About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.
Jerald Podair knows his way around presidential politics.
The Robert S. French Professor of American Studies and professor of history has studied, taught, and spoken frequently on the subject of American politicians and other examinations of United States history since joining the Lawrence University faculty in 1998. It has made him one of Lawrence’s most visible professors.
Political history, after all, is a topic he loves almost as much as baseball and his native New York.
A two-time winner of Lawrence’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship, Podair co-authored 2019’s Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America (University of Virginia Press). That followed his award-winning 2017 book that explored slices of both baseball and political history, City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles (Princeton University Press).
Much of Podair’s academic work has focused on 20th-century American history. Other books he has authored include The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis and Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer, a biography of the civil rights leader who planned the 1963 March on Washington.
He earned a bachelor’s degree at New York University, a law degree from Columbia University, and his Ph.D. from Princeton University.
We caught up with Podair to talk about his love of teaching history at Lawrence and his interests away from the classroom.
In the classroom
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
That I was in my mid-30s before I decided what I wanted to do with my life. So, they have much more time to make that decision than they may realize.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
I love writing history, and love when I’m able to connect what I’m writing to what I’m teaching. When students are as excited about history as I am … well, it doesn’t get any better than that.
I’m also excited when a student starts a course in one place and ends it in another – richer in knowledge, insight, and understanding. It’s always great to see that and share their sense of accomplishment.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional, or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
Growing up as a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, if anyone had told me I’d spend 23 very happy years in northeast Wisconsin, I wouldn’t have believed them. Before I came to Lawrence, I had never spent more than two consecutive weeks outside the New York metropolitan area. So, I’m surprised at where I am, but pleasantly so.
I also have never finished writing a book where I expected to be when I began it. Historical writing never loses its capacity for surprise and wonder.
Out of the classroom
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
I’m living the life I’ve imagined, teaching and writing American history. I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else. I gave an Honors Convocation address a few years back titled, The Only Life: Liberal Arts and the Life of the Mind at Lawrence University. That’s how I still feel. This is the only life, and we Lawrentians are fortunate to live it.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
My favorite spot is Rik Warch’s portrait at the entrance to the Campus Center. Rik was full of warmth and humor, and a wise, generous friend — not only to me but to everyone on the Lawrence campus. He was unforgettable, and seeing him in the Campus Center, a place that vibrantly reflects his spirit, always lifts my own spirits. From time to time I give Rik a nod or a wink as I pass by, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one who does.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul. Or you would recommend to a friend. Or both.
Book: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. The great American novel of the 20th century and the work of a courageous and honest man.
Recording: Bill Evans’ version of Here’s That Rainy Day. It’s been said that the melancholic Portuguese-Brazilian word “saudade” defies translation, but Evans comes closest.
Film: The Lives of Others. German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s story of human redemption for our time and all time.