Interviews with Young Historians


Historia by Nikolaos Gysis (1892). Wikimedia Commons.

Just over a year ago, The Appendix’s founders were casting about for the right language to explain why they were stealing time away from their doctoral dissertations for a journal that would exist, at least at first, only on the web. The result was our best attempt to channel the spirited conversations we had daily amongst ourselves and with other younger historians. “The Appendix sprang from a simple idea,” we wrote: “a lot of what makes the past fascinating, human, and relevant ends up on history’s cutting room floor.”

What our call to arms elided was what it was like actually gather up those fallen strands. Why do we who venture into the past do what we do, study what we study?

On the anniversary of that opening salvo, we decided to address that lack and ask a series of young historians about who they are, what they do, and what they want to see, going forward, as they walk backwards in time.

We hope you enjoy their responses.

Rebecca Onion

Postdoctoral Fellow at the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science
editor, The Slate Vault

Who are you and where are you from?

I’m Rebecca Onion, originally from a small town in central New Hampshire. I’ve lived in Milton, MA; Barcelona, Spain; New Haven, CT; Brooklyn, NY; and Austin, TX (where I went to graduate school in the Department of American Studies at UT-Austin). I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science.

How did you become a historian?

Although I was an American Studies major as an undergrad at Yale, I followed a concentration in literature within that degree, and was determined to study contemporary culture. I even co-founded a journal with a fellow student—The Journal of American Contemporary Culture—to prove that “now” was a worthy object of study.

It wasn’t until I got to graduate school—hell-bent on studying contemporary conservative youth cultures—that I realized history was really where I wanted to pitch my tent. I have to credit my department for that awakening. My advisors, Janet Davis and Julia Mickenberg, are both fascinated by—in love with, even—the archive. Taking classes with them, and with the rest of the excellent cultural historians in my department, I started venturing cautiously into writing some archive-driven seminar papers. After I wrote my master’s thesis, for which I did research at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, I was totally hooked.

Why did you choose what you research?

American Studies allows for a ton of latitude when it comes to research interests. Even within the general rubric of cultural history, there’s still a lot of space to range. The subfields that I gravitate toward—childhood studies, history of education, science and technology studies, visual and material culture, science fiction, museum studies—have to do with the circulation of different types of knowledge in people’s everyday worlds.

I’m interested in the cultural side of the history of science. How have ordinary people known about the natural and technological worlds? And what have the political and social stakes of that knowledge been? The “science” that interests me is often confused, diluted, or erroneous; I’m forever intrigued by the ways that people take complex received ideas and bend them to their own purposes, whatever those purposes may be.

I’ve also always been interested in children’s culture. Childhood is often naturalized or seen as a diminished version of adult culture, while given disproportionate ideological importance when people talk about the past and future. That’s a potent mix that allows for a lot of interesting analysis. In graduate school, some of my favorite books combined cultural history and childhood studies (Nicholas Sammond’s Babes in Tomorrowland, Carolyn Steedman’s Strange Dislocations, my advisor Julia Mickenberg’s Learning From the Left—and, more recently, Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence).

I combined those two interests in my dissertation, which looks at the ideological stakes of the promotion of science play in twentieth-century American children’s culture. Next, I’ll write about dark 1970s environmentalism and children’s culture, and then possibly about pseudoscience and the occult in the seventies. (That’s a far-out forecast! To be taken with a grain of salt.)

What do you do with your history? (By which we mean—do you publish, are you an activist, do you teach, do you make films, etc.)

I publish traditional academic work: articles, reviews, (hopefully soon) a book. I go to conferences and present to academic audiences. And I have taught, though I’m not teaching right now.

As of November 2012, I’ve run’s history blog, the Vault. The blog’s posts showcase one interesting object/item/photo/document per day, running that document as a 920-p-wide image, along with a little bit of explanatory text.

This gig has been an excellent chance for me to let my curiosity run amok. For the Vault, my research is totally different than it is for my “regular” academic work. The main things I need to do while poking around and looking for blog content are to make sure that the document can tell a compact story (one that might lend itself to a headline), and also that it bears a second—and third—look.

I’m after those documents that are surprising, tell you something new about history, and invite multiple interpretations and fascinations. I think of them as “sticky” documents. (Here are some examples of some of the ones that have worked the best.)

I think the Vault proves that people like looking at primary sources. There are SO many digital archives out there, but people don’t necessarily know that they’re there, or know what could be inside. The Vault’s about unpacking those boxes a little bit—offering readers a sense of what’s out there, while pointing them to places where they could do further poking around of their own.

I also run the blog’s Twitter feed and Facebook page. I do a lot of research and reading on the Web to find new content, and not everything that I find is right for a blog post. The Twitter feed is a place where I can share some of the stories, documents, and photos that overflow from my Feedly reader and my Tumblr dash.

In the future, I’d like to do more long-form history journalism that puts sources front and center. (There are more than a few groups of sources that I’ve discovered while working on the Vault that deserve more than 300 words.) I’d like to get into radio—maybe work on a podcast or try to produce a segment for somebody else’s show. I’d also like to do more digital history—I’ve got two or three such projects that are sort of half-underway. Ah, for a 36-hour day.

Why study history?

Not to sound too woo-woo, but I often look around myself and think: “Every second of my own life is layered with so much meaning and so many influences, and there are so many things I cannot explain. How mind-blowing that every moment of everyone’s life, for all of history, has had that same degree of complexity.” Historical practice is a way to try to tease out those complexities—to be in a little bit in touch, all epistemological impossibilities aside, with the variety of human experience.

Also, history is just endlessly mentally demanding. As soon as you’ve got one area of knowledge nailed down—“I think I know a bit about twentieth-century American periodicals”—you realize that your research is taking you someplace else, and you need to learn some new stuff. You can read and research all your life and never be done.

Then, of course, there’s the project of communicating and teaching all that you’ve learned—a whole other level of practice.

It’s all super hard, and super engaging.

What do you think is the future of history?

This perspective may be warped by the huge amount of time I spend on the history Internet, but I do think that digital availability is going to free people up to develop new relationships with sources. On Tumblr, I just laugh and marvel at the college and high school students developing what can only be described as “fandoms” around particular founding fathers, wars, or historical periods. I hope more and more people will be able to use the resources of the Internet to feel a little bit of that thrill of discovery, love for, or connection with the actual sources of history.

The problem will be trying to make sure that there’s context and continuity of argument in all of that magpie accumulation of shiny objects. I think teachers at all levels can help with that project, if allowed the latitude to integrate non-traditional digital work into their teaching.

Mairin Odle

PhD Candidate in Atlantic History, NYU

Who are you and where are you from?

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Atlantic History at New York University and right now I’m a Sawyer Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. I’m from the Appalachian foothills of central West Virginia, and, more recently, Brooklyn.

How did you become a historian?

It was probably an easy choice; my parents took me antiquing a lot as a child and I always liked imagining who must’ve owned these interesting things and what their lives were like. My father also used to do a lot of restoration and reproduction work, with a specialty in early American hunting accoutrements, actually. I’m sure living in a house full of powder horns and other eighteenth-century artifacts was a factor.

Why did you choose what you research?

My current research looks at certain types of permanent, painful alterations of the body that took place in cross-cultural encounters: scalping, tattooing, and branding. I’m interested in people who were marked in these ways and how, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic settings, thinking about their transformed bodies could be a way to think about the implications of contact between people unfamiliar with one another.

My initial interest in the topic was learning about a Lenape man who had been scalped by Pennsylvania colonists in the mid-eighteenth century—and survived. I thought, ‘I didn’t know that could happen! What did he do after that?’ I wanted to know what people in early America did about scars they couldn’t escape: how it affected ideas of their personal or collective identities, what sorts of policies or behaviors these marks set in motion.

What do you do with your history?

I haven’t published a great deal yet, particularly since the dissertation is still a work-in-progress, but I’m working on it! And I love giving talks and teaching—it gives me a chance to play storyteller for a bit and share some of the intriguing things I’m learning.

Why study history?

Human behavior is endlessly fascinating (and sometimes frustrating). Why do people do what they do? How did we end up in this place, at this moment, living the way we do, thinking the way we think? Studying history is so crucial to having even the beginnings of interesting answers to interesting questions. Why wouldn’t someone want to try to understand this amazing and weird existence a bit better?

Alternatively, one could just say that archives are fun and old books smell good.

What do you think is the future of history?

I was recently reading a travel narrative from the late eighteenth century, written by a soldier and trader in the Great Lakes region, and he reported something I hadn’t seen elsewhere. One of the topics I study is scalping survivors, and this author said that he knew of people who had been scalped who wore “a plate of silver or tin on the crown of the head, to keep it from cold”—fascinating, and something I have to look into now!

Jessica Luther


Who are you and where are you from?

I’m Jessica Luther, a writer, historian, and activist. I grew up as an Air Force brat, living across the US South, spending the majority of grade school in central Florida. I got my BA in Classical Civilizations from Florida State University and my MA in Latin Literature from the University of Texas. I do freelance writing and have been published in The Texas Observer and at The Guardian, The Atlantic, Salon, and Feministing. I cover a wide range of topics including sports and culture, the intersection of feminism and romance novels, and reproductive rights.

And in my spare time, I am a reproductive justice activist in Texas. I was most recently very involved in the widely-covered protests at the Texas capitol against anti-abortion legislation. My involvement in those protests was profiled in The Texas Observer and at The American Prospect, Ms Magazine, and Salon, and on a variety of national and even international podcasts and radio shows, including the BBC World Service and ABC radio in Australia.

How did you become a historian?

There is one particular moment that stands out for me. When I was maybe ten or twelve, I went to Mesa Verde, a national park in southern Colorado. It is the site of an indigenous people—the Anasazi, ancestors to the modern Pueblo people—that exists in the side of a cliff attached to a mesa (hence the name). There are these amazing villages built in alcoves in the cliff, some large enough to hold hundreds of people. I remember being there and just not understanding how these villages would have been built. The Anasazi abandoned Mesa Verde suddenly around the thirteenth century. I was fascinated by that aspect—what could cause an entire group of people who had spent the time and effort to build such magnificence to leave it behind in such a hurry. For years, I imagined I would go to school to specifically study that history so I could answer all of those particular questions. I just knew that was what I was going to do.

I didn’t end up studying the Anasazi or Mesa Verde but I did keep questioning the past, and I kept my desire to do something with my life where I would get to answer those sorts of questions.

What sort of histories are you interested in?

I am a cultural historian at heart. I find cultural production and consumption so fascinating. How does a culture of people (however that is defined) create products? Who in a culture is producing and who is consuming? How do people inside of a particular cultural group define themselves?

Specifically, I’m fascinated by how cultures understand human bodies. I wrote my senior thesis as an undergrad on the ancient Greek belief about women’s wandering wombs. My masters was about the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s work Metamorphoses, which is a really long collection of stories all about the mutability of bodies and the effect that changing bodies has on people’s lives.

How I chose my dissertation topic is a bit of a tale. I’m technically a US historian by training, but I’ve always been interested in the seventeenth century. It was a time of political and religious upheaval in England, empirical science was gaining credibility in the Western world, empires were rapidly expanding … and it was when the English began to import slaves into its American colonies. I didn’t have much interest in doing a dissertation in the English colonies that would eventually become the United States, so I looked farther south and found there the most important English colony of the seventeenth century: Barbados. And one cannot study Barbados—the first English colony in the Americas to be a “slave society” and have a demographically dominant population of enslaved people—without studying slavery. And because I like to study the body, it made sense to look at how the English thought about the human body and, more broadly, how they created, maintained, and understood difference.

What do you do with your history?

I have used history and the tools of studying history in so many capacities. At the most basic level, I have taught history as a supplemental instructor at the University of Texas. My class, which was a general survey of US history from 1492 to 1865, focused mainly on the intersection of indigenous people, black (both enslaved and free) people, and the different groups of European imperial nations that set up colonies in the Americas.

Beyond that, I use history in my writing and blogging about social justice. I often write about the history of slavery to provide context for the systemic racial inequality that we find throughout society today. I believe that history provides a context that cannot be accessed in any other way. It often gives us the Why that we are so desperately seeking as we try to understand how social injustice exists in so many corners of our world.

Why study history?

Because the past is ever-present. I just heard Dr. Ashon Crawley give a talk at a conference and he discussed embracing the tools of new digital media in our search and struggle for social justice. He emphasized how important it is for us, as we think about the future, to make sure we reach back into the past and bring all the lessons of the past, all the social justice tools and movements, along with us. He was pushing hard against the idea that we inevitably do better as people and as a society simply by moving forward in time. Instead, he encouraged us to stop thinking of progress as a purely linear phenomenon and recognize that social justice will be achieved when we grab hold of the idea that justice will be because justice always has been.

On some level, this is a challenging thought to a historian who works in a field that often demands a linear understanding of history and places an emphasis on change over continuity. But I am not just a historian. I am a social justice activist. And it was in Dr. Crawley’s words that the intersection of the study of history and the practice of social justice came together: it is important not just to see continuity of inequality but also to recognize the non-linear progression of social justice. The former, in its pessimism, drives us to be honest about the way our world works and the latter, in its optimism, makes us part of a longstanding, though bumpy, story of hope and possibility.

What do you think is the future of history and the way we engage the past?

As someone who spends a fair amount of my time on the Internet creating communities through all kinds of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, multiple blogs, a podcast, etc.), there are a few things I’d like to see in regards to how we engage the past as we move forward with these new (and other emerging) technologies.

1) I think academics should embrace the way that communication is changing because I think they play an important role in public discourse. We need academics in these social media spaces, lending their expertise to larger cultural conversations about which they are experts.

2) We need to better integrate new media into the classroom setting, bringing in all the amazing digital tools that give students access to primary sources, both written and visual. This will not only expand how students do history but it will bring history into a realm with which they are already familiar—the internet.

And 3), finally, we need to consider other publishing spaces outside of those that are historically academic. The internet has allowed a plethora of voices on a lot of different sites. You can be published in a wide range of outlets that didn’t even exist a decade ago but now reach of thousands, if not millions, of readers throughout the world. Getting your expert voice onto a platform like Al Jazeera, Salon, The Atlantic, Forbes, etc., not only shows the utility of the work professional historians do, but also broadens your audience unlike any other way. As liberal arts departments struggle to find financing and remain relevant culturally, new media provides ways to do so. We need to embrace them.

Chris Cantwell

Assistant Professor, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Chris Cantwell and as of this fall I am an Assistant Professor History at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where I’ll be teaching public history and religious studies. Before joining UMKC, I was the Assistant Director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago where I administered scholarly programs and curated a handful of digital publications.

Most importantly, however, I am a hardy son of Heartlandia, that broad swath of rust and tilled black soil most people like to call the Midwest. Raised between the cornfields and shuttered factories of central Illinois, educated amidst the tall pines and bitter winters of Wisconsin’s northwoods, and currently residing in the humidity-ridden Missouri River valley, I am a historian who takes seriously the relationships between a people and their place.

How did you become a historian?

Growing up, my grandparents would always cart my sister and I across the country in their immaculate Chrysler to see sites my grandfather believed—or had been taught to believe—were historically “significant.” These travels always took us eastward, for historical significance was apparently not a virtue of the Midwest, and inevitably ended at some Civil War battlefield, national museum, or boyhood home of some president.

But what I remember most about these trips were the stories Grandpa would share as he sped down federal highways, burning through pack after pack of Marlboros. The son of Appalachian coal miners, Grandpa spent the entirety of his adult life working in an auto factory after migrating to northern Illinois in the 1950s. Grandpa would regale my sister and I with tales of his parents buying food with script at the company store, or he’d brag about an entrepreneurial fellow autoworker who would more than double his take home pay by raffling off his paycheck at the union hall. Grandpa never called these stories ‘history.’ But it was in traversing the interstitial spaces between the monuments we visited and the memories Grandpa shared, between the heartland where history lay and the east coast where heritage was preserved, that I became interested in the past.

Why did you choose what you research?

I kept two things from Grandpa’s estate after he died: a pair of gold UAW cufflinks the union gave him for thirty plus years of dues-paying loyalty, and a certificate of recognition for perfect Sunday School attendance from the socially, politically, and theologically conservative Southern Baptist Church he attended. The juxtaposition of these two institutions might seem contradictory given the prevailing stereotypes of American political life, but the congregation and the workplace were coequal forces in my family, which in the end was the crucible that truly forged my grandfather’s worldview. Sunday morning screeds against abortion, the ACLU, or “the gays” churned alongside the UAW’s own jeremiads against Reaganomics or free trade. Both could be overturned by the simple estimation my mother often offered that whenever a Republican was President, the men in her life ended up out of work.

And so I entered graduate school personally interested in exploring the interconnections between social class and religious life in America’s past. I ended up determining the discipline needs to understand this intersection better as well. It’s common knowledge, for example, that industrial workers heavily supported the New Deal while evangelical Protestants saw in the expansion of the federal government a sign of the end times. What this interpretive paradigm disregards, however, is how evangelical working people—and a sizable portion of evangelicals were, like the rest of the country, wage earners—navigated the political divides beneath their feet. My own contribution to this emerging subfield is a microhistory I’m writing of a Bible class teacher from Chicago’s West Side named Frank Wood who in the first decades of the twentieth century, self identified as a Fundamentalist while running for a number of state, local, and national offices as a member of the Socialist Party of America. Wood’s curious life affords me the opportunity to resituate fundamentalism’s origins away from the denominational schisms and cultural conflicts that have defined the field and toward the evangelical encounter with industrial capitalism in the urban migration of lay evangelical families from the Midwestern hinterland at the turn of the century.

What do you do with your history? (By which we mean—do you publish, are you an activist, do you teach, do you make films, etc.)

As a faculty member who entered the academy by way of a number of apprenticeships in archives, humanities councils, and cultural institutions, I’ve been lucky enough to do history in a number of venues for a variety of audiences. While an archival assistant at the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s Area Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I helped patrons connect with their pasts through local history research. At the Newberry I worked with a number of incredibly smart and talented people who taught me how to promote the past to the widest possible audience through digital projects. I hope to combine all of these facets of historical work in my current position at UMKC. In addition to teaching and continuing my own personal research, I’ll be helping the department build up a Public History program that will hopefully be rooted in designing creative digital projects that make both students and the public collaborators in the production of historical knowledge and not passive recipients.

Why study history? What do you think is the future of history?

There’s a growing sentiment that the future of the past is online. Scholars, educators, curators, and librarians have all turned to social media and digital technology to find new ways of analyzing sources, sharing information, and cataloging the past. But I think this turn to the web is part of—or should be part of—an even more important shift toward the public. The ongoing fiscal crises and dominant economic ideologies that are rapidly remaking the myriad institutions in which the work of history is done have had far more drastic impacts upon the communities those institutions are intended to serve. I therefore simply cannot imagine a future history, academic and otherwise, that does not consider intentional and creative public engagement as important as innovation and accuracy.

As a centerpiece of the humanities, history is not “that which cannot be justified” as Stanley Fish has argued, or the “flower” to the more practical (and supposedly more employable) STEM disciplines, as the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Humanities Commission recently proposed. History is humanity’s lodestone, forever bending our projected upward progressions into arcs of time. The past anchors a person’s identity, shapes the communities in which they live, and serves as a rhetorical weapon in nearly every political discourse. To research, share, and promote history is not about enriching the human experience or ornamenting a student’s employability. It is about transmitting a set of skills that directly contribute to an individual’s social, civic, and economic success. If the profession is unable or unwilling to advance this claim in the future, then my hopes for the study of the past grow a little dimmer.

Alexander Aviña

Assistant Professor, Florida State University

Who are you and where are you from?

I am Alexander Aviña, born and mostly raised in San Luis Obispo, California, with the exception of a few years lived in Michoacán, Mexico as a child. I am currently an Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University. I went to graduate school at the University of Southern California immediately following the completion of my undergraduate studies at Saint Mary’s College of California.

How did you become a historian?

Looking back, I think I became a historian, or at least began to develop a historical sensibility, as a teenager in high school when I started to question and interrogate my identity. I grew up in a tight-knit, loving household with two parents from Michoacán, Mexico who came to the United States as undocumented migrants in the late 1970s. Fearing that their children would “lose” their Mexican identity growing up in the United States, they strived to teach us Mexican history and expose us to Mexican popular culture (particularly through religion and a giant TV satellite that beamed Mexican television channels into our living room). They managed to teach us a highly nationalistic (and as I later found out, a PRI—Partido Revolucionario Institucional) version of Mexican history that stressed certain essentialized cultural values that according to them stood in stark contrast to the supposed “culture-less,” materialistic and hedonistic American culture that surrounded us. Who knew my campesino parents were simply channeling José Enrique Rodo, José Martí, and Octavio Paz in their own Michoacán way?

I now understand that my parents also viewed this historical education as a weapon to defend us against the sort of racism and discrimination that we faced living in the United States. They wanted us to be proud of who we were and where we came from regardless of what a society historically based on white supremacy told us. I think their intense Mexican nationalism and historical teachings were successful. But as Frantz Fanon reminds us, such forms of nationalism must necessarily be only a useful, tactical beginning. And that beginning primed me for later interests in history when I became the first in my family to attend college.

In college, one particular historian, Dr. Myrna Santiago, inspired me. The fact that she looked like me (quite important for a profession that still lacks meaningful and sustained diversity) and shared a similar background certainly helped. But it was her teaching of history in critical analytical fashion, from a perspective that focused on the historical agency of everyday people, which captured my attention. Her classes on gender, environmental struggles in Latin America, revolutions, and US imperialism in Latin America blew me away. And despite my idealistic belief that playing fútbol in college would easily lead to a professional career, Dr. Santiago continually encouraged me to think about graduate school and becoming a historian. With her help, and that of the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers (IRT), I began my graduate studies at the University of Southern California. An amazing poet, Dr. Marjorie Becker, trained me as a historian.

Why did you choose what you research?

My research focuses on the twentieth-century struggles of campesinos in Guerrero, Mexico to obtain and sustain demands for political, social, and economic democracy. Simply put, they wanted to exercise a meaningful level of influence on circumstances not of their making. My book details how by the late 1960s, such demands, after experiencing military massacres and everyday forms of terror exercised by local caciques, radicalized and materialized into two separate guerrilla movements led by schoolteachers.

My family background, and in particular the struggles of my campesino maternal grandfather, led me to my research focus. In many ways, the people of Guerrero and their struggles against injustice mirror those of my grandfather. He was illiterate, had no formal schooling, and worked for a local cacique as a sharecropper for most of his life. My parents, as undocumented migrant laborers, worked backbreaking jobs in a country that tends to marginalize them politically and socially but needs them economically. I want to chronicle the stories of such people and how their everyday struggles, in small but meaningful ways, shaped the course of modern Mexican history.

What do you do with your history?

I have published journal articles, edited volume chapters, an online annotated bibliography, and a forthcoming book; thereby meeting the standard requirements of academic history. I also teach national period Latin American history at Florida State, mostly upper division and honors undergraduate courses. I’ve also given talks at Florida State and at other universities.

My research possesses an almost archeological impulse. For decades, the history of Guerrero’s guerrillas and their campesino supporters remained buried: physically buried by the PRI’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign of the 1970s that involved torture, disappearances, and death flights; politically and historically buried by the PRI’s prose of counterinsurgency that represented the armed struggles as both the work of suicidal deluded dreamers and criminal bandits. I work to unearth those struggles.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful deployment of my history/historical research occurred in May 2007 when my colleagues Adela Cedillo, Tanalís Padilla, and I screened the movie El Violín to survivors of the Guerrero Dirty War in Atoyac de Álvarez, Guerrero. After the movie screening, survivors and victims evaluated the film and provided their own memories and experiences. I hope that my history and research does justice to them and their struggles.

Why study history?

As a high school and undergraduate college student I studied history to elaborate an almost cultural nationalist defense against the white supremacy and Eurocentric thought structures that permeate US society at large. But now I think we need to study history for the reason that Walter Benjamin studied history: knowing the past in order to, in the words of Michael Lowy, forge “a revolutionary method for critique of the present.” It’s practically an academic and political necessity because the past continues to invade the present with vengeance. Has it ever gone away? The people of Guerrero and Juan Rulfo would respond with an emphatic no. Both my research and teaching, following Benjamin, aim to demonstrate how the emergency time we live in is the rule, not the exception; that history fails to move in linear fashion, always progressing, always moving uni-linearly toward a better future. This may seem self-evident to historians but at least with my students, their notions of time and historical movement are thoroughly imbued with nationalist narratives of triumphant progress.

Studying history in such a manner potentially teaches people how to ask critical questions and think critically about their place in a world saturated by the past; questions about power and domination, about joy and resistance, about changing the existing order of things, about the possibility of a better world. In this sense I have been profoundly influenced by both Benjamin and Paulo Freire, particularly the latter who consistently challenged his students to critically question their place in the world they inhabit, a world always in process.

What do you think is the future of history?

This is a funny question to ask a historian. I thought history ended after the fall of the Soviet Union (insert sarcastic facial expression here). Simply put: I’m not sure. The current political attacks on the humanities in higher education and the powerful, well-financed efforts to privatize even the way we teach seemingly suggest the eventual transformation of universities into utilitarian production sites oriented toward the necessities of global capital. Apparently critical thinking skills are not needed in the modern global economy—or they are dangerous. I think I just described the world of Blade Runner.

In this context the study of history retains a democratic, even subversive radical potential. The Zapatistas in Chiapas say that a people with memory is a rebellious people (José Rabasa, Without History). I strongly agree.