Fresh Faculty: Jen Manion
Issue   |   Tue, 10/18/2016 - 23:59

Associate Professor of History Jen Manion received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her doctorate from Rutgers University. Her focus is on women’s and gender studies and early America.

Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I’m from a very, very small town with two stoplights in rural Pennsylvania called St. Clair ... I was very excited to get out of my small town to a big city, to a huge school. I was pretty much looking for an experience that was the opposite of my childhood. I ended up attending and graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, which was actually only two hours away from my town but a world apart.

Q: How did you go from being a math and science nerd to getting interested in history?
A: It was definitely by accident. A housemate at the time asked me to come to a history class with them at the start of the semester, so I did, and I just fell in love with it. I was just so curious about the world. I felt I had a pretty limited experience to date, and I quickly picked up from the people around me that history and literature were great ways to learn about other cultures and other people and to learn about the bigger picture and the present and my place in it.

Q: What did you do before coming to Amherst?
A: I finished graduate school a while ago and I spent the last ten years teaching history and running the LGBTQ center at Connecticut College.

Q: What brought you to Amherst?
A: Amherst has an outstanding reputation in general, and the work that the school has been doing over the past few years to intentionally diversify the student body, the faculty and the curriculum is really exciting, and it’s exciting to be at a place where that’s happening. The job itself is exactly what my two specialties and interests are, which are women and gender history and early America. The history department here is phenomenal.

Q: What is your main academic interest?
A: Most of my research and teaching questions are in the spirit of what we call “from the bottom up,” which is centering on the experiences of common, ordinary people — people who are marginalized, outsiders and oppressed — and centering those narratives. I specialize in women and gender history, African American history and LGBT history. Those are all groups that are not at the center of the history books that we were taught from in high school.

Q: How did you first become interested in these types of history?
A: A very important thing for people to understand is that history in college is taught very differently than the way most high schools teach history. College-level history is more dynamic, more diverse, more about questions than facts. It’s more about using the facts to wrestle with great, big dilemmas that humans have struggled with. My teachers at Penn were also really committed to, and a part of, the movement to teach African American history, to teach about race and racism, to teach about women and gender history. It was the approach to history that I was introduced to and it was really powerful. I felt like I was learning about the past in a way that really came to light for me and also that helped me to understand things about myself.

Q: How do you teach history?
A: I definitely make explicit some of the connections to the present to help students see that we can look for patterns and disruptions from the past to help assess the present. I’m not afraid of encouraging students to go back and forth between the present and the past in their thinking. I’m really interested in historical interpretation. There are various arguments about any given subject, so [I’m] giving students both sides or different kinds of evidence and teaching them about arguments and not just facts. The third thing is working with primary documents. Having students read the texts and the laws and the newspaper articles from the past themselves, so they can analyze it and come up with their own argument.

Q: What classes are you teaching this year?
A: I’m teaching a 200-level course called “U.S. Carceral Culture,” which is all about the history of punishment in America. I’m also teaching an upper-level seminar called Sex and Law in Colonial America.
In the spring I’m teaching an introductory survey called “The History of Sexuality,” which is great. I love teaching it. Then I’m teaching a more upper-level class called “The People’s History of Revolutionary America” — so you can see the themes. It’s the revolutionary period, but from the bottom-up, so women, sailors, artisans, enslaved people [and] workers.

Q: What kind of research are you working on?
A: I’m going to Philadelphia tomorrow (Monday, Oct. 17) to give a lecture on my current research. The lecture itself is called “The T in LGBT.” The project is a history of transgender as an idea, category and experience in the 19th century. In some ways the term and the way we understand transgender is very modern. You can’t just throw it back 200 years and [have it mean] the same thing. It didn’t. I used it as an analytical category to try and understand how people back then understood people who pushed against the expectations for gender expression.

Q: How do you see the work you’re doing with history fitting in with the world today?
A: I’m a firm believer in the long view, and I feel like one of the most profound experiences I had in college was being introduced to and really studying African American history, which was not really something that I had been exposed to before. That really gave me a different understanding, a different lens to look through, as I was trying to make sense of race relations and racial conflict in my life. I think the same thing is true for the LGBT community. We’re very visible in the media, and some issues — about our right to marry, our right to be protected from discriminations and our right to adopt — have been on a ballot somewhere, and often many places at once, over the last 20 or 30 years . . . We ourselves need more information about our past. It can be empowering. It can help us feel less isolated. Then we can also look to examples from the past. How did people articulate their identities? How did they come together to educate and convince people? To convince them to treat them with respect? To not abuse them? And then we can learn from other people’s mistakes.

Q: What are your interests outside of academia?
A: I love to bike. I just got a new bike at the Hampshire Bicycle Exchange up the street. I also play the guitar, not very well, although I’m hoping to improve. If anyone wants to offer me lessons, that would be very fun. I also just started grilling because now I have a backyard. And I do watch TV — probably too much of it.