On August 28, 2018, Kathryn Morgan, a junior history major, got a rare opportunity to learn about presidential history first hand through her participation in the inaugural Presidential Sites Summit. The semi-annual three-day event, organized by the White House Historical Association, brings together historians and scholars whose work concerns famous and not-so-famous presidential sites, such as homes, archives, and museums. Participants get to learn more about the history and stories associated with these sites, some of which is revealed by the living descendants of presidents. At this year’s event, Morgan was able to rub shoulders with the great granddaughter of James Monroe, the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, the grandson of Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, who talked about what it was like to have her prom at the White House.
Morgan first learned about the Presidential Sites Summit application process through the White House Historical Association’s Facebook page. Prof. Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, Morgan’s undergraduate faculty mentor, urged her to take the class, “A History of the White House,” which was taught by Matthew Costello. “I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to do this if I wasn’t in the History Department and had the resources and mentors that I have had to make those connections,” Morgan said. For Morgan, one of the highlights of the experience was the opportunity to walk through the White House, visit the Oval Office, and eat dinner on the premises. “I was excited to sit in historical chairs because the ropes are all down,” she said. After she graduates from AU, Morgan, who is interested in public history, hopes to gain experience working in a museum. “I am grateful for the opportunity to do this because I got to meet presidential descendants, journalists, and other professionals who are doing what I want to do one day.” The next Presidential Sites Summit will be held in 2020.
History Professor Katharina Vester sits down with Justin Jacobs to discuss her book, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities (University of California Press, 2015). Prof. Vester’s fascinating monograph analyzes how food has come to serve various political, social, and cultural agendas in American history.
In National Duties: Custom Houses and the Making of the American State (Chicago, 2016), Gautham Rao makes the case that the origins of the federal government and the modern American state lie in the conflicts at government custom houses between the American Revolution and the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Lauded as “brilliantly researched and smartly argued,” Rao’s book “shows how the early republic depended overwhelmingly on customs revenue to pay its debts, fund its wars, and finance governance,” thus giving merchants involved in overseas trade an outsized role in the shaping of the contours of the federal government.
Justin Jacobs’s new monograph, Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State (Washington, 2016), views modern Chinese political history from the perspective of Han officials who were tasked with governing Xinjiang, a Muslim border region inhabited by Uighurs, Kazaks, Hui, Mongols, Kirgiz, and Tajiks. His analysis of relations between Han and non-Han peoples within modern China has been praised as representing “a quantum advance in sophistication and precision.” Prof. Jacobs is currently working on Indiana Jones in History: From Pompeii to the Moon, a book and documentary series inspired by a course he teaches at AU (HIST 330 – Antiquities, Exploration, and Empire: From Pompeii to the Moon). The course, documentary, and forthcoming book all provide a cultural history of Euro-American imperial expansion in the modern world, as seen through the lens of political controversies surrounding archaeological digs, expeditions, and exploration.
The past year was quite a busy and exciting one for the department’s junior faculty members, four of whom (Katharina Vester, Elke Stockreiter, Gautham Rao, and Justin Jacobs) published their first monographs. Katharina Vester’s book, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities (California, 2015), examines culinary writing and practices as forces for the production of social order and, at the same time, points of cultural resistance. It has been praised as “a highly original, well-theorized analysis of how over 200 years’ worth of American cooking literature reveals changes in cultural identities.” Prof. Vester also recently received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor.
Elke Stockreiter’s Islamic Law, Gender and Social Change in Post-Abolition Zanzibar (Cambridge, 2015) reassesses the workings of Islamic courts, the participation of former slaves in the legal system, as well as gender and social relations in Zanzibar Town during the period of British colonial rule (1890-1963). This highly original work has been described as “a pioneering study” that establishes the contributions of Islamic courts to the reconfiguration of social relationships in post-abolition Zanzibar. Prof. Stockreiter is currently working on her second book project, titled, Identity, Religion, and Colonialism: A Social and Legal History of Djenné, c.1810s-1930s. In the summer of 2016, she conducted research for this project at the National Archives in Mali, West Africa, and consulted Arabic manuscripts at the Djenné Manuscript Library.
Please check back in the future as we continue to feature new books by History faculty.
On November 14, 2016, nearly thirty students in Prof. Justin Jacobs’s modern Chinese history class (HIST 251) were treated to an exclusive reception hosted by the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) at the Twin Oaks estate in Woodley Park. Welcoming them onto the grounds were Yuri Yao-Tsung Chih, Director of the Education Division, Daniel K.C. Chen, Executive Officer in the Political Division, and Jennifer Chu, Senior Education Officer in the Education Division. After a short informational video about Taiwan’s history, culture, and economic development, Mr. Chih and Mr. Chen fielded numerous questions from the students regarding Taiwan’s relations with the United States and mainland China, issues made even more topical in light of the recent U.S. election. Following a short break for refreshments, Prof. Jacobs’s students were given a brief tour of the history of the estate and its use by the government of the Republic of China over the past century. This is the second time that TECRO has been kind enough to host a visit by AU’s students of modern Chinese history, in each instance providing an invaluable educational and professional experience that greatly enhances lessons learned in the classroom.
Allen Pietrobon, currently a Visiting Professor of American History at Trinity University, has been selected to give the commencement speech for the December 2016 graduation ceremony at AU. In May 2016, Pietrobon defended his dissertation in the History Dept. at AU and received his Ph.D. in American History and Foreign Policy. A revised version of his dissertation, which analyzes the life and times of Norman Cousins, a prominent anti-nuclear activist and “citizen diplomat” during the Kennedy administration, is currently undergoing review at Johns Hopkins University Press, which has expressed interest in publishing it. Originally from Canada, Pietrobon began his studies at AU in 2010 under the mentorship of Prof. Peter Kuznick, while also working closely with Prof. Max Paul Friedman. Though he originally only planned to come to the United States to complete his Ph.D., Pietrobon says, the networks and contacts that he established here during his time at AU have led him to setting down more permanent roots.
As for what he plans to say in his commencement speech, Pietrobon revealed that he intends to present a historically informed message of hope and optimism as an antidote to the negative tone and tenor of the recent presidential election campaign. Drawing upon his extensive research on Norman Cousins, Pietrobon will highlight how Cousins responded to the “widespread despair and division” that accompanied the advent of the atomic age near three-quarters of a century ago. “In the face of a global and national situation that appeared bleak,” Pietrobon says of Cousins, “he was a rare and refreshing voice advocating for optimism.” As a historian, Pietrobon lays stress upon the fact that few things in our world are truly “unprecedented,” and that lessons drawn from similar situations in our past can always yield fruitful answers for the future.
During the 2016 presidential election season, Distinguished Professor Allan J. Lichtman was interviewed twice in the Washington Post to discuss his system for predicting the outcome of U.S. presidential elections. Back in May, Lichtman was not yet ready to reveal his prediction for the 2016 contest, citing the complicating factors of deep divisions within the Republican Party wrought by the Trump candidacy. “It’s looking shaky for the party in power,” Lichtman said at the time, “but the prediction is not yet set because there are still two uncertain keys, and there is also a third possibility, which is not strictly a key but I talk about it in my book, and that is the challenging party dividing itself.” According to Lichtman, the two “uncertain keys” are “the contest key” and the “foreign policy success key.” But in September, Lichtman, having correctly predicted every election since 1984, was ready to make his prediction: the Republican Party will win the White House in a narrow victory. He was quick to add, however, that the “unprecedented nature of the Trump candidacy” still meant that “he could defy all odds and lose even though the verdict of history is in his favor.”
Lichtman emphasized that his thirteen predictive “keys to the White House” ultimately represent more of a referendum on the two parties rather than their respective candidates. Confidence in his model, which is based upon a retroactive analysis of every presidential election since 1860, leads Lichtman to put little stock in media polls, which “are often wrong.” As he puts it, the election “will not be decided by the debates, the speeches, the ads, the tricks of the campaign.” The real key, on which an “ultimately pragmatic” American electorate will base their vote, is “the performance of the party holding the White House.”
The history department is pleased to welcome Andrew Demshuk among its ranks. Demshuk, a specialist in central European history, is the author of The Lost German East: Forced Migration and the Politics of Memory, 1945–1970 (Cambridge, 2012). He joins us from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he taught for five years. At AU, Demshuk teaches courses on modern German and East European history, as well as nationalism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the politics of memory in urban planning. He hopes to build upon the legacy of longtime professor Richard Breitman, who retired in 2015 after four decades at AU. Recently returned from a seventeen-month research trip in Germany and Poland supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Demshuk is currently working on his manuscript for a comparative analysis of ideology and public response in post-1945 urban reconstruction in three cities that had once belonged to the German Reich and were then rebuilt by three differing successor regimes: Frankfurt (West Germany), Leipzig (East Germany), and Wroclaw (Poland). He has also completed a new book (under contract with Oxford) that measures public response to the East German Communist demolition of Leipzig’s 15th-century University Church in 1968 (just months before the Prague Spring crackdown across the border) as a means of measuring the relationship between regime and populace in the so-called People’s State.
The History Department is pleased to welcome Malgorzata J. Rymsza-Pawlowska among its ranks. Rymsza-Pawlowska, a cultural historian of the nineteenth and twentieth century United States, is the author of the forthcoming book, History Comes Alive: Popular Culture, Public History, and America’s New Feeling for the Past (University of North Carolina Press). She joins the department after three years at Eastern Illinois University. At AU, she serves as Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Public History, together with Dan Kerr, director of the program. “I’m thrilled to be returning to D.C., where I grew up and where so much of my research lies, to take this new position,” she said. “I’ve long been an admirer of the excellent programs and faculty here, and am looking forward to working with colleagues and students in the department, across campus, and in the Washington area’s numerous cultural institutions.”
In Summer 2016, Professor of Russian History Eric Lohr took over the reins as Chair of the Department of History. He follows in the footsteps of Professor Pam Nadell, who ably shouldered leadership of the department for five years. “I inherit a department that is in great shape as a result of Pam’s lengthy tenure,” Lohr said. He also reflected on his various priorities over the next three years as chair. “I want to provide robust support for faculty research and try to facilitate our amazing ongoing record of faculty publications,” Lohr said, noting the strong balance of scholarly productivity and teaching performance exhibited across the ranks of departmental faculty.
Lohr also looks forward to meeting the challenge of managing the transition to a new university-wide Core Curriculum, which will replace the longstanding General Education requirements and require the department to tailor its teaching strengths to a revised set of learning objectives and pedagogical venues. Foremost among the challenges Lohr will face is a nationwide trend in the decline of history majors. “We need to think more about the ways we attract students to history and how we convince undergrads that thinking about history is a good use of their time.” Though Lohr realizes that it will “take more effort than it did in the past to keep students coming to our classes,” he is optimistic that such a challenge can be met through innovative approaches. Lohr’s tenure as department chair will also afford him time to continue his own research projects: he is currently writing a book on Russian mobilization and demobilization efforts during and after World War I, and the ways in which these efforts facilitated the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917.