Amanda I. Seligman
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My central goal in teaching urban history is to help students to read the history of the American city in the landscapes they see. Editing the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (EMKE) gave me the chance to extend that mission to a broader local public. I’ve learned along the way that people in Milwaukee are hungry to learn their history and eager to share what they have learned too.
After more than a decade of collaborating with hundreds of authors, librarians, tech experts, and students, we have finally wrapped up the first phase of the EMKE. We have almost seven hundred original entries, more than thirteen hundred images, and thirty-three Understories. I’m especially proud of the Understories; we solicited and wrote these essays about our research processes because it’s fundamentally important in the 21st century that experts don’t just assert things—to be persuasive, we need to teach our audiences how we know what is true.
As you might imagine, the work on this project has been unrelenting. Between the EMKE, parenting two exuberant children, and administrative service, this hasn’t been a good time to try to launch a new monographic project. Instead of researching history, I’ve been putting my creative energies into learning how to write from personal experience. One piece of writing I haven’t yet figured out how to place is a 9,000 word essay about my experience as a juror.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
When I teach the Growth of Metropolitan Milwaukee for the first time this fall, I will be reviving a dormant class that comes right out of my work on the EMKE. I’m really relieved I didn’t plan a set of thirty lectures that the pandemic would have forced me to deliver online. Instead, working in cooperation with the Milwaukee Public Museum, the UWM Office of Undergraduate Research, and the UWM Libraries, I’ve organized a research-skills course in which the students produce public-facing work. We’re going to write blog posts, curate and table primary sources, and host a live Twitter reenactment of the first official weather forecast in US history—timed to coincide with the 150thanniversary of when Milwaukee naturalist Increase Latham sent it out in November 1870.
I’m also gearing up to expand my teaching repertoire. The state of Wisconsin has radically defunded the public university system over the past decade; as a consequence, the number of faculty in my department has shrunk from the mid-thirties to the low twenties. We have to think like faculty at a liberal arts college while continuing to function as researchers at an R-1 university. In order to offer a wide range of content-oriented courses to students, we must learn to teach beyond our research expertise. I just used my spring semester sabbatical to start planning courses on the history of the US West and North American environmental history. My hope is that expansive reading in those areas will inspire new research projects in the coming years; having lived within a few miles of Lake Michigan for three decades, I’m especially interested in water.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
It’s a privilege to be a co-editor of the Historical Studies of Urban American series with the University of Chicago Press. The series editors see so much work in progress that I often feel our job is an academic version of Ginger Rogers’s dancing—we read everything backwards, in high heels, and sometimes even a bit upside down. At this point of my career, I probably read more urban history scholarship in draft than in published form.
For personal and professional reasons, I’m really looking forward to Rebecca Marchiel’s After Redlining, which just arrived in the warehouse. Marchiel picks up where my first book left off, on the West Side of Chicago, and follows Gale Cincotta and other neighborhood activists from around the US through the creation of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and the Community Reinvestment Act. A couple of years from now, I’m eager to see Claire Dunning’s book on nonprofit organizations in Boston. When I first read her proposal, it gave me actual chills (in a good way)—nonprofit organizations are everywhere in the twentieth century urban history landscape, but I had never thought to historicize them the way she does.
On the teaching front, and a book that I have no role in editing, I’m most looking forward to learning how Cate Denial expands her essay about the pedagogy of kindness. Her insights really got me noticing the gaps in kindness in academic life. You might think that academics who study other people’s indecency would chose to model kindness instead of conflict. Denial drew my attention to how putting kindness at the core of our work can be transformative for students and instructors—it can become the key to making teaching about learning instead of about assessment, about helping students instead of fine-tuning punitive calculations. I’m not waiting until the book comes out to try to be kinder.
What kinds of advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?
Well, temperamentally, I’m not really an advice giver; when I wrote a book about whether anyone should go to graduate school, the whole point was that you have to understand yourself and the academic context and draw your own conclusions about the fit. When my graduate students give me their work to read, I try to listen to them and give them honest feedback as a reader, rather than directive advice, just as I do with more advanced colleagues—it’s their project and their career, not mine. So I have to turn this question upside down.
One of the greatest things about teaching at a public urban university like UWM is how many of my students are actively involved in their neighborhoods and cities—some before they were my students, some while they were studying with me, and some after. My students include city council members in Milwaukee, Racine, and Oshkosh; public school teachers in the city and the suburbs; staff members in local nonprofit organizations, government, and historical societies; and leaders in their communities and congregations. The central contribution of my urban history scholarship is about calling attention to how urban residents engage with and try to change their surroundings (for better and sometimes for worse), but my students don’t need historical examples to motivate them get involved—they just go out and do. After seventeen years of living in the same small Milwaukee suburb, I’m finally applying my students’ example by getting involved in local government myself.
We share an interest in the history of Milwaukee! And you mentioned earlier, your work on the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (EMKE), so I am wondering what are some overlooked historical episodes/events related to metropolitan Milwaukee and its inhabitants that you would like more people to know about?
In many ways, with its history of immigration, racial conflict and segregation, white suburbanization, and deindustrialization, Milwaukee looks like other northern industrial cities. But four major themes distinguish the Milwaukee area’s history from other American cities.
- Milwaukee has an extraordinary history of socialism. For half of the twentieth century, Milwaukee was governed by Socialist mayors.
- Relatedly, under Socialist leadership, Milwaukee pursued an aggressive policy of annexation in the mid-twentieth century; the city grew from 25 to 96 square miles. Milwaukee area suburbs continue to annex unincorporated land; the village of Sussex and the Town of Lisbon actually had to make a boundary agreement to halt their conflict.
- Milwaukee’s African American population remained relatively small until the 1960s, since so many southern migrants just stopped 90 miles south in Chicago. One historian calls this phenomenon Milwaukee’s “Late, Great Migration.”
- Wisconsin in general and Milwaukee in particular have served as important crucibles of conservative policy innovation. The local experiments that gave rise to the national welfare reform of the 1990s and the school choice movement took place in Milwaukee. And my PhD student Will Tchakirides learned during his dissertation research that Broken Windows theory co-author George Kelling grew up and was educated in Milwaukee; one of Will’s research questions is how the Milwaukee context informed Kelling’s influential approach to policing.
To bring it back to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee—when we set out to build the project, we wanted to do two things: to help people in the Milwaukee area understand their history and to spur more scholarly research on the city. When it’s possible for historians to travel to archives again, I hope that scholars coming through Milwaukee for their research will stop by UWM and share what they are working on.
On a personal level, my favorite story from Milwaukee history is definitely the one about Gertie the Duck, who laid her eggs on a piling in the river in the spring of 1945 and attracted national acclaim. I’m a sucker for duckling rescue stories, and this charming episode speaks to how Milwaukee can grab national attention.