Publication Date

April 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, News, Perspectives Daily

Thematic

Environmental, Urban

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.

Jennifer Lisa Koslow is an associate professor of history at Florida State University. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and has been a member since 2001.

Twitter Handle: @jenniferlkoslow

Alma maters: BA, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1992; MA, UCLA, 1996; PhD, UCLA, 2001

Fields of interest: Gilded Age and Progressive Era, public history, public health, gender, urban history

When did you first develop an interest in history?

If I had to pick a particular moment when I first developed an interest in history, it was my fourth grade field trip to Fort Lee, New Jersey. In the winter of 1980, my class made a rite of passage. All fourth graders from Tenafly (my hometown) visited the Fort Lee museum and participated in an act of living history. I vaguely remember starting our visit in the museum and making candles. Knowing what I now know about museums, that activity could have taken place anywhere. What came next was the memorable part. I became a soldier in the Revolutionary Army. The museum divided our class into two. Half went into a wood cabin and cut up vegetables for a stew. The other half—of which I was in—wandered through the snowy woods looking for kindling. I was cold and miserable. I remember thinking that those in the cabin were lucky. It turned out that those in the cabin thought that we were lucky because they were getting yelled at about their knife skills. After eating the stew prepared by our comrades, the museum made us march. I can’t tell you what my ten-year-old self learned about the details about the causes of the Revolution because I don’t remember. What did stay with me, however, was an understanding that history is participatory. I also remembering thinking that being an ordinary soldier in the American Revolution would not have been an easy experience. It left me wondering why did individuals join? Much later in college, I took a course on the American Revolution that helped me understand the causes of the Revolution and its aftermath that brought me back to some of those same questions. I still think history is participatory. I still wonder why people join movements. I still marvel that I was asked to step into someone else’s shoes and think about the world from another perspective.

What projects are you working on currently?

I am currently working on a book manuscript titled Displaying the Road to Wellness: Public Health Exhibits in the Early Twentieth Century. This study of public presentations of disease prevention at the turn of the 20th century in the United States will show how health exhibits shaped a generation of public health understanding, helped to standardize policy, and left a legacy of privileging the artifact over other forms of educational information. It makes an important contribution to the histories of public health, medicine, and museums by challenging the historiography that pits education and entertainment as antithetical outcomes when factual information is combined with activities of popular amusement. It will also appeal to a wider audience interested in issues of public policy, public education, and the ethnic and racial dynamics of health care. In addition, based on my participation in a community engagement project in Tallahassee (a Historic American Landscapes Survey Project, an NPS program, on Tallahassee’s Smokey Hollow community), I have become fascinated with the intricacies of mid-20th-century urban renewal in the South. I’m not sure if it is another manuscript, article, or some other form of presentation of historical research but I know that I’ve only started to scratch the surface on conceptualizing what it meant to live in a state that rejected federal money for urban renewal.

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

When I graduated, the web was in its infancy. I was lucky enough to begin to grapple with its meaning for the discipline of history in a seminar with Jan Reiff. Ever since, I’ve been wondering how digital mechanisms shape the collection, preservation, and interpretation of history.

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

For the past month, the Coen brothers have captured my imagination with their film, Inside Llewyn Davis. (I regretfully missed it in the movie theater, so I had to wait until it came out on video.) It did so both for its retelling of Ulysses and for its representation of the folk music scene centered in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. I’m not one for asking fiction to adhere to historical accuracy. I am, however, perpetually intrigued by how artists play with historical textures. Just thinking about the song “Please Mr. Kennedy” continues to make me laugh not only on its own accord but also for the fact that it feels like it could have been a big hit in the early 1960s. For me, the movie captured best what I love about history—its engrossing opacity. What are we to think of the central character, Llewyn Davis? Is he unsuccessful because he is a jerk? Or, is it because he is at the wrong place at the wrong time? Why, if he is a jerk, does he also secure our empathy? I am in awe of the Coen brothers’ ability to represent ambiguity. I suspect I will continue thinking about this film for quite a while longer along with singing the songs to myself in my car.

What do you value most about the history profession?

I value the shared sense that history is built on making a reasonable argument based on the best available evidence. I think it is very important for historians to make it clear that historical methods are of the utmost value to society. Otherwise, we see some very odd arguments about our nation’s past that are without any foundation shaping public policy. As I tell my students, you can’t know your present if you don’t know your past and if you don’t know your present, how can you try and shape your future?

Why did you join the AHA?

I originally joined the AHA for access to its job-list postings. However, what has kept me in has been its ever-widening breadth of topics the organization has chosen with which to engage.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

My family. I am the mother of twin girls and spending time with them and my husband swimming, cooking, watching a movie, visiting a historic site, playing Settlers of Catan, eating ice cream, playing with the cat, and walking the dogs is how I enjoy life.

 

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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