Deacon Profile: Jake Ruddiman
Jeremy Hefter/Old Gold & Black
Jake Ruddiman is an assistant professor in the history department at Wake Forest University. He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 2000 before receiving both his masters and doctoral degrees from Yale University. He recently finished writing his first book, Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War.
Can you describe your journey to Wake Forest?
I graduated in 2000 from Princeton, which was pretty close to where I grew up in New Jersey. I then trucked off to Yale for grad school, starting in 2001, and I made my way through graduate training as my wife was making her way through medical school and residencies.
She was kind enough to apply to residency programs in cities with colonial archives, so my work on the Revolutionary War has been heavily shaped by the archives I’ve been to — New York, Boston, some stuff down here and some stuff in DC. And I got here in the summer of 2010.
Was there a moment when you discovered that history was what you loved to study?
I had always loved reading history. I loved my history courses in college. It was my senior thesis project that turned me onto research and really took my writing to another level. It kind of showed me all the things I didn’t know.
It was a great experience. I hadn’t taken any courses in American history, but there was this one professor who I really wanted to work with, John Murrin. He’s one of the leading lights in the field of colonial American history and American revolutionary history and I really wanted him to direct my project.
I ended up writing an essay on American reactions to the French Revolution in the 1790s. It was just so fun working with the newspapers and with letter collections and trying to make sense of how these people viewed their world.
And I was like, “Okay, great! I want to go to graduate school. I want to keep doing this.” And I found in graduate school that I loved the teaching as much as I loved the research. That’s the arc.
Are you currently working on a research project?
I am finishing up a book — my first book. It’s called Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War. I just presented a book talk that gave an overview and offered a case study from within.
The project is about how young men in revolutionary America viewed and experienced long-term military service, particularly in the Continental Army. And it’s all wrapped in the aspirations for full membership in the community, manliness and their concepts of political ideas in terms of the revolution.
I came to this story because the sources for the American Revolution are so broad and the sources have been so well preserved, it’s exciting. It’s exciting that this is starting to really look like a book. I’ve gotten great advice from my colleagues here. I love bouncing ideas off of students. Any time I’m not really sure what something means, it’s like, bring it to a colleague, put it out in front of a classroom, and we can kind of puzzle through it together. It’s a lot of fun.
What’s the value of studying history?
When we study the past, we realize how hard it is to figure out what was going on, what caused what, and it forces us to ask moral questions like, “How could they have done that?” or “how did they think that that was okay?” — slavery, patriarchy, expropriation of land. And if we can think that way about the past, we then have a better shot at thinking that way about the present, which is what we don’t understand about our own time in terms of causality, structures, relationships. And then that moral question: “What’s going on right now that in a hundred years people are going to look back and say, ‘what was wrong with them?’”
[The past] should make us humble. I tell my students that when we look at the past we shouldn’t feel self-righteous and we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back because we’re better than these people. We are where we are because of what these people did and the mistakes they made.
History is worth studying because it makes us know what we don’t know about ourselves and if it doesn’t make you humble about your own moral certitudes, you’re doing it wrong. And that’s why the study of history keeps changing because our moral questions keep changing and our own structures keep changing.
History classes teach you how to turn stories, propaganda and disjointed facts into data and to turn that data into evidence. And then to use that evidence in an argument to show people the purpose of your point. There’s so much more than facts and dates.
What do you do in your free time?
Let me tell you about Hildy the dog. She’s a dear companion who likes students. I play a bit of golf, I like hiking, running. I really like Winston-Salem.
If I had a message to students it’s that there are fun things downtown. What are we [adults] doing that students aren’t getting to do?
I don’t know what the magic formula is, but there are cool things downtown. I can’t imagine that it could only be cool to someone who’s 35 or older. It’s wonderful to be making a home here in Winston. It’s really neat to be able to share this community with you all.
What would you say is the most important date in American history?
When’s Columbus Day? October 12, 1492? That’s probably the most important date in human history. I should put a Revolutionary War date down, but I really think it’s a date we celebrate as Columbus Day — and celebrate isn’t the right word.
Is there advice you wish you could tell your undergraduate self?
Do all the reading. You get out what you put in. But I don’t think college Jake would listen to me, regretting to do all the reading. I’ve gone back to books that I’ve read in graduate school and in college and you get different things out of books when you read them at different points in your life.