This interview with Dr. Paige Glotzer, Assistant Professor and the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, Institutions, and Political Economy in the Department of History at UW-Madison, was conducted on May 3, 2019 by Peter Lund, PhD Candidate, Urban Studies Programs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).
Dr. Glotzer was the featured keynote speaker at the Urban Studies Programs’ 24th Annual Student Research Forum at UWM. During the interview we discussed her career, her intellectual work, and housing segregation in U.S. cities from a historical perspective.
Peter Lund (PL): What was the path that led you to academia?
Paige Glotzer (PG): It actually started quite a while ago. I was always interested in history when I was a kid, but it was really in college when I started to take history classes and realize that I liked what intellectual conversations sounded like. It felt very rewarding to have to think critically about everything I said and to have to find evidence to support everything I said. It felt like the types of conversations that I wanted to have, and I decided fairly early on in college that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. I didn’t quite know what that meant; I’m the first person in my family to ever graduate college let alone go to graduate school. But I had some good mentors and when I talked to them about pursuing the Ph.D. it was always going to be history and it was always going to be urban history.
PL: So it was your first choice?
PG: It was.
PL: What was it that drew you to history as a primary discipline?
PG: It was never a question that I wanted to study history, even before it came to choosing my profession. It’s really attributable to growing up in Brooklyn and being interested in everything around me. I would always ask: “How did things get this way?” I would take the bus through the city and ask: “Why is this building next to that building?” or “Why is this waterway lined with these types of buildings?” So that interest in the built environment and that question – “How did things get to be the way they are?” – really informed the way I moved through the world. Even when I was small and didn’t really know how to articulate that very well. And I was really quite lucky that I had a grandfather that he himself was a voracious reader of history books despite the fact that I don’t think he ever graduated high school. And he would always give them to me not necessarily knowing that they weren’t age appropriate. When I was very little he gave me The Power Broker by Robert Cairo which is like this brick written for adults [because] he thought I’d be interested in it. So I realized that there was a value to learning and there was a way I could learn the history of things all around me, so that was just never in question.
I fell into my specific project completely by accident. The urban historian ended up studying the suburbs, but that was good timing on my part because it gave me a project right when I was beginning my Ph.D. The specific developer records that form the core of the book that I’m just finishing now on building suburban power arrived at Johns Hopkins at basically the same time I did. The person who would become my adviser said: “The library probably needs someone to process these, do you want a job for some extra money?” And I said “Yes, please” because of course extra money is fantastic for a graduate student. She had suggested that role based on my background in Urban Studies. I minored in urban architecture and design when I was in undergrad and so she assumed I’d have the tools to make sense of developer records. I went and my boss basically retired two days after I started, and I had no idea how to process an archive. So I just read everything – folder 1 box 1, and just went from there full time at the very start of grad school and that became my first year paper, which became my dissertation, and now it’s my book.
PL: So if you weren’t a historian, but were still in academia, what do you think you would have ended up doing?
PG: I would have loved an interdisciplinary program in a model close to what you have here at UWM in Urban Studies. My first love remains understanding the built environment, how it’s structured and how it structures peoples’ lives and everyday experiences within space. That curiosity has evolved in specific directions, such as my increased interest in white supremacy and racism in housing segregation, but I think that any type of field, especially an interdisciplinary field where I can understand how people live in cities and how cities change and grow and shrink – that’s what I want to do. So Urban Studies I think would be the best.
PL: Looking forward, what do you think your ideal contributions would be to research and education about the urban condition?
PG: From a research perspective, I want to help people understand the seemingly large, abstract forces that shape the history of housing. And I think that structure is something that is difficult to explain to people because it can be very abstract and faceless. So, in my work, I really try to humanize and denaturalize those structures, and by the end of it the arguments that I essentially want to make are that once we understand the history of how the structures of segregation were put in place and evolved and were maintained, that we can also see that segreation’s not inevitable. And so I would hope that people can take from my work a sense that maybe they can help bring about positive change.
Of course that is closely related to teaching, but I think that in teaching I really would love for people to eventually find an interest in history and the world. When I teach history I like to make sure to teach up to the present day so that I can end the class by tying the practice of critical thinking skills to looking around and listening and hearing and seeing things in your life and having a better understanding of how things fit together and where one’s place might be in creating their version of an ideal world.
PL: What do you think is the most essential piece of knowledge or skill that your students can obtain in your courses?
PG: I want students who take my classes to leave theoretical ideas about how the world works at the door. I have a lot of students who come from Economics or International Relations or even business school and I want them to leave their ideas about pure markets and things like that at the door and learn about how history is messy. And in that messiness you can also see a lot of how people tried to gain power, how they lost power, etc. I want students to essentially see that when they’re looking back at history that it’s worth taking people and things and processes on their own terms, even if that means that the world is complicated and confusing. And that’s okay, because it is.
PL: Would you say then that you think your students will benefit the most from your courses if they take a ‘ground up’ – some might say an inductionist – approach to understanding history?
PG: Yes, and specifically because it allows them to see themselves as historical actors. They’re not above history looking down, there’s not an end of history and they’re there to interpret it. They themselves are bringing their own biases, their own context, and their own silences into the study of history and also to everything else that they do. So the process of becoming a historian also entails becoming a little bit more self-aware about how one thinks already.
PL: What suggestions do you have for students or scholars who might be interested in pursuing work similar to your work on housing segregation?
PG: The first thing I would ask is: “Why are you interested in doing this?” and, I guess more specifically, “Why are you interested in doing this through graduate school?” Because there are many ways to potentially enter into doing something within the topics of housing and segregation. If it’s because they’re interested in reading deeply on a topic and potentially educating others on that topic, I would then say let’s get started thinking about how historians ask questions and how, specifically, do you need to ask questions about housing and race and racism in America. How can race and racism be seen as organizing principles of American history? How do you potentially start combining archival knowledge with the reading of secondary sources? You know some of the grist of going to grad school, but there always has to be a check-in process with “Why am I doing this?” “Am I still interested in this?” “What do I want my ultimate job or career to be from this?” And I think that’s more important than ever as it’s increasingly difficult to get a traditional tenure track job from getting a Ph.D. So I think that it’s especially worth looking at various approaches. Perhaps an interdisciplinary program. Perhaps a Master’s program if the finances for that might work out. And this is an important process to keep up with repeatedly and to check in with oneself and one’s advisors as you move towards your end goal(s).
With housing segregation and urban history specifically, I would try and encourage students to begin their study by asking how far back they need to go to actually understand the history that they’re studying. Do you start with something like redlining in the 1930s? And if so, what are you missing? Do you go back to the rise of Jim Crow? If so, what are you missing? That’s an exercise in also having graduate students try to make connections and find what are the web of relationships that actually constitute housing segregation, because it’s not just the physical house itself. I like to repeat that exercise with students over the course of their study as a way to check in on the types of questions they’re asking.
PL: At present, what do you think is the most essential point that you would try to convey to the average person (i.e. one who isn’t well-read or well-informed on the topic) about housing segregation?
PG: I think that there is a big misconception that if a person is in a poor housing situation that they have made poor choices. And I would really like to convey to the average person that when you are looking at people in different circumstances than you, that there might be a bigger picture that helps to explain why, and that it often is not just the product of one person’s decisions. If this hypothetical person wanted to take it further, I would suggest layering in looking at the different types of discrimination people face. No, discrimination didn’t just end with the Civil Rights Act. Let’s see what kind of segregation still goes on. How does that change how we talk about things like neighborhoods where people live, or decisions people make about attending certain schools. So I’d start with the emphasis that no, it’s not an individual making poor choices, and then build that outwards into as many structures as I could while still holding their attention.
Interview conducted and transcribed by Peter Lund , editor of the e.polis and Graduate Student in the Urban Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.