Doing Research in a Pandemic, an Interview with Professor of History Alison Isenberg

For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Austin shares his interview.

Alison Isenberg, Professor of History; Co-Director, Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. Taken Feb 6, 2017.
Professor History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Alison Isenberg plans to finish a draft of her upcoming book, Uprisings, soon.

As part of our seasonal series, I interviewed Professor of History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, Alison Isenberg. A scholar of the American city and its contested history, Professor Isenberg is currently wrapping up her next book, Uprisings, which she sat down with me to discuss. Professor Isenberg, who took a sabbatical this year to drill down on the draft for Uprisings, details the contents of her book, how the pandemic changed the way she researches, and the implications of her book in our tense political moment.

Austin Davis (AD): What are you currently researching and where are you in that research process?

Alison Isenberg (AI): I’m about six years into a book I’m writing on the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, using the case study of Trenton, New Jersey.  I have done a massive amount of research.  The through line of the story is the life of the one young man–a Black college student named Harlan Joseph–who was killed by a police officer during the so-called Trenton riot of April 1968.  It was the day of Dr. King’s funeral. 1967’s uprisings, like Newark and Detroit, were separate incidents where dozens of people were killed. Dr. King’s assassination is instead a national story where I grapple with why most places stayed calm, but some did not.  On the surface, Trenton in April 1968 could seem similar to what happened in Newark or Detroit in the summer of 1967, but in fact it’s a very different set of research questions.

AD: How have you had to augment your sabbatical in light of the pandemic?

AI: In terms of the mechanics of my sabbatical, I’ve been able to hunker down and write chapters, which was my goal. I will have a full draft of the book by the end of the summer. I count myself as incredibly fortunate to be at this stage of writing, given the pandemic. There are some ways, in my case, where the isolation of the pandemic has been relatively positive, and that would be in arranging zoom interviews with the remaining people I hoped to interview. For example, there was a person I had been trying to find to interview since I started this project — a key person in my story because she had been close to the main character.  Her trail in newspapers had disappeared in 1970 and I was worried that something had happened to her early in her life. I took advantage of the pandemic lull and with help from a History Ph.D. student (who has a journalism background) I was able to locate her. I wrote a letter and then, within days, I got a phone call from this individual I’d been trying to reach for five years. We did the interview on zoom the next week.  Without the pandemic, I would still be planning the interview trip to Virginia and this way it was immediate. It was a very moving interview, even over zoom.

AD: How have archives responded to the challenges of the pandemic, and what does your use of them look like currently?

AI: The pandemic situation has closed off many avenues for archival research, but there is more of a range of access to archives than you might expect.  Many of course have completely shut down. If you were counting on the National Archives [or] Library of Congress, you’re in trouble, right? Those are so closely regulated.  But a lot of local archives and state archives are not. There’s a Great Migration aspect to the story I’m telling. In the case of Trenton, it’s South Carolina. Early June, the South Carolina Department of Archives and History website said, “Look, we’re closed, but you can still submit inquiries.” I discovered that if I sent a research inquiry, there was an archivist willing to assist by going into their collections.  They photocopied documents and put them in the mail. Over the next months I got these amazing records, which were exactly what I needed to revise a chapter.  I suppose my message is that you have to focus on the positives. It’s despairing to focus on the negatives.  Also, people have gotten much more sophisticated about using the online databases. They’re amazing. At Princeton, we are so fortunate. We have so many librarians to help us in so many areas. I am driving the librarians crazy, I’m sure. If I think I haven’t tapped every angle on digitized South Carolina regional newspapers from 1900, I will write to Steve Knowlton [librarian for History and African American Studies] and ask his help.  During the pandemic, the librarians, the archivists, have amped it up. They’ve always done an amazing job here but I’m really indebted.

AD: You were talking about the accessibility of zoom and I definitely agree with that. How has it been though to work with people who might not be technologically literate?

AI: Oral history interviews are very personal stories, and you find people through very particular pathways. When I’ve interviewed elderly people, who are sometimes less technologically savvy, often their family or other intermediaries have stepped in to help. For example, the minister of one of the Trenton churches has been a generous interlocutor. He mediated and set up a complicated Zoom-phone relay with a parishioner. It was ridiculous sound quality, but it got the basic job done, and we followed up separately. One advantage of working so closely with a filmmaker, Purcell Carson–who teaches in SPIA and is directing a documentary on this Trenton story–is that she has the technology down. But again, the resources are here at the university to help with the demands of conducting remote oral histories, whether it’s the McGraw Center and the Digital Learning Lab, the Digital Humanities Center, or Mudd Library. There are different ways to get that help.

AD: Have you visited Trenton during the pandemic? How has the pandemic changed the ways you move about [and] analyze these [urban] spaces?

AI: It’s inherent to my scholarship and teaching that you ask different historical questions about a place when you have an on-the-ground visual and experiential sense of it.  That might be through actual walking, or other means of seeing.  Take the example of old postcards. In my first book I have an entire chapter on the role of postcards in downtown investment and city planning in the early 20th century. Now, with Google Earth I have been walking the streets in South Carolina like I live there. I’ve learned a lot, to see that a road’s not paved or to see how it’s windy or what the buildings look like. At the same time, because I do live near Trenton and I’ve always gone on very long walks, the pandemic means I do more of them and they’re longer. I did learn a few new things in Trenton recently on a long walk. One question that had been bothering me was that some families, when they came from South Carolina in the 1920s, first moved to Morrisville, Pennsylvania. I could see on a map that it was right across the river from Trenton, but only by walking over the bridges and going into Morrisville and then walking back on another bridge, did I realize this is just over a bridge. It’s misleading to see them as truly separate places. It sounds separate: Morrisville, Pennsylvania; Trenton, New Jersey. The ease of walking made me understand that a little bit better.

AD: In a similar vein of question, this past year 2020 has definitely been chaotic: massive urban protests, a pandemic, and threats to American democracy. Instead of a retrospective lens now talking about the pandemic and your research, how has your research illuminated anything about the current moment, given the context of this past year?

AI: In many ways my project focuses on questions like:  What is protest and how has it been racialized? One can ask, how should we think of today’s protests — whether Black Lives Matter or the Capital riots of January 6th — through the lens of history? These are also the kinds of question I explore in my undergraduate course, Unrest and Renewal in Urban America. The answers differentiate the uprisings after King’s assassination from the uprisings of the summer of 1967. There have been such intense protests during the pandemic around police killings, around Black Lives Matter, but also the riots on Capitol Hill. The January 6th storming of the Capitol provoked people to observe how subjective it was to call one group rioters, and another group of peaceful marchers.  Every day seems to bring some news that reflects differently on my project. In the Trenton story, for example, state police accounts of the Trenton uprising in April [19]68 included how the state police responded when it looked like marchers were going to overrun the State Capitol building. That helped me decipher the newspaper coverage of January 6th, comparing the riot strategies and playbooks by law enforcement and the different layers of police. These details about the Trenton uprising that seem obscure, the hours that I spent reconstructing events for one paragraph, I’m realizing that people today will be able to understand that history differently. It will be very visceral. Sometimes it’s tempting when we’re surrounded by despairing conditions, such as police violence against Black people, to say, “It’s never changed.”  But it has changed. There’s a history of progress and setbacks, and continuities as well as inspiration.  Historians can offer that perspective. The story of the policing crisis in the 1960s that I’m telling is very different from the policing crisis in 1900 and it’s very different from the policing crisis today. That helps me feel less hopeless about whether we can address this crisis. At times it can be kind of a heavy research topic. But it also offers inspiration for what does change, and how people make that change happen. In this book, the story of Harlan Joseph, the student killed by Trenton police in April 1968, corrects a lot of misunderstandings about this history and offers many paths forward today. 

AD: One of my final questions is, we’ve talked about the ways that your research has changed a bit. Is there anything that has now permanently changed?

AI: Remote interviews have opened up new possibilities, and in the future I will make more use of them because of their ease. I’ve always told graduate students, you can wait six months and have a perfect set of questions, it’s true — but there’s also a small risk because the person you’re interviewing is 97 years old. Maybe forge ahead with imperfect questions and see where it goes. Here’s one other example I hope becomes permanent. I’ve enjoyed exchanging more chapter drafts with colleagues. You can set up the equivalent of a one-on-one zoom workshop. It works the same whether it’s a colleague who lives in Princeton, or in Tokyo. We could have done this before, but it’s an example of changing habits in a good way. People are reaching out more, because you’re not seeing them at conferences.

AD: To close: What is one thing in terms of your research that you look forward to once it’s safe to do?

AI: I will go to South Carolina. This ended up being such an unexpectedly important part of the book.  I’ll need to see the places I’ve been writing about, and go to archives in person. Doing local research you meet other people who care about that place and that history, which usually opens further leads. There’s no true substitute for going to archives in person. That’s that. As soon as I can, I’ll drive down.

In whole, this interview was an amazingly insightful look not only into Professor Isenberg’s upcoming book, but it seriously touched upon the ways that the pandemic has actually expedited our research in some ways. The innovations that have come out of the pandemic, such as the advent of accessible video chat services, have reduced the distance between researcher and subject. But at the same time, it doesn’t truly replicate the same experience, and Professor Isenberg demonstrates an interest in going to and visiting the places and people she discusses in her book. Even in the darkest parts of the pandemic, bright spots emerged, too.

— Austin Davis, Humanities Correspondent