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Rajeshwari Dutt is assistant professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi. She lives in Himachal Pradesh, India, and has been a member since 2010.
Alma maters: BA, Franklin & Marshall College, 2005; MA, Carnegie Mellon University, 2007; PhD, Carnegie Mellon University, 2012
Fields of interest: Maya history and culture, 19th-century Mexico and Belize
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?I was fortunate to have been raised in a family in India where historical scholarship is very highly valued. I attended a liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At that time, the history department there did not offer any courses in Indian history. Quite by chance, I signed up for a Latin American history course. I was immediately struck with how similar the fabric of culture and history were in India and Latin America. I have been hooked on Latin American history ever since.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? Right after completing my PhD in 2012, I returned to India with my husband and we both joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, as assistant professors. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, the campus is probably one of the most scenic in India. The views of the snow-clad ranges are just breathtaking! It is an engineering institute with a strong emphasis on the social sciences. The institute encourages interdisciplinarity and I have worked collaboratively on projects with engineers, applying historical thinking to engineering problems. At the same time, everyone here has been very supportive of my research on Latin American history.
What projects are you currently working on? I am currently working on the impact of the Caste War of Mexico on the neighboring region of British Honduras (present-day Belize). The Caste War has mainly been seen as a Mexican phenomenon. What I am exploring is how integral the war was to Belizean history. I am particularly interested in race relations at the borderlands between Mexico and Belize. Although Belize has been traditionally left out of “Latin” American history there is a real need to address the shared history of Mexico and Belize.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? I guess the best way to answer that would be to say that I have stepped away from a mass of trees to look at the forest as a whole. I think a PhD trains you to really become an expert in your narrow specialization. But post-PhD, you have the opportunity to see how your part relates to the whole. I have come to regard history as a tool that can address many issues. In one of my current projects I am collaborating with an economist to study the impact of a government employment scheme in rural areas of India. Likewise, I am involved in creating an archive here at IIT Mandi and find I can use history in institute-building.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? My very first exposure to an archive was in my undergraduate college where I was a student worker at the library. At the library’s archive I found a host of rare WWI posters from my college town. It was a hands-on experience where I helped preserve the WWI posters and even curated an exhibit of the posters. It was great to see students and locals come to the exhibit and learn a bit about the town’s history. It was my first exposure to archival material. And it was exhilarating!
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? My job involves teaching history to engineering students. I am therefore always on the lookout for books that will hold their interest and communicate complex developments in history in an accessible way. One of my mainstays in my world history course is Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Bloomsbury, 2009). Brook’s masterful use of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings to open a window into 17th-century global interactions is sure to kindle historical imagination even in the most indifferent student. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone teaching world history or the 17th century in the United States or foreign classrooms.
What do you value most about the history discipline? I feel that history provides us with a unique temporal sensitivity, critical thinking skills, and the ability to step back and examine the big picture. Historical thinking has stood me in good stead in all my walks of life and made me a better individual and a better citizen.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? The AHA is probably one of the most important organizations promoting historical research, thinking, and teaching today. Especially in our day and age when circumstances around us may seem chaotic, the AHA provides a space to reaffirm the values of historical thinking in making sense of a changing world.