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History & Law: GW History Professor Jennifer Wells Discusses How Her Study of Law Has Informed her Career in History

Recently, I had the pleasure to sit down Dr. Jennifer Wells, Assistant Professor in the History Department at the George Washington University, to discuss the path that lead her to a professional career in History, her opinion on the future of the field in the greater context of collegiate academia, and some tips for current students considering graduate work in history and law.

As a current student in Dr. Wells’ class “Law, State, and Empire” I also had the opportunity to ask the professor for some of her more personal thoughts regarding modern international law and international relations, and how important the application of what we learn history classrooms is and will be to responding to current challenges experts in these fields face. 

[Detlor]: Prior to pursuing your PhD in History, you studied/practiced law, correct? What was your area(s) of study/practice and what drew you to that field?

[Wells]: Yes, I went to law school and completed my JD at the University of California in 2010. I specialized in international law (even though you don’t need to specialize in anything in law school) and have an American Bar Association certification in that subject. I focused on international law because I have always found international relations and foreign policy fascinating – even as a kid, I remember being fascinated by things in the news: the conflict in the former Yugoslavia; the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Those were things that made headlines all the time in the 90s and they intrigued me. Extensive international travel in college reaffirmed and solidified my interest in the wider world and its peoples and cultures.

[Detlor]: What drew you to study History at the graduate level? Was there something unique about History or academia more broadly that you felt a career in law was lacking?

[Wells]:  My path to academia wasn’t particularly straight forward in that it wasn’t my end goal. While I really loved (and still love) the policy end of law, I absolutely hated my first year of law school. Civ Pro and Contracts were excessively boring. I went straight from undergrad into law and in hindsight that was probably too young/too early. I’d always recommend students take a few years off and work prior to beginning graduate programs (more on that in a bit). You are so much wiser as to how life can just hit you over the head with a brick; you realize what it is to deal with difficult bosses; you know how hard you have to work to excel. College doesn’t really prepare people for “reality” in my opinion (your professors are pushovers) and law school is reality in a big way. It is 100% sink or swim. At 22 you are just way too young and naïve as to the ways of the world. I think going into a graduate program at 25 gives you a huge advantage. The people who had a few years on me and other fresh college grads really excelled.  Conversely, once I was in grad school, I had a massive advantage at age 26 over my counterparts who were 22/23.

So in addition to feeling a bit at sea in law, I also found that I missed the research associated with history. I’d done an honors thesis in college and graduated summa cum laude because of it. I absolutely loved the original research – coming up with an idea, researching it, turning it into a story. I worked for a federal judge in San Francisco my first summer and found myself reading Past & Present instead of court briefs and realized I’d probably enjoy doing original research as a professor more than filling out templates as a litigator.

On top of that, while I loved the policy/criminal prosecution end of international law, the pay is comparable to a college professor (sometimes worse) and it is a tough field – just as hard/harder than getting a job in academia. Someone like Amal Clooney, an idol, put in many, many years of hard work to get where she landed. You can take all sorts of dud cases and work very hard and know you still probably won’t win. I figured I’d rather expend my energy in academia and have the freedom and flexibility afforded by academic schedules.

As a result, I applied to grad school in my second year of law school. I was admitted to several places and Brown allowed me to defer for a year in order to finish law school, which I did. Today, I am more grateful for my law degree than my PhD; it’s versatility is incredible and it opens so many doors.

[Detlor]: What field(s) in History do you study? What drew you to them?

[Wells]: My specialization in history is Britain and Ireland, specifically during the early modern period. I was drawn to Irish history because my mother’s family is Irish. Growing up, my grandparents shared all sorts of stories about Ireland, their families’ opinions of it, how they emigrated to the United States, etc. As I mentioned earlier, the Troubles was a constant news item when I was growing up and I was curious to learn more about this ancient enmity between Irish Catholics and English and Irish Protestants in the North. Personally, I don’t think you can focus on Irish history and not have a deep understanding of British history. I’ve always found the story of the British and their empire interesting. How is it that some tiny, insignificant, rain-drenched island in the North Atlantic on the fringes of Europe could, at its height in 1900, rule more than ¼ of the globe with xxx people owing allegiance to the House of Windsor? Britain has arguably had the biggest impact on the modern world – in no small part because of its former colony, the United States. The global lingua franca is English for a reason. And, in the words of an Irish friend, “If you see straight lines on a map, you know the British were there.”

My focus on the early modern world (that is, the world prior to the eighteenth/nineteenth century, depending on who you ask) is a result of taking a number of courses in the subject with a talented professor when I was an undergraduate. It gave me a firm understanding of the history and historiography that provided a seedbed for graduate study. On top of that, understanding early modern Europe is critical for understanding the world today. Our (and here I mean the West’s) great advances in science, technology, statecraft, the arts, religious pluralism, even the concept of the individual – originated in Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a remarkable time for human advancement and ingenuity and shaped the modern world.  In a British and Irish context, this is really when Britain began its expansion across the globe. The foundations it laid in the seventeenth century were vital to its ultimate domination in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

[Detlor]: Would you say your background as a lawyer has influenced your study of History? In what ways? 

[Wells]: Definitely. I probably approach history much more as a lawyer than as a historian, chiefly in terms of looking at arguments as flimsy or lacking evidence/rigorous analysis (and a lot of historical arguments do). I’m more much analytical as a result of law and try to immediately make an assertion and back it up with evidence when I write; I think it’s a very effective way of writing but I’m not sure that I would have mastered it had I not gone to law school. The other thing that law really helped with was knowing what a good argument is; there are all sorts of bad arguments and weak arguments – mostly because the idea is too narrow, lacks evidence, or (the biggest) is simply not important. Sometimes I listen to projects people are working (knitting in a 12th century convent or selling shovels in Indiana in the 19th century) and I’m like, “Who cares? And what is the point?” There are all sorts of interesting factoids floating around out in the world but that doesn’t mean you should focus upon it, shape an entire project around it, and re-tell it to a broader audience. Because law is the foundation of our society – and world society – it will by default address more pressing issues. That is something that guides every single thing I write and every single project I undertake: “why is this important? Why is it transformative? What is it telling us about our world that is critical and fundamental?”

[Detlor]: Conversely, how has your study of the History states and imperialism influenced the way you think about international law, if at all?

[Wells]: History is valuable for study international law because you understand the wider context in which these laws were (and are) crafted and the numerous events that led to some incident occurring. Law by itself is narrow and bereft of context. Just look at the law professors who spoke at the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing recently. They had to provide our legislators with the historical context of impeachment. To me, a lot of this stuff was pretty basic history anyone who has gone to law school or gotten a BA in history and loaded upon courses in early modern Britain and early America. But for most people, the history was illuminating and helped them to understand where impeachment law came from, what the framers of the Constitution had in mind, the English context for impeachment, etc etc. When writing on international law, my historical knowledge of various events and the roots of such events (which were often sowed centuries before some sort of incident occurred) are invaluable.

[Detlor]: I'm currently enrolled in your "Law, State, and Empire" class currently. I'm curious as to your opinion on the state of the modern empire. Does such a thing exist currently? How might it differ from more traditional empires of the past?

[Wells]:  I always find the “modern empire” question a bit bogus when historians or academics in various cultural studies fields bring it up. Sure, you can argue that America has “an empire” or China has “an empire” but their empires don’t really hold up in traditional thinking nor would there by any legal argument you could make to support this line of thinking. Empires were traditionally (and in my opinion still are) founded upon the notion of sovereignty – that an entity or ruler exercises legitimate authority over some jurisdiction. This necessarily involves land or sections of the sea. America may well influence the cultures of a variety of notions but in no way does it exercise sovereignty over the other 192 member nations of the United Nations. Decisions in the US do impact people across the world; but it’s wrong to claim the US is an empire and I don’t know of any lawyer or law professor who would take that line of argument since there is little to sustain it.

[Detlor]: We've talked extensively about the varying degrees of efficacy and importance of international organizations such as the UN in class as well. I think you have the unique perspective of having studied the creation of such organizations while possessing concrete experience in international law. Considering this, how would you rate the importance of these organizations? Do you predict them continuing to have a place in international relations into the future?

[Wells]: I think institutions like the UN, the European Union, NATO, Interpol, the International Criminal Court, and so on are very important to the world. Sure, these institutions are flawed and they don’t work all that well. But until someone comes up with something better, I don’t see another alternative. There is a symbolic importance to most of these institutions too. They underscore humanity’s higher ideals, better angels, and aspirational goals – and for that reason, these institutions are very important. Having people come together and say, “Okay, despite our differences, we acknowledge that we share xyz and this institution is a mechanism by which to safeguard xyz” is powerful and important for long-term stability.  Systemic change that would lead to better enforcement and cooperation at the international level can only happen if powerful countries like the US and China start to play by the same rules as everyone else. The US’s (repeated) failure to sign international treaties or ignore/refuse to sign UN resolutions is a genuine problem. If you want something to work, the biggest players have to have just as much skin in the game and be willing to adhere to the same standards as everyone else.

As for whether these institutions survive – I think they will but a lot is highly dependent on where humanity goes in the next few years. In the US and Europe, we have been destroying each other for nearly twenty years as people and politics have become more polarized and I think we’re now at a legitimate cross-roads. One road sees us continuing along this path of division, the nativism, populism, and xenophobia. If Trump wins in 2020, I firmly, 100% believe that this is the way we go and it is 100% the wrong direction. Should that occur, the US will become increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. I don’t know that NATO will survive. Institutions like the UN could well become moribund by the close of the 21st century. The EU might actually strengthen in response to an isolated America but there is also the probability that Europe’s own conflicts pull it further apart. This lack of leadership in the West then allows China to fill the vacuum. It has already laid the groundwork for this, pouring billions into infrastructure in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. People may complain about an American-led world order but do you like the alternative? Our other path is one in which we embrace institutions, both at home in the US and internationally, that are meant to safeguard basic, fundamental rights.

[Detlor]: Another aspect of your class that I've enjoyed has been your consistent application of the history and theories we study to modern issues of international law and international relations. What value do you see in this aspect of application of history in the classroom? Do you think it's something that historians should be engaging in more in the classroom?

[Wells]: 100% yes – preach! -  there needs to be more application of history to contemporary events in the classroom. One of the constant anxieties of historians or the Chronicle of Higher Education or any number of academic journals and news outlets is the decline of historical thinking (there was an Atlantic article on this recently) and the slow but steady decline of history as an academic discipline. I share these concerns. However, to play devil’s advocate, I also think the decline of history as a discipline can be attributed to the way it is taught and the failure of professors to make it relevant to students (or to research and write on relevant topics). This is something many of my colleagues will likely bristle at but sadly statistics show that the way we are continuing to teach history and train historians actually contribute to lower majors and a decline in the discipline. If I can’t take someone seriously who writes about 12th century convent knitting then why on earth should a student or the general public? This goes back to my earlier point about relevance – if you cannot articulate to me why farming patterns in early modern France are relevant, then for the love of god, don’t teach it or write about it.

There are millions of ways to make things relevant too: for instance, in our course on Law, State, and Empire, I had you read things about resource exploitation in early modern Europe and apply the ideas of contemporaries like Grotius to resource exploitation in Africa today. The actions of modern men are all rooted in past practices. We are simple creatures. There is very little new under the sun; what is new is the way we apply ideas and knowledge to current problems and adapt existing infrastructure for innovative ends. Having an understanding then of history and how people thought about a particular subject is vitally important for resolving issues in our current world, but it involves moving beyond our narrow historical parameters to wider application -- again something historians might freak out about! As an aside and a good example of this: I gave a conference paper a year ago on the origins of refugee law and a colleague talked about climate crises in early modern Europe. Several people said to us it was “ahistorical” to bring up these issues in historical context and apply the ideas to modern problems. Ahistorical or not, we wound up with a book contract with a popular press on the topic – which shows that there is a public appetite for seeing past ideas applied to present predicaments).

Applying history to the present also shows why history is still highly relevant as an academic discipline and a major. Former UN Samantha Power remarked in her recent memoir, Education of an Idealist (fabulous book that I highly recommend) that the single most important course she took was a seminar entitled “The Use of Force: Political and Moral Criteria.” She was enrolled in law school at the time but the course was offered to Harvard’s undergrads and she enrolled. The professors in the class assigned students various readings from medieval and early modern thinkers – Aquians, Augustine, Niebhur, Michael Walze – and then asked the students to apply the ideas of these long-dead men to contemporary events, including the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the 1992-93 US intervention in Somalia. I read that section of her book deep into our class on Law, State, and Empire but was delighted to see that the methodology for our course had had an outsized impact on a UN Ambassador and led her to pursue a career in human rights.

[Detlor]: As we move into 2020, what would you say are the top three biggest challenges the field of international law will tackle in the next decade?

[Wells]: An easy one: Climate change and two issues that will grow out of it: increased conflict and increased migration crises.