Career Committee Interviews: Dr. Kathryn Roberts

By The Career Committee: Iris Marissen, Chloë Zoer and Anne Zomer | July 3, 2021

On To New Roads – Career Conference 2021 – Interview with Dr. Roberts 

Since this year’s conference focuses on a future after American Studies, we figured it would be a great idea to do an interview with one of our very own professors. We want to thank Dr. Roberts for answering our questions and taking time out of her schedule for us! 

Where did you grow up and how did this influence your career/study choices?

Dr. Roberts: ‘Interesting question. I was born in New York City, and lived there until I was seven years old. I then moved to Connecticut, which is a place very different from New York City, and I definitely think that the way I grew up influenced what I wanted to do. When I was very young my mother was doing a postdoc in the sciences. When I was born she was a graduate student, and she did a postdoc in Manhattan at Rockefeller university. So when I was young I grew up in this very strange, almost utopian academic university community. We all lived in subsidized housing for faculty and graduate students, since Manhattan is very expensive. There were scientists from all over the world, and their children, I was one of the children. We had this little children’s school where we all went, we did ballet classes in our building, so even though we lived in Manhattan we lived in this kind of hive. And I think that because of my earliest memories of a university as this welcoming community, which had families in it and not just scholars and students, it influenced my perspective. I have always thought that universities were these kinds of magical places that brings people together from all over the world. And it is a place where intensely nerdy people from all over the world can belong. So I am sure it did influence my choice to spend the rest of my life devoted to that institution.’ 

What drove you to teach about the United States? 

Dr. Roberts: ‘I think that probably also has to do a lot with my family. I came from this very non-academic family from the South, and this very academic family from the North-East. Both of those families were very conservative, both Republican voters and enthusiastic capitalists and Christians. Even my academic family were die hard Calvinist Presbyterians. So I think, partly because of this, that I have always been fascinated by the contradictions and weirdness of American culture. I think that is probably where it started, but when I was in highschool we actually started reading American literature in a serious way. And I started realizing that my ‘crazy’ grandparents were not actually that crazy, they were just American, and there are obvious interesting reasons why they are like this. So that is what really made me interested in history and culture. It was mainly really personal and later we started learning about it in school. What is probably different for Dutch students is that it is more of an outsider’s perspective on the United States, which I found really appealing, even if your teachers are from there. While for me it was more a lens I could use to see my own life, and my own family history but from the outside. I also wanted to teach in Europe, and I thought it would be easier if I was an American expert.’

So, what exactly did you study before teaching? 

Dr. Roberts: ‘I studied English in university, and I had a minor or backup degree in Art History, which was almost completely focused on olden Age Dutch and Flemish art. There was one teacher who I just thought was so cool, and he specialized in the Netherlands, he was from Ghent. I took around six classes, and we studied abroad with him in Amsterdam and Ghent. I had this weird kind of side interest in the Netherlands, so it’s funny that I ended up living here. 

I think that one of the reasons I liked him so much was because of the kind of teaching he did. His specialty was art markets, and he studied the origins of the mass consumption of art in the 17th century, and the origins of capitalism. I just thought this was the coolest way to learn about history. I had never taken a history course, but this art stuff was my way in. I have probably always been most interested in history, but for some reason I did not like the way history was taught in highschool, so I didn’t take history courses. Culture and art have always been my way into things. 

My PhD is also in English, it is not at all in American Studies, but for me, American Studies really feels like a scholarly home. We take some culture and we use it to talk about history, politics, and economics. So, I didn’t know what my real home was until I came to Groningen, and there I found it, it was American Studies.’ 

Since you say you have always been interested in the Netherlands, how do you experience working at a Dutch university, and how is it different from working at a university in the United States? 

Dr. Roberts: ‘I finished my PhD in 2016, and taught as a lecturer and teaching assistant at Harvard for about two years before coming here. Harvard and the University of Groningen are very different kinds of universities. Harvard is smaller, especially the undergraduate part, there are only 6000 students. The students live on campus, and they have this really intense kind of living/learning community system. Rents are very high in Cambridge, Massachusetts so graduate students can’t really afford to pay them. So, a lot of graduate students live in the dorms with undergraduates and kind of take care of them. Which made me kind of the “house mom” for a bunch of 18-year-olds. 

So my experience at Harvard was being very much part of undergraduate life, and knowing everything about what my students were doing and what clubs they were part of, and what major they were gonna choose. While when I came here it was exactly the opposite, I have no idea what you guys do outside of my classroom(I still don’t really understand what a Student Association is!) So for me, the biggest difference is the contact with undergraduate life. 

And at the same time, my experience here has been so shaped by the small community of American Studies. It is kind of our home in the university. I don’t think about the university as a whole that much, I have no idea what they do in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, but in American Studies, I know exactly what you learn in all of your courses, and there is a team of nine or ten of us who teach all those courses, and we meet together all the time. The University of Groningen is a much bigger place, and it could feel more anonymous, but I think for us, in American Studies, it is actually a pretty intense tiny village. It is a very warm community.’ 

Do you aspire to teach in a specific country or at a specific university one day?

Dr. Roberts: ‘I think for me the university of Groningen has become a research home, and because of that, I would like to stay as long as possible. I have a couple of close collaborators that I am working on projects with right now. For example, I’m doing a collaboration with an Arts Sociologist in the program of Arts, Culture and Media, which is the kind of opportunity that I don’t think I would’ve necessarily had at a US university. There is something about the structure of the Faculty of Arts where there are, on the research side, fewer boundaries between programs. It has been very easy for me to make connections with scholars who have really similar interests but different specialties, and I really value that kind of collaboration. And for whatever reason, it has felt easier to me to collaborate with scholars in other fields, and to generate new collaborations here than it did in other places where I have worked and been. So because of the research collaborations I have here, it would make me very sad to leave. I also quite like living in Groningen.’ 

What do you like the best about living in Groningen or what is your favorite place here?

Dr. Roberts: ‘I love the market. The fact that you can go to this giant farmers market with flowers on the Vismarkt, and see the same dogs and their humans every week, or even three times a week if you want. For an American, a town like Groningen is so charming. It has this kind of medieval vibrancy and feeling, you can walk or bike everywhere. And even though I am a total outsider and my Dutch is not very good, I have these kind of street friends, people I have just met, mostly because I like their dogs, who just live in my neighborhood but now they are friends. And something about the way public space works in Europe is extremely different from the way it works in the United States, where cities are more privatized and built for cars, and cities just feel totally different in the US. And I think once you move here it is hard to go back.’ 

How did the pandemic influence your career and teaching? 

Dr. Roberts: ‘A lot of us are historians in the American Studies program, which means we work with archives. I had to cancel a month-long archive trip in North America, which meant I had to change my book, and not write a chapter that I was going to write and write something else instead. It also meant shifting my research communities to Europe and to the internet. In the past, I might go to three conferences a year in the US. I’m not sure that will keep happening, so that’s a big thing. But one of the nice things about being a scholar is that you have these international scholarly communities. In the past this has involved a lot of travel, and that’s really cool and fun, but I do think that will change a bit, both because of people being much more self-conscious about how damaging airline travel is for the environment, but also because we now have this experience of still being able to be in contact with each other in a distance. However, I do not like the teaching thing. I am not into online teaching at all, I find it really really hard, and very very tiring. And I think you guys do too.’

So, how do you stay motivated during online teaching? 

Dr. Roberts; ‘It sounds to me like for students, ‘motivation’ has been the hardest part. That’s the word that I keep hearing from students. I think for me, maybe because this material that I teach is stuff I’m really passionate about, it’s the stuff I’ve devoted my life to, so I don’t have to ‘get up’ for the material. I think for me what’s been hard is almost a sense of unreality, especially the fact that it’s very hard to see you all when I’m teaching. You realize how much informal feedback you get from students’ faces, or when they laugh at something or make a skeptical noise: I really miss skeptical noises! I wish there were an emoji for skeptical noise. So basically you have no sense of where students are, and without that kind of feedback, it’s very hard to know if learning is taking place, or what else you need to do to help people. 

And I think the one thing I did that was very helpful in my second and third year classes was to use the online discussion board, where students would have a chance to respond to the readings in advance, and that was the thing that kind of kept these courses feeling real for me, in a sense that I would know what they got out of the material that week, and what I could work with. And I’m sure there are other teachers that are much better with coming up with ways of generating that online, and there are people who teach professionally online and are really good at it, but I think for us it never got out of emergency mode. Partly because of the uncertainty, in the beginning, no one thought it would be a year and a half online.

So for me, it’s the lack of knowing what my students are doing either personally or just like understanding the material. You don’t realize how much you live for the moments where you feel like your students have understood something new or suddenly understood something that they didn’t get before or are really moved by something. And when all of this is happening privately behind a screen it’s just hard to know. And we don’t want to force you to react just to make us feel better, but teaching to people who may or may not be listening is just very hard, but we also know it’s hard for students. And I’m excited for us to not do this anymore.’ 

Something entirely different, what has been the highlight of your career so far?

Dr. Roberts: ‘I think basically getting the opportunity of living in a foreign country for a long time. It was something I wanted to do since I was pretty young, and the fact that it’s possible because of the job I chose and the thing I studied, which is nothing exotic, I mean I study Americans, but that is probably the coolest thing. It’s not just a great job, it is a pretty transformative life experience. Living here has changed my perspective on the US, changed my scholarship, even changed my personality probably.’ 

Do you have any tips or recommendations for students who want to get into teaching or want to get a PhD? 

Dr. Roberts: ‘First try out whether you like teaching, because teaching is a huge part of the scholarly life, and some people don’t like it. I think it’s one of the most rewarding careers you can have, if you like doing it. There are all kinds of ways of trying out teaching and getting teaching experience, whether it’s working with high school students while you’re in university, or different tutoring experiences. The university is always hiring student assistants, there are ways to get a taste of teaching. Of course I think it’s the best profession, and teachers will always be needed at every level, but it requires quite a wide range of intellectual, emotional and logistical skills. And some people just love it, and some people spend a day in the classroom and are like: get me the hell out of here! 

My advice for people who think they might want to do a PhD is first of all, do a masters program. And I think the masters in American Studies is a great one to do, because as you all know, we’re pretty serious, research-oriented kind of folks in American Studies, so those seminars are good prep for the kind of thinking you would need to do in a PhD. But a research masters in the Netherlands would also be a good prep. 

Getting a PhD position, especially in the Netherlands, is super competitive, and it requires that you have a PhD project, already developed, and a really developed, really well-written proposal. And in the past couple years, I have helped students to varying degrees, while they were writing those proposals, and it’s a really intense process. I think it would take at least a year to write a really good proposal, and the good ones often come out of a MA project. So if you are interested in a PhD, talk to your advisors and instructors, and get advice about it.Ask them what an academic life really is like, and be really realistic about what you can expect. 

The other thing I would say is, we have had quite a few students in American Studies over the years who have gotten into very competitive PhD programs, in the US, in Germany, the Netherlands, all over the place. And you know how American Studies students are, they will talk to you, they will share with you, they will send you their proposal, they’re very generous people, so I think for students who are interested in doing a PhD, you should talk to other people who have started the process or are in the middle of the process, because that is one of the most informative things. And doing it in Europe is quite different from doing it in the US, although you guys are often very well positioned to do a PhD in the US. People who graduate from this program are often very sophisticated thinkers, and very good writers, and that’s the most important thing for getting into a PhD program, you have to be an excellent scholarly writer.’ 

Do you think students need an MA even if they don’t want a PhD or if they don’t want to get into the teaching field?

Dr. Roberts: ‘First let me say that there are technical answers to that question, depending on the field and your personal circumstances, and there are good statistics that I don’t know off the top of my head.. I think it’s generally understood nowadays that the more education you have to work with, the better. Some jobs require a master’s, and some jobs will pay you more 

if you have a master’s, so those are good reasons to get a masters. Some students start working after their BA, and then realize that in order to move into the kind of world they really want to be in, they need more education. So that’s also a perfectly normal trajectory. 

I was working for a management consulting firm when I graduated from university, and it quickly became apparent that if I wanted to be one of the people who made significantly more money, and managed other people , then I would probably need either an MBA or PhD.

It’s not like people in that firm had a relevant PhD for their corporate job, but the firm valued the prestige of having these people with PhDs around. So education also has a symbolic value, as opposed to a degree teaching you certain skills: it’s a kind of confirmation for the company that you’re able to think in a certain way. 

But master’s degrees are also a way of having another year or two of freedom to study, and if you like studying, I can’t imagine a better way of spending your time..At least in the US, the job market for people with PhDs in my field–English–is pretty terrible. Most people who startknow that, but it’s also five years of funding to study Medieval literature, or Restoration drama, and if you’re really passionate about Medieval literature, nobody else is gonna pay you to do it.So some people do it just because they want to. 

So anyway, I think there are practical answers to this question, and then there are also answers about passion and human freedom, and what it is you really like to spend your time doing, and I think they are both very important considerations.