H-Business--Interviews with Emerging Scholars, by Ashton Merck
The Business History Conference offers extensive support to emerging (or early-career) scholars, including a doctoral colloquium, a mentoring program, and, crucially, a much-loved free breakfast at the BHC. But when, exactly, do you emerge? And what happens after that? That’s what I hope to illuminate with this series of interviews with emerging scholars on their state of mind, the state of the field, and everything in between.
Today’s interviewee is Dr. Mandy Cooper, Lecturer of Women’s and Gender History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
AM: When did you realize you might be a business historian?
MC: I like to say that I was dragged into business history kicking and screaming, which is a bit of an exaggeration, but also a fairly accurate summation of my thought processes. I entered my PhD program at Duke firmly as a women’s historian. My research at the time focused on women’s use of emotion to influence their families. But, as I researched, I followed the sources where they led me and found something much more interesting. By the time I wrote my dissertation proposal, I was beginning to understand that I would need to engage with political, legal, and business history. But, by that point, I just needed to get the proposal done and defended, so I actually didn’t do any real reading or research into business history until after I defended my proposal. At that point, I met with Ed Balleisen, who talked me through the major points of the field, provided me with a laundry list of readings (including what might be most helpful for my particular project), and encouraged me to attend the BHC.
Even after that, I was still hesitant to call myself a business historian. In Ashton’s interview, she mentioned that she wanted early career scholars to know that today’s business history isn’t the business history of 20, 30, or 40 years ago. It took going to the BHC for me to fully understand that and to embrace the fact that I am a business historian, just one who’s still more interested in the cultural side of things–and that there’s a large group of like-minded scholars in the field.
AM: Do you have a favorite memory of the BHC?
MC: Ha! Well, that’s a tough one because I have so many good memories! I’ve been to two in-person BHCs (2017 Denver & 2018 Baltimore), and two virtual ones. I don’t know that there’s one particular thing that stands out as a favorite memory, so I’m going to go more with a favorite experience: the women in business history luncheon. Rarely have I ever felt more supported amongst a group of scholars than when I’ve attended that luncheon. The first luncheon I attended I sat at a table with Mary Yeager and Naomi Lamoreaux, among others. I was intimidated, to say the least. But, I quickly felt at ease as we started talking, and these prominent (field-defining) scholars expressed enthusiasm and support for my work and the work of the other early career scholars at the table.
I also have to mention here the transition to a virtual/hybrid BHC in March 2020. In such a stressful time, that was one of the best experiences. Everything was so uncertain at that point, but the transition overall went smoothly, and it felt, weirdly, the most normal of any of the virtual conferences that I’ve attended over the past two years.
AM: I’m so glad you mention the women in business history luncheon. That’s been such an important experience for me, too. Okay, so - changing gears a bit. Tell us about your book project. Where are you in the process of turning the dissertation into a book?
MC: My first book project, A Republic of Credit: Building a National Family from Revolution to Reconstruction, shows how enduring practices, focused on family ties, informed conceptions of business and government among the nation’s political leaders. As I argue, the political implications of those practices, which allowed these elites to define the public good in terms of their own private interests, not only shaped the development of American government, but also played a crucial role in the coming of the Civil War. Merging their own families’ interests with the public good, these elites understood their country as a national family, bound together by bonds of affection, and used familial metaphors to describe the conflict and prescribe solutions to it—with disastrous results.
The book follows individuals in several prominent slaveholding families whose personal, economic, and political fortunes rested on credit based on family ties.I bring the insights of scholarship on the early modern period to bear on the nineteenth-century United States, where the literature has tended to focus on men and women as individuals, rather than as members of far-flung family networks. Those networks maintained economic fortunes and political power. By the nineteenth century, however, the presence and performance of emotion had become more important in maintaining the networks of the new republic’s leading families. Emotionally charged conceptions of family then spilled over into business and politics through analogies that likened the public order to a loving family, making political conflicts more volatile and more difficult to resolve. Sectional conflict resulted in a broken family, as Confederate leaders separated from the rest of the nation to preserve their vision of government and their relationship to it. The changes wrought by the Civil War and Reconstruction made it more difficult for leading Confederates to maintain their governing vision, forcing them to adapt to rebuild their finances and retain their political power. Ultimately, while never able to fully restore what they once had, their actions and governing vision had enduring consequences that resonated throughout the twentieth century and into the present moment.
I am currently finalizing a book proposal and revisions on the manuscript. The dissertation ended with the beginning of the Civil War, but the book will follow the story through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era to show the long-reaching impact of the practices that I discuss. (I’m adding three new chapters, plus an epilogue). These changes required a good deal of additional research, which I completed once archives began opening back up in summer 2021.
A portion of one chapter was published in the Fall 2021 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic.
AM: Now, tell me a bit about your current role at UNCG, and what else you’re up to these days.
MC: I am a Lecturer of Women’s and Gender History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where I teach 3 classes a semester, in addition to graduate-level independent study courses, advising/mentoring graduate students, and supervising some undergraduate research in honors contract courses. Because my position is a teaching position, I’ve been experimenting a lot with different types of assignments and have found myself leaning heavily into more public-facing assignments, which has been really rewarding. (And fun for the students!)
I’m also one of the editors over at H-Emotions, where we’re starting up a couple of new initiatives in the coming months that I’m particularly excited about. I’ve recently joined the advisory board of the Papers of Martin Van Buren as well.
Finally, Andrew Popp and I recently submitted the full manuscript for our edited volume, The Business of Emotions in Modern History, which is under contract with Bloomsbury.
AM: I know this is such a tough question, but having gone through the academic job market, especially as it’s changed in the last 2-3 years – what would you tell your past self?
MC: Oh, this is a tough one. Things weren’t necessarily GREAT when I first started applying for academic jobs. But, the last few years have been particularly rough as we’ve seen job postings dry up, searches get canceled, etc. Honestly, the biggest piece of advice I would give my past self (and anyone entering the academic job market today) is to start thinking earlier about your options. Figure out what’s most important to you, and prioritize that.
AM: I think that’s a great point. Do you have any other advice for emerging scholars entering the field?
MC: Don’t be afraid to try something new! I’m forever encouraging people to think about presenting at the BHC. That idea of business history as old school/traditional/insular is still so dominant, and it just isn’t true. A lot of the newest, most interesting, and most promising work that I see in the field is being done by scholars who don’t consider themselves business historians, but who’ve also ultimately found the BHC and the larger business history community to be a welcoming space to new ideas and new approaches. (This is the advice I wish someone had given me much earlier!)
AM: What do you wish you could tell advanced/mid-career/"emerged" scholars?
MC: Listen to and support early career/emerging scholars. Whether they’re talking about larger issues within the profession, the challenges of completing research during a pandemic, or the state of the job market. Be supportive, and advocate for them wherever possible.
For example, one of the biggest things that has helped me has been having a department chair who understands my priorities and goals. Over the past few years, he has worked to make my position as secure as possible despite the budget crises caused by the pandemic, offered help on the job market, and ensured that I had all of the service opportunities that I wanted within the department (with no obligations, given my status as contingent faculty). That support has allowed me to do things that are important to my own professional development but typically aren’t available to lecturers, such as serving on MA & PhD committees, advising master’s students, and advising senior honors theses. Other tenure-track and tenured members of the department have expressed their support in formal as well as informal ways as well. If you have early career/emerging scholars in similar positions in your department, that kind of advocacy is invaluable.
AM: What are you reading these days? Whose work are you paying attention to, or what work is the most exciting to you right now?
MC: Oh, good question! Most of what I’ve been reading lately has been for course prep, but I’ve also been doing some reading for my own interests. The most exciting work right now, at least for me, is work that takes a new approach to old sources, or uses new sources to tackle an old question. So, for example, Katie Barclay is doing some absolutely fascinating work at the moment that has completely changed how I look at account books. Laura Edwards’s new book, meanwhile, tackles the question of coverture and women’s engagement with the economic and legal world in the nineteenth-century U.S. by looking at textiles and clothing. Then, there are the early career scholars whose works push the boundaries of business history/the history of capitalism/labor history–like Alexandra Finley’s work on enslaved women’s domestic labor & how it shaped the development of the domestic slave trade. It’s that kind of work that integrates different fields and methodologies that’s most exciting–and most fun for me to read!
AM: Any last words for our audience? Where can we find you/your work?
MC: You can find me on Twitter at @ML_Cooper, and you can always find more info on me, my research, and my teaching on my website.
This is part of a series of interviews with Emerging Scholars on H-Business.
Because I’m away and not able to update these interviews in real time, some of their contents, particularly peoples’ current roles or positions, may be slightly outdated. In some cases, I may check back in for an update when I return, in August or September.
- Ashton Merck, H-Business Associate Editor