S.6. E.7: Episode 50! The Podcast Turned Upside Down

Economics and Management professor Kathy Lund Dean interviews Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster for the 50th episode.
Posted on January 4th, 2021 by

For this 50th episode, previous podcast guest Kathy Lund Dean of the Department of Economics and Management at Gustavus interviews host Greg Kaster about the origins of the podcast, influences on his love of history, his work as inaugural holder of the James M. McPherson Endowed Professorship in American History at Gustavus, and engaging with the public as a historian.

Season 6, Episode 7: Episode 50! The Podcast Turned Upside Down

Greg Kaster:
Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Kathy Lund Dean:

From listeners to the latest edition of the Learning for Life @ Gustavus Podcast. I’m Kathy Lund Dean, I am not Greg Kaster, and that’s because I have the great privilege of recording Greg, a conversation together with Greg for his 50th podcast. Greg, it’s your 50th podcast. Greg and I had a conversation in season five and I wanted, I got dibs on the opportunity to talk with Greg for this special milestone episode. Welcome, Greg Kaster, usually our host, and now you are my interviewee. You are my Guinea pig here.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. A Guinea pig is right. Thank you, Kathy. Thank you so much. It’s so kind of you and generous. It feels a little strange to be on the other side but-

Kathy Lund Dean:

You’re on the other end. Yup, you are on the other end. And it seems like you got to 50 really fast. This started last May, right?

Greg Kaster:

In my head, it started in February when I actually began recording, but you’re right, the first episode didn’t drop as they say, I guess in podcasts, until May.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Wow.

Greg Kaster:

So it’s fast.

Kathy Lund Dean:

It is. It’s like land speed podcast record getting to 50. I wanted to… Often, it’s so interesting to me that when I get to delve into somebody’s documented background, like CV and looking at your profiles and the research and articles you’ve written, I get to learn so much more about people, I think I know. For our listeners, I just wanted to share some of our host’s background and some of the details of his accomplishments and interests. It’s just so interesting. I know that you are a [Chicagoland 00:02:16] a fellow Chicagoland by birth, but as you say, a New Yorker by marriage. And you’ve always been interested in history, and it started with your history major in undergrad at Northern Illinois University and following it all the way through to your graduate work at Boston University.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I wanted those people who… I think actually, in some ways, atypical, who really knew what I wanted to do going into college that I wanted to be a history major.

Kathy Lund Dean:

You are unique. Most people just don’t. And we can talk about, I’d actually like to explore that a little bit more, how you knew that and how you knew that you knew that, which may be a weird thing to say, but I also want listeners to know that knowing the person you are, you are not telling people this, but listeners, he is an award-winning teacher. You’ve won our college-wide teaching award, the Edgar M. Carlson Award for Distinguished Teaching, that was recently in 2018. And you’ve held two chaired positions here at Gustavus, the Hanson-Peterson Chair of Liberal Studies, and now you’re the inaugural holder of the James M. McPherson Professorship in American History.

That’s amazing that you’re holding these positions that help you explore what you’d like to do. Let’s start with your long interest in history and what looks to me like an interest in many of the United States, less attractive and sometimes challenging aspects of our history. You look at topics like slavery and the civil war and gendering and gender norms and racial identity and racial relationships, especially like popular film, you have this wide array of ways of exploring this. How do you find yourself in those spaces?

Greg Kaster:

Well, yeah, you’re right. That’s all true. First of all, thank you for all those kind words. Much appreciated. And I’m thrilled to be the inaugural holder of the James McPherson Chair. And I can say more about that. But sometimes students ask me, “How and why did you become interested in history?” And I don’t know that I know. What I do know is that I had phenomenal history teachers in high school, one of whom is still living. His name is Stan Moore, D. Stanley Moore. He is in Minnesota. His brother, I think, Stan is 90, or going on 90. We just did a Zoom with him, a bunch of his [crosstalk 00:05:03].

Kathy Lund Dean:

No. Oh my word.

Greg Kaster:

He’s in Chicago.

Kathy Lund Dean:

It’s awesome.

Greg Kaster:

But I grew up in Park Forest as you know, the South suburbs, unlike you, where you are North, I’m South. And Stan, another teacher named Tony, Anthony, Tony Scallion. These were amazing teachers, teaching history, US history, world history. In Stan’s case, Russian history. And they definitely are a big part of why I became a history major. I mean, I was certainly hooked by them in high school.

Kathy Lund Dean:

That’s amazing.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. The thing that they both did is they, one, related history, related the past to the present in some kinds of ways. And Stan… For Scallion, this is during the Vietnam War and we’re looking at social movements and racism and all kinds of things in US history. And then, I think that was of course on 20th century, US history, actually. And then Stan Moore is just a master of, and still is, of drawing connections across disparate time periods and subjects. I mean, finding in Shakespeare or something relevant about our presidential… I mean, just, it was absolutely fabulous, wonderful.

Stan also traveled all over the place and he would do these travels slideshows of his travels in Eastern Europe and then Soviet Union. Anyway, those two, and they’re a few others, but those two in particular had a huge impact on me in terms of my love of history. I think too, it was family, in particular my dad. My dad was a World War II vet.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Wow. Oh my gosh.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s interesting, he was a World War II vet, and I have strong memories of him telling my only sibling, my younger brother, Larry, two years younger than me, “Boys, it’s time for some war stories, put your helmets on.” He would then proceed to tell us, basically some history about the war. Interesting, it was never about the glories of battle or anything… What it really was about, I realized years later, was contingency in the past. The role of contingency. He would say things like, “Had this mind gone off, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be here.” Kind of a strange thing to tell your six or seven-year-old son.

But it really got me interested in the past. My dad had some, maybe, I guess, they were probably made for vets, World war II vets, these were some picture books, scenes from the war. I remember looking at those, but I didn’t develop out of that. I did not develop an interest in war or military history. I just didn’t. But I certainly appreciated contingency, the role of chance, accident in the past, which is something I still try to teach my students. Anyway, I came out of high school knowing I wanted to major in history and I went to Northern which turned out, unbeknownst to me to have an absolutely phenomenal in history department.

Kathy Lund Dean:

I mean, the role of chance. Right?

Greg Kaster:

The role of chance. Exactly, right. Oh my gosh. That’s exactly right. There it is. And the department was a center in this country of what it used to be called history from the bottom up or non-elite history. And I wound up working with a wonderful professor named Alfred Young, who was both a mentor to me and to many others as an undergraduate, then as an MA student. And I was doing work in early American history, the American revolution and looking at ordinary people, farmers, mechanics as they were called or working men, women. I did an undergraduate research paper in his course on the revolution, women in the American revolution. And I thought it was so awesome. I had some slides. I had a Tensor lamp, if anyone knows what that was. I had a podium for-

Kathy Lund Dean:

That’s history right there.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s history. I had live readings. I roped in some friends to do live readings, those early Ken Burns. But anyway, I brought that love of history certainly from high school, but I think from the family as well. My mom’s side also, she grew up on a farm, say, Downstage Illinois, and I remember being really interested in that part of the family and how one part of the family could be rural farm people and other part, very urban and immigrant, sort of the American story in some ways. Some ways I wish it weren’t true of me. I wish I could say, “Well, I came in as a chemistry major and I became…” But it’s not. I mean, I’m boring that way. I knew I wanted to be a history major.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Not boring at all. What I love about what you said, and it sounds like you’ve actually told your high school instructors what a deep and lasting impact. Because when we get those emails from students like, “You taught me this and it’s presented and flourished in this particular…” We live for that kind of stuff, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right. That’s right.

Kathy Lund Dean:

But what’s so interesting is I see these themes that you’ve pointed out persist all these years later in the way that you engage with history. And it’s no wonder that you are an award-winning teacher, because if I had had history teachers make sure that they were relating what their disciplinary passion was in terms of the past to the lessons of the present, I think that, that’s really where the rubber hits the road. Isn’t it? I mean-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Absolutely.

Kathy Lund Dean:

… You get to see the relevance of it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. We historians, we’re terrible at that prognostication and be aware of any historian who does that. We’re not fortune tellers, but there is no way to understand one’s present, right?

Kathy Lund Dean:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

No matter what time period without understanding the past. I mean, I am so lucky I have… You know all of my colleagues, they’re extraordinary. I come from a department with many award-winning teachers, but one of the things we emphasize is just that, the connections between the past and the present. And not that there’s a straight line.

Kathy Lund Dean:

No. No.

Greg Kaster:

And often interest. It’s not that simple. But what are the legacies of, let’s say of slavery, for example, as one historian David Blight has written about. What are the legacies of slavery around us today, for example? There’s no way to understand what’s happened here in Minneapolis with the murder of George Floyd in May, or actually the same day the first episode of the podcast [crosstalk 00:11:42].

Kathy Lund Dean:

Oh my goodness.

Greg Kaster:

But there’s no way to understand that without understanding the long, deep history of racism and segregation in this City of Minneapolis. Anyway, those connections are incredibly important. And I think, another colleague of ours, Yurie Hong in Classic said, when I interviewed her for the podcast, “It’s all about connections. That’s what learning is, making connections.”

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah. Well, and it’s interesting too, how you have found your way through and within these topics, things like how slavery and how racial identity and this many layered relatedness among the black and white and people of color has found its way into modern, I guess manifestations like your love of popular film. Film is such a powerful way of getting students to engage with what you’re saying in a multimedia way.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:12:44].

Kathy Lund Dean:

What I think is also interesting about your dad, just sort of on its own is, for so many of the World War II veterans in particular, they never want to talk about it. And it’s interesting that your dad chose… I can imagine, like, “If that landmine…” What do you do with that as an eight year old? But it normalizes the impact of history and it normalizes-

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great point.

Kathy Lund Dean:

… That role of chance. And I think that’s absolutely fascinating.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great point. Yeah, that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought about that. You’re right. That’s a great point. And just literally, as you’re saying that I’m thinking about my dad, and he really was often emphasizing that in his own way, the role of chance, the role of how things can suddenly change for better or for worse, [crosstalk 00:13:38].

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, what’s interesting too, is culturally, there’s work about locus of control. And so, how we explain the things that happen to us in our life, these consequential things. And Americans, typically, have a very, very high sense of control over what happens in their life. And that can be really stressful, but it also makes us very productive. And what I’m hearing is that you have a much more balanced sense of, “Here are the things that I can control. And here are the things that we as, perhaps the society can control.” Like how we engage with the racial divide and the legacy. I love that word that you used, the legacy of racial divisions and racial relationships and how that informs what’s going on today.

But you also have a sense of the things, I think probably a gift from your father is, “You know what? Here are the things that we just can’t control and you can’t spend your energy on those things.” And I think parsing those out is really a dramatic advantage in the way that we can live our life.

Greg Kaster:

It’s interesting. Again, you’re helping me understand something I… This maybe why I emphasize what I do in my teaching, which is agency and constraints.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yes. Perfect.

Greg Kaster:

I introduce those two concepts in every course at the start, that no matter what life, what group you’re looking at in the past, you’ve got to think about the extent to which that person, that group could exercise agency. Of course, I explain what I mean by that. The ability to have some control, to use your word over one’s life, but also the constraints we all face. And those constraints of course vary. There’s so many different constraints. And some of them come up unexpectedly like COVID-19.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Like that little pandemic, [crosstalk 00:15:32]. Right.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah, that little thing we’re dealing with, yeah. But yeah, absolutely, that’s really important to me too. I don’t know how well I’ve done that in my own life, but it’s important to me to convey that to students, that we all have agency, even in the worst of constraints, which most fortunately don’t face. With slavery, for example, it’s not the case, enslaved people were simply passive victims. I mean, it’s just not the case. There’s so much scholarship about the ways in which slaves or enslaved people, “Could accommodate to slavery,” and resist it. Right?

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, and create an African-American culture. Anyway, yeah, I think that’s incredibly important.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Well, and the other thing I wanted to make sure we covered, because I think it’s just fascinating is, and you’ve spoken to this a little bit about the idea of non-elite history, which is a term I’ve never heard before, but to me, it’s one of those things you immediately know what you’re talking about. Some of your salient areas of investigation, some of the lived experience of, and definition of masculinity and how we’ve come to know working men and working women, what you said the bottom up. Your exploration of that, did that come from the influence of that professor that you had or how did you find yourself there?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, definitely. It came from Al Young, absolutely. I went to Boston University. I did my BA and MA at Northern, and by fabulous education, just, I’m so grateful for that in all areas not just history. And then I went to… I applied to a bunch of graduate schools. And I chose Boston University because I loved Boston, been there with my family and then girlfriend and then on a summer trip. And I thought I was going to work with one professor who was an early Americanist, just like Al Young. And that professor, this is what I know, your fields, what happens in history graduate school. The professors says, “Here’s a farmer’s diary from the 18th century, something I want you to think about-”

Kathy Lund Dean:

Go to it. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

… “Right [inaudible 00:17:52].” And I began reading the thing and I was just bored out of my mind. I mean, I was up, bored, bored. I was so bored. And so, I actually wound up… And I felt guilty about it because my mother grew up on a farm, my cousins are still farmers. I felt funny, but I just couldn’t see what I would do with… And another historian might’ve felt very differently about it. In any case, I decided to switch advisors and wound up working on a topic that really one fellow historian I know is called working-class intellectual history. I began trying to figure out, what was it that 19th century skilled white working men were saying. Literally, what were they saying in their newspapers, their pamphlets, their speeches, et cetera, between 1827 and 1877. And this was the first 50 years or so of the organized labor movement, again, among skilled white working men.

And I just found over and over again, the words manhood, manly, they just kept coming. One labor newspaper, I think it was called Labors… It was called the Man, actually. The Man. Anyway, tripping over those words, and I worked it into a chapter in the dissertation, but didn’t really deal with it head on. And then, subsequently, had a wonderful national endowment for the humanities summer seminar, SUNY Binghamton, with a great labor historian, Melvin DeBoskey. And just spent that summer working up an article, which subsequently appeared in gender and history about that rhetoric, about what I called the, I think the article was called Labour’s True Man, Manliness Rhetoric among the Labor and Movement, 1827 to ’77.

And really got to explore that. That’s how it started. I didn’t go into my dissertation thinking I’m going to work on gender or masculinity, but it certainly, it grew out of that work.

Kathy Lund Dean:

That’s the beauty of being able to explore that. What’s interesting, as I’m hearing you talk, what’s so interesting to me is that you seemed to know earlier than most people that you were being mentored, that these people were being influential in your interests. And I think there’s a great personal alertness to that. If I think back of people who now I look back and think, “Wow, they were so influential,” but at the time I had no idea. But you seem very alert to, and very thoughtful about what’s happening right now and how am I experiencing this and how can this build into something else. It’s really extraordinary. You have this alertness and the self-awareness of what’s passionate, what topics make you passionate and how you can follow those through. And I’m really, pretty jealous of that. I’m really admiring that.

Greg Kaster:

One, you would have been a fantastic psychologist or psychiatrist, I think.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Don’t tell my kids that.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I won’t. I’ve never thought about that, the way you just put it, but I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, I agree with that description of me. I am very… Yeah, one of my, I think it was my high school teacher, Stan, where I overheard him once telling, maybe tell me my parents… I think he was speaking about some students he had taught in the Soviet Union, and one of them reminds of Greg, though, not as quite as self-conscious as Greg, but anyway, but I was very aware of that at the time, absolutely.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Interesting. Interesting.

Greg Kaster:

Very appreciative. I mean, I knew it. I wouldn’t have used the word mentoring. It wasn’t a word I knew, but I just knew how much… Yeah, there’s no question about it. I mean, a friend and I, we would show up a Stan’s house, and we would just show up unannounced. Ring the doorbell, go in and just have hours of conversation. And God knows how many other students he was doing that with.

Kathy Lund Dean:

No. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

But he always made sure we were the only ones, and we’re still close. So yeah, I think that’s true. And maybe that’s why really, mentoring really matters to me, mentoring colleagues, but also, especially the students, [crosstalk 00:22:18].

Kathy Lund Dean:

The students, yeah. I mean, you’re certainly paying it forward. I think students may not realize, you’re building this infrastructure of interest in history and how it connects. In some ways, when I see you with students and hear you talking with colleagues, it’s sort of a stealth approach. You can be very mentoree and they may not know it. And I think that’s a really kind, and I think it’s a very generous way of sharing the things that you know while also allowing them to build out what they know and what they’re interested in. And it sounds like other people had that same generosity with you, and you’ve learned that as a process.

Greg Kaster:

Absolutely. I learned it. I mean, I definitely learned it from Stan, Stan Moore, no question about that. I think about that often. I think I even gave a chapel talk once. I don’t remember my line. Years ago at Gustavus just gave a chapel talk, if you want. There was a line I used about teaching excellence requires, is sort of paradox that requires self-effacement on the part of the instructor, the professor. I was trying to get at that, exactly what you just said. I mean, to give the students space. That was very much Stan’s method of teaching in all kinds of ways, no question about that.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah. I mean, to be willing to do that, to build the scaffold out so you’ve got the walls, but you allow them to build the house within those walls, I think that’s a gift for students that they may not even realize that you’re giving them. If I can shift a little bit, Greg, can we talk a little bit about the McPherson Professorship?

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

Kathy Lund Dean:

It’s very targeted. It’s American history. How did that even come about and how does holding that position allow you to explore your work in a way you otherwise might not be able to?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I would love to talk about my time.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah, great.

Greg Kaster:

I think it was last December, our provost, Brenda Kelly, asked me to come to the office, her office and-

Kathy Lund Dean:

Uh-oh.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly.

Kathy Lund Dean:

That can never be good.

Greg Kaster:

Right. [inaudible 00:24:39], but here we go.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Oh, you think it’s not going to be good?

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. Yeah. In fact, that happened with the previous chair. I asked to her, her administrative assistant, “Can you tell me what this is about?” “No.” And I’d be, “Oh my God, what have I done?”

Kathy Lund Dean:

Oh, no.

Greg Kaster:

For the first chair, I went in with a huge speech, “Don’t ever do that again. I was a wreck.” I was, “What did I do?” Then she offered the chair. And I said, “That’s fine.”

Kathy Lund Dean:

Nice. Nice. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

In December, again, I was stunned, ecstatic, I mean, honored. James McPherson attended Gustavus and graduated in 1958. He’s one of the great. He’s one of the great historians of the US Civil War. From Gustavus, he went on to Johns Hopkins and worked with a famous, incredibly influential historian named C. Vann Woodward, or Vann as his students called him. And then, essentially from there, Jim went to Princeton where he’s now emeritus, he’s been most of his career. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Battle Cry of Freedom in the 1980s.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Oh, boy.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, just everything Jim McPherson writes is important. It’s beautifully written. It’s insightful. What he did, he and his wife, Patricia, first gave some money for my office in, what was then the new Beck Hall on campus, as you know. There’s a nice little plaque outside my office. I like to tell students, “Jim McPherson owns my office.” And then, incredible generosity to his [alma mater 00:26:14], he endowed, Patricia since passed away, but Jim endowed this professorship. And yeah, I’m the inaugural holder. I’m ecstatic, thrilled. It’s an honor.

And as the provost, Brenda, told me when she was announcing the news, I get to make it up. I get to decide what I wanted to shape it as the inaugural holder. That’s a gift. I mean, it’s a gift, I have the professorship given, of course, that’s literally a gift, but to then be able to make it up. One of the things I decided to do was this podcast, Learning for Life @ Gustavus. With the Hanson-Peterson Chair, I’ve been doing what a previous holder of the chair had done, through videos, highlighting interdisciplinary learning between faculty, teaching and learning between faculty and faculty and students. That was fun. But I also realized very few people were watching those videos.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Anyway, so I decided one thing I would do is begin interviewing historians because we have a lot of alums, not just Jim, who are outstanding historians. And I’ve interviewed just a few of them and also interview historians who’ve come to Gustavus as visiting scholars. That’s actually the origins of the podcast. I thought, instead of doing more of these videos, I want to highlight what’s happening in terms of history in the spirit of the chair. But then I felt, maybe a podcast needs to be broader than just history. And so, I decided to include just about everybody. Anyway, that’s one thing about the chair that I’ve just loved doing is this podcast. But the chair also allows me to do research with some research money, things like buying books, attending conferences. And also, it allows me to bring speakers to campus which I have done.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Remember when we could actually bring people to campus?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’m just thinking… Right, I didn’t know… I take that back, when I brought a historian named Paul Finkelman, that was through the Hanson-Peterson Fund. I was going to bring another historian, exactly what you just said, this fall, and then something called COVID happened.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Something called the pandemic, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Right. It’s just so much fun. I mean, I just love it. And students who’ve had me in class, they know… I teach a course on the civil war, and James McPherson likes to point out when he was at Gustavus there was no such course. They just know how much I admire his, really long before this chair and from when I was in graduate school, admire his work and his writing in particular, which is just so lucid. It’s just so much fun to read no matter what he’s writing. He writes short books, he writes long books, and everything in between. That’s the chair. I really, I feel so honored. Jim is an extraordinary scholar and a true gentleman, and I had the pleasure of recording him for this podcast too.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Nice. I was going to ask you… I was assuming that you would have had an engagement with him, but that’s awesome. Was that in the first season?

Greg Kaster:

Maybe the second season.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Second season, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I called it-

Kathy Lund Dean:

Listeners should take a look for that. What strikes me too, as I’m talking with you, Greg, as a historian being grounded in the past and what you were talking about, it’s not linear, but there is this idea of legacy and downstream impacts that persist over time.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Do you sometimes feel a sense of responsibility? I know this is a very leading question. This is a terrible question as a host, but there seems to me like there would be a possibility that historians like you, so grounded in these significant events would feel like we have to prevent us from doing this again. We know here are the conditions under which, for example, racial disparity and racial violence occur. And we know these things historically, and then you can see sometimes these conditions happening again, or gender roles, or disaffection of white working-class people, like what happened four years ago and eight years ago. I mean, do you feel that way? And if you do, how do you balance that sense of, “Stop. Stop people. We know what’s going to happen. It’s not going to be good.” Like in 1918, the flu pandemic, and then this pandemic. We knew this would happen again. How do you manage that?

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great question. And the short answer is I don’t manage it, at least not well, but it’s an absolutely… I think it’s a great question. And I don’t know to what extent other historians feel this way. I certainly do. I sometimes feel like I’m, I don’t know, John the Baptist term of… No one’s listening. And absolutely right. With the pandemic, the current pandemic, so for example, in 1918, I mean, there was actually an Anti-Mask League. And people were not wearing a… I mean, there’s so many echoes and parallels. It can be maddening. It seemed like [crosstalk 00:31:57].

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah, maddening. Yeah, that’s the word.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I used to stand up in front of my students when I was younger. One reason to study the past is because we can learn from it. Well, I no longer believe that, we might learn from it, but it’s not a given. I think more often we don’t learn from it. And of course we can also learn the wrong lessons. There’s that too. But yeah, you’re absolutely right, that history… It’s a cliché, we hear all the time history repeats itself, but it doesn’t. Every historian knows that’s not true because the context is always different, but there are these legacies, there are these echoes and yeah, you can see them, not always, but you can see them at times and it can be maddening, right?

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

You just want to say, “No, let’s not go there. Let’s not do this.” And then, In relation to that, I have sometimes the desire to just fast forward to the bad stuff, because I know as a historian, we’re somehow going to get through this. “Can we just quickly go through this part of it and get to the end?” Which of course-

Kathy Lund Dean:

Sort of like, fast forward the DVR. No, but that’s a great… Actually, I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective too. You see this train wreck coming, but you also know humanity will get through this thing. And so, I guess that balances in some ways what the feeling of doom, like, “People, people.”

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yes, I agree. When you win the Carlson Award at Gustavus, you’re then, I don’t know if it’s required, but you’re then invited, expected to give a talk at Honor Day, the following year, which I was thrilled to do. And I don’t remember exactly how I put it, but I was thinking for that talk about how I derive both hope from history, but it’s a hope leavened with realism, or realism leavened with hope. That is incredibly important to me as a person, that historical consciousness, that awareness of where we’ve been, even Gustavus, thinking about our own institution and the current pandemic. You weren’t there in ’98. Were you? You weren’t there yet.

Kathy Lund Dean:

I wasn’t. Nope. Mm-mm.

Greg Kaster:

So you know about, that tornado, right?

Kathy Lund Dean:

I certainly know of the tornado [inaudible 00:34:18].

Greg Kaster:

And honestly, without… Because of that awful experience, and it was awful, [inaudible 00:34:26] my wife, Kate and I, she taught in the department, we weren’t there at the time, but still, that experience and knowing the history of that experience has helped me deal, and many, I’ve talked to many of my colleagues, just feel the same way, deal better with the current COVID situation. And so has knowing about 1918 and knowing what people did and didn’t do then. And here we are. I mean, 1918 pandemic is followed by the roaring ’20s. Who’d have thought. It’s funny too, when I was looking… I’ve been going through… It just reminded me, I’m going through some digital material from students at the time 1918, 1919.

And it’s so interesting to go through the student newspaper and other publications by the students down at Gustavus. There’s very little mention of the influenza. In Minnesota, it was really an epidemic, not a pandemic within our state, but anyway, there’s very little mention. The longest item I could find dealt with the impact of the pandemic and the war and training for the war, the impact of that on the football schedule.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Oh, no. Oh my gosh.

Greg Kaster:

Of course, in some ways it’s still the cutest.

Kathy Lund Dean:

It’s in fact funny. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

But anyway, in the sense I had going through that material was, how Gustavus continued in some ways. I mean, how, there’s this pandemic going on, that’s ultimately going to kill at least 50 million people around the globe. I think it was 600, some 1,000, maybe in the United States, 670, whatever it was, but life continued, right?

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

People were taking precautions, some, not all. But anyway, I find that really, really important to me as I study the past, that it offers me hope, even if it’s hope tempered with a sober realism.

Kathy Lund Dean:

I’m going to flip it. I’m actually going to think about it now. The other way you said, it’s realism leavened by hope. I mean, I love that phrase, because that’s what’s happening. What’s so funny about the very local sense of the impacts, we, just for listeners, just to put a context, the governor, last night has issued another set of restrictions. And one of those restrictions is youth sports. And it’s set to start again midnight, tomorrow night, which is Friday night. And I know, just to your point, Greg, I know lots of schools and clubs, sports organizations that have moved their games or their contests to Friday rather than Saturday which seems like completely missing the point, but there is that very local… People are dying all over the world, but we’re going to reschedule. There’s that very local sense of the impact that seems very consistent with what you found.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Honestly, you could read so much of what I… I was surprised. I truly was surprised. You could read a lot of it and not realize you didn’t know that there was a global pandemic going in 1918 and 1919. So many of the concerns are articles about food, about the dorms, about this professor, that… I mean, yeah.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah. Wow. Can I pivot a little bit to-

Greg Kaster:

Of course.

Kathy Lund Dean:

… How you have been disseminating and talking about your work. Like this podcast, if I look at the other work that you’ve done throughout your career, not just recently, but throughout, you seem to have this very public engagement with your work. You’ve written lots of popular press articles. You’ve written lots of op-eds over the years. It’s a very interesting space to be as a professor, as a scholar engaging with a different type of audience than many of us who write for academic journals tend to do.

And I think there’s a huge skill that we didn’t learn in graduate school. I don’t know if you learned it at Boston, but the ability to write about complex issues, sometimes very volatile issues in a way that the public can understand and really think about. That’s a real gift. How did you decide to engage with the larger general community in the way that you do? Sort of like public scholarship.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, right. Part that we call it public history-

Kathy Lund Dean:

Public history. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

… Or public intellectual. No, there was no training.

Kathy Lund Dean:

No, there is no training for that.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, now, I know maybe in your discipline as well, all kinds of, and you’ve done the same thing by the way. All kinds of efforts or emphasis on how to do it. How to write op-eds. I mean, there now is training. And historians were all over the place. Were on, not on TV as much as I think we should be as talking as, but certainly in the op-ed pages and podcasting. But anyway, it’s interesting, at least to me. When I was a kid, I mean a little kid, I think grade school, we lived in Park Forest and there was a newspaper called the Park Forest Star, I guess there were stars here and there around the suburbs. So Park Forest Star. And you could write letters to the Park Forest Star as a kid. And they call it, I think King Arthur’s Court, and [crosstalk 00:40:24] letters.

Kathy Lund Dean:

That’s funny.

Greg Kaster:

You got to go sit in the chair with a fake [inaudible 00:40:30], or whatever, a scepter, the crown, which idea, get your picture taken. But it was my dad who encouraged me. And I think my memory is, I wrote them myself, not my dad. But I would write. I’d love doing it at the time. I just loved writing these things. Fast forward to, and I’m in graduate school at BU, and I started to write letters to the editor, to the Boston Globe. And some didn’t get published in some did. I wrote one, I remember about Reagan’s hair. It started with a quote from Melville, that there was something in the news about Reagan’s hair anyway, President Reagan’s hair. And then, I started sending letters to the New York Times, and they published the first one I sent, which [crosstalk 00:41:22].

Kathy Lund Dean:

Wow.

Greg Kaster:

Those days you got a call. I was with a graduate student friend who said, “The New York Times is calling.” Said, “Oh, okay.” Just to confirm that you are the person you think they think you are and you wrote the letter. And it just went from there. I’ve written many more than have been published, that’s for sure. I did write some op-eds for the Star Tribune here and love doing that. And I wrote for the History News Network as well. I’m not sure that’s still going, which would distribute op-eds by historians around the country.

Anyway, it turns out, and I never knew this growing up, that one of my dance brothers who lived in Chicago was writing numerous, numerous letters to the Chicago Tribune. And he wrote so many letters that they are collected at the Chicago Historical Society.

Kathy Lund Dean:

No.

Greg Kaster:

I think maybe there’s some genetic being passed.

Kathy Lund Dean:

There must be a genetic lying there.

Greg Kaster:

It’s got to be.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Isn’t [inaudible 00:42:23]?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s so weird. I have to go there one day and look at what he wrote, but I just love doing it. I love engaging with the broader public or the general public about history. I just can’t get enough, but I absolutely love it. When I was in graduate school, I also did something through the mayor’s office where I got to teach the history of Boston to Bostonian’s including, I think it was the mayor’s mother-in-law or mother at an assisted-living home in South Boston.

I mean, I just loved it. I love doing it. And one reason I love doing it is because it forces me, if I’m writing an op-ed or even a letter to the other, it forces me to be concise, to boil down what it is I’m trying to say. It allows me to make connections between the past and the present in ways that I hope are illuminating for the readers. And I know that many more people are going to read a letter to the editor, or not, that will ever read a journal article, for example.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Well, the numbers are so depressing. Something like, I’ve seen numbers between 85 and 90% of journal articles, academic journal articles are never cited. That doesn’t mean they’re not read, but they’re not cited in ways that build on that work. So they die down this black hole. This idea of public engagement, it strikes me that this podcast is certainly in that space and then a blog. Are you blogging? Are you going to plan on blogging? Because then you can have that conversation, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I did a little bit of blogging. I thought I would do blogging, but I didn’t quite get into it as much as I thought I would, but there are some fabulous… This is what I’m doing is part of a whole ecosystem of historians and of course other scholars [inaudible 00:44:18], but there’s a wonderful blog called War History that it written for the historians, write for… There’s just a lot of this going on. But the podcast, I agree it’s definitely, it’s what I hope, that people listening are not just people working at Gustavus, but all kinds of people, alums. And I know, others who don’t have any direct connection to the college, except maybe through me or maybe none at all. That’s really gratifying to me.

And I think, look, I mean, there’s a funny disconnect in our country and it’s been around for a long time. There’s this intense interest in history on the part of the public. It’s reflected in movies and museum going, you name it. Hamilton, for example, is-

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yes. Interesting.

Greg Kaster:

But at the same time, we professional historians too often, I think write for one another. That’s a bit unfair. I know I can hear some of my colleagues say, but in general, we need to figure out how to engage more with the public so that the public understands what it is we do. And just think about what just happened to bring it right up to the present moment. President Trump recently signed an executive order about history, bring patriotism back into the history.

And so, for some people, what we professional historians do is we’re just naysayers, we just tear down, we’re just negative. The word revisionist, is a dirty word. Of course, all historians are revisionists. That’s what history is. We revise all the time based on new questions, new sources and new experiences.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Of course.

Greg Kaster:

The tagline of the Minnesota Historical Society, which is just one of the best in the country, one of the best such organizations in my book, history matters. History matters. And it does matter. I mean, there are matters of history and history matters. And if it didn’t matter, we wouldn’t have a president signing the order he has signed. We wouldn’t have the debates we’ve had over exhibits, like the infamous Enola Gay Exhibit at the Smithsonian. I think many of us, many of this professional historians, we’re excited to be engaging with the public around these issues, whether it will convince anybody is another story, that the past is more than just, shouldn’t be simply a celebration of the nation state.

I think maybe something you said earlier, should look at the blemishes and the worst blemishes. But yeah, I love writing, I love the process of writing a letter to the editor with a historical angle. I just love doing that, or an op-ed.

Kathy Lund Dean:

What you’re just talking about, this idea of revisionism as a negative thing, I’m thinking about some of the very, well, this won’t be new to you, but I think for the public, it’s relatively new, this idea of rethinking Columbus, rethinking, he didn’t come in and engage the Native Americans and sit down. It was the start of a genocide. And where do you draw the line? And I know it’s not a clean line. And again, I’m appreciating what you said before, it’s never linear, but the idea of what we thought were these cherished types of archetypes and stories, we know so much about ourselves through story, and when we have to stop telling no stories in the way that we always have, I think it’s very threatening for people.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. [crosstalk 00:48:02].

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah, right? There was this big debate on just what were talking about. It’s so interesting. This big debate on my alma mater, which is Notre Dame, in our administration building there were these frescoes of Columbus meeting the Native Americans and too much controversy. I mean, it was so interesting and a little bit depressing actually to read some of the alumni reaction. Those were covered up last year because of this idea, like we can no longer… Given new evidence, like you were saying, new information, new evidence, we can no longer tell that story and depict that story in the same way. And I’m wondering, how do you decide what’s enough? How do you decide when the straw that broke the camel’s historical back has happened then you have to change that story? I don’t know if you can answer that. It’s just such an interesting idea.

Greg Kaster:

I think for a historian, what decides it is, where does the evidence take you? I mean, that’s really the bottom line. Where does the evidence take you? And with respect to monuments, for example-

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yes. That’s another great example, those monuments.

Greg Kaster:

My own position, I guess is, this isn’t a deeply thought out position, by the way, [inaudible 00:49:31], off the cuff here, my own position would be, certain monuments, for example, if there’s a statue of Robert E. Lee on, let’s say in front of a court, that needs to come down on public property, but elsewhere, I’m more interested in what goes up than what comes down. I mean, so let’s put up, and other historians have said this as well, “Let’s put up monuments to the freed people. Let’s put up monuments about reconstruction. Let’s have more monuments about people like Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman and others who are lesser known.”

But the other thing I tell students too, is that, tearing down monuments, there’s nothing new about that. “Have you heard of the American Revolution? Have you heard of King George?” I mean, the destruction of… Also, getting the public, the general public to try to understand and appreciate the history behind, this is back to the present, behind a, “Current event,” or someone will say, “Well, the Confederate flag, that’s my heritage,” a white southerner saying that, let’s say, “Well, okay. But when did you start flying that flag, not you, but your state.” And it’s in the 1950s, in the 1960s. It’s not in fact about the civil war, it’s about in your heritage and it’s about resistance to the civil rights privilege.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Civil rights. Right.

Greg Kaster:

For me, that’s the power of history too, is understanding the context, understanding that something that looks maybe natural, inevitable in the present isn’t, if you start shining a historical lens on it. In any case, I find that interesting. I don’t know where the line is. I think for me it would depend. It’s situational. Where is the art? Where is the monument? But again, I’m more, I’m not so bothered by the… Then, in this idea, by the way, that history will disappear. No, really? No, I don’t think so.

Kathy Lund Dean:

No.

Greg Kaster:

And as you’ve said, you mentioned Columbus. I love to start my courses with a video called, it was made in ’92, 1992. It’s a who owns history. It’s with some really fine historians, different points of view, happy to all be men. One of them is a black historian, James Oliver Horton. Anyway, it’s all about the debate over Columbus in ’92, but as they note in their debate, I mean, how we view Columbus has of course changed over time.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

In 1892, he’s a hero. In 1992, it’s a little different because of new evidence, but also new concerns. There was no Native American history as such when it was just maybe starting when I was an undergraduate. There was no study of what in fact, some of that, “Legacies of Columbus were.” So new questions, new evidence and new contexts affect how we view the same individual or the same event in the past.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Well, it strikes me too that at least one of your major challenges as you’re talking, it strikes me that one of the things that would be probably most difficult, if I’m hearing you right, is that the public’s appetite for complexity and nuance in some of these cherished stories and traditions is pretty low. We want a clean story. We want a clear narrative. We want heroes and we want villains. And in that way, as new evidence comes up, as new concerns come up and new contexts, that just geometrically multiplies your need to create a nuanced story and a complex story in a way that the public can still digest. And I think your job has gotten then geometrically harder as things get more complicated, but we still have this need for more of a clear narrative. And that’s really hard. I would think that balance is so difficult.

Greg Kaster:

You are putting your finger on a long standing we deal with in our profession, which is, one, I mean, just the sheer amount of knowledge that is available to us.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Exactly. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And then of course, across the board, but in history. I’m an undergraduate, I’m starting out as an undergraduate in 1971. And women’s history, just, there’re some women’s history, but nothing like what we have today, African-American history, labor history, on and on, disability history, you name it. Just the sheer amount of knowledge that’s available. And then how do you, this relates to the development of social history and parts. If you’re studying a particular town or this particular group, how do you begin to put all of this into a narrative that makes sense and that is compelling for the public, for everybody. That’s hard to do.

And so, some historians have said, “Well, we don’t mean we don’t need such a narrative.” Others have said, “We do,” Others, “We need a bit of both,” but it’s hard to do. I think you’re absolutely right. I see that as one of my… Let me put it this way, I sometimes think of myself as a conductor.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Oh, interesting. Oh, I love that.

Greg Kaster:

I do. I played the piano just very briefly as a little kid, so I don’t play an instrument, but I sometimes think what my job is, is to absorb as much of this knowledge as I can that’s only a fraction, of course, always. And then try to create some kind of, this sounds maybe a bit presumptuous, but some kind of symphony or some kind of music out of it that makes sense. But like a good piece of music, there’re going to be twists and turns. So, as you said, it’s not just linear. And so, for example, in the US survey course before the civil war, I try to focus the course around the rise of democracy, which is a narrative that many of the students are already familiar with and have bought into.

But then I try to complicate it that, “Oh, by the way, the United States becomes the most small democratic nation on the earth in the 1830s and ’40s, even though we’re talking only about white men voting.” There’s a point at which even, not all white men are able to vote because of property requirements. Anyway, my approach has been to try to take an existing narrative that’s triumphal and use that as the hook, but then complicate it. I don’t know how much it works, but that’s [crosstalk 00:56:24].

Kathy Lund Dean:

Well, clearly you’ve had success doing this with, again, that the very skilled ability and publishing record in the popular press. I think like academics can be very intimidated by writing for a popular audience because we’re not speaking to each other. And I think the path that you’ve chosen is perhaps the more difficult of them where you have to be that conductor and figure out how to clarify… I think one of the biggest challenges, I think, as a teacher is creating a course that speaks to a variety of backgrounds and a variety of abilities, this heterogeneous student-class population.

And I’m thinking about an analogy of what you’re saying, is that, what you’re writing is targeted for, is the ultimate of a mix of an audience. And I think that’s the hardest thing to do. And clearly, you’ve had success in doing that and the podcast also sounds like you’ve taken an ability to use a medium which is the interview and make sense of things for people, which is extraordinary. It’s extraordinary.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. [crosstalk 00:57:48]. I don’t know, but you’re way too kind, one-

Kathy Lund Dean:

No.

Greg Kaster:

… And I do, and that is what I love doing. I really do love doing that. I like research and I like writing. I haven’t done as much as I should or should have, but I do love exactly what you just described. I mean, I’ve wanted to be a teacher for… I mean, I used to play, like a lot of kids I guess, I used to play teacher when I was a little kid. I love it. Maybe I should have been a minister too.

Kathy Lund Dean:

That’s awesome. I could see a little Greg directing a class of the neighborhood kids.

Greg Kaster:

Anyway, this has been a blast. Thank you so much.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Well, I want to end… I don’t want to push my luck with your time too much, but I want to know, what’s next? The podcast, this is the 50th, you show no signs of slowing down.

Greg Kaster:

I know. Yeah.

Kathy Lund Dean:

What topics seem interesting for you and what else is on the horizon for Dr. Greg Kaster? What can we look forward to?

Greg Kaster:

Well, for some people, I think they assume it’s retirement, [crosstalk 00:58:50].

Kathy Lund Dean:

No, not so fast. Not so fast.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I don’t really… 10 years ago, I thought probably by now I would be retired, but I still love the teaching. I love the podcast. I love doing this. And I love my colleagues and having some new colleagues in the department just, is rejuvenating in all kinds of ways. I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon, the teaching or the professing and the podcasting. In terms of the podcast, the topics are just, they’re endless. As you said, it’s a start. I mean, one of the things about it is getting to know more about colleagues. Man, we have extraordinary faculty. My God, we-

Kathy Lund Dean:

We do. It’s amazing.

Greg Kaster:

Extraordinary faculty. It’s incredible. But in terms of my own thinking and research, if you want to call it that, I’m still really interested in civil war. I did not train as a civil war historian, but because I’ve been teaching and McPherson and others, I’m so interested in that. And so, this past summer, I was supposed to be part of a seminar led by a historian named Gary Gallagher, is a super fine, distinguished historian of the civil war, the University of Virginia. And that was of course derailed, thanks to COVID, but that’s supposed to be back on this coming summer, we’ll see. But my hope was to do more, to build on an NEH, National Endowment with Humanities Institute, I had, some years ago about the visual culture of the civil war.

I’m just interested in still trying to figure out, say more about the ways in which the civil war, especially early on, was being presented to, in particular, the Northern public through images. And to what extent was the war being presented as a war about slavery and ending slavery? I mean, everyone knew it was slavery, but an emancipation where even before it became such a war formally with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And even before that, fugitive slaves, people running away, so-called contraband. Anyway, that’s what I have going in terms of this, of research and then scholar. I’m absolutely fascinated by visual culture, and large part because of this institute, number of years ago. Hope to do more of that.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Well, and it sounds like the gift, as you say, the gift of a professorship that you get to start, you get to craft those boundaries, you get to explore that. I just think that’s going to be amazing. I really look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Greg Kaster:

Well, thank you. [crosstalk 01:01:35].

Kathy Lund Dean:

And it’s been so nice to talk with you.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Oh, it’s a pleasure.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Thank you. Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

At least you’re an example. Thank you. You’re a great interviewer. Great questions.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Well, you make it easy, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I don’t know about that.

Kathy Lund Dean:

It’s easy.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no, I really, really appreciate it. Thank you so much. And take good care.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yes, you too. Have a great one. And congratulations on your 50th podcast.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you.

Kathy Lund Dean:

It’s really something.

Greg Kaster:

This was fun.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks Kathy. Bye-bye.

Kathy Lund Dean:

Listeners, thank you.

###

Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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