John's research and teaching focus on social movements in the U.S. since the Civil War, with particular emphasis on labor and working-class history, broadly defined. Since receiving his PhD from Iowa in 2008, he has taught for a range of institutions, including the University of Maryland-College Park and Indiana University, but his primary focus has been full-time public history work, including editing and oral history.
His early work focused on black civil rights in the South and Border South/Midwest. In this vein, he has published a volume of oral histories with veterans of the Birmingham civil rights movement (Illinois, 2009) and an article on black suffrage activism in Reconstruction Missouri that appeared in a state-of-the-field volume on the Kansas-Missouri Border War (Kansas, 2013). He is currently working on an article on the failed effort to enact statewide, legal black disfranchisement in Missouri at the turn of the twentieth century for a collection of essays on the history of Kansas City, and he is engaged in an oral history project focused on the contested meaning of integration in his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.
In recent years, he has returned to labor and working-class history in earnest. He is co-editor of a collection of essays on the "Labor Tradition" of engaged scholarship that is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press (2016), and he is revising a self-published history of Iowa City's carpenters local 1260 as a work of digital history.
In 2013, he took a position as oral historian with the Iowa Labor History Oral Project (ILHOP) at the UI Labor Center. With over 1,200 interviews (more than 100 added by John), ILHOP constitutes one of the largest, longest running, and most significant labor-focused oral history collections in the world. His work has focused on the period since 1970, with particular emphasis on the rise of public-sector unions, deindustrialization, and the growing diversity of the workforce and labor movement. In 2015, he and his colleagues at the Labor Center won an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to conduct interviews with the state's immigrant and refugee meatpacking workers. He plans to follow up the fellowship experience with an article on the theory and practice of interviewing immigrant and refugee workers and a volume of oral histories.