History maker

Sarah Levine-Gronningsater, AM’08, PhD’14, launches her future while she studies the past.

Historian Sarah Levine-Gronningsater, AM’08, PhD’14, spent her final months of graduate school flying between coasts on academic job interviews, while wrapping up archival research for her dissertation on slavery and emancipation in New York State. Before graduation, she accepted not one but two offers: a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in early American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and a tenure-track assistant professor job at Caltech starting in 2016.

Pulling double duty

In college, I taught at a juvenile prison in Boston for two years. After that I taught in the Upward Bound program, which is a federally funded program for first-generation college-bound students. I figured out that I love being in the classroom and I love being a scholar. I want to figure out a way to do both.

An early interest

At Harvard I wrote my undergraduate thesis about the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, a Civil War regiment of black Northern troops. In the archives I had my first experience of looking at historical documents. Just being able to touch the pages of the past, so to speak, was thrilling.

Show of support

At UChicago I received a Division of the Social Sciences fellowship, which meant that I basically came in with five years of not having to worry about funding. In my fourth year, I was awarded the Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowship, which gave me a little more in the bank for conferences and research trips. I also received a few different travel grants to go to amazing conferences in Singapore and Scotland. 

Area of expertise

Slavery thrived in New York State before the American Revolution; there were actually as many slaves in the state of New York in 1780 as there were in the state of Georgia. I’m particularly interested in how Northern slavery and emancipation relate to the much larger story of American slavery and freedom in the 19th century.

Teaching and learning

One of the stipulations of my funding package was that I teach. In some ways, teaching can seem like a distraction from doing your own research. However, I found such joy in teaching University of Chicago students. It revitalized me. Two of my advisers in the Department of History, Tom Holt [the James Westfall Thompson Distinguished Service Professor in History and the College] and Amy Dru Stanley, are passionate teachers and mentors. Their support was manifest on a daily basis when I was in the job market, and that was wonderful.

Money is time

To be a historian, you need time. And if you don’t have the financial support, you don’t have the time to spend days on end in the archives. Some of those days, you might not find anything. And then on the fifth, sixth, or seventh day, you find some piece of a puzzle that makes everything else make sense. When you have support—either in the sense of travel grants that bring you to that archive, or time, so you can focus completely on your own work—you can write good history.