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. Dylan Gottlieb, incoming Assistant Professor of History at Bentley University.
AM: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. To start off, how did you get interested in business history? When did you figure out that you might be a business historian?
DG: This is a question that perhaps is better answered in the present tense rather than past: I feel like I’m still in the process of becoming a business historian. It’s not an appellation I would have applied to myself even a few years ago, when I’d have described myself as a historian interested in cities, culture, and capitalism. Maybe it’s because I still thought of the field (quite unfairly) as a Chandler-esque analysis of firms. But after ramping up my involvement in the BHC and at the Hagley Library, I’ve realized how capacious the field could be–encompassing everything from finance to gender to consumption to trade to culture. Looking over the 2022 BHC Conference Program, I’m excited by the breadth of topics, periods, and geography. (I’m also excited about the range of tacos that I plan to consume over the long weekend!)
AM: I am pretty sad about missing out on the tacos - you’ll have to report back. Speaking of the BHC, when was your first BHC, and was there anything particularly memorable about it?
DG: My first BHC was in fact virtual–I mostly attended from my desk in my bedroom. But that didn’t spoil the fun. Besides my paper presentation, I was lucky enough to take part in the Krooss Prize plenary with a handful of amazing young scholars. And the best part? I tuned into the prize ceremony on my iPhone while riding in the passenger seat of my car. So my 2021 Krooss Prize was likely the first (only?) BHC award accepted on the side of a busy road in Connecticut.
AM: I remember that! You looked genuinely surprised to have won - which you shouldn’t have been - but it was definitely a unique moment. Speaking of, tell us more about your dissertation, or rather, your book project.
DG: Thanks to a wonderful fellowship year at the Hagley Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society (thanks, Roger and Carol!), I’ve made great progress on my book manuscript, Yuppies: Wall Street and the Remaking of New York, which is under contract with Harvard University Press.
The book reveals how the emergence of a new highly-educated class—young urban professionals, or “yuppies”—fostered new forms of work, culture, and politics, transformed cities, and, ultimately, helped to produce our current age of inequality. In the 1980s, as the financial and professional sectors moved to the center of the American economy, they gave rise to a new kind of worker: the yuppie.
Yuppies became the vanguard for a new political and economic order in the United States. At banks, they extracted profits from the husks of industrial companies. At corporate law firms, they devised mergers and strategic bankruptcies that eroded the power of the working class. Outside of the workplace, they forged new gender roles, as well as cultures of consumption and fitness, that legitimated their position atop the unequal society they had made. And yuppies visited dire consequences on the cities where they lived, as arson fires drove existing residents from gentrifying neighborhoods. Yuppies then worked to engineer a takeover of American politics—using their wealth to back candidates who would remake society in their image.
Yuppies, I argue, were much more than a stereotype: they were the shock troops for a newly-unequal era in American life.
AM: So, as we mentioned above, you won the Krooss Prize in 2021 (congratulations again, by the way!) 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?
DG: The path from PhD to job has been filled with uncertainty and anxiety. Each of the five years I applied to jobs and fellowships, the wait for postings (which may or may not be forthcoming, in a moment of pandemic-induced austerity), then spending most of the fall applying and interviewing was enormously taxing. It’s time I’d much rather have spent researching and writing.
Ultimately, the hardest part for me and my family was how the job-market cycle shortened our ability to look and plan ahead. Nearly every conversation seemed to begin: “If we live here next year…” It’s a good reminder: precarity doesn’t just mean low wages or tenuous employment. It also means shortening your time horizon–leaving you unable to think past the current job season, or each refresh of your email inbox. Thankfully, my partner and I have found ways to maintain a salary and health insurance through this period of job-market drama. But many others haven’t been as lucky.
This year, however, I’ve been enormously fortunate to have a respite from this stress, thanks to an NEH-Hagley Fellow at the Hagley Library. And I’m happy to report that next year, I’ll start a tenure-track position in U.S. business and economic history at Bentley University near Boston.
AM: First, congratulations! I’m sure that has to be a huge weight off your shoulders. And I really appreciate these points you raise about precarity as this broader sense of uncertainty. I think that’s very accurate to what many of us have experienced.
I know you won’t start your job for a few more months, but could you tell us a bit more about your position at Bentley University?
DG: Since I won’t begin my job until August, I’m not quite sure what it’ll be like. But I am excited to teach the history of American capitalism, labor, and politics to undergrads bound for jobs in finance, accounting, and consulting. It’s my chance to help them think critically about the structural underpinnings of their industries and their place in American life. Just maybe, I can convince them that the humanities has something to offer–even for the most business-minded students.
AM: Are there other projects you’ve been involved with (besides your book project)?
DG: This spring, I’ve been working on an essay on the class transformation of American journalism that’ll be part of a collection titled New Histories of Liberalism, co-edited by Lily Geismer, Brent Cebul, and Mason Williams. It’s been refreshing to immerse myself in a new field. I’ve enjoyed tracing how the evolution of the news industry since the 1960s has influenced the political realm, and vice versa.
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?
DG: I just finished reading Bathseba Demuth’s wonderful Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. It’s as if Barry Lopez or Robert Macfarlane or Rebecca Solnit sat down to write a history of Arctic capitalism. She’s doing something really fascinating with temporality, overlaying the long cycles of animal generations with the insistent short-termism of American capitalism and Soviet communism. And if nothing else, it’s got lots of walruses.
Demuth’s book strengthened my sense that the best business histories expand our ideas of who matters. Not all of us may have much to say about walruses. But we should have something to say about workers, about consumers, about colonized or indigenous populations, and even about non-human actors. One other recent book that did this brilliantly was Nan Enstad’s Cigarettes, Inc. Check it out, if you haven’t already!
AM: Any last words for our audience? Where can we find you/your work?
DG: Find me on twitter @dygottlieb. Or come visit me on the mezzanine level at the Hagley Library, where I’ll be squirreled away writing my book through late summer 2022.
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