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.
Chuck Wooldridge is assistant professor of history at Lehman College, CUNY. He lives in New York City and has been an AHA member since 2003.
Alma maters: PhD, Princeton University; MA, University of Washington; BA, Swarthmore College
Fields of interest: late imperial China, urban history, ritual, the history of technology.
When did you first develop an interest in history?
There are two answers. The ur-answer is that my father, an amateur genealogist, took me when I was small to county courthouses around Virginia, where I watched him looking at microfilm and took in the smell of old books. If there was a battlefield around (and in Virginia there usually was), he would turn my brother and me loose on it. He also equipped our house with timelines of European and American history, and we had a small museum consisting of an arrowhead, some shell cases my grandfather had picked up at Pearl Harbor, and I think a bullet from the Civil War. I suppose my interest in history must result from these experiences, yet I have not had much urge to take up the academic study of any of those things.
In college I took a seminar with Lillian Li on a distribution requirement, and my classmates and I would frequently meet afterwards and chat about China late into the night. We always wanted to know more, and Lillian gave us tools to figure out answers to our questions, and that is what really made me a historian.
My father, by the way, has since written a remarkable book about Virginia, titled Mapping Virginia and out from UVA Press.
What projects are you working on currently?
I am working on a book and several articles, all relating to the Taiping War, a conflict that lasted from 1850 to 1864. The leader of the Taiping, Hong Xiuquan, sparked the war by declaring himself the younger brother of Jesus and proclaiming that people’s prior religious practices, as well as their loyalty to the ruling Qing Dynasty, were merely the product of demonic delusions. The battle between the Taiping and defenders of the Qing destroyed several major cities and killed upwards of 20 million people.
My book is about the city of Nanjing before, during, and after the war. Nanjing was the Taiping capital, and partly for that reason its cityscape was transformed several times over the course of the 19th century. I look at the ways adherents of a number of different movements constructed buildings, performed rituals, and reworked the literary heritage of the city to enact their various political visions. I am in the middle of revising articles about the disposition of dead bodies during and after the war, the commemoration of people involved in an 1854 plot to throw open Nanjing’s gates to Qing forces, and the transformations of Qing state ritual practice brought about in part by the need to honor the spirits of gods and humans thought to have aided the dynasty during the war.
Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?
I remain interested in many of the same questions that kept me up late in college. How do different people understand themselves to be part of a state? How do they experience state power? How do they propose alternatives? I do approach the questions differently now. I think teaching has made me more conscious of the different forms answers might take, and so I now spend more energy trying to express myself in creative ways without sacrificing clarity or rigor.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
For me, Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do set off a long meditation on teaching, one that is still going on. When I am having trouble getting a complicated idea into prose, I reread a chapter of Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Raymond Guess’s History and Illusion in Politics and Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault are both works that, when I read them, inspire me to work harder. Most recently, I enjoyed Jim Gavin’s story collection, Middle Men.
What do you value most about the history profession?
There are so many things around us that invest the present with near omnipotence. Advertisements insist that I should treat my every passing craving for chicken nuggets as an urgent problem (and provide options that masquerade as solutions). Twitter and Facebook mean that I can take any immediate thought and blast it into the world. Politicians who think of the consequences of their actions for the next election now seem unusually farsighted; most are interested in the news cycle, or at best the next poll. I think it is good that there is an institution that on the one hand recognizes the significance of individual lives, but on the other hand demonstrates that any particular life fills only a tiny slice of space and time in a much wider span.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
Not a particular anecdote, but I wonder if we could find an alternative to the off-putting way we bob our heads at the meeting to stare at each other’s badges. Passing by people at AHA can be a little like taking part in the mating ritual of some small, flightless bird that is, understandably, now extinct.
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
My two great kids!