Mila Kaut (she/they)
PhD Student in History
Mila Kaut is a PhD student in the Department of History and a Mellon Cluster Fellow in Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Mila studies U.S. history and the intersections of race, gender, colonialism, and public memory in the Midwest in the post-Civil War era.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My research focuses on the relationship between historical commemoration and state-building in the post-Civil War Midwest. The post-emancipation era saw a flurry of cultural and commemorative developments, including the local historical society movement, the staging of numerous world fairs, and the professionalization of history as an academic discipline.
My research asks how and to what ends white statespeople, local historians, and other authors and curators in a handful of states in the region we now consider the Midwest took on roles as keepers of the past. I argue that white Midwesterners produced and circulated narratives of county and town founding in order to represent white settlement and state-building as projects of national inheritance. In curating these narratives and their material counterparts in the form of memorials, museums, and commemorative performances, white Midwesterners produced a version of local and regional heritage that rendered the settler heteropatriarchy of the state as natural.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa and was homeschooled until high school. My siblings and I learned most of our local history from museums, memorials, and other popular cultural institutions across the state. By the time I reached high school, I was thoroughly confused by the gap between the "feel-good" narratives of the Midwestern past we imbibed at these sites and the contemporary realities of racial injustice and crumbling healthcare and education infrastructure in Iowa. I came to historical inquiry as a tool for making sense of such contradiction first through my high school history teacher, Canada Snyder, and then at the University of Iowa through Professor Leslie Schwalm’s intrepid teachings on the lasting influence of the histories of slavery and racial exclusion on Iowa’s present.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I admire my adviser, Kate Masur. The further I’ve progressed into my doctoral training, the more I have come to recognize the importance of identifying when and how historians can be of use to broader publics and social change. At every step, Dr. Masur has modeled the blend of personal and scholarly integrity, collaboration, and care that I aspire to in my own career.
How do you unwind after a long day?
There’s something wonderfully calming about walking or running along the Lakefront Trail after many hours of camping out in front of a computer. I listen to Brandi Carlile, take in the skyline, and remember that the world is bigger than whatever historical questions I’m grappling with on that particular day. I also love searching for the best ice cream in the city. I will—and have—walked more than 10 miles for a delicious flavor selection. Vaca’s Creamery is my front-runner at the moment.
What books are on your bedside table?
I love the memoir genre and have most recently been obsessed with the memoirs of Melissa Febos, Nicole Chung, and Michelle Zauner.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
You don’t have to have it all figured out and thinking that you have it all figured out will probably do you more harm than good! I would encourage anyone pursuing a similar path to give themselves ample permission to stretch the boundaries of what a doctoral degree encompasses. You will write exams, teach, and craft a dissertation, but your experience can include so much more. Take the time you need to pursue diverse and sometimes competing interests and change your mind (and your path) when you need to. You won’t be the person you were when you applied to grad school at the end of your PhD, and that’s a good thing!
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I’m most proud of how consistently I have balanced academic and public work since starting at Northwestern. I came into grad school thinking I’d be most excited about all of my department’s and Northwestern’s opportunities to do public work and was surprised to realize that I really enjoy the challenges of writing historiography, participating in seminars, and teaching undergrads. Committing myself to these more "traditional" practices of history while also pursuing opportunities with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement, and a variety of local institutions has been so generative for my scholarship and overall development.
Publish Date: October 31, 2023
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