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Steven Rodriguez ’16

You are currently far along in your PhD program at Vanderbilt University.  When did you decide you wanted to pursue advanced graduate study in history?

Yes, I am currently in my sixth (and final!) year of the doctoral program in history at Vanderbilt. It wasn’t long after arriving at TCNJ and enrolling in Professor Robert McGreevey’s Craft of History course and Professor John Karras’s World History course that I knew I wanted to be a historian. Both of their classes fascinated me. Professor Karras—whose knowledge of history was truly astounding—became a close mentor and would frequently spend time talking with me and another history student, Zachary Elliott, about the rich history of the department. McGreevey’s Craft of History course was the best possible introduction anyone could have to college-level history. Coming from a blue-collar background, I was very naive about higher education and didn’t have the slightest clue what graduate school entailed. I was also quite oblivious to what might be called the “sociology of academia,” all of the customs and norms that children of college graduates tend to intuitively understand. But I think I was fortunate in many ways to begin my journey in academia with so little background knowledge. I was also very lucky to find guidance at such a warm and encouraging history department. By my second semester at TCNJ, I’d say I definitely knew that I wanted to go on to pursue a PhD in history. 

I know you worked closely with several professors while you were a student at TCNJ.  Can you discuss these collaborations in more detail?

Sure. I worked most closely with Professor McGreevey, whose Trenton History Seminar was a defining moment in my college career. The course, which consisted of a small group of students, introduced me to the nuts and bolts of archival research. McGreevey brought us to the Trentoniana Archives at the Trenton Public Library where we each developed our own research projects and wrote 25–30-page papers over the course of the semester. I chose to write a paper about the history of exclusionary zoning and urban renewal in Trenton during the 1960s. After the course was over, Professor McGreevey very generously worked with me to revise the paper for submission to the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance’s Stellhorn Prize. Several weeks later, I found out that the paper has been selected for the award. After this first experience, I applied to work with McGreevey as a research assistant for his book manuscript (the now published monograph Borderline Citizens) as part of the Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience (MUSE). This opportunity helped further introduce me to the work that historians do and allowed me to sharpen my research and translation skills. 

What TCNJ history classes did you find especially memorable while you were a student here?

I had the good fortune of taking Professor Daniel Crofts’s seminar on Lincoln during my junior year. After reading through primary sources about Lincoln’s life and reading some of the key scholarship, Crofts invited students to provide written feedback on his book manuscript (what would become Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery) as part of the class assignments. Crofts made us feel like intellectual equals. He generously responded to the feedback on his manuscript and engaged with our ideas in a serious way. Looking back, I now realize how rare these types of experiences are for undergraduates. Many of the seminars I took in the department introduced me to the critical thinking and writing skills that I would sharpen in graduate school. Indeed, I remember when Professor Crofts introduced me to William Zinsser’s classic writing advice book On Writing Well, a text that made me a much better writer.

Can you tell us about your PhD research?  How is it going?  What are you studying?

My dissertation focuses on the history of international education and Pan-Americanism. The latter was a late-nineteenth to early twentieth century movement to create closer relations between the United States and Latin America. For decades, Latin American intellectuals and diplomats were suspicious about the United States’ true intentions in promoting Pan-Americanism and pointed to policies like the Monroe Doctrine and Platt Amendment—which significantly limited Latin Americans nations’ sovereignty—as evidence that Pan-Americanism was merely intervention by other means. In my project, I try to reconsider the history of Pan-Americanism by viewing matters from the perspective of universities in the U.S. South. Instead of trying to understand this complex history from the perspective of traditional foreign policy actors like diplomats and policymakers, I consider the value that university administrators, southern boosters, and politicians saw in cultivating relations with their counterparts in Latin America and creating student exchange programs. What I’ve found is that this way of viewing the history of Pan-Americanism and U.S. Latin American relations allows us to appreciate the U.S. regional interests that shaped U.S. foreign policy during this period. For the historical actors I study, educational relations with Latin American countries were the first step to turning southern cities like Miami and New Orleans into “Gateways to the Americas,” hubs for Pan-American business and education. The university administrators, regional politicians, and businesspeople whom I study believed that Pan-Americanism could be the ticket to the economic and cultural regeneration of the South.

How did you go about applying for graduate school when you were a TCNJ student? What advice do you have for students interested in applying to graduate school or pursuing an advanced degree?

 Doctoral programs in the humanities have become very competitive in recent years. Although it is cost prohibitive for many, I think that getting a master’s degree before applying to doctoral programs is essential. In my case, I was fortunate to get a full scholarship to Brandeis University for my MA (this scholarship still exists and you can find more information here) after graduating from TCNJ in 2016. That year at Brandeis was key for me. It allowed me to realize just how serious I was about studying history at the graduate level and allowed me to work with excellent scholars in my field. With the dismal job market in the humanities, I’d also suggest that prospective students pursue graduate school only if they are untroubled by the prospect of never getting a tenure-track job as a professor. You must want to pursue graduate education for the sake of graduate education to make the financial sacrifice worth it.

I’ll also add that many doctoral candidates in the humanities, especially ones getting ready to apply for jobs, often feel like not getting a tenure-track job is some kind of personal failing. This is wrong (though very understandable!) in my view. Graduate school should ideally open many doors, not close them. In my case, I was fortunate to gain some experience in scholarly publishing during my fifth year of graduate school. This publishing fellowship later turned into a full-time job. I’m now working as a scholarly acquisitions editor at Vanderbilt University Press, something that I could not have imagined when I started graduate school. My point is that one can pursue doctoral studies without having to worry about never getting a job as a tenure-track professor. The skills one develops in graduate school are useful in many jobs and can lead to many professional paths, not just academia.

Can you tell us about the podcast you host?

Sure. For the past few years, I have been an interviewer for the New Books Network, an author-interview podcast with scholars from a wide-range of fields. It has been one of my favorite parts about the last few years of graduate school. Although I always admired the skill of interviewers, I never fully understood how difficult it is to ask the right questions and find the right way to segue from one topic to another. Over the years, I’ve gotten to interview some major scholars such as Paul Preston, Ada Ferrer (who recently won a Pulitzer), and TCNJ’s own Robert McGreevey. I think that the podcast interviews have also made me a much better reader and allowed me to grasp the big, thematic questions in a way that I was not able to in the past.