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Rising Star Dr. James McWilliams

Historian takes an unconventional approach
to writing about American food production

Dr. James McWilliams

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Dr. James McWilliams

James McWilliams, a professor of History, 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.

But McWilliams also has a serious side. His lectures are brisk and informative, and he has compiled an impressive body of writing, on subjects ranging from the eating habits of colonial America and genetically modified crops to the economic impact of the locavore movement.

McWilliams’ ideas are wide-ranging. He started out as a scholar of colonial America, but his early interest in biology and the sciences of life — he once thought of going to medical school — keeps intersecting with his work. He’s published books on subjects such as American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT (2008) and Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (2010). He is also widely published in magazines such as The Texas Observer and The New Yorker, on topics ranging from melamine contamination to organic farming.

“My interests have led me into some unconventional territory for a historian,” McWilliams says.

“I see myself as a pragmatist,” he continues. “One of the things sorely lacking in our public discourse is the ability to weigh the pros and cons of an issue. Instead, arguments about anything—politics, agriculture, food—take on a kind of religious fervor, and people think they have to be on one side or the other.

“So, 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 will actually be stronger as a result.”

That approach may incite some backlash from both sides of issues, but it has also earned McWilliams some fans. His breadth of interests and scholarship was acknowledged by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, which awarded him the Hiett Prize in the Humanities. The $50,000 prize recognizes scholars “whose work promises to advance the way we think and live.”