University of Toronto

Innis Alumni & Friends

Jeremy Adelman

Class of 1984 – Innis

Innis Alumnus, Jeremy Adelman, is a history professor at Princeton University whose speciality is Latin American studies. He is also the author of numerous books including his most recent, Worldly Philospher: The Oddyssey of Albert O. Hirschman.

In a few words, please outline your career path.

After finishing up at Innis in 1984, I moved to the UK, where I studied at the London School of Economics (MSc 1985) and finished my doctorate at Oxford in 1989 – thanks to a Social Science Research Council grant and a Commonwealth Fellowship.  My work took me to Argentina, which became home, for the most part, from 1987 until 1991, with occasional returns to London in the middle.  The upheavals in Buenos Aires were exciting to witness, but they also made kick-starting a career in writing, teaching and consulting very hard.  Eventually, I returned to England to teach briefly at the University of Essex, and then moved to the United States to take up a teaching appointment at Princeton University.  Somewhat to my surprise, I have been here ever since.  Along the way, I have written or edited ten books, tried out senior administration for a while, and have lately begun experimenting with global online education.

What drew you to Latin American studies? 

I really have to credit the University of Toronto for this.  In the early 1980s, I got very involved in Central American solidarity activities (and we held several fundraisers at Innis); but it was mainly taking classes with Chilean and Argentine exiled professors that opened my eyes to debates and dramas of re-emerging democracies.

As a professor, do you notice any commonalities between your students who excel in your classes? Do you have any tips for students who are struggling in their academics? 

Commonalities…  Hm….  Interesting questions.  One answer is that my current students face and experience a profound contradiction in their lives.  On one hand, they have much wider horizons than I ever had, and I had wider horizons than my parents.  Globalization, immigration, and the digital age, all make the world much smaller and more visible, full of many more opportunities.  On the other hand, there is much more uncertainty about how to find meaningful pathways into and through this complex world.  Here are some tips: talk to people, especially those a little older than you about their strategies for exploring the world; ideas are not going to fall from the trees into your laps.  Secondly, failures should not be taken only as something bad; you will have to take risks – and by definition not all risks pan out.  Learn from your successes and your failures.  If you are struggling with academics in particular, go see your professor.  They are a lot more interested in your life than you realize.  Ask them: how can I do better?  What are my weaknesses?  Then tackle those.

What is the most important lesson you have learned during your career?

Plans usually don’t work out.  And if they don’t work out, it doesn’t mean I messed up.  In fact, I mainly crab-walked my way through a lot of my career, trying things out (including countries, languages, disciplines), and bit-by-bit found my niche.

What makes UofT, and Innis College in particular, unique from the other universities that you have studied at?

U of T will always have a special place in my heart.  My parents were students there; in fact I was born in one of the campus co-op houses on Spadina.  I have worked and studied in many universities in Europe, South America, and the US, but in my mind’s eye, the model of university will always be U of T – cosmopolitan, complicated, engaged.  Innis made it all the more special as a more intimate space within that larger structure.  In my first year, I lived in one of the co-op Innis houses.  Though I am from Toronto, living at Innis opened up a new city to one of its native-born.

What is your favourite memory from your time spent at Innis College?

Hard to say – there were so many.  I remember a film series that Dennis hosted on movies and war, which culminated in him leading conversations about Coming Home and Apocalypse Now, which had recently been released.  That was typical of the kind of thing we did routinely.  Maybe the most special was an independent reading course I did on the work of Harold Innis with TWO faculty members!  So much of it went over my head, but just to be able to talk about Innis every week was a blast.  I think the College paper even published my first-ever essay, a kind of life-profile of Innis for students who didn’t know why their College was named after an obscure historian!

Do you have any advice you would like to share with current Innis students?

Professors give too much advice, so I am a little reluctant to pile on.  But since you ask….  Enjoy your moment, its place and its people.  It makes you who you are.  It’s important to appreciate because there are always many more opportunities embedded in your present and your place than you may realize.  We often live very tunneled lives – groping from paper to paper, exam to exam; so it’s hard to look around and locate yourself and see where you might be able to take some turns and wind up in surprising places.  There are always alternatives ahead of you.  Also: learn foreign languages.  Nothing opens up global doors more than making an effort to speak someone else’s tongue.

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