AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. The “AHA Member Spotlight” series recognizes our talented and eclectic membership. Would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight? Contact Nike Nivar for more information.
AHA Member Spotlight Monica Black is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She lives on the north side of Knoxville, Tennessee, and has been an AHA Member since 2005.
1. Alma mater/s: UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia
2. Fields of interest: Modern European and German cultural history
3. When did you first develop an interest in history?
I can’t remember ever having consciously decided that I had “found history” as a thing I loved or was especially interested in. I always liked stories, to be sure. But even up to the moment that I was applying to graduate school, I was still torn between literature, anthropology, and history, and I still always look for ways to bring these interests and things I love together. I had marvelous, inspiring teachers over the years (Madeline Levine at UNC leaps immediately to mind) who showed that history and literature could be—even ought to be—studied together, which always appealed to me.
4. What projects are you working on currently?
I am working on a book that deals with experiences of the supernatural in post-1945 West Germany. But the book is chiefly animated by the question of how Germans perceived evil in the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust—that is, what was evil, how was it imagined, and where was it thought to “reside,” if one will, in the first decades after 1945?
5. What books or articles are you currently reading?
As usual, I am reading too many different things at once, but all of these books are irresistible: I just finished J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires. I am also reading Ute Frevert’s new book, Emotions in History—Lost and Found; Eliot Wigginton’s Foxfire, volume 2 (esp. articles on beekeeping and “old time burials”); Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello; Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age; my UTK colleague Jay Rubenstein’s recent book Armies of Heaven; and last but not least, Joao Biehl’s Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment.
6. What do you value most about the history profession?
Part of my answer to this has to be that despite many long hours of work, I never feel as a historian that I actually have a “job” as such. I get to do things I really love, like reading, writing, and teaching students. I get to help students learn about exciting things, and terrible things, but things that really matter to people in fundamental ways and that can help us understand our fellow human beings, and thus ourselves, better. I get to spend time in archives, which I enjoy. I get to share what I do with other people who like what they do—even if you disagree with a fellow historian about what history is, you can still have great conversations about it. It would be easier to ask what I don’t value about the profession; it’s a short list.
7. Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote?
Perhaps … but I can’t imagine of any of them being edifying enough to be shared in this forum!
8. Any final thoughts?
We hear a lot these days about the “crisis” of the humanities and of the universities. What I would like people to know who are not members of our profession is that in my experience, historians care a great deal about what they do and put a lot of themselves into it, and that actually means something to our students. I think that more of the people who bemoan the state of the universities should spend time actually getting to know university teachers, their goals, and their hopes for their students. They might ask us what we are trying to do in the classroom, what it means to us, and why we and our students think it matters. I think that kind of deep investigation would yield surprising results for the broader national discussion. The country as a whole has—and should have—a stake in what we do, and in our profession. But we need opportunities to tell the broader public about it, without the obfuscation that can result from anecdote-driven “crisis” narratives.