How Future Historians Might Use Your Quarantine Diary


A couple weeks ago I encouraged everyone to keep a coronavirus diary.  Read that post here.

Over at The New York Times, Amelia Nierenberg reports on the diaries and journals that “tell the story of an anxious, claustrophobic world on pause.”  Here is a taste:

When future historians look to write the story of life during coronavirus, these first-person accounts may prove useful.

“Diaries and correspondences are a gold standard,” said Jane Kamensky, a professor of American History at Harvard University and the faculty director of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute. “They’re among the best evidence we have of people’s inner worlds.”

History isn’t usually told by the bigwigs of the era, even if they are some of its main characters. Instead, it is often reconstructed from snapshots of ordinary lives. A handwritten recipe. A letter written by a soldier at the front. A drawing of a kitchen sink. One of the most famous works of academic history — “A Midwife’s Tale,” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich — came from the diary kept by a woman living in Maine from 1785 to 1812. It won a Pulitzer Prize.

The personal that is presented in diaries gives us the truth of the era,” said Carole Ione Lewis, a diarist and the author of “Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color,” which she wrote using her relatives’ diaries.

Today’s journals convey the shared experience of life in isolation.

Some diarists record statistics: the number of infections, the number of deaths. Others keep diaries that are part shopping list, part doodle pad. Unidentified phone numbers are scratched out in the margins of punctuation-less pages filled with the frustration of being separated from family and friends. Among these accounts, anxiety is the constant.

Read the entire piece here.

A Historian and a Theologian on History and Progress

HuntFrom the middle of the 1800s to the middle of the 1900s, more or less, the search for exemplars gave way to the second approach to history: the projection of progress.  History came to be seen as a single linear progress encompassing every region of the globe.  The future came to stand for improvement, rather than degeneration from a previous golden age or simply a product of inevitable cycles of rise and fall.  As a consequence, the past could no longer serve as an infallible guide to the present; it had to be overcome, even rejected.  Historians now viewed modern peoples as superior to the ancients, and, as corollary, portrayed Western Europe and eventually the West as superior to the rest of the world.  The belief in progress–validated by the triumph of reason and science–helped solidify the Western sense of ascendancy over other regions…If history is not a progression toward freedom, then what meaning does it have?  Is it about the rise of capitalism, the spread of modernity, the increase of globalization, the growing power of centralizing states–all these or something else?  Would a non-teleological history, a history without an inner impulse , even be interesting.

This comes from Lynn Hunt’s helpful little book History: Why it Matters. 94, 96.

I realize that the study of history has changed a great deal since the mid-20th century.  But has such a progressive view of history really died? Isn’t it alive and well among the majority of historians affiliated with the American Historical Association?

On the same day I read Hunt’s book, I read some interesting passages from N.T. Wright‘s 2018 Gifford Lectures, published as History and Eschatology: The Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology(I should add that the index for this book is awful).

Here are those passages:

p. 24: The idea of progress was, then, in part a secularisation of the Christian optimism (itself fueled by Jewish eschatology) evident in the early eighteenth century, and with that, an older doctrine of Providence…Its central claim, which took root in European thought, was that the old order was being swept away and that new and better days were not just happening but that they were, in some sense, happening automatically. All one had to do was get on board (and push aside any who didn’t see the point).

p.24: For right-wing Hegelians…”progress” was to be a smooth evolution.  From this there emerged the social and cultural implication that within progress’ lay hidden the steady advance of the kingdom of God itself.Wright Eschatology

p.25: By the end of the nineteenth century it was widely assumed, in Britain and Germany at least, the the spectacular achievements and advances of Western civilisation were part of what Jesus must have meant when he said that “the kingdom of God” was at hand.  This was “natural theology” made easy: look at our wonderful civilisation and see the handiwork of God!

p.25-26: Likewise, the idea (particularly invoking developments in medicine) that science and technology are making the world a better place is more than a little ambiguous.  Industrial pollution, atom bombs and gas chambers tell a different story.  At the popular level, however, the ideology of progress simply ignores these counter-examples.

p.27: The movements hailed as “postmodernity” in the later years of the twentieth century were, among other things, direct challenges to the narrative of progress.  Wisdom, many insisted, does not advance chronologically.  But even with the horrors of the twentieth century to brandish as counter-examples, the postmodern protest hasn’t made much headway.  The idea of progress has embodied its own principle: it has just gone ahead, pushing everything else of the way.  Sustained in its optimism by the exciting fruits of science (not least in medicine) and technology, it has been assumed more and more widely.  It has applied, to the future as a whole, the principle that had already been applied to politics, science, eeconomics, history and even Jesus: rethink them all without an external divine figure directing the traffic.  We can do it all ourselves.  Providence without God.

p.27: There is also, indeed, the myth of scholarship, that scholars build firmly on the solid foundation of their predecessors, so that the subject automatically “advances.”  Folly indeed.

p. 27 …those who advocate the “progress” ideology today seem to assume that every passing decade will see moral, social, and cultural “advance” to match the technological “advances” of smart phones, driverless cars and, not least, high-tech weaponry.

A lot to think about here.  Stay tuned.

Should Historians Judge People by the Standards of Their Time?

Why Study HistoryI get this all the time: “Let’s not judge slaveholders based on present-day morality because they were products of their time.”

Indeed, slaveholders were products of their time.  The historian’s primary goal is to try to understand them in context so that we can better grasp why some people believed slavery was a good thing.  Some historians believe that their work stops at this point.  They let the activists, pundits, and critics decide how to use their historical research to advance present-day arguments or agendas.  This perfectly fine. When it comes to world-changing work, the historian plays a limited role.

Other times, however, historians are not satisfied with mere understanding.  They feel called to move beyond “what happened” or “why what happened happened” to moral judgments about whether what happened was good or bad.

I have argued that historians are primarily responsible for uncovering and explaining the past.  I am not opposed to moral criticism–and I have done plenty of it here and elsewhere–but such criticism must always come after we have grasped a particular subject in its historical context.  I actually prefer to introduce audiences–students, readers, hearers–to the moral critiques of people who lived in that time period.  For example, rather than expounding on how slavery is immoral, I prefer to call attention to slavery-era abolitionists or other opponents of slavery and let them do the work.

Erin Bartram gets it right in her recent piece at Contingent Magazine, Don’t We Have To Judge People By The Standards Of Their Time?”  Here is a taste:

…let’s consider one way the cliché is frequently used by white people in the United States: in conversations about the history of enslavement, especially ones about “Founding Fathers” who enslaved people. It is right to say they were products of their time—products of a time that affirmed in law the right of people like them to own other people. It’s why they set up innovative new systems of government that still preserved their right to own people.

To shield them from criticism or judgment because the rightness of enslavement was a “standard” view is to erase the fact that no society, even a culturally- and religiously-homogeneous one, has a “standard” view of anything. There are always disagreements and factions. Moreover, there’s no situation in which everyone who holds one view doesn’t at least have a sense of opposing views.

And this is why bolstering this argument with the idea that some people just didn’t know is so wrong. It wasn’t about knowing or not knowing, in this case. It was about believing and choosing. There were a lot of people who believed that enslavement was wrong. Enslaved people believed it was wrong. Free black people believed it was wrong. Even some white people believed it was wrong. People in all three of those groups allowed their beliefs to guide the choices they made, including small and large public and private resistance where and when they could, sometimes at great risk to their lives.

On the other hand, many white Americans were aware of abolitionist sentiments but didn’t agree with them, and instead made choices based on their own belief that chattel slavery was a necessary evil—or even a positive good. What I suspect is more distressing to white Americans, however, what provokes the use of this cliché more often, is the idea that many white people in the past believed enslavement was wrong and chose to keep their mouths shut and participate anyway, even as secondary recipients of its “benefits.” In this sense, perhaps the “standard of the time” we’re talking about is moral cowardice, though I doubt that’s what people who use the phrase are thinking.

Read the entire piece here.

African-Americans at Colonial Williamsburg


The Virginia Gazette is running an informative piece on interpreting the African-American experience at Colonial Williamsburg.  Here is a taste:

Established in 1926, Colonial Williamsburg opened its first public site in 1932. Though African-American interpretation wouldn’t start in earnest as a fleshed out component of the living history museum until 1979, there had long been an African American presence at Colonial Williamsburg.

“Despite being here for 91 years, we’ve pretty much always had black interpreters,” Seals said.

Black Americans portrayed anonymous servants or costumed guides.

It took a few decades before they were seen as potential points of focus rather than background players in programming, said Seals.

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers started to discover more information about African Americans in Revolutionary-era Williamsburg. They learned half of the city’s inhabitants were enslaved black people in the 18th century.

That prompted some questions: How were African Americans half the city’s population, yet their stories were essentially untold? Colonial Williamsburg embarked on an effort to determine how to tell those stories, hitting on the idea that a social-history perspective would be the best way to do it.

“When they made that choice, that started everything,” Seals said. “That’s when programming really changed.”

Forty years ago, a group of Hampton University students were recruited to work as first-person interpreters portraying African Americans known to live and work in Williamsburg during the late 1700s.

Read the entire piece here. (HT: Ed O’Donnell via Twitter)

Race, Slavery, and Historical Interpreters

Slave Interpreters

Historical interpreters at Booker T. Washington Monument (via Donnie Nunley @ Flickr)

Over at The Outline, Zoe Beery writes about Cheyney McKnight, an African American historical interpreter at Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island.

Here is a taste:

Over the last ten years, McKnight has built a career as a living historian who embodies black lives, rather than just black trauma, in her interpretations of slavery. She does not portray specific people (“I’m not an actor,” she said), preferring to inhabit a generalized role while speaking from a contemporary viewpoint. “I want to change the way people see the story of slavery,” she said, “so that when people think of slavery and women, they think of me, not Aunt Jemima or Mammy.”

McKnight grew up in Atlanta and was fascinated since early childhood with the stories her parents and family told her about the Civil Rights movement. She devoured books about black history, from the 1960s to the Great Migration to enslavement. When she learned that she could spend time reliving what she had been spending so much time studying, re-enacting became her end-goal. Her parents were always on board. “They knew I was never going to have a specific life plan and had resigned themselves to having an oddball daughter,” she said.

For her first event, she traveled to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg for a 150th-anniversary re-enactment. In a borrowed blue and white dress, she portrayed a 22-year-old freewoman alongside four other black re-enactors. The re-enactment was, as Civil War historian Melvin Ely termed such eventslast year, a white fantasy: McKnight’s group was the largest bloc of black civilians anyone had ever seen at an event whose historical basis was full of black civilians. “At the time, that just wasn’t done,” McKnight said. Astonished spectators stopped them constantly, usually assuming they were portraying enslaved people. “I had old white men come up to me and tell me I reminded them of their maids,” she said. “People seemed to feel this need to put me in my place as an enslaved person.”

Read the entire piece here.

Historical Thinking and the Nunes Memo

Image: House memo

How might a historian interpret the now-famous Nunes memo?

Mark Byrnes, chair of the Department of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, breaks it down for us.  Here is a taste of his History News Network piece: “The Nunes Memo: ‘Bias,’ and the Skills of the Historian“:

The entire “argument” (such as it is) depends on the idea that a FISA warrant based—to any extent—on the so-called Steele dossier is inherently tainted, because the research done by the author, former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, was paid for at some point by Democrats. Since the warrant targeted Carter Page, who had been part of the Trump campaign, the motive of the funders (not the researcher, it bears noting) to get “dirt” on Trump somehow discredits everything Steele found.

The memo contains not a single argument that the evidence used to obtain the warrant against Carter Page was actually false—only that it is somehow untrustworthy due to the alleged motive behind the research that produced the evidence.

In history, we deal with this problem all the time. We uncover evidence in primary sources, and must judge its credibility. Do we have reason to believe that the person who produced the evidence might have an agenda that should cause us to doubt the veracity of the evidence? What do we do if the answer to that question is “yes,” or even “maybe”?

I do a primary source exercise in my methods class that does just this: presents the students with conflicting primary source accounts of an event. I then explain why the people who produced the evidence might have self-serving reasons for portraying the event in a particular light.

Most students, when first faced with this dilemma, immediately say “bias!” and dismiss the evidence as worthless. That is the reaction the Nunes memo seems intended to produce among the general public.

But that is not how the historian reacts. Yes, the source of the evidence may have some bias. That does not, however, by itself mean that the information is false. It does mean that when weighing its validity, the historian must look for other, independent, corroborating evidence before trusting it.

It seems likely that is what the officials who used the Steele dossier to obtain the FISA warrant did: they compared what Steele wrote to other information they had about Carter Page to see if it lined up.

Read the rest here.  Thanks to TWOILH reader John Shaw for bringing this piece to my attention.

More on David Barton’s Use of That John Adams Quote

Barton Quote

Yesterday we did a lengthy post showing how Christian Right activist David Barton manipulated a John Adams quote to make it sound like Adams supported the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Barton is up to his old tricks here.  He is being deliberately deceptive. He seems to have no problem manipulating the past in this way to promote his agenda.

After I published my post, Southern Methodist University historian Kate Carte Engel took to twitter to give her take on Adams, Christianity, and the American founding.

Here it is:

Master Local Historians

Tennesse State Archives

This looks like a great program.

Humanities Tennessee has awarded the American Association of State and Local History a grant to pilot Master Local Historians (MLS).

Here is the press release and description of the program:

AASLH is proud to announce that we have been awarded a grant from Humanities Tennessee to pilot our newest program, Master Local Historians.

The Master Local Historians project is a training program that highlights the relevance of historical inquiry for the general public and provides people with an opportunity to hone their historical research, writing, and interpretation skills. Participants will learn the basic tools and methods of the craft of history to better understand, and even explain, the world around them. By the end of the course, they will have a greater appreciation for the work of public history and be better able to assist history organizations in a variety of ways.

This project is funded by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in-kind matching support from AASLH.

History—both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past—is crucially important to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation. On a state-by-state, community-by-community basis, people are figuring out what history means in the context of today. AASLH continually evaluates the opportunities history organizations have to employ history’s essential role in nurturing personal identity, teaching critical skills, helping to provide vital places to live and work, stimulating economic development, fostering engaged citizens, inspiring leadership, and providing a legacy. The Master Local Historians program is one such opportunity.

In the beginning stages of this project, AASLH has pulled together a team of national and Tennessee humanities scholars and advisors to review existing materials from similar programs and map a framework for a Master Local Historian program. This includes a curriculum that focuses on the basics of the historical profession, with three of those basics being piloted by partner organizations in West, Middle, and East Tennessee, including the Morton Museum of Collierville History, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the East Tennessee History Center. After the completion of a successful piloting period, AASLH plans to seek funding to launch the Master Local Historians program nationally.

The institutions will host the workshops in winter 2017/2018. AASLH will evaluate the individual sessions and the success of the program as a whole and in 2018 begin to create the full Master Local Historian curriculum based on the Tennessee pilots. The program highlights the continued relevance of history, a major theme of AASLH strategic plan since 2016.

AASLH is proud to have the following people serve as Humanities Scholars on this project, including Dr. Lorraine McConaghy (Public Historian), Myers Brown (Tennessee State Library and Archives), Dr. Carroll Van West (Tennessee State Historian), Adam Alfrey (East Tennessee History Center), Dr. Larry Cebula (Public Historian), Dr. Teresa Church (Public Historian), Dr. Jay Price (Public Historian), Brooke Mundy (Collierville Museum of History), Steve Murray (Alabama Department of Archives and History), Stuart Sanders (Kentucky Historical Society), Dr. C. Brendan Martin (MTSU) and Local Historians: Betsy Millard (Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum), Carol Kammen (Tompkins County (NY) Historian), and Beverly Tyler (Three Villages Historical Society).

For more information about Master Local Historians, and other Continuing Education opportunities, contact Amber Mitchell at

Was John Adams a Christian?

a8345-adamsIn light of the recent Twitter debate between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby on the religion of Thomas Jefferson, I thought I would call your attention to a blog post from my friend Matthew Hunter.

I don’t know if Hunter was aware of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate when he wrote this, but his post about John Adams clearly comes down on the Haselby side.  Adams may have thought he was a Christian, but his rejection of the Christian doctrine of the trinity makes it difficult to label him as one.  Adams may have said he was a Christian, but he was not.

So how do we interpret Adams’s religion? Do we take Adams’s word for it?  Or do we interpret Adams’s faith in light of the history of Christian orthodoxy?  As I said several times in the midst of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate, the former is a a historical issue and the latter is a theological issue.  This does not mean that these two ways of understanding of the world cannot speak to one another.  In fact, some interdisciplinary thinkers like Hunter might argue that they should be speaking to one another.

In the end, Hunter is correct about at least one thing.  When we  point out that Adams’s beliefs were unorthodox we set the record straight for the Christian nationalists who want to use the second president’s supposed Christian beliefs to promote a political agenda in the present.  John Adams may have been a Christian, but I am guessing that David Barton would not want to have him on the elder board of his church.

Here is a taste of Hunter’s post:

This is a hard post to write, because suggesting any sort of gulf that favors the scholarly view is going to be tainted with a certain elitism that smacks of the sort of gulf represented above, where a semi-divine historical person presides over the terrestrial mess of mortals. There are things that they know that mere mortals cannot know. And you know that scholars are not semi-divine. Nevertheless, a gulf exists. I write this as someone whose academic training was a blend of history, social sciences and theology, so I am not strictly “a historian,” though the American founding does factor into my work.

The gulf I have in mind was brought back to the forefront of my mind when Susan Lim, a reputable Christian historian at Biola recently wrote an article about religion and the Founding Fathers for Christianity Today. Lim wrote,

“Washington’s successor, John Adams, was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian. As David McCullough recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Adams regularly boasted of his Puritan ancestry, sometimes bordered on legalism (he often refused to travel on the Sabbath), and occasionally cast stones against those he deemed less spiritual than himself. For example, Adams made it a point to highlight Jefferson’s nontraditional religious convictions when they both vied for the presidency.”

This surprised me, because I believed it was fairly well established that Adams was basically a U/unitarian (did not believe in the Trinity) unlike the Puritans, though he may have remained in Puritan Congregationalist churches. I wrote the following email to Susan (actually, I emailed “Dr. Lim” who graciously told me to call her Susan):

“I have no doubt that Adams was a man of faith and may have valued his Puritan heritage, but it seems to me that we have it pretty decisively in his own words that he was a Unitarian and (perhaps a bit more ambiguously) that he also had serious reservations about the incarnation. I appreciate the fact that there is some disagreement on this, but it mostly seems to come from American Filiopietists with political agendas.  I’m not sure how you say that he was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian.” I guess I can sort of spin this in a way, but I think it is liable to mislead many readers.”

Susan responded: “No doubt, the term “Puritan” is a messy one.  I shy away from it in my research.  I used it here because I assume that the majority of the readers aren’t academics, and the term “Congregational” won’t resonate with as many readers.  Puritanism has come to mean so many things to so many people; and as I’m sure you know, many of the social constructs of Puritanism were made in the 19th C (largely through fiction) to comment on Victorian society (by using Puritans as actors).  Or, as Mencken wrote, that Puritanism is thought of as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.  Of course we know that this obviously doesn’t do the Puritans justice.  What I meant was that John Adams hailed from a Puritan/Congregational family, and remained committed to his Congregational church.  Yes, that church (along with many other  Congregationalist churches) moved towards Unitarianism by the mid-18th C, but I didn’t want to go into the development of Congregationalism (or Puritanism, if you will) here.”

Note that if this is true, Adams was in the advance guard of a group of Puritan Congregationalists who rejected the the doctrine of the Trinity that had defined Christian Orthodoxy for around 1400 years. At the time, many/most U/unitarians did consider themselves Christians and their services of worship would have resembled Trinitarian Puritans’ services a great deal. Susan Lim is a knowledgeable scholar. She also possesses the virtue of inclusion in her approach to John Adams and Christianity (something many contemporary Christians could learn from). I don’t believe she was trying to fool anyone. However, I still think this way of writing about things plays into the hands of those who have a political agenda and are also much sloppier in their characterizations of the faith of the founders. 

Read the rest here.

Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Need for Empathy

GoodwinPulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin appeared yesterday as part of the “roundtable” segment on NBC’s Meet the Press.  When the topic turned to Brexit, host Chuck Todd turned to Kearns-Goodwin for some insight.  Here is how she responded:

Well, I think Cameron made a Faustian bargain when he decided that he thought he needed the far-right vote to win that election. He won it big anyway, and he promised to bring up this referendum. And now what’s going to happen to him? He’s lost his prime ministership, he’s lost his legacy, Britain may fall apart and not become the Great Britain.

Churchill must be dying in his grave right now. And he did it to himself. I mean, the leaders of both parties were not able to reach the people, which shows that something’s wrong with the leadership, maybe in the countries in general. They didn’t argue passionately enough, they didn’t emotionally connect to the people who felt that something was wrong in their mired unemployment. And when you have that inability to see other people’s point of view, when you have lack of empathy, when you have lack of sides seeing each other, something goes wrong in a country. And I think it’s a pretty scary phenomena. (Italics mine)

Empathy.  Seeing other people’s point of view.  Kearns-Goodwin’s diagnosis of Brexit is correct. It also has implications for American politics and culture.  I find it particularly interesting that Kearns-Goodwin is a historian.  Most historians know that empathy, or the idea of “seeing other people’s point of view,” is essential to interpreting the past.  The study of history makes us more empathetic people.  It is good for civil society.

As many of you know, I have elaborated more fully  on the relationship between empathy, the study of history, and civil society in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.


#Whystudyhistory Invades the World of Marketing

market-analystsDo you want to be an effective marketing analyst?

Then study history.

If you are a longtime reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you know about Cali Pitchel.  She has written a lot for the blog and has been featured in at least three different So What CAN You Do With a History Major? posts.

Cali is the Director of Marketing at Analytics Pros, a digital analytics consultancy in Seattle, WA. She studied history as an undergraduate at Messiah College, received her M.A. in American Studies at Penn State, and spent two years working on a Ph.D in American history at Arizona State before dropping out to “channel her inner Peggy Olson.”

Cali does a lot of writing about how her study of history has made her a better marketing analyst.  In her most recent piece, which appears at LiftOff blog, she urges her fellow marketers to “approach your data like a historian.”  Her study of history has taught her important lessons about humility, empathy, and  interpretation that she uses every day in her current work.

Here is a taste:

I’m a trained historian. I spent the better part of the past 10 years studying the past, collecting some graduate degrees, and thinking I wanted to be a history professor. After two years of coursework in a PhD program, I took a one-semester leave for a much-needed mental break. Almost four years after what was supposed to be a brief respite, I’m the Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy.

This might not seem like a natural career move. What does the humanities have to do with web and mobile app analytics? At first the transition felt a bit awkward. I had never taken a business class, let alone looked at a Google Analytics dashboard. But what I’ve learned in the past 12 months is that historians and growth marketers have a lot to learn from one another.

Here are three things I think historians can teach marketers who make data-driven decisions:

1. Be humble.

A historian requires a posture of curiosity, an open mindset, and also a strong sense of humility. You have to arrive at the text without all the answers. The sources can—and almost always will—challenge your assumptions.

Is this not true for data? All too often we see data as a capital T truth—hard numbers, fact, science. But even data is meaningless without interpretation, and because so much depends on that interpretation, data analysis demands the same integrity required of an historian. If you think you know all the answers when you approach the data, it’s likely you’ll confirm your bias. (This is a very human thing to do, by the way.)

When asked about truth, data, and analysis, Historian John Fea suggested that, “Data means Why Study History Covernothing until it becomes part of the story that the analyst wants to tell. This does not mean that the facts are not important. If the story that the analyst tells is not based on evidence, it will be a bad story and irresponsible analysis.”

A growth marketer must first acknowledge his or her position and then meet the data appropriately—fully aware of the bias that is just part of being human. It’s trite, but true: knowledge is power. And just knowing your subjectivity can (and should) come to bear on the interpretation of data.

It’s easy to choose pride over humility, especially as a marketer prized for your acumen and industry expertise. But pride and relying on your instinct can have negative implications for your users’ experience. One way to combat this and ensure you’re creating a good (and high-converting) online experience, is to create a culture of testing. Testing not only allows you to optimize a user’s experience, it can substantiate and challenge your assumptions. When you trust the data—and not just your gut—you can pivot and respond to the needs of your audience, creating a cost savings or generating more revenue. In other words, humility is good business.

2. Empathy is everything.

One of the greatest lessons I learned as a historian was the importance of empathy. The Dictionary defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors.

One of the difficult tasks of the historian, according to Fea, is to get rid of his or her “contemporary understanding of the world and [try] to see the world from another perspective—the perspective of someone living in what many historians refer to as the ‘foreign country’ of the past. Historians empathize with dead people and in the process we learn how to empathize in our contemporary lives as well.”

Empathy must also inform the way in which we interpret data. In its simplest form, the goal of empathy is understanding. And understanding a client—their challenges, their objectives, their business—is essential to any engagement.

Read her entire post here.

It is very rewarding to see the themes of Why Study History? find their way into the business world.  My goal is to make Why Study History? required reading in all college and university marketing classes!  🙂

Thanks, Cali.

Slavery and Historical Interpretation at Monticello, Montpelier, and Ash Lawn-Highland

slaveryatmonticello C-Ville, a website covering life in the Charlottesville, VA area, is running a nice piece on slavery interpretation at the homes of Virginia presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Here is a taste:

The sickeningly horrible institution of slavery was a blight on our nation until the Civil War ended it in 1865 at the cost of 750,000 American lives. Despite the passage of 150 years, however, and despite the country’s best attempts at education, the interpretation of slavery at historic sites—the presentation of the lives of those enslaved—is still controversial, emotionally charged. At some historic properties, the perceived emotional comfort of the visitors, and that of the guide staff itself, preclude the accurate retelling of the awful conditions under which slaves toiled and lived. Here in central Virginia, however—at the plantations owned by Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe—slavery interpretation is thriving. Indeed, it’s expanding.

“Slavery is an important part of the American story,” says Katherine “Kat” Imhoff, president of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that operates Montpelier, the Orange County home of our fourth president, Madison. After his presidency from 1809 to 1817, he lived out his remaining 19 years at Montpelier.

“Without understanding the role of slavery in the founding era,” says Imhoff, “you can’t understand what happened afterward. …It’s such a painful subject for all Americans that we’ve tended to turn away from it, to gloss over it. I really believe strongly that that’s a disservice to all of us. As the leader of a cultural institution dedicated to telling a complete, accurate and human story about our country, I see the improved interpretation of slavery as crucial.”

Read the entire piece here.

National Parks and Difficult History

Little Rock Central High School

Over at We’re History, Benjamin Arrington of the National Park Service lists seven National Parks that are interpreting “difficult American history.”  They are:

1.  Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, MO
2.  Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, KS
3.  Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, AR
4.  Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, (various locations in nine states)
5.  Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Eads, CO
6.  Manzanar National Historic Site, Independence, CA
7.  Flight 933 National Memorial, Shanksville, PA

Learn more about why these sites are so difficult by clicking here.

Are Madison’s Notes From the Constitutional Convention Unreliable?

Perhaps “unreliable” is too strong a word, but most historians would have no qualms about saying that Madison’s notes do not provide an objective account of what happened in that Philadelphia summer of 1787.

Mary Sarah Bilder, a law professor a Boston College and the author of a new book on Madison and the Constitutional Convention, reminds us of something that most serious students of history already know–primary documents should be read critically and are often biased by the beliefs of their authors.  This is clearly the case with Madison’s “Notes.”  Here is a taste of Bilder’s piece, published this week at The History News Network:

Madison’s Notes are the only source that covers every day of the Convention from May 14 to September 17, 1787. No other source depicts the Convention as Madison’s Notes do: as a political drama, with compelling characters, lengthy discourses on political theories, crushing disappointments, and seemingly miraculous successes. The Notes are, as the Library of Congress catalogs them, properly considered a “Top Treasure” of the American people.
But the Notes do not date in their entirety to the summer of 1787.  They are covered in revisions. This fact is known – but the number is a shock. When I saw the manuscript in the conservation lab at the Library of Congress—in the aptly named Madison Building—the  additions appear in various ink shades, with handwriting, some youthful, some with the shake of Madison’s later years. Madison even added slips of paper with longer revisions.
The revisions do not detract, but enhance Madison’s manuscript. Madison’s Notes were revised as he changed his understanding about the Convention, the Constitution, and his own role. Madison’s Notes were originally taken as a legislative diary for himself and likely Thomas Jefferson. They tracked his political ideas, his strategies, and the positions of allies and opponents. The original Notes reflected what Madison cared about.
I love talking about the Notes with students because they know that one cannot take notes of oneself speaking. When they are called on, they either leave their notes blank or they compose that section later, reflecting what they realized afterwards was the right answer. Madison’s own speeches are thus the most troubling in terms of reliability. In fact, in the years immediately after the Convention, he likely replaced several of the sheets containing his speeches in order to distance himself from statements that became controversial. 
Madison never finished the Notes that summer. In late August, as the Convention debated the first draft of the Constitution, the delegates sent controversial issues to committees. Madison served on the three most important committees: dealing with slavery, postponed matters, and the final draft. Moreover, he became sick—something that he seemed susceptible to under stress.
Madison stopped writing the Notes. He was too involved in drafting to bother with a diary. Moreover, he likely could not keep distinct decisions made in committees and those in the Convention. Thus at the very moment when the Convention decided many of the issues we debate today—certain congressional powers, impeachments, the vice-president, the electoral college, presidential powers—and the groupings and relationship that converted twenty-three articles into the final seven—the Notes are the most unreliable. Yet this collapse of the Notes reflected the contemporary inability of the delegates to see the final Constitution in the sense that we mistakenly imagine they could.   

Read her entire piece here.

Mandy McMichael Reports from the Meeting of the American Society of Church History

I am pleased to welcome Mandy McMichael to The Way of Improvement Leads Home family.  Mandy is Assistant Professor of Religion at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama and a former Grant Wacker student at Duke Divinity School.  She is working on a project, stemming from her Duke dissertation, on religion, the Miss America Pageant, and southern womanhood.  How cool is that?  And to top it all off, she even found a lanyard! I hope you enjoy her first post.  –JF

ASCH Session #5: “Doing History
Today I experienced a first: a standing room only crowd in an American Society of Church History (ASCH) session. I’ve attended full sessions before, but this one had an overflow of more than twenty people who got left in the hallway. Just as Jennifer Graber (presenting on behalf of David Steinmetz) noted that individuals in the midst of a historical event cannot know how it will turn out, Randall Balmer stopped her. Laughter erupted from the audience as we were informed that a bigger room was to be procured.
Finally settled into a larger – though still filled to capacity space – Jennifer Graber (University of Texas at Austin) began again. Steinmetz’s work challenged listeners to strive to accept historical events on their own terms. He offered several examples of what that might look like. To more fully understand the world which Luther inhabited, for instance, one should know Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Only when one immerses herself as completely as possible into the world she is studying can she begin to accept it and explain it on its own terms. This is, of course, not fully possible. Steinmetz thus surmises that translating past events as clearly as we can while being both sympathetic and honest is what constitutes “doing history.”
Catherine Brekus’s paper, “Who Makes History?: American Religious Historians and the Problem of Historical Agency,” was the most helpful to me. All three papers were fantastic, but hers hit on several issues that helped me understand my approach to “doing history.” As Erin already noted, “Brekus explored the possibilities and problems of individual agency, criticized by theorists who would argue that there is no self, only subjectivity, on the one hand, and proponents of ‘big history’ and ‘deep history,’ particularly Guldi and Armitage, for whom the extreme longue durée is the only appropriate way to study history and give it an impact in our contemporary world.” Brekus also argued for “microhistory” as the first step toward expanding the broad narrative, asking larger questions, and exploring the agency of marginalized groups. She closed by noting that Grant Wacker’s work provides a model for conceptualizing agency (as relational and not just individual), writing short term history, and proffering grand narratives.
David Hall’s paper explored his assumptions in two stories he’s found useful in his work on the Puritans: Elizabeth Knapp and Anne Hutchison. He pushed us to consider how we interrogate the stories we use to tell history. How do we determine their authenticity? Do we consider the multiple revisions they must have gone through before they got to us? Who else is mediating the story and is that important to recognize? In other words, he asked us to approach narratives and testimonies and our use of them with “self-critical scrutiny.” He concluded by noting his desire to continue using stories to tell history. Still, we must do so, he cautioned, aware of the “thin ice on which we skate.”
Peter Kaufman’s response elicited much laughter from the audience as he remarked, “Who makes history? We make history.” He interacted skillfully with the panelists’ ideas, using a poem by Robert Frost titled “Mending Wall” as a description of what it looks like to do historiography. We historians are that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” If historians are those who “make facts meaningful,” he concluded, “Grant, you give me a paradigm.”
Today I’ll be attending the luncheon in honor of Grant Wacker as well the panelcelebrating his contributions to American Religious History, “Believing History.” I’ve heard (hilarious) snippets from Kate Bowler’s paper already so I know that the session will be just as brilliant as today’s panel.

P.S. I scored a lanyard. I’ll keep an eye out for more.

Serendipity in the Archives

Last week the Messiah College History Department hosted Philip Deloria of the University of Michigan for our annual American Democracy Lecture.  Deloria was very gracious with his time. Not only did he deliver an evening lecture to about 350 students, faculty, and community members, but he also agreed to lead a few classes.

One of those classes was our Sophomore “Historical Methods” course.  In this course we teach students how to produce a first-rate historical research paper on a topic of their choice.  In the course of the conversation in the class he visited, Deloria discussed how historians work in the archives.  All historians hope to have a moment of serendipity when they enter the archives. (“Serendipity is defined by Webster as “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for”).They want to find a document that no other historian before them has seen or considered. Or they want to have an “aha” moment in which they encounter a document or series of documents that can be interpreted in a way that reshapes or fundamentally changes the way we have long understood the historic subject matter at hand.

Sometimes these serendipitous moments happen by sheer luck (or providence, depending on your theology). We find something we never expected to find that totally transforms the way we think about our project.  But most of the time, as Deloria told our students, serendipitous moments in the archives or with primary sources happen because we are prepared.  In other words, these kinds of moments usually happen not because we simply got lucky, but because we have done the necessary secondary reading and we understanding the historiography of the particular subject.  When this happens–when we are prepared to do historical research– we are more prone to find things that are useful, if not groundbreaking, for our work.  We begin to look at primary sources or archival material in a new way.

Deloria’s remarks reinforced what we have been trying to teach our history majors about writing a research paper.  A good piece of historical scholarship–even an undergraduate piece of scholarship–must always be forged out of a regular and ongoing conversation between the secondary literature and the primary/archival material.  The more one reads and prepares before encountering the primary material, the more likely that such an serendipitous moment might occur.

I think this is an important reminder for both students and the seasoned historical researcher.

The Tea Party and Colonial Williamsburg

After witnessing a colonial Williamsburg reenactment depicting a slave telling the story of a vicious whipping, and another slave crying after her children were sold at auction, Andrew O’Hehir describes the famed living history museum as “a covert battleground in America’s culture wars.”

Yes indeed!

I am glad to see that journalists are recognizing the powerful part that history has played and will continue to play in these so called “culture wars.”  (To suggest that history is a major battleground in the culture wars is not “far fetched.”).  This, of course, has been an issue I have been dealing with for a couple of years now, ever since my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction was published in 2011.

Here are some of O’Hehir’s reflections on the tension between the white visitors to Williamsburg and recent attempts by the museum to give slave and African-American experiences a more prominent place in the story it tells about colonial America:

Every article ever written about Colonial Williamsburg brings up the overwhelming whiteness of the visitor population. Given that the venue was literally segregated during the Jim Crow era (blacks were admitted only one day a week, and the actors playing slaves lived in separate quarters), made no effort to include programming on African-American life until the 1980s, and cannot avoid focusing on the single most painful aspect of African-American history, it’s not exactly shocking that black people aren’t breaking down the doors. Another factor may be that the Revolutionary War itself is often seen, not just by African-Americans but by everybody, as an all-white duel of elites – George Washington vs. King George – whose ideas and slogans and conflicts are locked away behind glass in the vitrine of the distant past.

That dusty sense of certainty is exactly what has long made the American Revolution feel like a safe zone for contemporary conservatives; contemporary Tea Party activists picked their name for a reason. The heroes and villains of the Revolution seem clear-cut, and there’s very little popular debate about underlying causes (which makes it very different from the Civil War). The schoolbook versions are loaded with heroic deeds, truisms about God and tyranny and liberty, and paeans to the blinding greatness of the Founding Fathers, usually considered as a semi-divine monolith rather than a group of bickering men. That certainty is also exactly what the “Revolutionary City” program at Colonial Williamsburg seeks to undermine. (“Revolutionary City” is now concentrated in a 90-minute chunk towards the end of the day, but this summer it will expand throughout the schedule and become increasingly interwoven with other events.)

No doubt “Revolutionary City,” along with Colonial Williamsburg’s extensive Web outreach and ventures into social media, is in large part a matter of adapting to a changing environment. Attendance has trended steadily downward since a peak in the mid-1980s, and the institution faces a version of the Republican Party’s marketing problem: An all-white, heartland-based demographic is no longer enough. But unlike the GOP’s soul-searching, the process of reinvention at Colonial Williamsburg feels genuine and all-pervasive. (I should make clear that you can can observe most outdoor activities in Williamsburg, including some of the “Revolutionary City” theater, without paying admission.) Given its long-standing image as the squarest and most white-bread of all American tourist attractions, the question of whether Williamsburg can attract a new audience without totally driving away its old one is a puzzler.

HT: Aaron Cowan

A "Savage" Review Stirs Much Debate at U.S. Intellectual History

While I was on a brief hiatus last month, I missed all of the hullabaloo surrounding James Livingston’s review of Paul Murphy’s The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s.  (The review was part of a U.S. Intellectual History roundtable on the book).

Here is a taste of Livingston’s review at U.S. Intellectual History:

So what?  Why object to such a good, even brilliant book?  Who cares?  I’ll play The Professor, you go ahead and play along, answer at will, and get as angry as you want. 

This shit doesn’t matter anymore!  Isn’t it clear by now that finely wrought books like Paul Murphy’s are monuments to a comically Nietzschean will to believe—mere vestiges of the urge to make sense in the Present and of the Future by citation of the Past?  Aren’t these books just oddly-shaped things that are soon to be placed in dioramas, alongside frogs and other endangered amphibians?  Or will they always exist as the material evidence of a deeper urge to get tenure—live forever and all that—which, as we all well know, is already a thing of the Past (not the urge, the thing itself)? 

Murphy responded graciously, but Dan Wickberg, writing in the comments section, challenged Livingston to actually review the book, rather than use the book to make a broad attack against the entire profession.  Wickberg wrote, “Instead of farting in the museum, give us a careful and considered argument. We’re all adults here; I think we can handle it.”

Meanwhile, L.D. Burnett, a contributor at U.S. Intellectual History and a graduate student, wrote that Livington’s review scared her to death: “It was a hit job; I mean, it was a frickin’ crime scene.  I was stunned, shocked into silence–sure that I had witnessed something awful and wrong, but afraid to say a thing about it publicly.”

Finally, James Livingston returned to the blog to explain himself.  His piece continues to attack the practices of the historical profession.
 A taste:
It follows, I think, that we cannot reproduce the past in any meaningful sense, at least not in good faith.  As both Werner Heisenberg and Elton Mayo discovered in the 1920s, observation is participation.  We’re acting on the past, changing the reality, whenever and however we write it up, because we enter from a world elsewhere—either we “go back”  in time or we acknowledge our separation in social space.

Paul Murphy’s book mystified and irritated me, then, because the writing exhibits no temporal or any other kind of estrangement from the historical moment we call the 1920s.  We don’t have to “go back” to understand this decade (and why do we follow the US Census in deciding on credible historical periods?), he assumes, because we’re in the same place—us intellectuals are unduly alienated from the masses, just like Christopher Lasch and Richard Rorty and Nelson Lichtenstein said we were!  Once upon a time, before and after the 1920s, we weren’t, but our fallen state is not permanent.  We don’t have to stay all modernist, we too can make an “organic” connection to a usable past!

In this excruciating, exhortative respect, Murphy’s book reads like a reproduction of the present—in exactly the same way Mumford’s “biography” of Melville did.  But these writers, artists, and intellectuals of the 1920s are not our contemporaries, no matter how close they might feel and sound.  For every one of them, the novelty of the New Era was determined by its radical break from the past, and this break became legible, for every one of them, as fundamental change in the meanings of work, labor, and necessity.  They created new connections to the past, which is to say they recreated the past as such, because they knew it had been whirled away.  Unlike them, we can take that fundamental change for granted, so an explanation of it is in order—we’ll never understand them, or for that matter ourselves, without such an explanation, without “going back” to where they stood.

There is a lot to think about here, but the folks at U.S. Intellectual History have already started to parse Livingston’s remarks. Stay tuned.