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 Julie Nkodo.
James Wolfinger is an associate professor of history and education, as well as associate dean of the College of Education, at DePaul University. He lives in Aurora, Illinois, and has been a member of the AHA since 2006.
Current school and alma mater/s: DePaul University, 2003–present. BS, Auburn University; MA, University of Georgia; PhD, Northwestern University.
Fields of interest: contemporary United States, political, labor, urban, and African American history.
When did you first develop an interest in history?
I first became interested in history in high school in Oklahoma City. My US History teacher was an older African American woman who taught in a way that invited every student to take ownership of the class. She had students role play as president, chief justice, speaker of the House, and so on in historical situations. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, red or brown,” she’d say, “everyone has an opportunity to learn and to lead in this country.” I still vividly remember her climbing onto a chair one day, a little unsteadily, to wave a dollar bill overhead during a unit on the civil rights movement. “Money doesn’t talk; it screams!” she shouted. I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant at first, but in her lessons I came to learn about lunch counter sit ins, economic boycotts, and African American access to industrial jobs. Her teaching sparked in me a desire to explore the past from perspectives not always represented in the textbook. It was almost two decades later, when I was in graduate school, that I researched my high school teacher. Turns out she was Clara Luper, a key leader in the civil rights movement in Oklahoma City. She never told us of her background, but used it to help her students see the world in different ways. I became the person I am in no small part because of her.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am working on an urban and labor history of public transportation in Philadelphia from the 1880s to the 1960s. The project has the working title “Capital’s Quest: Management, Labor, and the Search for Social Control in Philadelphia’s Public Transit Industry.” Philadelphia had the last large privately held transportation system in the United States, not becoming publicly owned until the late 1960s. I am interested in a number of questions, such as how management adopted different methods to control its workers over four generations, how the private provision of a public good shaped and was shaped by the city’s politics, and how the profit imperative of a private transportation company structured the service it provided and the way Philadelphia’s urban space developed over the course of nearly a century.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I recommend that AHA members check out the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia project. The book is not yet finished, but the editors have been posting articles online and publishing them with city newspapers. I particularly like how the editors have worked with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and other institutions as well as invited the public to comment on and contribute through meetings and roundtables to the encyclopedia’s development. The encyclopedia will certainly be scholarly and make use of new web-based technology, but it also demonstrates how academics can connect with the public to make their work timely and relevant. In many ways, I think this is a model work.
What do you value most about the history profession?
I love the intellectual freedom the discipline provides. I can ask any question I want about the past and I have the training, the tools, to design a research project and answer my question. I also appreciate the fact that history is one of the few disciplines that still puts great value in producing a book as a way of articulating an extended argument. Moreover, well-written history can find an audience beyond academia in ways that many disciplines do not.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
I remember sitting in the bullpen at the AHA in 2003, waiting for my job interviews to start. There was another freshly minted PhD sitting at the same table. I reached in my bag to get a piece of gum and offered her one. She took it, thanked me, and we started talking. Our kids, our hometowns, and even baseball came up. But not history. It was an unspoken agreement, that at that tense time we would not talk about our dissertations, our fears about the job market, what we were “working on.” It was a refreshing human moment at a meeting that for young scholars often brings as much dread as intellectual stimulation.
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
I’m driven by my work, but find joy in playing Nintendo with my daughter, going to dinner with my wife, and gardening. I also like college football—more a duty than a diversion growing up in Oklahoma—but that’s a guilty pleasure I mostly keep to myself in academia.
Any final thoughts?
In addition to US history, I also teach in the history education program at DePaul. I relish the scholarly pursuit that is history, the questions about context and change over time, the attempt to make sense of the past on its own terms. These issues animate my history classes. But I also take great joy in preparing the next generation of history and social studies teachers. I find that the vast majority of students who choose to become history teachers are bright, articulate, and dedicated to learning the content, but also to communicating it to students in culturally relevant ways. The questions they ask sharpen the questions I ask about the past and the way I present my thinking in class. Teaching these future teachers is as rewarding as anything I do in my work. I hope I’m a Clara Luper to one or two of them.