Alex Sayf Cummings is a professor of History at Georgia State University and the author of Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of Copyright in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2013) and Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy (Columbia, 2020). She is also a co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (Rutgers, 2020), a senior editor of the blog Tropics of Meta, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH).
Please describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
For the last two years I’ve really plunged into a whole different literature and set of questions, turning toward the care economy. My first two books looked at aspects of the postindustrial society that had to do with intellectual property and technology, and now I’m trying to explore the huge swath of the so-called information economy that isn’t about producing IP – at least as its chief purpose, anyway – the sectors that deal with affect and care, e.g. healthcare and education. To me, this big part of our lives and economy has been overlooked due to an excessive focus on tech. This is new territory for me, and it’s been tremendously illuminating to delve into feminist economics, labor history, sociology, and different theories of care – scholars such as Nancy Folbre, Nancy Fraser, Arlie Hochschild, Miliann Kang. I still don’t quite know what this project will look like, though. Years ago I thought about writing a cultural history of myalgic encephalomyelitis (known alternatively as chronic fatigue syndrome), and that idea keeps stewing in my head.
Please describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
Most of the courses I teach are pretty broad, like United States in the Twentieth Century for undergrads. I also teach a pedagogy and professional development course that all of our graduate students take, along with a grad-level course on digital history. I really try to incorporate my work on oral history and material culture into the undergrad courses – in many semesters, students have done an assignment called Unofficial Archives, which was created by my friend and collaborator Romeo Guzmán. During COVID, I decided to try something completely different and redesigned the undergrad surveys to focus on legal history and important Supreme Court cases, which was an experiment that…might or might not have worked. The digital history course was our first at GSU, and it drew on my work with Tropics of Meta and other projects. Another colleague, Dr. Jeff Young, has since expanded the class to address data visualization and digital mapping in a really cool way.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I can’t not hype my book on the history of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and the creative economy, Brain Magnet, or our public history collection, East of East, which is a kaleidoscopic study of El Monte, California – both published right at the start of the Pandemic. I’d also love it if people got to see several issues of the new sound studies journal Resonance that Georgia Ennis, Josh Shepperd, Jen Shook and I guest-edited about the “soundwork of media activism.”
I perpetually and guiltily have a stack of unread books, but some that I’m really looking forward to are Morgan Ames’s The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT, 2019) and Nina Sun Eidsheim’s Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice (Duke, 2015), neither of which is strictly, technically new but they’re new to me. I’m extremely excited about Julie Golia’s forthcoming book from Oxford, Newspaper Confessions: A History of Advice Columns in a Pre-Internet Age, as someone who’s interested in both media studies and cities. (It’s also just one of those rare original ideas.) Another book that brilliantly captures these encounters between media and place, sound and space is Alexandra Vazquez’s Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music (Duke, 2013) – highly, highly recommended. I recently reviewed Patrick Vitale’s Nuclear Suburbs for The Metropole, and I’m planning to review Mary Beth Meehan and Fred Turner’s new book from Chicago, Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America, which is a fascinating combination of oral history and photography.
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?
I guess I would say it’s good to recognize, understand, and accept that it’s difficult. Writing about space, writing about cities, really isn’t easy. Telling the story of a street corner or a building is something that radiates out in a million different directions, with details of ordinary days lived for decades that are mostly inaccessible to you as the writer or historian. (It’s a lot easier to write about laws and court cases like I did in Democracy of Sound, because the issues at hand are more clearly defined and circumscribed.) I went to grad school wanting to do urban studies and ended up chickening out because of how difficult it was.
Having said that, it’s far from impossible. Beginning researchers sometimes think it’s intimidating or making an imposition to ask people questions about their lives, but as most oral historians will tell you, people love to talk about themselves. People are open and generous about most things (not everything).
Almost in a similar way, I would recommend not being bashful when it comes to editors, presses, publications. People think that there’s a gigantic gulf between them and these people and institutions, but I’ve found, most of the time, you can just pitch something, whether it’s an article or a book. You can cold-call (which is to say, cold-email), explain who you are, and tell them what you want to write about. This has worked for me with “popular” media that reach broader audiences, and university press editors are always looking for interesting, good, new work. And if you’re feeling sheepish and insecure about your work, wondering whether you can really do this, just look at how much mediocre stuff gets published and remind yourself: if they can do it, I can too.
Learn more about our Member of the Week by listening to Alex Dawson’s interview with Alex Sayf Cummings.