British Association for American Studies


60 Seconds With Nick Witham

The U.S. Studies Online 60 Seconds interview feature offers a short and informal introduction to a postgraduate, academic or non-academic specialist working in the American and Canadian Studies field or a related American and Canadian Studies association. 

Last month you spent 60 seconds with the U. S. Studies Online Editorial team. This month we have invited the Executive Committee of the British Association for American Studies, our parent organisation, to tell us a little bit more about themselves, their interests, the way they made it into academia and, crucially, their top advice for new academics.


Where are you right now?

I’m in my study at home in Canterbury.

If you could time-travel to observe one moment in the history of America, where would you go?

Chicago in the early 1920s, to watch a young Louis Armstrong play with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

I’ve always been sceptical of the idea that people from diverse time periods would have much to discuss at fantasy dinner parties. So my guest list has an “intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century” theme: Richard Hofstadter, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, Amiri Baraka, and Susan Sontag. I wouldn’t get a word in edgeways.

You’re stranded on a desert island, but luckily you pre-empted it. Which book do you take with you?

The Big Sleep: I’m not sure I could ever tire of reading Raymond Chandler.

What has been your most memorable career moment so far?

There are the usual landmarks: doctoral funding, first job offer, etc. But the most formative experience for me was spending four months at the Library of Congress on an AHRC scholarship in the second year of my PhD. I made some amazing friends, came to the firm realisation that a career in in academia was for me, and found out that American beer is brilliant.

What advice would you give to early career academics?

Go to conferences to have fun and make friends, not to “network”. Conversations with your peers over drinks will yield much more, both professionally and personally, than targeted strikes on big name academics, who are likely to forget you within seconds.

What is the most exciting thing you have planned in the next six months?

I’m heading to New York City in mid-July to take up a Fulbright American Studies Scholarship at New York University. I’ll be there and at Columbia University all summer looking at the papers of Howard Zinn and Richard Hofstadter, two historians who will feature heavily in a new project I’m working on, which examines popular historical writing during the Cold War.

I’m also excited about the joint BrANCH-HOTCUS conference at the University of Reading in September, which will provide a great opportunity for nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians of various sub-disciplinary stripes to get together, hear about each other’s research, and, of course, socialise. I should admit that I’m a bit biased about this, though, as I’m helping to organise the event.

How did you come to your current area of research?

I’ve always been interested in historians and the various roles they have played as public intellectuals. How and why do they write history? And what impact do their ideas have on public discourse about the past, whether in schools and universities, on TV and radio, in national news publications, or at museums and national parks? I gestured towards some of these questions in one chapter of my PhD (to be published in 2015 as The Cultural Left and the Reagan Era: U.S. Protest and Central American Revolution), but have returned to confront them squarely in my new project.

What profession other than academia would you like to attempt?

In this universe: book publisher/editor, which was an option that I seriously considered for a while. In an alternate universe: professional golfer.

What book is currently on your bedside table?

Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Be honest; how long has it been there?

Too long: I started reading The Rest is Noise and listening along with its excellent website last summer, but have been progressing very slowly. I’m usually a gadfly when it comes to extra-curricular reading, but I’m savouring this particular book.

What’s in your fridge right now?

Craft beer, coffee beans, almond milk, and a tarte tatin, which, I’m reliably informed, are the cornerstones of a balanced diet.