History Department
History Department

Graduate Student Spotlight: Brad Dixon

Tue, August 21, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: Brad Dixon
Dr. Brad Dixon, Ph.D. 2018, and IHS Postdoc Fellow, 2018-19

Hosted by the Institute for Historical Studies, the New Work In Progress (NWP) series showcases some of UT History's current Ph.D. candidates and their research. We feature both their NWP papers and different stages of graduate student life post-comprehensive exams, including archival research, writing, teaching, publications, conference presentation, and job placement. The final article in this series features Brad Dixon and his experience with writing. Interview by Shery Chanis, Ph.D. Candidate, UT History Dept.

Shery: In your New Work In Progress paper, you discuss native Indians in the American Southeast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. How did you become interested in this topic?

Brad: I have had many great mentors from my master’s degree who deserve credit for kindling my interest, but I have to admit that it probably started long ago with trips I took with my parents to Native American historical sites in Virginia and North Carolina as a child. My New Work In Progress paper really began years ago when I was going through petitions from Native leaders in that era and found one that seemed to be saying something interesting and urgent about the legal categories of persons. I wanted to know how the petitioner understood those terms.

Shery: You emphasize the concept of "foreigners" and "strangers" in your paper. In particular, you consider the Chowans, the Indians who were tributaries, in the British Empire. Can you explain "tributary Indians" and the legal ramifications of this category, such as the right to land use, in the colonial setting?

Brad: The terms “foreigner” and “stranger” appear in the petition from the Chowan Indian headman I was writing about. He used those terms to explain what he and his people were not. I try to explore the meanings of each term for the Chowans and for the English, putting them into a kind of dialogue. What first caught my attention about tributaries was that their status resembled that of Indians elsewhere in the Americas, especially in the Spanish Empire. Tributaries in the Southeast are Native American polities that pay an annual tribute to colonial governments, often in beaver pelts or deerskins, who in return recognize their land claims and (generally) respect their internal self-government. That, at least, is a rather minimal definition. These kinds of relationships become more elaborate over time, as Indians and Europeans work them out. I was particularly interested in what it meant to Native peoples over time.

Shery: How does this paper fit into your dissertation?

Brad: Originally, most of the discussion in the paper took place in Chapter Six where I consider differing opinions about Indian subjecthood during the early eighteenth century. In that chapter I had offered some Native American counterpoints to the many English and Spanish discussions about the issue at that time. Over time, however, the piece developed on its own and became its own chapter in the dissertation, Chapter Seven. The history of the Chowans serves as a case study in the political activities and political thought of Indian tributaries.

Shery: What do you think is a main contribution of your dissertation?

Brad: My dissertation shows that Spanish and English colonial practice in the Southeast was actually quite similar in a number of surprising ways. Both the “Republic of Indians” in Florida and the tributary regimes of Virginia and North Carolina were based on similar legal principles. Moreover, my dissertation shows how Native American leaders directly shaped the legal and political systems of the early Southeast. My interest is really in political history and I want to offer a new variation on that subject, showing how American Indians were part of the American political tradition.

Shery: You were on a writing fellowship this past year. Congratulations! Can you share your writing experience? How did you go about writing a chapter from organizing materials, outlining, and making your argument to finishing a draft?

Brad: Because writing is difficult, I try to do as much of it as possible before formally sitting down to write. That means I keep a journal while researching in which I record my own thoughts and impressions about the documents I am investigating. Someone suggested that so long ago that I have forgotten who it was exactly. It was good advice. For most of my documents, I have abstracts, some longer than others, in my own words of what they are about. This is often the starting point when I actually sit down to write the dissertation. To keep up a chronological sense of the documents, I use a simple spreadsheet to organize them. All of this is more “writing before writing” that helps guide my thinking. The outlines began to come together once I got a clearer idea of what my major arguments would be. But that only happens after many hours of discussions with my supervisors and colleagues to hone it down. Once I have the outlines, I generally try to stick to them and write a little each day until the chapter has shaped up into a draft. At that point, I send it out to my advisers and others to read. Afterward, it is all revision and lots of it.

Shery: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Brad: I write mostly in the morning with a cup of coffee. The sooner I start the better. Otherwise, I might find excuses to put off sitting down and writing. In the beginning of a project or a chapter, I start with modest word-count goals, increasing them as the work gains momentum. Once I reach my goal, I’m free to work on other items. It took a while to get to this word-count-oriented process but it generally works for me.

Shery: In your experience, what is the most rewarding about writing? What is the most challenging?

Brad: I suppose that is not exactly what a dissertation is for, but I enjoy telling stories and trying to evoke a sense of the past in the text the most. The most challenging part is conveying the main ideas and my arguments as clearly and succinctly as possible. Sometimes what I have in mind does not quite make it onto the page. I have good mentors in Professors Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra and Robert Olwell who help me clarify what I mean. The discussions in seminars like the IHS New Works In Progress series are invaluable. Writing history is a collaborative process as much as it is a personal one.

Shery: What advice would you give your fellow graduate students about writing in general?

Brad: Writing is an ongoing practice. I am still working on it myself. What has helped me is to make writing a habit, working each day on a little part of the bigger task. That, at least, is what has worked for a big, long-term project like a dissertation where I had a lot of time but a lot to do looming ahead of me. I also try to view everything as a work-in-progress that I can always revise. Keeping this in mind is not easy, but it helps me cultivate a better attitude when I face a blank page or a messy draft or a pressing deadline.
Shery: You are an IHS Postdoctoral Fellow for the upcoming year, 2018-2019. What do you plan to do during your fellowship term?
Brad: I am looking forward to the year ahead. My main objective is to revise my dissertation into a book manuscript. I plan to expand its treatment considerably, looking more in-depth at the political history of Native Americans before the Europeans arrived and also digging deeper into Spanish-Indian Florida. Being a fellow gives me the chance to test my arguments with other scholars and learn from them during the year. The Institute’s theme this year is particularly apt for my interests. The other part that I am really excited about is teaching “Introduction to Native American Histories,” a survey course for undergraduates in the Spring semester. This course covers the whole history of Native North America from the beginning to the present day. It will be a chance to explore the histories of peoples and places and times that I have not thought about as much during my research. Putting together a course to cover such an immense subject is quite a challenge but I am already reading up and preparing for it. A group of graduate students, including me, here at UT have also started a public history website that will deal with the intersections of Native American and African American history. I will be a contributor to that site as well. Finally, I also plan to revamp my own digital history project on indigenous petitioning and political activity in the early South.

Above: An enhanced photograph of the petition in the paper from the State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo Credit: Brad Dixon.

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