Member of the Week: James Wolfinger

James Wolfinger September, 2015James Wolfinger

Professor of History and Education

DePaul University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently working on a book about a World War II U.S. airman named Bert Julian.  Julian grew up in the Orange, N.J. area around 1910, in an era when the New Jersey suburbs were being more fully incorporated into New York City and people still rode to town in horse-drawn buggies.  Julian survived the Depression by doing odd jobs and sleeping on people’s couches.  He joined the Army after Pearl Harbor, trained as a waist gunner on a B 24 bomber, and was stationed in New Guinea, where he flew reconnaissance missions in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines.  Julian’s plane crashed in northern New Guinea and he was ultimately captured, interrogated, and killed by a Japanese officer in the commission of a war crime.  The inherent interest of Julian’s death coupled with the larger forces he experienced as an ordinary person swept up in huge events—world war and attendant globalization, urbanization, technological advance, and Depression—all drew me to this story.  What particularly fascinates me is how a young man who knew small town New Jersey, with its neighborhood stores, corner taverns, and concrete sidewalks, wound up on his knees in a muddy clearing in New Guinea with a man standing over him with a sword, screaming at him in Japanese.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach a class for our graduate history education students with the prosaic title “Readings in American History.”  The class is chronological and covers American history from the colonial period to the present.  I like teaching it because the reading load emphasizes to future teachers that they are entering an intellectual occupation, it allows me to teach classics as well as cutting edge scholarship, and it has deepened my knowledge of many aspects of U.S. history.  Every book I read, whether it is on urban history or not, gives me new ideas on how to think about history, write history, ask historical questions.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am excited about a new book that I am editing for Temple University Press, with the working title “African American Politics in the City of Brotherly Love.” Covering the period from the Great Migration to today, the book brings together mostly young historians who are doing fresh research on black politics in twentieth century Philadelphia.  There is no other book like it—on Philadelphia or other cities—and it gives me the opportunity to work with exciting new authors and help bring their work to a larger audience.  “African American Politics” will analyze formal politics, community organizing, women’s leadership, and many other topics.  It will focus on Philadelphia while offering a model for how scholars might examine the history of other cities.  In today’s political climate, this book will speak to historians but I believe it will also find a much larger audience.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Follow your passion!  Research and write about what interests you.  My daughter is currently an undergraduate in college, and I always tell her: “If you don’t do what you love, if you don’t try to make it your life’s work now, then you never will.”  I grew up in Oklahoma City, and I remember as a child listening to Boston Bruins hockey games on my dad’s old shortwave radio.  I was probably the only person in Oklahoma doing so!  Large Northern cities seemed so far away, so foreign to me as a child.  I wanted to learn more about them, live in one of them, be urban.  I have always been fascinated by cities, how they work and how people live in them.  Living in and exploring cities was my passion then, and now.

Do you have a favorite book about teaching? Is it one that’s personally resonant and meaningful? Or is it one from which you learned the most and gleaned the best advice?

Let me change the question a bit, to a favorite book to teach.  More than any other book, the work that helped me see the power of history to illuminate the past and better understand the present is Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  To me, Morgan analyzed the central issue for understanding the American experience: the vexed relationship between race and class throughout all of American history.  I tell my students that if there’s one book that they should read as a starting point for understanding the promise and problems of the United States, this is the one.

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