By Avigail Oren
My best teacher this past year was the collective wisdom of the The Metropole’s many contributors. We will end 2018 with over 130 posts, totaling over 200,000 words—all of which I read, sometimes multiple times! While I learned a ton of history from our Metropolis of the Month posts, book reviews, Disciplining the City series, and Graduate Student Blogging Contest submissions, I learned just as much about how to live the good (historian) life from our Members of the Week.
In 2018 we featured 33 UHA members ranging from 2-year MA students to Senior Archivists. We ran two themed series of posts, the first featuring UHA conference committee chairs and the second featuring incoming board members. Also for the first time, we awarded a Member of the Week post to the winner of the #UHA2018 Dope Orange Sweater Twitter Award (DOSTA) bestowed on the attendee with the best conference-related twitter feed. Each interview yielded some insight or advice about research, teaching, careers, and how we as historians should engage with the world.
As I was looking over the most recent Member of the Week posts—those since #UHA2018—I picked out five bits of wisdom from the interviews that I thought would make great New Years Resolutions for historians.
Resolution 1: Cast wider nets
Although Emily Callaci was specifically referring to sources when she advised historians to “cast a wide net when it comes to thinking about what constitutes an archive,” there are many ways in which scholars can and should take a more expansive approach to their work. Indeed, a common theme in Member of the Week posts is the celebration of urban history as a multidisciplinary field. Many UHA members also write for, conference with, and teach other sub-disciplines that are distinct from (but adjacent to) urban studies.
And yet we can always find new ways to push boundaries, whether it’s poking at preconceptions, widening our geographic or temporal focus, examining new sources, or simply working to be inclusive of new colleagues or audiences. Let us all personally vow to take a step outside our comfort zone in 2019.
Resolution 2: Experiment with form
Certain formulas persist in writing and teaching history because they are tried-and-true methods of communicating complicated ideas. Other formulas persist for structural reasons—they’re easy for overworked scholars and teachers to execute. But Kevin Kruse’s Twitter offensive against Dinesh D’Souza, and Deborah Harkness’s best selling Discovery of Witches trilogy, and the explosion of history podcasts demonstrate that there’s a robust public appetite for history should we be willing to experiment with form.
Extending this into the classroom, Dorothee Brantz wrote that she is “playing with a new idea: rather than working with a set syllabus, [her next Masters seminar] will start with “What is a City?” from Deyan Sudjic’s, The Language of Cities and based on it, each student will identify topics of interest that they will independently pursue in research groups and then present to the rest of the class.” Whether taking on a student-guided approach, flipping a classroom, launching a YouTube channel, or writing a history book on Instagram, we can use 2019 as an opportunity to connect with new audiences while also deepening our connection to old ones.
Resolution 3: Infuse all work with scholarly knowledge
For the sizable continent of urbanists and historians who work partially or completely outside of the academy, it’s likely that many sympathize with the conundrum that Patrice Green articulated in her Member of the Week post: “Marrying my research and scholarly interests to the actual work I do has been a challenge.” While there are tasks that will never lend themselves towards critical inquiry—reconciling receipts with accounts, for example—the overwhelming majority of all work jives with aspects of scholarship. Every networking event demands an analysis of power relations. Most forms of activism and advocacy require an understanding of municipal, regional, and federal politics and policy. Serving a public, be they customers or clients, allows for constant consideration regarding the intersections of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality, and other myriad identities. Of course, none of these are the same as using your content expertise in your work. But at its heart scholarship is about the constant pursuit of new knowledge! So a 2019 resolution can be to reframe this challenge in a positive light, to find ways to apply some expertise to incongruent tasks, or to lean into a new expertise.
Resolution 4: Revisit an influential text
As our to-be-read piles grow and we feel increasingly behind on the current literature, it can be hard to justify devoting time to re-reading a book. But these experiences can be grounding and reinvigorating, as James Wolfinger reminded us when he described Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery as “the work that helped me see the power of history to illuminate the past and better understand the present.” “To me,” Wolfinger wrote, “Morgan analyzed the central issue for understanding the American experience: the vexed relationship between race and class throughout all of American history.” This resolution is simple: make time in 2019 to pick up that book that made you want to be a historian in the first place, inspired your dissertation topic, or that simply blew your mind the first time you read it.
Resolution 5: Fight against structures that marginalize, exploit, and imprison populations.
So many historians are already active, on so many fronts, in struggles for justice. Llana Barber wrote in her Member of the Week post that “Being an urban historian has made me particularly attentive to the fact that dramatic inequality can be created and maintained by restricting human mobility across space, and that force, law, and discourse have long been used in concert to contain marginalized populations.” Such clarity about our historical expertise can be put to good use in 2019, whether through grassroots organizing, expert testimony, education, or acts of protest.
Wishing everyone a happy new year!