James Gregory is a professor of history at the University of Washington. He specializes in 20th century US history, particularly labor history and radicalism, regionalism, race and civil rights, and migration within the United States. Professor Gregory is also the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair of Labor Studies. He manages a collection of online projects that chronicle the history of civil rights and the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest.
In addition, Professor Gregory has written several historical books, including “The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America” and “American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California.”
What do you find the most interesting about history?
History adds perspective to almost any subject. We understand so many issues in two dimensions, but history adds a third dimension, deepening our awareness and the complexities of both the issues and human experience. It is a greatly enriching subject.
What is your least favorite aspect of history?
I think that sometimes history is taught in unfortunate ways. It is often taught through memorization. However, thinking about the past is interesting and complicated, familiar and unfamiliar. I don’t teach a lot of memorization, and when I encounter that I think that is my least favorite aspect.
Are there sub-fields of history that students might not be aware of?
Every nation has a history. Every group of people has a complicated history. The field is endless and very, very wide. I teach US History, a subject of about 500 years in duration. But the history of Asia, Africa, and Europe go back millennia. History covers lots of different kinds of countries, people and subjects. There is a lot to do there.
What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in history?
That is also very rich and varied. Quite a few of our graduating seniors go into teaching, some go to law school and some become writers. Many work for public agencies, governmental entities or non-profit organizations. Some go to work for Microsoft. The skills that we emphasize, particularly in our own history department, are research and writing. Those are widely needed and valued in many occupational roles. Despite the impression that people sometimes have, history graduates do well in the job market compared to sociology or political science.
Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in history, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor’s degree?
All of the career paths I previously mentioned can be held by people who have a bachelor’s degree. Graduate degrees are much more specialized. A PhD in history is all about becoming a professor in a college or a university. There are not too many other fields that will open for a graduate degree in history. For this reason, I am reluctant to encourage people to go to graduate school in this field, although I am not at all reluctant to encourage undergraduate students to major in history.
Graduate training in history can be useful for teaching careers at the K-12 level. It can also be useful for careers in a museum, library work, and some other positions. However, usually a person attends graduate school to become a professor, and that is a very difficult job to get. It is not something that lots and lots of people should think about doing.
What personality traits do you think the student should have in order to be successful in a history program?
In order to be successful in a history program, it is crucial to enjoy reading and writing, as well as researching and learning. Reading, writing and research are major components of most history courses. History students will gain experience in archives, and really know how to work the library system.
What electives do you recommend that a student in a history program take?
Studying history allows a lot of latitude to specialize. Nobody can be an expert in all history. Students can pick and choose and follow their interests. There are options to study ancient peoples, European history, South American history, the history of China, US history, and countless other specific subjects. I think that kind of choice and freedom to wander is important.
What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a history program?
History students will learn to read quickly, because we assign a lot of reading. It is not possible to pay close attention to every name, place and fact you encounter. You must learn how to read to get the gist of the subject and to decipher the author’s argument or point of view. I think that takes some practice. It is very good for the instructors to try to guide new students into the ways that historians read, because it is not necessarily the same as how one reads scientific text or literature. That would be the major study issue.
Do you think that history is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?
I think some students, particularly the older ones with busy lives, do well with online courses. However, most traditionally aged undergraduates really benefit from the social environment, from hearing and seeing the instructor, and from talking to their classmates during classes. There are certainly some good online courses, but I generally believe that teaching is a social experience.
What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of history?
I have taught for many years and I do have the sense that many students just do not like history. They have somehow gotten the impression that it is dead and worthless. In my classes, I love to try to change their minds and to show them how many critical issues can become more interesting and understandable once we learn the historical background.
If you are planning to study history, you should be open to lots of new things. Don’t think of history as just a lot of arcane facts that have to be memorized. Instead, think of it as a visit to a foreign country. Somebody once said that the path to history is strange in all the ways that a different culture and land can be, and I think if we approach the path with that sense of excitement and wonder, it can be very rewarding.