Catholic History at the AHA

acsI hope you have enjoyed William Cossen‘s posts from the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend.  You can read them all here.  

Below is his final post.  He reflects on two sessions on American Catholic History.–JF

On AHA’s third day, I attended a presidential roundtable hosted by the American Catholic Historical Association, of which I am a member, titled “The Future of Catholic History: What Do Graduate Students Want to Know?”

The first presenter, Boston College’s Peter Cajka, who serves as the Graduate Student Representative to the ACHA’s Executive Council, posed five timely questions dealing with the job market and with the field of Catholic history:

1) Why are there not more positions being created at Catholic schools for junior scholars who specialize in Catholic history, and if there is only one Catholic history position open this year, what else is available for job seekers?

2) How can a scholar make a case for Catholic history when applying to general history positions?

3) Can religious historians apply for theology or religious studies positions?  Furthermore, what is really meant by “Catholic studies,” and how can historians make themselves competitive for positions in this field?

4) How can historians of Catholicism demonstrate the relevance of their research for postdoctoral positions that focus on broader issues dealing with religion?

5) How can Catholic historians articulate what it means to be Catholic and connect this to their research and teaching when applying to religious schools?

The second presenter, Shannen Dee Williams of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, spoke about her important research on black Catholic sisters.  Williams described the difficulties involved in locating sources on religious sisterhoods and then gaining access to archives holding these materials.  Looking toward future trends in the field, Williams recommended investigating the transatlantic history of Catholics of color, urging scholars to “look at those who have remained on the margins of the church.”  I have been thinking since the roundtable about a provocative question Williams posed during her presentation that historians of all fields, especially those researching figures who have been traditionally left out of historical narratives, should consider seriously: how can we reconstruct histories that were never meant to be told?

The third presenter, Kyle Roberts of Loyola University Chicago, who serves as Director of Loyola’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities and Project Director of the Jesuit Libraries Project, described exciting advances and possibilities in the field of Catholic digital humanities.  Roberts explained that the main activity in Catholic digital humanities has emanated from Catholic archives, which have a done a fine job making more widely available to the public important sources in Catholic history.  My own research has benefited immensely from digitized U.S. Catholic sources, and it is important to note that such popular databases as America’s Historical Newspapers also contain Catholic periodicals.  I was left with one question that I discussed with other audience members following the roundtable.  While many digital humanities projects are freely available, many others (for example, several newspaper and academic journal databases) are not, often requiring an institutional affiliation with access to a research library to utilize the sources they contain.  What can the AHA and other historical societies do to help scholars without access to such institutional subscriptions to make use of important digitized sources and to maintain active, productive research agendas?

The final presenter, Thomas Rzeznik of Seton Hall University, who serves as editor of the journal American Catholic Studies, asked the audience to consider how we can make articles in Catholic historical journals and the journals themselves more relevant to a wider audience.  Rzeznik also encouraged scholars of Catholicism to think more about what the “Catholic” in American Catholic studies means.  Rzeznik argued that too frequently, historians of Catholicism focus only on the so-called “good” Catholics, an approach which I think not only renders Catholic identity monolithically but frankly makes it much less interesting.  Rzeznik is right to call for scholars to more seriously consider in their research those who he terms “misfit Catholics” as well as those married to Catholics and those who worked or studied in Catholic institutions but were not themselves members of the faith.  This, Rzeznik argues, will “broaden our lens of who is considered Catholic.”  As far as the wider relevance of Catholic history in the historical profession goes, Rzeznik points out correctly that the “field already reflects the diversity the job market wants” due to Catholicism’s transnational, cross-cultural dimensions.  Ultimately, Rzeznik explains, scholars of Catholicism need to remain mindful of the many audiences they serve: the academy; interested lay non-scholars; and the institutional church.

I also delivered a paper Friday afternoon titled “Isaac Hecker’s American Odyssey: Rewriting the Catholic Nation in The Church and the Age.”  I argued two main points in the paper: first, the thought of Catholic convert Isaac Hecker was representative of an emerging movement in late-nineteenth-century U.S. Catholicism that espoused Anglo-Saxon racial superiority in an effort to challenge Protestant hegemony; and second, scholars have paid little attention to Hecker’s and the larger Catholic Americanist movement’s affinity for popular racial theories of the day.  This is part of the larger effort of my dissertation to revise historical interpretations of Americanism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Catholicism.  I argued in the paper and the dissertation that the Americanists, far from being the benign democratizers of historiography, were comfortable putting a Catholic spin on American colonization of the U.S. West and the Philippines, scientific racial theories, immigration regulation, and exclusionary formulations of the national community, which lends a darker cast to the Americanists than has been previously acknowledged by scholars.  My paper was joined by Erin Bartram’s (University of Hartford) “The ‘Use and Abuse of Reading’: American Catholics and the Debate over Reading, 1860-90” (which also examined Hecker but in an earlier period) and Luke Ritter’s (Troy University) “Where Bigotry Thrives: Know-Nothingism and the Origins of an Inclusive Civil Religion.”  Following our presentation, the panelists and members of the audience had a productive conversation on Catholicism, Americanism, historiography, and the state of the field that extended well into the evening.

This has been another fantastic AHA.  Between sessions, exhibits, and the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends and to make new connections with other scholars, the AHA and its affiliate organizations certainly fulfilled their goal of exploring cutting edge scholarship and building collegiality across our profession.  Safe travels, fellow historians, and see you next year in Washington, DC!

Conservatism and the Media in Historical Perspective

 

buckley

William F. Buckley interviewing Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1971 on Firing Line

 

The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent reports are rolling in this morning!  Here is William Cossen‘s report on a fascinating session on American conservatism.  Read all of Cosseen’s posts from the AHA in Denver here.  –JF

On Friday, I attended an excellent AHA panel, “Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right.”  This panel’s four papers shed new light on a subject of continued importance, especially given last year’s presidential campaign.

The first paper, Nicole Hemmer’s “‘Hatchets with Soft-Covered Sheaths’: Conservative Publishing and the Goldwater Campaign,” examined the birth of an early 1960s trend among conservatives toward independent publishing of paperback books.  Examples of such books include Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason.  These books and similar titles were at the center of what Hemmer (the University of Virginia’s Miller Center) described as the creation of an unmediated, conservative, grassroots publishing movement.  Conservative bookstores played an important role, Hemmer argued, in serving as “alternative distribution systems” to mainstream publishers.  Why did these independent bookstores and books – which were printed in the millions – appear when they did in 1964?  Hemmer explained that many conservatives had become impatient with a GOP establishment that they felt had become too conciliatory and complacent in the face of growing liberalism.  This provided fertile ground for the rise of alternative conservative media.  “This isn’t just populism,” Hemmer argued.  “It’s populism plus.”

The second paper, Heather Hendershot’s “Firing Line: Steering Wheel and Compass of the Modern Conservative Image,” described William F. Buckley’s important role through his long-running television show Firing Line in making conservatism not only respectable but also “stylish.”  Hendershot (MIT) did a fine job weaving film clips from the show throughout her talk, reminding audience members just how entertaining and informative Buckley’s show was at its peak.  Hendershot explained that the show’s premise was to figuratively place liberals on the firing line.  Firing Line drew a diverse political audience.  Interestingly, many liberals would tune in and then walk away from the show with a deeper resolve to promote liberalism.  However, it also played a critical role in constructing the intellectual framework of the New Right.  Buckley’s urbane, witty manner, which was also evident in his magazine National Review, served, Hendershot argued, as “walking, talking proof of the insufficiency” of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style thesis.

The third paper, courtesy of my Penn State graduate school colleague Paul Matzko (congratulations on your recent graduation, Dr. Matzko!), “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” explored an early 1960s protest against and boycott of consumer items – especially Polish ham – originating in communist Eastern Europe and being sold in the United States.  This protest was led by conservative women and facilitated by religious radio broadcasters, groups often absent from general histories of the rise of the New Right.  Matzko explained that while figures like Buckley played important role in the growth of conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, radio broadcasters may have had a far larger numerical impact in terms of audience size than Buckley’s National Review.  The rapid spread of right-wing radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s laid the organizational groundwork for the New Right alongside Buckley’s intellectual contributions to the movement, the latter of which were described in Hendershot’s paper.  This growth of conservative broadcasting, coupled with conservative women’s grassroots organizing, came together in response to President John F. Kennedy’s promotion of increased trade with communist countries.  Polish hams came under attack as almost apocalyptic symbols of an alleged communist takeover of the United States.  The ensuing boycott had a massive economic impact.  Matzko recounted a Polish embassy estimation that the protest led to a $5 million loss in trade with Poland – in just a few months in 1962 alone!  Matzko concluded that actions such as the Polish ham boycott were the “stuff” of which modern conservatism was made.  The protest, much like the independent book publishing described by Hemmer, revealed the power that hundreds of thousands of dedicated, non-establishment political figures could have in elections and in the formulation of public policy.

The panel’s final paper, Michael McVicar’s “Surveillance – Dossier – Exposé: The Infrastructure and Technique of the Anticommunist Blacklist,” provided a revealing glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts methods used by conservatives from the 1920s into the 1960s  to infiltrate, uncover, and eliminate what they perceived to be a growing communist threat in the United States, which dovetails nicely with Matzko’s paper.  McVicar (Florida State University) explained that early religious, anticommunist activists built on organizational techniques and classificatory charts pioneered by late nineteenth-century management experts to construct extensive databases that sought to connect liberal Protestants with communism and alleged communist front groups.  These archival materials have been underutilized by historians, and McVicar’s research promises to provide a more nuanced genealogy of the New Right reaching to the years immediately following the First World War.

President-elect Donald Trump’s electoral victory has clearly been on the minds of many historians attending this year’s AHA, serving as the subject of not one but two major conference sessions.  This panel on the New Right was not responding directly to the outcome of election, as it was organized much earlier than November.  Still, the speakers’ contributions to the subfield of New Right history provide many useful insights into how this political movement and its legatees have continued to thrive, and the panel itself was a model of thoughtful organization and planning that brought together four papers complementing each other exceptionally well.

Reflections on the Academic Job Search

job-searcvhWe are very happy to have William S. Cossen writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association. William defended his dissertation, “The Protestant Image in the Catholic Mind: Interreligious Encounters in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” in October and graduated with a PhD in history from Penn State University in December. (Congratulations!). He is a faculty member of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Lawrenceville, Georgia.  Below you will find some of his reflections on Day 1 of the AHA.–JF

Greetings from sunny Denver!

Well, a little wishful thinking can’t hurt.

After a smooth flight from Atlanta and a scenic train ride from Denver International Airport to the city, I made it safely to AHA 2017.  I’ll be presenting on Saturday at the American Catholic Historical Association’s conference as part of a panel titled “Catholicism and Americanism in the 19th Century: New Perspectives on an Old Debate.”  It will be nice to have so much time before delivering my own paper to enjoy the rest of the conference.

Following a quick, efficient check-in process (thank you, AHA!), I made my way to my first panel of the conference, “Deciphering the Academic Job Search,” which was sponsored by the AHA’s Professional Division.  With the market seemingly getting tighter every year, I was eager to hear opinions on the process from a recent candidate, a search committee member, and an academic dean.

The recurring themes I picked up in all three presentations were the necessity of flexibility and the need for candidates to be able to compellingly present their research – specifically providing a clear answer to the “so what?” question, a skill which is also useful in academic publishing and grant writing – to those outside their fields.

The first presenter, Ava Purkiss of the University of Michigan, provided helpful advice for how candidates can make themselves stand out in the initial stages of the job search process.  One tip was for candidates to shop their job materials around widely before applying, not only among their advisors and committee members but also among other professors and graduate students.  A second tip was for candidates to seek out search committees’ evaluation and scoring criteria for job applications.  This might not be easy to find, but Dr. Purkiss mentioned an example of one university posting this information online publicly.  A final piece of advice, which is especially useful in an era of online applications, was to print out all components of the application before submitting them to search committees to find and fix any glaring errors.

The second presenter, Paul Deslandes of the University of Vermont, counseled prospective job candidates to be self-reflective.  He urged job seekers to answer an important question: What do you really want out of academia?  He noted importantly that if one does not see themselves enjoying teaching, then academia is probably not a good fit.  Dr. Deslandes emphasized one of the panel’s key themes, which was that job seekers need to learn how to communicate their research to departments in their entirety, or as he put it, “Speak the language of other people.”  Regarding job opportunities, he encouraged those on the job market to “be expansive.”

The final presenter, Catherine Epstein of Amherst College, offered practical advice for the all-important cover letter: the letter must make clear “why your work is interesting.”  While Dr. Epstein noted that candidates are not expected to write a brand new cover letter for each job, the letters need to be tailored to specific schools.  Responding directly to the job requirements found in a job advertisement demonstrates true interest in the position and shows search committees that a candidate has actually attempted to learn about the institution to which they are applying.

The question-and-answer session following the presentations reflected some of the larger anxieties of the current history job market, but I think that panel chair Philippa Levine’s reminder that this is very much an impersonal process is an important point for job seekers to take to heart, as difficult as that may be, if they are disappointed by the outcome of their search for employment in academia.  One essential fact is that the number of job seekers far outstrips the number of available tenure-track positions.  However, these sorts of panels do a good service for the profession by partially demystifying what is for many an often confusing, frequently disappointing process.

I’m excited for Friday’s full schedule of sessions – and, of course, also for the book exhibit.  As with other conferences of this size, I have upwards of ten panels which I would like to see simultaneously.  This is ultimately not a bad problem to have.  More to come!