Intellectual Biography: Dr. LaDale C. Winling

A response to this assignment. Unless otherwise noted, all material contained in this post is derived from an interview conducted on September 13, 2012.

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Dr. LaDale C. Winling is Assistant Professor at the Department of History at Virginia Tech, focusing on Urban and Digital History. After finishing his B.A. and M.A. in Public History at the University of Western Michigan, Dr. Winling worked as an Instructor at the University of Michigan, where he completed his M.U.P. in Urban Planning in 2007. While working as an instructor at Loyola University’s History Department, Dr. Winling completed his Ph.D. in Architectural Planning and Theory at the University of Michigan in 2010. His dissertation, entitled Building the Ivory Tower: Campus Planning, University Development, and the Politics of Urban Space, focuses on the interaction of a university as an institution as well as a specific set of architectural materiality with its urban and institutional surroundings. After his employment as a Visiting Assistant Professor for Temple University’s Department of History, Dr. Winling now serves as an Assistant Professor for Virginia Tech’s Department of History. [1]

While he was a Graduate Student, Dr. Winling’s formative intellectual experiences were influenced by David Harvey’s Limits to Capital as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a logic of practice. David Harvey’s accounts of abstract capital flows provided Dr. Winling with conceptualizations of what Harvey theorizes as the spatial fix by which capital, when actualized in specific places and sites, also actualizes itself as a universal and abstract flow, moving beyond the boundaries of the place it had constituted. The question left open by accounts such as Harvey’s, however, was how the seemingly abstract flows of capital are actually played out and articulated within the context of micro-sites. Here, Pierre Bourdieu’s work informed Dr. Winling’s work of prioritizing the real material environments in which the seemingly abstract paths of capital accumulation are played out. Special emphasis thus needs to be placed on the individual experience of such environments, as these are not only the means by which the articulation of space by capital, and the articulation of capital by its spatial sites can be accounted for, but also the means by which actors make sense of these constellations.

Thus, Dr. Winling’s work gives methodological priority to local spaces, situating historical developments that take place on broader scales – such as economic and political transformations taking effect throughout the United States, and even on a world-wide scale – within the micro-environments perceived, conceived, and lived by individual actors. His method is iterative: as space articulates social practices, while these, in turn, create space, it is important to focus on concrete experiences before building them up to (or within) theoretical frameworks, and in turn, keeping these conceptual and theoretical frameworks firmly rooted in empirical sources and representations.

Within this iterative method, however, the historian’s task contributes to another, practical iteration: as individual actors within a historical set of circumstances continually transform these circumstances through their social actions, the historian’s perspective allows them to become conscious of the similarities and variations of their situations over time, and are thus empowered to take action and resist, reinforce, or at last influence the practices articulating their social (and thus spatial) surroundings. History thus has a fundamentally public task for Dr. Winling: by contextualizing and historicizing current, seemingly self-evident ideas and social formations, actors subject to these are given agency to change them, as they are enabled to realize their historical contingency, as well as underlying similarities between their and earlier situations.

Focusing on the institution of the university within its urban surroundings, then, combines the two focal points of Dr. Winling’s work. The university is, first, a site of empowerment; that is, the very site of most historical work, and frequently a place in which individuals are given agency to change their environments. Situating the university within the broader context of its urban surroundings, however, shows a less benevolent side of the university as an actor, as well as a subject to corporate and instituional interests. Seen this way, the university contributes to a disempowering political economy dominated by the interests governing its institutional shape (for example, the entanglement, even of public American universities, within Department of Defense research allocations) as well as, more straightforwardly, financial interests resulting from pressures exerted by donors or by the university’s transformation to financial actors in their own right. Dr. Winling’s dissertational research, as well as research conducted in subsequent publications [2], focusing on the university situated in Muncie, Indiana, and its role within Muncie’s development as a city, as well as the university’s dependency on its donors – the Ball family – serves to illuminate not only a chapter in a pre-New Deal-history of private investments and public benefits. Rather, it shows parallels between structures set up by private interests, as they interact with public interests in forming a university and its surroundings in pre-1930 America, and the articulation of the same type of interests in the neoliberal universities of today’s American intellectual landscape. Thus, historical differences, but also similarities, can be examined and conceptualized based on empirical evidence highlighting the specific factors played out in every actor’s perspectives. Here, Dr. Winling’s research is informed less by fellow historians’ perspectives – as little research on the situation of universities and their urban environments exists – and more by his encounters with Harvey’s geographical and Bourdieu’s sociological conceptions.

Consequently, Dr. Winling’s view of the future of the profession of historians is shaped by his attention on specific factors governing the perception of situations by individual actors. Especially in the context of an urban or spatial history, new means of communication and digital storage open up new ways of inquiry. The growing availability of maps in particular allows historians to situate and represent spatial formations and developments on a wider scale and to a wider audience than was possible before. However, the narration of history, which can be supported by graphical representations, remains the most primary mode of historiography according to Dr. Winling. Narratives, providing arguments and representations for historical developments, changes and similarities, are the most powerful – though by no means the only – tool at the disposal of professional historians, even as digital technology’s possibilities allow for a broader range of such tools. To reconcile the impact of new technologies and the ways of inquiry they open up with traditional research and narrative interests governing historical work, then, remains the central task of future historiography.

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[1] Curriculum Vitae, available online at Urban Oasis, retrieved September 16, 2012

[2] LaDale Winling (2010): The Gravity of Capital. Spatial and Economic Transformation in Muncie, Indiana, 1917-1940. In: James Connolly (Ed.): After the Factory. Reinventing America’s Industrial Small Cities. Plymouth: Lexington Books, pp. 115-140.
LaDale Winling (2010): Economic Development and the Landscape of Knowledge, Journal of Urban History 36 (July 2010): 528-536.

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