This semester, in our spring series, PCURs will interview a graduate student from their home department who either is currently a graduate student at Princeton, or attended Princeton as an undergraduate. In Graduate Student Reflections: Life in Academia, interviews with graduate students shed light on the variety of paths one can take to get to graduate school and beyond, and the many insights gained along the way from research projects and mentors. Here, Rafi shares his interview.
Jonathon Catlin is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of History, focusing on intellectual responses to the Holocaust. Before beginning at Princeton, he earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago in Jewish Studies and Fundamentals: Issues and Texts and his M.A. in philosophy from KU Leuven in Belgium. A few days ago, I sat down with him in Chancellor Green café to hear about his research journey and some of what he’s learned along the way.
How did you arrive at your current research topic?
I was a junior in high school and, for whatever reason, I decided to take a course called “The Holocaust in History, Literature, and Film” at Harvard Summer School. Why I chose it I don’t know, but the rest is history. Holocaust representation and its intersections with philosophy, religion, literature, film — all in a sort of historical context — is essentially what I’ve been working on for about eight years now, bouncing around multiple disciplines.
My dissertation is hopefully going to be on the concept of catastrophe in modern European thought – a project I’ve been working on since my first year of undergrad. I guess the newest thing for me about coming to Princeton is that I’m in a history department now, which is just totally different than the interdisciplinary humanities focus that I was used to.
Since your field spans a number of disciplines, how did you decide on history?
I applied to many different types of programs and had to make a lot of hard choices. Though I came from an interdisciplinary background, I ultimately decided that I wanted a home discipline. History – and in particular intellectual history – is really interdisciplinary, but anchored in an area, a language, and certain archives. I like that kind of stability.
Why did you choose Princeton?
I visited even before I applied. In general, in grad school admissions, you’re really drawn to one or two advisers at a school. That’s definitely the case with me here. Princeton just had really good faculty for what I want to do. My adviser is Anson Rabinbach in the history department and I wouldn’t be here if he weren’t here.
Also, at the graduate level, Princeton’s so small that it ends up being extremely interdisciplinary. Catastrophe is a very broad concept. It goes in and out of multiple languages and multiple kinds of literature, philosophy, and historical writing, so I need a degree of breadth — even though my home base is in the history department. I’ve encountered zero red tape here. There’s a kind of autonomy and responsibility given to you as a grad student here that I greatly appreciate. It’s assumed that whatever you choose to do with your time here is going to be advancing your project. That freedom has allowed me to take several courses in other disciplines and also at other universities in the New York area.
Did you expect to focus on the same academic project for eight years?
I didn’t plan it necessarily. I’ve been doing this for seven or eight years and I still don’t feel like I have answers to the central questions motivating my work. It just feels like a calling, I guess. Even though there are hundreds of books on my subject that come out every year, it still feels like there’s a place for my intervention. There are still a lot of unanswered questions and the challenges so far have been encouraging of new intellectual activity.
What motivated you to pursue an M.A. in philosophy prior to applying for Ph.D. programs?
The major difference is that Ph.D. programs these days are usually funded, while Master’s programs are usually not. I knew pretty much from the beginning of college that I was going to apply to Ph.D. programs, so my Master’s was sort of incidental. Nowadays you don’t usually need a Masters if you’re coming from a top institution and you’re not switching disciplines. I went to Belgium and did this program partly because it was free and partly because it served as a gap year program for me while I was applying for Ph.D. programs.
How has the transition from interdisciplinary research to history research affected your work?
In my experience, being in a discipline actually does improve your work. When I look back now on my interdisciplinary B.A. thesis, I was really just writing for my adviser and I don’t think it would have been accessible to anyone else. It was written in “theory-ese,” which is a problem in the humanities in general. I feel that history has a much more outward- or public-facing approach to writing. I think it’s telling that the way that one becomes famous and respected in history is by writing popular books that people actually read, which is not true for most other humanities disciplines. How do you make something complex accessible in a way that doesn’t diminish the complexity of actual events? I’ve kind of internalized this goal: explaining my work to people who aren’t already invested in it. In theory anyone should be able to pick up your book. You have to communicate upfront the importance of what you’re working on.
Has your research methodology changed since undergraduate school?
Yes. When I was in undergrad, I did philosophy research — which meant that I was invested in questions of truth. When I was reading certain authors, I cared about whether what they said was persuasive or accurate. Since undergrad, I’ve realized that I actually don’t have much of a stake in whether what certain authors wrote was true. For me what’s been liberating about history is that I can focus on how context influenced ideas. I can pay attention to affect and biography and what people were writing to their friends versus what they were writing in their published masterworks. It’s allowed me to build a fuller picture of the thing I’m interested in rather than immediately asking the question of whether it’s true, which I now find reductive.
What are some of the challenges of your specific field?
Intellectual history is often considered elitist because we’re working mostly with published sources and elite intellectual figures. We’re not doing proletariat history or subaltern history for the most part, although a lot of the figures that we work on were interested in those social questions. Intellectual history is one of the least public-facing sub-fields of history but I think one central aim is to take abstruse philosophy and make it presentable and accessible. But you’re always working with figures who wrote really difficult philosophy and, at the end of the day, you have an obligation to maintain the complexity of their thought.
The main critique of my sub-field is that most of the figures that I work on are dead white men. That’s something to reckon with. But even the field of Holocaust Studies has become much more intersectional in recent years. There’s new work on the Holocaust in light of post-colonialism, in light of racial violence in America. In the fall at Princeton, I’m organizing a conference called “Comparative Memory and Justice: The Holocaust and Racial Violence in America” that’s on the advantages and challenges of historical comparison. Even if we can’t compare these events in a direct way, we can talk about strategies of remembrance and the kinds of social reckoning like perpetrator trials and building memorials that need to happen to work through difficult pasts.
Do you have any regrets about your academic path?
I regret that I didn’t do enough serious language work in undergrad. One drawback of interdisciplinary work is that there’s nobody making sure that you cover all the bases. History is a discipline that’s really rooted in—perhaps even fetishizes—language abilities, and people will always note when there’s a historian in the room who speaks eight languages. In college I started Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and Polish, but I have very little of all of them – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Once you get to graduate school you can decide, “Okay, I’m going to need to use this archive that’s in Polish,” and you spend a summer really beefing up your skills. But for me, German is now my main language and I started it comparatively late. I started it only in my third year of undergrad and I was only doing it in the summers. It wasn’t until I got to Princeton that I really became fluent. That’s one of the disciplinary frictions I experienced in moving from a more interdisciplinary humanities background into a solid discipline.
What role has mentorship played in your research journey?
To me, mentorship is one of the best parts about being in academia. I’ve always loved the organic intellectual networks that arise in academic spaces. Making connections on a personal level as well as an intellectual level can be very validating and it’s important to find people in your field who support your work.
I haven’t taught yet at Princeton, but I have a ReMatch mentee and we share a lot of the same interests in intellectual history and leftist politics. I was also happy to help him connect with a grad student and a faculty member in his field of interest for a research project this summer. Building those kinds of deep connections in research is exactly the kind of work that you’re ultimately going to be doing in grad school.
Do you have any advice for undergraduates interested in preparing for graduate-level research projects?
Writing a senior thesis is the best preparation there is for graduate work — even if you totally change your topic once you start a graduate program.
When preparing your statement of purpose for graduate school, one of the most important things to keep in mind is the appropriate scale for a dissertation project. I’ve actually heard faculty describe the statement of purpose as a homework assignment to test whether you know what answerable research questions look like. Your topic is to some extent secondary and can always change after you start. In most cases, the scope of your research has to be narrowed or it’s going to be a totally unmanageable project. Once you have the project concretely worked out, you can start to think about broader implications. That was actually a problem that I had. My undergraduate major was organized around a fundamental question of human existence: what is the human response to catastrophe? I used sources ranging from the Book of Job to responses to 9/11. Once I started sharing this with historians, they would tell me, “That’s not historical. Two thousand years is not an appropriate historical time frame.” I had to step back and focus on the real driver of these questions, which was Holocaust Studies, even though it bled into other timeframes. So I’d say that figuring out the right scale for your project is an important starting-point for thinking about a potential dissertation and long-term graduate research.
Having just declared my concentration, I loved hearing Jon’s take on the benefits of working within a single discipline. I also appreciated his emphasis on writing accessibly — even at the graduate level. I’m jealous of Jon’s ReMatch mentee…
–Rafi Lehmann, Social Sciences Correspondent