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.
Joan Neuberger is professor of history at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. She has been an AHA member since 2002.
Alma mater/s: PhD, Stanford University; BA, Grinnell College
Fields of interest: modern Russian history, film & photography history, visual cultures, cultural politics.
When did you first develop an interest in history?
I studied Russian literature as an undergrad, but when I went to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) as a senior in 1975, I discovered that all my questions were historical questions: how could such a brilliant, warm, hospitable people produce the economic, political, and human rights disaster that was the Soviet Union? But it may go back further: my mother was a natural historian. She knew something about everyone in every branch of our family, for many generations back; she loved to tell their stories and we loved to hear them.
What projects are you working on currently?
I am finishing a book on the political and cultural history of Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible, a film that was commissioned by Stalin and made during World War II. I’m also involved in several online public history projects. I am the editor of Not Even Past, the UT History Department’s website for making our research available and accessible to people outside the profession. I am co-directing 15 Minute History, an online podcast series for teachers and students and anyone else, produced by our international studies faculty and graduate students. Each podcast is aligned to a required topic in the Texas and National Standards for US and World History. And we are getting ready to launch an interactive public history site for everyone to write a bit of their own history.
Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?
Yes and no. In graduate school I was committed to social history but my dissertation and first book analyzed newspaper articles with a combination of historical and cultural methods; in a way that first book was as much an intellectual history as a social history. Over the course of my career, I’ve included more visual and cultural subjects and methods in my work, but historical questions remain at the center of what I do. I’m interested in understanding cultural production as a political and historical project.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
In general, I think Russian history is underappreciated for the alternatives it offers to trends derived from west European historiography, especially on political violence, cultural politics, and empire. Louise McReynolds’ Murder Most Russian and David Brandenberger’s Propaganda State in Crisisare two deeply researched studies that change what we thought we knew about key moments when culture and state politics collide. I’m also really excited about work in other fields appearing online. The Appendix, a journal started by four graduate students in our department, Chris Heaney, Ben Breen, Felipe Cruz, and Brian Jones, is experimenting with inventive, new ways to write stories about the past. And the Stanford Spatial History Project and Digital History @ Harvard are posting the kinds of digital history and data visualizations that show us how we can be using computer technologies to produce new kinds of historical data. Kelly O’Neill’s Imperiia Project on the Harvard site is especially exciting and instructive.
What do you value most about the history profession?
I value our standards of evidence. Historians are supposed to make arguments based on evidence, not on speculative analogies or clever wordplay and not as a proof for some artificially devised model. I also value its inclusiveness: anything that happened in the past is fair game for historians and any methodology that produces sound arguments is acceptable.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
Last year I got to be on a panel on historical fiction with Geraldine Brooks, a novelist I greatly admire, and Peter Ho Davies, a wonderful novelist I hadn’t known previously. It was a great panel with a terrific discussion afterwards.
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
Long bike rides on our flat Texas country roads. Modernist artists who believed they could change the world for the better if they could just get people to see things in a new way. People who still call themselves feminists, who are re-fighting the battles we thought we won. And, most of all, my two boys. I honestly don’t know how they turned out so well, but they are two of the most delightful, smart, compassionate, funny, irreverent, and interesting young men anyone could wish for.
Any final thoughts?
I’m very grateful to have had a career as a historian at a great public university during a period when the production and sharing of knowledge were still valued. I worry that corporatization really will destroy what was great about our public university system, making it even harder than it is already to make quality higher education available to everyone.