Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Academics: How the past shapes the present

SAIS is a multifaceted academic experience. Enter Mark Gilbert, professor of history and international studies at SAIS Europe, who makes a most convincing case for the continued relevance of history to policy-makers. This fall semester in Bologna Prof. Gilbert is teaching two courses, "Intellectuals & Politics" and "European Imperialism in the 20th Century". Below Prof. Gilbert, who has published widely, speaks to us about his most recent writing project.

Q: You've been asked to write a book. Could you tell us how this came about and the subject of the book?

Gilbert: The book is a general history called "The World since 1945: An International History". The book is contracted to Bloomsbury, a major trade publisher (and publisher of the Harry Potter books). The first edition of the book, published by Arnold, was written by the British historian P.M.H. Bell, who was my Ph.D examiner more years ago than I like to remember. Philip asked me if I'd write the last part of the book dealing with themes and events since the end of the Cold War. He is the author of the "Origins of the Second World War in Europe", an academic bestseller, and it is an honor to work with him.
Prof. Mark Gilbert

Q: You've written several books before. How will this challenge be different?

Gilbert: I'm hoping it'll be easier! I've only got about a quarter of the book of the book to write, and it will be more of a textbook than any I've written. It will mean a lot of reading and thinking about material that is new to me, but that is a challenge and a pleasurable one.

Q: What is the target audience for the book?

Gilbert: Undergraduate students of international relations and contemporary history.

Q: Have you decided on the book’s main themes yet? Do you have an organizational structure in mind?

Gilbert: The book covers the principal developments in international affairs since 1945, and the first two parts, until the end of the Cold War, are organized both chronologically and geographically. The last part, since 1992, which I'm writing, will discuss, among other things, the ending of the U.S. "unipolar moment," the rise of China to superpower status, turbulence in the Middle East and the problems of the European Union. But I shall also be writing about major issues that have become prominent since the end of the Cold War -- global poverty, terrorism, international efforts to curb global warning, the ethics of military intervention and so on. The material is pretty predictable. The challenge will be to master so many different topics and to give them serious coverage in restricted space.

Q: Where will you do most of the research? What materials will be most valuable?

Gilbert: Our amazing library and even more amazing librarians. This book is a survey, so I don't need to use archives. I shall hire a research assistant to work with me on the project. i hope someone from the class of 2014 will be interested.

Q: You have a family and teaching responsibilities. How will you manage to find time to write this book?

Gilbert: It is part of the job to juggle all these things. I've worked hard on my teaching since I arrived in Bologna. I hope I find time for my family. I try to work consistently on my research and publication, without ever letting it take over my life. If one works on a book for two days a week, forty-eight weeks a year, you make progress. The important thing is to find 15-20 hours a week for reading and writing. I'm just finishing a book called "Cold War Europe: the Politics of a Contested Continent", which is a companion volume to my 2012 history of European integration. I have written it by doing a little bit, whether reading or writing, every week for two years. I think it has come out ok. We'll see what the publisher (Rowman & Littlefield) and its readers think. What I haven't been able to find time for is archive-based articles. I have two good ideas upon which I have done preliminary research, but such work requires you practically to live in an archive for a couple of weeks or more and it is not easy to find the time.

Despite the above, I'm primarily a teacher. My last two books have both emerged from courses I taught as SAIS or elsewhere. In the future, I hope to produce books influenced by my "Intellectuals and Politics" course and my course on European Imperialism.

Q: Will your teaching this year help you make progress on the book?

Gilbert: Not really -- but I'm hoping that it will help me as background for an article I've been wanting to write for a while now on global trends. I think  historians don't write enough on current affairs, which, after all, is history in the making. I'm a historian, but my first degree was in Politics and I've always been more interested in showing how the past shapes the present, rather than analyzing the intricate details of past diplomatic events just for the sake of it. The courses I teach at SAIS reflect this bias of mine.

1 comment:

Cigdem Akin said...

I wish you all the best on your new academic projects, Prof. Gilbert ! You are a very inspiring and accomplished scholar.