Daniel Gifford is a term assistant professor and the course coordinator of INTO Mason’s “American Cultures” course for international students at George Mason University. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, and has been a member since 2010.
Alma maters: BA (journalism), University of Missouri, 1992; MA (international affairs), Washington University in St. Louis, 1999; MA (history), George Mason University, 2007; PhD (history), George Mason University, 2011
Fields of interest: American popular and visual culture, holidays, charity and philanthropy, American social movements, particularly environmental advocacy
What do you like the most about where you live and work? George Mason University is both my alma mater and my employer, so obviously I have grown quite fond of the institution. I greatly respect the university’s emphasis on creative thinking and the importance of diversity and internationalization. It is something I value in my affiliation with the department of history and art history as well as the INTO Mason program through which I currently teach.
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I really got hooked on American history while doing a genealogy project about one of my ancestors and decided to go for a masters. Even then I was not sure if I was doing it as a career move or as an enthusiast’s enterprise. However, with each class it became clearer that this was a calling. Once I had my PhD I explored both teaching and public history, including several years with the Smithsonian Institution, before committing to full-time academia. I still find myself engaged in both public and academic history, and feel I have feet planted firmly in each field.
What projects are you currently working on? Through George Mason University’s INTO Mason program I coordinate and teach a multi-section course about American cultures specifically for first-year international students. For students not born or raised in the United States, it is a great opportunity to explore an important mix of cultural awareness frameworks, American history, themes of multicultural diversity, and how cultural artifacts are reflections of American values and beliefs—all of which are hallmarks of my own education and interests. When these students head into the rest of their academic and professional careers, they will have a foundational set of analytical tools and understandings about American and global culture that I hope will serve them the rest of their lives.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? My dissertation and first book were about American holiday culture and holiday imagery, specifically holiday postcards from the early 20th century. My goal was to connect seemingly benign depictions of Santa Claus, Easter bunnies, and Valentine’s Day cupids with moments of real social upheaval such as the debates about New Women, the Country Life Movement, and immigration. I continue to be fascinated by the links between popular/visual culture and social change. Recently I have been looking at the influence of popular culture on the various waves of America’s conservation and environmental movements.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? Going back to the ancestry project that first got me interested in history—I was exploring the voyages of my great-great grandfather who was a whaling captain out of New Bedford. It turns out in between voyages for whale oil he captained a whaling bark from New Bedford to Chicago for display at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. I did not know such a thing was possible, much less that I had a connection to that famous world’s fair. The whole story continues to fascinate me—I keep promising it will be my “next” project!
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? Although fiction, I love how Ready Player One reveals the world of “geek culture” in the 1980s. Today we take the ubiquity of video games and fantasies like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter somewhat for granted, but the book reminds us what a specific subculture those pursuits once were.
What do you value most about the history discipline? Teaching international students I am reminded every day how naturalized certain beliefs and behaviors are in the United States. Looking at American cultures through a historian’s eyes is much like looking at it through my students’ eyes—I am constantly forced to ask why we do what we do and what path(s) through history brought us to this point. The more the history discipline can encourage everyone to stop and examine the values and norms we take for granted, the better I believe our society will become.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? Jim Grossman and Anthony Grafton’s “No More Plan B” came out just as I was completing my PhD and entering the job market—uncertain of which path I wanted (or could) take. The AHA has affirmed that a historian is more than a job title. It is a way of thinking and understanding that can benefit any institution, office, organization, or agency. The AHA has always made sure I felt welcome and included with a place at the table, whether I was in academia, public history, or somewhere in between.
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.