The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective

Rarely do faculty members of the Carnegie Mellon history department come upstairs to visit the offices of their graduate students. With the exception of four professors who pass through because their offices ring our bullpen, the history grads are segregated and enclosed in a windowless room with yellow fluorescent light. It's just 30-something of us, four columns of cubicles, a mini-fridge, and Livy (our temperamental high capacity printer). So when Prof. Joe Trotter, one of my committee members, showed up on the top floor of Baker Hall last April it was already quite unusual. Then, when it turned out that he was looking for me, it was terrifying--the 20th grade version of being called to the Principal's office. What had I done wrong? Did he know about.... how could he? 

Instead of getting in trouble, I was offered an opportunity to become a pre-doctoral fellow and participate in the Department of History's A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series on "the ghetto." Prof. Trotter and Prof. Wendy Goldman applied for this unique grant two year ago after they became curious about the long history of the ghetto as a place, as an experience, and as a term to describe crowded and poor urban spaces. The A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar Fellowship Program provides a university academic department with funding to intensively study a research question through a year-long discussion series. This seemed like the perfect way to explore the "concept, conditions, and connections" of the ghetto from its inception in 11th century Italy to the "making of the ghetto" in the twentieth century American city. Profs. Trotter and Goldman invited scholars to submit papers related to the seminar's four case studies: Jewish Ghettoes in Early Modern Europe; Ghettoes and the Colonial Project in Southern Africa; Nazi Ghettoes and the Holocaust; and the African American Ghetto in the United States. Seventeen were selected (plus  two bonus papers from post-docs) and these papers were circulated before each meeting for participants to read closely. We then gathered at each session and, after a twenty-minute presentation by the author, began asking questions about the specifics of their research and about the "big picture" questions of how the ghetto, as a place and as a term, has changed throughout history.  

Over the course of this academic year, I attended 18 seminars and spent in the range of 60 hours reading, thinking, discussing, and arguing about the definition of a ghetto, the role that the ghetto has continued to play in creating social hierarchies, and the enduring value and relevance of  the term (i.e. have historians overextended its usefulness by applying it to too many different kinds of spatial separation?). It was an incredibly valuable experience because it forced me to think more critically about a) the neighborhoods I study in my dissertation and b) the words I use to describe those neighborhoods. I will write more about our findings and its influence on my work in future posts, but for now it suffices to say that the Sawyer Seminar has had (and will continue to have) a big impact on how I theorize and approach my research.