Ask An Americanist

Ask an Americanist: Professor Julian Chambliss

Dr Julian Chambliss is a Professor of History and English at Michigan State University. He is involved in a number of digital humanities projects and serves as a core faculty member in the Critical Diversity in a Digital Age Initiative. He teaches courses exploring critical making, comics, and culture in the United States and has been recognized for his community engagement work with a Rollins College Cornell Distinguished Service Award  (2014-2015) and Florida Campus Compact Service Learning Faculty Award (2011).  Chambliss is one of the producers of “Every Tongue Got To Confess,” a podcast exploring the experiences and stories of communities of color. You can follow him on Twitter @JulianChambliss or visit his personal website here.


Q: Tell us a little about your background

I was born in Alabama but grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, in the United States. I was a big fan of reading (comics and science fiction) as a child. I’m a first-generation college attendee and participated in programs such as Upward Bound and Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.

Q: How did you get interested in American history?

I’ve always enjoyed history. I like action-adventure stories. History is an action-adventure story!  As a student, I often shaped by research papers around pop culture topics.

Q: How have both teaching and public engagement shaped how you view the function of history and academic scholarship?

I’m a big believer in history’s role in shaping public perception. For the United States, the mythology of American development is active. The past needs to be revisited regularly to highlight how ideology and action shaped the development of the country. I often think of my work as “recovery” in the sense that I’m trying to call attention to the complicated process that gets you to contemporary society. The process  in my mind is pushing beyond the idea that  history is written by the victors. Instead,  it is more about understanding the process of change is messy.  I think we should judge the contemporary moment against the ideology and action of previous generations to understand how progress was made. At the same time, we continue to strive toward the United States living up to its ideas. In this recovery work, we can find the debates that we have today are not new, but the circumstances have shifted as technology, new people and differing social expectation push us in different directions. The past offers essential grounding, but it also inspires.

Q: What is ‘critical making’?

Critical Making is a term I first encountered in the context of the work of Roger Whiteson ( and Garnet Hertz (

Critical Making can be described as a process of material exploration and creation to promote understanding. By making objects linked to culture, the maker gains understanding about the subject. Critical Making is often associated with design and engineering education, but increasingly these activities are being incorporated into the humanities and social science because of the abundant of digital tools available to faculty and students. Traditionally, I describe this process in my courses as scaled cognitive exercises. Meaning, these projects require you to start an endeavor by exploring archival materials linked to the course subject matter and then use that material to create a final project using a digital tool. As a historian, I see the digital space as a natural arena to execute the historian’s traditional practice of engaging an audience with a narrative.

Q: What are you working on at the moment? How was this project conceived?

Studying the real and imagined city defines my work. In this context, I’m working on projects examining race, identity, and community. As a matter of course, I am involved in digital recovery through archive projects such as Advocate Recovered ( This transcription project brings together snippets of a black newspaper published in the 1890s in Central Florida. That project aligns with digital discovery projects such as Every Tongue Got to Confess (, Reframing History ( and The Florida Constitution Podcast (  I make the distinction between recovery and discovery by building on a Black DH framework articulated by scholars such as Kim Gallon ( Gallon argues for us to consider how DH practice should be rooted in a relationship between digital humanities and Black Studies to pursue projects that expose the impact of the social construction of race within society.

In creating AR, we can see the evolution of black political agency 1890s and use that to understand black community development practice. My podcast projects, in contrast, often seek to contextualize scholarly narratives about these transformations for a public audience. At Michigan State University, I’m a part of the Consortium for Critical Diversity in a Digital Age Research (CEDAR). Under that umbrella, I’m really curious about the ways we can use DH tool and methods to understand more about the past and future of black spaces.  My project for CEDAR is called Mapping Black Imaginaries and Geographies (Mapping BIG). With Mapping BIG, I’m interested in the intersection of black speculative tradition as a political practice in the past and future. I think we can make the argument that for African Americans imagined and real spaces are not oppositional. Instead, the speculative tradition grounded in liberation intersects with the black experience. So, black townships, black organizations, black initiatives of uplift in the post-Reconstruction United States are not different from contemporary Afrofuturism narrative. We should see the connection in this speculative practice.

Thus, my concern with comics grows from an understanding of how those imagined spaces are meant to help people understand how culture evolves.

Q: Do you have a favourite source that you have discovered, used or find yourself returning to again and again in your research?

You know, I think the digital spaces that exist today are robust. I learn a lot from academic communities on Twitter and through projects such as Black Perspectives, the blog for African American Intellectual History Society. The hashtag culture on twitter is useful to understand discussions and get updated on new articles and books. Those venues help me stay informed, and I evolve my thinking in conversations with scholars I’ve met through those interactions.

Q: Your research is fairly interdisciplinary – how has collaboration and engagement with other disciplines helped your work?

Working with other scholars and community organizations has taught me the value of multiple perspectives and centering the public humanities praxis in my work. I think we can become focused on the nature of professionalization (for a good reason) and thinking about how the work touches communities is an essential point of clarity we can benefit from. I know that keeping that idea in my mind always makes me pause when I consider what projects are important. Something might not “count” but the impact on community might be significant. Should you ignore it? My answer is to try to balance out those scholarly narratives and public engagements. I find myself drawn to those efforts that create moments of sharing and dialogue.

Q: Finally, what is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?

Find your people. Meaning, given the nature of the work you are doing, seek out those communities that can see and understand the questions that are motivating you.  These people might not be in your program or department, but find those people and be in conversation with them. Those dialogues will be crucial. At the end of the day, academics need to tell a story about who and what they are. If you can’t tell the story, you risk someone else telling the story.