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Interview: Joyce Berkman on the Value of History and the Historian's Mindset

Joyce Avrech Berkman is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Department of History where she was a faculty member for 48 years (1965-2013). She is the co-founder of the Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies department. Professor Berkman holds a PhD (1967) from Yale University and is a feminist teacher and activist. Her areas of research interest include U.S. history, British history, European women's history, and oral history, and she is the author of The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism and the editor of Contemplating Edith Stein.

Professor Berkman generously discussed history, her evolution as a historian, and more during a phone interview in April 2021 (the transcript has been edited for clarity).

What influenced your interest in history and specifically U.S., British, and European Women’s history?

My evolution as a historian is rooted in my passion for history and my belief in history and what it can provide in the way of an education. I really would prefer to begin there, with my evolution and personal history with the discipline. My interest in history begins with curiosity about life, about my life and your life and life as a general experience or phenomena.

I’ve always wondered since childhood, why things happen? Why does change happen? Why does change not happen? Why do people behave the way they do? Fundamentally, who am I? And why am I who I am? What are we human beings? Why are some people courageous and others behave like sheep? Why do people commit evil, and others do good? Why are some people brave and some people cowardly? And so forth.

The existential features of life have always intrigued me, and that is where all learning begins, but to learn meaningfully is to have an active, agile, curious, well-trained, broadly educated mind. For me, the goals of history meet those core goals of a liberal arts education and fuel my passion for history.

That is – to become a liberated mind, to have a liberated heart, to have a liberated imagination. I know no better discipline than history to enlighten people, to train them, to enable them to become a full human being. I think it does so in various ways. It does so by insisting upon a critical analysis of so-called “facts,” of opinions, of various dominant and minority values, especially of one’s assumptions and one’s intentions. History does so by bringing to bear the wealth of human experience, the actual panorama of human behavior and thought, and to study that requires a range of disciplinary tools. History is, at its best, widely interdisciplinary. There is no other discipline that depends vitally on interdisciplinarity. No other discipline calls for cross-cultural and comparative regional analysis within the context of time.

Anthropology tends to do some longevity studies but generally is not as time-contextualizing as historians are. That is, how does a moment in time create certain possibilities and not others? Similarly, how does a moment in space in a particular. specific location create certain possibilities but not others? This relates to other fundamental concerns of mine that are life-long, and that is how do people make decisions? How do people choose this or that to do or think? What is this thing called “free will”? 

A little anecdote: When I was studying history as an undergraduate, I was convinced that people had very, very little free will, and that everything was determined; I was very much a determinist. I remember speaking with a faculty member at his office hours about this, and he then showed me the shallowness of that, of “I want to have court judgments on people who committed rape” and the like and so we went around on this. It’s a question, by the way, I still wrestle with, but I now see the complexity of human nature in a much more sophisticated way. 

The way in which we are both creatures of time and space but also creators of time and space, and just how complicated that dynamic is, so if I wish to explain or interpret a happening, such as Joe Biden’s election. Besides whatever I need to know about Biden, I need to know a lot about any individual voter. What is that voter’s values, that voter’s fears, hopes, and interests? What are the biographical influences on that voter and how do those influences intersect with her or his communities, within her or his’ specific setting and time? 

How did she arrive at certain psychological and sociological assumptions? What are her biases? What is her mental toolbox? What is her commitment to self-scrutiny? What is her ability to empathize with others? How lively is her compassion? In a voter’s choice, how do they anticipate results of their choice? What are the risks, gains, losses calculation? What governs those thoughts?

I know no other discipline but history by which you can explore the decisions of people, the choices they make, past and present. It’s been life-long, it’s why I’ve always loved history, and fascinated by the intersection, ultimately, of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and history. 

Now to my evolution as a historian: I would say there are various milestones and turning points. I’d begin with junior high school – we didn’t call it middle school in those days. I was born in 1937. I’m entering junior high school and I was fortunate in the eighth grade to have a social studies class that dealt with the Alamo and the occupation, if you will, of the Mexican War, and then the occupation and the annexation of Texas. I had very few good teachers, but this was one good teacher. She wanted to set up a debate on whether the annexation of Texas was a virtuous thing or not.

Was it a legal action? How does one evaluate, or what interpretation do we make of our taking of Texas when it was Mexican territory? At the point of which I was in the eighth grade, it was not long after World War II and the United Nations had been set up. I was a fervent supporter of the UN doctrines against international aggression. I was a very deep enthusiast for everything United Nations [in] the late 1940s and 1950s. I was especially interested in “How do you promote peace?” 

War and peace issues were one of my various historical interests (and still are). I was intrigued by the notion that there could be different points of view on a historical experience. As I began thinking about it, a cousin of mine was in the class, and we were both supposed to be on the side of the debate that says it was an act of aggression. If you looked at the doctrines of the UN, you realized it was an act of aggression. That was my beginning of becoming skeptical about what I’d say [on] flag-waving patriots and about nationalism in general. The concern about having the historical knowledge and historical scholarship to help students understand the character of American history was something that sort of ‘bit’ me at that time and stayed with me. 

Then in high school, I took a course in US history too, but the focus was especially on California history. I grew up in San Jose, California, and the teacher was keen on rooting things in California, to see what was happening in the country at-large, but also to put light on the California experience in particular. I remember being stunned by learning about the robber barons in California and the making of the California economy. 

After that, I was stunned by learning about the Japanese internment camps all around the state. I’d heard nothing about that until high school and was not aware of what happened to Japanese Americans in California. It was like a veil was ripped off my eyes and I was suddenly seeing California history, and hence American history again in a totally new and harsh light. It was very important to see that.

I was very proud to be a Californian. For me, the state represented all that was new and modern and open and exploratory, and then to learn about how power was exercised in California and the nature of racism against Japanese Americans was incredibly disillusioning, but also exciting. It stimulated my mind and imagination to want to explore these kinds of events. Why do things happen? Why do things not happen? By then, as well, as I am in high school, the news of the magnitude and horror of the Holocaust emerged, and that was awful shocking. How could people who believed in democracy – we were dealing with the Weimar Republic then – support Nazis and Hitler? Why did the Italians support Mussolini and the fascists? At that point, I thought, “Oh, Americans would never do something like that,” and I was fascinated by the ability of people to suspend their alleged democratic values and support cruel dictators – autocrats. 

I was my high school’s representative to the Model United Nations which is a phenomenon – I don’t know when exactly it began across high schools in this country – and they’d hold many UN conferences. I did so again in college. I remember strongly [being] assigned to represent South Africa. How to understand the apartheid regime?

How did this happen? Why do people oppress others? Why do people persecute? Then how do people respond? I’d say my first introduction to white supremacy was not Jim Crow in America (which I studied very little) or even the genocide of Native Americans. It was South African history and realizing what had been done to Africans that I then shifted my gaze to see the counterparts of those same kinds of behaviors in the United States.

By the time I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to teach history, but originally, I thought I wanted to teach social studies in high schools because that had been so formative for me in my growing up. 

My college experience not only reinforced my desire to teach history but also to eventually want to teach at the college level. In my first year in college, I was required to take as a history major (you had requirements then in the 50s) an undergraduate course in Western civilization. It was a two-semester course and I was fascinated by the history of ideas. Why, again, interpretation, explanation – why do people think what they think, create what they create? 

From stunning gothic cathedrals and polyphonic music to hideous crusades and awful witch-hunting and witch-burning and Inquisitions. Then to study the Reformation and realize that the intolerance did not end with the Reformation. Denominations became very intolerant too, except for the Quakers – and at the same time, you’re learning about the magnificence of Renaissance art and literature. It’s a complex experience you’re having of greatness that you can really esteem, admire, revere – and then really gory, gory, ghastly and awful stuff.

By the time I was a senior (I attended UCLA as an undergraduate; I graduated in 1958), my interest in history had expanded. It had become a question of the very possibility of explanation and interpretation, given the limits of mortal minds. If I’m always asking the question, “Why?” – do I really think I’m going to get a conclusive answer? I became engrossed, increasingly, by the question of rethinking and re-feeling a person’s choices, the ‘biographical’ of history. R. G. Collingwood argued that “One can enter the thinking process of Caesar contemplating the crossing of the Rubicon, and one can re-enter what he was agonizing over in his mind.” 

My professor at UCLA also introduced us to the thinking of Wilhelm Dilthey, the German philosopher and historian who claimed that we can enter the feelings of others, not just the mind, and we can do this through imagination, through empathic methods, to discover another person’s present or past experience. But this got me into all kinds of hot water in terms of when I was teaching. Later, I’m teaching courses on African American history and I’m having some of my students and their parents saying, “How can a white woman teach the experience of black women?” This is a women’s history course. I actually was teaching the course jointly with a male who was black in African American studies at UMass, but the people who were complaining were saying, “What do we have here? You have a man teaching about women’s lives; we have a white woman teaching about black women’s lives – how dare they? They can talk the talk but they can never walk the walk.” 

You have to be able to connect the “walk the walk” with the “talk the talk.” There were a lot of those challenges, and that’s still an issue of identity, knowledge, and identity politics as it enters into both learning and teaching and scholarship which remains very controversial. 

This further directed me into a field that became very important in my past couple of decades as a historian, and that is doing oral history. Most of my scholarly writing (with some areas of exception) have been biographical studies. I’m fascinated by people’s subjective (meaning subjectivities): documents, letters, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, and then, in time, oral history. 

The concept of empathy is very problematic and one that I uphold, but with many caveats. My most recent historical biographical focus has been on Edith Stein and her dissertation in Germany in 1917 on “The Nature of Empathy.” I’ve published a lot, not just on empathy that she thought about, but I’ve written about myself, independent of Stein’s writing. 

In graduate school, I continued without concern but I became intrigued by the armies of past phenomena, the trails of changes; the ambiguity of historical changes and historical events. For example, I studied the American Revolution under the remarkable historian Edmund Morgan at Yale, and what emerges as you study the American Revolution close-up, looking at evidence and asking yourself, “what does this evidence say? Is this evidence credible? How does this evidence compare with other evidence from other colonies?” and the like. I began to see how the effects of the American Revolution were both liberating and oppressing. It liberated and oppressed Native Americans. Women were worse-off after the revolution than they were before in many ways; a genuine setback for women.

The complexities of change made me think very hard about the nature of even progressive social and political movements, in the past and in our time. The ambiguity given the ironies of technological revolutions, be they the Industrial Revolution or our present-day Digital Revolution. That was very absorbing to me. The other dimension of graduate training which I tried to do a lot with when I taught graduate studies courses is the nature of historiography. How do we understand the history of scholarship on a topic, whether the scholarship is on the American Revolution, World War I, the Vietnam War? It doesn’t matter what the movement, the event is, but you’re going to have a history. You’ll discover a history of scholarly interpretation. Why do those interpretations appear when they do? What is the nature of dialogue and debate among historians on any particular matter? That became fascinating to me. 

My dissertation, however, harkens back to my junior high school [years]. It was the impact of the Vietnam War on me. I wrote on the history of British pacifism between 1914 and 1945; that is, what is the nature of conscientious objection, of pacifist movements in England during the interwar era, beginning first with World War I and taking it up to World War II? I was intrigued by various figures who were leaders in the pacifist movement. I became fascinated even before the Women’s Movement gripped me, by a leading female English pacifist, Vera Brittain. After that, and at the time, of course, I’d been swept up by the Women’s Movement and committed to doing as much scholarship as I can on women.

My focus shifted to Red Cross nurses on both sides of the conflict during World War I. Vera Britain was a Red Cross nurse in England and had written so many letters, diaries, everything about her life. Then I began working on Edith Stein on the German side. Looking from a competitive national perspective on their thoughts, their values, their choices – that captivated my interest. I should say, at the same time, the South African apartheid motif that captivated me in high school also reappeared in my go-to book on a major South African progressive thinker, Olive Schreiner. She wrote fiction and nonfiction; she was absolutely an extraordinary woman. I still work on her. I just recently had an article of mine published in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature on Olive Schreiner.

The global focus that I became wrapped up with in high school, as well as the issue of war and peace, continued throughout my career, evolving and surfacing in different ways – that’s the evolution.

What is the purpose of history and who are its intended consumers? Does the historian have a social responsibility?

We get back to some of what I said initially but I can also underscore my views by talking about what I see as the mission of history. As a historian, one part is to promote the ideal of an educated human being and however you define that. I mentioned earlier on what I thought were the key elements in terms of the liberated mind, heart, and imagination. An active one when it’s capable of thinking critically about oneself and about whatever evidence is in front of them, and also thinking compassionately.

The second would be we have an enormous need in our nation, now more than ever, for an enlightened and compassionate citizenship in our democracy. If we’re going to keep democracy alive – never in my life have I felt more in peril as I do now in our country – then we need students, from every age onto graduate school, to take the courses and do the thinking and get the critical thinking skills, the mental equipment, and the emotional equipment to become enlightened citizens and voters. 

I’d add a third thing: to be a world citizen.

It’s not just enough to be a good American citizen; one has to be a good world citizen. This means being able to think of the many ways in which our nation is interdependent and intertwined with other nations, and to look at things beyond our nation. What is the welfare of humanity? What is the welfare for everybody? The extent to which people are willing to think about climate: the climate is your climate; but that’s also very much self-interest. I’m not saying that thinking globally does not have a self-interest component, but to be a world citizen means sometimes subordinating one’s own national interests because something larger is at stake than our own national interests.

We’d like to have maybe a really strong competitive economy, but if it means that it’s going to be at the expense of nations in Africa or nations in Latin America, let’s think twice about that. Let’s think about ways in which we can help one another, we can collaborate, we can cooperate, and not just think, “What serves America’s interests?” first. 

Those are, to me, the key missions of a good education. History is particularly prepared if it’s done right and well to help people reach those goals.

For those who aren’t as aware of world history, how far do you go back in the written record to provide an overview?

I find it to be terribly hard. I’d never want to teach a world history course. I know high school teachers are challenged to do that. I’d probably take a particular moment – maybe two – in the history of the world. It may be a war, it may be the Industrial Revolution, it could be the Women’s Movement, it could be anything, it doesn’t really matter. 

I’d use that particular moment to unpack the nature of global interconnection and the interdependency and need for one another, and to build enormous respect and understanding for other cultures. It might be music history; it might have something to do with the Silkroad group which is still so important, that has been going around our country and other countries performing. 

If I had no choice and I had to teach a course like that, I’d look for a particular event or moment or person, maybe someone like Mahatma Gandhi, and use that as the lens through which I could bring in an infinite array of other ways of looking at how world history has taken place. India: That’d be very exciting – to study the nature of Buddhism in Indian culture, of the immense brilliance of that culture, its own art, its own philosophy, and then at the same time, look at British imperialism as it colonized India. What positive hybridity emerged from that, as well as what got lost? What happened as a result that was not good?

I’d look at the issue as it was understood in India and England, when India was able to have a successful war of independence. Why did India get to be independent? The whole question of the independence movement in India is still yet to be sufficiently probed.

COVID right now is going to offer historians of the future a huge trove of possibilities for exploring international relationships and the way in which we have to think about the future. I would’ve liked, last night, if [during his State of the Union speech] Biden had been more open about the need for us to shift all this unused AstraZeneca and everything else that we have, over to India which is suffering so keenly, and to bring home to Americans that unless the pandemic is halted in India or anywhere else, there will be new variants, and explain why that is. I don’t think a lot of people understand the science. It is again where the historian must be multidisciplinary. What the science is on viral development, that if a virus is active, it will have more mutations, and if it has mutations and variants, it will come back to the United States and our vaccines that we love so much won’t be sufficient.

We have an enormous responsibility to the world – there’s a self-interest [component] but I’d like to think we have a compassion for the deaths and the suffering that’s going on elsewhere on this planet. I don’t hear much about that.

What are the challenges facing the historian, the discipline of history, and historical production today?

I think that there are many challenges. I don’t know nationally but [in] many parts, many states, we are facing a demographic cliff. That is, there are fewer and fewer students who are entering colleges – unless we expand immigration which doesn’t look likely, alas, this means that with fewer and fewer 18-year-olds [entering], colleges and programs are going to have to close. On top of that, we have the magnet of the digital revolution and where the jobs are. There aren’t jobs for historians like there was maybe after World War II. We don’t have the practical opportunities. 

History has been very resilient. The history profession has found more and more ways to grow and expand itself into new directions. Public history is a very exciting area of our department’s and university’s development, and working in consultation and collaboration with people in many other types of film and theater and all kinds of areas – but that’s public history. The prospects for a young person who wants to be a history professor or even a history teacher at the high-school level are not good. The high-school level will always be some degree of history required of students. The college level? Not likely. 

We have so diluted the requirement to think historically and how to think historically by saying, “Well, if you can take a history course, take history of economics. You don’t have to take it in the history department. Or maybe you can take a history of music course and that’ll satisfy your history requirement.” 

People who teach the history of economics or music, some of them are very fine historians but that’s not, on the whole, going to introduce students to the study of history and its use: of becoming an enlightened democratic citizen. I do think that we’re facing a major crisis here.  

As I understand it, at our university, I don’t know if it’s true [elsewhere], when students are asked what they plan to major in when they enter the university, very, very few say “history.” The other area that history majors used to be interested in is going into law. There’s now a glut in law schools and so being a history major, even thinking of becoming a lawyer is now no longer so wonderful an ambition as it was maybe 10 or 20 years ago. There’s a problem there. We’re watching, in other words, the humanities and the arts always very much in jeopardy, and I don’t know what history can do. We’re really facing a very difficult situation. The only way around it – because I feel history is vital – is to reintroduce the requirements. 

I was one in the Sixties when I first started teaching who fought university requirements! I thought, “People should take courses that they want to take, not what they’re required to take,” but I’m re-thinking that. I want students to have a proper liberal arts education, and a proper liberal arts education requires that they take a full year of history.

Particularly, if you can’t offer a global history course, the Western Civilization course, or Eastern – it doesn’t matter, it could be a Latin American history course. Any kind of history course that will introduce students to the complexities of thinking and arriving at opinions, and exploring what may or may not be true in the historical past. That can be done by a good professor in any area of history. They did it for Japanese history.

I’m somewhat a ‘creature of the 1960s’ revolution in education; there’s still something to be said about having first-year courses be topical and explored from multiple disciplines so that the vision that you have… for example, nearby us at Amherst College and other places, where you take some field of knowledge, an event, some phenomenon, and you bring to bear – maybe Black Lives Matter. A whole semester on Black Lives Matter in which you look at this movement in terms of the history of anti-racial movements, of the experience of African Americans. You look at it in terms of performance theory, in terms of journalism and media, how social media has represented it. You analyze all of that, you look at it from as many angles as possible, as many disciplines as possible, and one analyzes, explores, thinks, and argues about it, studies it as a kind of Freshman curriculum. 

That would be part of the vision we all had in the 1960s of what learning should be all about, that never got realized because every faculty had their vested interests in their department. Their department didn’t want to lose faculty members. 

Is there a historical event or series of events that captivates you most of all?

It’s kind of indiscriminate. Any time I read or hear about or discover something, I want to study it. It captivates me. I’ve given an area that wasn’t biographical and first-person, that was a motif of my study of history and my publication work – reproductive rights. 

I’m fascinated, upset by, and my emotions are wrapped up in the whole history of women’s struggle for reproductive justice, which is what we call it now, reproductive choice. The right to have a baby, the love of having a baby, and the right not to have a baby, and how that choice is contingent on race, on social class, on time, on space – so many variables. I’ve done a lot of lecturing on that. I’ve also done a lot of lecturing on the 15th Amendment, which was, after the Civil War, the amendment that enfranchised African American men, until the policies of states and cities began quickly to deny black men their right to vote.

That caused an enormous split in the Women’s Movement between those who supported the 15th Amendment, even though it did not enfranchise women, although it only made men capable as a category of voting. They’d thought that at the end of the Civil War, there was a vision that maybe we would become a real democracy and women would be able to vote and have the same legal rights as men of any color and women of any color. 

It was naïve and split the Women’s Movement in half. It took decades to recover, and there’s an enormous legacy that still affects white and black female relationships since then. Something like that, and its long tail, its enormous legacy – it’s the sort of thing I’ve given a number of talks on and that continues to grip me. I oscillate, I go back and forth between various characters of the time and biographies, and my attitudes and values about what they’re saying and doing. 

There really isn’t any that wouldn’t captivate me. There’s nothing, nothing in human experience that if I’m exposed to sufficiently and read about and become familiar with, that I wouldn’t want to be the historian of that particular event or phenomenon.

Can you speak to any influential ‘strands’ of history which shaped and molded civilization through the ages?

I’m fascinated by the history of what we call religious faiths. Part of my study of Edith Stein had to do with her exploration as a philosopher of the relationship between religion and theology, between religion and spirituality, between religion and philosophy and history. I had a colleague who’s now retired who taught the history of religion – I think that’s a grand course to teach, and any moment in the history of religion or any movement within the history of religion and antiquity from the earliest cultures, whatever anthropological material there is that can be used, is absolutely exciting!

Stein was talking about the longevity of human experience, and the whole conflict between faith and science. Religion and science as we’re witnessing it today is precedent upon precedent upon precedent. It’s not just the monkey business. It’s absolutely fascinating.

In the course of your career, has your overriding teaching philosophy evolved as time went on?

That’s an interesting question in terms of pedagogy. As so much influenced by the 1960s, I envision an idealized classroom in which the faculty member was the facilitator, with students engaging each other in the exploration of topics; that it would be a totally collaborative and team effort, and it’d be enormous give-and-take. 

Unfortunately, for many reasons, students weren’t prepared to do that in college. I don’t know whether those teaching social studies in high school had a better experience. What I find is sometimes I was lucky, in any given semester, if I’m teaching two or three courses, I’d have classes where students were engaged, and I’d have many classes where they weren’t, where they just wanted me to lecture. They’d say “I pay my tuition, you’ve done all this reading. You’ve gone through all the scholarship. We want to hear your thoughts. We don’t want to hear each other; we don’t know anything!” It was very disappointing because I so idealized back in the 60s the fruitfulness of that kind of really open and self-critical exchange of ideas within a classroom.

As this happened more and more, I did find myself then slipping into the lecture mode when I didn’t really want to do much lecturing. But then students would say that they loved it and they were really stimulated. It was rewarding and they shouldn’t have been rewarding me, but the rewarding of it ended up contributing to my letting go of some of the pedagogy of idealism I had in the 1960s. 

I haven’t really changed in my views about the imperative of multidisciplinary approaches. I’ve always taught history from many angles. I’ve always taught history as inclusive. I was teaching black women’s lives, lesbian lives, in the 1970s when I was enveloped in women’s history. I do think in the last twenty years, the challenge to me, and I haven’t resolved it, but I’ve brought it up in class is, who are women? That is, what is women’s history? If we are abandoning the binary and we are getting rid of the notion of male history and female history and that sort of thing, and we are understanding that identity is so fluid and variable, and we have a world filled with people who don’t identify as women and don’t identify as men, then is women’s history now outdated? Do we redefine it? A gendered history would mean I’d have to teach the history of transexuals, I’d have to teach the history of men, and I’m a women’s historian!

What does this all mean for me? I’m still tackling that one, but I always bring it up, I’ve done it during the last ten years of teaching. I tell students, “You’re here at a women’s history course but gee, in this classroom, there may be some people here who are taking it who are men who became women, or women who became men or is this all women’s history too? What are we talking about?” 

It’s much better to develop one’s mental toolbox, one’s skills, rather than necessarily master huge bodies of knowledge. If I were to continue teaching my women’s history courses (which the two-semester courses should really be four to six semester courses), I’d just choose a few moments in time each semester and rather than try to build a narrative, even though it’s at the cost of understanding certain levels of continuity and change, I’d probably be very selective and use those particular moments in time or those particular people as the lens through which to study and to develop one’s mental equipment.

What moments in history could you use to teach a course?

I could teach Edith Stein, I could teach Olive Schreiner (many of the people I’ve written about), Vera Brittain. Any one of those people I could teach an entire course on and let that person’s life become a lens through which to learn how to think critically, how to evaluate evidence, how to think about continuity and change. How to look through a bifocal lens in which you try to understand a person’s experience where they don’t know the future and they’re making choices based on what they see now as opposed to us looking back retrospectively and realizing what happened by […] rather than by choice.

Edith Stein examples: Her decision to convert to Catholicism in 1921, and her decision to become a nun in 1933. Those have become absorbing tidbits of her life that people have written about at length. For me, the choice would be when she decided (she’s German) to leave the University of Breslau, where she’d done her undergraduate work in history to go to the University of Gottingen to study with a particular philosopher, Edmund Husserl. 

When Husserl left Gottingen and went to Freiburg, she followed him and went there to study. I came to understand, through a lot of reading, that that was typical in that time (not for women). That students, particularly graduate students, followed faculty members they were working with, whose particular approach, in this case philosophical – Husserl was the founder of phenomenology – to go where that person is going. Let’s say it was Martin Heidegger; wherever he was teaching, that’s where students would go. They might’ve studied with him in one place, and if he then goes to another campus, they follow him to that campus.

I’d like to study that phenomenon, and her life, of making the decision to leave her family in Breslau to go to Gottingen, a considerable distance in 1914. 

The other example is when Edith Stein became a Red Cross nurse during World War I. That might be even better as I’m thinking aloud. I’d begin the course with her positioned to become a Red Cross nurse, and to do nursing on the German side and how that impacted her, how she started thinking cross-culturally. She was dealing with war victims from Hungary, from Italy, from Poland, and she then began to shed her kind of ‘flag-waving’ German perspective. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring historians?

Ask questions, as many as you can, and ask them from every discipline. Don’t let your mind close any issue. Keep everything open. 

What have you been doing since your retirement?

I retired at 75 because I had been putting off, for years, wanting to be a musician. My second interest; from one point, I had studied piano when I was in high school and really wanted to teach piano but I didn’t. Once I became more interested in other things, and with family and everything, I had no time. I promised myself that I’d retire when I was still healthy and well so that I could return to piano studies. 

By that time, I was also interested in composition and wanted to see if I could write or compose anything. I’m often taking composition lessons, and the music I sing with The Choral Society. Music was the motivation for my retirement. I’ve brought music and history together rather recently because the piece for a Past@Present article for our e-journal in the department that came out this past summer was a review of John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant volume. It’s a huge one on Johann Sebastian Bach, and Bach is my hero. I can’t get enough of playing and listening to his work. 

That’s part of it. Then upon retirement, I knew that I’d then have time to write. I was always feeling the crunch because I’m such a committed teacher, I had too little time; maybe a summer or sabbatical to do something significant because every week was occupied with [teaching] classes, grading papers, mentoring students, and the like.

I’ve probably published more during my retirement than I did before I retired, and I’m still at it. In fact, I’ve just been contracted to write what’s called a companion to Edith Stein’s autobiography, which is being published by a branch of Rowman & Littlefield called Lexington Books. They’re doing a series of little booklets or treatises called Edith Stein Studies. I’m not sure of how to dub these studies of different aspects of her life and writing. 

That’s my summer work ahead, but I’ve gone to conferences, given talks in Poland and Germany on Stein, on reproductive rights in Berlin. I’ve participated in history conferences in various places, and I had the time to prepare for the talks, time to write essays, and did some publications. That has continued; it’s the major struggle of my life, finding a balance between the music I want to do and love and that I wanted to do upon retiring, and continuing my love for scholarship and doing the work that I’m doing on various topics in history.

Because of COVID and the pandemic, the past year has been a bit different. We’ve not been able to visit with family. My family is dispersed; I have a son and a grandchild in Vancouver, a son and grandchildren near Philadelphia and Swarthmore, and then I have a sister in California. People are scattered and I’m not flying and they’re not flying, and so we’re not seeing them.

During the years of my work on Stein, we went to Germany pretty frequently and I kept trying to speak and learn German. It’s such a difficult language and I continue to take weekly German lessons. I have a tutor who comes and we really just converse in German as best as I can (I stumble through). The other thing with the pandemic, besides the fact that we’re not seeing family which we’d ordinarily do, and that was part of retirement; I’ve had more time with family members. When I retired, my mother was still alive, and I knew that she wasn’t going to live much longer, and I really wanted to be able to spend some time with her before she died. 

The other is that with the pandemic, [I live] in a neighborhood with gardeners, and they’re remarkable. I don’t have a strong enough back to do anything that they’re doing but I do have a gardener who helps me, and I’ve been spending time gardening, and that’s been very nurturing for me. I’ve loved it.

Reading a lot. I have much more time to read – joy reading – reading I’d never have time for when I was full-time teaching, and a lot of the reading is in the history of music, biographies of composers, but it’s also crime fiction which I love. I’m a Louise Kenny fan, I’ve read every novel she’s ever written, so there’s a lot of that too!