AHA Member Spotlight: Bill Issel

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.

Bill Issel is professor of history emeritus at San Francisco State University and a visiting professor of history at Mills College. He lives in Berkeley, California, and has been a member of the AHA since 1968.

Alma maters: history honors program, University of California Berkeley; BA, MA, San Francisco State College; doctoral studies, University of Pittsburgh; AM, PhD, University of Pennsylvania

Fields of interest:  20th-century US urban history and labor history, religion and politics in US history, civil liberties aPecs_Member-Spotlightnd civil rights in US history, San Francisco history

When did you first develop an interest in history?

I grew up in San Francisco’s Western Addition district and started school two months after the United Nations Charter was signed in the War Memorial Opera House a few blocks from my house. The “transnational” and “multicultural” were thick on the ground in the classrooms and schoolyards of Fremont and St. Agnes schools. My friends came from all over. In their houses I heard Japanese, Chinese, Tagalong, Magyar, Russian, and Yiddish—as well as West Texas and Mississippi Delta Black American English. My third-generation Bavarian Jewish and fourth-generation Irish Catholic teachers boasted about how their classrooms were “little United Nations in the city where the UN was born.” Hearing stories about the many pasts that my friends and our neighbors brought with them to San Francisco made me a “history buff.” But it was a series of brilliant teachers, whom I first encountered in required college history courses at Berkeley and San Francisco State, notably William Freehling, Joel Silbey, Vartan Gregorian, and the late Carl Schorske who inspired me to leave behind the family tradition of working in the building and construction industry for the world of historical scholarship, college and university teaching, and public history.

What projects are you working on currently?

My current project is “‘Justice for All’: Bishop Mark J. Hurley and the 1968 San Francisco State College Strike.” This is an article that will demonstrate how national political dynamics, local political culture, and personal leadership intersected to shape the outcome of a defining event in San Francisco history during the late 1960s. The Bishop Hurley article is part of an ongoing research program that examines in detail the ways in which faith-based activism, in relation to other social and cultural dynamics, has shaped the public life of San Francisco. To date, I have published two books that are the product of this research program: “For Both Cross and Flag”: Catholic Action, Anti-Catholicism, and National Security Politics in World War II San Francisco (Temple Univ. Press, 2010) and Church and State in the City: Catholics and Politics in 20th-Century San Francisco (Temple Univ. Press, 2013). The Bishop Mark Hurley story will be included in the third book in this project: “Serving God and Country”: The Twilight Years of San Francisco’s Catholic Liberal Era, 1963–1977.  

Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?

While writing my dissertation in the late 1960s I worked in the Thirteen College Program, a curriculum improvement project in historically black colleges in the South that was headed by the Reverend Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor. That work stimulated my interest in the role of religion in American culture and the role of faith-based activism in US political history. Also, in 1973 and 1974, I participated in a two year project sponsored by the American Historical Association and the UK Historical Association. The project brought together specialists in American studies from both sides of the Atlantic to foster international cooperation and collaboration. My work in that project and my teaching and consulting in the UK and Europe since then, including my Fulbright years in 1978–79 and 2008–09, made me more aware of the importance of studying United States culture and politics in the context of international history.


Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

Robert J. Norrell’s review of Stephen Tuck’s We Ain’t What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama published in the “Featured Reviews” section of the June 2013 AHR (809–11) is a model review that could be usefully assigned in every graduate course in historical writing. John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965 (Harvard Univ. Press, 2012) is a masterful multi-archival study that illustrates the importance of detailed analysis of the kinds of complexities and contingencies that historians are particularly equipped to explore.

What do you value most about the history profession?

As an historian, one can bring to students, and to a wider audience through lecturing and public history projects, an appreciation of the importance of a detailed understanding of the contexts in which men and women, albeit bounded by various constraints, make their worlds. Colleagues in other social science and humanities departments have often, over the years, joked about how, as one put it: “you historians are lucky, you get to ask the big questions and also can write about particular people in all their fascinating detail.”

Why did you join the AHA?

For me, having come out of a family of builders, joining the AHA seemed logical and natural, given its role as the leading community of fellow artisans, where one could keep abreast of the latest tools, technologies, and best practices. 

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?

At a session during the 1989 annual meeting, the late Eric H. Monkkonen, who was a scholar’s scholar and a master of understatement, favorably commented on one of the papers by noting that “this paper illustrates the sine qua non of historical scholarship because it demonstrates that all existing accounts need to be put aside because previous historians have simply never attended to the pertinent archival evidence.” Eric’s “The Dangers of Synthesis” in the AHR 91, no. 5 (1986): 1146–57 has by no means outlived its usefulness.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

Social theory has always been a passion of mine, ever since I was hooked on it by my grad school professors Anthony F.C. Wallace and E. Digby Baltzell. My favorite recent book is Christian Smith’s What Is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010).

Any final thoughts?

When I curated an historical exhibition marking the opening of the New Main San Francisco Public Library in 1997, I titled it San Francisco, the Politics of Inclusion: Have “Us and Them” Become “We the People”? The question is as timely today as it was then, and I recommend David Cannadine’s The Undivided Past: Humanity beyond Our Differences (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) as a brilliant contribution to the conversations that we need to have about such matters.

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