Fresh Faculty - Leah Schmalzbauer
Issue   |   Tue, 01/27/2015 - 22:08

Associate Professor of American Studies and Sociology Leah Schmalzbauer received her bachelor’s degree from the University of New Hampshire, her master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science and her doctorate from Boston College. Her research focuses on immigration and U.S.-Central American relations. She is currently turning her gaze from immigration in the U.S. to the migration of the elite in the U.S. from major cities to rural areas.

Q: How did you become interested in sociology?
A: My first formal sociology class was as a Ph.D. student, so it was later, but I entered sociology from a community organization background. I studied economics and international relations in college, and I worked for a while, doing community organizing and human rights work after undergrad. Then, I studied international development in grad school and thought maybe I would go that route and work for an NGO, but realized that I was really interested in teaching. I worked for another year and then applied to Ph.D. programs. Sociology really attracted me because of its partnering of rigorous intellectual work and practice of working on social justice issues.

Q: What type of work did you do before coming to Amherst?
A: I was a professor at a different university for 10 years. I was at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. A very different institution [from Amherst]: large land grant, open enrollment institution in the Rocky Mountains, in a ski town – it was great. I had a wonderful experience, but I always dreamt of teaching at a liberal arts school that also really had a strong research emphasis and an engagement emphasis. This was a dream job, and I was lucky enough to come in with tenure and start as an associate professor.

Q: How do you like Amherst so far?
A: It’s been wonderful. My students have been great and I knew they would be and they have just surpassed my expectations. I have really enjoyed my classroom experience. I have wonderful colleagues. I am in two departments: American Studies and Anthropology and Sociology, and both departments are really strong, collegial, great departments. So that has been wonderful, and it's a great area. I was very sad leaving Bozeman, but this is a great place to live and I feel lucky to be here. I feel like I hit the jackpot when I got this job. When I say it is a dream job, well, it really was for me, and I just know how lucky I am to be here.

Q: Have you been surprised by anything thus far at Amherst?
A: I was pleasantly surprised that my students don’t want to text in class. At Montana State, I would have to tell my students no texting in class and put your phones away, but students here are like, “Why would we do that? We’re engaged in the material.” I am pleasantly surprised how engaged my students have been. Coming from a land grant public university to an elite institution, I was warned that I would have very entitled students, and I haven’t felt that. I have really felt just wonderful human beings and thoughtful and critical thinkers and very warm and open students.

Q: What classes did you teach last semester and what classes are you teaching this semester?
A: Last semester, I taught a class called Globalization, Inequality and Social Change and a class called Latino Migration. This semester, I am co-teaching the American Studies class Building Community, and I am teaching a class called Gender Migration and Power: Latinos in the Americas.

Q: Why are you interested in the United States and Latin America?
A: I have been working mostly on U.S.-Central American relations since I was in college. When I was an undergrad, there were many civil wars in Central America, and the United States was very involved militarily in Latin America, especially Central America. I became involved in the discussions and the debates surrounding that, and that has really followed me. I got to work in Central America and began to follow the immigration of folks to the United States from Central America at the beginning, fleeing those civil wars and later leaving because of different economic policies. So I am really interested in the economic relationship between the U.S. and Latin America and how immigration is a part of that, and also the economic inequalities that exist and how immigration is connected to those. I see Latin America as really our closest partner and ally, and also probably the region that we have the most complicated relationship with in terms of immigration.

Q: What research are you currently working on?
A: I just finished a book project. I had a book come out in the fall that focused on Latino immigration to new destinations, specifically rural destinations in the Mountain West. This is really a new direction for me, but I am also very interested in migration of the elite within the United States, and specifically lifestyle migrations from places like New York and Los Angeles and cities to rural areas and the Mountain West. I am really interested in the West and I am looking at why people are moving their lives to Bozeman, Montana, for example, and leaving the corporate rush of New York City; what they are escaping and what they are searching for and the gender dynamics of that demographic shift because the west is growing really rapidly, and it’s growing in small towns and mountain areas and there is a lot of wealth moving into these areas. That’s my new project, but I am open and interested in figuring out what is going on here locally. I have always worked locally and researched where I live and I'm still not sure what that looks like here.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to the Amherst community while you are here?
A: I really hope that, as a faculty member and a community member, I can help us build community across differences. I think that’s one of the reasons I was hired and something I am committed to in my classes: talking honestly about how it is to be part of a community where we come from such different backgrounds in terms of race, class, gender, nationality, religion, and I am really committed to doing that. I want to bring those conversations into the classroom and into what we are studying.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I have two children, so I don't have that much spare time, because I have 6 1/2-year-old and an 8-year-old. They take up a lot of my spare time. I am a runner. I love running and that’s kind of how I have explored this area. I also love dinner parties. And red wine – not too much – but I love good food, and I love good wine and gathering friends.