French Historians under the spotlight: Leora Auslander

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

Leora Auslander is Arthur and Joann Rasmussen Professor of Western Civilization in the College and the Department of History at the University of Chicago, where she is also a member of the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Her forthcoming monograph, Strangers at Home, is a comparative analysis of Paris and Berlin in the twentieth century.

Leora Auslander

In the length of a tweet (140 characters), what is your research about?

I work on the interrelationship of abstract forces of polity, society, and economy and concrete everyday life practices in order to understand solidarity (or its absence).

What was your motivation for researching French history?

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up. It was in France that I felt the greatest pressure to conform to cultural norms. I wanted to understand why everyday conformity mattered so much and how it was instilled. And, later, coming into graduate school out of feminist and labor political practice, I was deeply influenced by the amazing French left historiography and wanted to participate in that conversation.

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

I’d like to spend some time in Paris in 1943. I would hang out with non-Jewish French citizens none of whom had been particularly engaged politically before 1940. I would talk with some who were active in assisting Jews and some who were complicit in their persecution. The goal would be to understand how each came to their positions.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

Olympe de Gouges, Toussaint Louverture, Léopold Senghor, Marc Bloch, Simone de Beauvoir, George Perec, Michel de Certeau and Michel Foucault. The conversation would be surreal, but very interesting.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Most rewarding: the “light bulb” moments when a knotty intellectual problem gets untangled; unexpectedly finding a source that will answer a hard-to-research question; a seminar session at the end of which we have all learned something; helping students and people I mentor become who they seek to be; those rare lectures when I manage to really hold the audience.

Least rewarding: realizing that I’ve wasted months working on a badly-framed question; ending a term feeling that I should have organized the course entirely differently; spending years trying to make changes in my workplace only to face the reality of institutional inertia; spending much too much time gate-keeping and evaluating.

What one change would you like to see in Academia during the next 5 years?

I’d like to see less emphasis on the quantity and immediate impact of research and a greater emphasis on imagination, conceptual rigor, originality, depth of research and beautiful writing.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

I would probably still be a furniture maker or have become a curator in a history museum.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Look hard at what you want out of your job and your life. Being a professor entails continuing to do your research and writing, but also curricular planning, syllabus design, classroom teaching, one-on-one advising, grading and evaluating, administration, committee work, and, often, fundraising. Most academics face some years of temporary employment, move around a lot during the early years of their careers and have little choice about where they’ll live. There are other jobs out there that allow one more stability, more choice of location, and an opportunity to focus on one or another of these tasks. It’s, therefore, crucial to spend some time looking at all the component pieces and figuring out what you really want to be spending your time doing and decide if you want an academic job and, if you do and have a choice among them, which kind. You should also use this as an opportunity to think about whether an academic job is, in fact, the best route for you or if work in public history, academic administration or advising, secondary teaching, library or archive or for a foundation, activist organization, or think tank might actually make you happier.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Both, plus many, many small archives, libraries and museums. But also, since I work on the built environment and material culture, city streets, people’s homes, and flea markets.

Writing in silence or to music?

Silence – I love the idea of putting on music to write, but then I end up listening to the music instead of writing.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

The conferences at Rutgers University that culminated in the publication of The Sex of Things edited by Victoria de Grazia and Ellen Furlough. The first was a conventional conference and at the second we discussed the drafts of articles for publication. It set the standard for me for rigorous and good-humored interdisciplinary, transnational intellectual debate.


I work in the U.S., so have, so far, been spared these.

Typed or handwritten?

Typed, although then I always go through several rounds of editing by hand and retyping.

Éclair or saucisson?

Really neither – I’m a cheese person. Although if forced to choose, I’d go for a religieuse (the particularly impious version of an éclair).

Many thanks to Leora for taking part. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.


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