iMahal Interview Series:
David Gimbel
July 22, 2001

iMahal:  Your academic background is varied. Starting with English literature in undergraduate school, you moved on to archeology and art history for your masters, and then Near Eastern Studies for the PhD. Is this a typical mix of academic credentials for someone in your field?
Gimbel:  I'm not sure that the mix is typical at all. Let me start with early college. I ended up at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, though I was accepted by several Ivy League universities. I was attracted to Wesleyan because I thought it was a very liberal environment. I think my parents would have really preferred that I went to Columbia University or the University of Pennsylvania, which were much more prestigious schools. But they were prepared to let me go wherever I wanted as long as it was an academically acceptable institution. The political environment at Wesleyan was a very good one for me: it allowed me a lot of freedom. The college had very good professors but unfortunately didn't have as wide a range of academic subjects as was available at larger schools. So in a sense going to Wesleyan might have been a mistake -- I might have started in archeology much earlier if I had gone on to Columbia or some place that had a serious program in it and I had been able to discover that. But I ended up in a small liberal arts college, which had its benefits.

I majored in English literature sort of by default. My mother has a PhD in English literature, and I had always been very good at English.
..I've always been a prolific reader..
I understood the methodologies that you needed to take texts apart. More than that, I've always been a prolific reader. I absolutely love reading, I always have. As a kid I read under the covers till midnight or 2 in the morning. My parents would come in and check on me, and take my flashlight and batteries away.

In undergraduate college I wasn't particularly academically motivated. English literature seemed like an easy thing to do. After all, what are they asking you to do? They're asking you to sit around, read a lot of novels, and then take them apart and give an opinion about them. So for me, I think that I ended up in English literature simply because it was something I enjoyed doing. It was fun; I got to sit around and read novels. And sitting around reading novels freed up a lot of time for me to pursue other interests on my own. I've always been autodidactic. I never cared very much whether I was in a particular course or class because I've always assumed that as long as you can figure out what the important information is to learn you can sit down and teach it to yourself.

All photographs copyright and courtesy of David Gimbel or Archaeos



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