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.
Over the next few months, we’ll share one interview a week. Somewhat selfishly, this first interview actually features ME, your intrepid Associate Editor, interviewed by my good friend and former Duke colleague, Mandy Cooper. I hope you enjoy.
- Ashton Merck, H-Business Associate Editor
MC: What are you up to these days?
AM: Right now, I’m a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at NC State University. My day job involves working with scientists on several interdisciplinary projects on new technologies in food and agriculture - I have worked on everything from nanotechnology to phosphorus to optical scanning of sweet potatoes. I use my historical skills every day, especially my capacity to absorb information in large quantities and to write a lot, very quickly. But it’s important to note that this job doesn’t fund me to do anything related to business history or my own individual research, so all of that work happens on off-hours and weekends. It’s worked out better than I expected, in that it’s allowed me to really focus on the projects I care the most about.
On a personal level, by the time you read this, it’s entirely possible that I have gone into labor or have recently given birth to my first child. As a result, I will be AWOL from email and from H-Business for at least the next 12-14 weeks, while I do my very best to keep a small human alive. Perhaps you’ll find him tagging along with me at a future BHC.
MC: I know you were disappointed that you weren’t able to go to Mexico City this year! Do you have a favorite memory of a past BHC?
AM: Honestly, the BHC was (still is) my favorite academic conference, so even for the few years I was able to go in person, I have many good memories. For most of my time at Duke, I was one of the few people who did business and economic history, and so it was always a lot of fun to go to the BHC and briefly exist in a space surrounded by other people who cared about the same things I did.
I also want to give a shout out to the hotel in Baltimore (2018), which appeared to be a totally normal Embassy Suites on the outside, but all of the conference rooms had this completely inexplicable and outrageous Masonic architecture. Baltimore was also the year I was in the Doctoral Colloquium, where I met some people who are still some of my closest academic friends.
MC: How did you get interested in business history?
AM: I think it’s worth mentioning that I very nearly missed business history – twice! I went to undergrad at the University of Georgia, where there are some really top-notch business historians and historians of capitalism. Even though I majored in history, I was very occupied with the local music scene and my work with the college radio station, so I ended up not taking classes with those professors and didn’t engage with that community at all.
After I finished my bachelor’s, I hung around Athens and worked in an office job for about a year. I missed history, and I also noticed that everyone in leadership roles in my organization had PhDs, so that got me thinking about graduate programs. Sometime during this period - this must have been in late 2012 or early 2013 - I found out about a talk in the department, and it was at a time I was able to get away from work, so I went. It turned out that Shane Hamilton was giving a presentation on his work on US-Soviet agricultural policy (I also swear that he used the phrase “farms race” in this talk, but I could be misremembering that). I still remember this talk quite vividly, and I thought “wow, this is the kind of work I wish I could do.”
I took the GRE that summer and applied to PhD programs in fall 2013. I proposed a project based on my senior thesis that had nothing to do with agriculture, business, or economic history. Once I got in to Duke, it would have been pretty easy for me to have done the project I proposed; I had a lot of support from the faculty I’d said I wanted to work with, and they were really pushing me to do that project, mainly because they thought it would get me a job.
But somewhere along the way I met Ed Balleisen. He recognized - more than I did at the time - that I was much more interested in the big questions about markets, regulation, and institutions than I was in the project that had gotten me into grad school in the first place. I suspect that because I had a history degree from UGA, he probably assumed that I had some working knowledge of business history, but I absolutely did not. Whether he knew it or not, he ended up introducing me to the field, and it completely changed my entire trajectory.
MC: Tell me more about your dissertation and/or current research.
AM: My dissertation, “The Fox Guarding the Henhouse: Coregulation and Consumer Protection in Food Safety, 1946-2002” is a business and legal history of food safety regulation in the twentieth century. I use a combination of archival research, public documents, and semi-structured interviews to trace key developments in poultry inspection since 1945. I found that while poultry inspection laws did not always ensure safer chicken, they influenced scientific and technical innovations, the nature of market competition and firm structure, and even the biology of meat-type chickens. I also describe the unlikely history of HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, which was a program initially developed to solve one business’s problems that ended up becoming the basis for both domestic and international food standards.
I often get questions about why I am not more forceful or polemical about this project – as 2020 showed us, things are really bad in the poultry industry. In many respects, I think that we have been retelling the story of how bad it is in meatpacking for over a century, and it hasn’t actually changed anything, so I wanted to take a different tack. The longer I worked on the project, the more I realized how much it wasn’t even really about chicken or even the food system; the manuscript is focused on what food inspection can tell us about other parallel developments in agriculture, business history, and the regulatory state. The title phrase, “the fox guarding the henhouse,” is particularly literal when applied to the poultry industry, but it gets used in all kinds of contexts where there’s this perception of a corrupted relationship between public and private authority. Many of the things that are wrong with the poultry industry - exploitative labor relations, business models that rely on export markets to offload surpluses, consolidation into just a few dominant firms with the power to fix prices, lack of trust between regulators and regulated - are what’s wrong with other parts of the economy, too.
MC: Where are you in the process of turning your dissertation into a book and/or publications?
AM: Between trying to survive in a pandemic and working multiple jobs while applying to jobs, I really didn’t have the time to think about revising my dissertation until recently. It was also pretty clear to me in 2020 that the world in which I had written my dissertation was going to be different from the world in which I would revise it into a book. Instead of racing to predict the future and get the book out as soon as possible, I decided it was worth stepping back and processing the crises that were unfolding in real time.
MC: You were a Krooss finalist last year, so it’s safe to say that your transition from “graduate student” to “academic” has been affected by the pandemic in pretty significant ways. Can you reflect a bit on your path since finishing the PhD?
AM: I was one of those unlucky people who finished in spring 2020. It literally felt like I emerged from my writing cave to turn in my dissertation on March 10, 2020, only to watch everything immediately fall apart. I was one of the first people in my department to do a virtual defense. I didn’t have my Ph.D. hooding ceremony until this past September, almost a year and a half after I finished. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of my post-PhD plans got delayed, interrupted, or deferred. And I had it pretty good, relatively speaking - after my defense, I had already lined up some temporary gigs, I adjuncted a few classes, and I managed to stay employed.
I also applied to jobs more or less continuously from June 2020 on, and I wasn’t getting traction anywhere. This was especially frustrating for me precisely because I had been planning to pursue work outside academia. Unfortunately, with the uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic, even a lot of the non-academic or academic-adjacent jobs I wanted to pursue weren’t really out there. While I wasn’t surprised when there were no academic jobs that fall, I didn’t expect that all the other jobs were going to disappear, too.
As it got closer to the end of the spring 2021 semester (and the end of my contract), I was getting very discouraged. Then, someone in my local network put me in touch with a faculty member who needed a postdoc to work on emerging technologies in food and agriculture. It seemed too good to be true, so I tried not to get my hopes up. But the faculty member asked for some writing samples, called me in for an interview, and I started my new job in May. It’s been a major adjustment and learning curve, because not only am I definitely not in a history department, I’m one of only a few social scientists on these large collaborative teams.
I’m very glad that I’m able to still stay in touch with the business history community through H-Business, because my actual career - that is, the work that pays the bills - seems to be moving in a very different direction.
MC: Speaking of H-Business, you’ve been associate editor for just over a year and a half now. What has been the most rewarding, interesting, or strange thing about this work? And, can you tell us a bit about the impetus behind this series of interviews?
AM: I’m very grateful that the EMOC went along with my slightly harebrained idea of a weekly roundup instead of serving as a reviews editor. Personally, it’s been a lot of fun for me to experiment and figure out what works and how best to make use of the platform. When I started doing the roundups, I felt like I was doing something very useful in compiling events, talks, and other business history happenings in one place, but now I have to check to make sure that I’m actually finding new content or events that haven’t already been posted to H-Net – which is a really great problem to have! The Editor-in-Chief (PJ Neal) recently ran the numbers on the number of posts in H-Business since we started, and it’s just skyrocketed. So I think there’s something to be said for the value of a regular posting schedule, and just a little bit of original content, that can keep this type of platform fresh and relevant. But we really didn’t know whether or not it would have any impact when we got started.
On the interviews - one of the things I wanted to prioritize when I took this role was to find a way to not only share the platform with more people, but also to make H-Business a space to talk about the state of the field. While I enjoyed the few book podcasts I’ve managed to do, I always thought we were missing out on some important voices by waiting to talk to people until after their book came out. Especially as job prospects for early-career scholars seem to be getting worse, not better, I think it’s critically important to acknowledge the work that recent PhDs and emerging scholars are doing right now, and how that work is pushing the field forward in important ways. So I hope these interviews are a first step in that direction.
MC: Do you have any advice for emerging scholars entering the field?
AM: One of the things I like most about the business history community is that it’s very welcoming. I think sometimes newer people coming into the field mistakenly assume that business history will look the way it did 30 or 40 years ago, with lots of old white dudes who do these stuffy organizational studies of DuPont, and that’s just not true at all. Of course, the field still has a long way to go in terms of racial and gender diversity, but I’d like to think the community is very supportive of early-career scholars and genuinely interested in new ways of thinking about and doing business history.
I’ve also felt like the business historians have the least hangups when it comes to PhDs pursuing jobs outside academia, which I’ve always found very refreshing. I don’t know if it’s because we all study capitalism, so we understand that people have to pay rent, or if it’s because business historians often have previous professional lives in business, consulting, or finance. Maybe I can blame it on the business historians at business schools, I’m not sure. Either way, I think it’s a healthy outlook for a future in which more and more of us must pursue a range of career paths but wish to stay connected to the field.
MC: What do you wish you could tell advanced/mid-career/"emerged" scholars?
AM: I think some of the best things you can do for emerging/early-career scholars at this point is simply to take time and listen to them. The worst thing you can do is try to talk someone into believing that the academic job market will work out for them next time if they just publish another article, or apply to more jobs, or take that 1-year 5/5 VAP with no health insurance. If we can’t be honest with each other about the current circumstances that are leading people to leave the field or pursue jobs elsewhere, we can’t have meaningful solidarity or community.
MC: Any last words for our audience? Where can we find you/your work?
AM: You can find me on Twitter at @awmerck, and in your inbox on a semi-regular basis through the H-Business “Executive Summary” newsletter. I also recently experimented with Substack, where I’ve been posting about particularly weird or interesting food safety recalls, but I’m still figuring out exactly what I’m doing with that.
This is the first of a series of interviews with Emerging Scholars on H-Business. I enjoyed doing this so much that I may do another round in the future; if you’d like to be featured in one of these interviews, or you’d like to nominate an emerging scholar to be featured, please send me an email (just be aware that I might not reply for a few months).
Most of these interviews took place between January and March 2022, and given my present circumstances, I am unable to update their contents in real time. Thus, some parts of the interview, particularly peoples’ current roles or positions, may be slightly outdated. Especially for emerging scholars who are in short-term or contingent roles, I plan to check back in for a small update when I return, in August or September.