Rhizomes: An Interview with Neil Oatsvall

Neil Oatsvall teaching US History in his first year at ASMSA. Credit: ASMSA.

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Editor’s note: This is the eleventh post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Neil Oatsvall, a Humanities and Social Science instructor at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts.


Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position/career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

First off, I should explain where I work. Currently I serve as Humanities and Social Science Instructor at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts (ASMSA). An autonomous campus of the University of Arkansas System, ASMSA is a public, residential school for academically advanced 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. It is frequently rated as one of the top public high schools in the United States. (For example, the Washington Post has included ASMSA in its list of “Top-performing schools with elite students” for five straight years.) Sometimes it is a bit odd being caught between teaching in the K-12 and post-secondary worlds. Our students, while bright, are definitely high school students, but most of my courses are offered for concurrent postsecondary credit. That said, this is far and away the best job I’ve ever had.

A great deal of my professional career has been ruled by serendipity. In particular, two moments set me down my current path.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, perhaps the most important step toward my current position was when I met my current wife while we were both in high school. Though she doesn’t remember (it’s not surprising that she’s more memorable than I am), we met in the summer of 2000 when she attended the North Carolina Governor’s School. Governor’s School is a public summer residential program for gifted and talented high school students. Because she had attended the program herself, she applied to work there when she was older.

A planning session at Governor’s School, with Neil in the white t-shirt. Also pictured, from left to right, are Tom Dempster, Matt Lennex, and Shin-Yi Lao. Neil reminisces: “I have no idea why Shin-Yi is poking me, but the photo well captures the chaotic yet collaborative model of Governor’s School. It’s tough to remember a time when I had hair.” Credit: Tom Dempster.

I had no plans to work in education when I finished my undergraduate degree in 2005 (or even pursue graduate education), but I needed some sort of job. I applied to work at Governor’s School as a teaching/assistant counselor because my future wife was there. Almost immediately I fell in love with the experience—the students, the ideas, and especially the colleagues. I worked there for a number of summers and always wanted to get back to a similar environment.

While that explains the sort of work environment I sought out, it doesn’t explain why I originally chose the discipline of history. When I began my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina, I wanted to pursue a music major, but my family discouraged that. My mother was an accounting professor at a small liberal arts college, so I tried business but hated it. Along the way, I was pretty close to getting an Asian Studies (Japanese Language) major, so I chose that but didn’t necessarily love it.

I realized partway through my third year in college that I was going to be forced to graduate at the end of three years because I had accumulated too many credit hours. This terrified me and was to be avoided at all costs. Simultaneously, I knew that UNC was going to have a pretty good basketball team in my fourth year, and, since I was in the marching band, I would get to travel with them to the NCAA tournament. What was a young lad to do but add a second “fun” major to stay in school for an extra year? Coming from a fair amount of privilege (and college tuition being much cheaper back then), I was able to add history as a second major and stay in school. UNC won the national championship, I had courtside seats to the games, and I never looked back. At some point history transitioned from just being something fun to study into being a more serious pursuit.

Choosing environmental history was also somewhat serendipitous. When I enrolled in my MA program at North Carolina State University, I had no idea what sort of specialty I wanted. I ended up taking Matthew Booker’s environmental history course because it was one of the few seminars left available, but I wasn’t terribly excited about it. Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl and Edmund Russell’s War and Nature both caught me off guard and just blew my mind. I had never considered myself much of an environmentalist, and my wife sometimes refers to me as an “avid indoorsman.” But Worster and Russell showed me a new way of approaching the past that I had never envisioned. It was both inspiring and terrifying to think that non-human nature could have such an effect on the decisions past and current humans make.

Almost immediately, in the way that graduate students do, I started calling myself an environmental historian. It just stuck. And it helped that Matthew was everything a young student could’ve asked for in a mentor. He was always gracious with his time, he challenged me intellectually, and he had a brilliant way of clarifying my thinking and then convincing me that I had done it myself. Perhaps most importantly, even when my research skills were only nascent, he treated my work with great respect and encouragement.

NC State was an MA-only program, so I had to seek out another institution for my PhD. Since the two works that had first inspired me to become an environmental historian were written by Don Worster and Ed Russell, the Universities of Kansas (where Don was) and Virginia (where Ed was) were my top choices. I received funding at KU and off we went. My wife was nervous moving to the flyover states, but her sense of adventure won out.

My MA thesis had focused on war and environment, specifically defoliation during the U.S.-Vietnam War, and I continued that theme for my PhD dissertation. Coming from research into a war technology, I had those ideas on my brain and chose to study nuclear technologies, in no small part because the Truman and Eisenhower libraries were so close to KU. Again, serendipity played a significant role.

What do you like most about your current position/career? What things would you change about it, if you could?

Beyond having great coworkers, the best part of my job, unsurprisingly, is the teaching. Because ASMSA is a relatively small institution of about 230 students, I mostly teach service courses—U.S. History, U.S. Government (which I had to learn on the fly), and our capstone research course (which I co-teach)—along with various electives, including Environmental History.

Classes are small and all are run like seminars or colloquia. I joke with colleagues at postsecondary institutions that my students don’t yet realize that they don’t have to do the homework. To the contrary, they overwhelmingly show up having done the readings and are excited to discuss new ideas. Their enthusiasm is a constant reminder of why I got into the profession—these ideas are intellectually fun and exciting. I also get to help lead short study-abroad trips to Japan about once a year as part of our global learning program, which is fantastic.

ASMSA recently did a Peace Project with its partner school, Tennoji High School, in Osaka. Here Neil spends some time talking with Japanese students about how the history of World War II is taught and understood in the United States. Credit: Corey Alderdice.

The students are, on average, the highest quality I’ve taught at any institution. In my first year, a student wrote a research paper comparing American and Japanese opinions on the Battle of Midway during the Second World War by comparing English- and Japanese-language after-action reports. And I just had an advisee produce what, in my humble opinion, is an advanced-undergraduate-level capstone paper on male dress at fin-de-siècle European fancy dress balls and what those costumes can reveal about gender issues at the time. Another advisee is currently revising her research on the Arkansas Nuclear One nuclear power plant for publication. I’m quite proud of them.

If I could change anything, it would be having more time to research. With a 5/5 load, and sometimes having five different preps, it can be difficult to do much else other than teaching and service. But, because class sizes are small, our grading loads are relatively light. And my institution has been very supportive both financially and with time (when it can) to help my research. I’m exceedingly thankful for that. I’ve just published two articles on the relationship between nature and advertising as seen through the lens of the Mountain Valley Water Company, and my book manuscript, revised from my dissertation, should be going out for peer review soon. My current research project explores the agricultural roots of the famed Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa. I also want to delve into some extra documents I have gathered on nuclear testing on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Island chain.

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position/career?

Easily the interdisciplinary nature of environmental history. The field’s roots are so heavily dependent on scientific knowledge that it’s basically impossible to get a good education in environmental history without some scientific training. In my case, that training allowed me to co-design a course on time travel with a physicist at our school. We examine the concept throughout history from both humanities and hard science perspectives. Beyond working with scientists, my interdisciplinary training taught me to be intellectually flexible, how to work with others to solve common problems, and how both to respect the knowledge produced by colleagues in other fields but also be cognizant of its limitations. Also, recognizing the limitations of other fields helps you recognize the same in your own.

What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

I wish that history as a discipline better prepared graduate students on how to interact with other people in various contexts. For me, specifically, I would have liked more training as a teacher. I did take one course on teaching, but it was optional and more conceptual than practical. I did have some very good supervising instructors when I was a teaching assistant. There was Akram Khater at NC State; at KU I encountered Rita Napier, who was so excellent at asking questions while lecturing, Greg Cushman, Chris Brown, and Johan Feddema. But my pedagogical training was not terribly directed or focused. I sort of had to piece it all together on my own.

In a broader sense, beyond teaching, I wish the idea of reaching different audiences had been stressed more. Like many programs, my PhD work at the University of Kansas was almost laser-focused on the world of academia. Perhaps public-facing training and resources would have been available had I expressed an interest, but there was never a push from within my program to diversify my skillset beyond that required by the academy. Ideally this would happen both in terms of being able to disseminate our research in various forms and acquiring the recognition that our graduate training makes us excellent communicators and analysts.

We should all think about how we can interact with diverse peoples and settings to help mobilize the ideas and research we produce as historians. But also, in my current position, I have ended up interacting with the public and students’ parents much more than I would ever have imagined. Many of these kinds of skills are not necessarily inherently developed in traditional graduate training, but so many of us will need them to be successful no matter the career we choose.

Neil eating ice cream at the Marukan Dining Hall in Hanamaki, Japan. The ice cream is so tall you eat it with chopsticks! Hot Springs, AR, where ASMSA is located, is Hanamaki’s sister city. Credit: Corey Alderdice.

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?

First, be bold! It’s easy to feel confined to pre-set boxes at the beginning of your career—be they disciplinary, institutional, or social—but you should chase down your interests. That said, be flexible and seize opportunities when they arise. Part of that is not getting discouraged when reasonable obstacles pop up, because they will. I’ve made so many random connections that have had very fruitful outcomes. Once I was joking with a friend in graduate school, Vaughn Scribner, about some research I thought he should do. He sarcastically suggested I do the research if I thought it was so interesting. I considered his suggestion and told him we should do the project together. We did, and it’s my favorite research I’ve ever published. Also, be persistent. It took me three years on the job market to land my current position.

Finally, and probably most importantly, be kind. When I was younger, I was often not a kind person and didn’t treat people nearly as well as I should have. I regret it immensely. When I look back now, the people who have been most influential in my career have been the people who were kind to me for no reason other than that I existed. Most everyone I’ve met, even the jerks, have been quite intelligent and talented. But the kind people set themselves apart. I spend a lot more time trying to be the teacher, mentor, and colleague who uplifts others than I ever thought I would have before graduate school.


Enjoyed this interview? Check out “What can you do with a history PhD?“, a piece written by Neil and some of his colleagues.

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Environmental and agricultural historian at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts.

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