Q&A with history professor Stefan Link
History professor Stefan Link specializes in the history of capitalism, business and the economy. After receiving his undergraduate degree in Berlin, Germany, Link obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2012. He conducted postdoctoral work at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy as a Max Weber Fellow. Link is currently working on a book exploring the global impacts of Fordism and mass production techniques during the interwar period.
Can you tell me about your experience as a Max Weber Fellow in Florence, Italy?
SL: Going to Italy was a beautiful way to connect my graduate school education to going on the market and becoming faculty. It was basically, when I think back to it now, a period that gave me the room to step back and reflect back on my research in very beautiful surroundings. I also met my wife there, so it was a very good experience.
How did your experiences as a student in Europe compare to your experiences in the U.S.?
SL: I did my undergrad, or what is the equivalent of an undergraduate education, in the German system in Berlin. I never had the college undergraduate experience of the students I teach here at Dartmouth or the students I taught at Harvard. It’s very different — no one lives on campus in Europe, everyone has their own place. The curriculum isn’t predetermined, so you sort of have your own way. I can only really compare that experience to my experience as a graduate student. One of the reasons I applied to do my Ph.D. in the U.S. was that at many of the institutions in the U.S., there seems to be a greater awareness of global connections and a complexity of history. In Germany — I think that this has been changing — but there was a lot of focus on German national history, and that’s something that I found limiting. During my Ph.D. at Harvard, there was a conjunction of turning beyond national histories within the discipline of history towards global questions, but at the same time what interested me was turning toward questions of economic change.
What brought you to Dartmouth?
SL: Well, I had a couple of options on the table for where to start my career, and there were a few things that attracted me to Dartmouth. It’s a very strong institution in terms of the support they give to faculty for research, and the quarter system is also very nice for faculty. It really allows us to balance research and teaching in a way that one thing doesn’t have to eat up the other. Also, I met my wife in Italy, but she’s actually from New Hampshire. We have a daughter now, and it’s nice to have in-laws close. Those were some of the things that were in the mix.
Since I started working here four years ago, my experience working with Dartmouth students has been great because there’s something about undergraduate culture where you all have so many things going on in your campus lives, but the students all really make a good faith effort to try and keep up with the work that professors assign and be engaged with the class. Teaching has often been a wonderful experience. Obviously, all the students at Dartmouth are smart, but I think there is an ethos of taking a class as seriously as you can and keeping up with all of the different demands of undergraduate life that really makes the classroom experience a worthwhile one.
Many of your classes deal with both history and economics. What drew you to this interdisciplinary approach?
SL: This really has to do with the fact that my formative graduate school years coincided with the fallout of the 2007/2008/2009 financial crisis. It became clear within the discipline of history that the focus of the discipline, what most people were working on, wasn’t really related to economic change questions or questions about economic history. Questions on economic history and change had really been bracketed and much of this had been moved to the discipline of economics. There was a kind of resurgence of asking questions about economic change with a historical prospective, which excited me and made me interested in exploring these coinciding fields.
The questions that interested me were, from a historical perspective, how do things like politics and theology actually influence economic outcomes, ideas about economic fairness, distribution and the apparatus that will control distribution? Historians can explore these questions in a very powerful way. One way that I have been doing this is through my current major research project that I am hoping to finish this year. It’s a book on how mass production, especially mass production of automobiles, migrated from the American Midwest, where it was pioneered in the interwar years, to these authoritarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Could you tell me more about the book that you are working on?
SL: It’s on the story of the reception of mass production in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and the Soviet Union. It begins with a sort of political rereading of the emergence of the automobile industry in the American Midwest. It talks a lot about Henry Ford and his skilled labor ideology. If you look at some of the European populists in this era, the 1920s and 1930s, they find Ford’s ideology very interesting. The Soviets weren’t really interested in the ideology piece — they couldn’t be bothered with it. They were interested in the technology. The book really tries to follow three strands: ideology, technology transfers in the 1930s and the question of labor mobilization. There were these great factories emerging left and right that were state-of-the art in the Soviet Union especially. The question was: how do you mobilize people to work in what were ultimately these awful, repetitive jobs?
More broadly, I’m interested in understanding the 1930s as a major turning point in global economic history. As I move into future research, I want to do more work on the World Economic Conference in London in 1933 as a lens through which to understand the changes that were wrought by the Great Depression.
What advice would you give to students interested in doing interdisciplinary research?
SL: I have a lot of students in my classes who are either majoring in economics modified with history or majoring in history modified with economics. My advice would be to expose yourself to both of these disciplines and understand that there are some fairly substantial methodological differences between them, but at the same time you can learn from both. To really keep that fruitful tangent in mind and keep it alive as you embark on any given research project is the most promising way to take advantage of that particular interdisciplinary match-up. Realize that, yes, the way historians and economists ask questions is very different, but both disciplines can really inform each other if there is a good faith effort to do so.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.