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HC Grad Fellows spotlight

A brief series of blog posts will feature two amazing Grad Fellows. I had the opportunity to ask each of them a few questions on their research and the Humanities Center (HC) fellowship.

Meet Jeff Lamson, a fourth year PhD candidate in World History and one of the Humanities Center Worldmaking/worldbuilding Grad Fellows. Jeff grew up in Amesbury, MA. The future Dr. Lamson received a Bachelor of Art in History from Colby College and a Master’s in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Jeff says “I first fell in love with education working as a whitewater kayaking instructor in Maine during the summers for about ten years, starting when I was seventeen. We took kids ages 11-16 down some of Maine and New Hampshire’s best whitewater, and that experience really drove me toward wanting to teach and work with young people. I’ve also had the joy to paddle some amazing rivers around the U.S., and in Chile, New Zealand, and Uganda.”

Aside from the Humanities Center Fellowship, Jeff has also received support from the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict and was recently awarded the Lawrence Gelfand-Armin Rappaport-Walter LaFeber Dissertation Fellowship from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). Jeff’s work has also been published in the Washington Post and Jacobin. Be on the lookout for an article forthcoming in Process, the blog for the Journal of American History, which focuses on U.S. police aid to Guatemala.

What is your area of research?

My research looks at the history of policing in the United States and the world with a particular focus on police technology. Using the history of the police car, my dissertation hopes to better explain the relationship between police reform, technology, and U.S. counterinsurgency during the twentieth century.

We start our internal fellowship presentations with an origin story of sorts for our work. Can you share with us your origin story? What attracted you to the field and your research topic?

When I was an undergraduate, I studied abroad in Valparaíso, Chile and I became interested in the national police there, the carabineros. I was especially struck by the visual differences between those police and what I was familiar with in the United States, namely the far more militaristic tools, dress, and behavior of the carabineros. That was in 2013, and over the next several years I came to understand just how inaccurate that contrast was as American police responded to protests in Ferguson (Missouri) and elsewhere. I spent the next year writing my senior thesis about the history of the Chilean national police and their role in the 1973 coup, but all the while I was becoming increasingly interested in the distinctions and similarities (as well as the tangible linkages) between police forces around the world. I continued to read and think about this while teaching high school history after undergrad, and eventually decided to pursue a PhD with this as my focus.

Where are you on your dissertation journey? Do you have any advice for other students who may be in similar stages or will enter that stage soon?

I have written two chapters so far, and I think it will end up being either five or six chapters in total. Regarding research, if you are taking scans in the archives be sure to develop a fool-proof system for keeping track of where each document is located. I have lost quite a few hours at this point trying to figure out why my notes and my long PDFs of archival scans don’t align to make sure my writing and citations are accurate.

More importantly, my main recommendation is to write – or at least be in touch with – your dissertation every single day. Another history PhD student a few years ahead of me gave me that advice and I’ve found it invaluable. Even if you just re-read a paragraph or write down some notes or take a walk and think about it, being in dissertation “head space” for at least 30 minutes every day is extremely helpful. When I take a long stretch of days totally off, it takes me a long time just to get back in the right state of mind when I finally do sit down to write again.

The HC Fellowship theme for the ‘23-‘24 academic year is worldmaking/ worldbuilding. What does worldmaking/worldbuilding mean to you?

The reason that this theme resonated with me when I saw it announced last year is the scalar flexibility of worldmaking. In much of the archival material I’ve been reading, police reformers and administrators constantly write and talk about the ways in which maintaining street-level order is paramount for international and global stability. I think there is something really profound in that, and it helps explain why policing institutions often see citizens as “internal” or “domestic” enemies rather than people with rights and conceive of themselves as a “thin blue line” between order and chaos. In this worldview, policing is more than just local public service, and I think we should work hard to understand the processes of worldmaking that have led us (as a society) to accepting policing in this sort of defensive posture, one in which they see order as constantly under threat.

What does it mean to you to be a HC Graduate Fellow this academic year? What has this fellowship allowed you to do that you might not have been able to otherwise?

First of all, it is a huge honor to be recognized in this way by the Humanities Center and a group of scholars whom I deeply respect. Being a part of this fellowship is energizing, and to have a space where we graduate students can participate in this work on equal footing with our faculty is a unique experience. The dissertation phase can get a little bit lonely, and so it has been wonderful to have a

group to engage with on a regular basis. I’m grateful to have gotten to know more scholars at our University, and to gain more exposure to the type of work happening in other disciplines across CSSH. I’m also especially thankful to have met Vivek and Shavaun, the other graduate student fellows, with whom I now have a weekly writing group and two great new friends working through the same high and low points of dissertation writing. Finally, the fellowship has given me the most valuable resource of time, which I have used to complete more archival trips, present at conferences, and write.

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