AHA Member Spotlight: Paul Murphy

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Paul Murphy is associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has been an AHA member since 1988.

Alma mater/s: Hanover College; Indiana University

Fields of interest: U.S. intellectual, cultural, and political history; history of the U.S. South

When did you first develop an interest in history?
I was interested in history as a child, reading books on military history and various sports biographies. In high school, I liked both English and history and, like many students at that time, remember finding that history was often taught in a relatively unexciting way by the coaches. I read some history on my own but nothing terribly rigorous. I remember my father, who was a psychology professor, openly skeptical of my declared desire to major in history in college, given his suspicions of my reading and his professional knowledge of the cash value of a degree in history. As it was, I was off to college as a history major (ditching literature for the more concrete and solid field of history, in my mind) and had an inspired professor in George M. Curtis at Hanover College. I now read primary sources, and he demonstrated in class how to get something out of them.

What projects are you working on currently?
I have just finished an intellectual and cultural history of the 1920s entitled The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s (2012). In working on this project, I found myself unable to escape the interpretive framework of Warren Susman, who wrote a series of well-regarded essays on the 1920s and 1930s. I am preparing a short historiographical paper on him. I also have a larger project concerning twentieth-century American cultural criticism. I want to bring together the various programs of cultural reconstruction and reform in the United States from the 1930s through the 1970s that were framed in terms of “humanism,” “humanistic” values, or a “human” scale of living. I think the drive to articulate a “new humanism,” even if in some ways marginal to the more prominent trends in American social criticism, can shed light on some of the big questions of American intellectual life (the marginalization of intellectuals, the triumph of market-based theories of society, ideological polarization).

What is the last great book or article you have read?
I read several books of great merit in the spring, including Howard Brick’s impressive account of what he labels “post-capitalist” thought entitled Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in American Thought (1986). As Brick shows, the desire to move “beyond capitalism” in social analysis eventually became untenable, but it is startling to see what a profound impact it had on the way we debate social change even today. Daniel T. Rodgers’s Age of Fracture (2011) can be read as a companion piece, as it provides an immensely useful guide to American thinking on society and culture in the last two decades of the twentieth century—a time in which many American theorists and academics seemed to want to move beyond “society” (to the market, or simply the individual, theoretically alone and protean.) Both Rodgers and John S. Gilkeson in Anthropologists and the Rediscovery of America, 1886–1965 (2010) are remarkable in the range and depth of scholarship they have absorbed and lucidly explain.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I am currently the president of the Society for United States Intellectual History, a new group composed of junior and senior scholars dedicated to cultivating more and varied work in this particular field. I highly recommend our U.S. Intellectual History blog, which boasts many interesting contributors.

What do you value most about the history profession?
Historians have managed to balance a strong commitment to rigorous standards of inquiry and empirical evidence with an eye for contemporary debates and the great social and moral questions of our society. They are grounded perhaps in a way that is sometimes stodgy, but with the result that they produce work capable of shaping public debate in useful ways and over the long term.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
My early experiences of the AHA annual meeting were almost entirely shaped by the anxiety of finding a job. This entailed some experiences in the mass interview room that were productive of decidedly un-favorite anecdotes. However, soon after obtaining a tenure-track position I attended the annual meeting and found myself running into friends and colleagues from the various stops I had made on my academic career. I valued those friendships, I enjoyed myself, and I realized that for better or worse I was in it for the long haul.

Other than history what are you passionate about?
I decided to watch a lot of silent movies when studying the 1920s. I never could figure out what to make of them, but I came to understand their appeal to movie buffs, particular the silent comedies. Silent film seems almost a distinct genre in and of itself. If there were only enough time, I could perhaps become a buff myself.

Any final thoughts?
These are times of great uncertainty in education (K–12 and higher education) and potentially, times of great transformation. The trend is toward what I think of as the industrialization of education—the application of business and market models stressing preconceived and uniform outputs, standardization of curriculum and methods of instruction, and efficiency. This is troubling enough, but in addition, the Internet and information technology revolution intersects with this process in various and complicated ways, as does the disinvestment in public education and the commercialization of public institutions (schools, universities, and libraries). These are all old trends, but that does not make them any less powerful and significant right now. Historians need to be very clear-eyed when “innovation” comes to their institutional homes. We seem to have little ability to resist these trends, but it may be we who have aptitudes for public advocacy that have been underutilized. If you had shown me as a kid a handheld device that could hold the contents of the world’s great libraries, all the music I loved, and, at the same time, would provide video hook-ups across the globe, I would have been dazzled and excited. I am still in awe, but I think that even as a kid I would have thought twice about ditching the cloth-bound books, the tables and chairs of the classrooms, the libraries with the big stacks, and all the other accoutrement of learning that I needed to arrive at the life of the mind.

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  1. Jeff Carr

    I also remember Dr. Curtis and “Inspired” is a great way to describe him. He is one of the finest teachers I’ve ever met.

    Reply