Professor Sawyer

History, Law and Society

What inspired you to come to France and AUP?

I’m a French historian by training. In graduate school, I received a series of grants to do archival research in France, where I’d already gone as an undergraduate, which is probably when my fascination with the country first developed. After a series of positions, including an American doctoral fellowship at Sciences Po, I worked at the University of Chicago’s Paris center. When I found out about the job at AUP, I came here.


What is it about Paris that interests you?

As a historian, there’s something very comforting and stimulating about walking down a street in Paris and knowing where you are in time and space. There’s the cosmopolitan flavor of Paris, the feeling that the whole world is here. I also think there’s something extraordinary about how cities are governed, how they can impact lives, and what astounds me in Paris is how swiftly newly elected municipal governments act: without hesitation, they’ll do something like rip up half the street and put in a bus lane. It’s like living in a laboratory for the democratic.


Why did you decide to co-found AUP’s History, Law, and Society program?

There’s a very strong connection between Law and History and traditionally, it has been one of the primary undergraduate majors that people interested in law pursue. We already had a Law minor and it seemed like Law was ripe for integration with History and Society, the latter of which can include almost any discipline like Psychology, Sociology, Communications, Business, or Art History.


How do you hope to transmit the subject of History to your students?

I try to emphasize three things. Firstly, history is useless if you don’t have an imagination. If you only read everything that’s ever happened through the lens of what you’re currently experiencing, it can’t come alive and you become trapped in your present. Secondly, I think one of the best things that history can do is render your present something that isn’t a given, so that once you integrate imagination, you realize that there are all sorts of possibilities out there. Thirdly, ideally, history can restore a sense of agency and possibility so that people see that what they’re doing and what they hope to do are in no way predetermined.


How did you get involved in the City of Paris’s cultural scenes project?

The City of Paris was giving grants to people to study the city and what it would become in 2030, since one of its key questions is how to build a municipal government that isn’t restricted to the 20-arrondissement layout. I wanted to see if my studies regarding the 19th century Parisian municipality could help with that inquiry and so I submitted a proposal with two Sociology professors to look at how the notion of cultural scenes could be applied to the rescaling of Paris.


How would you define a “scene”, in this context?

When you say a neighborhood is hip, bourgeois, whatever, that’s its scene. We wondered, how do you measure this quality and what could this mean for the future development of Paris? We wanted to demonstrate how, in metropolitan Paris, the daily ways in which we practice cultural life aren’t limited by the usual boundaries and how there might be new ways in which cultural publics are breaking down already-existing political and administrative boundaries.


How have you collaborated with AUP History students?

With the cultural scenes project, students conducted interviews with residents, and many students now participate in our Center for Critical Democracy, with which Professor Geoff Gilbert will be partnering for his creative non-fiction seminar on representation. We’re also launching a Firstbridge on the history of democracy, which will be followed up by a Democracy Lab, co-taught by Professor Peter Hägel and myself, where we hope to create some interesting projects with the students, before moving onto our Democracy Summer Institute. Ultimately, we want the students to explore what they’re interested in while channeling their passion into themes that we can help them with.