Jennifer Finn, Ph.D.
February 15, 2019
Dr. Jennifer Finn is currently at Marquette University, working as an assistant professor of history. Dr. Finn has two Ph.D.’s; one obtained from the University of Michigan in 2012, and another obtained from the University of Munich in 2015. Her specialization is in Ancient History, but her research varies pretty widely due to her vast interests and the connections that can be made within her field of study. Dr. Finn was brought up as a potential interview candidate one day, and after learning of her unique education experience I thought she would offer some excellent insight involving her work as a scholar.
Q: What interests you about Ancient History, especially kingship? How has your interest evolved over the course of being an undergraduate student, a graduate student, and a post-graduate?
A: I started taking Latin when I was a freshman in high school (because my sister did it—not necessarily a good academic reason!), and I like the language a lot because it was like a big puzzle to me. While I decided I didn’t want to be a philologist (or an archaeologist), I realized that all of Ancient History is like Latin—we don’t know everything we want to know, and we only have so many sources to work with, so it is always like putting a big puzzle together to find answers to our questions. When I entered Michigan for my BA, I only really knew about the Roman world, from my Latin studies, but as I took more classes I realized I was really interested in things like warfare, sports, and empire, in both Greece and Rome. All those things don’t sound like they would naturally go together, but indeed, at least in the Ancient World, all of these things are connected to “Great Man History,” since they were activities that were dominated by men and were connected to the ethos of power, and ultimately, kingship. Since those classed in undergrad, I have approached that topic from a variety of angles—how does a king negotiate his power? Conversely, how do people oppressed by the king influence the limits of his power? I did the latter in my first book on Discourses of Royalty, and I did the former in my second book (which is currently under review) on the ways in which Alexander the Great played on revisions of Mediterranean history to demonstrate his influence (in other words, I argue he is the first “fake news” artist). Modern scholarly trends—and even modern politics—have helped to dictate some of those projects. As I’ve gone on, I’ve also learned to think in more sophisticated ways about the same project, and applied it across disciplines.
Q: What caused you to attend the University of Munich in pursuit of your second Ph.D? How was the learning environment different from the one at the University of Michigan?
A: I actually went to Munich because I had asked Michigan to keep me on for a second PhD, and they told me that they would do it, but couldn’t “start” my funding over again, so there wouldn’t be enough for me to finish there (ie I would have to find alternative forms of funding, at least for the last year). While I was researching Alexander the Great for my PhD in Greek and Roman History, I was particularly interested in his behaviors with relation to the peoples with whom he came into contact in the Ancient Near East. I started taking some classes with Dr. Root on Achaemenid art and architecture and decided that I *had* to learn Akkadian so that I could read the few documents we have that pertain to Alexander’s stay in ancient Persia. I negotiated with IPGRH to let me do a concurrent MA in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, but when I was finished with that, I realized that we should really be studying the two disciplines together, since they are so conversational with one another, and that it would be a shame not to fulfill what I had already started. Luckily, the program Distant Worlds was inaugurated in Munich the year in which I needed to find alternative funding, and it was not weird at all for the Germans for me to request to earn a second PhD, since they have a similar system there (in America, I was turned down by many programs, as two PhDs are considered “superfluous” by many). I was very lucky to be accepted into the program, and it was the most amazing challenge I have ever had. In two years, I had to take a full load of coursework in Akkadian and Sumerian, while learning German and writing a full PhD thesis (which was made easier by the fact that I had already been through the process, and I had to submit a proposal for it as a part of application to the program, so it was half-formed already). There I learned how to do *real* research. In America we tend to stand on the shoulders of giants, using the data mining that has been done by others and applying interpretations to it. In that sense, my German thesis was very American. I learned how to collect, dissect, and really understand small bits of information, instead of cruising through texts at a rapid pace or trying to apply modern theoretical terminology to them (they do not encourage that in Germany). Everyone in Munich works in the Assyriology library—you can’t really work at home since every resource you could possibly need is there in the department. It created a community unlike anything I have ever been a part of, and everyone was so supportive of each other. But they are intense in a way that no one here is: you are constantly defending your ideas or interpretations of a word, which is great practice for the job market. It taught me how to teach my students that they first need to *find* the information, *understand* it at its deeper level, and then—and only then—try to interpret it in its historical context. If you haven’t noticed yet, I have nothing but praise for my time there. It made me a better scholar, a better person, and I think, a much more marketable job candidate.
Q: Are there any obstacles you faced being a woman majoring in/researching Ancient History? Perhaps any obstacles your male correspondents didn’t have to face?
A: I would love to tell you that I ran into obstacles along the way here, but honestly, I haven’t. I have been extraordinarily lucky and I have been able to accomplish everything I wanted to in academia. This may be because I have a really strong—sometimes overbearing, I think—personality. If you’re confident in your work and you work hard, you can have anything you want. I never got Honors status in anything I did in graduate school, and I didn’t have the most creative ideas in my cohort, but I worked harder than anybody else. Hard work doesn’t always beat talent, but it can sometimes.
Q: Were any of the obstacles you faced in the United States different from any of the obstacles you faced in Germany?
A: This is very specific to the situation—I had some practical problems in Germany, like the fact that my German was terrible, and only got marginally better after two years there (I really had to choose—do I focus on this thesis or becoming fluent in German? My husband was in America and I needed to get home to him as quickly as I could). I had to learn how to talk like an academic in German; for instance, there is an “American” and a “German” way of talking about Sumerian morphology, and they didn’t want anything to do with the “American” way (but I liked theirs better ultimately, because they really explained the logic behind it, which I think sometimes we fail to do as well in America). On the other hand, the Germans were, I think, more welcoming and supportive (although their academic expectations were *much* higher, which I think was good for keeping me accountable. Their undergrads were way over my head in Akkadian and Sumerian). I never lacked for resources in Germany—they have all the books and all the money you could need, both of which we are sorely lacking in America (although Michigan is one of the better places to find it). We went on “field trips” to Paris, Berlin, and NYC, all paid for by Distant Worlds. You wouldn’t see that in America. I would say that the job market in America is much more open; there are fewer jobs in Germany, and even those are mostly post-docs.
Q: Why did you decide to become a professor at Marquette University? How do you feel that working here benefits you as a scholar?
A: Well, although I was very lucky to have more campus interviews than I care to share, part of the reason I came to Marquette is because they offered me a job. I wanted to work here because I am the only ancient historian and can shape my own program (although as you can imagine that too has its negative aspects, especially in terms of creating an academic community, and then also my students only have one person to see if they want to do more ancient history than just an intro course). That means that I have been able to teach classes that interest me (like “Ancient History’s Unsolved Mysteries” or “The Ancient Villain,”), which is great because any time you teach something it always helps you to think more about a subject, which can potentially help your research. Because there is no ancient history graduate program here, I can also focus on teaching the undergrads and not focus on directing PhD theses, which frees up my time for research. Also, I am in good proximity to Chicago if I want to go to the OI, and I still use the Michigan library when I visit my parents in the summer.
Sara Brumfield, Ph.D.
January 21, 2019
Dr. Sara Brumfield is an independent researcher who works with various organizations in order to get information out about Ancient Mesopotamia to the general public. As a UCLA graduate, Dr. Brumfield’s most recent work includes an article titled “How to Spot Fake Cuneiform Tablets”, published by the American Schools of Oriental Research in September 2018. I chose to interview Dr. Brumfield after discovering a Khan Academy video featuring her discussing cuneiform tablets and her job translating them; the video was very interesting and easy to understand, so naturally she seemed like a great person to interview due to her experience.
Q: What interests you about cuneiform tablets? How has your interest evolved over the course of being an undergraduate student, a graduate student, and a post-graduate?
A: For me, if I am to truly understand a thing, I must understand its origin. And, I have always been interested in our species, first as a biology major in college, then switching to linguistics when my interest became more abstract. I really liked the idea of coming at a problem sideways; instead of studying psychology to understand why humans do what they do, I could study language to glimpse the human mind. When thinking about graduate programs, I knew I didn’t want to study traditional, theoretical linguistics, but rather wanted to use linguistics to understand human origins. Well, turns out, there’s only one place to start: Mesopotamia. The grammar came easily, which made philology enjoyable, and as a visual learner, I took to the cuneiform writing system. As I mastered the languages and writings systems, I wanted to use these as tools to better understand humans. So, I turned these into tools to extract behavioral patterns in my dissertation research. And now, I focus predominantly on using these or similar tools to detect patterns or trends in human behavior.
Q: Are there any obstacles you faced being a woman researching the Ancient Middle East? Perhaps any obstacles your male correspondents didn’t have to face?
A: Many obstacles were shared by many students, the quest for funding, favoritism, etc. The main obstacle I faced that I attribute predominantly to my gender is that being in a male-dominated field, many professors (being predominantly male) did not know how to interact with me. Perhaps they were afraid of saying the wrong thing or being misunderstood, but this translated largely into not having a lot of interaction with professors in my field. Despite going to conferences or corresponding over research, I found that Assyriology remained a bit of a boys’ club. I could get passed the bouncer, but there wasn’t much for me inside. And, this was one of several factors I considered when deciding to leave academia.
Q: Do you feel as if being an independent researcher/self-employed researcher makes it more difficult to be represented within the field of the Ancient Middle East? Or do you think this makes it easier to make your voice stand out and show your own personal contribution as a scholar?
A: I was surprised to learn from other independent researchers in unrelated fields that they are unable to publish without an academic affiliation. This has made me appreciate the more open-minded approach of Assyriology since there has never been an issue of affiliation when publishing or presenting. In this respect, it is easier to continue as an independent researcher in my field, but overall, it remains difficult. Although I have access to Assyriological references and materials, I lack the institutional support that allocated time to work on research. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is unpaid outside of academia.
Q: How do you choose which organizations/businesses to work with? How do you synthesize the amounts of data you have into something easier to understand and aimed towards a popular audience?
A: Choosing projects and organizations varies greatly, depending on my current availability, the nature of the data, the questions to be answered. As most people who work for themselves, I can let my mood or curiosity, and not academic or tenure obligations, direct my path.
Ingesting large amounts of technical data and creating something easy, fun and interesting takes practice, practice, practice. But I have found that no amount of practice will help if someone is not a strong critical thinker able to do complex social calculus about the audience and the material. As a trained academic researcher, I was taught to home in on a certain type of message for a particular audience. I simply re-calibrate those settings, which requires an understanding of the world outside of academia and all the skills I learned in graduate school.