Story posted March 26, 2012
Tell us about your research focus. What particular facet of your area of study has been most interesting to you lately?
I’m currently working on a book manuscript about the family lives of men of letters in the eighteenth century; I’m calling it “Living Proof: Intellectual Families and Knowledge Making in Enlightenment France.” I argue that a new intellectual ideal emerged in the eighteenth century: that of the happily married savant whose family life enhanced his intellectual productivity. Before the development of this ideal, savants’ wives were, more often than not, depicted as shrews and harpies who distracted their husbands. In the eighteenth century, however, they were portrayed as affectionate, learned, and helpful. I’ve written an article about this new ideal, and it’s coming out in French Historical Studies this summer. The bulk of my manuscript focuses on the implications of these intellectual marriages. I’ve found that Enlightenment savants relied upon their wives and children to perform useful labors of all sorts, including drawing illustrations and translating sources. But, more interestingly, they tested their ideas about education and inoculation — both hot topics during the eighteenth century — on their own family members. The family became a sort of laboratory for them to try out their ideas. They then advertised these “experiments” as evidence that their ideas were valid and that their readers should also practice them. In this way, savants transformed themselves and their families into “living proof.”
Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in what my material says about women during the Enlightenment. A widely accepted narrative in my field is that women got shut out of intellectual societies and professional organizations during the eighteenth century, and so they were unable to participate in the Enlightenment in meaningful ways. There is some truth to this: women did not have the same access to universities, academies, and learned societies that men did. But my own research suggests that, despite this, women were still important and recognized contributors to the development of knowledge. Women who were members of intellectual families were able to make a name for themselves as learned assistants, and their fathers or husbands often celebrated their talents in public. These women are not ridiculed or dismissed on account of their sex, as you might expect, but were instead lauded as both ideal wives/daughters and admirably learned. I’m currently writing an article examining the work done by women in intellectual families, how they and their male family members represented their work in public, and what this tells us about women in the Enlightenment.
What prompted your interest in Bowdoin? After the end of your first semester, what are your impressions of the college community?
When you’re a graduate student on the job market, as I was last year, you spend a lot of time compulsively checking job ads. I can remember the day that Bowdoin’s job ad for an early modern Europeanist appeared on the site — I was pleased that there was a new opening in my field, and I was thrilled that it was at such a great school. I already knew a bit about Bowdoin: it has a reputation as a top-notch liberal arts college, and the department chair of Northwestern’s history department (where I was working on my PhD) is an especially dedicated alum. The more I researched the college, the more impressed I was. I was especially heartened by the college’s “no loans” financial aid policy, because it showed a real commitment to admitting a diverse student body and to making Bowdoin accessible to as many students as possible. But the most basic reason why I wanted to come to Bowdoin is because Bowdoin represents, for me, an ideal balance of teaching and research. I love teaching, and it’s enormously satisfying to be able to develop my own courses and engage with my students myself, rather than relying on a small army of teaching assistants. But at the same time, I take my research very seriously and I wanted to be at an institution that would encourage my intellectual development. Bowdoin provides excellent support for faculty research, and the stellar publication records of our faculty speak for themselves. I knew I would be able to have the career I’d always wanted at Bowdoin, and so I was elated when I was eventually offered the position.
I’ve now been here for one semester, and I’ve been very impressed by the college community. My colleagues manage to be first-rate scholars, excellent teachers, and great fun all at the same time. And the students blew me away with how quickly they grasped difficult concepts and how well they discuss and write history. Teaching such invested, enthusiastic, and talented students can be challenging — I always have to make sure I won’t be boring them! — but it also means that I can present the best, most sophisticated work in my field, and they’ll be right there with me. That makes my job a very rewarding one.
Why, in your opinion, is the study of history compelling and relevant to students today?
At its most basic level, the study of history can be boiled down to one fundamental question: how and why do societies change over time? Understanding the dynamics of change in the past is, I think, a useful way to think about change in the present. For example, my particular field of study is early modern Europe, so I often teach about the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution, all of which are times when many members of society believed that they could and should influence politics, nature, and even human beings themselves. They had great confidence in their ability to transform their world, and many believed that they could create a utopian society for themselves. I encourage my students to examine the assumptions and motives driving these plans, and to also consider their unintended consequences. In this way, the study of history can tell us a great deal about the origins of our own society — for Enlightenment had an indelible impact on the modern world — but also provides a useful starting point to think about if, how, and why we might be changing our own world. This kind of inquiry requires a sophisticated set of analytical tools: historians do not simply memorize what has happened but work to uncover and explain the past. For that reason, students of history develop skills in reading, writing, research, and oral communication that will serve them well in any number of professions. That’s the practical reason for studying history. But, just as importantly, the study of history is fun. I’ve always thought of historians as the gossips of the academic world — we’re obsessed with figuring out other people’s stories and then sharing the juicy details. And we love sharing our best stories with our students!
At its most basic level, the study of history can be boiled down to one fundamental question: how and why do societies change over time?
— Professor Meghan Roberts