A Career in Mobility: An Interview with Professor Auvo Kostiainen

Professor Auvo Kostiainen, one of the most renowned Finnish historians of migration, retired from his post in June 2014. Diversity sat down with Kostiainen to look back on his career and hear about his plans for the future.

Becoming a migration historian

Looking back on their pasts, people have a general tendency to construe coherent, teleological narratives to make sense of their personal and professional choices. Emeritus Professor Auvo Kostiainen, ever the historian, doesn’t fall prey to this trap. Sitting in the coffee room in the Department of European and World History at the University of Turku and reflecting on why he initially became a historian of migration, he doesn’t explain away pure chance as a factor: “I was in many ways in the right place at the right time,” he muses.

Studying history at the University of Turku in the late 1960s and early 1970s provided him with a ringside seat for the development of migration studies in Finland. Turku was emerging as the center of migration research in Finland, with Professor Vilho Niitemaa and young researchers like Reino Kero urging promising students to become involved in the research on expatriate Finns.

“As I was thinking of a possible subject for my Master’s thesis, I pitched an idea of doing research on the Bolshevik Revolution,” Kostiainen reminisces. “Reino Kero recalled that there had been much enthusiasm for the Revolution among Finnish migrants in America, and he suggested that I do my thesis on these Finnish-American radicals. I complied, which is how my involvement with migration research started.”

This chance encounter with migration history at a graduate seminar – “a good stroke of luck,” as Kostiainen puts it – would prove to be the foundation for a career spanning decades. After graduation, Kostiainen was recruited as a researcher at the department and was soon working on his own dissertation, a study on ethnic radicalism among Finnish Americans.

His research took him across the Atlantic. In 1973, Kostiainen was invited to work at the Immigration History Research Center in Minneapolis and in 1976 he was the recipient of the ACLS scholarship, which allowed him to do research in the U.S. The austere budget of a PhD student would sometimes call for creativity: “To save on accommodation expenses, I would sleep in Greyhound busses as I travelled around the U.S. doing interviews with old Finnish-American Communists and visiting archives,” Kostiainen laughs. “I would get on the bus in the evening and wake up the next morning in another location.”

Researching, teaching and communicating 

2014-2-haastatteluWhen asked about the significance of teaching as part of his academic career, Kostiainen confesses to having always been drawn more to research than teaching. As a young history student, however, he considered applying to teacher training and becoming a history teacher. “I had already bought the examination book for the entrance exam. Reiska’s (Reino Kero’s) offer to come and work at the department prevented me from applying. It was such a tempting offer” smiles Kostiainen, warmly recalling his good fortune.

Despite being more drawn to research, Kostiainen is remembered by his students for his lectures, the topics of which stretched from the history of India to multiculturalism in the United States and to history of travel in general. Alongside courses in history, Kostiainen has lectured on many multidisciplinary courses as part of different modules of study, such as Development Studies, the Finnish University Network for Tourism Studies and most recently the studies on multiculturalism. He has been particularly keen to participate in these projects because he has always recognized the space between different disciplines as his own.

Throughout his career, Professor Emeritus Kostiainen has actively communicated his research to the media, giving interviews to TV, radio and newspapers. But Kostiainen sees a clear change in the way media gives space to professional opinions: according to him the possibilities for longer in-depth pieces are these days minimal.“Perhaps this is the present trend in communication in general – the future may appear as a twitter language, smaller and smaller spaces, smaller and smaller printed papers, if any?” Kostiainen muses.

Although Kostiainen sees interaction with the media as an important part of research, he also gives some words of warning for emerging scholars: “You should not let the reporters get you to write the stories for them. It’s the reporter’s job to write the context for the story, not yours.”

New plans for research

As a brand new emeritus, Kostiainen is looking forward to dedicating his time to research: at the moment he’s planning on focusing on tracing John Morton’s ancestors, a project that he has not found the time for during recent years. Similarly, Kostiainen aims to continue his project on Finnish-born deportees from the United States and Canada during the twentieth century.

For the first few months of his retirement, however, Kostiainen has had more immediate matters to attend to. He has only just settled into his new office: “It took me a lot longer than expected to go through all the papers I had gathered during the years in my old office and clear the mess up. Now I am starting to have some time to think about research,” Kostiainen laughs.

Photo: Johanna Skurnik, 2014

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