AHA Member Spotlight: Jessica L. Adler
Jessica Adler is an assistant professor at Florida International University. She lives in Miami, Florida, and has been a member since 2008.
Alma mater/s: BA, University of Rochester, 2000; PhD, Columbia University, 2013
Fields of interest: medicine and health, US social/health policy and political development, war and society
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? In college, I had wonderful history professors—and dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter. When I eventually landed a job as a features writer for a small daily in Paterson, New Jersey, I found that I was constantly searching for history. I did all sorts of things to satisfy the urge, including conducting long-form interviews with local residents about their lives, which benevolent editors ran as “oral history” columns. After I was assigned to the so-called health beat, my pursuit of history went beyond personal stories. All sorts of social issues and federal, state, and local policies, it seemed, were simply impossible to understand or explain without a sense of the past. So, I looked for graduate programs that would allow me to study the origins of the US health care system’s many challenges. At Columbia, I benefitted tremendously from the mentorship of faculty members who offered me both intellectual support and intellectual freedom.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? In Miami, on any given day, most people—no matter where they are from (even if they are from Miami)—could find somewhere to go that gives them the humbling and freeing feeling of being a visitor, a foreigner, a traveler. That may be true of most places, but perhaps to a greater extent here. Meanwhile, FIU mirrors some of the best characteristics of any global city. Students are worldly and driven; opportunities exist for intellectual collaborations across disciplines and departments; and diverse community organizations cooperate with the university to offer professional opportunities and compelling programming.
What projects are you currently working on? I am working on two research projects and planning a NEH-funded reading and discussion program geared at making art, literature, and history accessible to Miami-area military veterans. My first book, Burdens of War: Creating the United States Veterans Health System, is about the World War I-era origins of what is now the largest integrated health care system in the country. Both of my ongoing projects—one on health care in US correctional institutions, and the other on the post-Vietnam War advent of community-based mental health counseling for veterans—also focus on government intervention in health care access. Although very different, both stories highlight how medicalization, grassroots advocacy, politics, and legal action intertwined to produce precedent-setting and lasting health policy changes. The reading and discussion series, part of the NEH Dialogues on the Experience of War program, will take place during the 2018-19 academic year and involves remarkable colleagues and organizations—the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience at Florida State University, the Department of Veterans Affairs Miami Vet Center, and a theater group called the Combat Hippies. During two four-week workshops, veteran-participants will examine the historical experience of returning home from war by talking with one another, museum educators, and university professors about multiple types of sources focused on different moments in the 20th century.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? I love meeting minutes. I can think of at least three sets of minutes—one from a veterans’ advocacy organization and two from government committees intended to fix problems related to health care services—that made me ask new questions and view events from different angles. The best sets of minutes are transcribed verbatim over many years’ worth of meetings; they provide startling impressions of ideas, motivations, and machinations of individuals and groups, and how they change over time.
What do you value most about the history discipline? I do not think I can say it better than Peter Stearns. History is valuable because it allows those who open-mindedly study it to think through how, in different contexts, they may define human traits like courage and cowardice; to poke holes in neat stories comprised of good sides and bad sides; to understand the power of contingency, perspective, and larger circumstances in shaping individuals’ actions. It is humbling and provocative.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? The AHA provides support through advocacy efforts, and by offering an intellectual community. As a former graduate student who benefitted from the organization’s open-arms welcome of young members, and as an historian who studies institutions and bureaucracies, I see great value in both.
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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