As an historian of modern Europe, what is your particular research interest? What's your approach?
HC: East-Central and Southeastern Europe were my first loves, but knowing something about them makes one realize how much one needs to know about areas beyond them (Austria, Germany, Turkey/the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, Greece, Russia...), so my method has been that of the beaver, forever at work on an outsized dam and roaming ever farther afield and trespassing on increasingly large swaths of other historians' terrain to get the right timber.
What has your experience teaching here at Brown been like so far?
HC: There are some extraordinary students here and occasionally a piece of astonishingly good writing has come my way, starting already with the first-year reading project. Last semester I was also very lucky with the students who took my State Surveillance first-year writing seminar: they were so smart and fun. Plus my section won the Jeopardy game we had during the last class of The Politics of Violence course--this had never happened before in all my many years of teaching. It's hard not to love Brown students after that.
What subjects and issues do you explore in "History of Law: Great Trials," the course you are teaching in spring 2018?
HC: Everything is fair game--law, philosophy, religion, science, politics, art; the law is all-encompassing. It's rather like history that way. So we can talk about everything from spectacles of punishment to the use of forensic evidence. The inspiration for the course came from a mentor and friend of mine who teaches physics and math, Prof. Michael Farney, who decided once, on a whim, to teach a "great trials" course. We've had several long conversations about it. In 2019, if the course is on the books again, I hope to bring him in to give the Scopes lecture.
What is your favorite work of history?
HC: Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain, and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Historians are very good at writing history, and there are many historians whom I admire and love to read (Schorske, Ginzburg), but we have never quite found a way to communicate the unutterable. Perhaps Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous line from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," is false. One can, but neither as philosopher nor as historian. This does not mean the work of the historian is useless, but that the genre of history regularly and necessarily misses something crucial about the meaning of history.
How did you come to speak so many languages?
HC: The feeling one gets when learning a new language in a different country is one of helpless stupidity, the inability to grasp subtlety or irony, the inability to express oneself in a halfway coherent manner. This is an awful feeling, but it is exceptionally real. It can also be quite humorous. And one always develops a new persona in a new language, influenced by one's earliest interlocutors. These attributes have made language learning attractive to me. It takes a very long time and a great deal of embarrassment and humiliation before you can say anything, but the worlds one can enter are vast. Languages are like a smoking habit; they allow a person to have random conversations with total strangers at gas stations and bus stops.