Member of the Week: Andra Chastain

Andra Chastain, PhD

Assistant Professor of History

Washington State University, Vancouver

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

I’m currently revising my book manuscript, which is a history of the metro system in Santiago, Chile. This project sparked my interest because its history crosses several key political divides in Chile’s history: it began under a Christian Democratic government in the 1960s, continued during the watershed socialist government of Salvador Allende, and was inaugurated two years into the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, in 1975. It became an icon of the Chilean state and is a centerpiece of the city today (and is much contested, as the social uprising sparked by a fare hike made clear in late 2019). I wanted to know how political and economic ideology shaped this large state infrastructure project. It did so in unexpected ways and provides insights into the tangled relationship between state-led developmentalism and neoliberalism. Conducting oral histories and examining the metro’s cultural significance has been especially rewarding and fascinating.

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

I’m currently teaching an introduction to Latin American history and an upper-division online course on the history of the global Cold War. My research is very much in conversation with work on the Latin American Cold War and the themes of revolution and counterrevolution. It has been so rewarding to open students’ eyes to the truly global dimensions of the ideological struggle of the Cold War and to the local, country-specific dynamics that went into it. Not least, it has been very rewarding to discuss the long history of U.S. interventionism with my students. “This is not how we learned about the Cold War in high school!” is a common refrain that I hear. Among my other courses, I also teach a class on cities in world history, which allows me to draw on urban studies and pull in cross-disciplinary approaches–visual culture, cartography, film, sociology, and anthropology of cities, etc.

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

Lots! I really enjoyed Angela Vergara’s new book on unemployment in Chile, Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021). It was fascinating to think about how unemployment was, to a great degree, a problem of mobilitybecause laid off nitrate workers would migrate to cities or towns in search of basic subsistence–and local elites there wanted to control their movement. She provides such great detail about working-class spaces in cities, such as government-run shelters. I also loved Amy Offner’s book, Sorting Out the Mixed Economy: The Rise and Fall of Welfare and Developmental States in the Americas (Princeton University Press, 2019)It gave me a lot to think about regarding the tangled relationship between welfare and developmental states and the rise of policies such as fiscal austerity, privatization, and deregulation. Both books integrate transnational history into local- and national-level histories, which I found very stimulating. For forthcoming books, I’m excited to read Miguel Pérez’s book, The Right to Dignity: Housing Struggles, City Making, and Citizenship in Urban Chile (Stanford University Press, 2022).

I will be excited once my own book revisions are complete. In the meantime, I am proud that a piece I published in NACLA about the Santiago metro and the social uprising has circulated widely. I have heard that it’s been really useful for students–the piece is relatively brief, accessible for the general reader, and freely available. It feels good to have an impact even while I’m still working on my book revisions.  

What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?

Strengthen your language skills. Although many universities are cutting their language programs, I’m a firm believer that having additional language skills is a huge asset, whatever career you end up pursuing. I also recommend getting additional experience before applying to graduate school: work, volunteer, try out a few different career options if you can. Talk to people in jobs you might imagine yourself in one day. Be open and curious and self-reflective. And there’s no reason you should opt for graduate school as a kind of default path; rewarding experiences can be had whether or not you pursue graduate school. And if you do choose to apply, educate yourself about workloads, stipends, debt, employment after graduation, potential mentors, and department environments. Above all, know yourself and be open to experimentation as you figure out your next steps.  

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