DJ: We could talk shop all day. How and why did you decide to communicate this history with the public?
TJS: Throughout my career, I have chosen topics that have contemporary relevance. I don’t see a bright line between past and present. When I was in graduate school, one of the harshest criticisms you could level against a historian was that he or she was a presentist. Somehow our historical scholarship would be compromised by our engagement with the world that we live in now. I’ve never found this argument to be persuasive. It’s a fallacy to see the present as somehow uprooted from history. The opportunities and constraints that we experience in the here and now are the result of historical processes.
I also don’t draw a bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy. I think those of us who have the skills to write clearly should exercise those skills. We should try to reach beyond a couple hundred specialists in our scholarly subfields.
DJ: You said there’s no bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy, but is the process different? Is the process of writing an article or book chapter different from writing op-eds? Walk us through the mechanics.
TJS: When you write an op-ed for the New York Times or the Washington Post, you might have 750 or 800 words. You have to take a lot of complex material and boil it down to its essence. That requires making really hard choices about what’s in and what’s out. We historians love detail. We love the specifics, but when you’re writing short, popular pieces, you’ve got to let a lot of that detail fall by the wayside.
Some would say that it’s dangerous to simplify complex arguments, but I think it can be done well. The key is to be faithful to the substance of your argument even if you’re leaving a lot of the evidence out. Readers who want to know more can find my articles online or go to their local library or bookstore and pick up a copy of one of my books.
DJ: What have been some of the other ways you’ve shown up as a public thinker?
TJS: I have been asked to be an expert witness in a number of civil rights cases. That requires another type of writing. I’m an archive hound. I’m really rigorous. I try to leave no statement that I make in a book or a scholarly article unsupported. I try to turn over every last stone. The burden of proof, already high, is even greater when you are engaged in research for a legal case, because your work is going to be used in an adversarial process. I go through every word, every footnote, and make sure everything is absolutely precise. I know my work is going to be subjected to close scrutiny by lawyers who want to demolish my credibility.
Another way in which I engage different audiences is through public speaking. I’ve given hundreds of talks and workshops and lectures, not only at colleges and universities, but also to community organizations, museums, religious congregations, and foundations. I once even gave a keynote at a chamber of commerce event, because that audience needed to be exposed, more than most, to scholarship on race and inequality. I speak to people who agree with me, but also to people who don’t.
Read the entire interview here.
Back in 2014, I offered my two cents on public scholarship in a 9-part video series published on YouTube as part of the old Virtual Office Hours. Here is episode 1: