“I remember college being a life changing time, so I’m excited to teach at a college and give other students the same experience. My experiences drew me to humanities and social science classes because they made me think in new ways about my place in my country and the world. I want to help others think through these questions,” says Sophie.
Sophie studies Native American and Indigenous history in the United States and Mexico. Before coming to U-M, she spent a meaningful year volunteering in Mexico in a home for orphaned, abandoned and disadvantaged children, where she mentored older kids and worked in the development office translating documents. She accedes, “If grad school is hard, that was equally, if not more difficult.”
Sophie’s dissertation focuses on an era of building new nation-states during the first half of the 19th century in the Western hemisphere. “This covers the time when the United States was claiming new territories and Mexico became independent from Spain, changing its relationship with Indigenous peoples. There was a significant amount of conflict between new states and Indigenous peoples during that time. “My work examines the history of two conflicts that are rarely discussed together: one in the US territory of Florida and one in the Mexican state of Yucatan. The peninsulas of Florida and Yucatan are geographically very close to each other, much closer to each other than to most of the rest of their country. I’m interested in what happens if we shift focus from a national perspective to the Gulf of Mexico, the place that holds these two regions together. I want to know what that tells us about the Gulf as a region and about Native American and Indigenous history.”
Writing a history of the Gulf of Mexico has required her to learn about changes taking place across the world, including a shift in global production from the West Indies toward Cuba and the United States. Merchants and smugglers from many parts of the world came to the Gulf in the nineteenth century to buy sugar, coffee, and cotton, and to sell–often illegally–the African laborers who produced them. These illicit networks influenced the state-building projects and military conflicts that occurred along the Gulf of Mexico’s borders. It’s a dark story, but an important one. She continues, “This has been a big project and has required a lot of support: research to go to archives, and all the time to think with my mentors and write about it.”
Her research has required a good deal of traveling, and Sophie has deeply enjoyed that opportunity. She spent a significant amount of time in New Orleans, Washington DC and Mexico, with a week in Belize thrown in. She says, “It was incredible! It is exciting enough to spend two months in a foreign country, but to then to cross another border was really fun.” The timing worked well: “I was ready to get out of town and have some adventures, and as the trip came to an end, I was fully ready to come back and get some work done.”
While she’s a student in the History department, her focus on Native American and Indigenous history is a blend of U.S. history, Latin American history and American Culture. “That’s actually one of the things that made me excited about Michigan – how I might draw from multiple strengths. Native American Studies research is strong here, as is social and cultural history and transnational history. I knew I liked to do interdisciplinary work and wanted to have conversations across different sub fields. I’m taking advantage of that a lot.” she expands.
Knowing her research blurred departments at U-M, Sophie and a few other students formed a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workgroup (RIW), Native American and Indigenous Studies Interdisciplinary Group (NAISIG). True to its intent, students in this RIW are from the history, American culture, English and psychology departments, among others. She explains, “With NAISIG, we’ve done a lot of really cool things. We originally intended for the group to be a space to give each other feedback on our writing, but with all the funding available, we were also able to do book studies, bring in visiting speakers, and attend a conference in Connecticut together. This was a great chance to get to know one another better and a great professional development opportunity.”
After teaching for five semesters, Sophie has been entrenched in teaching initiatives. She served as a GSI mentor in her department and is currently a grad teaching consultant with the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). Her work with CRLT is to offer consulting services to other GSIs on campus, mostly by soliciting mid-term student feedback. She describes, “We attend a class and observe, then follow up with a private session for students where we talk about what is going well and what might be areas of improvement for the GSI. This is a great opportunity for grad and undergrad students. It improves the quality of education for undergrads and helps grad students improve their teaching skills. Teaching is something most grad students want to do well, but sometimes it’s hard to know how you might improve; it can be so helpful to have someone to sit down and talk through it with you.”
“I’ve taken advantage of a lot of other things through Rackham, like the Preparing Future Faculty and What Now? programs. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the positions and institutions that would be the best fit for me. I’m really thankful Rackham has done so much to support humanities grad students and help us think through the many careers that are open to us. I liked that about What Now? – the possibility of pursuing “alternative academic” positions was framed not as an either/or or as something we needed to decide right now but as an opportunity to think about the many different things we could do with our degrees. U-M is an intellectually exciting place to be. There are almost too many lectures and workshops to attend – and I mean that in a good way. I’ve gotten to know a lot of creative and exciting scholars.”
Sophie also participated in a seminar and outreach project co-run by the Department of History and the School of Education in which faculty and graduate students prepared a three-day workshop for high school history teachers about teaching world history. She describes, “It's a great example of how I've been able to combine my interests in pedagogy and interdisciplinary scholarship at Michigan. The project was funded by an Our Shared Past grant that Hussein Fancy (History) and Bob Bain (Education) received from the British Council and the Social Science Research Council. These two faculty and eight graduate students spent a month reading and discussing research by historians and education scholars about the challenges of teaching world history and the models that help world history teachers reach students more effectively. Then we spent three days facilitating a workshop for high school teachers in which we modeled some of these strategies and helped them incorporate the techniques into their syllabi.”
On the support she’s found at U-M, she says, “I’ve had great funding. I feel so fortunate. The past two summers have been funded by Rackham, and that takes pressure off and gives me the support to be here writing. My research has required a lot of travel, and each time I go I need funding to take me there. Add to that attending two conferences a year – one supported by Rackham and one supported by my department. That should have been on my mind during my graduate school search but it wasn’t. I got really lucky.”
Sophie has funding for the next academic year during which she will focus on her dissertation and job search. She says, “I plan to start with an academic job search and see where that takes me. I’d love to be in a place where I can be active in undergraduate education while also pursuing research.”