Ed Ayers


This is a great piece on the noted American historian.  A taste of Gary Robertson’s article at Richmond Magazine:

In a life that continues to be marked by leadership, accolades and influence, Ed Ayers — the son of a Tennessee used-car salesman and a fifth-grade teacher — says that when his feet hit the floor every morning, his mind is usually turned toward the book he’s currently writing or the one he’s going to write next.

“I don’t belong to any school of anything. I don’t feel I’m carrying a flag for any cause. I just kind of have a desire to write a history in which everybody has a place. My dream is to connect with as broad an audience as I can, with different people. It’s what I do most uniquely,” says Ayers, one of the nation’s best known historians of the American South.

When he left the presidency of UR in 2015, Ayers made a rapid beeline to a rural property near Charlottesville that he and his wife, Abby, have owned since 1986. In recent years, it has served as a retreat.

Read the entire piece here.

Edward Ayers on Confederate Monuments


Last weekend Edward Ayers gave a stirring and inspiration presidential address at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento. (See our coverage here). The title was “Everyone Their Own Historian.”  I was not in Sacramento for the conference, but I followed along eagerly as Liz Covart of “Ben Franklin’s World” fame live-tweeted:

Over at Salon, Chauncey Devega interviews Ayers about Trump, Confederate monuments, and Civil War history.  Here is a taste:

The Republican Party is in many ways the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South updated for the 21st century. There has long been a neo-Confederate element in the post-civil rights era Republican Party. With Trump’s election they have fully empowered. And in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, we actually saw the president of the United States, suggesting that there are “some very fine people” among neo-Nazis and white supremacists. How do you make sense of this?

I was in Charlottesville that day. I was going to teach a class that afternoon at the University of Virginia. I would start by explaining how there are people who turn to the symbols of the Confederacy as a native, indigenous rebellion against the power of the federal government. That appeals to a lot of people. But when you see that Confederate flag being mingled with Nazi flags, suddenly that claim upon an indigenous, pure and non-racialized argument about politics and “traditions” is gone. It has been forever entangled with white supremacy.

You might be surprised by the number of people who will come up to me after I give a lecture and tell me, “Slavery was wrong, I would never defend it. But the fact is that Robert E. Lee was a fine man and he was fighting for his home, right? He was fighting for what he thought was right.” You hear that a lot. It makes you realize all the evasions that are built into this defense of the Confederacy.

We have all these formulas that people use to say that they are proud of their ancestors. For example, he was a “good” slaveholder. Two, he didn’t really believe in slavery. Three, he wanted to get rid of slavery. Four, most white Southerners weren’t slaveholders so they could not have been fighting for slavery, and so forth. I listen to these folks and I then say, yes, let’s think about this. Let’s forget about whatever you might think about the character or identity of Robert E. Lee. What if the Confederacy had won? What if those men on horseback had actually accomplished what they set out to do? They would have created a nation explicitly based on perpetual bondage that would have been the fourth-richest economy in the world with a monopoly over the single most valuable commodity in the world. How would world history have been different? Other parts of the world would have looked to the South and said, “Ah, the path to the future leads through slavery.”

If you try to argue with them on the same ground that they form the question on, you will have a hard time persuading them. But it’s also the case that white Northerners and Westerners have a smug belief in the inevitable end of American slavery that is not warranted either.

Read the entire interview here.


Historian Edward Ayers


Ed Ayers is a Civil War-era historian and a “pioneer” in the field of digital humanities. After 27 years teaching history at the University of Virginia, he served eight years as the president of the University of Richmond.  He currently holds the Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities at Richmond.

Earlier this week, Inside Higher Ed, published an article on his current work.  Here is a taste of “Making History Cool“:

Ed Ayers stepped down as president of University of Richmond in June 2015 after an eight-year run. Plenty of distinguished university leaders like him would use their postpresidency time to relax — or to take up a hobby, perhaps.

But Ayers had other plans.

“The whole time, I knew I wasn’t finished being a historian,” Ayers said in an interview with “Inside Digital Learning.”

“What I wanted to do was connect with as broad an audience as possible.”

Those efforts are underway, and they’ve already taken several forms. Ayers polished the second and final volume of his book Valley of the Shadow, assembled from his landmark digital humanities project of the same name from the early 2000s, for release Oct. 24. He also continues co-hosting the BackStory podcast, in which he’s been taking deep dives into historical issues since 2008.

In several other arenas, he’s in a leadership role that he and others describe as “executive producer,” overseeing projects at the Digital Scholarship Lab, a digital humanities lab at Richmond that contributes research and teaching. And most intriguing, he’s half of the duo behind Bunk, a project launching this week that represents the peak of Ayers’s ambitions thus far. The website describes itself as “a shared home for the web’s most interesting writing and thinking about the American past.”

His goals are lofty.

Read the entire piece here.

Ed Ayers Delivers Commencement Address at University of Mary Washington


Photo credit: Fredericksburg Today

Edward Ayers is the President Emeritus at the University of Richmond, an innovator in the field of digital history, and one of our best historians of the 19th-century American South.

On Saturday he delivered the commencement address at the University of Mary Washington.  Here is a taste of an article on his address at Fredericksburg Today:

He talked about tumultuous times in American history, where the country’s residents could never have predicted events such as the devastation caused by the Civil War.

“Americans could not have foreseen a war that over the next four years killed the equivalent of 8 million people today,” said Ayers, who addressed more than 5,000 students, family and friends on Ball Circle during the University’s 106th undergraduate commencement ceremony Saturday, May 13. Neither could they have realized that the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world would come to an end, he said.

He reflected on UMW’s Fredericksburg campus, where history played such a vital role. “Confederate cannons occupied the very ground on which we are gathered,” said Ayers, a historian of the American South. On the same site on which the University was founded, more than 12,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured trying to take the ridge overlooking the city.

“You can’t look out across at all of you and be at this place without thinking that sometimes history brings redemption,” said Ayers, “to see this very piece of land that people fought about so desperately is now the scene of such a wonderful ceremony.”

Today, we are surprised by the unpredictable events of the 21st century.

“If we measure those years by political events, economic events, international events, or cultural events, things seem chaotic,” he said. “It’s hard for everyone, including young people, to get their bearings.”

The fact is, we always live in unusual times, said Ayers. While some years are better than others financially or politically, the future always moves in unforeseen ways.

“The only law of history I’ve been able to discover is that the unexpected, good and bad, always happens,” said Ayers, who served as University of Richmond’s ninth president from 2007 to 2015. “The unexpected always happens, so get used to it – or, even better, bring it about yourself. That’s a reason for anxiety, but it’s also reason for hope.”

History lives within us as much as we live within history.

“You are woven into the time and space that you share with the people with whom you sit. That’s why you are the class of 2017,” said Ayers, who currently serves as University of Richmond’s Tucker-Boatwright professor of the humanities. “It matters when you were here. You always will be a part of this moment because you live in history.”

At Mary Washington, he said, graduates have learned to deal with complexity in all its forms, knowing solutions are not often simple. They’ve learned how to deal with the ambiguity that justice and wisdom aren’t always clearly defined. They’ve learned how to deal with people whose beliefs are different from their own, and they’ve learned that people are as complex and as full of surprise as they are.

Great stuff!

Big Changes at “Backstory”



Backstory with the American History Guysthe popular American history radio show and podcast, is going to have to make a slight alteration to its subtitle.  That is because Yale historian Joanne Freeman has joined the show.   Freeman will join Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh beginning February 3, 2017.  In addition to Freeman, Johns Hopkins history professor Nathan Connolly will also join the cast.

Peter Onuf, one of the original “American History Guys” is stepping down from his regular hosting slot, but he will continue to contribute to the show.

Here is a taste of the press release from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities:

Freeman is a professor of History and American Studies at Yale, author of the award-winning “Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic,” and editor of “Alexander Hamilton: Writings.” A specialist in revolutionary and early national American history, her work focuses on political violence and the culture of politics. Her extensive knowledge of dueling and research into the life of Alexander Hamilton influenced Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Broadway’s “Hamilton” the musical.  In a New York Times story, Miranda credited Freeman’s book “Affairs of Honor” and her edited volume of “Alexander Hamilton: Writings” as “indispensable.”

Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida.” Connolly’s research and writing focuses on the “interplay between racism, capitalism, politics, and the built environment in the twentieth century.” A self-described desegregationist, Connolly is the first African American author to win either the Kenneth T. Jackson Book Award from the Urban History Association or the Bennett H. Wall Award from the Southern Historical Association. Connolly is also the co-author of “Trump Syllabus 2.0” and the first black U.S. historian to earn tenure at Johns Hopkins.

Longtime host Peter Onuf will continue to contribute to the program.

“Peter Onuf’s rambunctious sense of humor, iconoclastic insight, broad vision, and passion have given BackStory much of its energy, irreverence, and relevance,” said Ayers. “We’re delighted that Peter will remain a part of BackStory, with guest appearances on the show, and we know our listeners will always be happy to hear his resonant voice.”

BackStory’s audience is already familiar with the voices of both Freeman and Connolly as guests and as co-hosts. This year, Connolly guest-hosted “Well-Regulated Militias” and Freeman guest-hosted “Judaism in America.”

“I can’t wait to start working with Joanne and Nathan on a weekly basis. It’s about time that they earned an honest living,” Balogh said. “All kidding aside,” he continued, “I am honored to work with two such fine scholars, who have advanced their fields but not lost sight of the big picture.”

Ed Ayers and Natalie Zemon Davis Receive National Humanities Medals

Ed Ayers

Glad to see these two excellent historians receive this distinguished honor.  Here is a taste of Vanessa Varin’s report at AHA Today

Among the list are historians Edward L. Ayers, a current AHA member, and Natalie Zemon Davis, past AHA president.  Ayers will be honored for his “commitment to making our history as widely available and accessible as possible.  Dr. Ayers’ innovations in digital humanities extend higher learning beyond campus boundaries and allow broad audiences to discover the past in new ways.”  Davis will be recognized for her “insights into the study of history and her exacting eloquence in bringing the past into focus.  With vivid description and exhaustive research, her works allow us to experience life through our ancestors’ eyes and to truly engage with our history.

Other recipients of this year’ medal include: Joan Didion, Marilynne Robinson, Frank Deford, and Robert Putnam.

You can watch today’s 2pm ceremony at White House Live.

Ed Ayers on the Digital Humanities, MOOCs, and Technology in Higher Education

When Ed Ayers has something to say about the digital humanities I tend to listen–attentively.  Today the Chronicle of Higher Education is running a piece by Ayers titled “A More Radical Online Revolution.”  He introduces his readers to the “History Harvest” project at the University of Nebraska and the “Visualizing Emancipation” project at his own University of Richmond (Ayers is the president).  In the process he makes a compelling argument for the role that digital history might play in the entire MOOC, online learning, and technology conversation.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Ironically, the advocates and skeptics of online teaching might find common ground by thinking more boldly, beyond the terms of the current debate. The skeptics might ask whether the new technologies cannot offer useful amplification to our scholarly work of discovery; the advocates of the new technologies need to think more directly about how to reach broad audiences while also fostering meaningful conversations across the disciplines and bridging a division between teaching and scholarship.

Two crucial parts of higher education that have received little attention in the debates thus far—the humanities and the creation of new knowledge—can help advance those conversations.

A deeper engagement with the methods and purposes of the humanities is essential for any online enterprise that claims to offer a university education. Though humanities courses appear on some of the listings from the new consortia, and though some courses have proved extremely popular, much of the attention devoted to MOOCs focuses on the procedural, cumulative methods of teaching of computer science, statistics, and the basic sciences. The humanities, by contrast, flourish with different ways of thinking and teaching, more ambiguous, open-ended, and interpretive.

Whatever the discipline, the new online world must find ways to help create new knowledge. Online education cannot run indefinitely, as it does now, on borrowed intellectual capital, disseminating what we already know. Higher education takes its energy, its purpose, from a charged circuit between teaching and research, between sharing knowledge and making knowledge. New forms of teaching must be able to generate new ideas.

Scholarship expressly built for electronic environments has been slow to develop. Perhaps surprisingly, given how slow online teaching methods have been to adapt to the humanities, those disciplines are in the forefront of developing this new kind of scholarship. The digital humanities are growing rapidly, establishing centers at many institutions, hiring professors and researchers, sustaining rich conversations online and in national and international conferences. Indeed, the digital humanities can serve as a model for other disciplines, and for the larger online enterprise.