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.
Chris Chulos is associate professor of history and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Roosevelt University. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois, and has been a member of the AHA since 1986.
Alma mater/s: PhD and MA, University of Chicago; BA, Loyola University Chicago.
When did you first develop an interest in history?
As an undergraduate at Loyola I was fortunate to have history professors who related the past as evolving narratives created from the serious examination of primary sources. This was very different from my high school teachers who drilled us with names, places, and dates without explaining their interconnectedness or cause and effect. One of the most fascinating and demanding courses I took as an undergraduate was Barbara Rosenwein’s seminar on medieval monasticism. Our analysis of monastic rules, bequests, lives of saints, and other primary texts helped me to understand in a new way the historiographic literature we read. Outside the classroom Professor Rosenwein’s encouragement led me to consider graduate studies at the University of Chicago.
What projects are you working on currently?
As a faculty administrator my research moves along at a slow but steady pace, which means that I am working on several article-length manuscripts that will become chapters in my next book about history and memory in late imperial Russia,tentatively titled Constructed Memories of the Heroic Past: History and Memory in Late Imperial Russia. I am looking at how local communities aligned their celebrations of anniversaries of historical events (such as the 900th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus in 1888 and the 50th anniversary of the emancipation of the serfs in 1911) with larger and more elaborate national commemorations, as well as how emerging narratives of nation combined traditional cultural practice with new cultural forms. One of the most exciting chapters is about early Russian cinema’s contribution to a national cultural narrative from the time of its birth in 1908 until the time the film industry was nationalized by the Bolshevik regime toward the end of 1919. Most of the films from this period have not survived, nearly all were suppressed by the Soviet authorities, and only a few are widely known among Russian specialists today.
Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?
The first third of my career I spent at the University of Helsinki where my office was one block away from one of the most important source collections for 19th-century Russia, the university’s Slavonic library. Although I taught periodically, I focused intensely on research and publication. As a year-long visiting scholar at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC (which is part of the Wilson Center), I witnessed the broader application of historical scholarship both in the media and the world of public policy. This interaction between academia and the public sphere made me think seriously about other contributions historians can make beyond their own research expertise. After leaving the Kennan Institute, I began working in administration at Roosevelt University, an urban comprehensive institution with many students from less privileged backgrounds and with little personal knowledge of the university world. The transformational power of a college education struck me as one of the most important contributions that historians and other faculty members can make in the course of their careers.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
Everything by Jay Winter intrigues me beginning with Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, which draws on literature, cinema, personal letters, and the visual arts to explore how the interwar generation coped with the tremendous losses they suffered during World War I. One of the richest cinematic portraits of how ordinary 20th-century Europeans survived the relentless march of war, destruction, and reconstruction is Edgar Reitz’s 1984 film Heimat, a 15-hour film about a fictional German village loosely based on the director’s own birthplace. Still controversial nearly 30 years after its release for including only subtle references to the larger political waves that swept across Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, the film offers a subtle critique of rural Germans who were more interested in their crops, livestock, and family milestones than in the horrific policies of the Nazi’s.
What do you value most about the history profession?
I am constantly surprised by the way historians strive to make themselves and the study of history relevant to the world beyond the walls of academia, particularly now when the humanities are under scrutiny and mistakenly categorized as impractical disciplines, almost an unnecessary luxury. History runs through the veins of everything we do and serves as the inspiration of some of the most important achievements (and disasters) of humankind. This is the opposite of luxury.
Why did you join the AHA?
I joined the AHA at a pivotal moment in my graduate studies when I made the mental shift from thinking of myself only as a student to imagining the possibility of becoming a professional historian. Once that shift occurred I believed that a step toward full membership in the historical profession required me to join the AHA.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
A few years after I received my PhD I was invited to give a paper on an AHA panel of young historians specializing in Russian religious history. All of us were excited about having a prominent historian as the commentator, which we thought would help to draw a large audience. Unfortunately, the panel was scheduled for the last session and only a handful of people attended. Despite the low attendance what followed was an engaging seminar of the five panelists and two or three audience members who had later flights to catch.
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
Movies, music, and travel as often as possible. And study abroad.
Any final thoughts?
I think that a history major can open the door to many career paths that should be appealing to students and their parents.