A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

Writing as Thinking

writers+practice+coverJohn Warner is the writer of two recent books on writing: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.  Over at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog, Benjamin Murphy, a PhD candidate in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, interviewed Warner.  Here is a taste:

BJM: I want to hear more about the writer’s practice. Could you elaborate on a phrase that comes up in the books a lot. What does the phrase, “Writing as thinking” mean?

JW: To me, the base unit of writing is the idea. And actually, sometimes it’s not even an idea, maybe that’s too strong. It’s a notion—an idea in your brain and you think, this seems true, or this seems interesting. You start there. And the process of writing may reveal other ideas that link to that, or it may enhance that idea; or it may prove that the idea is faulty as far as you can tell. But when we start with an idea, we think through the implications. We follow the chain of thoughts, sometimes bound by logic, but sometimes bound by imagination or surprise. I may be writing on a topic and something from left field comes in and suddenly I see a relationship. I have this idea and I see what confirms or challenges it and head off in a new direction, arriving at the end with an altered idea. When students can do that, they develop a practice. Unfortunately, too much of schooling (as opposed to learning) involves students thinking they have to figure out everything they want to say before they start. In reality, writing is a process of discovery. Saying that “writing is thinking” honors discovery and that each of us has our own view of the world, that we are unique intelligences with unique things to say.

BJM: And I think that connects to another phrase that appears a lot. What do you mean by “reading like a writer”?

JW: Reading like a writer is, for me, the opposite of how many students have been trained to read. They’re accustomed to doing a narrow close reading. Not close reading in the analytical sense, but more like scanning to extract a nugget of information for an exam. That’s what reading often means: finding the pre-determined answer to perform understanding. It’s not a matter of what the text means for a student in particular or about what it might mean in a broad context; just about what information is in a passage according to some abstract state of mind. But reading like a writer considers not raw meaning so much as the creation of meaning—not only what a text means but how and why it means. My graduate degree is an MFA in creative writing, and this approach is built into my origins as a fiction writer. When I read something that blows me away, my first reaction is appreciation; my second reaction is to ask, “OK, how did the book do that?” And my third reaction is usually, “How can I steal that?”

Read the entire interview here.

Inside the Mind of the Literary Editor

Writing

If you write books, Lauren Toor’s interview with literary agent Susan Rabiner is a must read.  They cover the art of making an argument, the practice of narrative history, and the topics that are “hot” right now in trade publishing.

Here is a taste:

Can you define what you mean by narrative?

Rabiner: Sure. You don’t create narrative by simply inserting lots of anecdotes, character portraits, or description. Those features are terrific but are not meant to stand on their own. They are part of a story that creates a kind of tension in the reader — a need to find out where the book is going and how it will add up.

And remember, the story doesn’t have to be a story about people. It can be the story of an idea — how and why we once believed something and now do not. It can be the story of an event that we have been interpreting one way but should be re-examining in a different light.

Read the entire interview here.

What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

Writing Accessible History

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Maybe if one of my books sold 350,000 copies I would not need to do this

Last summer a group of K-8 history teachers urged me to write a popular biography of Philip Vickers Fithian.  Here is what I wrote back then:

I am always amazed when I talk to people who develop strong emotional connections to the characters in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I did not expect the book to be a tearjerker. The title is long and technical.  It is published by a university press.  Most bookstores do not carry it.  When my first royalty check arrived, I spent it all on Christmas presents. When the second royalty check arrived, I spent it all on a nice dinner for my family.  Today I can still splurge for dinner with the annual check, assuming that the meal is eaten at Arby’s.

But since the book first appeared in 2008, a few dozen people have told me that they cried at the end.  This week at the Princeton Seminar, five teachers mentioned that the final chapter brought them to tears.

Philip Vickers Fithian’s story does have an emotional ending, but I am still surprised that a book about the Enlightenment in America resonates with readers in this way.

Last week several K-8 history teachers (and at least one school librarian) attending the Princeton Seminar strongly encouraged me to write a biography of Philip for the young adult nonfiction market.  I am taking their advice seriously.  I don’t know very much about this market, but I want to learn more.  After listening to these teachers, and thinking about this a bit more myself, I think that teenagers might find Philip’s story interesting for what it teaches us about everyday life in colonial America, the early years of the American Revolution, love and courtship, education, self-improvement, and life on the frontier.

Stay tuned.  And if you have any advice I would love to hear it.

I thought about this possible project again after I read Elizabeth Elliott’s AHA Today post: “Experiments in Writing History.”  Here is a taste:

Laura Kamoie still receives periodic royalty statements for a book she published over a decade ago—an economic history of the early American Tayloe family, based on her PhD dissertation from the College of William and Mary. She knows that, to date, it has sold 773 copies, an ordinary showing for a first book that might be assigned in a university class once in a while. As for the next work she lists under the publications section of her CV? That one has sold over 350,000 copies. 

The wildly successful America’s First Daughter (2016) is not an academic history but a work of historical fiction. Using “the exact same research process as I did for my dissertation,” Kamoie, along with co-author Stephanie Dray, wrote a novel from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter Patsy. Headlining the jam-packed AHA18 session “Historians Writing Historical Fiction,” Kamoie talked about the ways she finds writing academic history and writing historical fiction similar, arguing that “both attempt to link known facts and try to shape them into some kind of a narrative. Both make historical contributions, and both are meant to generate curiosity about the past.”

Read the entire piece here.

Another Piece on Bad Academic Writing

c504f-snoopy-good-writing-is-hard-workOver at The Atlantic, Victoria Clayton wonders why academic writing is so complex.  Here is a taste:

A nonacademic might think the campaign against opaque writing is a no-brainer; of course, researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work. Cynics charge, however, that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example. The main reason, though, may not be as sinister or calculated. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly. “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley said. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would probably also mean more people, including colleagues, would read their work.

Read the entire piece here.

How NOT To Write Your Second Book

how-not-to-write-your-second-book-logoThe Junto blog is running a series of posts on this topic featuring some excellent historians. The posts stem from a roundtable presented at the 2017 meeting of the Society for the History of the Early Republic.  It was organized by Emily Controy-Krutz and Jessica Lepler.

Here is a taste of the Conroy-Krutz and Lepler’s introduction to the series:

How do you start a new book that’s on a wildly different topic from your last book? Or written in a different style? And how do you write a book while teaching new preps and serving on committees? What if you’re also raising kids and caring for aging family members? If a book could be articles, shouldit be articles? In a packed conference room on a hot Saturday in July, five incredibly generous, funny, and thoughtful scholars shared their tips and tricks for “How Not to Write Your Second Book,” and the laughter and nods around the room suggested that the comments, questions, and conversation spoke to concerns that are widely shared among mid-career scholars and that had sparked the creation of the SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop (2BWW).

Read the entire roundtable here.

Your Manuscript is 30 Years Late!

kansas Press

The home of University Press of Kansas

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a story about David Congdon, an acquisition editor at the University Press of Kansas who, after arriving at his new job, found a book contract that was thirty years old.  He contacted the author to let him out of the contract and, surprisingly, the writer said he would finish the book.

Here is a taste:

Mr. Congdon’s comically tardy book may seem like an extreme example of editorial generosity, but The Chronicle spoke to several people with lengthy tenures at university presses. They say that anyone who spends enough time in the industry, where a turnaround of several months to a few years for a book is the norm, will very likely encounter a project that is the not only years late, but decades so.

“Oh yes, this is something that comes up with surprising frequency!” wrote Leila Salisbury, director of University Press of Kentucky.

Scholarly presses, which don’t pay the enormous advances one might read about in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, have an interest in producing the best work possible, even if that means some projects far exceed deadlines most would consider timely.

 

On Writing Your Second History Book

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Benjamin Park, an early American historian who teaches at Sam Houston State University in Texas, has live-tweeted a great session from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) on how to go about writing a second book.

For most academic historians, their first book is a revised version of their dissertation. Much of the research and writing for the first book is accomplished during graduate school. (Although revisions are always necessary for turning a dissertation into a book). Second books, however, are usually written under different circumstances.  Graduate students become faculty members and their lives change.  They have to prepare lectures, attend meetings, and, for some, take on the responsibilities of family life.  Writing that second book become a lot more difficult when one’s attention is pulled in so many different directions.

The members of the panel:

Kathleen DuVal of UNC-Chapel Hill

Paul Erickson of the American Antiquarian Society

Timothy Mennell, University of Chicago Press

Tamara Plakins Thornton, University at Buffalo

Catherine Kelly, University of Oklahoma

As I read Ben’s tweets I once again realized how different my career has been when compared to the traditional career trajectory (or at least the one that is considered normal among people who attend SHEAR) in the profession.

Here are some of Park’s post

How Does Annette Gordon-Reed Write?

86d77-hemingsesShe is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and she was a guest on episode of eight of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

And have I mentioned that she gave the 2012 American Democracy Lecture at Messiah College?

Over at “Writing Routines,” Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University tells us how she writes.

Here is a taste of her interview:

Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?

I am a morning person, so I prefer to work in the morning. I am at my best writing between 6AM and noon. Things begin to deteriorate after that. The afternoon hours are not so great. I can start back up again around 7PM or so.

What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?

I start off all serious writing with pen or pencil and paper. I also say out loud what I am writing. I sometimes dictate. It is very difficult for me to start out writing on a computer. Once I have the flow going very well, I transfer what I have written onto the computer. Then I can keep writing and editing.

Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?

I prefer silence because, as I said, I am talking as I’m writing. I only want to hear what I am saying.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?

I listen to music and I straighten things up around where I’m going to be writing.

How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?

Oh, there is no set amount. It depends on where I am in the writing process. I would say most of it sees the light of day. I don’t move onto the next thing until I’m satisfied with the pages I have written. It is very unlikely that I will have written, say, a chapter, and then throw it out and start all over. I do not proceed until I’m satisfied with what I have done.

Read the entire interview here.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalDan Berger, a history professor at the University of Washington Bothell and the author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Erahas a helpful post up at Black Perspectives with some tips on how to write a book proposal.

Here is a taste:

A good proposal should be sent to multiple presses. While you should not submit the manuscript to multiple publishers simultaneously, it is not a betrayal of confidence to submit proposals to multiple publishers; in fact, it’s in your benefit to do so. The neoliberal university affects publishers as much as any other part of the academy. Editors are overworked and expected to do more with less while navigating legions of anxious junior (and senior) scholars eager to find a home for their work. Interest from one press is perhaps the only surefire thing that can get another press to get back to you if they have not already. In sending your proposal to multiple presses, you may want to make some superficial adjustments to the proposal. For instance, if you are interested in a particular series that a publisher has, you might work the themes and concepts of the series into your proposal in a deliberate fashion. However, since the proposal is introducing the book, it should be able to stand alone across multiple submissions without much tailored revision.

When I was finishing the proposal for Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, I devised a three-tiered list. Each tier had four or five presses in it. My plan was to send out the proposal to all of the presses in the group and see what happened; if no one in tier one was interested, then I would send it to tier two, and so on. I developed my list with equal parts reason and emotion: I talked with friends and mentors about it, and I scoured my bookshelves to see who had published books I was excited by or which bore significant tie in to some of the themes of my own book. I was fortunate to have interest from three of my tier-one list, so I didn’t need to keep sending it out. But having that list made me feel confident that I would publish the book somewhere, that I had other options if my top choices did not pan out. And the process of creating the tiers also helped me decide which press to go with when I had interest from multiple places. The other factor that helped me decide was gauging excitement for the project from different presses; when decision time came, I went with the press that seemed to best understand what I was doing with my book and shared my vision of what it could be.

Read the entire post here.

What Are You Working On?

Troubled RefugeAcademic historians often ask this question of other academic historians.  Sometimes when a person asks this question at a social gathering they are sincerely curious about the other person’s work.  Other times this question is something akin to “nice weather we have been having….” The later folks really do not care what the heck you are “working on,” but they need to keep the conversation going until they can figure out a legitimate reason to slip away to another awkward conversation.

Every historian must have an answer to this question.  If you do not have an answer, you will send a message that you are lazy, not a good historian, or have no interest in contributing to your field.

Chandra Manning rightly rejects everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph.

Manning teaches history at Georgetown University.  Some of you may remember that she visited The Author’s Corner last September to talk about her book Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War.

Here is a taste of her Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “On Not Writing a Book Right Now.”

I am in an asterisk moment right now — which would hardly be worth wasting ink on, except that I suspect I am not alone. I certainly thought I was aberrational in that regard, until three or four people asked what I was working and I jokingly replied, “I think I’ll write an essay about not working on anything right now.” Their vigorous agreement suggested that such an essay might serve a worthwhile purpose.

First things first: The premise of “not working on anything” contains the assumption that the only type of project that really counts is a book project. I am “working on” plenty of things. It is just that none of them are destined for two hard covers with my name on the title page and a Library of Congress E-Four-Fifty-Something call number on the spine.

For the past two years, I have been on faculty leave and employed in a staff position, where I write every day on all sorts of topics, in various formats — none of which go out under my own name, but all of which help keep the writing muscle memory reasonably fit.

Meanwhile, a lot of what I “work on” every day has nothing to do with writing at all, but instead has to do with life — that is, with caring for my two sons on the autism spectrum. Other scholars might not spend the same amount of time teaching their children basic life skills, hanging out at various kid events in case of meltdowns, restoring calm when things go disastrously wrong, or navigating school and insurance bureaucracies as I do, but everyone’s life presents challenges that can be hard to reconcile with scholarly life as we envisioned it back in graduate school.

That gulf — between our expectation of uninterrupted erudite productivity and our various lived realities — can feel a lot like failure. But is it? Now, I firmly believe that bona fide failure serves a necessary purpose in life, but that is a subject for another day. Being without a book project isn’t necessarily a failure.

I propose a different explanation: The problem isn’t that we’re failing to meet our writing expectations; the problem is the expectations themselves. Yes, scholars should write books. I am all for good books and high standards. But the idea that a scholar should always be writing a book is flawed.

Read the entire piece here.

Manning is consistent.  Here is a taste of her Author’s Corner interview:

JF: What is your next project?

CM: I am not sure. Troubled Refuge was a very difficult book to write on many levels, and it drained me dry. It will take awhile for the well to refill, especially because there are some either things that need my presence and attention right now. What comes next could be completely different.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalOver at Black Perspectives, Keisha Blain of the University of Iowa interviews Dawn Durante of the University of Illinois Press about how to write a book proposal for a university press.

Durante acquires books in Asian-American history, Latino History in the Midwest, Black Studies, Digital Humanities, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Keisha N. Blain: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the process of writing the book proposal?

Dawn Durante: In my opinion, the major misconception about the purpose of the book proposal is that it is solely for the benefit of an editor or a publisher to gauge interest in the book project. Proposals can be a much more valuable tool that serve authors better when drafted well before the point of contacting an editor. I often get asked about when the right time is to be thinking about a book proposal. An author should begin crafting a proposal as soon as they are beginning to develop the book. When a scholar is preparing a proposal for a press, they must articulate key arguments, audiences, and lay out the framework and arc of the book. Many of these issues are aspects authors are thinking through (or should be thinking through) from the very conception of the project. For instance, if someone has not thought deliberately about the key stakeholders and most likely audience for the project prior to the proposal, then how has the book’s organization and writing style been appropriately designed and implemented? A proposal constructed at an early juncture can serve as a guide for the writing process and should be refined up until the point it is submitted to an editor. I have encountered authors who are hesitant to invest time in a proposal early on given all the competing commitments scholars have to deal with, and I certainly understand that. However, having a well-thought-out proposal on hand can be useful for a variety of job, grant, or fellowship applications, and more importantly, a fully conceived proposal can be a beneficial roadmap for an author from the very beginning of their project’s development.

Read the entire interview here.

How to Write Academic History for a Public Audience

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Do you want to write good history for a general audience?  Alane Salerno Mason, the Executive Editor at W.W. Norton, offers some advice.

  1. Keep your introduction brief, and introductory
  2. People the story
  3. Let the people move
  4. Honor chronology
  5. Don’t bury your favorite details
  6. Avoid subtitles
  7. Don’t talk down to your audience
  8. Accept that some subjects are inherently of minor interest and others fall into genres that have become overcrowded
  9. A book should not be one’s first and only attempt to address the public.
  10. Break any rule when to do so serves a higher purpose

Check out Mason’s post at W.W. Norton to see how she unpacks these points.

Johann Neem on the Importance of Scholarly Writing

Scholarly-penJohann Neem, an American historian at Western Washington University, is very aware of the fact that academic writing can be impenetrable.  He also believes that it is important for historians and other academics to write for the public.

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Neem defends both kinds of writing.

Neem’s argument makes perfect sense to me.

Here is a taste:

Basic research in the arts and sciences is the source of wisdom. Yet that wisdom needs to be shared. There are in all disciplines scholars who fit Cicero’s definition of the ideal orator, combining eloquence with wisdom. Yet Cicero recognized that the philosophical pursuit of truth requires different things from us than public engagement because it is a different kind of activity. We do neither academics nor the public any service when we conflate the two. Indeed, doing so is a category mistake.

We want physicists who write for each other. I appreciate that, at conferences and in academic papers, they have challenged each other’s conclusions and, in doing so, have pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge. Yet I am also grateful for my scientist friends who posted on Facebook links to videos and essays in which scientists explained, in terms that I could understand, why it was so significant that we had heard black holes colliding.

I enjoyed physicist Lawrence Krauss’s clear articulation of why a citizen like me — who could never understand an academic paper in physics — should continue to support investing oodles of money in basic research: “By exploring processes near the event horizon, or by observing gravitational waves from the early universe, we may learn more about the beginning of the universe itself, or even the possible existence of other universes.” This matters: “Every child has wondered at some time where we came from and how we got here. That we can try and answer such questions by building devices like LIGO to peer out into the cosmos stands as a testament to the persistent curiosity and ingenuity of humankind — the qualities that we should most celebrate about being human.”

I appreciate the scientists who have taken time to write for readers like me about the importance of hearing ripples in space-time. But I am also thankful for the many scientists who spend most of their time talking to each other. Instead of writing for me, they devoted their efforts to producing inaccessible scholarship that, over time, produced public insights of profound beauty.

Read the entire piece here.

Ben Carp Responds to My Academic History Post

I have long admired the work and ongoing career of Benjamin Carp.  In case you don’t know Ben, he is the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College.  He is also a prolific historian and public scholar.  Check out his books Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution and Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America.

Ben was dismayed by my recent post “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing History for Public Audiences” and asked me if he could write a response.  Of course I jumped at the chance to have Ben’s byline at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I am also flattered and honored that he would take my post and my work seriously enough to respond in the way he did.  For that I am thankful.

Fellow historians like Ben remind me why I love being a part of this profession.–JF

Here is his response (after the video, which Ben requested that I post with his article :-)): 

Baby Come Back: A Response to John Fea

As a fellow Mets fan, I will always feel a certain kinship with John Fea, and I have long valued his voice, his insights, and his scholarship. I agreed with much of his post, but it also filled me with dismay. I, too, cheered Karen Wulf’s post about the need for academic history and the impossibility of bending all our work toward a public audience.

I have come to some of the same conclusions as John: gratitude that I have attained a sense of calling in my job, a refusal to overvalue “prestige,” and a desire to speak to broader audiences when I can. But I have come to the opposite conclusion: a need to make sure I don’t spend all my time on public writing, and a need to keep plugging away at academic work. In a side conversation on Twitter, John and I talked about our search for a “middle ground” between academic and public history, but in his blogpost he seemed to be moving toward the edge of that ground, if not over a cliff.

Like John, I’ve also tried to write works for an academic audience and a public audience; and I’ve encountered the joys and frustrations in both. The miseries of academic publishing are well known: sniping peer reviewers, the long lag time, and the limited audience (sometimes). But public history is no picnic either: editors and filmmakers (and readers!) sometimes want something very paint-by-numbers, or conformist, or wrongheaded; the demand for gripping narrative and relatable characters can often lead historians away from more challenging topics. Sure, careerism stalks academia, but pelf and popularity contests can sometimes undermine a lot of public history. No one knows this better than John Fea, who has drawn upon his credibility as a scholar to assail the hacks who are out there misinforming the public.

People’s attention spans (in academic realms or the public) are finite. Every piece of writing must fight to be heard, and we hope it’s the good stuff that wins. For academic articles, “losing” that fight will mean fewer eyeballs or citations; for public history a “loss” will mean the same thing, except it’ll feel worse if there’s money riding on it.

But in spite all of these difficulties, I think it’s the scholar’s responsibility to try to work in both worlds if one has the capacity to do it.

So here is my prediction: John Fea won’t entirely abandon academic writing. As long as he is continuing to teach and advise students, attend conferences and participate in social media discussions, read manuscripts and review books, and write engaging history, he will feel the call to write for a scholarly audience again. Why? Because at some point his curiosity will lead him to a problem he can’t crack. And he will want to write his way out of that problem. Maybe it’ll be something that’ll take 10,000 words to answer, maybe 100,000—either way, it will become, for a time, his new passion. A blogpost will seem too short (“a three-minute record”), a trade book will seem too glib. Maybe the question and the answer will be a little too abstruse or narrow for a broader audience. But he’ll know that his fellow history-lovers are out there, and he’ll want to enter into the lists with them once again to solve that problem. Call it “the pursuit of mutual improvement.”

I can’t know this for sure, but I would guess that John Fea, like Philip Vickers Fithian, is sometimes being called abroad and sometimes feeling the tug of home; like all of us, he struggles with the tensions of reconciling the advancement of knowledge with the demands of the broader world. Unlike many of us, he has grasped the key insight that different audiences will want different things from the history we produce, and he has found ways to connect with these different audiences. This is one of the most admirable things about him. I just don’t believe him when he says that public history is the only kind he wants to do.

As long as our curiosity motivates us, there’s no easy answer to these questions. Given his talents, I think he should do both narrative and argument, both academic and popular writing, and we should all resist the urge to scorn people who aren’t following the same path, so long as they’re doing good work. One thing seems certain to me, at least: surrender isn’t the answer.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #75

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

After writing 1000 words in a three hour writing session this morning I am starting to come to grips with the fact that my writing pace is slowing as I get deeper and deeper into the academic semester.  I did not have time to work on the ABS project on Monday (thus no update) and this morning, though I did manage to dump some more prose into Chapter Four, I did not feel like it was a very productive morning.  

Perhaps I am being too hard on myself.  I am on Chapter Four of a fourteen or fifteen chapter book and I have about eight months to finish it. 

This book is confirming something I have felt for a long time.  Namely, that I am losing interest in being an academic historian.  What makes this book so enjoyable to work on is the opportunities to tell stories about the past through my writing.  For example, today I wrote about a poor ABS agent with horse problems.  His first horse went blind.  His second horse was put to rest after braving a cold winter on the Illinois prairie   And he expected his third horse to die “any day now.” 

Stay tuned.

Academic Publishing: What’s the Point?

By now many of you may have read Sarah Kendzior’s piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s new Vitae website entitled “What’s the Point of Academic Publishing.”  She echoes what is these days a fairly common lament about scholarly publishing and academic careerism.  Here is a taste:

In January 2014, creative-writing professor Cathy Day published a rundown of her publications since 2011: 300 pages of a novel, 100 pages of non-fiction, seven essays, two short stories, and 200 blog posts. The blog posts, dedicated to the craft of writing, attracted the most attention, garnering over 160,000 pageviews. Day’s last post was particularly popular: It announced the end of her blog.
“Here’s the thing: this work hasn’t counted much for me as an academic,” she wrote. “Every time I post to this blog, I’m taking time away from my fiction and nonfiction, from work that ‘counts’ for me—both institutionally and personally. Even now, as I write this, I’m not working on my novel and other projects.”
Today, a creative-writing professor is expected to produce more publications than a science professor of 50 years ago. But in other ways, little has changed. Though digital platforms enable scholars to share their ideas with the public, their desire to do so is often held against them. Academics are pressured to produce an ever greater amount of work for an inherently limited audience.
In order to maintain her professional viability, Day stopped work that she and the public found meaningful—work that directly relates to her role as a teacher—in order to have time to produce work that “counts” to a small number of academics. To “count” is not to spread knowledge, as Day did, or develop new ideas, as Higgs did. To “count” is to preserve your professional viability by shoring up disciplinary norms. In most fields, it means to publish behind a paywall, removed from the public eye—and from broader influence and relevance. To “count” is to conform.
Publishing and labor are two of academia’s most contentious issues, and they are usually debated separately. But when the rate of contingency hires and publications rise together—with the assumption that the latter is a means to avoid the former—they need to be taken as a broader problem: the self-defeating mechanization of scholarship. Scholars are encouraged to sacrifice integrity and ingenuity to careerism that does not reward them with a career.
As most of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are aware, I have been a strong advocate of historians writing for a general public.  But I also realize that not all historians are called to this kind of public work.  We need academic publishing (whether it continues to be done in traditional print form or move online is another matter).  Dissertation writers and monograph authors offer us carefully researched and detailed studies that provide the building blocks for larger synthetic works that have a better potential of reaching public audiences, influencing school textbooks, and informing public debate.