Faculty Spotlight: Ian Hartman

Ian Hartman


We sat down with Professor Ian Hartman from UAA’s Department of History to learn how he came to UAA 10 years ago and what he has been working on since… 

Tell us about your path to UAA and the Department of History.

I’m from Western Pennsylvania and grew up just outside of Pittsburgh. I did my undergrad at University of Pittsburgh and decided to go to grad school and pursue a Ph.D. in History, which I completed at the University of Illinois in 2011. I took a job up here at UAA the same year in what was supposed to be a one-year term position and, as so often happens, one year turned into two and two turned into 10.

I was hired to teach modern U.S. history (Civil War to the present). My research has emphasized my interest in politics, public policy, and race in the American West and, more specifically, Alaska. I’ve written a couple of books: one on race and popular culture in the American South. I co-edited a volume entitled Imagining Anchorage (a collection of 22 essays about Anchorage as part of the Centennial celebration); and most recently a book on the history of African Americans in Alaska.

Can you talk more about this last project?

Sure. Black History in the Last Frontier began as a chapter on civil rights in Alaska for Imagining Anchorage. However, it soon became clear that the topic was so deep that it needed its own book, which turned into a five-year endeavor and has included partnerships with the Anchorage Museum, the National Park Service and Alaska’s Black community. With this book, we wanted to fill a gap in what people know about this rich part of Alaska history. We utilized archival materials, but the greatest wealth of information came from connecting to community and oral histories—talking with those who lived it. The culture bearers of a community are those who hold the most valuable information, and they’re the ones who deserve to be recognized as a historian puts pen to paper. This is one of the great things about the work we do as historians—weaving these stories and voices together.

So, who are our future historians? 

Our students recognize that they live in a special place. There’s the vitality of Alaska’s indigenous cultures, the splendor of the natural environment, and the remoteness from the Lower 48, a sense that we need to be creative problem solvers. This really shapes our identity as Alaskans. We have around a hundred majors who are doing terrific work. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and have a wide variety of historical interests. Some are fresh out of high school; others are learners who’ve come back to study history later in life. And we have a high veteran population as well. This makes for a rich experience for our undergrads, and I’m continually impressed by the perspectives and wealth of knowledge that our students bring to the table.  

What are a few pathways for students who complete their degree in History?

One of the myths is that you can only teach with a history degree. And yes, many do go on to teach and have tremendously rewarding careers. But our students also go on to manage non-profits, work in libraries, archives, and museums. They go into politics. Many go to law school or start their own businesses. I tell students on the first day of school that History is an all-purpose degree. We research, we write, and we turn information into knowledge. We’re flooded with information these days. Historians are experts at sorting information, drawing evidence-based conclusions, and advancing clearly stated positions on any number of topics. There is not a single professional field where you don’t deploy those skills. What we offer will never go out of style!

And if that doesn’t work, I remind them that among our nation’s presidents, the History degree is most common. Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Joe Biden...all historians!

What else makes History such an important area of study?

Well, I would say that the liberal arts in general and History in particular are foundational to functional citizenship. Right now, we have big divisions in the country and one of the biggest is that we don’t agree on a common narrative of who we are as a country, where we’ve been, and where we wish to go.

If we were more knowledgeable about our nation’s past–the things we’ve done well and improved upon and those we haven’t—I think we’d have the tools to build a better democracy. This is something I’m more passionate about than any other single issue. The study of American history is something that allows us to enter into a discussion about who we are as a people.

I like to ask students if they’ve ever been late to a dinner party--where you sit down at the table and there are one or more conversations going on around you and you feel lost or unaware of the conversational dynamics. It’s hard to catch up or provide any useful insight if you don’t know what people have been talking about before you arrived. And my point is you don’t want to be that person. You want to be someone who can contribute to the discussion in constructive, insightful ways. You’ve got to arrive to the dinner party on time and be ready to listen. Then you might have something important to add. That’s how I feel about historical knowledge. Those who have it are well equipped to meaningfully enter discussions about the world around us. Or at least, that’s my hope! 

What’s one thing that you’ve come to appreciate about studying history at UAA?

History isn’t a solitary pursuit. It brings people together. What makes UAA such a great place to work and study is a recognition of that—that we are part of a greater community. The way our faculty and students attach their scholarship to broader community concerns is admirable, and I wish to acknowledge and celebrate that. 

So much of my work, for instance, involves making human connections—sitting down with people, hearing their stories, and trying to bring those stories to life in a narrative form to new audiences. There’s an incredible amount of trust and fellowship that must happen. And I’m so very grateful for the people who have shared their knowledge with me.

Thank you and keep up the wonderful work, Ian! 

More fantastic faculty stories to come!