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Dr. Issac Land

Bio: Dr. Isaac Land studied history as an undergraduate at Oberlin College. He then went on to receive both his Master’s and PhD in History from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His historical background is in British history. In a book review published in 2007, he coined the term “coastal history,” forming an entirely new subgenre of historical research. His blog on the subject, hosted by Port Towns & Urban Cultures, has been up and running since 2013.

Q: What class do you enjoy teaching the most?

A: The methods class is really fun, because you get to really get to the heart of the discipline, and the challenges. And it’s fun to teach British history because that’s my background.

Q: Favorite author?

A: There’s a novelist named John Crowley, sort of a fantasy author who I’m very fond of.

Q: What are some books that everyone should read?

A: I come back to what Dr. Bierly and I were saying at the event with Dr. Arrington back in February, that without good journalism, and journalism that’s trusted and taken seriously, we are lost. So, I’d like to encourage everyone to read things on current events that lead to a deeper understanding. A quick diagnostic is to ask yourself whether the media source you’re encountering seems to be mostly about making you angry (or angrier) and confirming what you already thought, or whether it’s appealing to your intelligence and challenging you to think in unexpected ways. The best journalism expands our sympathy and understanding, even if we don’t agree with a particular conclusion. Today, finding a quality news source and sticking with it is a goal that should be up there with keeping an eye on your diet and exercise.

Q: What is the most frustrating thing you see students doing?

A: Oh, this is like, ‘insert faculty rant.’ It took me a very long time to adjust to what it meant that I had students who slept in class. And then even to know, like, what should I say, what should I do about that. I do regularly at ISU teach students who went to schools where it was okay to sleep in almost any class, and they’ve never been called out on it to the point where I’ve students sleep in the front row. 

Q: Do you have any advice for history majors?

A: What I would say is probably pretty typical of what any other member of the department would say: it’s just to get used to the idea that it’s a reading intensive and writing intensive major. We get students who are sometimes bitter about it, and they say, “I deliberately didn’t major in English because I didn’t want to read or write a lot.” We started doing exit interviews with our majors, telling them we aren’t evaluating them, we just want to ask them how it went, how we could do better, what was their experience like, etc. I would talk to these guys that I had had in class, who I had thought I hadn’t reached at all. Interestingly, once they’d taken multiple semesters with us, it had sunk in and they would say, “Oh yeah, you really have to do the reading and the critical thinking about the sources.”

Q: Do you have a favorite hobby?

A: Well, I used to go to the gym a lot, but COVID sort of messed that up. Over quarantine, my nephew talked me into buying a VR kit, and those are pretty amazing. I was also teaching myself to draw a little bit, but I’ve been really busy, so I haven’t had the chance to get back to that. It’s kind of fun to start something at absolutely square one, and sort of watch yourself learn. 

Q: What is one thing that students would never guess about you?

A: I was on academic probation as an undergrad once, lacked discipline at that age, so I guess there’s hope for everyone.

Q: Tell me about coastal history!

A: So, I really, really do not talk to students about this stuff. To me, it’s kind of an open question whether what I’m doing would be all that interesting to undergraduates. That being said, I introduced the term “coastal history” in a review essay that was published in the Journal of Social History in 2007. Since then, we have held the first coastal history conference (“Firths and Fjords” at the University of the Highlands and Islands, in Spring 2016). I would argue that most of the coastal history topics are watery, but do not actually overlap with the concerns or methods favored by naval or maritime historians. We looked to the coast to address research questions that did not necessarily originate at sea. If the coast is the center of the inquiry, we enter a different intellectual “neighborhood.”

Q: Why did you start the blog?

A: Most academic blogs are about an individual researcher’s particular work and interests. What I sought to do here, instead, was to use the blog as a placeholder or “proof of concept” for a possible journal and for a new network of professionals. This, necessarily, meant that I frequently read, and wrote, outside my comfort zone, continually introducing new themes and materials. I have been fortunate in attracting a readership that was patient with me as I thought out loud, and learned on the job.

(For those interested, here is a link to the blog: http://porttowns.port.ac.uk/coastal-history-blog/ )

Q: Tell me about your famous Twitter account!

A: I gave this keynote at Portsmouth, and the graduate students who were there were all on Twitter, and so the conference organizer said, “You know, if you would just do one tweet, they would be so happy.” But then it was also a way of staying in touch with the younger people who were active in the academic community. There was this moment where this young woman tweeted that she had been dragged by her boyfriend to a cricket match, and she had brought my book because she was bored. For an author, that’s just so huge. Another part of that, and this has to do with both the blog and the Twitter account, is that I had just felt mischaracterized. I felt like I could set the record straight about who I was and what I stood for, and then it grew from there. 

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