MENTOR SPOTLIGHT | MAY 2016
Department: American Studies and History
Describe your work in a few sentences that we can all understand: For a very long time I have been trying to figure out how, in the U.S. past, ordinary people simultaneously developed racial identities and class identities. Early on, this meant studying how the identity of “slave” and that of “African American” developed together, with enslaved people often drawing great resources from memories of Africa. More recently, it has meant studying how the unhappy identity of the “white worker”
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research?
A: My first large research project involved researching how enslaved Africans in British North America developed burial practices based on melding together a variety of traditions from West and Central Africa. The sources, a few hundred slave autobiographies, folklore, and slave songs were few enough that it seemed possible to read them all.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: History as a field is not at all understood without the experience of research. In the popular mind, history is wrongly thought of as a series of received, agreed upon facts to be passively absorbed (or not) by students. In fact, history is a series of arguments marshalling facts to produce the most compelling imagination of the past and of how things change.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: The ways in which crises in our present enables us to ask new questions about the past has continued to be of great interest to me. The new waves of immigration to the U.S. have made immigration history a vitalized field with the coming of so many people of color causing researchers to ask exciting new questions about immigration and race in the longer ago past.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: A particularly exciting and challenging development to be aware of is the development of digitally searchable databases. KU recently bought the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a digitally searchable form. In moments, a researcher wondering about the civil rights movement in Topeka, for example, can now get all relevant references on the NAACP’s activities there in a matter of seconds. From that basis, decisions about what dates of newspapers to read can be made.
Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: I find that research and writing based on it can be lots more unpredictable than writing a lecture or painting a fence. All sorts of unexpected things occur, many of them fascinating but also delaying. Four times out of five things move more slowly than expected. But that fifth time a remarkable amount falls into place.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: I play tennis, travel, and read murder mysteries.