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American Historian Claire Arcenas on John Locke, Teaching, and More

Claire Rydell Arcenas is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Montana. An American historian, Claire’s interests include transatlantic intellectual, cultural, and political exchange between the late seventeenth and the mid-twentieth centuries. Her latest book is Locke in America (under contract with the University of Chicago Press). She received her PhD in history from Stanford University.

What books are you reading now?

I’m at a point in my own writing where narrative inspiration is particularly important, so I’m looking for good stories and good storytelling. I recently finished Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe and Circe by Madeline Miller. The two books are very different in terms of genre and topic, but they’re both excellent and have great audio editions, which is important for me—especially in the summer!—as I love to listen while I walk to work. 

Next up on my shelf is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, but I think I’ll read this one on paper. It’s been many years since I’ve read The Odyssey, and I want to pay attention to her translation choices. 

I’ve also been enjoying works of history written by scholars outside formal history departments. Right now, I am particularly excited to read (Princeton English professor) Sarah Rivett’s latest book, Unscripted America: Indigenous Languages and the Origins of a Literary Nation, which was published in 2017.

What is your favorite history book?

Favorite is a hard label to assign! One of the most impactful things I read early on was Herodotus’ Histories because it got me thinking about history as a process of inquiry. As an American historian, I don’t spend as much time in the world of Herodotus as I did when I was studying Classics in school, but I still remind my students that asking good questions is one of the most important tasks of the historian. 

Why did you choose history as your career?

The fall of my senior year in college was when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave the past behind, so instead of applying to law schools, I applied to history PhD programs. After this first step, it really wasn’t until I started teaching that I knew this was the career for me. If there’s one thing more enjoyable than learning about the past, it’s sharing that knowledge, as well as my enthusiasm and excitement about it, with others! 

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Curiosity because there is so much to learn; humility because there is so much that’s difficult to understand; and perseverance because, like most things worth doing, the work of a historian is rarely easy. 

Who was your favorite history teacher?

The fact that this is such a difficult question to answer makes me very fortunate! Wonderful teachers have shaped my personal and professional trajectory throughout my life. My parents encouraged me to think imaginatively with frequent visits to the Arnhem Openluchtmuseum (a kind of living history museum in the Netherlands); my American Studies teachers Mr. Strahn and Mr. Thompson brought humor to my high school history classroom with their spirited re-enactments of debates from the Revolutionary era; in college, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen showed me the power of a well-timed question in a seminar on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friedrich Nietzsche; and in graduate school, I listened in awe as Caroline Winterer and Richard White modelled lecturing at its very finest.

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

Most memorable would have to be the day a student in one of my seminars brought his mother to class with him. She didn’t understand why he was studying history and he figured experiencing one of our class discussions was the best way to show her! 

But, truth be told, the most rewarding teaching experiences tend to be the small, mundane ones: when a student at risk of failing comes to my office hours and we make a plan for getting her back on track; or when a sea of hands goes up in a big lecture hall, with students eager to ask a question, even in front of a hundred of their peers. Moments like these are the ones I cherish most.

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

In a few words: continued relevance, both inside and outside colleges and universities. 

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

In another life, I think could have been a botanist, so I collect early modern botanical sketches and engravings. My collection is small, but (hopefully!) growing.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career? 

Working with my incredible students at the University of Montana has been by far the most rewarding part of my career so far. The most frustrating has been the sheer amount of both luck and persistence that it takes to get an academic job like the one I’m fortunate to have. Each time, however, that a student lingers after class to confess that he used to find history dull or boring but is now eager for reading recommendations or suggestions for other history classes he can take makes it all worth it. 

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

It’s only been three years since I finished graduate school, so I’ll keep my focus on the area of history I know best. Within my field of intellectual history, historians (myself included) are increasingly emphasizing the ways in which the more recent past (especially concerns of the mid-twentieth century) shapes not only what we know about the more distant past (for example, the eighteenth century) but also what kinds of questions we ask about it. 

My own work on the changing influence of the English philosopher John Locke in America, for example, emphasizes that so much of what we think we know about Locke in American thought and culture before the twentieth century has to do with the kinds of questions historians and political scientists were asking in the 1950s and 1960s, rather than what interested Americans in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. My goal is to remove many of the assumptions we have about the timelessness of Locke’s multi-century impact.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I haven’t yet come up with any of my own, but at the beginning of the semester I like asking my students to reflect on L.P. Hartley’s famous line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Throughout the term, we continue contemplating how the past’s distance—and nearness—informs how we do history.

What are you doing next?

This year, I’m on a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, so I am finishing my book about John Locke in America from a desk at the Library of Congress. I have a feeling Locke would have liked the main reading room here!