Tag Archives: History of Technology

Member of the Week: Claire Poitras

Poitrasc3Claire Poitras

Professor of Urban Studies and Scientific Director of the Villes Régions Monde Network

INRS-Urbanisation Culture Société

Montréal, Quebec, Canada

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

My areas of research include urban, suburban and metropolitan history. I am particularly interested in the built environment and urban technical networks and the ways in which they influence our representations of cities and place-making.

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

I am currently on sabbatical leave after acting as the director of my research institute for 7 years. Next fall, I am going to teach in an Urban Studies program (Master and PhD). I am also the member of the place name committee of the City of Montreal and this allows me to connect urban history with issues of the contemporary city.

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

My recent publications have addressed suburban history as well as the changes in former working class neighborhoods in the Montreal area. Some of my publications have been linked to the Major Collaborative Research Initiative on Global Suburbanisms financed by the Canadian government and directed by Roger Keil at York University in Toronto.

Poitras, C. 2018. «Quand la banlieue était l’avenir» (When the suburb was the future), Revue allemande d’études canadiennes-Zeitschrift fur Kanadastudien (ZKS), January, no 38, p. 8-24.

Poitras and P. Hamel 2018. «The Montréal Metropolitan Region. The Metropolis of a not so Distinct Society», in North American Suburbanism, J. Nijman (ed.), Toronto, University of Toronto Press (in press).

Poitras, C. 2017. «Defining Peripheral Places in Quebec. A Review of Key Planning Documents and Electronic Media (1960-2011)», in What’s in a Name? Talking about Urban Peripheries, R. Harris and C. Worms (dir.), Toronto, University of Toronto Press, p. 112-130.

Poitras, C. 2017. «L’axe du Canal de Lachine et les quartiers du Sud-Ouest. Grandeur et misère du berceau de l’industrialisation du pays ?», in La cité des cités, J.-L. Klein and R. Shearmur (dir.), Montréal, Presses de l’Université du Québec, p. 107-124.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I recommend that they read a lot on different cities and contexts and that they nurture their curiosity. Also, they should not hesitate to express their individuality in research. About 10 years ago, I heard a comment by a senior scholar at a conference on urban environmental history that influenced my path. It goes as follow: you’ve got to do your own thing!

You have written about the history of Bell Canada and the telephone more generally–a very interesting topic! I notice that most people seem to prefer text messaging these days, but are you still in the habit of calling people on the phone? How did researching the topic of the telephone influence your affection for this technology? 

Strangely enough, I have a certain aversion to technology and specifically smart phones. In addition, I think that we spend too much time in front of screens and not enough in the real physical/material world. This said, my preferred mode of communication is email.

Member of the Week: Margaret O’Mara

OMara.pngMargaret O’Mara

Professor of History

University of Washington

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

I’m currently working on a book about the history of the American high-tech industry—from semiconductors to social media—and its relationship to the worlds of politics and finance. My interest and intent here is, to adapt a phrase, to “put the tech back in” to the study of modern American history, including urban history. Cities are among the many things that computer hardware and software have disrupted in the past half century—from the use of mainframes to run urban infrastructure and municipal services, to the personal computer’s transformation of workplaces, home life, and “third places,” to the role of social media in political mobilization, group identity, and sense of place. The high-tech revolution is rich and relatively underexplored territory, and as the PC reaches middle age and the smartphone approaches adolescence, it is ready for some serious historical analysis. I encourage other urban historians to join me!

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

I teach twentieth century political, economic, and urban history, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Every winter term—including this one—I teach my undergraduate survey course, “The City,” which covers North American urban history from New Amsterdam to the new economy. One of the joys of teaching this class is the wide variety of students who take it—engineering majors as well as history majors, freshmen to seniors, all drawn in by a curiosity about what makes cities work and how they’ve grown. Instead of a final paper, the students build a digital exhibition that uses the history of one Seattle city block to discuss broader patterns of urban change. The focus on the digital also allows me to introduce students to new scholarship and new scholarly voices, and to incorporate beyond-the-book digital platforms and sources like Mapping Inequality from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab and the urban visualizations built at the Spatial History Project at Stanford University.

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

I’m excited by the transnational turn in urban history, a good slice of which is represented in the edited volume published last year from Penn Press, Making Cities Global (full disclosure: I’m a contributor) and reflected in important recent books like Nancy Kwak, A Nation of Homeowners and N.D.B. Connolly, A World More Concrete. These and other works placing urban ideas and institutions in global and imperial context have had a significant impact on both my teaching and my research. Also, with tax reform in the news—and, as urban historians know, taxation is at the center of everything!—I’m gaining much from the recent crop of books giving tax policy and politics a deeper and more nuanced history, such as Isaac William Martin, Rich People’s Movements and Ajay Mehrotra, Making the Modern American Fiscal State.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

One of the more refreshing trends in the profession today—call it the silver lining on the gloomy cloud of the academic job market—is that younger scholars are more willing and more able to practice history in public, whether by writing directly for public audiences, developing public history and digital history projects, or simply by being very good at Twitter. At a moment when “history” is so often wielded as a partisan weapon, it’s particularly important to have thoughtful and careful scholars out there engaging broad audiences. I encourage younger scholars to start thinking quite early about how they want to contribute to this conversation, how they delineate their scholarship and their activism, and how their scholarly expertise might translate to a broader scholarly community as well as to public audiences. Particularly good examples of this sort of careful, informed engagement can be found these days on the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog Black Perspectives, the Organization of American Historians’ Process: a blog for American History, and the online and print editions of the Boston Review, all of which are on my regular reading list.

You are the lead curatorial advisor to the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). What have been some of the highlights of serving in that capacity?

My work at the Bezos Center at MOHAI was a lightning-fast education in public history, and in the art and science of historical museums in particular. Creating an effective museum exhibit is a team sport involving players with a wide range of expertise, from my team of History PhD researchers to the to visionary architects and graphic designers who turned our research into words on a wall to the lighting maestros who set the mood and feel for the experience. It was also was an eye-opening lesson in how a well-designed museum experience can reach and educate so many different people, including those who don’t see themselves as “history people.” I also love that a future-tense business leader like Jeff Bezos has such an appreciation for the past—I hope other tech leaders will embark on their own philanthropic efforts to support history education and scholarship.