Interview with Judith Giesberg

The historian raised in a military family talks about her interest in both war and community, and the formative class which shaped that

January 6, 2022
Judith Giesberg

Judith Giesberg is a professor of history at Villanova University who studies and documents the experiences of US Civil War-era civilians. Her work includes projects to help black Americans trace their family histories from post-war newspaper advertisements, and to help the Villanova community learn its own troubling story with slavery.

When and where were you born?
A military base in San Antonio, Texas, in 1966. My late father was in the air force and I travelled quite a lot. A transportation specialist, he was in charge of moving men and material around. He also served during the Korean War, though not in active combat.

And your mother?
We lived in different places, including Texas, the US East Coast and Germany. While in Germany, she worked for the airline Lufthansa. My father’s family escaped the Nazis, were refugees in Argentina, and then came to the US. Some of mother’s family were taken to the camps and did not escape. She stayed in Europe, and met my dad while he was stationed there with the air force.

How did that upbringing affect you?
Growing up, I wanted to do anything other than be a military person or be interested in military affairs. But clearly those influences did shape who I became as a scholar.

And your interest in the Civil War?
There’s not a direct line. Certainly travel fuelled my interest in all things historical. I came to the side of social history from living with military families and considering the effects of war on everyday people, women and families. As an undergraduate at Trinity University, I preferred world history. But my first job out of college was at a San Antonio middle school where they needed a US history teacher. So I took a class on Reconstruction at a local college, and that really inspired my thinking about this period.

Given their own traumatic histories, Jewish families in the US can often be political – is that your situation?
My parents seemed to us to be apolitical. My dad was very much a military man and always strongly patriotic, but with a critical eye on parts of American culture and American society. He was a role model for us, about how he believed we should be, and how we should behave.

Your work on the Civil War diary of Emilie Davis seems an incredibly important way of putting a real face to a central moment in US history – how did you get there?
We have very few diaries of women of colour during the Civil War. We have many many many diaries of Southern white elite slave-holding women. And so this diary written by this young woman, Emilie Davis, is a rare source that can allow us to see what it was like to be around during the Civil War – for her and her family to live through it. That approach has continued in my current project, “Last Seen”, which is digitising the ads taken out by formerly enslaved people in the aftermath of the Civil War, looking for family members sold away from them.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
People tend to think that history is the search for “truth” and that that truth, once discovered, is immutable. But of course history is dynamic and ever changing. If we are doing our jobs right in the history classroom, we should expect each generation of historians to ask new questions of the past, inspired by the world in which they are living and, ideally, motivated by the discovery of new source material and new methods of inquiry.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best things are the brilliant and generous colleagues I have the honour to work with, both on my own campus and in my field. I love working with students in and outside the classroom; they inspire me and I am always learning from them. I am very fortunate. The worst thing about working with university-aged students is seeing them suffer from increased stress and anxiety. Although these problems are not new, they have been aggravated by the toxic political climate and new culture wars we find ourselves in, and by the isolation and fear that has accompanied the Covid pandemic.

Why should the average person care about your field of work?
This is history that touches on who we are as everyday people. The project on advertisements reminds us that family is central to the way we experience our humanity, and that in this country, family has been a privilege that has not been extended evenly across the populace. We can take that line of thinking to our recent past, when we’ve had government policies that are about separating families. This desire to know where we came from, this genealogical urge, is widespread.

Who is someone you’ve admired?
Civil rights leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer – people who have stood up for what they believe in. We have a lot of people today who also are standing up and doing, being good role models. Those I most admire are those who have put their own need to be secure and safe behind, for bigger purposes.

What advice do you give to your students?
The most important lesson is that good history begins with questions. Good historians are not afraid to ask big questions about the past, and they are willing to look in unexpected places for the answers.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
My 24-year-old son gave me a greeting card several months ago that reads “Stages of Quarantine: 1. Buy a Peloton. 2. Bake banana bread. 3. Become a Social Justice Attorney Fighting to Dismantle Systemic Racism.” This was early in the shutdown, and at the time the card was funny because I had already done the first two things. It hangs above my desk now because I still dream of doing that third thing.

Paul Basken


Appointments

Jennifer Windsor will take up the role of acting vice-chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington from March 2022. Currently pro vice-chancellor of the Wellington Faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences and Education, she will act as vice-chancellor when the incumbent, Grant Guilford, retires and will hold the position until a permanent successor is appointed. “Professor Windsor is a very experienced leader who knows the university well,” said chancellor Neil Paviour-Smith. “She has built strong, inclusive relationships across the university, with council members and with external partners, and she is positive and optimistic about the university’s future.” International recruitment for a new vice-chancellor will begin in the new year.

Rhodes College has appointed Southern Methodist University law professor Jennifer M. Collins as its next president, with the Memphis institution billing her “an inspiring leader, beloved educator and committed proponent of the value of the liberal arts”. The appointment “is the happy result of a lengthy and thorough national search which drew interest and applications from an incredibly diverse pool of candidates from inside and outside higher education,” said chair of trustees Cary Fowler. Professor Collins said: “Rhodes famously provides a rigorous and innovative liberal arts education in the heart of the city, all while emphasising an abiding commitment to service and the development of leaders of character and compassion.”

Swinburne University of Technology has announced three executive appointments: Chris Pilgrim as senior deputy vice-chancellor and chief academic officer; Sarah Maddison as deputy vice-chancellor, education, experience and employability; and Karen Hapgood as deputy vice-chancellor, research.

Plymouth College of Art has appointed artist, inventor and multidisciplinary researcher Thomas Duggan as a lecturer on its craft and material practices degree. With specialisms in biotechnology and advanced robotic fabrication, his career “has explored the intersections between craft, material science, architecture, design, robotics and sculpture”.

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