McWilliams combines diverse topics with a sense of history — and humor By David King, University Marketing
Jimmy McWilliams is sitting on a bench on the Quad, talking and watching the world and working on what assuredly is not the day’s first cup of black coffee.
He greets his son’s gymnastics teacher, a colleague from the Department of History and a former student, all as he’s discussing his History 1310 class, his recent book on the history of American pest control and his opinion pieces in the New York Times.
He tells jokes on himself — despite his intense study of food, for example, “my wife is much more talented at making food come out of the ground” than he is — and occasionally he tosses in a sardonic, Letterman-esque comment in the middle of a serious discussion of writing: “You take on the conventional wisdom, and you have to be ready to be called some very bad names. And I have been.”
McWilliams, an associate professor in the History Department at Texas State, is funny like that. He opens every session of History 1310 — a 300-student lecture in the Alkek Teaching Theater — with a humorous observation. (A recent class began with an only slightly exaggerated story about a multi-student pileup on the Quad, caused by someone focused more on her iPod than on where she was walking.)
A Different Side But McWilliams also has a serious side. In just a few years, the 40-year-old has compiled an impressive body of writing, on subjects ranging from the eating habits of colonial America to genetically modified crops. His lectures are brisk and informative. His colleagues speak glowingly of his breadth of interests and knowledge.
That side was recognized in March by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, which awarded him the Hiett Prize in the Humanities. The $50,000 prize was established in 2004 to recognize a scholar “whose work promises to advance the way we think and live.”
“It is geared toward younger scholars whose work has a bearing on contemporary issues, so in that sense, my work was well-suited for it,” McWilliams says.
It actually was the second time he had been a finalist for the Hiett Prize; he reached the finals for the 2008 award, which went to David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University.
“I got a note from the director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, saying ‘Re-apply, we really like your application a lot,’” McWilliams says.
He updated his proposal and re-filed the extensive application in October. He was named a finalist again, and then in March the phone rang in his office.
“It was the director, saying ‘We really appreciate…’ and I thought ‘We really appreciate your application, but it didn’t work out this time,’ and oh well,” McWilliams says. “But then he said ‘We really appreciate your persistence . . .’”
He stops a moment and chuckles at himself, then continues the story.
“ ‘And it paid off.’ I was stunned. I’m still pinching myself.”
Wide View of History McWilliams might have been stunned, but others are not. Dr. Kenneth Margerison, a colleague in the History Department, says McWilliams has the ability to “research and write about history and make it compelling.”
“He will go and find an issue, educate himself on it and write about it,” Margerison says. “In his last book, he had to go and learn a wide range of things about the battles with insects throughout our history. We’re very pleased to have somebody like him on the faculty here.”
McWilliams is happy to be teaching and researching new ideas at Texas State. And those ideas are wide-ranging: He started out as a scholar of colonial America, but his early interest in biology and the sciences of life — an early goal was medical school — keeps intersecting with his work, leading to subjects like his latest book, American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT, and newspaper pieces on topics from melamine contamination to organic farming.
“My interests are incredibly broad,” he says. “It’s led me into some broad territory, certainly not conventional territory for a historian. But as a compliment to Texas State, they support that completely. I have basically been told ‘You can write about whatever you want.’ Most universities wouldn’t do that.”
His latest project is an outgrowth of his interest in food and agriculture; the book, Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, is due out later this year. It expands on his writing in publications ranging from the Austin American-Statesman to the New York Times to Slate magazine, as well as his interest in the “locavore” movement, which aims to have people eat foods with less of a carbon footprint by eating foods grown locally.
A Balanced Approach As the title suggests, McWilliams isn’t taking a simple approach to the subject.
“I sort of see myself as a pragmatist,” he says. “I think one of the things that is sorely lacking in our public discourse is the ability to weigh the pros and cons of an issue. There’s sort of a religious fervor to arguments about anything — politics, agriculture, food — and you have to be on one side or the other.
“So one of the things I really try to do is when I see conventional wisdom forming around an idea like eating local, I like to poke holes in it. I think any idea with legitimacy is going to withstand having holes poked in it, and is actually going to be stronger as a result.”
That approach may incite some online nastiness — from both sides of issues—but it earns him fans in San Marcos and elsewhere.
“Our approach fits him pretty well,” Margerison says. “There’s definitely nobody else like him on the faculty. You find people like him at institutions much bigger than us, and he could very easily go somewhere else. But we certainly don’t want him to — we like him very much.”