Department chair talks stories, evidence and Women’s History Month

by | Mar 23, 2017

For Laura Westhoff, people are at the heart of the study of history – the stories they tell and the meaning they make.
Laura Westhoff, UMSL

Associate Professor Laura Westhoff joined the faculty at UMSL in 1999 through a joint appointment between the Department of History and the College of Education. She is active in social studies certification at UMSL and serves as the faculty coordinator for the Student Teaching in China program. A native St. Louisan herself, she says the rare opportunity within academia to be part of an institution in her own home city has been a joy and a pleasure. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Who are three women who don’t get enough credit in history books? And how might the first-ever female head of the University of Missouri–St. Louis history department answer that question – during Women’s History Month, no less?

That was the initial premise that recently led UMSL Daily to reach out to Laura Westhoff, associate professor and chair of the Department of History at UMSL.

As it turns out, the larger conversation around the answer was a fascinating peek behind the scenes of what it means to be a historian, as well as a glimpse into one woman’s individual motivations for studying history in the first place. The discussion also touched on the challenges the profession faces in the current political moment in America.

Can you name three women who you might say deserve more credit when it comes to women’s history?

Ha! I was really hoping to avoid that question, to be honest.

Why is that?

It’s sort of like the Oscars. You don’t want to name people because then everyone will say, “What about this person? You could’ve said that person.”

I’ll also mention that there is this notion that history is made by great people. It’s a very popular misconception. We want to read good biographies, we want to read about great people. But most of the time, human experience isn’t that of the great person. It’s a social history, a cultural history. It’s more about how ordinary people, like us, have lived their lives.

Fair enough. Let’s talk about you and your personal history. You’re the first female chair of the history department at UMSL. How is that going for you?

Well, I may still be in the early honeymoon phase, having just taken the position in September, but I love it. I am very excited about the particular moment that we’re in in our profession, as well as our department, so I’m excited to do the work as chair.

What particular moment are you referring to?

I believe we’re at a point in the history profession where, as a discipline, we are aware that we can’t keep talking about the major and the work that we do in the ways that we have in the past –meaning we can’t stay within our department or within our small professional communities only. We really have to move beyond and speak to broader audiences. When I look at what the faculty here in the history department are doing as a whole, I see that we’re doing a lot already that speaks to that, and that’s very exciting.

How did you personally become interested in studying history?

When I was an undergraduate student deciding on a major, a friend of mine pointed out that history encompasses all subjects. If you like science, you can read science. If you like novels, those are documents in history. If you like politics, that’s part of history. It’s a broad field in terms of the kind of curiosity and questions one might bring to it. And it requires empirical sources. The intersection of evidence with narrative, interpretation and meaning-making appealed to me then, and it still does.

Can you tell me more about your specialty areas in particular?

As a grad student, my first research project was in the Progressive Era and the history of social reform. That’s still my field. I’m interested in questions of grassroots democracy and how communities use their experience to shape social knowledge – how they contribute to an agenda that feeds back to making their communities a better place.

My current research is in the mid-20th century. I’m working on a book titled “Educating for Activism.”

That sounds very relevant to the present time period. Would you say that’s true?

It is. You know, I think the production of knowledge in a democratic society is very critical to its ability to be democratic, and I think we’re seeing some of that now. Whose voices count? Whose knowledge matters? There’s a tension between expertise and democracy that I’m very interested in, and we’re definitely seeing some of that tension in the present time.

What do you think is one misconception about being a historian that people often have?

We’re an evidence-based profession. Relatedly, it’s a misconception a lot of students have that one opinion is as good as another. In our discipline, opinions have to be based on informed evidence. Long before this current moment – and the notion of “alternative facts” – we talked to our students about weighing that evidence, about how not all evidence is the same. We spend our teaching and research time immersed in that world. There’s certainly both a teaching component and a sense of civic responsibility to being a historian.

Why do you think history is a valuable major to pursue?

History is such an important basis of background for all kinds of jobs, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a set of skills and habits of mind; a process of asking questions and doing research and thinking both intellectually and empathetically about different perspectives. That’s another aspect that connects to these current times.

What would you say is the defining characteristic of being a historian?

The easy answer to what history is is that it’s explaining change over time. But for me, it’s really about finding human meaning. It’s about how humans have made meaning out of their experiences and tried to change their lives ­­– across time and across place. That’s what I’m interested in—the kind of stories that we tell about who we are and where we’ve been. I’m in it for the people.

Speaking of people, I can’t help it. I’m still curious about the women you might say are deserving of more credit for their past accomplishments.

Well, there are some women who I’ve come across in my research that I think are pretty fascinating figures. They are important because their lives can tell us things about all women’s experiences, as well as about particular moments in time.

Who are they? Just three.  We’ll add the caveat that it could never be an exhaustive list.

Jane Addams, for one.

She’s far more complex than she’s presented. She’s someone who had such an inclusive vision of democracy – especially for a woman from a very privileged background. She went to live in Chicago’s urban immigrant communities and started writing about what it meant to be part of a democratic community, a democratic nation. Essentially, she wrote that we have to hold ourselves accountable for our own experiences, that we can’t segregate ourselves from people different from us. In other words, in a democracy, we’re all responsible for being inclusive and knowing the other, trying to understand the other. That’s a notion I think we could look at a little bit more these days. Especially for those of us coming from privilege.

Also, Septima Clark.

She was an African American civil rights activist, who did many, many things in her life. She helped develop citizenship schools and worked to educate and develop political leadership in African American communities all across the Jim Crow south. She worked to prepare African Americans and white Americans for civil disobedience by teaching them how to read. The notion of freedom – that freedom comes from within as well as without ­– is a really powerful part of her story.  I would love for people to know more about her.

And Dolores Huerta.

She was and is — she’s still alive today — a Mexican American organizer who worked with Fred Ross. She was a housewife and working mom who got involved in the Mexican American civil rights movement. She ended up working with Cesar Chavez and organized the American Farm Workers Union. Her story of moving from the kind of prescribed background that was expected of Mexican American women to community organizing and labor organizing is remarkable. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work just a few years ago. She’s an incredible person.

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