Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History, Ohio University
I'll admit it: I didn't always want to be a historian. In fact, I'm not sure when the idea of becoming one crossed my mind. Neither of my parents were historians or academics. I hated high school so much I thought I'd never go to college and didn't go immediately. And still to this day when college students tell me that they want to become historians, I get suspicious and uneasy (OK, part of that's because I know the realities of the job market).
In fact, I started life as a" citizen," or more accurately, as a political activist, and I still think that's a part of who I am. In high school, I helped form a student organization called the Student Union to Promote Awareness (which had the clumsy acronym, SUPA). That's where I got most of my education on a variety of political issues (we organized after-school forums) and where I learned how to write (newsletters, flyers, the usual stuff an activist writes). I continued with that work after high school, forming a city-based youth organization that worked on a variety of political issues and that eventually had other chapters across the nation. Pretty soon, though, I realized that I didn't know that much about American politics or how we became the country that we did.
Still, when I eventually attended college, I didn't major in history but in social and political thought with a minor in historical studies. But I was trending towards history. And when I had to decide on graduate school, I thought history was the freest and most open of the academic disciplines. For what is not history?
When I finally got out of college, I was still teetering between activism and graduate studies in history. I threw in my applications and got accepted at the University of Rochester. But before packing my bags, I took a job as a community organizer.
Here's where things turned really strange. The first day I worked for this organization, I was taken out for training by a young woman who seemed wired with energy. She took me into one of the worst housing projects in Brooklyn. There she proceeded to walk me through her rounds, carrying with her a clipboard and literature. At one point, she kicked in a door to the stairway of a particularly nasty building."Gotta do that," she said to me,"because sometimes there's a drug deal going on and you don't want to be shot so you have to give warning." People wouldn't open doors for her, so she had to shout into their apartments. And when we got to the highlight of the evening - a meeting organized to discuss what needed to be done to improve the elevators in the building - I looked around a big room with only four people there, including myself and this young activist, plus two residents who weren't sure why they were there. Afterwards, she told me that she thought it would be good if an act of violence was taken against her so that she could learn the realities of what it meant to be poor and a victim. I was stunned.
The weirdest part was this: This young activist had just dropped out of the same history program I had just applied to. This too: her advisor would become my advisor.
I knew at that moment my mind was made up: I was going to graduate school and study to become a historian. But I was still animated by the world of activism and politics that I left behind and that I still remained engaged in. And I think that my writing still revolves around the questions I learned to ask as an activist. I'm reminded of George Orwell's classic essay on"Why I Write." He included in his list of reasons"political purpose - using the world 'political' in the widest possible sense." I think that way too, as I think all of my work centers around broad political questions about democracy, citizenship, political philosophy, and how these themes intersect with American history.
By Kevin Mattson
These words rolled off the lips of a man who calls himself a"gut player." A man who when asked by the conservative journalist Tucker Carlson back in 1999 to name a weakness said,"Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something." A man who later shocked people and made headline news by reading a book by French existentialist Albert Camus. A man who toned down his prep school roots and campaigned as a Texas populist and who, in the words of one journalist,"has been quick about cracks about intellectuals and criticisms of institutions like his own alma mater, Yale University." A man whose own speechwriter called him"uncurious and as a result ill-informed." A man famous for mispronouncing words and looking flummoxed when off-script at press conferences. This president - a man who many describe as the most anti-intellectual president in postwar America - said he led a party of ideas.
Odd? Not necessarily.
The book goes on to describe why this is not so strange as it might seem - why conservative ideas are charged with a certain anti-intellectual tinge. -- Kevin Mattson in"Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America"
About Kevin Mattson
Assistant Professor of History, University of Connecticut, August 2008 -
I was a pretty awful student in college. I skipped a bunch of classes and toured through several majors, eventually declaring in History because I had taken more courses in the subject than any other and I wanted to graduate on time. In the fall of my senior year, I took the required, but dreaded, methodologies course that had a reputation for being both difficult and boring. Yet at midterm, with the jolting suddenness and impact of a body blow, I realized that I had to become a historian when we read Said's Orientalism and then the first volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality. I can recall that class and those few weeks with great clarity, for it was the moment everything— everything—changed for me. It was no longer possible to see the world in the same way, to take school and my privilege for granted, or to understand the archives, history, and history-making as anything less than deeply political. With this new understanding of power and the transformative possibilities of engaged scholarship, I was drawn not only to graduate but on to graduate school and to work on identity, political culture, and memory.
My first book began as a dissertation on the attempt by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to erect a memorial to"the faithful colored mammies of the South" in Washington, D.C., in 1923 and the furious controversy that ultimately (and thankfully) stopped it. This history is included in the book, which is a wider examination of the incredible hold the idea of the mammy has had on American culture, politics, and imaginations across the twentieth century to the present day. It explores why this particular story about slavery, the South, gender, race, and sexuality has been so durable and what this has meant for women in the U.S. and for national and local politics, what it says about historical memory and its effects, and the scope of resistance to these images within black freedom struggles.
My continued interest in the way the U.S. has, or has not, reckoned with the history of slavery and its impacts upon contemporary experience and political economies threads through my current research. My next book is a study of the rhetorics of slavery and abolition in American anti-prostitution campaigns from the antebellum period to the dawn of the twenty-first century. With a focus on politics and popular culture and organized around three historical moments—antebellum reform and abolitionism, the Progressive-Era"white slavery" panic, and current activism to end global sex trafficking—I hope this book will make important contributions to the histories of feminism, prostitution, capitalism, and racial formation.
A required course changed my life. As a teacher now, my primary aim is to disrupt tendencies toward passive learning, jar students' assumptions about their environments and historical knowledge, and to ignite their critical vision and sense of the moral urgency of studying U.S. history and culture. I believe the ability to historicize— meaning not only to contextualize and assess development over time, but also to recognize dominant narratives and the workings of power—is a necessary skill for leading a thoughtful and engaged life, in and out of the classroom.
By Micki McElya
About Micki McElya