Top Young Historians: 2 – Daniel Lord Smail

TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS

Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

2: Daniel Lord Smail, 11-14-05

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Professor of History, Harvard University (as of January 2006), Professor of History at Fordham University (until December 2005), he has also served as co-director of Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies and director of graduate studies for the Department of History.
Area of Research: Medieval History
Education: Ph.D. 1994, University of Michigan
Major Publications: Imaginary Cartographies: Possession and Identity in Late Medieval Marseille (Cornell University Press, 1999); The Consumption of Justice: Emotions, Publicity and Legal Culture in Marseille, 1264-1423 (Cornell University Press, 2003); co-editor of Fama: The Politics of Talk and Reputation in Medieval Europe (Cornell University Press, 2003). Daniel Smail JPG Smail is currently writing Outlines for a Deep History of Humankind which will seek to anchor global history in natural history, and a monograph expanding on how medieval courts’ citation of “public rumor and repute” helped establish social norms for personal and group behavior.
Awards: Smail’s The Consumption of Justice: Emotions, Publicity and Legal Culture in Marseille, 1264-1423, was the recent co-winner of the Hurst Prize of the Law and Society Association. Imaginary Cartographies was awarded the Social Science History Association’s President’s Book Award in 1999 and the American History Association’s Herbert Baxter Adams Prize in 2001.

Personal Anecdote

When graduate students don’t get jobs they invariably assume it’s their fault. Dissertation not sufficiently innovative; the teaching just above average; maybe “horrors” I’m just not smart enough. Their advisers can tell them the job market is just a crap-shoot, but it’s not easy to believe this, and all too tempting just to blame oneself. So when I try to persuade disappointed graduate students that it really is a crap-shoot I often tell the story of how I just barely survived the job search myself. Having done my dissertation research in 1990-91, I was reasonably far along in 1992-93, so I decided to test the market, as it were, with five or ten applications. These translated into one AHA interview, in the Pit, during which I am sure I convinced the committee I was the last person it would ever want to hire. Disappointed but not discouraged, I worked hard on other projects to avoid finishing my dissertation so that I could remain a student for a little longer. The following year (1993-94) was better; the dozens of letters I sent out turned into eight AHA interviews-and I could tell I was moving up in the world because most of them were in interview suites. But these eight interviews turned into exactly zero campus invitations. Was it me? Did they have other priorities? My advisers tried to persuade me to believe the latter, and I did my best to keep the faith.

I finished my dissertation in the summer of 1994, found an adjunct position, and soldiered ahead, applying for practically anything that moved: medieval, European, theoretical, you name it. Dozens more letters went out. By December, I was facing some rather grim news: the eight interviews in 1994 shrank to five in 1995, even though I actually had a dissertation in hand this time around. I was adjuncting at a school that had a position in my field, and doing a pretty good job, but even they didn’t want to interview me. Sighting down the slope, I could see myself with just a couple of interviews the following year… and then the dreaded nothing. Well, I thought, if nothing works out in 1995 then I’ll have one last shot before moving on. My wife had a decent job and I was sure I could find something interesting outside of academia.

Four of the five interviews at the 1995 AHA in Chicago led nowhere. The fifth, almost to my surprise, garnered a campus interview. I worked feverishly on syllabuses. I drafted and redrafted a job talk. I wondered what I’d wear. The interview was actually rather enjoyable, but I wasn’t all that surprised when days passed without the phone ringing. Somehow, I learned that I was their second candidate. Weeks went by. Of course, everything turned out fine in the end, because the top candidate (who has gone on to have a marvelous career, incidentally) had three job offers-something I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams, and the university was content to make do with second best. Lots of things had conspired against me, not the least of which was a rather muddled dissertation (though I defend myself by saying that the sources were unusual and awfully difficult to use) on a subject that, at the time, was many removes away from the hot topics of the day. But without this rather lucky chance I am fairly certain I would have ended up doing something outside of academia, like many others with similar capabilities but less luck.

The moral of the tale, I think, is that search committees can never hope to get it exactly right, and no one should expect them to. Departments have their own priorities, and are as subject to the winds of fashion as any consumer. Serendipidity and blind luck play a large role. And scholars do mature after graduate school in ways that no search committee could ever be expected to divine. None of this will ease the pain of not getting through the clumsy, misshapen portal through which every academic has to pass, but knowing that it is a crap-shoot may help someone get on with life if he or she doesn’t have the sort of luck that I had.

Quotes

About Daniel Lord Smail

  • “The Consumption of Justice breaks new ground. At once a meticulously researched institutional history and a close reading of voluminous court records, Daniel Lord Smail’s book offers to rewrite the late medieval history of law, urban culture, and the symbiotic relationship between the two. In Smail’s deft hands, law is rendered the potent tool of its consumers, and legal records become our window onto contemporaries’ understanding of themselves and their community.” — Martha C. Howell, Columbia University, author of The Marriage Exchange
  • Harvard, you are lucky! Very funny and intelligent, and he actually makes you learn something. He’s fair, and a great professor. Also is great to talk to about any topic. — Anonymous former student

Posted on Saturday, November 12, 2005 at 11:34 PM

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