Where the Streets Have No Name (or, sometimes the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason)

A few people on twitter have asked me about my career, and how I came to be where I am. So here is a rather lengthy explanation. Next month will mark four years since I submitted my PhD thesis. I started in October 2004.

My work was on women in the interwar period, and their ideas of gender and modernity in Asia and the West. (Buy the book!)

I'm very proud of the work I did for my PhD, but it wasn't an area I wanted to continue to work on. I felt I had said all I could on that topic, and my interests led me elsewhere, towards urban history and a broader timeframe. Or to put it bluntly: different focus, different place, different period from my PhD. 

Rare is the person in history who seems to have made such a sharp handbrake turn in research interests. Those I can think of (Simon Schama, Cassandra Pybus, Alan Macfarlane), did so after their careers were well-established. Nonetheless, Richard Waterhouse mentioned in one of his books having colleagues who still regarded him as an "Americanist", even after he had spent over twenty years writing Australian history.

I covered my views - and trepidation - about changing areas in an earlier post. It remains to be seen whether my career choices (or rather, following my interests), will pay off. I've been told I've gone "too fast" (i.e. published too much, too soon). A friend was advised NOT to publish her doctoral book until after she landed a tenure-track job, so that it would count for tenure. I'll be finishing book two in the spring (with an edited volume on the side), and no tenure-track job in sight. 

MARCH 2008

I was awarded a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellowship at the National Library of Singapore. I moved in April. I wanted to study the city of Malacca, which had held a fascination for me since I first visited as a tourist some years earlier. I began researching how it had evolved as a colonial port. This research started with sources that were 400+ years earlier than my doctoral work.The fellowship was for six months, and gave me an office in the library, and a research assistant. I had a lot of fun, and it was a great opportunity. I studied Malay and started building up my reading ability of Portuguese.


That July, I was interviewed for, and offered a postdoctoral fellowship starting in October at the Centre for Metropolitan History at the Institute of Historical Research in London. There I expanded my project to incorporate Havana, comparing it to Malacca as two key port cities of early modern European expansion. I spent a great year with supportive colleagues, and worked on my side interest in the Pacific world, which was published in the Journal of World History this year. I had a visiting fellowship at the Institute of Asian Studies in Amsterdam, where I spent two months learning about the Dutch East Indies, and studying archives in the Hague.


The following May, I was awarded a two-year research fellowship funded by the Excellent Initiative at Ludwig-Maximilians University. I've been here since October 2009 (my fellowship ends later this month). This has given me the chance to get through all the research for my book, which has expanded to be a study of urban identity in colonial port cities. I have access to a wonderful library and it has been a good place to be based to complete my research.

I recently received (thank you, Gerda Henkel Stiftung!) a generous grant, which will enable me to finish my book, and will pay me a salary into the spring. This happy news came when I was only six weeks away from my last postdoc paycheque, so to say it was a "relief" doesn't begin to cover it. The uncertainty (indeed the pattern of the last few years of not knowing where I'll be going next until pretty late in the game) is wearing thin (though I must recommend the high-stress diet, seems to work wonders). The book is coming together and I look forward to publishing it.


Of course, all this time I've been applying for jobs. I never lifted my foot off in terms of writing apps, and when your job search is global, there is no off-season. After several years, it's pretty tiring. I look forward to one day not feeling like I'm working without a net. But my mobility has been my strength, thus far. Only the fact that I've been willing to go anywhere has kept me employed continuously. Friends of mine who have bound themselves to one country have not been so lucky.

My published work spans the 1500s to the 1960s. People who have encountered me, or my work, in different forums have described me as an early modernist, a nineteenth-centuryist, an Asianist, an urbanist, a gender historian. I suppose I am all of these, in varying degrees. But jobs seem to come in one of those flavours, and it's hard for me to sell myself as fitting into such categories, with disparate foci in my published work. Anyone hiring an Asianist would balk at my current project, and anyone hiring a historian of empires would look at my dissertation topic and think "What the...?". Urban/World are the labels I would use, though it's rather slim pickings for both of those at the moment.

I've spent longer working on my current book than I spent on my doctoral work, and more intensively too (the postdocs I have had have allowed me to focus fully on my research; during my PhD I was working various part-time jobs). I am at least as well up on the literature of what I'm working on now than on my doctoral area.

In general, I receive more interest from search committees in the US, especially those with world history programs, who look at my cv and think "wide teaching areas". While to hiring committees in the UK, where people tend to specialise more, the term might be (I'm guessing), "dilettante". The last AHA at which I had interviews was in 2008 (since then I've been interviewed by phone or straight to campus). If I'd landed one of those jobs, I would have had a mid-tenure review by now.

I am sure I am a better scholar, better teacher, than when I first went on the job market. I know my cover letters have improved! Nonetheless, I was wikijected this week for a job at which I thought I had a good shot. So, maybe my letter doesn't impress everyone. But I love what I do. I love history: reading about it, writing about it, sharing knowledge of the past with others. I've been lucky to have the chances I've had so far, and check in next year to see if this turns into a story of triumph or a warning of what NOT to do in academe.