Profile: Professor Adam Smith
Professor Adam Smith is the Edward Orsborn Professor of US Politics & Political History and the Director of the Rothermere American Institute. He was born in the Northeast of England and went to Durham Johnston Comprehensive School and then to Oxford, Sheffield, Harvard and Cambridge universities. He specialises in the American Civil War, but he is also interested in democratic politics in various settings.
Why did you become an academic?
If you’d have asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up back when I was an undergraduate, I’d have told you I wanted to be an actor, or possibly a cricket commentator. But even then, I suspect that secretly I knew I wasn’t going to be either of those things. In the end, a career teaching and writing history seemed like the best use of whatever ability I had and it’s turned out to be a very satisfying and rewarding career. Teaching, especially at a University like this one, is an immense privilege.
There are many routes into the study of history but for me it has always been a matter of a fascination with the past on its own terms. I want to understand how generations now gone understood their world, how power worked, and how societies changed. Sometimes asking those intellectual questions about the past illuminates our present moment, but I don’t study the past primarily in order to understand the present, but, quite straightforwardly, in order to understand the past.
How has your research and teaching changed during lockdown?
Immensely. I’ve spent much of the year sitting on my bed with my laptop, instead of working in my lovely college room, going to archives, giving “real-life” lectures and attending conferences. I think the University and College has adapted very well, all things considered, but it’s not been much fun, to be honest.
How can we best educate people about history (school, TV, etc.)?
I could (and perhaps should) write a whole book about this question. I do believe very strongly that children benefit from a strong grounding in history at school and in various ways I’ve tried to support that. By a “strong grounding” I mean both knowledge of the broad framework of historical development, and also a sense of how to think critically about the past and the ways it shapes the present.
Do you have any advice for prospective students?
Read as widely as you can, and ask as many questions as you can about what you read. You might not be able to find answers to your questions, but asking them is the important thing.
Have you faced any challenges in your life that you are happy to share here?
Yes plenty, but I’d rather not go into them! I’d prefer it if this format asked me what my favourite biscuit is like they do on Mumsnet when they interview politicians. I have an answer for that: a custard cream.
What do you do to relax?
On a weekly, if not daily basis, I go swimming in the River Cherwell, even when it’s too cold for that to be a sensible thing to do. But best of all is to go to a Hebridean island (for preference the Isle of Coll), away from an internet connection and just be there amidst big skies, blustery winds and empty beaches.
Do you have any funny stories from your time at Univ?
I’ve not been here long enough, and much of the time has been dominated by the pandemic! Actually I’m being coy – I do have some funny stories, but I’m not sure I should share them in this forum…
Describe Univ in three words.
Friendly, purposeful, beautiful.
You can find out more about Professor Adam Smith in the Univ Academics A-Z.
Published: 28 September 2020