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Fresh Faculty: Kathryn Olivarius on history as the ‘great gift to exercise empathy’

New assistant professor Kathryn Olivarius (Courtesy of the Stanford History Department).

New assistant professor Kathryn Olivarius joined the history department as a 19th century American historian after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research and receiving a DPhil and M.St. at Oxford. Raised in a family with a love for debate, she says her early interest in history grew out of friendly dinner table arguments as well as her fascination with history classes in school. Today, her research focuses on slavery and disease in the Caribbean and Antebellum South. The Daily sat down with Olivarius to talk about her research and her path to academia.

New assistant professor Kathryn Olivarius (Courtesy of the Stanford History Department).

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Could you begin by describing how you ended up at Stanford?

Kathryn Olivarius (KO): I guess I’ve always been a history nerd ever since I was very young. My dad was a PhD in history as well, and my favorite class in high school was history. So I did my BA at Yale in history and then worked in New York for a while and decided very quickly that I wanted to go back to school. I grew up in the U.K., actually, despite the lack of accent, and so I decided to go back to the U.K. to go to Oxford to do my master’s and PhD, and I’ve always been interested in American History, even though I grew up in the U.K. I’ve also always been interested in the history of disease; I’ve been a hypochondriac my whole life, and so at the age of four I would convince myself I had leprosy, that kind of thing. My PhD was on the effect of yellow fever on the Deep South, and after I finished doing my PhD and a lot of research trips in the Deep South and across Europe and America, I applied for this job and was very, very lucky to get it. Here we are in California it feels like a world away from the East Coast, and especially London.

TSD: Were you thinking that you wanted to end up on the West Coast?

KO: I’ve visited a couple of times when I was younger and I really liked the West Coast and it does feel like a different world over here. The roads are always organized and the streetlights are perfect, things are clean, it’s almost too squeaky clean. There are some times where there’s a lacking edge, I think. People live well here. They go outside and run, they look happy, they have dogs and eat delicious avocados.

TSD: What do you think attracted you to American History, even though you grew up in the U.K.?

KO: What happened actually why I got so into U.S. history was because I had a really great TA when I was an undergrad, Katherine Mooney, who is still one of my best friends. She taught me [about] colonial American history and the Civil War, and she just was so excited about it, in a way that made it feel really vital and important to understand… I think American history asks some really, really interesting questions, though I like a lot of different types of history too. I’m obsessed with the Tudors and I love Wolf Hall; I used to lived really close to the Tower of London and I’d go hang out with my girl Anne Boleyn and have lunch. I still sometimes don’t understand how exactly I came to be an American historian.

TSD: Can you pinpoint any moments from your childhood that directed you toward history?

KO: I grew up in a household where when we got to the dinner table, we argued, and so I learned from a young age that you have to be able to have an opinion and defend it pretty quickly. Sometimes when people came to our house, [they were] like, “Oh my god, you guys are all yelling at each other,” but it’s all friendly, of course. I love it, personally. In terms of wanting to be a historian at a young age, it seems kind of sad to say it, but I’ve just always found history to be the most interesting and the most engaging subject. In class whether we were doing Nazi Germany or the Bay of Pigs and the American invasion into Cuba, or whatever it was, there was always something I’ve really enjoyed, trying to get my head around what people were thinking, the forces that were acting on them, what kind of pressures they were acting under, and trying to understand them on their own terms, not just modern terms. I think it’s a really good exercise to try to put yourself into someone else’s position. Human beings have empathy, and historians in some sense have this great gift to exercise empathy in an academic way, trying to understand people in their own terms and for who they were.

TSD: What books have had the most influence on you in your career?

KO: A lot of books. My [book collection] is still on route from the U.K. right now, so [the books in my office] are a small collection, but there are two books that made me want to become a historian. One is Edmund Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom,” written in the 1970s, which is about this dual rise of slavery and freedom in America, since these two concepts have been attached at the hip since the very beginning. It’s [also] the story of Jamestown, which is one of the worst genocide stories in history, in the sense that it’s filled with death and misery and gloom. The other book is “Mosquito Empires” by John Robert McNeill. It’s one of these books where the British would say it’s like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it, where [McNeill] basically says you can get rid of ideology or people having control of their whole lives, because from the 17th to the 19th century, mosquitoes and disease essentially shaped the course of empires. It’s bold in the way that I really appreciate. It takes no prisoners, and it’s also really well-written, which is, I think, very important for history books to be.

TSD: How have you woven the theme of disease into your research and work?

KO: I went into my PhD wanting to write about how the institution of slavery changed after the Louisiana Purchase, and after the closing of the African slave trade in 1808. But when I actually got into the archives, what impressed me was not how much people spoke about slavery, in letters and in ledger books and in newspapers and of course they did speak about slavery, but it really wasn’t that often and it wasn’t as much as compared to disease. I would read these letters [that] would stretch on for pages and pages and pages of the most intimate details of health. I started to think about this as not necessarily background noise. We should be treating [the history of disease] as something that’s as important as anything else, and that very much impacted how people thought about themselves and who they were and what their prospects were in the world.

TSD: What are your future goals for your time at Stanford?

KO: Next year I’m teaching [a class] on the Civil War and Reconstruction, which I’m very excited about, as well as some of my colloquia and a new colloquia for historians about how to do the history of racism and ethnicity, which I’m co-teaching. I’m excited about getting my book proposal done and getting my book done. It’s one of these daunting but really exciting tasks, and I really like what I study, so that makes it fun. I’m really lucky in the sense that I still like what I study and I don’t feel burnt out on it yet.

I’m still sort of learning the ropes [at Stanford]. I’ll ask my students, “Where are your dorms? Where do they exist? Where do you eat?” I’m excited to feel really situated, like I know my way around more than just this area of campus. What’s also really cool about being in a place like Stanford is that this is a major tech school, and a lot of people are doing really interesting scientific and technology work, and it’s really fun to collaborate across departments in those ways. I’m also really excited to convince students that the humanities are important, and that it’s not useless skills.

TSD: Outside of teaching history classes, what can you be found doing?

KO: The first thing I do every morning is The New York Times crossword puzzle. I don’t talk to my husband until I’ve finished it. I also love cooking and so I love to be in the kitchen, coming up with something new and interesting. I also love canoeing. I actually haven’t done any since I’ve come to California, but we’re still figuring out the ropes here. Going for long walks outside has been one of the really nice parts about moving from London to California because it doesn’t really rain that often except for right now. You can go outside all the time, and it’s pleasant and temperate and lovely. My goal for 2018 is to get back to reading books for fun again. Historians read a lot of books but I feel like I haven’t read a novel in a while, and I have a whole stack of books that I want to get through. I aspire to be one of those people who can sit and relax outside, eating an avocado in California.  


This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Rebecca Smalbach at smalbach ‘at’

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