Historian Thomas Sugrue on Public Thinking

Sugrue

Over at Public Books, University of Chicago historian Destin Jenkins interviews New York University historian Thomas Sugrue about his work as a public scholar.  Here is a taste the interview:

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:

 

Max Boot’s Screed Against Historians

Boot

Max Boot is the Jeanne Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN.  He is probably best known these days as an anti-Trump crusader.

Boot is also the latest public intellectual to chide academic historians for failing to speak to public audiences.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Washington Post:

A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.” Oh, and “more than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote, ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or Barack Obama.” It used to go without saying that this was one of Bernie Sanders’s most famous lines. (Wait. I may be confused.)

Boot defines the value of history education in America by how much kids know about the past.  He is completely unaware of the fact that Americans have been failing these tests since the early 20th century.  Sam Wineburg starts his seminal book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts with a reference to a 1917 exam in which Texas students answered 33 of 100 questions about “the most obvious facts of American history.”  The educators who conducted the test concluded that such a score “is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”  In other words, there is nothing knew here.  Boot’s understanding of history education seems to be little more than test-taking and memorization.  It has nothing to do with educating students to think historically.  I wrote about all this in the context of my home state of Pennsylvania. Click here.

Boot continues:

You simply can’t understand the present if you don’t understand the past. There is no more alarming case study of the consequences of historical ignorance than President Trump. He has adopted a foreign policy mantra of “America First” seemingly without realizing (or so I hope!) that the original America First Committee of 1940-1941 was sympathetic to the Nazis. And he has embraced tariffs seemingly without being aware of the disastrous consequences of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

More broadly, his appeals are steeped in misbegotten nostalgia. His slogan “Make America Great Again” implies that we must recover some lost golden age, a conceit that has been a constant of Western history since ancient Athens. Asked when America was great, Trump pointed to the early years of the 20th century and the 1940s-1950s. One wonders if he has heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire? Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”? The Balangiga MassacreLynchingsThe Palmer RaidsMcCarthyismTask Force SmithOrval Faubus? Of course, the United States did a lot of extraordinary things in the first half of the 20th century — but it was far from the paradise that Trump evokes. If Trump did understand that era, he wouldn’t be trying to undo its proudest achievements — from the Progressives’ regulation of business and protection of the environment to the Greatest Generation’s embrace of NATO and free trade.

Boot is right here.  It is not a new argument.  I have been deconstructing “Make America Great Again” since 2015 and I have written about it extensively in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Others have done the same.  And many are doing it before public audiences.  In the last two weeks I lectured on this very topic to audiences at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the University of Southern California, and a group of Christian college provosts at a conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Boot then goes after social history:

As historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin argue in War on the Rocks, since the 1960s, history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits. The push to emphasize “cultural, social and gender history,” and to pay “greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups,” they write, has been a welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect. Historian Jill Lepore notes that we have ditched an outdated national narrative without creating a new one to take its place, leaving a vacuum to be filled by tribalists.

Political, military, and diplomatic history is important, especially as we try to make sense of the Trump administration.  But the study of oppressed groups are more important than ever in the age of Trump.  How can we understand what Trump said about Charlottesville or what he is trying to do on the Mexican border without an understanding of social and cultural history?  How do we deal with the racial tensions in our country or the #MeToo movement without a grasp of this history?  I should also add that political, diplomatic and military history has not disappeared.  It has just become integrated with the new social history in a way that seems to make Boot uncomfortable. For example, historians are now thinking about the politics of race, the imperialism embedded in the history of U.S. diplomacy, and the role of women in the military.

And then Boot brings it home:

Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals — and students need to grasp the importance of studying history, not only for their own future but for the country’s, too. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad investment: History majors’ median earnings are higher than other college graduates’.

This reminds me of Thomas Sugrue’s recent critique of Jill Lepore. Historians are getting much better at engaging the public, but the university system does not often reward them for doing this kind of work.  So I have mixed feelings about this whole debate.  In other words, I do not think Boot is entirely wrong about this.  I wrote about it here in the context of the Sugrue-Lepore dust-up.

Boot has responded to critiques of his piece:

Introducing *Contingent Magazine*

If you care about history and want to hear from historians working outside of the academic tenure-track, then you should be aware of Contingent Magazine, a new startup from historians Erin Bartram, Bill Black, Emily Esten, and Marc Reyes.

Here is the mission:

Contingent is our idea for a nonprofit online magazine driven by people’s desire to understand the past and, inevitably, themselves. We have a threefold mission which can be broken down into the magazine’s creators, content, and audience:

  • Our creators will largely be historians working outside the tenure-track professoriate—those hired on a course-by-course or year-to-year basis, working in public history, or not working in a history-related field at all
  • Our content will be ethically produced, rigorous, and accessible to the public
  • Our audience will be those who have a deep love for and interest in the past but are often not catered to

We hope to challenge people’s assumptions about what historians, historical writing, and lovers of history look like. We’ll do this through a variety of genres, from features to book reviews to photo essays to comics.

The magazine will tap into a pool of severely underused talent: the thousands of historians who have been left adrift by the collapse of the academic job market.

American Historical Association chart illustrating the decade-long downturn in full-time work for history PhDs. Graph displays Advertised Job Openings Compared to the Number of New History PhDs, from 1973-4 to 2016-17.
American Historical Association chart illustrating the decade-long downturn in full-time work for history PhDs (source: American Historical Association)

These historians have lots of stories that they want to share with the public. But the outlets that will usually publish them (paywalled academic journals) aren’t accessible to the public, while the outlets that are accessible to the public often won’t publish them. Frequently in the latter case, and nearly always in the former, the historian isn’t paid. Contingent will be somewhere they can tell these stories, and will pay all its writers and contributors.

We believe there is a hunger among the larger public for well-done, accessible history beyond the Trumpocentric hot take. Unfortunately, history-related stories from mainstream journalism outlets are sometimes poorly sourced and argued (or just lift a professional historian’s work wholesale), while good work done by professional historians is often inaccessible to the public thanks to the dysfunction and paywalls of academia. We hope to help bridge this gap between historians and the public, and provide something of real value which neither the 24-hour news cycle nor traditional academia have the structural incentive to provide.

Why Contingent?

Our name refers in part to the historical concept of contingency—the idea that any single historical event is dependent on a multitude of causes. In other words, there is no single thing that can explain a historical event, and therefore no way for historians to ask every possible question about the past. There is always more digging to do.

The name is also an allusion to the growing percentage of professional historians who are contingent workers as opposed to full-time, long-term employees. Over the past few decades, and especially since the 2008 recession, colleges and universities have increasingly adjunctified their faculty, since it is cheaper to pay two part-time people to teach two classes each than to pay one full-time person to teach four classes.

Chart showing broad Sectors of employment for history PhDs, 2004-13. Sectors of employment include: 4-Year Tenure Track (47.41%); Retired, Unemployed (1.64%); Not Found (6.57%); Non-Profit (7%); Government (3.85%); Private Sector (6.81%); Higher Ed Admin/Staff (5.90%); Postdocs and Researchers (1.24%); 2 Year Non-Tenure-Track (2.94%); 2 Year Tenure-Track (3.41%); 4 Year Non-Tenure-Track (13.21%).
Chart showing how, of the 8,523 people who received a history PhD in the United States between 2004 and 2013, fewer than half are now tenure-track professors, and one-third don’t teach at a college or university at all (source: American Historical Association)

Non-tenure-track faculty, including adjunct faculty as well as “visiting” professors who are usually contracted to teach for one year, provide a disproportionate share of the teaching in US colleges, upward of 70%. In short, even while there is increasing demand for the work historians do, their work is being increasingly devalued. We want to show what is possible when their work is properly valued.

Help them get started with a donation.  Click here to donate.

I am really excited to see this project develop.  I know that a lot of it stems from Erin Bartram’s experience in the academy, as told in Episode 37 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Here is my daughter, an undergraduate history and psychology major, listening to that episode:

ally podcast

Thank You Rick Shenkman!

shenkman

Rick Shenkman, the founder, publisher, and editor of History New Network (HNN), has retired.  In a farewell interview with M. Andrew Holowchak, Shenkman tells us why he founded HNN:

HNN began with a grievance.  During the impeachment of Bill Clinton, you may recall, there were cries that Congress censor him rather than impeach him.  In their reporting the media kept citing the censorship of Andrew Jackson and sometimes John Tyler.  I was doing research at the time for my book, Presidential Ambition, and knew that James Buchanan had been censured too.  I tried to contact various media outlets like ABC News and the New York Times to let them know about this forgotten moment in our history but got nowhere.  I fumed about this.  It seemed crazy that journalists would ignore a historian who had valuable information to add to an important debate. (Here is the article I wound up writing about censure.)

This was the genesis of HNN.  It seemed obvious to me that historians should have a national platform to help journalists and the public make sense of the news.  I set out to create one in 2000.  (We went online in 2001.) 

Today, of course, it is not uncommon for journalists to seek the expertise of historians.  Rick had something to do with that.

I check HNN every day.  It has become an invaluable resource. As a blogger who tries to keep my site fresh, I usually gravitate towards HNN’s “Breaking News” and “Historians” tabs in the top right corner of the website.  There have been many weekends when I need a few additional entries for my Sunday Night Odds and Ends feature and I always find something of note at HNN.

Rick has also made HNN a place to go for news, videos, and interviews from the American Historical Association and other conferences.  In fact, I first met Rick when he was covering an AHA meeting.  He was the guy running around the lobby conducting video interviews with historians who had just presented papers or talks.  In the process, he has done a wonderful service for the historical profession and the general public at large.

An accomplished historian in his own right, Rick has long served as a model for how to bring good history to public audiences.  His work at HNN has inspired my own work in this area and has certainly influenced what I do at this blog.

I came to HNN through the late Ralph Luker‘s blog Cliopatria.  Luker was one of the first historians to see the potential of blogging.  A check of his daily link roundup became a daily ritual for me.   I remember hoping that one day I might receive a “Cliopatria Award” for history blogging, but it never happened. 😦

In November, Rick e-mailed to tell me that he was retiring and wanted to run one more of my pieces.  I pitched a piece based on my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Rick published it on December 30, 2018, his last issue.  Just recently he wrote to inform me that a piece I had published earlier in the year was one of the most read posts of 2018.

Rick has been publishing my stuff for nearly fifteen years.  Some of my pieces have been original to HNN and others have been reposts from other sites, including The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I will always appreciate his willingness to bring my writing to a larger audience.  Thanks, Rick!  Enjoy your retirement!  I am sure that HNN is in good hands at George Washington University under the leadership of Kyla Sommers.

Here are most of the pieces I have published over the years at History News Network:

Trump’s White Evangelicals are Nostalgic for an American Past that Never Existed for Blacks and Others (13-30-18)

Why is Christian America supporting Donald Trump (6-29-18)

John Fea’s new book sets out to explain why 81% of white American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 (6-19-18)

You Are Never Going to Believe Which Verse Was Most Quoted in American Newspapers Between 1840 and 1920 (6-15-18)

The Discipline of the History Professor in the Age of Trump (9-13-17)

What the Trump Presidency Reveals About American Christianity and Evangelicalism: An Interview with John Fea (7-30-17)

Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity (7-17-17)

Historian John Fea’s twitterstorm in defense of the NEH (3-16-17)

John Fea warns evangelicals to be wary of David Barton (2-2-17)

What Was Missing from Trump’s Inaugural Address? (1-25-17)

Another Kind of Identity Politics (12-10-16)

Still Misleading America About Thomas Jefferson (2-7-16)

Has the Sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War Been a Failure? (4-29-14)

Why K-12 Teachers Should Attend the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting (12-12-13)

William Pencak, R.I.P. (12-9-13)

Why Didn’t Obama Say “Under God” in His Recitation of the Gettysburg Address? (11-20-13)

Is a Historian Worth $1.6 Million? (11-23-11)

Interviewing at the AHA (12-30-09)

The Limits of Cosmopolitanism in Early America (5-25-08)

Are Christian Conservatives “Christian” or “Conservative” (11-30-07)

Is America a Christian Nation?  What Both Left and Right Get Wrong (9-30-07)

Protestant America’s Selective Embrace of the Pope’s Teachings (4-17-05)

The Messages You May Have Missed Reading Dr. Seuss (3-8-04)

Kevin Kruse on How to Challenge the Bad History Emanating From the Right

kruse-kevin-etta-recke-

Kevin Kruse

In Episode 34 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast we interviewed Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse about his work on Twitter.  It remains one of our most popular episodes of the podcast.  I encourage you to listen to it when you get the chance.

Over at the Pacific Standard, David Perry interviews Kruse about how he uses his Twitter feed to challenge right wing pseudo-historians like Dinesh D’Souza.  Here is a taste:

Let’s jump forward to your ongoing debates with Dinesh D’Souza, which seems to have vaulted your visibility to new heights. How did that get started

There was one right before the Fourth of July [this year]. I remember being at the beach, picking up my phone and saying, “Oh God that’s not good.” It really blew up and we had a series of back-and-forths where he would make claims, I would fact-check, and then he’d move the goal posts.

People really didn’t like what he was doing and people liked someone with some knowledge pushing back on it. [It turns out that] dunking on D’Souza is a great way to build a following.

D’Souza clearly isn’t interested in facts, so what kind of effect do you think you can have?

I’m under no illusion that I’m going to get him off Twitter. He’s got a very profitable con—I assume it’s a con. I do it for people on the sidelines, [for] people who aren’t already his fans but are confronted with people pushing his work directly or his arguments indirectly. It’s a way to serve as counterbalance.

Are you worried that you’re just giving him more oxygen?

Both D’Souza and Trump have a much bigger audience than I have. The millions of people who follow them are already going to see [their tweets]. It’s important to not just let them go unchallenged. D’Souza’s schtick was to say that no historians ever objected to what [he says]. So our lack of fact-checking was taken as at least our tacit approval. If we don’t speak up and challenge these untruths, then they have the floor.

Historians have the same kind of duty that scientists have to climate change deniers, that doctors have to anti-vaccine folks. It’s not fun. It’s not good for me to do this stuff. It’s not the best use of my time. I don’t get paid for it. I get flooded with hate mail and angry replies, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Why you?

By the nature of who I am and where I am—I’m a white straight man, a full professor at an Ivy League university—I catch 1 percent of the crap that is thrown at other scholars out there. I have the security to do this. I have no excuse not to do this, other than that I don’t want hate mail or it’s a drag on my time. Those are not good excuses, as far as I’m concerned.

I believe that we, as scholars, have a duty to engage with the public. As much time and energy as I put in my scholarly books and articles and teaching, we have a duty to these larger audiences that will never read one of my books. They don’t have [my books] on my desk, but they’re going to see one of these Twitter threads. And that’s good.

Read the entire interview here.

On Historians, Public Debate, and Journalists

hofstadter

The days of Richard Hofstadter are over

Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education published an interview with Harvard University historian Jill Lepore. We posted about it here.  During the course of the interview, Lepore said:

The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

When Lepore laments the lack of public engagement among historians, I imagine that she wants historians to write for popular publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or The New York Review of Books  Or perhaps she means writing books with trade presses.

Thomas Sugrue, a Professor of History and the Director of the New York University Collaborative on Global Urbanism, whipped-off a series of tweets in response to Lepore’s article.  I have included these tweets below.  Since I have mixed feelings about these tweets, I have decided to comment on some of them.

I don’t hold an academic appointment that most in the academy would consider prestigious, so I am not sure how many folks listen to me or take me seriously, but I have been preaching about the need for historians to engage the public for more than a decade.

I think Sugrue is correct.  Lepore’s criticism of historians staying in the ivory tower and not writing for the public is not as strong as it was a decade ago.  But what counts as public engagement?  It seems that Lepore and Sugrue are in general agreement that public engagement is primarily about writing in magazines that have very little readership beyond a well-educated, urban class that either live in blue states or aspire to live in blue states.

Moreover, those who publish pieces in The Washington Post and New York Times usually write for online audiences.  Most Americans do not search for these kinds of pieces in the online versions of national newspapers.  The thinking classes usually learn about these pieces through social media–usually Facebook and Twitter.  As a result, pieces in the Post or the Times circulate among the proverbial choir.  Is this really shaping public debate?

I agree.  The Internet has enabled this.

Yes.  I appreciate Zelizer on this front.  He is engaging a much wider audience every Saturday on CNN.

This is all well and good, but all of Sugrue’s examples here are historians shaping public debate by, for the most part, preaching to the choir.  I don’t want to be unfair to Sugrue because I largely agree with him on most of these tweets, but some of us do not live in a world where a well-targeted op-ed or a review in the LA Review of Books is going to be read.  The people I encounter every day in American evangelicalism or in south-central Pennsylvania do not usually read The Atlantic or The New Yorker.  They don’t see these magazines shaping public debate in their neighborhoods and towns.

I live in a world where we need to defend the very idea that historians have something to offer public life.  The people I know need to be convinced that history is important.  They do not breathe the rarefied intellectual air that Sugrue and Lepore breathe.

While I have published pieces in The AtlanticThe Washington Post, and other places that Sugrue or Lepore might deem worthy of a historian-public intellectual, I am convinced that we need more than this. I want to push for a deeper, even more engaged, public witness.  We need public historians laboring tirelessly to present the past to visitors in small museums. We need historians making cases, in their own backyards, for why these small museums need funding.  We need historians to earn trust among audiences through public lectures (reading papers in public venues are not public lectures) and face-to-face conversations about their books.  We need historians willing to educate college presidents and boards on the importance of the humanities. We need historians to build communities through blogs and social media. (Kevin Kruse is a great example here, but most of his audience represent one political/ideological perspective).  We need to work with teachers and make connections with local school districts.  We need historians teaching Sunday School.  We need to embrace the opportunity to teach large survey classes that put us in front of young men and women who need to see the importance of the past for their work in the worlds of business, engineering, and health care.  We need to stop thinking about our own ambitions and start using our skills to serve the common good in the places where we live and work.  The age of the superstar historian who speaks to mass culture is over.  Mass culture no longer exists.  We now live in what Daniel Rodgers has called “the age of fracture.”

Finally, we need to abandon the term “public intellectual.”  The only people who care about this moniker are other “public intellectuals” or scholars who aspire to a life as a “public intellectual.”  The phrase invokes a bunch of elite white men sitting around in Greenwich Village writing pieces that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not read.

Instead, perhaps we need to reclaim the public dimension of the term “historian.”

I don’t think Sugrue would disagree with any of this, but if we really want to reach as many people as possible in the age of Trump, we need to have a much more expansive view of public culture.

Some Thoughts on the Audience of *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dWho is the audience for Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump? There are three audiences.  Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. The 81% of white American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.
  2. The 19% of white American evangelicals (and non-white evangelicals) who did not vote for Donald Trump
  3. Anyone who wants to understand why 81% of American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

I realize that many of those in the 81% will want nothing to do with this book. But I hope some will read it.  I hope the book can serve as a way of encouraging dialogue in churches and other places where evangelicals gather together in communities of Christian fellowship that transcend politics.  (I am assuming, of course, that some of these places still exist.  I think they do).

I also realize that those who study evangelicals at the highest level–many of them former evangelicals or disgruntled evangelicals–want to take evangelicalism to the woodshed for its many sins.  Their scholarship is good and needed, but I part ways with many of them when it comes to reaching the church.  As a Christian, I am a member of the body of Christ–the Church. That is where I must find my primary identity.

Of course I still have a responsibility to live out my vocation in the academy,  the classroom, and as a professor at a Christian college.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that some posts are written with my church community in mind.  Others are written for American historians or members of the academic community.  Still others are for the general public.  These groups often overlap.  I have written books for my students, my academic discipline, the general public, and the church.

As a Christian, I have chosen to worship among American evangelicals.  In 2016, a large number of my tribe voted for Donald Trump.  I don’t think that was a good idea.  I have even written a book to tell my tribe that I do not think it was a good idea.  But in the end, I must live with the people in my tribe and try my best to fulfill my vocation as a historian and educator in their midst.  Some will say I go too far in the criticism of my people.  I know this from the letters, e-mails, and phone messages I receive–some of them pretty nasty.  Others will say I don’t go far enough in criticizing my people.  I know this from the reviews of the book.

The trashing of evangelicalism is popular these days and you can get pretty far and become pretty successful in academic/scholarly circles–especially in the fields of history and religious studies–by doing this.  I am sympathetic to scholars who call evangelicals to task for their sins.  As I am learning on the Believe Me book tour, many people had (or are having) very, very bad experiences in evangelicalism.  They are hurting.  They are angry.  I am listening to their stories.

But in the end, I will continue to defend the term “evangelical” because it still means “good news.”  For me, this “good news” is the ultimate source of hope for those who are hurting.  I am still willing to fight for the “good news” of the Gospel because this message changed the trajectory of my life and the life of my family and extended family in positive ways.  And I have seen hundreds of other lives changed by this message—men, women, people of color, poor people, rich people, gay and straight people.

In the end, I want to use my vocation as a historian to be a more direct part of the solution in the evangelical church rather than someone who merely diagnoses the problem or calls-out evangelicals for their many sins.  I am not sure I can do this as an academic, but I am willing to try.  Perhaps other Christian and evangelical scholars are called to something different.  But if they are called to something different, they will need to convince me how they will use their gifts and knowledge to serve the body of Christ.  This point relates not only to the content of their work, but also to its style and means of dissemination.

If we pursue this path within evangelicalism today, it will mean that we must serve those with whom we disagree on a whole host of political and cultural issues.  It will also require us to work hard at uncovering the common spiritual and theological ground that draws us together every Sunday morning despite our differences. I am convinced that this kind of engagement deepens our faith, helps us to see the flaws in our precious arguments, makes us better listeners and communicators, and teaches us to love.  It may also mean, in some cases (but certainly not all cases), staying in a particular religious tradition rather than leaving for a more a comfortable place of worship and fellowship where people think more like us.

Postscript:

I am sure that for some of my readers, this post just made me a subject of analysis, rather than a detached scholar.  Of course such analysis goes both ways.  I have seen many of my fellow academics as subjects of analysis for a long time! 🙂

Scholars Respond to Trump’s Border Policy

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The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a piece on the way scholars stepped-up to the plate during the “Trump border crackdown.”  I am glad that The Chronicle is noticing our work.  Here is a taste of Mark Parry’s article:

…In recent weeks, seemingly every Trump immigration move has prompted a real-time counter-mobilization of academic research, either by scholars themselves or by journalists calling on their expertise.

You see that in John Fea and Yoni Appelbaum’s breakdowns of how a biblical passage cited by the attorney general was used by defenders of slavery. You see it in Aliza Luft and Daniel Solomon’s analysis of Trump’s animalizing rhetoric. You see it in the debate over whether it’s fair to call America’s migrant detention centers concentration camps. (The answer, say two experts, is a qualified yes.)

For some scholars, research that had percolated for years suddenly carries an immediate resonance. On Monday, for example, the political scientists Emily M. Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed published a journal article documenting how news outlets stoke fear of Latino immigrants through imagery depicting them as criminals. Farris drew on her research in a Twitter thread contrasting two images that have shaped the family-separation narrative: the photo of a little girl crying as a border agent frisks her mother, and a picture released by the Trump administration of faceless boys in detention.

“We should think about how those images play a role in who we think is deserving of our concern,” Farris, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University, said in an interview. She added, “Images are powerful, and we don’t necessarily think about them as mediums for the ways we can interpret different policies.”

In interviews with The Chronicle, other historians and political scientists emphasized a dilemma of engaging this debate: how to raise alarms about the potential for human-rights abuses while conveying a nuanced understanding of a fast-changing situation. (Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday intended to stop family separations. It remained unclear on Friday how relatives would be reunited.)

The academics’ challenge is complicated by a paradox of scholarly communication right now. Thanks to social media and the proliferation of outlets like Vox and Monkey Cage, scholars are mixing it up in public like never before. But some scholars are frustrated that academe’s fact-backed warnings don’t penetrate to policy makers or large swaths of the public. Their struggle: getting readers to consider their evidence without dismissing them as Ivory Tower elites yet again denouncing Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

Historians and Journalists

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I get a lot of calls from journalists.  They have increased significantly since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency.   When journalists call I am happy to oblige.  I see this as an important part of my identity as a public scholar.  It is always nice to get acknowledged in an article, but sometimes a reporter wants to talk to a historian for background information that may or may not make it into the story.  Other times I just don’t say anything profound enough to make the final cut.

Over the years I have had my work–books, articles (scholarly and popular), and blog posts–used without citation.  It comes with the territory.  I have been noticing this of late with my use of the phrase “court evangelicals” to describe the evangelical leaders who support Donald Trump.  (I am grateful for journalists such as Nancy LeTourneau who always gives me credit for coining the term.  Michael Gerson–not so much).

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez writes about the relationship between historical scholarship and the media.  Here is a taste:

It was getting late, and the 2018 Golden Globe Awards were dragging on. But Danielle L. McGuire, a Detroit-based historian, was still waiting. She was staying up for something much more important than the year’s entertainment honors. She was waiting for Oprah Winfrey.

That night, Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, in which she presented a passionate argument for the #MeToo movement, electrified viewers and prompted questions about a presidential run.

For McGuire, the speech prompted a different question: How had Winfrey found out about Recy Taylor, one of the women at the center of her speech?

In September 1944, Taylor, a 24-year-old African-American sharecropper, was abducted and raped by six white men while she walked home from church in Abbeville, Ala. Decades before the civil-rights movement reached its climax the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the situation, and the seeds of the movement for racial equality were sewn, she said.

McGuire’s 2010 bookAt the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Penguin Random House) brought attention to a figure who had been largely absent from mainstream history. McGuire had connected the dots between the activists who called for Taylor’s rapists to be prosecuted and the rise of the civil-rights movement years later.

The speech introduced Taylor but didn’t go full circle to the civil-rights movement, And it lacked a reference to McGuire’s work.

Not that the historian was upset. At first she was just surprised that Winfrey was speaking about Taylor. “I was genuinely shocked, like, in a good way,” she said.

McGuire had just returned from Taylor’s funeral. She spent time with Taylor’s family, and helped The New York Times write her obituary. To hear Winfrey tell the story was an extraordinary moment, she said. “You couldn’t ask for a better bookend to somebody’s home-going than have Oprah Winfrey tell your story in front of millions of people and praise your courage,” McGuire said. “And single you out as first, right, a leader. And so it was amazing. I was so grateful.”

She held out hope that Winfrey would mention her book in the speech, but that night she could do without it. “I mean, look, it’s Oprah Winfrey.”

Read the rest here.

Mary Beard

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I recently read Charlotte Higgins‘s long form essay at The Guardian on Mary Beard, the Cambridge University classicist, public intellectual, and blogger.  The piece is worth your time.  Beard is a model of a publicly-engaged scholar.

Here is a small taste of the piece:

One reason Beard is so widely beloved is that her interventions in public life – whether one agrees with her or not – offer an alternative mode of discourse, one that people are hungry for: a position that is serious and tough in argument, but friendly and humorous in manner, and one that, at a time when disagreements quickly become shrill or abusive, insists on dialogue. Still, it is these precise qualities that can, equally, land her in deep water. The point of her notorious 9/11 article was that one could simultaneously deplore the terrorists’ murderous violence, and try to understand their position. After the deluge of angry emails arrived, she tried to reply to most of them, even making a couple of friends along the way. When I asked her if she would countenance taking Isis’s ideology seriously, she said: “That’s the wrong question. There is no argument that I won’t take seriously. Thinking through how you look to your enemies is helpful. That doesn’t mean that your ideology is wrong and theirs is right, but maybe you have to recognise that they have one – and that it may be logically coherent. Which may be uncomfortable.” Few would think it worth arguing with Arron Banks, the Ukip donor, when he said the Roman empire had collapsed because of immigration. Beard pulled him up on Twitter, suggesting he might like to read a bit more classical history – and then went out to lunch with him.

Trying to calm the fury and aggression of public speech is, quite possibly, a futile endeavour. Friends worry about the toll such a publicly exposed existence takes on her. The time she devotes to email alone is daunting; she tries to respond to everything. Withstanding appalling online abuse is draining. Still she keeps going. She abhors a comfortable consensus. “She is very suspicious of received wisdoms, conventional views,” said Peter Stothard. “If everyone is saying X is Y, her instinct is to say, are we sure it isn’t P?” For Beard, the very point of being an academic in the public sphere is the ability to be a kind of intellectual awkward squad – unlike elected politicians, who inevitably seek popularity. “The right to be unpopular is important – that’s what academic freedom is about,” she said.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Historians Weigh-In on Trump’s War with the FBI

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Vox has collected nine historians to reflect on the Donald Trump’s belief that the FBI is plotting against himSean Illing has gathered responses from Douglas Charles (Penn State), Rhodri-Jeffryss Jones (Edinburgh), Meg Jacobs (Princeton), Carol Anderson (Emory), Ivan Greenberg, Morton Keller (Brandeis), Timothy Naftali (NYU), H.W. Brands (Texas-Austin), and David Stebenne (Ohio State).

Here is Jones:

The contest of wills between Trump and the FBI is not so much a part of a long-term battle between the president and the director of intelligence as much as it is the latest episode in the GOP effort to sideline and discredit the Russia investigation.

When Christopher Wray testified during his confirmation hearings, he assured the Senate committee he was “not faint of heart.” If and when necessary, he would be willing to stand up to the president. And so far, it looks like he’s living up to his promise. However, the fight over the House Republican memo is less about historical precedence or weakening of the checks on the presidency than it is a reflection of the polarized politics we are living through and, more generally, the attack on the credibility of all government institutions.

The memo scandal is a move on behalf of the White House … to tarnish the reputation of the FBI and of the Justice Department, and by extension call into doubt the motives of the Mueller investigation. In that way, it takes us further down the path of turning every development in the investigation into a partisan ploy.

That, of course, is nothing new — think of the attacks on Kenneth Star by the Clinton White House. But here, the charges are not simply that Mueller is an overzealous prosecutor, but rather that the FBI tried to help throw an entire election. The House memo seems like it will suggest that the FBI was implicated in an attempted coup. The long-term significance of the memo release is that it may confirm for some how few in government can be trusted to act in an independent and honest way, even the FBI —which has historically been seen as beyond the partisan fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Social Media Scholarship?

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Yesterday I was in Northfield, Minnesota where I gave a talk about blogging, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (the blog), and the relationship between social media and civic engagement.  I spoke as part of a series on digital publishing sponsored by faculty and staff from Carleton College and St. Olaf College.  (Thanks to the DeAne Lagerquist for the invitation!)

During our conversation several professors talked to me about the possibility of starting their own blogs.

I don’t pretend to believe that our blogging model at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is normative.  We post a lot here and have developed a unique approach.  So yesterday I tried to suggest some ways that busy academics might make blogging work for them as teachers and scholars.

One model for academic blogging comes from Mark Carrigan in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Social Media is Scholarship.”  It is excellent.

Here is a taste:

Before I created a research blog, I used to carry a series of ornate notebooks in which to record my ideas, reflect on what I had read, and sketch out my plans — or rather I tried to carry them. Inevitably I forgot them at the most inopportune moments, reducing me to scribbling notes on scraps of paper, only to fail to transcribe them at a later date. Even when I managed to record my notes, my overly-enthusiastic scrawls often proved indecipherable when I came back to them.

In contrast, my research blog is accessible to me wherever I have a mobile phone or computer. The expectation that others might read my notes forces me to work out what I am trying to say, rather than scribbling down in shorthand ideas that might feel meaningful to me at the time but are often confusing later.

Sharing those blog posts through my social-media feeds often leads to useful conversations — at a much earlier stage in the research process than would otherwise be the case. It creates an awareness of what I’m working on, and has often been the first step in eventual invitations to speak or collaborate. The fact that I can categorize and tag my online notes helps me see connections between different projects I am working on, highlighting emerging themes and deepening my understanding of how the topics fit together. Having my notes online also makes them extremely easy to search, providing a fantastic resource when I am writing papers and chapters.

My point is not that everyone should use a research blog. There are many reasons why it might not be suitable for you: (1) Without a smartphone, a blog would be much less useful; (2) some people find that writing by hand actually helps, rather than hinders, the creative process; and (3) many academics are uncomfortable with sharing work-in-progress online with an unknown audience.

Exactly which technology works for which person will depend on many factors. But in my case, moving from a research notebook to a research blog helped me become a more efficient and effective scholar. Rather than being an unwelcome drain, social media has helped me use my time more effectively.

Read the entire piece here.

Even More Historians Talk About the Trump Presidency

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Scott Berg, Robert Dallek, Jon Meacham, Edmund Morris, Stacy Schiff, and Garry Wills all reflect on the Trump presidency in this piece at Vanity Fair.

Here is Schiff:

Eighty-seven years before the American Revolution, the New England elite lost their patience with overreaching British officials. They wailed that their royal governor intended to deliver them to a foreign power. He colluded with the Native Americans. He distributed Catholic propaganda. Privately, they alleged, Governor Edmund Andros sneered that the Puritans “were a people fit only to be rooted off the face of the earth.” To counter his “deep design,” Boston’s civic leaders staged a coup. They were hardly the first to pass off self-interest as self-preservation, persecution as piety. They warned that the French and Irish were en route to Boston to destroy it; that Andros had bribed the Native Americans with jewelry; that together those fiends intended to butcher the settlers. An Andros associate wrote off the charges as hysterical, “so apparently false and strangely ridiculous” that no one could conceivably believe them. He was wrong. The coup’s leaders had a great deal invested in that narrative. They were a familiar breed of thin-skinned men, the kind who—as John Adams would later say of Elbridge Gerry—“would risk great things to secure small ones.”

Setting the stage for the American Revolution, Samuel Adams took a page from that playbook when in 1768 he linked a later Massachusetts governor to a so-called Papist plot. Adams had not a shred of evidence. But he knew a thing or two about stalking horses; Jesuits would be said to prowl menacingly through much of the American 19th century. Ultimately the Catholic specter gave way to the Communist one: between the Puritan hedge and Trump’s Mexican wall came networks of subversives, the watchtowers of the nation, and the reckless cruelty of Joseph McCarthy. The fevered imaginings remained the same. Each group served its purpose, threatening, as an eminent cleric warned in an 1835 anti-Catholic tirade, to “decide our elections, perplex our policy, inflame and divide the nation, break the bond of our union and throw down our free institutions.” Always a convenient demon can be found to plot against America, to remind a chosen few that they are the elect, that our way of life is in peril, that time is short, that we are precariously poised between a sun-dappled past and an apocalyptic future. The language has evolved very little since the 17th century. The judge sentencing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in 1951 termed theirs “a diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation.” That fiery 1835 cleric could have been selling this administration’s Muslim ban.

By definition the contest is stark and absolute. The insinuations alone are vague. “There’s something going on that’s really, really bad,” our current president has reminded us. “A lot of people are saying,” he hints, broadly, vaguely. The fearmongering works, as does the cheap call to arms, Patriotism Lite. To connect Ted Cruz’s father with J.F.K.’s murder, to invent Kenyan births or Trump Tower wiretaps, allow you to avenge and aggrandize yourself while defrauding the truth. It divorces the rest of us from reality. It dangerously obscures the evidence at hand. It moves the club from the hand of the slogan-spewing white supremacist to that of the peaceful protester. Reason takes a holiday; in rush the phantom Frenchmen. Conveniently, a fake enemy can’t return fire. Better yet, he will continue to wage battle only so long as he is needed, after which he disappears into thin air.

Read the entire piece here.

Historians Discuss American History in the Age of Trump

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Tom Ashbrook interviews historians Judith Giesberg and Julian Zelizer on his WBUR-Boston show “On Point”

Listen here.

Themes discussed and things learned:

  • Julian Zelizer is writing a book about Newt Gingrich
  • Zelizer says that we should be careful not to place Trump solely in “long term continuums.”  There is a lot about him that is unique, new, and unprecedented.
  • Giesberg trashes Newt Gingrich’s attempt to compare the culture wars with the American Civil War.
  • Giesberg reminds us that Confederate monuments were erected during Jim Crow.
  • Zelizer:  If you think that we are living in “two different countries” today, try learning something about the 1960s.
  • Giesburg assigns Eric Foner’s biography of Abraham Lincoln in her Civil War class at Villanova.
  • Giesburg argues that Lincoln learned a lot during his presidency.  So can Trump.  (But she is not optimistic).
  •  Zelizer:  In the 1990s, Gingrich pushed a kind of conservative populism similar to Trump’s base.
  • Zelizer connects Trump’s populism to Father Coughlin and George Wallace.  Trump is the first president to ride this wave of conservative populism to the White House.
  • Zelizer: Race-based nativism never went away.  Trump is not “restoring” anything.
  • Evangelicals Christian do call NPR stations and make thoughtful comments
  • Giesburg compares the Trump victory to the period of “redemption” at the end of Reconstruction.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

More on Historians as Pundits

WoodwardToday we published two posts on a small debate raging over how historians should engage in public discourse.   After Moshik Temkin published a piece at The New York Times titled “Historians Should Not Be Pundits,” Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller responded at The Atlantic.  Earlier today I discussed these issues with historian and author Amy Bass on her New York radio show (WVOX) “Conversations with Amy Bass.”

Joe Adelman, an American history who teaches at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, has also weighed-in with a helpful critique of Temkin’s piece.  It is published (with permission) below:

Like many historians, I awoke this morning and recoiled when I opened Twitter and stumbled into an New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” The author, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that he is concerned by what he believes is “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” He then offers examples of such analogies, and suggests that instead historians should address a variety of “historical processes” that led to the current day. I found the essay frustrating (and judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’m not alone in that feeling among historians), but set it aside to go about my day.

But the essay has stuck with me for three reasons, so here I am to respond. First, the headline (which was almost certainly not written by the column’s author), which is delightfully ironic in placing the construction “X Shouldn’t Be Pundits” at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Punditville, USA (i.e., the New York Times opinion page). Second, the essay employs a series of straw men. Somewhere out there, the author assures us, are historians making “facile analogies” between the politics and personalities of 2017 and Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Huey Long. Sure, I’ve seen a few of those pieces, and so have you, but they are far from the majority of work that historians have done in the past six months. Even when I have seen essays that employed analogy, they were rarely “facile.”

It’s particularly useful here to note that Temkin is wrong in one of his examples, in which he claims that C. Vann Woodward avoided analogy in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. One scholar quickly found evidence that Woodward had specifically said that he did use analogies, and in direct reference to Strange Career.

So historians are using analogies, but there’s a very good reason for that: analogies are in the air. I hesitate to generalize broadly at the risk of committing the same sin I just condemned, but anecdotally I can offer from the classroom and public talks in the community that one of the more common frames people use to ask questions is, “so is X like Y?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but it’s an impulse that seems common (at least among my own students and the audiences I encounter). In my own case, I demur on questions too much about the late twentieth century, since it’s far outside my research specialty. However, I will engage on most analogies that deal with the Civil War or earlier, and use what’s offered in the question to work towards an effective answer. As Woodward notes in the tweeted quotation, analogies aren’t meant to capture direct comparison, but rather a way to set something familiar side by side with something less so.

Prof. Temkin wants historians to engage the public and offer factual and nuanced portraits of the past. I agree. But especially when speaking outside the profession, whether in an essay for a news publication, at a public talk, or in the classroom, that means we need to start with where our audience is and work from there. And many of them are working from analogy.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin

Historians

Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

Tips for Public Writing

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, academics Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost offer “10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences.”  Schaberg and Bogost are the editors of Object Lessons, a book and article series “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” During the 2017-2018 academic year they will be conducting four NEH-funded workshops for scholars who are interested in reaching larger audiences with their writing.

Here are some of their “challenges”:

Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.

Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars — especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.

This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


Read the entire article here.

Trump’s Remarks Are Drawing Historians Out of the Ivory Tower

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Check out Graham Vyse’s piece at The New Republic in which he suggests that Donald Trump is radicalizing American historians.

I am not sure if “radicalizing” is the right word here.  Historians have been radicalized for a long time.  The professions leans heavily to the left.

But Trump’s misuse of the past seems to be getting more historians out of the ivory tower and into a deeper engagement with the public.  This is a good thing.

Here is a taste of Vyse’s piece:

But Trump also presents a challenge for historians: how to use their expertise to counteract Trump’s ignorance, but without appearing partisan. “You’re entering into a very heated world with a very heated president, so you have to be careful not to be an advocate. It’s very tempting for many people,” Zelizer said. “It’s difficult to figure out the proper tone with which to object to Trump’s positions,” Greenberg acknowledged. “Nobody wants to look biased.”

Some historians fear that, given how partisanship increasingly dictates what Americans believe, many Americans will believe Trump’s alternative history. “Before you know it, we may have a new term: history deniers,” said Yale University historian David Blight. Avoiding such a future “may mean more of us have to become public spokespeople about history than we were in the past,” Blight said. “When the most powerful man in the world speaks historical nonsense, we have to speak out and say so.” “I think we are very much in a similar role as climate scientists,” Lichtman added. “There are truths of science. There are truths of history.”

For Blight, the trouble is that Trump rose to power despite these truths—despite the established danger of demagogues, the historic viciousness of prejudice, and the broad consensus that expanding rights for women and people of color has strengthened societies. “You spend all your years and all your life trying to teach history, and then to see this man elected—I felt historians had failed,” he said. “We’re working in every medium we can—from film, to museums, to writing books. But we’re up against the Fox News view of the country, which we don’t reach. We don’t even know how.

Vyse’s piece focuses on Penn State historian Amy Greenberg, but it also quotes Allan Lichtman, Julian Zelizer, and David Blight.  The latter three are all historians who do speak to the general public.

Read it all here.