Associate Professor of History
Wayne State University
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My current book project looks at how urban and international development became linked after World War II through the activities of philanthropic foundations, international organizations, and universities. I came to the project through my first book, which talks in part about Pittsburgh as an international model for urban revitalization first in the 1950s and in again in the 1980s. I wanted to know more about how urban planning models are developed and circulated internationally, and why certain models become enshrined as “best practices” while others never gain traction. When I got into the archives, I realized that the same people popped up over and over again in domestic and international urban development initiatives supported by institutions such as the Ford Foundation and the UN, and I’m trying to map the network of actors who influenced urban development globally in the second half of the 20th century.
The other project I’m really excited about right now is a Global Urban History “Elements” series Michael Goebel, Joseph Ben Prestel, and I just signed on to edit for Cambridge University Press. (We also edit the Global Urban History blog.) We’ve managed to enlist some really incredible global urban historians to write the initial volumes in the series, which should begin to appear in the next year-and-a-half.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
This semester, both of my classes directly relate to my scholarship: I’m teaching a general education course on the History of Detroit and a course on Modern American Cities, which is a mix of undergrads and grad students.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
To be honest, I am *most* excited about the stack of mystery novels on my nightstand (it’s spring break for us right now). Once I’m finished with those, though, I want to check out Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, edited by Lily Gesimer, Brent Cebul, and Mason Williams. Clay Howard’s The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California is out soon, and I can’t wait to pick that up. I’m also looking forward to two forthcoming books on Detroit as a borderland, one on immigration and policing in the first part of the twentieth century by Ashley Johnson Bavery and one by my Wayne State colleague Karen Marrero on the role of indigenous and mixed blood peoples in the development of the region in the eighteenth century. On a longer time horizon, I’m really eager to read Ayala Levin’s work on how Israeli architecture and planning models were exported to Africa, Paige Glotzer’s work on U.S. suburban housing developers and their ties to transnational financiers and real estate interests, and whatever Nancy Kwak and Lily Geismer publish next, because their first books are two of my favorites.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
I’d echo the same advice others have offered in this space: read widely outside of your field and outside of history. Take classes on topics outside of your primary geographic and temporal interests, and in other departments. Talk to geographers, sociologists, and anthropologists and learn something about their research methodologies. Ask good questions and think carefully about the scale at which they can best be answered. And even though you didn’t actually ask for it, here’s my top piece of advice for young scholars about to go to graduate school (or already there) in any discipline: join your union! Organizing with your grad union will give you an invaluable education in the politics of academic labor and the structures of higher education.
How has being at Wayne State shaped the last few years of your life, intellectually and personally, and how do you feed that back into the work you are doing in the classroom, on Twitter, and as an all-around human being?
Wayne State has been a really good fit for me, both in terms of my research and teaching interests—we are a public research university with an urban mission, and Detroit is a fascinating place to be for an urban historian—and in terms of the kinds of activities I care about as a faculty member. For instance, I love that I’m able to partner with organizations like the Detroit Historical Society to get students in my classes involved with community-driven, hands-on history projects, like conducting oral histories in Detroit’s Mexicantown this term. Urban history aside, my primary interests as a faculty member are graduate education and academic labor issues. I got my PhD (and my current job) in 2011, which as we know from recent AHA data was the only year in which there was a small uptick in history jobs after the 2008 recession. I’m still mind-boggled by how fast the academic labor market and career horizons for PhD students have changed over the past decade, both because of the acceleration of casual labor and because of heightened expectations for peer-reviewed publications and evidence of public engagement for entry-level jobs. I’m proud of how my Department and University have responded: we recently started a public history program to better prepare our master’s students for the kinds of jobs they actually end up getting, and we have been part of the last two rounds of the AHA Career Diversity Initiative, which has led us to rethink our doctoral curriculum and become more expansive in our efforts to support our doctoral students’ career goals. And I deeply value being at an institution with a unionized faculty; I’m one of my Department’s shop stewards, and I really enjoy the work I do with the union.