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An interview with Vishal Rameshbabu - by Dr. Andrei Gandila, UAH Associate Professor of History 

At 10 years old Vishal took his first college-level class, Honors 103 – World History to 1500. He earned an A in that class. To be fair, he didn’t do a perfect job. He lost points on his research paper about the origins of the First Crusade, because it exceeded the word limit. It was twice as long! Now, at 16, Vishal is enrolled in the capstone seminar HY 490 and in HY 401 Daily Life in Ancient Rome, both challenging, writing-intensive, classes. Vishal graciously agreed to share his experience which I’m sure will be a source of inspiration for everyone.

Dr. Gandila: When did you first become interested in history and how did it happen?

Vishal: I have always loved geography, and I’ve been reading atlases my whole life. Over time, I grew annoyed with how relatively stationary the present world was to me, so I looked over historical maps and historical cartographical animations online when I was about eight years old. From then on, it was a rabbit hole into the great states, empires, people, and the past. I soon read encyclopedia articles and watched documentaries about the ancient world, usually about Near Eastern civilizations, which drew my interest towards the cultural and societal history of long-gone cultures and societies.

Dr. Gandila: It is common for children to develop a strong interest for an activity but then to forget about it and move to something else. What kept your interest in history for so long?

Vishal: Nothing else has caught my interest as much as history ever in my entire life, but I expressed my interest in different ways over time, which may have kept my attention towards the subject for such a long time. I learned to channel my passion for history through event organization, writing, and teaching others on an individual basis, which I’ve never lost sight of and never lost my connection with. While my relationship with history has changed significantly over time (from an individual perspective to a broader, more communal perspective), my general interest has not.

Dr. Gandila: I know you have a particular interest in pre-modern history. What is your favorite culture and why?

Vishal: The Bactrians are very interesting to me. Their location at the crossroads between the Indo-Aryans, Hellenistic Kingdoms, and Eurasian Steppe granted them a very unique culture. Whether they were ruled by the mysterious Yuezhi tribes of the Kushan Empire or the Nomadic Hephthalite Empire, they maintained a variety of both odd and familiar practices. To me, there is nothing more incredible than a civilization that fits all the boxes and none at the same time. The Bactrians, who adopted Indian Buddhism and Persian Zoroastrianism but practiced artificial cranial deformation and lived in tents, are just that.

Dr. Gandila: You took HY 103 in the Fall of 2016. The previous fall I had your older brother Rahul in the same class. One day he came to my office and told me half-jokingly that his kid brother Vishal, who is in elementary school, wants to help him with his assignments for my class. You even visited the class one time, so he wasn’t joking. What convinced you that you could handle a college-level class at that age?

Vishal: At the time, whether I could handle the class or not was not on my mind. I saw it as a challenge and a fun experience. I had no idea what the class had in store, but I wanted to go beyond studying history on my own, and I thought HY 103 was perfect for just that. While I may have been naive about the class and its commitments at the time, I definitely made the right decision.

Dr. Gandila: One time, one of your classmates came to me after class and whispered “Who is that kid, and how come he knows so much about everything?” How did you feel in a room with students so much older than you?

Vishal: It was natural to me. I think in the present day I might even be more apprehensive about a situation of that sort than I was then. I just enjoyed the environment for what it was and the age difference between me and my classmates rarely crossed my mind, if ever. In-class discussions, the only thing I cared about was offering my perspective to my classmates regardless of who I was.

Dr. Gandila: What is the most important thing you learned from your college experience so far?

Vishal: Through academic writing and class discussion, I figured out how to communicate information beyond just a series of rote memorized facts. I learned how to offer opinions and insight and tie information together, not only in history but in general. That shift in mentality and experience has helped me immensely in bringing my knowledge further than my own mind. I found that teaching others involved shaping information with your own personal perspective and nuance.

Dr. Gandila: How do you see your future and will it include the study of history?

Vishal: I am likely going to be involved in the academic side of history for the rest of my life. I hope to study history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and enter academia from that point. I’m considering entering historical podcasting or non-fiction historical writing as well. Even if my plan to become a full-time academic historian does not come to fruition, I will definitely be involved in the academic study of history regardless.

Dr. Gandila: Why is history important and why should people care about it?

Vishal: It is impossible to truly understand human society without knowing the context behind everything from the beginning of civilization. In order to think critically about today’s world, and think critically in general, the study of history is a very important tool. History offers cautionary tales and murky waters that real people saw and fought through which are extremely valuable and impossible to replicate in any other field. Even though pre-modern history doesn’t have a direct correlation with the present world, some things never change. The politics of the Late Roman Republic offer significant insight into political intrigue and demagoguery that still ring true today. The rise of Islamic empires in India created similar demographic shifts to the ones of the modern Near East.

Dr. Gandila: We live in a digital age and the focus is shifting from the human experience to technology, robotics, and automation. What is the future of history as a discipline and should students continue to major in history?

Vishal: A fully digitized and automated society requires a lens into the past, especially as societies shift exponentially through technological development and cultural change. In a world where technology morphs the cultural and political landscape to unrecognizable levels, keeping track of the past can only grow more challenging and more necessary. In predicting the future of a dynamic world through past political and cultural events, whether in the realm of diplomacy, policy, or economics, the historical record will be necessary. Understanding traditional military conflict, global diseases, and political failure will also be needed, even in a time where those events grow rare and foreign, as those crises can show up unexpectedly, especially in societies unequipped with the historical knowledge of preventative measures. Studying history should be more viable over time, especially as other careers simplify or become defunct through automation and technological progress, and history grows more necessary to the modern, erratic world. There should be greater demand for historical knowledge in the future, both modern and non-modern, when institutions and societies demand a broader and more comprehensive understanding of the ever-growing and convoluted human past.

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