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Winter 2016
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Entries in history (3)


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: History Major Brian Griffith

Brian GriffithBrian J. Griffith posing at San Francisco's Grace CathedralOur latest Graduate Student in the Spotlight column focuses on Brian J. Griffith, husband and father of two, and a fourth-year Ph.D. student in History, who is studying Modern Italy and Italian Fascism. He was also a recipient of the GSA Excellence in Teaching Award in 2014.

What would people be most surprised to know about you?

I used to play guitar for a Bay Area punk-rock group called The Drive Home. We put out a few records and did some extensive touring throughout the western half of the United States before disbanding in 2004. In addition to making a lot of really good memories, I learned a lot about hard work, dedication, and doggedly pursuing my personal or professional objectives over the long-term. Despite my band’s dissolution, those experiences and skills, I think, have really helped me during the course of my graduate training.


"It’s quite difficult to pursue an M.A. or a Ph.D. program with a lukewarm attitude. You should be burning with passion and dedication for what you’re doing or you’ll likely find yourself overwhelmed and prematurely burnt out." – Brian Griffith

What is your biggest accomplishment in life and why? 

The personal, or intellectual, obstacles that I’ve had to overcome in order to be studying and working here at UCSB, I think, constitute my greatest accomplishment. Prior to my intellectual awakening, I had largely failed my way through my high school years. As a result, I emerged as an early “adult” with very little intellectual foundation. And I really sensed my personal inadequacies vis-à-vis my peers. But after watching so many of my friends and loved-ones begin, and complete, their degrees, I was inspired to go back to school. I suppose you could say I had a positive intellectual context around me for many years, which reinforced my inherent curiosity and productive energies. And once I set my mind on, first, earning my B.A., I did it. And then I completed an M.A. two years later. And then I was invited to study here at UCSB for my Ph.D. in 2012. When I look back on all of these milestones, I realize how far I’ve come personally. This, for me, is my greatest accomplishment.

The Drive Home bandBrian J. Griffith, left, playing guitar with The Drive Home at Anaheim's Chain Reaction in 2003.

You won a GSA Excellence in Teaching Award in 2014. Any teaching tips you can hand down?

I’d say that if you’re passionate about what you’re teaching, then let it show in your classroom. I come to every section meeting, every lecture excited – genuinely excited – for whichever topic we’ll be reviewing together. I don’t think that studying and teaching History is just enjoyable; I think it’s important. And I utilize that sense of importance, and urgency, as an inspiration for getting my students excited and engaged. I think if you can develop ways for helping your students discover their hidden passions for your discipline, you’ll likely make a significant impact in their academic and, possibly, even personal lives.

What do you wish you had known before you started grad school? 

Thankfully, I was pretty well prepared for the realities of graduate-level professional training prior to starting my M.A. and Ph.D. programs. I think anyone considering a graduate program should be prepared to put their heart and soul into what they’re doing for two to seven years, depending on the degree(s) they’re pursuing. It’s quite difficult to pursue an M.A. or a Ph.D. program with a lukewarm attitude. You should be burning with passion and dedication for what you’re doing or you’ll likely find yourself overwhelmed and prematurely burnt out. Graduate programs are briskly paced, which can be a challenge for some people. But I can say from personal experience that that brisk pace, over the long term, will compel you to grow both as a scholar and as a person.

What is your favorite thing you do to relax?

I live only 15 minutes from the beach, so I like to take walks or bike rides out to the nearby bluffs with my family. I also enjoy gardening, playing my guitar and accordion, and watching old Italian films (preferably a Fellini or a Rossellini) over a nice glass or three of Chianti Classico.

What’s in high rotation on your playlist these days?

Lately, I’ve been listening to The Misfits and Django Reinhardt

Brian J. Griffith walking the streets in Florence, Italy, during his Fall 2015 research trip, which was funded by a Council for European Studies Pre-Dissertation Research Fellowship.

How would you best describe your research to someone who wasn’t in your field?

My current research explores the intertwining of viti-viniculture (table and wine grape production), autarkic (materially self-sufficient) consumerism, the physical environment, and identity construction in interwar Italy.

My dissertation – Bacchus’ Blackshirt – analyzes the centrality of Italy’s viti-viniculture industry within the Fascist regime’s intertwined campaigns for encouraging the development of a national identity in Italy and establishing a synchronized community of popular consumption under the auspices of the Corporatist State. Since grape vine cultivation was such a widespread practice in Italy, it offered the dictatorship an agro-cultural platform for projecting its socio-economic program to the Italian masses.

By promoting Italy’s winemaking heritage via popular campaigns and outreach, I contend the regime aimed to stimulate domestic consumption of Italy’s grapes and wines and, simultaneously, to impress upon the masses that Italians, regardless of their regional affiliation and geographical separation, shared these histories and practices as a singular patrimony. In doing so, I am arguing, Mussolini’s dictatorship hoped to motivate domestic consumers to recognize themselves as Italians.

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

Like most starry-eyed Ph.D. candidates, I hope to be working as Professor of History at a four-year university. However, in light of the unfavorable job market out there, many feel compelled to begin planning for options B and C.

Brian Griffith and familyBrian J. Griffith with his wife Stephanie and their son Matteo at Goleta's Stow House.


UCSB History Ph.D. Alum Robin Fleming Wins Prestigious MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award

Alum Dr. Robin Fleming is one of 24 Americans to receive the 2013 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur FoundationEvery person deserves to have their story told, Robin Fleming believes. In her own life story, one chapter stands out. It was a defining moment that day on the beach at Campus Point in the late 1970s. The UCSB undergrad was studying medieval history under visiting Professor Denis Bethell at the time, and the assignment was to read a book by the famous early medieval historian and English monk known as the Venerable Bede.

“I brought my copy of the Venerable Bede to the beach,” recalled the San Francisco Bay Area native. “And I read about 8th century England. That was it – I was totally hooked. I think I’m the only early medieval historian who ever got hooked by reading Bede on the beach.” 

These days Dr. Fleming’s study space is no longer the Santa Barbara sand but rather an office at Boston College, where she has been a history professor for nearly 25 years. And that passion for medieval history she has pursued all these years has now earned the History Department Chair a prestigious $625,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as a “Genius” grant. 

UCSB alum Dr. Fleming (BA, History, 1977; Ph.D., History, 1984) – whose research and teaching specialties are early medieval Britain and material culture – is one of 24 Americans recently announced as 2013 recipients of this honor, issued annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The MacArthur Foundation website states that the “no strings attached” fellowship “is a five-year grant to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future. The fellowship is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their creative activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements. There are no limits on age or area of activity.”

Dr. Fleming joins other UCSB alums who have won the MacArthur “Genius” award, including MIT Professor Angela Belcher (BA, Creative Studies, 1991; Ph.D., Chemistry, 1997), a 2004 honoree; and the founder of Dos Pueblos High School Engineering Academy in Goleta, teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer (BS, Physics, 1996; MS, Mechanical Engineering, 1998; and M.Ed., Education, 2001), a 2010 recipient.

The MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship will allow History Professor Robin Fleming the time and freedom to pursue her research.

Because individuals can’t apply for the MacArthur grant and both the nominators and the judging committee are kept secret, the phone call to inform Dr. Fleming that she had won came as a surprise.

“I actually thought I was getting an obscene phone call,” she recalled. “Because the person said: ‘Can we speak confidentially?’” She spent the rest of the day wondering if she had imagined the episode, but when she received hard-copy confirmation of her selection the next day, she knew it was real.

At Boston College, Dr. Fleming teaches courses on late-Roman and early medieval history; the Vikings; ancient and medieval historical writing; and material culture. Her latest book, “Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise of the Middle Ages,” takes a look at Britain in the century before and after the fall of Rome, examining how Roman ways of life, status, identity, and burial changed in the wake of the Roman economy’s collapse and the unraveling of ties to the wider Roman world.

Dr. David Marshall, the Michael Douglas Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, praised UCSB’s History Department as well as the honoree.

"We take special pride in the fact that Robin Fleming has both a B.A. and a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara,” Dean Marshall said. “The History Department is known for its attention to teaching, mentoring, and inspiring students, as well as its prize-winning scholarship. I imagine that our interdisciplinary environment, in medieval studies and beyond, also made some contribution to Professor Fleming's innovative approach and methodology. I hope that her exciting work will inspire new generations of UCSB students."

Dr. Elizabeth Digeser, Chair of UCSB’s Department of History and Professor of Roman History, said Dr. Fleming’s achievements are encouraging and inspiring to both grad students and faculty.  

“Robin Fleming received her Ph.D. from our department when we were starting to get national recognition for our graduate program in general, as well as our program in Medieval History,” Professor Digeser said. “When she took the position at Boston College, she was both an inspiration to current graduate students and a confirmation for faculty that UCSB's best students could work and teach anywhere. And now Robin's most recent research – in reaching toward material culture to explore the lived experience of ordinary people in early medieval Britain – is inspiring in a new way, for she is at the crest of a new wave in scholarship that is carrying us all forward.”

Stephanie Priest saw that spark of genius in Fleming when the two became friends as roommates for three summers in Isla Vista in the 1970s. “There was just no doubt in my mind she was pretty special back then in terms of her academic abilities,” said Priest, who was a Political Science undergrad at the time.

Priest described herself as “your basic student” and more “into the fun” of college life at UCSB, unlike her roommate Fleming. “Robin was just such a cut above everyone. And you could tell she had something about her that could be called genius or brilliance.”

Priest, who recently retired from a career in aerospace and lives in Carpinteria, said Fleming “knew what she wanted to do. She had known what she wanted to do since she was little. And, you know, some people, their careers choose them and other people get to choose their careers. And she’s one of those.”

Dr. Robin Fleming traveled to Jerash, an important Roman city in modern-day Jordan, earlier this year. Dr. Fleming said, "The survival of Roman remains in Britain is poor, so it is always interesting to compare evidence in Britain with what survives in other parts of the Roman world."Dr. Fleming chose the medieval history career path while she was at UCSB. “I was always interested in British history,” she said. “I took Latin when I was a (college) freshman as well.” She called Professor Denis Bethell, who was visiting from University College, Dublin, a “fantastic undergraduate teacher” who sparked her fascination with early medieval British history during her sophomore year. In her junior year, she studied abroad in England. Because of Professor Bethel’s influence, Dr. Fleming said, she took only medieval history classes from then on.

Dr. Fleming also praised two other UCSB professors for their advice and mentorship – Harold (Hal) Drake and C. Warren Hollister, one of the founding members of the History Department.

Professor Drake “always insisted that we be interesting,” said Dr. Fleming, referring to topics of research. He would tell his Ph.D. students that the “so what” in whatever they were studying matters a lot.

It’s not enough to gather a lot of information on a problem and then write the dissertation, she said he would tell his students. “It’s important to be engaged in some sort of historical debate or controversy and really try to answer a question that’s interesting to a lot of people,” Professor Fleming said. “And I think that’s critical for graduate students.”

It’s also vital, she added, for grad students to pick their advisors carefully. “This is really hard work and it’s important to find a person who you can apprentice yourself to and who is really going to give you a lot of attention and a lot of guidance,” she said. “Because it’s hard to learn otherwise.”  Dr. Fleming “had a famously good advisor” in the late UCSB History Professor Hollister.

Dr. Robin Fleming's research focus is material culture and early medieval history. She visited Jerash in Jordan earlier this year.Dr. Fleming said the MacArthur fellowship will afford her the time and freedom to pursue research she is passionate about.

She said there isn’t much textual evidence in the period she studies, between the fall of Rome and the early Middle Ages. “As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of it we don’t know anything about through texts,” she said in a MacArthur Foundation video interview (you can view the video below). “So instead of looking at texts, which is what historians do and are trained for, I look at material evidence, that is the evidence that’s been found by archaeologists. I’m really interested in using whatever evidence is available to tell the story of people who lived in the past.”

She intends to complete a book that she has started. “But I also hope to do some collaboration with people outside the discipline of history,” Dr. Fleming said. “I hope to co-author things with people who are not historians but who happen to be interested in the same time period I am. Because I think writing together with people of different disciplines is the way forward. And I think it will help all of us think different thoughts about the past.”

Interdisciplinary work is central to Dr. Fleming’s research, and it’s something she feels strongly about.

“I think that all of us who are active researchers can see how unsatisfactory lines between disciplines are,” said Professor Fleming. “It doesn’t matter if you are a biologist or a chemist or a physicist or a historian or an archaeologist. You can really, really feel it. It can be very difficult in universities. We’re all silo’ed in our departments and we all read our own disciplinary journals and books.”

Dr. Fleming hopes for change.  “The disciplines were determined a long time ago. The line between archaeology and history was determined a long time ago. I don’t think it works very well anymore. And I think we should work to revisit that and rethink it.”

Now that she’s got that weighty title of “Genius,” does Professor Fleming feel any pressure to produce something monumental during her MacArthur fellowship?

“I actually feel liberation,” she said. “I feel like this is an opportunity, not a challenge I have to live up to. So I feel much more optimistic and not burdened by it, but liberated by it.”

Whatever she decides to pursue, it will definitely include storytelling. “I think that everybody deserves a history,” Professor Fleming said. “And I think it’s incumbent upon historians to figure out how to tell people’s stories even if we don’t have them represented in texts.”



Graduate Student Emmet Cullen: An Update

Editor’s Note: In February, the GradPost featured Emmet Cullen (“Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Emmet Cullen”). Emmet, an Army veteran who fought as a sniper in Iraq, is an Education master’s student at UCSB with dreams of becoming a teacher. In December 2011, while on a desert adventure to celebrate his 30th birthday, he lost two good friends in an ATV accident. In a couple of weeks, Emmet  – who has been teaching U.S. History to eighth-graders at Balboa Middle School in Ventura as part of his program – will walk on stage and receive his Master’s of Education as well as his single-subject teaching credential in Social Studies. As the academic year nears an end, we checked in with Emmet, who reflected on what the Teacher Education Program (TEP) and the support of friends, family, and cohorts has meant to him; how he has coped with his friends’ deaths; and what he hopes his future holds.

Friends of Chris Rice and Daniel Carbonaro form a circle in the Mojave Desert during search operations in December 2011.On the aftermath of losing good friends Chris Rice and Daniel Carbonaro while on an ATVing trip with them and others to celebrate his 30th birthday:

For a few weeks [after their deaths] I missed a few classes to go to memorials, and just couldn't seem to concentrate. I feel that being back with my teaching cohort was incredibly positive, and helped pull me around to get back on track.

Ten years ago I never imagined I would be where I am today. I never imagined I would see civil war in Iraq. I never imagined I would lose friends in war, and others to drugs, prison, and now in an ATV accident. The only thing to do is to try to use negative experiences to influence your life in a positive way. Today I am on the cusp of again graduating from UCSB, this time as a credentialed teacher with a master’s degree. I'm not sure why these things happen in life, but I can tell you that I am one lucky SOB, and appreciate so, so much being accepted into the TEP program. 

On the end of the school year:

The school year is winding down now, and everything seems to be going by at the speed of light. My eighth-graders are ready to fly the coop and move on to high school. This is kind of a bittersweet end of the year. On one hand I am thrilled to be done with school, but on the other hand I know that I'm going to miss my students as well as the school cohort. 

The rush at school now is searching for elusive teaching jobs. Quite honestly I am so happy to simply be graduating after everything that happened this year, I have just been focusing on making sure I complete my master's and enjoying the moment and the little time we have left at UCSB. I have had a great time in the classroom and find that I am really enjoying teaching, so I'm confident that some type of job will come over time. For now I'm going to graduate, try my hand at substitute teaching, and keep an eye out for one of the few and far between teaching positions that come up.

Emmet Cullen at Balboa Middle School in Ventura.On teaching and TEP:

I think that my main challenge of becoming a teacher in general is building your ability and confidence day by day. I am lucky in that I have awesome  students, and a great teacher who I have been working under this year. His name is Eddie Guereña. He's a former graduate of the TEP program, and I think he very much deserves credit in helping me along this year. Eddie (Mr. G to the students) has shown me how to walk the fine line of discipline and compassion with the students. From day one he made me feel welcome in his room. We worked together on fun, creative projects with the students, dealt with problems and emergencies in the classroom, and have become great friends along the way. 

Ron Kok also deserves my gratitude. Unfortunately, this is Ron's last year at the TEP program. Ron has showed us how to use teaching methodology to make history interesting for the students mainly by making things interesting for us in the process. We would leave class learning about something new, and clamor for the opportunity to try it ourselves in the classroom. But beyond that, Ron is also a great friend. He is always kind and approachable. Often we would meet and walk our Labrador retrievers, just shooting the breeze about life. 

These kind of close-knit relationships I feel are what makes the TEP program a very special experience. I really am going to miss my friends in the program. I'm sure to see them along the way in our future careers, but I will definitely miss our sessions together, griping about problems in school, problems in class, and generally problems in life. 

On inspiration, support, and encouragement:

Emmet Cullen and his friend, Chris Rice. Chris died in an ATV accident.Bad things happen to people in life. Let's be honest, life is generally hard. All students are at times short on money. We all struggle in relationships, struggle to get assignments done.

We have all been at the end of our rope, stressed out at midnight and scrambling to get things done. I am, needless to say, one of these people.

What has been amazing to me this year has been that every time I have been down in this program, there has been someone there to support me. Someone to inspire me. Someone to encourage me not to give up.

That is so important when you're putting in 12-hour days of teaching followed by evening class and lecture. 

On life’s gains and losses:

Here I am just a few weeks from walking. I think about my friends who I have lost, this past December as well as overseas, and feel proud and happy to have known such people in life. On some level I feel that working to find success is one way to pay homage to those who are no longer here with us. 

Sunday the 17th, I will be happily graduating and looking forward to the future opportunities that life has to offer. I will also be thinking about the past on that day, and missing those not able to celebrate the occasion with me.