Becoming Interested in History
My sense that history, as a professional path, was something I might like to take up was first inspired by Henry Abelove at Wesleyan University. Henry was an inspiring teacher, and in his European Intellectual History course I learned that the past can be enormously useful in understanding oneself and the world, that a close reading of a text is a rewarding art. In my first year of graduate school I was interested principally in labor and social history and studied at E.P. Thompson’s Centre for the Study of Social History at Warwick University in Coventry, England. Subsequently, at Columbia University my interests broadened. Columbia’s History Department is known for its focus on political, intellectual/cultural, and social movements. Eric Foner, a friend to this day, was a terrific mentor. Teaching for six years in Columbia’s Great Books core curriculum—from Plato to NATO, students have nicknamed—was a great pleasure. I learned astonishing amounts from Darren Staloff, Michael Sugrue, Peter Field, and others. I was happy when Tom Rollins, founder of the Teaching Company, took fire with my idea that Columbia’s core curriculum could be made into an audio and video series, and the success of that series, “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition,” remains a point of personal satisfaction. In 2009 I had a wonderful time as visiting professor at the University of Michigan. The graduate students and undergraduates with whom I worked were a bright and dedicated group. To a person, the faculty and staff at Michigan were welcoming and kind. I enjoyed teaching my American Intellectual History and Religion in America courses.
Why the History Profession?
Within the history profession, I value the community of scholarship, the time to write, the frisson of joy I feel every time I enter a university classroom. The Catholicism of my youth forged a strong frame of belief that good works matter in this world. The Enlightenment of my undergraduate and graduate years was animated by a desire to understand the world and improve it. It’s not by coincidence that my book Civic Engagement: Social Science and Progressive Era Reform in New York City (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) is about the ways in which a group of young Americans set out to address the pressing issues of their day—from issues of poverty and child labor, to women’s and labor rights, civil rights, and municipal reform—from the vantage of a university setting.
Outside of History
Other than my profession, I am passionate about my wife, Amy, and my children, Jack and Elizabeth. I’m also passionate about understanding the present, and working to make things better globally.