Jon Free

Jon Free.
I’m constantly reminded of this first experience working on an interdisciplinary team in my role at the Energy Initiative, where I am almost always the only historian (or, indeed, the only humanist) at the table. Thanks to Bass Connections, I can navigate conversations about interdisciplinary research with the confidence not only that history matters, but also that I have been able to make it matter in similar situations in the past.

Degree

Ph.D. in History

Project Team

I began Duke’s Ph.D. program in history with the conviction that history mattered. That is, I believed that history can have a powerful influence over the present. Indeed, it was that belief—even more than the love of tracking down historical sources and cobbling them into an analysis of change over time, which is quite a motivator itself—that drove me to pursue a doctorate in history. But I don’t think I really understood how to make history matter until I was part of a Bass Connections research team.

In all honesty, the project I joined, “Regulatory Disaster Scene Investigation,” was only tangentially connected to my dissertation research. I had a general interest in notions of risk and the process of regulatory reform, especially in relation to coal mining disasters, but knew that the team was not likely to produce the sort of focused research that would be directly applicable to my dissertation. Still, I was intrigued by the possibilities Bass Connections presented.

My curiosity was rewarded almost immediately. Working one-on-one with Kate Preston offered me the chance to mentor an advanced undergraduate student in a collaborative research setting, something very few Ph.D. candidates in history receive training in. Today, I lean on that experience whenever I’m helping students develop and execute research projects, whether as a part of a class I’m teaching or in my role as research development director at the Duke University Energy Initiative.

Just as importantly, stepping slightly outside of my comfort zone to join a Bass Connections team forced me to hone my vision of an engaged historian. By joining a team mostly comprised of students with backgrounds in policy and economics, I forced myself to answer the questions of why history mattered to the issues we were exploring and how a historians’ perspective could inform policy research in productive ways.

In the case of our Bass Connections team, the answers to those questions came down to history’s power to analyze unintended consequences. Once Kate and I discovered that Congress had created the much-maligned Chemical Safety Board with the explicit goal of replicating the success of the highly-regarded National Transportation Safety Board, we were able to build a historically-informed argument about why some standing investigative agencies are more effective than others.

I’m constantly reminded of this first experience working on an interdisciplinary team in my role at the Energy Initiative, where I am almost always the only historian (or, indeed, the only humanist) at the table. Thanks to Bass Connections, I can navigate conversations about interdisciplinary research with the confidence not only that history matters, but also that I have been able to make it matter in similar situations in the past.