What I’m Reading: An Interview with Jennifer Frost

tags: interview, Jennifer Frost

Tiffany April Griffin is an HNN intern.


Jennifer Frost is an associate professor of history at The University of Auckland in New Zealand. She specializes in women’s history in the United States. Her books include An Interracial Movement of the Poor: Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (2001) and Hedda Hopper's Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (2011). She was interviewed by email in November 2018. 

What books are you reading now?

We are getting ready to host the 2019 Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association (ANZASA) conference in Auckland next July, so I’m reading books by two of our keynote speakers: Carrie Tirado Bramen’s American Niceness: A Cultural History (2017) and Janet Davis’s The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America (2016). Our theme is “Community, Conflict, and the ‘Meaning of America’”—inspired by next year being the 80th anniversary of Perry Miller’s The New England Mind—and our other speakers are Kathleen M. Brown, Neal Curtis, Peter S. Field, and Michael A. McDonnell. It’s quite a line up and all are welcome to the City of Sails!

What is your favorite history book?

The book I return to again and again is Charles M. Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995). I read this book just as I was finishing my PhD dissertation and reread it when I was revising it for publication. I use it in teaching, and I often just pick it up and read a chapter. It’s a model of “bottom-up history.” Payne puts the stories and voices of Mississippi civil rights activists front and center. You get a very real sense of what it was like and what was at stake on the ground in the Civil Rights Movement. He doesn’t romanticize the Movement or shield us from the white violence and terror used against African-American lives. He conveys the strategies, successes, and struggles of Mississippi activists with such love and respect that I wanted to write a book just like his. Of course, I didn’t come close to I’ve Got the Light of Freedom with my first book, but it’s a far better book for trying.



Why did you choose history as your career?

Since I can remember I loved history. Starting with family history, and the stories of my grandparents emigrating from Ireland to the USA and migrating from New Mexico to California, and then gravitating to history as a subject at school and in my own reading and writing. I still have my first history book, a children’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. And I still have my first work of history (or rather historical fiction), which I wrote in primary school. “Sunshine” is a story about an African American family in the 1930s South and was very derivative of the movie Sounder (1972); one could even say it is plagiarized! My early engagement with history reflected a concern for social inequalities that later drew me to graduate school and still drives me today. I learned early that knowledge of the past is essential to achieving social justice, and now that is what I aim to teach.

What was your favorite historic site trip? 

Although I grew up in the USA and visited a number of historic sites, my favorite trip has been the one I made as a naturalized New Zealand citizen to Waitangi. In the Bay of Islands, Waitangi is the site of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) in 1840 between the British Crown and indigenous Māori chiefs. This treaty specifies the relationship between the government and Māori as one of partnership, with citizenship and land rights guaranteed to Māori. It is seen as New Zealand’s founding document, similar to the Declaration of Independence, and Waitangi Day on February 6this a national holiday, just like the 4th of July. Visiting the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Museum was a very moving experience, as Māori activism over 150+ years has made Te Tiriti a living document and created a Waitangi Tribunal to hold the government accountable to its treaty obligations. It’d be great to see the USA take the same step and start to mend our broken treaties with indigenous American nations.

If you could have dinner with any three historians (dead or alive) who would you choose?

This question is a hard one to answer! I would love to have dinner anytime with my fellow History PhD alumni from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who are all in the USA while I’m here in New Zealand. That said, I need to take advantage of the opportunity to bring back to life Carl Becker, Mary R. Beard, and W.E.B. DuBois. Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian” (1931) gave me a new understanding of history as “an imaginative creation” right at the start of graduate study, and I still use it with my own graduate students. As a feminist historian working outside academia, Beard’s research, writing, and archival efforts long inspired me, particularly her book Woman as a Force in History (1946). And I remember having my consciousness raised by DuBois when he rightly indicted “the propaganda of history” in Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Discussing with DuBois recent (and damning) histories of slavery and capitalism by Sven Beckert, Walter Johnson, Caitlin Rosenthal, and others would be invaluable. 

Which historical time period is your favorite?

It still is the 1960s. Although I was born in the decade, I only became aware of the political, social, and cultural change of that era in the later 1970s. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and “the sixties” lasted well into the next decade there. As a teenager, I listened to the Beatles, the Doors, and Janis Joplin, visited Berkeley and San Francisco, and felt connected to 1960s events, like the Free Speech Movement and Summer of Love. My first high school essay with footnotes and a colon in the title was “The Beatles: A Cultural Influence,” and at the University of California, Davis I took a class on the 1960s with historian Ruth Rosen. That experience (and seeing the documentary The War at Home) convinced me to go on to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, and study the New Left with Linda Gordon. That led to my first book as well as my current project on youth voting rights and the 26th Amendment, and even my in-between books on Hollywood and politics cover this decade. I also have taught a course on the sixties for nearly twenty years. It still draws students fascinated by the era, but more than that—the 1960s remain pivotal. Half a century later, understanding that decade’s developments is key to explaining the United States today.

What would be your advice for history majors looking to make history as a career?

I know this is the typical advice from my generation, but it does hold true: think broadly and think beyond academia. We know that there aren’t enough academic jobs for all history PhD students, and in fact we are seeing cuts to existing positions. But we also know history students get jobs in a range of fields, including media and technology, as well as government, public history, and teaching. My former students work in all these areas, and they have found their attributes and skills—as researchers, communicators, and creative problem-solvers—to be incredibly useful. As we know from all the talk about the “future of work,” these are the attributes and skills needed in the 21stcentury. I also tell my students my story: that I was dissuaded from going to graduate school by one of my undergraduate professors, and I never expected to get an academic job. (And this was back in the 1980s-1990s!) So all through graduate school, I considered my degree as an end in itself, and I never regretted it.

Why did you feel the movies in your book, Teaching History with Message Movies, would entice people?

As I’ve discovered since this book was published earlier this year, not everyone knows what “message movies” are! Also called in Hollywood social problem films, this genre of films take as their subject a problem or conflict in society, such as racism or alcoholism. My co-author, film scholar Steven Alan Carr, and I felt that these films make excellent primary sources, or cultural artifacts, for studying US history. Many other scholars and teachers use Hollywood films in this way, but social problem films and the public discussion and debate around them provide useful insights into what Americans considered the most pressing concerns of their day. Our book is a teaching handbook, so it focuses on how to teach historical content and skills using these films and provides teaching ideas and classroom strategies. It was a very enjoyable book to write, and we hope teachers at all levels will find it useful.

How has teaching history changed during your fifteen plus years (or time) of teaching? Is this what inspired you to write your latest book?

I was very fortunate to have my first jobs where teaching really mattered, because teaching in our profession is now as important as research. As a teaching assistant at UW-Madison, I worked with Gerda Lerner on her 19th century US women’s history course and the course that became her book The Creation of Patriarchy (1987). Her passion for history and commitment to having students examine primary sources still shapes my approach to teaching. Then my first position at the University of Northern Colorado, where the mission is training school teachers, expanded my exposure to active learning and the ideal of the teacher-scholar, embodied by my colleague there Fritz Fischer. I’ve never looked back, and my teaching and contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning are my highest priorities. I’ve spent the last three years experimenting with the Reacting to the Past pedagogy originating with Mark Carnes at Barnard College, and I’m hoping to design a game on the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in the next year.

If you had one message to encourage women, what would it be?

Find allies and be an ally! Allies can be found anywhere and everywhere: among female, male, and transgender colleagues, among academics, staff, and students. Being open to those connections has really helped me build a community in my workplace at The University of Auckland. (I also benefit from being a member of an academic union.) I was just recently reflecting on the 125th anniversary of the achievement of women’s suffrage in 1893 in both Colorado and New Zealand (coincidentally where I’ve had my two academic jobs). Women did this by convincing men to share power. This only could have happened by finding allies and building coalitions with those inside as well as outside power. In our #MeToo moment, forging alliances is crucial for women in every workplace.

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