with whom you’re working, patient with your colleagues… and they need to be patient with me, by the way! I’m sure that if you would ask some of my colleagues, they would tell you that sometimes they need to be patient with Fowler as well. So it’s a matter of understanding, it’s a matter of great toleration, and a willingness to learn from one another.

AD: And I imagine that a lot of these skills are transferrable over to your career as the director of the Mass. Historical Society, or serving on the boards of these non-profits?

WF: Yes, I think that’s true, Aaron. I think one of the things that I’ve learned in the business that I’ve been in for some time is that you value the people that you work with for what they know and what they can do. And that means that you need to be able to understand… embrace, perhaps, sometimes idiosyncratic behavior. Not behavior that’s damaging. I’m not talking about that. That cannot be tolerated. But these are people who prize what they know, have spent their career learning it, and so you have to really embrace that approach. They are valuable people, and sometimes by the canons of normal behavior their behavior may seem a little strange. The same with students, too. Students don’t always follow all the norms, you know? But at the same time, you have to be understanding of that, tolerant of that, and understand that what the eventual goal here is to learn. Sometimes there are little digressions, little bumps in the road, but you can’t be distracted by them.

AD: What’s your favorite part of your job?

WF: Oh, teaching. No question about that. Without question, my most comfortable enjoyable moments are in the classroom. There’s nothing else that equals that. If there’s anything that’s number two in that list, it would be writing. Being able to research and to write. But writing is not easy; it’s difficult. The moments of joy in writing are not always as frequent as they are in the classroom. The classroom clearly takes precedence, and then the writing is secondary.

AD: In either teaching in the classroom or writing, has anything changed since you began your career?

WF: Oh God, yes! Oh, are you kidding me? Oh, my God! You know, when I started in this business, essentially in the late 1960s, in terms of books and publications and communications, not much had changed since Gutenberg invented moveable type and Bell invented the telephone. Since then it’s all blown apart, I mean it’s just completely blown up! The digital world, telecommunications… now, when I say come apart, I mean the old world has come apart, and a new one has formed. It’s an extraordinary opportunity. The information I now have access to is incredible I can now find in five minutes what in the 1960s would have taken me weeks to find and maybe even a trip to London.  Now the material which is available at my fingertips is absolutely incredible. Now again, when I started in this business, you had your conference hours, and students rarely came to see you. Now, they think nothing of emailing me and expecting an instantaneous answer. SO the pace of this has increased tremendously. It’s just been an incredible, wonderful, extraordinary revolution.

AD: When you first started in this field, is there anything that you wish you had done differently… anything that you feel would have prepared you better for academia?

WF: Well, that’s a good question. If I think that I have one failing… and only one! I wish that I had pursued a foreign language. I did the requisite stuff, enough to get by. But I think that having proficiency in a second language, as I do not, is an essential tool. You can get by without it; I did. But were I to have that opportunity again, getting proficiency in a foreign language is something that I would do.

AD: If you had obtained that proficiency, do you think that would have changed what your focus was on, or would have changed your interpretation of history, or anything like that?

WF: I don’t think that it would have changed my interpretation, but it certainly would have expanded my horizons. I think that I’m an American historian, so I work in English. I think that had I an expertise in another language, that it would enhance my capacity to understand American history by understanding it through the culture of another nation. If I knew what the Germans were saying, in German, not through a translation. Or Spanish scholars, or French scholars… I think that would open up my vistas to a broader horizon. SO that’s what I would urge young people to do; expand your horizons, in a way that I did not.

AD: And that leads in quite neatly to my last question. DO you have any advice for young people who want to do what you do, who want to be a professor at some accredited university, teaching in the field of history?

WF: Understand the essential nature of this profession. They are parallel worlds, teaching and scholarship. If you wish to be a university professor, you have to understand that at the same time, you need to be both teacher and scholar. You cannot get ahead in this world; you cannot even get into this world, unless you understand that. The sooner you do the better. Don’t wait until you leave graduate school to begin publishing. Publish as soon as you can, whether its book reviews, essays, or whatever it happens to be. The sooner the better. And also, I meet with a lot of young people who see the academic world as a place they want to be, but don’t fully understand the pressure. It is a pressured world. I know people on the outside think that we have a wonderful, relaxing life… we have a wonderful  life, that’s true. But you have to be self-disciplined, because it’s also the world in which you are your own boss. No one’s looking over your shoulder. This isn’t like being an undergraduate; where’s the paper, its due today, we have an exam on Thursday. That isn’t the way this works. You must have an enormous amount of self-discipline to get the job done. If you don’t have that self-discipline, you don’t have that motivation, you don’t have that willingness to work hard at research and writing, you don’t belong in this business. And also, get ready for rejection. I always point out to my students my file cabinet. I always point out to my students, I have a small, thin file labeled “Acceptances, “and a have a big, thick file labeled “Rejections.” So prize the acceptances and get over the rejections. And don’t wait to perfect everything. You need to get out there, you need to have criticisms, and you need to engage. SO that would be my advice, don’t wait, try it now. And by the way, as you’re trying it you may realize that you’re not good at it. You better learn that early on so you don’t waste a lot of time.

AD: Sounds like good advice to me! Professor Fowler, thank you very much for sitting down with me.

WF: Aaron, my pleasure.

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You can see Professor Fowler's Northeastern webpage here. Have you met with Professor William Fowler? Are you the real Professor William Fowler? Is the man I interviewed with a confidence man only in the office to heist books? Do you have proof of this? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, or even if you said "no," you can let me know in the comment section below.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Fowler is the reason I decided to come back to college after my time in the Army and get my BA and MA in History. I've never met him in person, but did share a couple of phone conversations with him, which I've learned so much from. I wish I could meet him in person to shake his hand.