Oral History Center - UC Berkeley Library

Paula S. Fass: American Social and Cultural Historian and Historian of Childhood, University of California, Berkeley, 1974-2012

Interviewee(s):
Fass, Paula S.
Interviewer(s):
Lage, Anne
Title:
Paula S. Fass: American Social and Cultural Historian and Historian of Childhood, University of California, Berkeley, 1974-2012
Abstract:
An internationally recognized scholar of American social and cultural history, Paula Fass is a pioneering figure in the study of youth, family, and childhood. She has been a celebrated teacher for thirty-eight years in the Department of History at Berkeley. She came to Berkeley in 1974, one of two young women assistant professors to join the department that year. Their arrival doubled the number of women in this large and prestigious department of more than fifty faculty members. Her oral history explores the trajectory of her historical work and examines gender issues and debates over historical subjects and methods within the department over the course of her career. The oral history fittingly begins with recollections of her own childhood in New York City, as an immigrant child of Holocaust survivors; she recounts how important her personal and family experiences were in shaping her historical sensibility. Fass discusses her education at Barnard College and Columbia University, where she studied with Richard Hofstadter, in an era when few young women students were directed toward academic careers. Accepting the position at Berkeley involved a wrenching personal decision, eased by the welcome from history department colleagues and their families. She describes a strong family feeling among colleagues in the department in her early years, with frequent social events and inclusion in family occasions. Following her marriage to colleague Jack Lesch and the birth of their first child, their fellow historians warmly welcomed the first baby born to a woman in the department. She discusses issues of balancing family and professional work and the accommodating concern of department leaders for family needs. The department in these years was important for her as an intellectual family as well. Fass recounts the benefits of an infectious atmosphere of intellectual innovation and mutual sharing of work among faculty members. She perceives less cohesion and community in the department in later years, however. The central conflicts often played out in hiring committees; they occurred not over gender issues but rather in discussions of legitimate historical methodologies and topics, the centrality of theory, and the importance of cohesive narratives, although she indicates that gender issues were perhaps embedded in these conflicts. Fass expresses concern about the growing dominance of cultural history in the department. While she acknowledges the cultural turn as crucial to her own studies of childhood, Fass nonetheless believes that there is now a dangerous lack of respect for different approaches, which threatens to make the department at Berkeley less likely to provide the kind of innovative atmosphere that fostered her growth as a scholar.
Subject area(s):
Education and University of California
Interview date(s):
2009
Project:
History Department, UC Berkeley
Oskicat record:
b21347556
Rights:
Fass, Paula S. "Paula S. Fass: American Social and Cultural Historian and Historian of Childhood, University of California, Berkeley, 1974-2012." Interview by Anne Lage in 2009. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2012.