Publication Date

February 15, 2024

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


  • Europe



James McSpadden is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He lives in Reno, Nevada, and has been a member since 2013.

James McSpadden

James McSpadden

Alma maters: BA (German studies and humanities), Yale University, 2008; MA (Dutch studies), Leiden University, 2010; PhD (history), Harvard University, 2018

Fields of interest: modern Europe, interwar period, political culture, Holocaust and its legacies

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

Germany has been the unexpected touchstone of my career. I came to history as discipline because I had fallen in love with Germany during a summer internship in 2006. Spending the summer abroad as an undergraduate expanded my horizon so much that I wanted to learn more about Germany. I took more language and literature classes, but I eventually came to realize that history could be an even better tool for me to understand places and people than were very different from my own world. Through graduate study, my interest in Germany’s recent past moved back in time to Germany’s first experiment with democracy during the 1920s and 1930s. Over the years, I have also grown as a scholar because of my association with German institutions, especially the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

Pardon the Nevada pun, but I hit the jackpot with my incredible colleagues. We are a department where we support each other’s teaching and research and have become really good friends. My husband and I have also fallen in love with northern Nevada. Reno is an interesting crossroads for all kinds of folks, and the landscape here is stunningly gorgeous. Whenever I leave Nevada, I start missing the mountains and our wide open blue skies within a day or two.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am juggling two projects at the moment. I am wrapping up a book manuscript on interwar European political and parliamentary culture. I am also working on Nazi and Holocaust-era books that came from occupied Europe to the United States in the wake of World War II.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?

My undergraduates have nudged my interests in new directions. I teach broad survey courses, and I have learned that some topics particularly captivate students. For instance, I lecture on the history of gender and sexuality, and my students have been blown away after watching queer films like Different from the Others (1919) and Girls in Uniform (1931). They are shocked and excited to learn that queer histories began long before Stonewall. These experiences in the classroom have prompted me to read more in the history of sexuality and even seek out pedagogically rich archival sources to share with my students. For instance, I was in London at the archives recently, and I ordered police records from the 1920s relating to men arrested for alleged homosexual acts. I plan on analyzing these with my students in the future.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?

I have spent lots of time with the personal papers of interwar European politicians looking for diaries, personal calendars, and the like. However, I am always most drawn to the bits of ephemera that I stumble across. I love finding a century-old train ticket with a grocery list on the back, a dinner menu that became a doodling pad, or pressed flowers that fall out of scrapbooks. These bits of ephemera make my historical actors feel more human.

What do you value most about the history discipline?

This might sound trite, but I have so internalized our discipline that history has become a way I make sense of the world. This was most clear to me after my dad died in November 2022. To work through my own grief, I instinctively turned to the historian’s craft and starting going through his file cabinet. My dad had been a Presbyterian minister, so I started reading his earliest sermons from the 1970s in which he preached against the Vietnam War and for diversity within our society. Unthinkingly, I reached for archival sources to cobble together a narrative of change over time in my dad’s life’s work. Turning to history helped me make sense of my loss and find meaning in Dad’s life.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you?

I feel connected to the wider world of historians beyond the classroom who are working in the world of public history and policy. I eagerly read Perspectives on History whenever it shows up in my mailbox, and I often bring in materials on AHA advocacy for my students to prompt classroom discussions on history in our world today.

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, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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