Gatepost Interview: Lori Bihler, history professor

(Courtesy of Framingham State University.)

What is your professional and educational background?

I did my undergraduate degree at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I decided I wanted to be a history teacher, but I also wanted to live overseas. So, I did what’s an equivalent of a master’s of education in England at the University of Bristol. Then, I became a social studies teacher back in the States because I couldn’t get a work permit. I taught middle school for five years, then I decided that I wanted to study history. I had this passion for a tiny little sliver of history, and I wanted to explore it as much as I could full time. So, I decided to get a Ph.D. in history, and I went back to the UK, to the University of Sussex, where they had a program in my field. I stopped teaching middle school and I worked getting my Ph.D., and while doing that I substitute taught as a high school teacher, just to make ends meet. But I did a Ph.D. in history and after I did that, I lived in Germany for two years, where I wrote my dissertation, which is now a book. Then after that, I moved back to the States and I taught at the University of Rhode Island for five years as a visiting professor. And then I got the job here. I’ve been here since 2012.

Why did you choose to teach history?

I think I’ve always been obsessed with the past. When I was a little kid, I would go to our local historical society and spend hours there when my parents would take me. I have a fascination with the past and how it compares to the present. I’m always constantly thinking that way, and I do that in my teaching, too. Every time we study something new in history, I always find ways to make it relevant to today. That’s really important to me – to find meaning in the past, not that everything happens for a reason, but more that there are so many connections from then and now. And how does the past shape our present? And so, that little way of looking at things comes very naturally to me, and I just enjoy it. It was part of the reason why I became a history teacher because I wanted to share that with kids, having them see these connections between the past and present. I did my Ph.D. for that same reason, because I was obsessed with finding out the answers and poring through history for a good five years.

Could you describe your book and why it is important?

My book is called “Cities of Refuge: German Jews in London and New York, 1935-1945.” What it does is: I look at one group of a community – people who are fleeing Nazi Germany. I look at how they came in really large numbers – over 100,000 in New York and at one point, 20,000 in London. I was fascinated by how the two communities in these very different cities, even though they both speak English and are predominately Christian – how did they become so different? What shaped their experiences for these certain populations? How did they change in these two distinct places and why? And the reason I think that’s important to know is because we always talk about how immigration is such a big issue right now, as are refugees. I work with the Holocaust class I taught last semester – we did A Taste of Framingham State, which was to help Syrian refugee families, and it was actually done to help the same organization that helped my grandparents. I think it’s really important for us to understand what makes a successful or worthwhile experience, or what conditions can we create for refugees in our countries, regardless of the country? Being a refugee is very painful, and if we can create conditions that make it least painful as possible, the better to help people get back on their feet – especially in this day and age, where we have more refugees than ever before. So, even though [the book] is about the past, I still find meaning in it for today.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

The first is my book – that I actually finished it! It’s published and it’s out. I can’t believe I put my mind to something. I had an idea and I made it. That to me is amazing. The other accomplishment is what I’m on my way to making, which is my second book on history education. In my role here, because I supervise student teachers and I teach history education, I’m also really active in the community of social studies education. I work with developing new curriculums. I’m the vice president of the New England History Teachers’ Association, and I’m on national calls for the National Council for the Social Studies, so I’m really involved in how history is taught and being taught. And, while supervising my student teachers, I get to see what’s happening in over 40 different schools.

Do you have any advice for students who want to publish a book?

Just write as much as you can. Write and write and write. Most of it won’t get published – and that’s OK. In my eyes, I probably wrote about three or four times as much as what actually got published, but I have to get all the ideas out before I can find the essence. So, even if you can do it every morning for 20 minutes, keep writing. Write about what interests you and just keep pushing. I contacted several publishers before I found one that worked, and it was a really good fit.