Elizabeth Fenn is Walter S. and Lucienne Driskill chair in Western American History at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her academic field is the early American West. Last month she was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for History, for her book Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1959 in Arlington, California, but we moved a lot when I was young, eventually landing in New Jersey when I was five. That’s where I grew up.
How has this shaped you?
New Jersey cultivated toughness and gave me a bit of an attitude. I learned how to look out for myself, but this came with an impatience and selfishness that I still struggle to shake.
Did you even consider being nominated let alone winning?
No. As my husband (fellow historian Peter Wood) says, this was a lightning strike out of the clear, blue sky.
A Pulitzer Prize is a world-renowned award. Are academics concerned with gongs?
Academics are like everyone else – we love accolades. But I don’t know anyone who pursues their work with this in mind. Besides, prizes like this result from shared effort. Writing a book is a solitary experience, yet none of us works alone. My colleagues helped; the Mandan people helped; my husband, friends, family and predecessors helped.
The book took you 10 years to complete. Is this the most fitting end to a decade of work?
I hope the Pulitzer is not so much an end as a beginning. The prize recognises the central, foundational place of native peoples in American history. I’m not the first scholar to make a case for this, but the prize helps to move us all ahead.
What inspired you to research and write about the Mandans?
The research for my first book, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, led me to the Mandans. The Mandan settlements were a major population hub, with flourishing commerce and culture, at the very centre of the North American continent.
Do you think higher education is too concerned with impact?
Impact factors discourage risk-taking and intellectual creativity, and they cannot convey the subjective qualities of the work. I am reminded of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s turn of the century efforts to improve industrial efficiency with “scientific management”. The result was the alienation of workers and the degradation of work.
Ahead of the US presidential election next year, what are the priorities for higher education?
The first issue would be student debt. It’s crazy. A second, related issue is restoring state funding to higher education. And a third issue is the cultivation of public relevance for the arts and humanities. Higher education is being reduced to a vocational school. We’ve lost sight of its bigger meaning, its resonance for the human soul.
What has changed most in global higher education in the past 10 years?
Students have little sense of why history matters. In the immediate post-9/11 years, history majors jumped in number as everyone tried to figure out how that event came to pass. But the passage of time and the 2008 financial crisis have reconfigured student priorities. A first-year student arriving at university this fall was three or four years old at the time of 9/11. The post 9/11 sense of urgency in sorting out the world has yielded to a relentless focus on postgraduate employment.
What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a lacklustre undergraduate until I started studying history. Once that happened, I could hardly contain myself, and my learning went through the roof.
What’s your most memorable moment at university?
My most memorable moment by far was the spring 1981 acquittal of Ku Klux Klansmen involved in the murder of five protesters at the Greensboro Massacre on 3 November 1979. For students at Duke, just 50 miles up the road, this was a deeply politicising event. Many if not all those killed had ties to the university.
Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Nelson Mandela. My parents told me about apartheid and Mandela’s imprisonment when I was a kid, and I have admired him ever since. I got to meet him at a reception in Houston in 1991. I still have not washed my right hand. (Just kidding.)
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best things are my students, my colleagues, my teaching and my research and writing. The worst thing is grading. Yuck.