An e-Interview With Alumnus Tore Olsson

This summer, Professor Tore Olsson kindly accepted to answer few questions about his experience at UMass and his recent book Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside. 

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-Adeline Broussan: First of all, could you tell us a bit about you?

Tore Olsson: Sure thing! I’m currently an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, where I teach modern U.S. history. Considering my personal background that’s a rather unlikely career path – I was born and raised in Sweden and knew essentially nothing about the United States before my family and I emigrated to Brookline, MA, in 1990, at the tender age of eight. However, it wasn’t long before I began to take an interest in American history. I still remember my lovingly-worn trading cards of U.S. presidents from third grade (Franklin Roosevelt was my clear favorite!), and into high school, my favorite classes were always my history classes. But it was really during my years at UMass – 2000-2004 – that I was swallowed whole by history as a discipline and profession, not just a collection of stories. I left UMass with a burning desire to dedicate my life to the study of the past. From there it was on to graduate school at the University of Georgia, where I earned my Ph.D. in spring 2013, and that fall I began work at the University of Tennessee, where I’ve taught since. Coming to the United States as an immigrant, it was a career that few would have predicted!

– AB: What led you to study history at our department and what memories do you keep from your time here?

TO: I came to UMass undeclared, and was uncertain – really quite bewildered – about what sort of career I wanted to pursue. I knew I wasn’t a math or science type, but beyond that I had little clue. Then, during my very first semester, I took my first GenEd history class – Leonard Richards’ early American history survey – and was so enthralled by it. I’ll never forget our discussion of Shays’ Rebellion, the 1780s violent uprising against the new U.S. government right there in my new home of western Massachusetts – an episode that was entirely new to me and really opened my eyes to the messiness and unpredictability of the past.

But I was still reluctant about declaring a history major. I was under the impression that it brought limited career options, and I wasn’t certain I wanted to teach, especially at the high school level. (Having just escaped high school, I had no desire to return!) These are stereotypes that still live on, unfairly, today. But I’ll never forget a life-changing conversation I had in Spring 2001 with an older history major. He gave me the same advice that I now give to all of my students pondering a history major: that it’s a discipline that teaches you to read, write, do intensive research, digest vast amounts of information, make arguments, and communicate them effectively to others – in a nutshell, it prepares you for pretty much every career out there!

Having declared my major, I eagerly jumped into coursework. From the smorgasbord of classes offered, I ate a wide and varied diet. I delved deeper into early American history with Prof. Richards and Gerry McFarland. I think I took every course on modern Europe that Neal Shipley offered. Ann Jefferson gave me my first introduction to Latin American history, which was unlike anything I’d studied before. I took a wonderful honors seminar with Larry Owens on science and the state in modern America – a class that I wish I could retake now, considering my current research interests.

– AB: How did your training at UMass shape you as an educator?

TO: What I love most about my job as a history professor is the research – the painstaking but so incredibly exciting work of sifting through the past to find untold stories or new perspectives on why our world looks as it does. And without doubt, I got my taste for it at UMass! The most transformative experience for me came with my senior honors thesis, which I wrote under Gerry McFarland on the topic of “Bleeding Kansas” – the political violence that tore apart Kansas in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. I was trying to tell the story of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, a group of antislavery activists who sent settlers to Kansas to vote against the extension of slavery into that territory. I followed the Company’s trail across many floors of the DuBois Library, into newly digitized archives online, and ultimately to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Digging through dusty books and records and records might seem dull to some, but to me it was a thrilling detective adventure. I’ll never forget checking out a library book whose last check-out date was 1913! During that year, I learned the fundamentals of research that I’ve relied upon ever since.

But my years as a History major also made me who I am as a teacher. I was particularly inspired by the many lecturers who were able to captivate a large room with their wit, humor, and erudition. It is truly my lifelong ambition as a teacher to replicate the on-the-edge-of-your-seat lecturing style of Neal Shipley explaining Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on crime and punishment, or the subtle brilliance of how Larry Owens mediated a discussion of nuclear arms policy in post-1945 America. I still rely upon many of my old UMass syllabi when crafting my own courses, particularly in terms of assignments and projects that seek to stretch the thinking of students.

– AB: Could you tell us about your hot-off-the-press book “Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside” (Princeton University Press, July 2017)?

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TO: Absolutely! In many ways my book grows from my personal background. As a Swede studying American history, I’ve always been bothered by studies of U.S. history that seem to think that it played out in a vacuum – as if our country existed on a different plane of existence from the world beyond its borders. I think too many folks draw artificial boundaries around American history that can hide what actually happened in the past.

My book explores how such artificial boundaries have hidden the deep entanglement of U.S. history with Mexican history. Today, I think many Americans consider their nation and Mexico as polar opposites – one rich, one poor, one stable, one chaotic – whose histories have entirely distinct trajectories. The rhetoric of our recent election only reinforced that sentiment. In my book I argue the complete opposite – that the histories of the United States and Mexico share far more than we realize. In particular, I look at the 1930s and 1940s, when rural reformers in the United States and Mexico waged unprecedented campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice and agricultural productivity. In the U.S., this was pioneered by Franklin Roosevelt; in Mexico by its president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). My book basically tells the story of how these campaigns were conducted in dialogue with one another, as reformers in each nation came to exchange models, plans, and strategies with their equivalents across the border. It’s very much a book about how Mexican ideas influenced U.S. politics – a very important story to remember today, when the relationship of those two countries seems much more imbalanced.

–  AB: Thank you Professor Olsson!

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