Revisiting Grad School - Professors' Edition: Dr. Paul Renfro

Thu, 09/09/21
Paul Renfro

Dr. Paul Renfro is an assistant professor of US history. He received his PhD from the University of Iowa in 2016 and joined FSU in 2018.

What is your academic area?

I am an historian of the United States, specifically the post-1945 U.S., and I have thematic interests in gender and sexuality, childhood and family, and the carceral state.

When did you receive your degree?

I earned the PhD in 2016, after six years of graduate school. I don’t think any graduate career is completely smooth as we all face setbacks and challenges in either the application process, or research, or one of the other facets of graduate life. But I have only good things to say about my time in graduate school.

What made you want to study history?

I have long been fascinated by politics. I majored in political science in college, but halfway through, I realized I wasn’t interested in the quantitative stuff, which was at the heart of the discipline. I was more interested in political culture and history. So, I gradually moved over to history and things clicked. I admired my professors, and I decided that this was what I wanted to be. When I applied to grad school, right around the time of the great recession in 2010, I knew I wanted to become a professor, even though I was aware of the barriers and challenges.

I knew I was interested in US history, especially the African-American freedom struggle. I was even more interested in the responses and opposition to this struggle, and that led me to the study of conservatism, a burgeoning field at the time. My initial interest led me to other areas like the carceral state, and the rise of the right. My conversations with people who were interested in similar things further inspired my research.

What were some challenges you faced?

I went straight from undergrad to grad school. The transition from political science to history was not that difficult because I knew history was what I should have done all along. Things became easier, they made more sense as I pursued my education in history. I minored in African American studies and history in undergrad, and that helped the transition.

My biggest challenge was probably figuring out what my historiographical intervention was. What was I trying to argue? Why did it matter? My advisor pushed me to ask better and broader questions. That was challenging because I felt inadequate at times, but it made me rethink my own interpretation and be more thorough. Everybody comes to sources with their own ideas and assumptions. Revisiting those is often fruitful. It worked out, but when I was in the moment it was daunting at times.

How did you arrive at your dissertation topic?

My dissertation dealt with the national panic around child safety and its relation to the construction of the carceral state. I learned about these two girls who had gone missing in Iowa shortly before I arrived there. I encountered a lot of people talking about this case, together with the other two cases that happened quite a few years before in the 1980s—the cases of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin. I was struck by the ways people were deploying notions of innocence and crime. I had known that there was this moment in the late ‘70s when public concern about child trafficking and exploitation exploded. Did this cultural moment warrant interrogation and exploration? Why did folks begin to fear the idea of child kidnapping, stranger danger, at that specific time in our history? What kind of political and cultural dynamics fed into that?

I initially approached it as part of the move toward the right politically, involving ideas such as your kids will be kidnapped by evildoers and other constructed notions. My advisor helped me complicate the conclusion. It wasn’t only people on the right who were the proponents of this issue; this was a more ubiquitous and unassailable belief. Almost everyone across the political spectrum thought this was a real issue, and we needed to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. Some falsely claimed that about 50,000 children were abducted in the U.S. every year. But there was no real data for that claim. There was no statistical basis for this kind of fear.

Yet it certainly brought about changes in mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. It helped expand the sex offense registry, which is really large in the United States now, with just a little bit shy of a million people registered. This allowed me to see beyond just the political lens. Literature focusing on mass incarceration flourished while I was in grad school, and that helped me situate my dissertation in different conversations.

How long did it take for you to write your dissertation?

About a year, which was unusually short. My dissertation became further removed from how I had initially conceptualized the project. It takes a long time to develop your ideas into something worthwhile. It is important not to get sucked into all the different conversations going on in your field. Twentieth-century US history is particularly expansive. You have to specialize and narrow your focus and not worry about these different conversations. They will inform what you will be doing, but you can’t speak to every single idea in historiography.

Who, or what, are you most grateful for helping you complete your degree?

My advisor and second reader were very patient in reading every draft and working through every idea. I’m very grateful to them. Also, my cohort made me feel like I was part of a vibrant and rich intellectual community. We’d meet for coffee or dinner, go to people’s houses, talk about what they were working on, or talk about things outside the realm of our studies, these were all welcome respites.

There were all these pressures put on you to publish and read for different classes. Graduate courses often have a heavy reading load. If you work too hard, you’ll get burned out. Balance is key.

Is there anything you’d like to tell your pre-grad school self?

I guess I would say, you’d get a job. But saying more might be difficult because it’s hard to impart the kind of knowledge I now have on my pre-grad school self.

What advice would you give current students about handling the challenges of grad school?

Be flexible. A lot of people enter with the mindset they’ll be tenure-track professors. But that might not work out. It’s important to look at different options and remain open. There are tons of other things you could do. Position yourself in ways that could make you competitive for those various things.

Public history and humanities are sometimes understood in narrow terms. Being a historian can come in all forms and shapes. You can write for public consumption; you can write for newspapers; you can work in public history sites. There’s also a lot of government work you can do with a history PhD. A lot of enterprises look for people who can tell stories. I had a colleague who now works at Vantage Point History, a firm that helps public entities seek to contextualize an issue, something relevant to their brand.

Sometimes finding out what you don’t want to do also helps. I personally knew I did not want to work in a library or an archive. I thought if academia did not work out, I could become an editor or help edit writings. I think my training prepared me to move forward in several directions, and I tried to be flexible. There were many avenues suitable for me, but those are not necessarily the right ones for other folks. There is no one-size-fits-all model.