AHA Member Spotlight: Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

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.

Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is professor of history and history graduate studies coordinator at California State University, San Marcos. She lives in San Diego, California, and has been an AHA Member since 1996.

Alma mater/s: MA and PhD, Stanford University; BA, University of Pennsylvania

Fields of interest: 18th/19th-century France, French colonialism, Haitian history and historiography, Atlantic Revolutions, gender, French-Jewish history, film and memory

When did you first develop an interest in history?
I took Alan C. Kors’ French Enlightenment seminar at Penn as a sophomore. I’d been more interested in contemporary politics than in reading old books but Kors showed me that the issues discussed by the philosophes were the same kinds of questions that my friends and I debated late at night in the dorms. The class turned me into an intellectual historian, and began my fascination with the late 18th century. Even though that seminar had the greatest influence on my eventual career, the seeds for my interest in history were undoubtedly planted by my mother, Dr. Harriet L. Sepinwall, a professor of social studies education at the College of St. Elizabeth in New Jersey, and by my social studies teachers at Montville Township High School.

What projects are you working on currently?
I just published an anthology titled Haitian History: New Perspectives (Routledge, 2012), which offers a one-volume introduction to the major debates and schools of thought on Haiti’s history. Haiti’s past is paradigmatic of so many important processes in modern world history, from colonialism and slavery to the Cold War and globalization. But during the coverage of the 2010 earthquake, I was troubled by the gap between the increasingly sophisticated and voluminous scholarship on Haiti’s history and the complete unawareness of this work among the general public. Those who sought to explain Haiti’s troubles often blamed Haiti’s people for their poverty, with no mention of the centuries of foreign interference in Haitian affairs. I wrote the book to make it easier for others to familiarize themselves with the latest research on Haitian history and historiography. It includes 15 of the best recent articles on Haiti’s history, spanning from French colonial Saint-Domingue to the aftermath of the earthquake. I also offer an original analysis of the state of the field, with extensive suggestions for further reading. I am continuing my scholarship on the history of Haitian historiography in addition to working on some projects to help K–12 and university teachers better integrate Haitian history into their classes. I am also still working in French and French colonial history, including projects on representations of colonialism and slavery in French cinema, and on debates about women in the late French Enlightenment (extending the research that I published in the Journal of Modern History in 2010 as “Robespierre, Old Regime Feminist? Gender, the Late Eighteenth Century and the French Revolution Revisited”).

What is the last great book or article you have read?
There are so many terrific works coming out in Haitian history and in French colonial history more generally. I love Michel Hector and Laënnec Hurbon’s Genèse de l’état haïtien (1804-1859) (Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2009), which provides a snapshot of Haitian scholars’ perspectives on the first decades of their country’s independence. I also love Ada Ferrer’s work. Her article “Talk About Haiti: The Archive and the Atlantic’s Haitian Revolution,” which I included in Haitian History, is not only an exciting piece of transnational history, but also poses fundamental questions about the nature of archives and of how scholars can try to reconstruct the thinking of people who did not write (such as slaves).

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
Living in San Diego, one of the country’s great regional theater centers, I’m lucky to be able to see a lot of exciting theatrical works-in-progress before they go to Broadway. I recently saw Allegiance, a powerful and poignant musical about the Japanese American internment, starring George Takei (Star Trek) and based on his childhood experiences as an internee. The musical weaves complicated questions about agency and resistance into a gorgeous score, with terrific acting and singing. The show is expected to go to Broadway, and I imagine it will have a national tour. While particular details in the musical might be challenged by specialists, it was still one of the best pieces of public history I have seen; it humanized the facts of internment in an extraordinarily moving way, particularly with Takei in the lead role. I hope that more AHA members and their students will be able to see it!

What do you value most about the history profession?
There is always something new and startling to discover about the past. I love teaching history to my students and seeing light bulbs go off in their minds as they better understand the world around them. I also love the work of doing history; piecing evidence together into an interpretation (especially one that challenges what we thought we knew about the past) is fantastic brain work, better than any puzzle!

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
I served on the Local Arrangements Committee for the 2010 annual meeting in San Diego. It was wonderful getting to know and work closely with colleagues at other San Diego universities. I’m most proud of the painstakingly researched guide to San Diego restaurants that I wrote for the meeting. It was fun writing it—and then seeing attendees pore over it in the lobby as they weighed their delicious choices!

Other than history, what are you passionate about?
San Diego restaurants; music (anything from hip-hop to singer-songwriters and Broadway); and spending time with my family in San Diego’s myriad beautiful spots. And, like any self-respecting French historian, Paris—whenever I can get there!

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