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Ask a Humanities Grad: Nicholas Garcia

As I thought about what to write for this week, I turned to my email inbox for inspiration. There I found the ISS (Institute For Social Sciences) newsletter, which, along with the DHI’s newsletter, covers many important social sciences and humanities related topics.

I then noticed that the ISS newsletter contains a weekly section called “Grads, Grilled,” which asks social sciences graduate students about their lives and their work in order to give some insight into the world of graduate school.

I ended up liking “Grads, Grilled” so much that I figured I’d try and emulate it here by asking myself similar questions, though with more emphasis on subjects like “why are the humanities important” and “how should undergraduates prepare for graduate school.”

Since this is my last article as GSR for the DHI, the Q&A does indeed represent something of a swan song for me. But also, I think it’s important for graduate students to get their stories out there in whatever way they can. With luck, you will be seeing more articles like this from the DHI in the future.

– Nicholas Garcia, PhD Student in the Department of History



Program and Year of Study

3rd year PhD Student

Previous Degrees and Colleges

B.A. in History at UC Santa Cruz, with an emphasis on the United States and Italy.

Where did you grow up?

In the Santa Clarita Valley, about 35 minutes to 2 hours North of LA depending on the traffic.

Where do you live now?

Within biking distance of campus.

What do you wish you knew before applying to grad school?

I think it’s important for all undergraduates to understand that transitioning to graduate school is all about becoming a professional rather than a student, despite the title “grad student.” Those who are most successful in graduate school treat it with the seriousness of a 9-5 job rather than as a continuation of senior year of undergrad.

This becomes especially true after you finish your coursework. You’re now much more of a junior scholar/university employee than anything resembling a student. You’ve got to have that motivation within you to keep moving forward, because at the end of the day the only person who’s really looking out for you is you.

What have you enjoyed most about being a GSR for the DHI?

It’s been truly eye-opening to see all of the work that goes into fostering the humanities at Davis. In my time at the DHI it’s become clear to me that professors wouldn’t be nearly as successful in hosting events, coordinating research initiatives, and acquiring grants/fellowships without the assistance of DHI administrators.

Beyond learning more about how academia works, it’s been great to have the opportunity to attend and cover so many events on campus. As a TA you often don’t have have as much flexible time what with lectures and office hours, but as a GSR you’re able to figure out your own schedule and thus open yourself to a number of interdisciplinary topics you’d never consider otherwise.

Lastly, having to write an article on a weekly basis has been tremendously helpful with regard to keeping my skills sharp. Having had only about a year’s worth of (small-time) journalistic writing experience before joining the DHI, it’s been nice learning how to write with more energy, clarity, and direction than one would traditionally be taught in a graduate seminar.

What’s your favorite study space on campus?

I really like the renovated MU for studying purposes. Which reminds me, the study areas in Shields could use some sprucing up. In comparison, Santa Cruz’s McHenry library was doing some really cool things in terms of innovative study spaces. There were couches and nice chairs everywhere and each floor had a different style of study desk. The big windows looking out into the forest were nice too. Here in Davis I don’t think we can emulate that last part, but I do wish Shields was a little more warm and inviting. Had I been in charge of renovating Shields I’d have spent money on upgraded desks and brighter lighting rather than a new glass edifice (which looks the same as the old one).

How do you relax?

The ARC has been a godsend in terms of giving me a space to take my mind off of the responsibilities of graduate school. I also enjoy hanging around the history TA offices and chatting up whoever happens to be around.

What was the last book you read for pleasure?

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. It’s a Sci-Fi novel that follows a group of (nearly) immortal humans who monitor the rise and fall of galactic civilizations over millions of years. The plot heats up early in the narrative when we learn that there is someone, or something, hunting down and exterminating these immortals for reasons unknown.

What TV show are you currently binge-watching?

I recently finished Altered Carbon and am just now getting into season two of Jessica Jones.

What are your research interests?

My research focuses on colonial New England, and I am interested primarily in colonialism, missionization, slavery, and systems of subordination in general. As a scholar I tend to prefer broader, comparative frameworks, such as the “Atlantic World,” which historians of the colonial period use to expand their analysis beyond the scope of one particular colony, region, or continent.

What is your dissertation topic?

(Being in the midst of studying for my exams, I reserve the right to change everything about my proposed dissertation topic within the next two months.)

Right now it looks like I will be writing a dissertation about the New England Company, which spearheaded the effort to convert New England Native Americans to Christianity. I came to this topic after previously writing a microhistory about the church in Natick, Massachusetts, which from the mid-17th to mid-18th century was a “Praying Indian Town” designed to convert Native Americans to Christianity in the hopes that they would eventually begin living like Englishmen.

After I finished that project, I dug deeper and found that surprisingly little has been written about the organization that funded missionization efforts in Natick. As such I am now in the process of learning everything I can about this “New England Company,” including who ran it, who funded it, and what other projects its members were involved in.

Can you share a surprising or noteworthy fact or finding from your research?

That Robert Boyle, famed chemist and cosmopolitan man-of-letters, was perhaps the most important President of the New England Company, and one who vigorously supported bringing the gospel to Native Americans.

What makes acquiring a PhD in the humanities worthwhile to you?

I think that we, as a country, have failed my generation and the one following it by placing so much emphasis on STEM. As someone who enjoys science, building computers, and writing some code, I understand the necessity of STEM and what it brings to the table. However, I think that we’ve gone too far in marginalizing the humanities and social sciences in response to STEM’s rise.

Above all else, a humanities education is important because it teaches one to think critically. Such little emphasis is placed on critical reading and argumentative writing that I fear it is becoming a lost skill. In an age of “fake news” and “hot takes,” it’s more important than ever that we live in a society where people don’t take information at face value.

I would contend that advancements in STEM take their fullest effect in a society that is well-versed in the humanities. If we don’t understand each other and the political/socioeconomic/historical circumstances of the world we live in, society as we know it won’t exist long enough for advancements in science and technology to matter. As with anything, we need to find a better balance.

Which professor or class inspired you to pursue graduate studies?

Michael McKee, my AP Euro teacher at Valencia High School, inspired me to pursue history. Gregory O’Malley, Associate Professor of History at UC Santa Cruz, inspired me to pursue graduate school. Cynthia Polecritti, Bruce Thompson, and Matthew Lasar were other UCSC professors who influenced my decision. I also have several of my former TAs to thank, who often made being a graduate student seem awe-inspiring. A few whose names I remember are Meg Eppel Gudgeirsson, Benjamin Pietrenka, Ilia Leon Bortsov-Shrago, Noel Smyth, Brian Schack, and Nicholas Conrad.

Which scholarly text do you wish you had written? Why?

It’s hard to say. I’ve never really seen myself as a person who gets behind a particular book or scholar to the extent that I can definitively say “I wish I did it exactly like them.” Everybody has their own interpretation of things, and I don’t think I’ve ever 100% agreed with any book.

I can say, however, that there are scholars I admire with regard to their writing style. I am a big fan of historians who write with a narrative flair, or who are able to clearly elucidate what might otherwise be reduced to inscrutable jargon or theory by another author. Some who come to mind off the top of my head are James Merrell, Gordon S. Wood, and David J. Silverman.

What’s the best thing about being a grad student?

Two things, probably. The first is being able to use my education to assist undergraduates in any way I can, which hopefully leads them to a better future in whatever they choose to do. The second is related to discovery, or the feeling of discovery. The fun thing about any graduate level research is that, if you’re doing it right, you’re always on the verge of discovering something new.

What’s the worst?

As with anything, graduate programs are burdened by their ties to tradition. This can lead to some headaches along the way as you attempt to check all of the requisite boxes. Additionally, much more of graduate school is about enduring criticism and managing mercurial personalities than one would initially expect.

If you weren’t a grad student, what would you be doing?

In my gap year between undergrad and graduate school I wrote for several websites, so I might be doing an extension of that. Beyond that, I’m not sure. Politics always interested me.


—March, 2018

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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