AHA Member Spotlight: Megan Birk

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 by AHA staff or nominated by fellow AHA members. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Megan Birk is assistant professor of US history at the University of Texas, Pan American. She lives in McAllen, Texas, and has been an AHA member since 2008.

AHA Member Spotlight, Megan Birk

Alma mater/s: PhD, Purdue University; MA, Iowa State University; BA, University of Evansville

Fields of interest: agricultural and rural history, social history, childhood and family studies, the late 19th century, and the interactions between communities and their institutions.

When did you first develop an interest in history?
Growing up with a geologist dad, I liked learning about the earth’s history but I was not a particularly great science student. Eventually in high school I realized that history allowed me to combine that earlier curiosity about the past with my love of reading and storytelling. It took me a while longer to appreciate/develop a better understanding of how research fits into the work of professional historians. My first effort at combining these elements was a family history interview with my grandmother, Juanita Birk. She passed away shortly before I completed my PhD, but the experience of sitting down with her for that project when I was an undergraduate helped push me toward a career path much different than the one I imagined.

What projects are you working on currently?
Right now I am in the process of editing my book manuscript which focuses on the mutually beneficial relationship between farmers and children’s institutions during the late 1800s. The project provides a new dimension to the historiography about child welfare during the period by using a rural focus and identifying the methods that shaped farmer participation in child placing-out. The manuscript also places the demise of the placing-out system into a larger context of farm life in transition. I recently finished articles for the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and for the Indiana Magazine of History. Once the book manuscript goes to press I am excited to invest more time in studying the agriculture performed on county farms, or poor farms, and the role that those facilities played in their communities.

Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how? 
To some extent, yes, although working on rural areas is still a focal point. I branched out from that original interest to include fields such as food history, which is a nice complement to agricultural history. Currently I teach a course on food history that links agricultural history and food production with issues of sustainability and food culture and consumption.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I recently read White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, which is a fascinating examination of the sources for indentured servants in the American colonies. I also read David Foster Wallace’s 2005 “Kenyon College Commencement” speech at the recommendation of a friend. It is a great reminder of the benefits and responsibilities that come with a liberal arts education.

What do you value most about the history profession?
I appreciate that our profession requires us to constantly be reading, learning, re-contextualizing, and adjusting our perspective as well as our course materials. As historians we can constantly feed our desire to learn more through a wide variety of media and content from interdisciplinary fields.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
New Orleans is one of my favorite cities, so it was very nice to be there this year. It was also nice to attend the meeting as a presenter in an affiliated session instead of as a job candidate.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?
Spending time outside hiking, hot air ballooning, and kayaking provides me with wonderful outlets away from work and also allows time to travel and enjoy the history of other places. I get to do most of these things with my best friend Joe and our basset hound Rupert—both of whom make my life fun.

Any final thoughts?
I suppose this should be the space for profound thoughts. All I can offer up is that enthusiasm for the subject goes a long way on days that are filled with meetings, difficult situations with students, or when the writing slows to a crawl.

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