Ryan Low '16
This interview has been collected and condensed by Kelly Lin-Kremer.
Class of 2016, History
Tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up in Los Angeles. I majored in History and got a certificate in Medieval Studies. I went to London for two years on the Marshall Scholarship, where I studied at University College London, and now I’m in my second year at Harvard doing my Ph.D. I followed a pretty traditional academic path.
What led you to History?
When I went in, I thought I wanted to major in the Woodrow Wilson School (WWS)1 or Chemistry. But that ended pretty quickly.
I wanted to do WWS because in high school I had been really involved in politics. I volunteered for a lot of campaigns, and my first jobs were all on political campaigns. I was still working on LA campaigns when I went to Princeton. When I started taking the WWS classes, I found that a lot of the content didn’t match up with my experience in the real world.
So I decided to try a History class. The first History class I took was with Simon Grote, who was a postdoc at the time. The class was a history of the Holy Roman Empire from 1450-1804, covering Luther to Napoléon.
At my public high school growing up, we had never talked about the Holy Roman Empire before. I just loved it. It was an entirely new world I had never thought about before, working with sources I had had no idea existed.
But after my first semester at Princeton, I decided college wasn’t really for me, and I left halfway through my spring semester. I went back to LA, got my old job back with political consulting. I got an apartment, a car. I was ready to never think about college again.
But at some point I was like, I should probably get a degree, so I went back to Princeton. I signed up for a few courses that were all humanities and social sciences. One of those classes was HIS 344: Civilization of the High Middle Ages with Professor Jordan.
It literally changed my life, because I was going to be a consultant, and now I’m at Harvard doing my Ph.D.
I went to office hours every week, and Professor Jordan helped answer the questions I had on so many different subjects, from why medieval Sardinia and Iceland were so different to what a monastery in Lithuania would do with a flock of hundreds of sheep. Those hours talking to Professor Jordan made me happy to be a student. I also loved the reading. I still go back to my textbook for that class and look at my margin notes.
It was so far removed from anything that I had ever thought about before. It was like an adventure.
I also took other formative classes in the history department. One of those was English Constitutional History, also with Professor Jordan. It really dug into the primary sources, which was exciting.
Another great class was The World of Late Antiquity with Jack Tannous. There must have been hundreds of people in that class, and his office hours would always have like fifteen people crammed into the office, standing, sitting on tables, literally spilling out of the room. It was fantastic. I found out later it was a formative class for so many people, even American historians and modern historians.
My JPs were with Rosina Lozano and Helmut Reimitz. I loved writing my JPs. I loved writing my thesis. Working on my thesis formed some of my happiest memories at Princeton.
It was so cool. I read all these sources that no one had looked at before, and I got to tell stories about different types of people who lived hundreds of years ago and had problems like anybody else. I tried to get a sense of why they made the decisions that they made and understand what they were thinking. It really changed the way I looked at the world around me.
I think that’s why I study history. I was talking to a Lyft driver last night, he was like, Why would you ever study history? And I was like, That’s a really good question. I look at the world around me, and I’m just so confused by the way people act and the way things work. And surely there’s a reason for it. So I guess I study history to try to understand how people think and how the world worked then and works now.
What was your senior thesis about?
My senior thesis was about royal and ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Paris in the 1200s. The various churches of Paris and the Crown would compete over who had jurisdiction over certain neighborhoods. I looked at the agreements that they made and how jurisdiction changed over time from being about property—who owns property and who has exemptions from certain rules—to a system of jurisdiction over different types of people—for example, clerics, widows, or orphans. It was also about the distinction between high and low justice. The modern distinction might be between what we would call "capital crimes" (like murder) and other more petty crimes.
The reason I got into this was because my junior year, I led a campaign against the bicker process at the eating clubs. One of the responses I got was that the University didn’t have jurisdiction over the eating clubs. And I thought that surely jurisdiction is more complicated than that, so that’s why I started getting interested in the question of jurisdiction.
What else did you do at Princeton that you enjoyed, outside of History?
I did Religious Life Council, which was cool, because everyone else was coming from a faith background, but I didn’t have a faith background. I grew up going to our local conservative synagogue and the Mormon Temple, but my family wasn’t Jewish or Mormon, so I've always looked at religion with an outsider's view. I got to hear from all these different perspectives, and I could ask them questions about big, theoretical issues like creation and more everyday issues like dietary restrictions. That’s where a lot of my best friends came from.
I was in 2-D, the co-op, for one year, which was a formative experience. I love the co-ops, and I think there should be more co-ops at Princeton.
My sophomore year, a few friends and I organized for this political issue called Ban the Box. I got to take some of the political consulting experience I had learned in LA and apply it to New Jersey. It was pretty successful, I think. It turned into a bill and was signed by the governor, so I felt pretty good about that.
Why don’t you tell me about your Marshall Scholarship?
I had never heard of the Marshall before I went to Princeton. I had heard of the Rhodes, but things like that always seemed out of reach, like you had to be a super person to get them, so I didn’t really think about it very much.
And then at the end of my freshman year, I was invited to consider applying for these fellowships. And I was like, No, I don’t think I want to deal with that. And my parents were like, Obviously you’re going to do this.
So I met with Deirdre Maloney in the Fellowships Office. She was one of the most formative influences on my time at Princeton. She introduced me to so many opportunities.
She helped clarify why I did what I was doing. She pushed me on tough questions like, Why does history matter? Why are you personally attracted to it? What do you think your unique contribution is to the field? I definitely would not have gone to the UK or grad school if it weren’t for Deirdre.
Something else I did at Princeton—I was a Mellon Mays undergraduate fellow. It’s a fellowship for underrepresented minorities who want to pursue careers in academia. That was a really great environment. It also helped clarify why I study what I study, why I want to go into academia, and the specific challenges and opportunities that people of color have in academia. Deirdre and Hannah Lee in the Fellowships Office introduced me to that fellowship too.
So I guess two things led to applying to the Marshall. Up to that point, I hadn’t followed the same path that a lot of my friends followed. I never did a summer internship. I wanted to go into academia, and so the next logical step was to apply for one of these fellowships.
The other thing was that I didn’t want to dive right into a Ph.D. I really wanted to move to the UK, and I wanted to live abroad. I didn’t want to go to Oxford or Cambridge, and a lot of these fellowships are specific for Oxford and Cambridge. There was one professor at University College London, David D'Avray, whom Professor Jordan recommended very highly, and I wanted to see a new place, learn history in a new way, meet new people, and just go on an adventure. So I decided to apply for the Marshall.
There was another thing going on at the time, which was that I had a job offer from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to be a senior staffer for their West Coast campaigns: California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska. That would have been a real career opener.
So I was deciding between that and academia. I told myself that if I didn’t get the Rhodes, Marshall, or Gates, I would probably take the job.
I don’t know how much to say about this, but my family isn’t super well-off. The idea of going into academia is kind of scary, because the job market is not very good, and it’s not like after six years, I can just be like, Oh, I didn’t get a job, so I guess I’ll go and do nothing for a while and figure it all out. That’s not really an option.
So the appeal of a more traditional job was extremely high. It was really difficult to choose between going into graduate school and taking the job. I’m very grateful to the Marshall, because that’s what allowed me to continue to study history and pursue graduate school in a more confident way.
I thought it was an interesting question you brought up about why you study medieval history. Why are you interested in it?
One very specific reason is that medieval history has become a focal point for the alt-right and for white nationalists in this country. Medieval history has always been an easy target for the far right, whether they’re 19th-century European imperialists or 21st-century white nationalists, to latch onto and use for their own purposes.
It’s a period that’s valorized as when white people ruled the world, and Christianity dominated everything, and gay people were burned at the stake. Work on medieval history is really important now because it pushes back against this view and its values. It shows that things were more complicated, and it shows that there are other ways to study this important period of history.
Another reason is because it’s so far removed from my own identity. I’m not Catholic, I’m not European; I don’t have any immediate personal stake in it, which I think allows me to study it much more objectively. That objectivity is something I appreciate.
One of my JPs was about Japanese-American internment. My family members were in the internment camps, and I realized that a lot of what I was saying was advancing a narrative I’d grown up with and that would make me feel good about my own family. Sometimes that conformed with the sources, and sometimes it didn’t. I actually found it very difficult to write about. I have a lot of respect for modern historians who have to think about these issues.
The third reason is that studying a time that is so far removed but is still connected to our time gives us new perspectives on the same issues we’re dealing with today. It was a totally different society, but we still have versions of the political, social, and economic structures they had then.
My work right now is on trust and social mobility: the way that people in the community who otherwise would not know each other form relationships based on obligations to each other, and how that affects social mobility and urban versus rural society.
The question of social mobility and the difference between urban and rural communities are both important questions today. Obviously it worked very differently in the 1300s, so I’m hoping to give a different perspective on a very pressing question today. What new perspectives can we find by looking at the same questions from a really long time ago and in a different world?
Do you have any advice that you would give to people majoring in History or thinking about majoring in History?
I think the best piece of advice is that the most useful thing you can learn from History is how to write well. The facts and details are really useful for me as an academic historian and very interesting, but if you can write well, you can do anything.
And the second thing is, Enjoy your thesis. Write about something you really care about and look forward to learning more about.
Go to office hours. Professors like talking to their students. I think one thing you don’t realize when you’re an undergraduate is how unique it is for professors to be as invested in their students as they are at Princeton. They will answer any question, talk about whatever topic you find interesting. If you’re excited about something, go talk to them. It'll make their day, you’ll learn a lot, and you shouldn't underestimate how much your professor will learn from you too. Curious, excited students make being a teacher worth it.
Office hours is where I learned the most in college. I still email my professors at Princeton from time to time, to give them updates or tell them when I see something that reminds me of their class. I'll always be grateful for those experiences.
1 The Woodrow Wilson School (WWS) was renamed to the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in 2020.