I'm an historian who uses letters, photos, shoes, art, chairs, census records, maps as keys to unlock the past that is full of wonders and mysteries, stories and landscapes to be explored. I work from the belief that opening that door helps illuminate the past and the present. Our history and our lives stand in such a close relationship to each other that reflecting on either one helps illuminate the other.
I taught college students for many years, always looking for ways to connect people with their past(s) in meaningful ways. Now, I focus on speaking to community and library groups, continuing education programs -- anywhere where there are people tempted to enter the past.
The most important skill for doing good history is imagination. I emphasize time rather than dates.
An excerpt from the new prologue:
Creating Minnesota Anew
What has made Minnesota Minnesota? Traditionally the state has been predominantly Northern European, steeped in the habits of long winters and mounds of snow, and enthusiastic outdoors people. We've been fairly prosperous, which we explained by crediting a high quality educational system and a strong work ethic. Until 1950 the population was more rural than urban, but since then the majority of Minnesotans live in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Duluth, and their suburbs. The so-called Twin Cities – though in no appreciable way “twins” – have spawned major Fortune 500 companies and useful products (from Wheaties to Medtronic pacemakers to 3M Post-it Notes, for examples). The Cities often show up on lists of "livable" cities because of their parks, theater culture, music, sports teams, museums and historical societies. So-called “outstate” Minnesota is home to smaller cities and small towns that are declining in number and influence; bigger and fewer farms; declining number of mining and manufacturing jobs, but a rise in medical jobs. The state prides itself on its reputation for clean government, not making a fuss, eating bland food, not saying what we mean, attending church, and going to the lake.
These commonplaces tell some big truths about Minnesota, but at best, they only roughly approximate us. At worst, they distort who we are and have been. They overlook Minnesota’s roots in Indian removal, its history of anti-Semitism and racism. They marginalize those who failed or were simply "different." They lure us into smugness. Just as important, to me as an historian, they ignore what is complex, interesting, troubling, ambiguous, and dark in us and in our past. They deprive historical actors of the complicated mix of self-interest, good motives, blindness, and accident that makes us who we are.