AHA Member Spotlight: Thomas A. Foster
Thomas A. Foster is a professor of history and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University. He lives in Washington, DC, and has been a member since 1996.
Twitter handle: @ThomasAFoster
Alma maters: BA (sociology), Cornell University; MA (history), North Carolina State University; MA and PhD (history), Johns Hopkins University
Fields of interest: gender, sexuality, US social and cultural, early America, women’s history, public history, memory, slavery
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? My interest in history was sparked in classes as an undergraduate. But it was only after college and two years abroad on the JET Programme that I decided to pursue graduate school and a career in academia. To transition from sociology to history, I enrolled in an MA program at NC State where I became interested in portrayals of Deborah Sampson and focused my studies on women’s history and the history of sexuality. At Johns Hopkins I entered a PhD program interested in studying masculinity and the histories of gender and sexuality in early America. After a postdoc (SSRC) and two one-year positions (Univ. of Miami and Rice Univ.), I finally landed tenure-track work at DePaul University. It was there that I was able to complete my first book and several edited volumes. At DePaul I also learned that I found gratification in administrative work, first as director of the LGBTQ studies program and then as department chair for history. Those experiences made it possible for me to try serving as associate dean at Howard University, my current position.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? Howard is a wonderful institution and living in DC is great—museums, monuments, archives, public history, and popular history on a grand scale. I am new to Howard so I have a great deal to learn but it is quite easy for even a newcomer to be enthralled by the history and significance. It is refreshing to be at an institution where the building that houses the history department is named for Frederick Douglass, and my office in the dean’s suite is in a building named for Alain Locke, a gay man who has been called the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance.
What projects are you currently working on? I am currently finishing a book on sexual violence against enslaved men. I have started working on a multi-pronged project on Abingdon Plantation, the ruins of which are on the grounds of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. I hope to be able to develop a related digital history website, enhanced interior and exterior exhibits at the airport, and several traditional history publications on enslaved life and also on the broader history of that site. But for now, those are just plans. I find being an associate dean to be much more time consuming than being a chair so I do not know how long it will take for any of this to come to fruition.
What do you value most about the history discipline? The time to immerse oneself in fragments of the past and the overwhelming feeling of connecting across time. It is surreal and very hard to get one’s head around, especially as our culture is so in-the-moment. I think it is also challenging because it is very hard for us to think of the world after we are all long gone and so many of us are entirely irrelevant and forgotten. Some days I think studying history exacerbates my tendency toward existential angst but on many other days it seems to abate those feelings.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? The AHA connects us as scholars with similar interests, methods, and orientations to the present. It provides professional leadership and advocacy, for which I am grateful.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share? The job market years were exhilarating and a real challenge. It is also often just a real hoot to have a “celebrity sighting” or an academic nerd’s version of that, at least. Reading scholarship is such a deeply personal experience that it is often intense to meet the flesh and blood authors who wrote what has so influenced and shaped your own work and how you view the world, past and present.
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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