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John Cumbler honored for scholarship, research and creative activity

April 15th, 2009

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John Cumbler

John Cumbler
History, College of Arts and Sciences
Career Achievement, research

It might be natural for someone on the outside to look at the field of history and doubt that researchers could find anything new to write about well-known topics.

Before making that assumption, however, he or she should pick up a book by John Cumbler. A history professor at the University of Louisville since 1975, he has a reputation within the field for finding new twists to old subjects and for breaking from the pack to blaze his own trail.

Cumbler’s peers acknowledge him as a pioneer of “new” labor history studies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was an early environmental historian and lately has found a new way to look at abolitionists.

Cumbler is the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Faculty Award for career achievement in the category of Scholarship, Research and Creative Activity.

“This is history. It is not like physics where the paradigms are clear,” he said of his reputation. “I’m drawn to a subject because I’m interested in the questions the subject raises to me.”

New twists come because “rather than start with a question everybody has started with, I start with questions I find intriguing,” he explained.

In one of his first books, Cumbler wrote about urban decline at a time when others in the field were writing about urban growth and economic development.

Cumbler said he began the book in the early 1980s when the United States was going through a major recession and he thought that looking at economic decline in the past “would give us a handle on how to deal with economic decline in the present.”

“I think of my audience as not only historians but also larger society,” he said.

But Cumbler didn’t stay with urban history. After writing three books on the topic, he plunged into environmental history.

“I was attracted (to the subject) because of my involvement in the environmental movement,” Cumbler said. Again, he wanted to look to the past for ways of understanding the present.

His latest book tackles yet another area — civil rights — as he explores what well-known abolitionists did after the end of slavery in the United States.

“It struck me that something was missing in how we read about abolition,” he said.

“This is a person who is never content to rework familiar material but is always looking for some new area to explore,” one colleague noted in a letter of support for Cumbler’s nomination. “To preserve the capacity for innovation and discovery over the course of a long career is in itself a notable achievement.”

But not to Cumbler.

“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “Playing around with new ideas and finding new material and what it tells me about the past…I find that fun. I love doing research. I love teaching, too, so in some ways doing research helps keep teaching alive, too….They complement each other.”

The Distinguished Faculty Award for research, he said, “indicates there isn’t a division between research and teaching and is a reflection of academic commitment to both of those fields.

“It is very important to recognize scholarship and I feel honored they recognized me and a person in the humanities wing, but it also is important to recognize there isn’t a difference between teaching and scholarship. I am committed to both endeavors. I want my students to see that person standing in front of them teaching is also a scholar.”

During his career, Cumbler has written six books, published 19 articles and given more than 40 conference presentations. In 1996, he received a senior research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, considered to be the most prestigious grant available to historians, and has been named honorary fellow at the University of Warwick, England, and John Adams Distinguished Fulbright Chair at Groningen University in the Netherlands.

Editor’s Note: President James Ramsey will present the 2009 Distinguished Faculty Awards and the President’s Exemplary Multicultural Teaching Award April 20 at 5:30 p.m. at the Celebration for Faculty Excellence. The event is open to the university community and will be in the auditorium of the Speed Art Museum, 2035 S. Third St.

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