Alumni Voices: Mike O’Connor

o'connor author photo

Since earning his Ph.D. from the UT American studies program, Mike O’Connor has taught U. S. history at universities in New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. He has published articles in the scholarly journals Contemporary Pragmatism and The Sixties. While at UT, Mike’s writing was featured in the Austin American-Statesman and he wrote a weekly column for the Daily Texan. One of the original bloggers on the U.S. Intellectual History site, he later founded (with several others) the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. His book, A Commercial Republic: America’s Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism, will be out later this month.

How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

It took me many years to realize that my winding intellectual path was fundamentally focused on one theme: the influence and expression of philosophical liberalism in the United States. Before I came to UT, I took my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy. Since graduating from the American studies program, I have been teaching US history. My book tells the story of the changing debate over the role of government in the national economy, in order to contest the contemporary conservative narrative that suggests that the nation was “founded on” the principles of laissez faire. As such, it engages with economics, politics, history and public affairs. I’ve even published an article on Star Trek. Though these projects might seem unrelated, all of them, I now see, have served as vehicles for my attempt to understand, analyze and explain the influence of liberalism in American thought, culture, politics and economics.

In order to get at this question, I needed to synthesize the insights and perspectives of many different disciplinary approaches. That sort of eclecticism is something that I cultivated during my time at the University of Texas. The AMS program gave me both the tools and the confidence to pursue the particular questions that sparked my interest, and to reimagine academic disciplines as inviting resources rather than forbidding boundaries. Without the interdisciplinarity that I learned in the department, I would not have been able to recognize the coherent intellectual program at the root of my various disciplinary forays.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

I have so much advice! Pretty much all of it stems from things that I gradually learned both during and after school, but wish that I had been able to figure out a little earlier in my graduate career. Hopefully, today’s students are more savvy than I was, and don’t need to be told any of those things. But just in case, here are my nuggets of wisdom, such as they are:

  • Start thinking about your life after graduate school now. I decided to get my Ph.D. after working as an adjunct for two years. I thought I was getting a better credential so that I could keep doing the same job in a more stable and permanent way. Seven years after graduating, staying in the profession has necessitated three moves (and counting) to different states. That stability and permanence has eluded me. I have lots of friends in the same situation; they are smart, accomplished people who are great writers with good projects. If you decide to pursue academic employment, be aware that the odds are that you will wind up in a similar situation. (The number of people who think that they are talented enough to avoid that fate is much greater than the number of jobs.) Consider doing something else. But since chasing that dream is what I know about, any advice that I have is directed at those who wish to move in that direction.
  • If you decide that you do want to pursue a permanent academic position, be aware that such jobs are rare in American studies. If you’re thinking that your interdisciplinary work qualifies you for jobs in another discipline, remember that to get such a position you have to beat out people who actually have a degree in that field. History, for example, might seem pretty similar to American studies, but from the historian’s perspective the two are worlds apart. You cannot assume that the content of your work makes you relevant to those who work in other fields. You need to “talk the talk.” Actively participate in your secondary field or subfield by taking its classes, reading its journals, attending its conferences, and the like.
  • It is unfortunate but true that your CV is a scoreboard. If there are not enough points on it—in the form of fellowships, published articles, national conference presentations, strong recommendations from prestigious senior faculty and, increasingly, a book contract—it is unlikely to make the first cut for any job search. (For U.S. history jobs, which is just what I happen to know about, a typical tenure-track job opening will get 200 applicants.) From a very early point in your graduate career, everything that you do needs to be focused on accumulating those points. If your course papers cannot serve as the basis of dissertation chapters or published articles, then take different courses. You should have a dissertation topic before you start reading for oral exams, because a list that you read that doesn’t help you prepare for your dissertation represents a lot of misspent time. Encyclopedia articles and book reviews score very few points but take up a lot of time that you could use on other things. Avoid them. It is, in my opinion, a basic unfairness of academic life that the things that will put points on your scoreboard tend to go to the people who have gotten them in the past. You can’t fix this injustice, so your only hope is to try to be one of the people who benefit from it.
  • Network both inside and outside of UT. The American studies program allows you tremendous flexibility to interact with faculty all over campus. Take advantage of it! But interdisciplinary work can sometimes lead to very specific topics, and the best connection you need to make might be someone far away. Don’t be afraid to pursue such connections by reaching out to those you do not know. In my experience, academics are surprisingly receptive to those who share similar interests. I have found that, for example, senior scholars are often willing to join a conference panel proposed by a graduate student, especially if the conference itself is one that they wanted to attend anyway.
  • The networking consideration leads to a related point: use the Internet. As a graduate student, I connected over email with eight other people from around the country with an interest in American intellectual history. Lacking institutional support, we started a blog. Within a few years, we were putting on a national conference for 125 people that was written up in the New York Times. Today our little blog has morphed into a legitimate academic organization that mediates the vast majority of my intellectual life. Blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and other venues can help you meet people and root yourself in a given intellectual community.

I really enjoyed being part of the American studies department at UT. It provided me with a lot of freedom to grow into the scholar that I wanted to become. The department and its faculty offer tremendous opportunities to achieve the same thing for yourself. Good luck!

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