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Stories From Historian Kevin Boyle

Historians play an important role in many aspects of life today. They study, teach and often have maybe even lived it.

From this blog that highlighted various genealogy and history occupations, we briefly described what a Historian is, what they do, and why they may have chosen this occupation.

In this blog, I interviewed Kevin Boyle, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Department of History at Northwestern University located in Evanston, Illinois. Kevin answers basic questions about why he became a Historian, his specific areas of interest and provides some interesting examples of historical research and findings.

About Kevin BoyleHistorian

Kevin Boyle is a historian with a Ph.D., from the University of Michigan. His interest as a historian focuses around the 20th Century United States. He has a particular interest in the modern American social movements (Civil Rights, Unions, Politics, etc.).

Kevin has numerous publications that include The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968; Muddy Boots and Ragged Aprons: Images of Working-Class Detroit, 1900-1930 (with Victoria Getis); Organized Labor and American Politics, 1894-1994; and Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age.

He has a pure passion for history and has spent his career studying, researching and teaching others about this time in American History.

Kevin’s complete list of book and article publications can be found on his online CV file. If you have the chance, a few of his books can be purchased on Amazon.com.

Life as a Historian

What made you decide to become a historian?

I had some great undergraduate teachers who introduced me to history as an academic subject.  When I headed to grad school, though, I had no idea what graduate education actually entailed. Gradually I figured it out (I think I did, anyway). As it turned out, I loved the combination of teaching, research and writing the job required. I couldn’t have asked for a better career.

You specialize in the 20th Century United States. What draws you to this specific time period?

The immediacy of 20th history really appealed to me. I admire historians who take on subjects far removed from our time and place.  But I’m afraid I don’t have the imagination for that sort of work. I need to be able to feel – and sometimes touch – the topics I’m writing about.

Have you interviewed people who lived through various events to gain first-hand experiences?

Absolutely. For my first book, which looked at organized labor and politics in the 1950s and 1960s, I interviewed a number of union officials. For my second book, I talked to the younger brother of my main subject. And for one of my favorite articles – about two auto workers kissing each other in 1955 – I interviewed one of the two participants. I searched and searched for the other one but never could find her.

What was your experience with this?

Interviewing people has been transformative. The union officials gave me one of the key insights of my argument. I still remember the day one of my interviewees asked if I had read a particular book that was foundational for the union president’s politics. Of course, I hadn’t. So that afternoon I rushed off to the library to get a copy. The moment I read it I understood the politics I was studying with a depth I hadn’t come close to reaching before.

The interview I had with the younger brother of my second book’s subject was even more important. I was trying to dig as deeply as I could into a family experience. He opened his family up to me.  I owe him a great deal.

As for the kissing auto worker article, he made the article possible.

Do you analyze current events to those of the past to see how they may relate to each other?

Relating the past and the present is inevitable, I think, particularly when you teach modern American history. This past winter I taught a course in the United States from 1929 to 1968.  I hadn’t meant the class to relate to current events in American politics. But again and again the connections came up, not simply because the times were charged – though they were – but because understanding the past gave depth to the present.

What is the most interesting thing that you’ve learned as a Historian?

Wow, that’s a tough question.  I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the complexity of the human experience. When I was younger I tended to think of the past in clean terms, as if the past were straightforward. Now I like to imagine that I have a greater appreciation for the tensions and contradictions that run through people’s lives.

Do you feel it’s important to pass down history to our children and grandchildren?

There’s no doubt in my mind. I spend most of my time teaching students who are my kids’ ages. It’s the most rewarding thing I do.

Genealogy Research

Throughout any of your research, has genealogy or family history ever been a part of the project? If so, what was the involvement?

Family history had been fundamental to my work. Not my family’ history, I have to admit, but other people’s. Both my last book and the one I’m now completing are in many ways family histories, in fact. They deal with the relationships between husbands and wives, father and sons, brothers and sisters. I’ve dug deeply into genealogy: one of my proudest moments as a researcher was tracing an African-American family into slavery. And for my current book, genealogy is central to my analysis.

I did contact the family for my second book, with great results. For my current book, I haven’t, because as far as I know no one from the family’s direct line is alive anymore.

What type of research did you have to do to find family information?

I’ve used newspapers, government records, and first-hand accounts to find family information.  Beyond interviews, first-hand accounts are tough to come by. Government records are fabulous. I hate to think how much of my life I’ve spent on Ancestry.com, searching for other people’s relatives.

What Do You Want People to Know About Being a Historian?

Being a historian is a great job. I get to spend my time with young people, talking about important issues. When I’m not doing that, I’m diving into subjects that I find profoundly compelling. And I get paid to do it. Who could ask for more than that?


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