TGA Interview: Matthew Quallen

As we've said before, Matthew Quallen is our favorite Hoya columnist, even when he gets it wrong, and despite the fact he approaches his task with a left-wing agenda.  His interest in Georgetown history, and the quality of his writing, (the arguments and connections he makes are an entirely different matter), tend to make his history pieces worth reading.

We recently interviewed him about his efforts at looking into Georgetown's history and there is an opinion piece in today's Hoya in which he discusses The Georgetown Academy. There's much that is false about it, which we'll address in a post next week.  

In the meantime, enjoy the interview and feel free to browse through our archives.



TGA: What drew you to studying Georgetown's history?  Why do you think students should care about the University's past?

MQ: For me, the answer to that question doesn't really begin in Georgetown.  It starts at home in Connecticut, where I studied local history for a while.  When you study history, you explain the present in terms of the past.  When you study local history, you explain the present as you experience it on a daily basis.  Enjoying local history in Connecticut, I made the switch to studying Georgetown fairly naturally.

There's a second part of the answer, and you won't like it: in part, I began hoping to interrogate and discredit Georgetown's Catholic identity.  I have never been deeply religious, and my freshman year I began to identify as queer.  When I learned some of the ways Georgetown administrators, including folks like John Degioia, who was at the helm of student affairs through much of the 80s and 90s, treated queer students on the basis of our Catholic identity, I began to dislike that part of our university's identity, badly.  So I studied it. Of course, the picture that emerged is nuanced, neither wholly positive nor wholly negative.  But often it includes the mistreatment of people.  Today, that tends to mean transgender students. But it has meant any variety of people.  Georgetown history, then, is living history--a way to riddle out ourselves and the place we each call home.  

TGA: Of all the things you’ve learned in your research, what’s the most unusual or interesting?

MQ: The most unusual--hard to tell.  That's in the eye of the beholder.  Of course, Georgetown's history almost overflows with unusual or interesting stories and people: Pebbles, Pearl Bailey and Susan Decatur to name three. But, since I must choose, I'll share something I found recently that surprised me.  It's technically about the Maryland Jesuits, but the distinction up until the nineteenth century between them and Georgetown is fairly artificial.  The Jesuits used to own, as part of their Maryland Plantations, a spot called St. George's Island, which is now an unincorporated town in Maryland.  In the course of selling the island the Jesuits tried, without success, to convince the Navy that they should move their base at Annapolis (now home to the naval academy) to the island.  Probably better that they failed, as the island lies only a few feet above sea level and is connected to the mainland by a pretty meager causeway--a storm can flood and cut the whole island off from land.

TGA: Tell us something about Georgetown’s history that you think every Hoya should know?

MQ: It's difficult to pick one, so let me pick a theme instead.  Georgetown is very old.  I know it's obvious (we make it so), but we're as old as the republic.  By and large, that means that all the major themes in American history touch Georgetown.  If you've read it elsewhere, you may find it here: slavery, civil rights, Vietnam War protests, the Civil War, AIDS, etc.--every single one of these things networks with our university's history.  It's all here, good and bad.

TGA: If you were to choose one book that students should read about Georgetown, which would it be?  Why?

I'll preface this by saying that Curran's three volume history of Georgetown is essential--exhaustive, meticulous, authoritative.  Every Georgetown student would do well to have at least a sketchy understanding of Georgetown's full history.  But my favorite book on Georgetown history is Black Georgetown Remembered, which is actually being reissued soon by the university press.  Black Georgetown Remembered situates the university within a neighborhood that was very black and driven by waterborne commerce through the 18th and early 19th centuries.  One that was an essential site for slavery and free black life alike in early Washington.  To some, that might sound dull, but it's profoundly important.  In particular, it speaks to the ways in which we transform space and forget the past.  Take the canal for example.  It's probably where you go on a date or to eat lunch.  But it was for many years a vital, pumping concourse in an economy built around tobacco, timber and other goods harvested and packed by slaves and blacks.  Black Georgetown Remembered is a good book for thinking about the parts of Georgetown's past that are less obvious in the present, by contrast to Curran or most other sources.

TGA: You're GUSA's official historian.  What are you responsibilities with this position and do you plan on publishing anything related to it?

MQ: Historian is a fairly flexible role.  It's billed as the person responsible for GUSA's institutional memory, which is a nebulous task.  When Trevor Tezel was historian, he wrote a history of GUSA for the website (albeit about an inch wide and a mile deep, as it were.)  I've done a good deal of research on GUSA history and the history of the Yard, Georgetown's first student government, for use in conversations about GUSA, but I focus most of my time on making Georgetown history a more regular element of student life.  For instance, I write for the Hoya, am coordinating with the library on rolling out a Georgetown Wiki, serve on the University's Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation Working Group and maintain a research request form for people with questions about Georgetown history (here).  As for publishing, there are always the columns.  I've put together a few other documents that might be worth sharing at some point -- histories of the Yard and Georgetown Day, for example -- and am doing some writing on slavery and the university.  But it's not certain any of that will hit print.

TGA: As a senior who will soon graduate, what advice do you have for those remaining for how to make the most out of their Georgetown experience?

At some point in your four years at Georgetown, you will confront the aching suspicion that you are doing it all wrong.  You will be tempted to reinvent.  Do it.  The worst that happens is you fail.

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