For a video of this bio, please see the bottom of the page.
I grew up in Sheffield, England, an industrial city in the north of the country that was once dominated by the steel industry. That industry hit a slump in the 1970s and the Sheffield of my childhood was marked by mill closures and high unemployment. Sheffield was also surrounded by mining towns. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of being on the top deck of a double-decker bus headed into the city center and seeing a long line of people snaking out of a red brick building close to where we’d be getting off. I asked my mother what was going on, and she told me that those were the miners and their families, and that was a soup kitchen. It was during the national miner’s strike, and I immediately knew my allegiance was with the miners. It’s one of the most foundational political memories in my life.
I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class family. I attended college at Nottingham University in England, where I majored in American Studies, and minored in trying to figure out how to work for a living without generating profit for a corporation. In my senior year, my university announced an exchange program for a student in American Studies or History at Nottingham to go to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to get a Masters degree in History. I applied, figuring that if I got into the program I’d live abroad for a couple of years, broaden my horizons, and come back with a new qualification. I got the fellowship and moved to the United States in 1994.
The moment that I stepped into a classroom to teach at UWM I realized I had found my home. I loved teaching. I was tremendously nervous – I was just a couple of months out from having earned my BA – but I loved the interplay between students and myself, and the challenge of making our classroom interesting, useful, and meaningful. It’s because I loved teaching college students so much that I applied to PhD programs, and I was lucky enough to be offered a position at the University of Iowa.
I lived in Iowa for nine years, worked on my PhD, and volunteered hours and hours for local political candidates. I considered a career in politics instead of history – I was heavily influenced by the vision of public service contained in the TV show The West Wing – but the 2004 presidential caucuses in Iowa generated such ugliness between the candidates and their supporters that I changed my mind. I recommitted to history and landed my first position at Knox College in 2005.
I’ve taught at Knox for twelve years, and am now the Bright Professor of American History and chair of the department. I’m a long way from Sheffield, and that fact often stops me in my tracks – I feel very lucky to be part of the Knox community. Because I know what it’s like to be the first in a family to go to college, and the challenges that involves, it matters deeply to me that first-gen students are welcomed at Knox, and that’s why I’ve helped direct the SPARK summer bridge program for three years. I’m committed to doing my part to making Knox welcoming community for everyone, including students who feel marginalized because of one or more of their social identities, and that’s one of the reasons why I co-direct the college’s Social Justice Dialogues program with Professor Gabrielle Raley in Sociology.
Otherwise, I love Captain America. I bake incredible orange and cranberry shortbread. I’m learning to play the banjo (I can almost pick out a couple of tunes), and I have a beaten-up piano that brings me great joy. I knit (slowly, and only in the winter), paint (now and again), and am a world-class napper. I drink strong black tea in the morning, and decaf lattes when I come to work. I have a small, lovely dream of owning a rescued greyhound one day, and hope that maybe in the future I’ll come around to enjoying weeding my garden. You’ll often find me hanging out with friends over dinner, watching shows about tiny houses, and begrudgingly walking around my neighborhood because I hear that exercise is a good thing. I love shoes and have a lot of them, and can debate minor details about the Marvel Cinematic Universe for hours.
You’ll get to know more about me in the next few weeks. If there’s something you’re curious about, just ask!