A Conversation with Professor Karl Appuhn
Janet Lee: Okay so can you just introduce yourself very quickly?
Karl Appuhn: Sure.. My name is Karl Appuhn. I’m a faculty member in the History department and the department of Italian studies. I’m also the director of the Medieval and Renaissance Center and of the Science and Society Minor Program.
JL: We’ll start off with where you grew up, what you did for fun as a child, just a kind of general character we can start off with to find out what you’re like!
KA: I was born in California, but my father was a civil engineer who worked in international development projects mostly for Italian construction companies. So most of my childhood was spent either in Rome, Italy or on job sites in the developing world. We lived in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Iran at various points in the late 1960s and 70s. Childhood was much less structured when I was young, so mostly I played with friends. The jobsites on international development projects tend to be oddly stable communities - you’d see the same people from jobsite to jobsite… I’m trying to think if I had any passions - I was a swimmer.
JL: Did you like anywhere in particular to visit?
KA: No… And I can’t say that I have a favorite, but when people ask me where I’m from, I usually say either Rome (because that was sort of the home base when I was growing up) or California because that’s where most of my relatives are/were.
JL: So moving around a lot, did you enjoy that
KA: That’s a hard question to answer, in the sense that it didn’t strike me as strange because I didn’t know that it was strange. Looking back, it’s reasonably clear to me that one of the reasons why I’m a historian is because of living in so many different places as a kid. On the other hand, I can also see that I went to eleven different schools from first grade through the end of high school and there’s a downside to that. At the time, it didn’t seem unusual.
JL: So what kind of student were you?
KA: So there’s a story here. I was a largely an indifferent student -
JL: In undergrad, or graduate school?
KA: - well certainly in secondary school and during my first time as an undergrad. I hadn’t grown up in the United States, and when I applied to colleges in the United States, I didn’t actually know what I was doing, and my parents were not particularly knowledgeable. My father was from rural California - he did go to the University of California Berkeley, but he didn’t really understand much about college applications and neither did my mother, so I kind of did it blind. I ended up going to Northwestern and I flunked out. I was only there for a year, and I did very very badly. I was called to the Dean’s office at the end of that year and it was suggested to me that I try something different. So I left school. At the time, this was the mdi 1980s, my father was working in South Africa. So I went there are got a job as an apprentice light aircraft mechanic. After some time I decided that I probably did want to go to school after all, and so I came back to the United States. I enlisted in the military. I spent 4 years in the army and went to school on the GI bill. I started all over again at community college in San Diego, California. Then I transferred to the University of California, San Diego and I finished my bachelor’s degree there.
JL: What did you study?
KA: I was still unsure about what I wanted to do. Once I decided to leave the military I knew I was going back to college, but I did not have a clear plan. I started out as a mathematics major. At UCSD I I took a couple of history courses because I was curious about different things and I actually took a course on the history of medieval and modern science, and I had - I don’t know if I’d want to say I had an epiphany - but I had a kind of realization that this was something that really interested me and so I ended up doing the history major there with a science studies focus (UCSD has a famous Science Studies program that is housed in its History department). And then I started thinking about maybe going to graduate school. I talked to a couple of the professors who I had taken classes from and was close to and got advice about that. For historians, unless they’re U.S. historians, language is incredibly important for their research. Because I had grown up in Italy, I’m a native Italian speaker, and so I had different ideas about what I might do if I went to graduate school for history and my advisor, John Marino, said, “Don’t be stupid, Italian history is what you’re going to do, because that’s your strongest language.” So I followed his advice, and looked for graduate programs where I could work with an advisor who specialized in Renaissance Italy. I ended up going back to Northwestern, and that was a complete coincidence. I did get into other places, but when you go to graduate school, the most important thing is not the name brand of the school, but the person you’re going to have as your advisor. So, when I visited the different programs that I got into, I had a good feeling about the person I was going to work with at Northwestern, Ed Muir. When I first started graduate school I would have moments of deja vu. The history department was right next to the dorm I had lived in when I was flunking out, so every day when I was going into the history department, I would walk right by my dorm room. There was one particular professor - there weren’t many faculty members who were still there, but there was one who was in my area and he knew - and he would constantly tease me about being, “a returning student.”
JL: Just kinda jumping off of that, did you know what you were going to pursue after graduating?
KA: Well once I made the decision to pursue graduate school I knew at least that I would be doing a PhD. After that I didn’t have a particular plan. I - perhaps not as clearly as I should have - what being in graduate school meant. I knew that I was gonna spend the 5, 6, 7 years doing graduate work, and I knew that I was hoping to get an academic job and stay in that community, but beyond choosing a research focus, I didn’t have much of a plan.
JL: Okay so what brought you to NYU, how are you here right now as opposed to somewhere else or out of academia altogether?
KA: The academic job market, right now, is really terrible. 20 years ago, when I was about to finish my PhD and was facing the academic job market for the first time it was not as bad as it is now, but it was still grim. I was extremely fortunate - I got a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia, and then I got a job from there at the University of Oregon. I was at the University of Oregon for 3 years, and I still miss it. It was a great place to live and I had great colleagues… and then there was a job that was advertised in the history department here. My spouse teaches at Fordham, and we were commuting cross country, and so I applied for the job here, simply because it solved the geography problem for me, and I was very lucky to get it, and that’s how I came to be here. You don’t get to choose in academia where you end up. It’s a career in which you have no control over location. It comes down to what jobs are advertised in your field - if any -in a given year.
JL: Isn’t Oregon very different from New York?
KA: Yes *laughs*
JL: So are you planning on hopefully staying?
KA: Yeah, I mean again, the other thing about academia is that mobility is extremely limited. There are very few opportunities to move and most of those are at the junior level, so yes it’s highly likely that I will be at NYU for.. This is my fifteenth year, and I’m pretty sure that in fifteen more you’ll probably still find me here.
JL: I kinda skipped this question, but I think it’s important so we’re going to go back to it, but are there any people that have influenced you?
KA: Yeah, I think in a way, that was implicit in the kind of story of how I ended up in this career. One professor in particular, when I was at UC San Diego - the one who gave me advice about how I was going to do Italian history, John Marino, was incredibly influential and I wouldn’t be here if had not been for him. When I returned to school as an older student and a veteran, I was conscientious about going to see my professors in office hours to talk to them and in some cases get to know them. It started out with me just visiting him, I was taking a course with him on the Protestant Reformation, and I’d just go to his office and talk to him and ask him questions, and I got to know him and then I explained that I was thinking about graduate study and then he guided me through the entire process, helped me shape my cover letter and all the critical application materials. He obviously wrote a recommendation for me but he also picked up the phone - this was before email was common - and called the people at the places where I was applying to talk to them about me. He really promoted me and my career, so he was incredibly important. And then, in graduate school, I was very fortunate. Graduate school, in a way, is about personality fit with the advisor, and I had an advisor who I got along with extremely well. He was very influential on me, and remains so, because I think a lot of the way in which I deal with students mirrors what I learned from him.
JL: Okay, awesome. And then one last, but very important question - in terms long answers - is if you could really go back in time or anything, is there any advice you’d give to your undergrad self, whether that’s the one that went to Northwestern or community college?
KA: I think the main thing is that I wouldn’t change anything. If I had hung on by my fingernails as an undergrad at Northwestern, I’d probably be doing something totally different now. My life would’ve been completely different, and so I think to change anything would be to change everything. However, the advice I would give to myself (and this is advice that I’ve given to many students, especially students who are struggling or unsure about what they want to do) is that almost nothing you do now, including in some ways choosing your major, is really going to determine anything about where you’ll be in 20 years. That may sound trite, but I think it is true. I see students putting a lot of pressure on themselves and feeling anxious. I had a lot of anxiety when I was flunking out of school about how things would turn out. I see that a lot in students, especially here at NYU. I’m not saying they shouldn’t ever worry. What I’m saying is that we imagine, especially when we’re 19 or 20, that certain kinds of choices matter more than they actually do. That’s what I would try to convey to my younger self, and knowing my younger self, I know I wouldn’t have listened.
JL: Okay yeah, thank you! So these are some short, fun questions…
JL: Do you prefer tea or coffee?
JL: Just black or?
KA: I take it with milk but no sugar.
JL: Do you have a favorite coffee shop?
KA: It changes all the time, but right now it’s Madman… It’s actually very good, it’s gotten me to give up Stumptown on 8th. Plus, the owner has a mustache that’s one of those waxed curly mustaches. Makes me smile every time I go in.
JL: Favorite food cuisine? If you say Italian…
KA: No no no, I’m not going to say Italian, actually. I have this conversation a lot, this is like the desert island - if you were on a desert island and you could only pick one: Korean. I like spicy food.
JL: Along that, do you have a favorite restaurant in NYC in general?
AK: I do, but it is far away. I live in the west Bronx, and my current favorite restaurant is a Vietnamese restaurant on Jerome Avenue. You can get there on the 4 train and if you get off the Kingsbridge Armory stop, it’s just half a block south of the subway on the west side of Jerome.
JL: Fruit or vegetables or both?
KA: I enjoy both but I think fruit.
JL: Okay for vacation would you go to the beach or the mountains or wherever you want really?
KA: I think that at the end of the day, I’m more of a mountain person than a beach person.
JL: Why is that?
KA: I don’t know. First of all, most of my research is in Venice Italy, but I wrote a book about Venetian forest management, and most of the forests where they cut timber were at higher elevations. I really like to hike and I like the forest.
JL: Ahh okay. Favorite superhero/if you had a superpower?
KA: It’s not a superpower, but if I could have anything, it’d be the ability to bilocate so I could be in one place doing something while simultaneously doing something else in a different location. So favorite superhero- I actually don’t have a favorite superhero. I did read comics as a kid. Comics are very big in Italy, but they aren’t the Marvel or DC superhero comics. The most popular weekly is a Disney comic book called Topolino (the Italian name of Mickey Mouse) with stories of Donald Duck and things like that. I’m gonna say Nightcrawler, he teleports and he looks funny. He has a tail, which I think would be cool to have.
JL: Okay now last… This would be difficult for me, so I’m going to give you some leeway on the number of books, but favorite book or books?
KA: It depends, so I think the answer just changes all the time. I’ll give you three different answers. My favorite classic, which is one I assign quite often for my Core course on the history of nature, is Robinson Crusoe. My favorite modern novel of the moment is probably The Water Knife. By Paolo Bacigalupi. I’m also a fan of anything by David Mitchell. And I like reading mysteries and so my favorite mystery series are The Dortmunder Novels by Donald Westlake, which are set in NYC in the 70s. Dortmunder is a hapless thief for whom things always go wrong. They’re extremely funny. A few have been made into movies. Robert Redford and Martin Lawrence have both played Dortmunder. Make of that what you will.
JL: Any last remaining thoughts?
KA: I guess going back to the question about advice, the other piece of advice I would give is that 4 years of undergrad goes by really fast, so take classes you’re interested in, not classes you think ought to take. It’s actually more important to be interested and curious about something than it is to love it. Love fades, curiosity doesn’t. You’re not going to find a career or job without downsides. Maybe somebody does, but I think every job has downsides. It’s a question of finding one where the downsides are tolerable. I think what I’m trying to say is something along the lines of this: There are a lot of things that I don’t like about what I do, just like anyone else. There are some things I find tedious and some things I’d rather not do, but I feel for the most part that I’m very fortunate to have landed in this career, to get paid to think about why things happened a certain way, because it means that I get to follow my curiosity and I have full control over what I work on. So I was interested in why Venice didn’t run out of trees, even though they cut down millions and millions of them, and I wrote a book about it. I’m writing a book about the history of veterinary medicine right now. I got interested in the cattle plagues: bovine diseases that were rampant in the 18th century. This job gives me the freedom to pursue that interest. And so I don’t always love it. A lot of research can be repetitive, even tedious because it’s just accumulating as much information from as many different sources as you can. It takes a long time. And then it’s very hard work turning that information into a meaningful narrative that advances our understanding of the past. But I’m always curious. The thing that you’re interested in is more important than the thing you love.
Karl Appuhn is a professor in New York University’s History and Italian Studies departments. He is also the director of the Medieval and Renaissance Center as well as the Science and Society Minor Program. In conversations with students, he shares his career path to academia, the obstacles he faced along the way, while simultaneously offering advice to undergraduate students where he can.