Dubbed a ‘field changer’ by his former Ph.D. adviser at Princeton University, assistant history professor Dr. Michael Glass is one of the Boston College history department’s newest additions. Glass is entering his first year as a college professor, but his experience working with twentieth-century American urban and political history is anything but new.
Glass grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo. before earning a degree in sociology from the University of Chicago in 2008. His background in sociology, he said, has influenced his approach to studying history.
“When people look at my research, they are like, ‘Wow, there are a lot of big powerful social structural things going on,’ and I think that’s from studying sociology [as an] undergrad,” Glass said.
Glass then moved to New York City where he taught in the New York public school system as a history teacher for seven years.
“The places I taught were some of the poorest congressional districts in the country. Students were facing all kinds of things that were a challenge,” Glass said. “I would have students whose housing were insecure, who had unstable food security or living conditions and having to negotiate those things was really eye-opening and always a challenge.”
Glass’ students in the Bronx hailed from diverse backgrounds ranging from the Caribbean, West Africa, South East Asia, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. By getting to know these students, he learned to teach American history to students who were often not raised learning it.
While teaching, Glass was also pursuing his Master’s degrees in both education and American history at City University of New York City College and City University of New York-Hunter College, respectively. In the wake of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in 2015, Glass decided to stop teaching in order to pursue his Ph.D. at Princeton University.
At Princeton, Glass met history professor Dr. Kevin Kruse, who became Glass’ adviser for his dissertation.
“Mike’s file was amazing, he was an easy admit,” Kruse said.
Over the next five years, Kruse worked closely with Glass as he researched and completed his dissertation. Glass was both incredibly easy-going and intellectually sharp, according to Kruse.
“My conversations with Professor Glass over the years are usually ones in which he’s leaning back in his chair, maybe chewing on some gum and then will drop some of the smartest things I’ve ever heard just kind of casually, but not in a show off way, just because he’s excited and animated about it,” Kruse said.
Glass’ dissertation titled “Schooling Suburbia: The Politics of School Finance in Postwar Long Island,” was heavily influenced by his time teaching in the Bronx. It explores the ways racial inequality plays out differently in urban versus suburban areas. He focused on Nassau County in the suburbs of Long Island, which he said was challenging since the county has 56 school districts and suburbs, each with their own government.
“One of the reasons we don’t have good histories of how suburbs are different is that in a lot of places in America, and New York is an extreme example of this, each suburb has a different government,” Glass said.
Instead of attempting to research all 56 school districts, Glass honed in on seven. To conduct his research, Glass visited the city halls and libraries of each district to see what he could learn.
His approach centered around individual interviews, to both hear individuals’ stories about how racial and political inequality had affected them and to connect their stories to those of others. These interviews made Glass’ research more personal, because he was able to record stories that specifically showed how the issues of racial and political inequality affect people on a daily basis.
“It always felt like the issues were larger than people, that there were larger political and economic forces shaping all of our lives,” Glass said. “People, regardless of their own political ideology, do want explanations for some of the problems and inequalities that they see in society today. What I try to do with historical research is to take very complicated processes and try to explain them in the most simple way that makes them tangible and understandable to people.”
Glass completed his dissertation in the spring of 2020, months before he started teaching at BC. The time was crunched, and he had to rewrite a large part of his dissertation in six weeks, he said.
“Finally at the end, when I was forced by time pressure to put it all together, I feel like I had more clarity at the end,” Glass said.
He defended his dissertation in May, which he had to do over Zoom because of the pandemic. One positive of this, he said, was that friends and family from across the country could watch.
“If it were in person, maybe 10 of my friends would have come to New Jersey, but since it was on Zoom, almost 100 people tuned in,” he said. “I got to see my family, some old friends, some old teachers, my old professors from wherever they were just watching.”
This fall, Glass began his first semester at BC. Glass was drawn to BC due to its focus on a liberal arts education and the courage and boldness with which the University has examined societal issues, he said.
This semester, Glass is teaching a senior colloquium called “Race and Politics in Modern America.” He has been teaching entirely remotely this semester because he and his wife had a baby in June.
“I’ve just really appreciated how seriously my students have taken the class and how committed they are to really understanding and learning for its own sake, not just only worrying about what grades they’re going to get,” Glass said.
In the spring of 2021, Glass will be teaching an elective course called “Metropolitan America: Cities and Suburbs in the Twentieth Century,” and a Study and Writing of History course for history majors called “The Segregated Metropolis.” In fall 2021, Glass is planning on teaching courses on political history, the history of housing, and the history of capitalism.
Due to COVID-19, it has been difficult to continue research because libraries and archives are still closed for the most part, he said. Glass also said he has become skilled at locating online resources such as transcripts and recordings of Congressional hearings and articles from his Ph.D. program, but for the most part, his newer research has come to a halt.
By sharing his own personal experiences of studying racial inequality through his teaching, Glass hopes his students will gain greater insight into the world we live in today and develop their own nuanced viewpoint of structural inequalities.
“It’s about forming your own opinions and learning the limits of how little we really do know about the past because it’s always such a challenge to preserve anything for the future,” Glass said. “As a first principle of history, we try to acknowledge that the world people in the past inhabited is different from our own. The challenge is to wrap our heads around how people understood their lives and made choices in their lives and all of the various factors that were influencing those things.”
Photo Courtesy of Michael Glass