Our series profiling UST Historians returns this week with the newest member of our department, Dr. Will Cavert. Although this is his first semester teaching at UST, he is no stranger to Minnesota. Dr. Cavert is a native of the metro area and attended Carleton College for undergrad. He received his Ph.D. in Early Modern History from Northwestern University.
His response to our 5 questions: 1) What inspired you to become a historian? 2) Why European History? 3) What is exciting you with your current research? 4) What is your favorite thing about teaching history? 5) What are you up to when you are not on campus?
In a box of things that my mother preserved from my childhood is a little book written for a 5th-grade project. It contains a story (shamelessly plagiarizing The Princess Bride) at the end of which is a list of other works “by the author.” Apparently my 11-year-old self was already planning to go on to write history books, as I confidently announced titles devoted to the history of technology, capitalism, Britain, and the world. So it seems I have always wanted to be a historian and a history teacher, an interest that I suppose may derive from a sense that history was exciting and exotic in a way that my upbringing was not. I was raised in a suburb where things were nice and nothing seemed to happen. The world of kings and castles, of warfare and dramatic conflict, appeared much more interesting.
I no longer feel that way about my native Minnesota, but I do remain fascinated by the history of Europe and the world with which it was in contact. My period (c. 1500-1800) is labeled “early modern” because it seems almost, but not quite, like us: Europeans then had sophisticated commerce, but not yet modern industry; strong states, but not modern bureaucracies; a greedy desire for knowledge about nature and the peoples of the world, but not mature science. I love the interplay between familiarity and strangeness that this period offers. My research on coal burning and air pollution in 17th- and 18th-century London explores this tension, since London was in some ways the first city in the history of the world to experience the “modern” problem of urban air pollution, and yet people responded to it in ways quite different from those we see in the 20th and 21st centuries.
I also enjoy this topic because it allows me to skip across methodological boundaries. I am interested in the ways that coal (the first cheap and abundant fossil fuel) was important for Britain’s economic development, but also how people used the law courts to contest pollution, how doctors treated patients with lung disease, how elites shielded themselves from the worst effects of urban pollution, and how poets and playwrights used urban dirtiness in their literature. Such an interdisciplinary approach is often very difficult, but I think it’s crucially important to try to draw on multiple perspectives – in teaching as well as in research. I love exposing students to different and complementary ways of approaching history, to the rich variety of primary sources that we can use to understand the past and our world.
My work on London smoke occupied my time as a graduate student at Northwestern University and as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, but my most current research interest is a very Minnesota topic: winter. During the 17th century Europe suffered from a cold period sometimes called “The Little Ice Age.” Historians now suspect that this global warming must have had serious consequences, but few have asked yet exactly what they were or how they worked. So my current research question is how people in 17th-century England understood and responded to very harsh winters and deep freezes. This is still in its earliest stages, which is one reason why I am so excited to teach a capstone seminar next year on the history of natural disasters. I’ll be helping students through their research projects even as I work on my own, learning with them and taking inspiration from their struggles and discoveries.
I use the word “inspiration” here intentionally, since one of the most rewarding things about being a teacher is seeing how quickly students learn and how insightful they can be. Researchers are used to spending endless hours thinking about one set of questions, so it’s wonderful to watch students who are completely new to a subject go straight to the main point, identifying key themes and problems after only a few weeks (or days or hours) of thinking about it. Students have very steep learning curves, which is one reason why I so enjoy helping them explore subjects in greater depth or for the first time.
Speaking of learning curves, this winter has been a very busy one for me, full of things done for the first time. Getting settled at St. Thomas, teaching a course on world history, and moving back to the Twin Cities have been wonderful but have also demanded many long hours. My children, ages 4 and 2, have their own ideas about how I should spend my time, none of which involve house-hunting or course-planning. As we all get settled I am especially looking forward, as a native of the western part of the metro area, to learning more about my new home city of St. Paul. Advice from experts is always welcome!