Research Radar – Tim McMahon

We’re kicking off Season 2 of the GMM Research Radar series with Dr Timothy G. McMahon. Tim is an Associate Professor of History at Marquette University in Milwaukee, specialising in examinations of national identity, imperialism, and popular culture in modern Britain and Ireland. He is a past-president of the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS) and was listed among the ‘Irish Education 100’ by the Irish Voice newspaper as one of the leading Irish-American educators in the USA. He also is a master of the art of wearing a bow-tie (see photo) and has absolutely brilliant taste in both movies and music. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @TimTimothy87.

Who is your favourite academic? / Who (academic or not) has shaped your critical thinking the most and why? `

So many people have influenced my thinking over the years that it’s difficult to narrow the list. They have included professors who taught me; scholars I’ve read and/or been privileged to meet; and younger colleagues and students who continue to push my thinking in new directions. That last category is in some ways the most important to me, as I’m committed to lifelong learning, and their insights and questions make me rethink works I’ve previously read (or written!). With those as caveats, four senior scholars’ works have deeply influenced me in different ways. David Cannadine’s studies of public ceremony were extremely influential in my early career, leading me to read anthropologists like Geertz and Turner, and their insights continue to affect how I read the interactions of people in public space. Philippa Levine’s work on gender and empire has also been incredibly important to me, pushing me to recognize intersections that early in my career I failed to recognize. My doctoral mentor was James S. (Jim) Donnelly, Jr., and his high standard for close reading of sources, especially newspapers, continues to shape my approach to everything I research. The fourth influencer has been Roy Foster, who synthesizes ideas so seamlessly and finds connections across disciplines in ways that I continue to find fascinating. From them, I have taken a desire not to be boxed into a single approach to the study of history and a further desire to write with precision. That’s the hope anyway!

What are you reading for work and/or for leisure these days?

For work, I have been focusing on partition and border questions in the 1920s. At the moment much of that reading is in primary sources I started gathering in the days before COVID and on newspapers I have been accessing since the pandemic started. For fun, meanwhile, I’ve been reading Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These and John Banville’s The Sea, both of which were gifts. I’ve also been dipping into another book that my daughter gave me—a Guide to the Geology and Natural History of the Blue Ridge Mountains by the late Edgar W. Spencer. The Blue Ridge holds a special place in my heart, and learning about it through the work of an old family friend is especially meaningful.

What podcast(s) do you recommend?

I love listening to a myriad of podcasts about history and Irish history in particular. There are several, but I have a special affinity for “Talking History,” “The Irish Story,” and RTÉ’s “The History Show.” But for pure fun, I have become a huge fan of “Literally! With Rob Lowe” It is a chat show in which one of the tv and movie actors I’ve grown up watching is doing one-on-one interviews with actors and musicians I’ve followed since I was a teenager. Total fluff, and it gets me laughing. (Lowe has another podcast about the television comedy series “Parks and Recreation” called “Parks and Recollection,” and if you were a fan of that series, which I am, the chats are hilarious.)

What is your favourite archive or library? / What is your fondest research memory?

The National Library of Ireland. Hands down. I love the space of the main reading room, and I am always so happy to be in the Manuscripts Reading Room too. I’ll never forget calling up the first Gaelic League Membership book as a student and seeing the names of the people I was researching on those pages. To this day, walking into any research library/space and seeing colleagues there is one of my favorite things.

What book or movie changed your life?

I am a movie lover, and my favorite genres are historical dramas, comedies, and sci-fi. I have favorites in each of those categories, including “Reds” and “Dr. Strangelove.” But it’s the third category that holds my favorite movie of all time—the original “Star Wars.” As a boy who grew up watching the NASA launches, the idea that there were other worlds to see was just too hard to resist. Without a doubt it remains the movie I have seen more often than any other as well, across theater, VHS, television, and streaming.

Do you play music while you work?  If so, what?

I often do, and my taste varies depending on my mood. You are just as likely to find me listening to Mozart as to Led Zeppelin.

What is your favourite way to de-stress? / What habits or hobbies support your research practice and/or allow you to destress?

I like to walk a lot. I don’t do enough of it, but that has become my favorite way to destress. Golf, or at least swinging at a driving range, is another favorite, though I’ve done far less of that since the pandemic started. Back when I played more baseball/softball, I would also seek out a batting cage. I don’t know that I could have finished my doctoral dissertation if it weren’t for periodic trips to the batting cage.

What are your essential research tools/supplies and why?

Digital access to archives or to sets of material (such as newspapers) enables someone in the US or Canada to target more discreet collections of undigitized material when we visit the United Kingdom, Ireland, or other points in the Diaspora. This is, of course, the next generation step to what occurred when I started as a student in the 1990s. Then, we paid attention to collections we could access on microfilm or in libraries via Interlibrary Loan. Obviously we still do that, but with even greater access because of (some) digitization. Once I get overseas, however, my most important tool is a camera/phone, which enables me to get through more boxes of material more quickly than in the past. The key, as it has always been, is to take notes as you go, so the laptop is a must too. Taking time every evening (or at most every couple of days) is a must, so that I can sort through what I’ve photographed. That enables cataloguing, facilitating more granular reading later.

How has the pandemic affected your research practice?

Most significantly, it has prevented me from getting to Ireland. I can hardly believe that it’s been nearly three years since I was there. Fortunately, I had made several visits, including a couple of substantial length, prior to the pandemic, so I had a large body of primary materials with which to work on my present book project. If anything, progress on that has slowed while I was taking on some duties at my home institution related to teaching and advising in the midst of the pandemic. At the same time, our sudden shift to digital meetings has meant that I could attend/participate in a number of symposia and seminars “in” different parts of the world that I could not have attended before we used those digital platforms.

Favourite form of procrastination?

I will turn on sports coverage far more than I should. (This includes highlight footage of games/matches long completed.)

What do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career/degree?

Two things: 1. Interdisciplinarity strengthens what we do as scholars. I am a better historian today because I learn from colleagues in a number of different fields. 2. In a world where politicians and (many) academic administrators seem intent on questioning the importance of the humanities, it will be incumbent on the community of scholars to defend our place in universities and in society. Especially in my country, anti-intellectualism seemingly has become a badge of honor. We must be equipped to counter those voices and explain why what we do matters to a variety of audiences.

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