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Meet Isaac Campos

At an age when many young people are getting basic information about the dangers of drugs, grade-schooler Isaac Campos was researching and writing about the history of the drug trade.

Date: 1/16/2007
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
At an age when many young people are getting basic information about the dangers of drugs, grade-schooler Isaac Campos was researching and writing about the history of the drug trade.

Several years, much research and a dissertation behind him, Campos is as fascinated as ever by the compelling subject.

And now, he's sharing what he's learned about it, and other pieces of the past, as an assistant professor of Latin American history.

A Michigan native, he grew up in Kalamazoo.

"Interestingly, when I was in the fifth grade my father suggested to me that I write a research paper on the Opium Wars!" says Campos, who earned his PhD in Latin American history at Harvard University.

"He always used to suggest idiosyncratic paper topics, just to annoy my teachers, I think. I thought it was fascinating that the British had enslaved the Chinese through the opium trade Ė I now know it was much more complicated than that, but that was fifth grade. The hypocrisy of the whole drug issue seemed clear to me already at that early age and I was hooked, so to speak, on these issues."


Isaac Campos is an assistant professor of Latin American history.

Campos completed his undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, where he also received a teaching certificate in history and Spanish.

"My family lived in Ann Arbor during the 1960s and early '70s and several of my older siblings went to U of M for college, so I grew up dreaming of getting to live in Ann Arbor and attend the University of Michigan," he says. "When I was accepted there, I didnít hesitate one second in making the decision. Michigan was a great place to go to college.

"My girlfriend at the time Ė now my wife Ė convinced me to apply to Harvard. I was sure they wouldn't be interested in what I wanted to study, but she wanted to try living on the East Coast. So I applied and I was surprised when it turned out that a couple of the professors there were quite interested in the issues (drug history) that I wanted to study."

Campos' career choice isn't surprising if family history is considered.

"I'd always liked the idea of being a professor. My grandfather was a professor, as is an uncle, and my mother taught Spanish at Kalamazoo College," he says. "The academic life always appealed to me, though I didn't really gain the discipline and drive to pursue this career until I was almost finished with my undergraduate studies."

But while he'd always found the issue of drug policy interesting, it was as he thought about graduate school that Campos became interested in the "new international history" which had emerged out of traditional "diplomatic history."

"This new international history emphasized transnational phenomena that occurred below the level of official state to state relations and I realized that the history of the drug trade would be a fascinating subject for a transnational history of that kind," he says.

"I eventually became interested in marijuana in Mexico, first, because the subject was crucial to the development of the international drug war and because it seemed to be the most controversial of all the targets of the War on Drugs. But also because I had become interested in the history or "social" life of commodities (as defined by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai) and marijuana was an ideal subject for pursuing a research topic along the lines suggested by Appadurai. That is, it was a commodity whose value had been created as much by culture as by its actual use value or the labor that went into its creation. Marijuana was obviously something whose symbolic value had played an enormous role in its history.

"This fascinated me and no one had ever really looked seriously at this history in Mexico. In fact, most characterizations of this history in Mexico were usually based on worn-out stereotypes and ignorance rather than on any type of reality."

And now more than ever, those stereotypes can make their way to massive audiences. Asked what topic would make him stop at The History Channel if he were channel-surfing, Campos asks, "Do they ever show anything on The History Channel that isnít about Hitler or Stalin?"

Actually, he says, he learned of a History Channel show on drugs just a few weeks ago. "So I watched that. They had it all wrong," he says. "Also, there was one on the Mexican-American war that was quite good actually and a friend of mine from grad school was giving commentary so I definitely took a look. But that only happens when Iím visiting my parents or something because my wife and I donít have cable!"

His own research, he said, has been well received.

"People seem to be genuinely interested in the subject, and since much of the history that people know is based on myth and stereotype, I can usually tell them something that surprises them and that always makes things more interesting," Campos says.

He does stay away from the dangerous aspects of his favored subject matter Ė and is "not at all interested in studying the present day drug trade."

"It is VERY dangerous and it's not history yet anyway," he says.

Campos worked as a research assistant for the National Security Archive, a non-profit NGO in Washington, while in grad school. There, he says, he did research on newly declassified documents on Mexicoís so-called ďDirty WarĒ of the 1970s.

"We were looking at freshly opened, previously secret government documents and we were investigating what had happened to hundreds of guerrillas and student activists who had been 'disappeared' (murdered without leaving a trace) by the Mexican government during the 1970s," he says. "It was an experience that really demonstrated the real world importance of the skills learned in the history classroom."

In his own classroom, Campos says, he thinks he's able to communicate well with students.

"I have a fancy degree but I grew up in a small Midwestern town, went to the public schools, and have always been a proud Midwesterner," he says.

"So I feel very at home around the students here at UC. I also wasnít always a great student. It took me a while to learn how to be mature enough and disciplined enough to succeed in school. So I feel like I understand where a lot of young students are coming from when they are struggling.

"Finally, I come from a long line of teachers and feel very at home in front of the classroom. I can still learn a lot obviously because Iím just beginning my career. Before September Iíd never lectured to 100 20-year-olds! Figuring out how to best communicate in situations like that doesnít happen overnight. But Iíve been keeping an eye on my colleagues and trying to emulate the best of their teaching."

He doesn't have to dig far into his personal history to find good role models.

"My mom was an amazing professor. She worked really hard to make sure her students always got everything they possibly could out of her classes and her students obviously appreciated it. She also really knew her stuff!" Campos says. "So I try to emulate her example as much as I can, though I doubt Iíll ever be that good.

"Matthew Connelly at the University of Michigan (now at Columbia) kind of took me under his wing and whipped me into shape for graduate school. I lucked out running across Matt very early in his career. Heís rapidly becoming a big cheese in the business and I was fortunate enough to receive a lot of encouragement and advice from him at the very start of my career Ė and still to this day, actually."

Cincinnati stood out personally and professionally as Campos made his latest career decision.

"Right off the bat the faculty at UC struck me as a really good group, not only of scholars, but of people. It looked like it would be a nice place to go into work every day and that has been confirmed in my actual experience here," he says.

"In addition, it was obvious that the scholars here were not only strong, but very active and engaged in their fields. Everybody is publishing and active in this department and this is certainly not the case everywhere. So it looked like a great place to be as a young and enthusiastic scholar.

"Finally, I liked the idea of teaching at a public university, especially one like this where many of the students are first-generation college students. I also was attracted by the Taft Center, which offers a very unique and stable source of funding for a public university of this kind. Thatís a big plus."

And Cincinnati, he's finding out, has a lot of historic haunts to explore.

Campos and his wife, Patty, a graphic designer who used to design books at Beacon Press in Boston, enjoy the older neighborhoods and architecture of Cincinnati, especially Over-the-Rhine, Clifton and Northside.

A soccer player, Campos also is angling for tips on another passion: fishing.

"I'm looking for suggestions for fly fishing opportunities around the area," he says.

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