Ed Ayers on Trump’s White House history conference

Here is University of Richmond historian Ed Ayers at The Washington Post:

Despite the sustained offensive by those who would save America’s honor, the insidious enemy apparently endures, as dangerous today as ever, worthy of frontal attack by the president of the United States and a new 1776 Commission “to promote patriotic education,” to inject an antidote to the “ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”

These charges concern and puzzle me because they suggest I have been obtuse and perhaps even deluded. As it turns out, I have practiced history for most of the half-century in which these wars over history have been waged — and I have yet to meet anyone who works to destroy the United States. It makes me wonder whether I have been going to the wrong conferences and reading the wrong books, whether I have been left out of exclusive circles where plans are shared.

If this critique had merit, I should have been in the room when the plans were hatched. After all, I sought out the subjects often attacked as the nest of dangerous ideas. I have written books about crime and punishment in the South, about the rise of segregation and disfranchisement, about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Those topics deal with Black people, enslaved and free. They wrestle with lynching and chain gangs. They confront secession and the waging of war against the United States.

I haven’t hidden this work. Over the course of four decades, I have been fortunate to teach thousands of students, to work with museums of many sizes and missions, to help host television and radio shows and podcasts about American history, to work with the National Archives and the Library of Congress, to serve on commissions about African American history and Confederate monuments.

I have done that work because I care about my nation, my people. I do it because I love my native South, where I have chosen to live and to help raise our children. I do it because the United States has indeed been given a great opportunity, enjoyed by few nations in the history of the world, to create its history for itself. To live up to that opportunity, we owe it to ourselves to face the past honestly and fearlessly.

In all that work, I have yet to meet anyone who matches the description posted by the would-be defenders of our history. Instead, I meet people, from all kinds of backgrounds, who care about America, who are fiercely devoted to its institutions, rights and future. I meet people who long to share the freedom of our nation more broadly and more equitably, to explore injustice to lessen injustice.

Read the entire piece here.

David Blight: An “educated and civil society” is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama”

Blight 2

Yale historian David Blight talks about the differences between history and the past on the “Live the Best Version of You” podcast. It is a nice introduction to how historians work and how the work historians do must contribute to our democratic life.

Listen:

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A few great lines:

  • Historians always work with their “umbilical cord” connected to the archives, but all research must be “rendered into a narrative.”
  • Good historical story-telling is always going to “convince” some people and “offend” others. This, Blight says, is the “beauty” and “fun” of history writing, but it is also contributes to the “perils” of history writing.
  • “It is the obligation of the trained historian to get close to truth as we can.”
  • In this world of subjectivity and opinion, “every now and then people seem to want a historian” to tell us “what really happened.”
  • “Some of the best history is written by people who have a good hunch.”
  • “History is what historians do,” but “memory is what the public possesses.” Everybody “has a sense of the past in their head” and it usually comes from family and roots.
  • “Stories take hold in the public mind that may or may not be directly connected to the history historians write, and hence memory can be therefore much more sacred than it is secular because people tend to say ‘I believe in this story.'”
  • “We have to find ways to reduce” the distance “between public memory and history….This is the historian’s duty.”
  • Blight calls for a “tolerant, educated, civil society” that is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama and human experience.”
  • Blight quotes William James: “The enemy of any one of my truths, is the rest of my truths.” We are obligated to challenge our own beliefs.

Listen to the entire interview here.

 

Episode 72: Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump, and the Upending of SHEAR

Podcast

In this episode we talk with Daniel Feller, the editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. We discuss his work as a documentary editor, the uses of Andrew Jackson in the age of Trump, and a controversial paper he recently delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for the Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR).

You can also listen at your favorite podcatcher, including Apple Podcasts.

*The New York Times* covers the “clash of the historians” at SHEAR

64c66-shear

Jennifer Schuessler has written a fair report on what happened last weekend during (and following) the Society for Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR) ZOOM panel titled “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump.”

Schuessler quotes from the second blog post I wrote about the session and its aftermath. (I did not speak with her). I also invite you to read my initial response to the panel here. I am returning to the topic now because my message boxes are starting to fill again.

Anyone who has followed the SHEAR controversy will be familiar with much of Schuessler’s piece, but she has also done some additional reporting, including an interview with Dan Feller.

Here is a taste:

In an interview, Mr. Feller, 69, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said it wasn’t the historian’s job to defend or condemn. What he questioned, he said, was the insistence on seeing Jackson purely as someone “who just wanted to kill everybody,” as well as what he sees as a politicized approach to writing history.

“The point in the paper is not that Andrew Jackson is a good guy or a bad guy,” Mr. Feller, who called himself a lifelong Democrat, said. “But because both sides have identified him with Trump, for opposite reasons, we are now reading Jackson through the lens of Trump.”

And he was unapologetic about the panel, which he noted had been approved by the society’s programming committee and Mr. Egerton last fall, as one of 39 at a planned conference. (The others have been postponed until next summer.) The paper had been circulated weeks in advance, he said, adding that he had received no criticism before the panel.

As for his use of the phrase “redcoats and redskins,” he said it was a reference to a common phrase in older scholarship, and had “implied quotation marks” around it. “I have never volitionally used the word ‘redskin’ in my life, period,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

After reading Schuessler’s piece, re-reading Feller’s paper (including a close reading of the footnotes), and listening to the Q&A for the third time, I honestly don’t see why what happened at this session merited the removal of the SHEAR president and such a backlash.

  1. I did not see Feller trying to defend Jackson, as some have accused him of doing. It seemed like he was trying to understand him, which is what historians are supposed to do. As Feller writes, “The point in the paper is not that Andrew Jackson is a good guy or a bad guy….”
  2. For example, Jackson was indeed a white supremacist. But isn’t it possible that Jackson understood the status of Lyncoya differently than he did his Black slaves? Is it wrong for a historian to suggest this kind of complexity? If such nuance existed in Jackson’s mind, then shouldn’t the historian call attention to it? Or are such arguments now out of bounds?
  3. If Feller doesn’t believe that Jackson’s Indian Removal was “genocide,” should such a view result in a public condemnation by the SHEAR Advisory Council, the SHEAR Nominating Committee, or the SHEAR Program Committee? Isn’t this a matter of interpretation?
  4. If Feller argues that Jackson’s use of the word “pet” to describe Lyncoya is more complicated than what a few younger scholars have suggested, does that merit the kind of trash talking directed at him on Twitter and the public shaming of the man? I imagine that the public shaming will be a lot worse now that The New York Times has covered this.
  5. Was Feller dismissive of younger scholars and women scholars? Well, he was certainly hard on them. But he also disagreed with their interpretations. It appears that he read the work of these scholars and found them wanting. Where then do we draw the line between “disagree” and “dismiss?” If Feller had disagreed with these scholars more politely would that have been okay? Or is Feller being condemned simply because he disagrees with female and junior scholars? If the latter is the case, then I see this as a problem. If we are trying to find out what is true about Andrew Jackson, and the leading authority on the subject has a different opinion than junior scholars, shouldn’t his views be taken seriously?
  6. Of course it is also essential for senior scholars to treat other people–especially junior members of the field– fairly and respectfully. If members of SHEAR feel marginalized we should take their voices seriously and listen. As a white male, I have learned a lot of hard lessons on this front, especially in my own academic institution. Indeed, SHEAR has always been an old boys network. This needs to change and it is changing. Feller was a lot harder on younger scholars than I would have been, but I am not sure that this rises to the level of demonizing him and ousting the organization’s president.
  7. In my opinion, the entire point of historical scholarship is to make an argument based on the rigorous reading of the evidence. Historians will disagree on how to read such evidence. Sometimes newer scholars will challenge long-established scholarly orthodoxy and in the process give us a better understanding of what happened in the past. But just because an argument is new doesn’t mean we have to automatically accept it. Of course many who believe that scholarship should always be progressing onward and upward, leaving all older interpretations behind in a manner that C.S. Lewis described as “chronological snobbery,” will disagree with me here. And that’s OK. But let’s debate and exchange ideas instead of turning out the mob. As Johann Neem wrote yesterday, we need more and and a little less or.
  8. Of course any such debate must take place with charity and a sense of intellectual hospitality. This is a lesson for Feller, Twitterstorians, the SHEAR leadership, and all of us in the academic profession.
  9. Feller told Jennifer Schuessler that the use of a racial slur at the end of the Q&A was meant with “implied quotation marks.” This is what it sounded like to me as well. Those final couple of minutes were very confusing, but I will once again refer to the last paragraph of Andy Shankman’s response to the plenary session. It seems that both Feller and Harry Watson were familiar with this phrase and were using it in their discussion of the “slaughtering” of British soldiers (“redcoats”) at the Battle of New Orleans. Feller was trying to make a point about Jackson as a general in the War of 1812. He only used this phrase because he thought one of the panelists had said it earlier.

As some of you know, I have also written on Trump’s use of Jackson, particularly in the context of white evangelical support for Trump in 2016.

This then leads me to the quotation that Schuessler pulled from the blog:

The SHEAR debacle has very little to do with history and a whole lot to do about politics. This is why many Americans–including the thousands of people I engage with on a daily basis– don’t trust us and our scholarship.

On the first sentence of the quote:

As I noted above, it seems as if SHEAR has decided that certain approaches to historical scholarship are unacceptable. Current president Amy Greenberg is quoted in the piece. She says that Feller’s paper does not representative SHEAR’s “standards of scholarship.” I am surprised by this. I thought Feller’s paper was an excellent piece of scholarship. Of course it is SHEAR’s prerogative to draw its own boundaries, but this seems like political censorship to me.

A quick word about my use of “political” here.  All historical scholarship is political. I will be the first to argue that our social and cultural location in the present shapes how we view the past.  As David Novick reminded us several decades ago, “objectivity” is a “noble dream.”

But when I said that this was all “about politics” I was talking about SHEAR as a professional organization. In any professional organization, those in power decide what arguments are acceptable and unacceptable. Since every member of the Advisory Board, Nominating Board, and Program Committee agreed on the decision to condemn Feller and oust Doug Egerton, and I have heard privately from dozens of SHEAR members who disagree with one or both of these decisions, it tells me that this was a political power play, whether the leadership of SHEAR understands it that way or not.

CORRECTION (July 28, 2020): It has come to my attention that the Advisory Council of SHEAR never took a position on condemning Feller and has not done so.  Moreover, the Ex Officio (and voting) members of the Advisory Council did not sign the letter calling for Egerton’s ouster. This latter point is explained in a statement from current SHEAR president Amy Greenberg).

And now on to the last line of the quote.

I have spent much of my career trying to bridge the gap between the work of professional historians and the public. I spend a lot of time talking to history teachers. I also train 7-12th grade history teachers.

I also speak and write to evangelical Christians, a group with a long history of anti-intellectualism that desperately needs to think more deeply about American history as it relates to race, gender, and the relationship between church and state. (For example, if you read this blog, you know I have been working hard to teach my audience that systemic racism is a real thing). The number of negative messages I received from SHEAR members and other scholars this week pales in comparison to the number of e-mails I get each week from those who attack me from the Right or question my religious faith.

When I started this blog I made a commitment to entering the fray. As I wrote at The Panorama in late 2019, this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. I’d like to think I have remained consistent in my convictions throughout it all. Or at least I have tried.

I got into this mess (or as Frank Cogliano and David Silkenat called it “SHEAR MADNESS“) because at least ten of my readers asked me to comment and help them make sense of what was going on. They watched it all unfold on Twitter and were left with many questions about Andrew Jackson, Trump’s use of Jackson, slavery, public discourse, and the nature of the historical profession. Many of my readers love history and think it is important, but they come from all political stripes. A lot of them–liberals and conservatives– don’t trust academics because they seem to sing only one political note.

Finally, let’s put things in perspective. Let’s remember that while SHEAR is cleaning house and marking boundaries, there are millions of people deciding right now whether they will pull a lever for Donald Trump in November. They are listening to the very bad historical arguments about “Making America Great Again” emanating every day from their car radios and computer screens. They are having history-based debates with their families and friends. They are trying to make sense of the American founding and how it relates to our current political moment. They want to know what to say at a town hall meeting devoted to tearing down a monument or renaming a school. They are trying to use history to build community in the places where they live, work, and have their being.

There are K-12 teachers who need help trying to figure out what to do with the 1619 Project, how to talk to parents about what should and should not be happening in a history classroom, or how to start a conversation with students about race in America. Some are just trying to defend the study of history against school boards intent on giving it short shrift in the curriculum.

There are parents asking about what kind of materials to use as they try to teach history to kids who may not be going back to school in the Fall due to COVID-19. They want to know if there are one or two books they can read that will help them.

While some historians are on Twitter bashing Dan Feller, there are history professors standing face-to-face with white supremacists at Civil War battle sites trying to convince them the war was about slavery. Others are fighting for their professional lives because their administrations are cutting tenured faculty.

I know these people exist because they have reached-out to me (or I have reached-out to them) in one way or another over the course of the last few months. As an educator–both in the classroom, the church, and online–I have worked hard to build their trust.

I hope those who remain in SHEAR will strive to develop a professional society that celebrates diversity, lifts up the voices of  junior scholars and graduate students, respects the work of seasoned members of the profession, embraces honest debate and conversation, and tries to reach as many people as possible with good early American history.

 

White Supremacy, Capitalism, and a New Book on the History of St. Louis

Broken HeartIs capitalism racist? If you answer yes, you are one of the cool kids in the historical profession right now. Scholars working on the connections between capitalism and slavery have produced some interesting, helpful, provocative, and controversial work. Much of the debate over The New York Times‘s 1619 Project has focused on the strengths and weakness of this historiographical trend.

The relationship between capitalism and race also frames Nicolas Lemann‘s New Yorker review of Walter Johnson‘s new book, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.

Here is a taste:

Historically, Johnson doesn’t find many people to admire. Among whites, the main exceptions are a few Communists and radically inclined labor organizers. He takes a dim view, too, of mainstream black organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. Liberal politicians hardly attract his notice, except when, as in the case of Lincoln, their reputations require revising downward. But after laying out a relentlessly bleak history he ends, jarringly, on a hopeful note. During the unrest following Michael Brown’s death, he tells us, “the disinherited of St. Louis rose again to take control of their history.” Since then, a number of activists—Johnson provides thumbnail sketches of them—have launched efforts in poor black neighborhoods meant to reverse, or at least resist, the pernicious workings of racial capitalism. Today, Johnson writes, “I have never been to a more amazing, hopeful place in my life.” Underlying his stated optimism is an implicit conviction that it wouldn’t do much good to look for help from the larger society; the victims of oppression must find a way forward by themselves.

As a child in the Jim Crow South during the civil-rights era, growing up in a conservative white milieu, I often overheard bitter adult conversations about the hypocrisy of white liberals in the North. Were they really any better than Southern segregationists, to go by their lived behavior? Walter Johnson, coming from the left, offers a good deal of empirical support for opinions like that. His account discourages us from drawing much hope from past events like the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the major civil-rights victories of the sixties, or the election of Barack Obama as President; the regime of racial capitalism, in his vision, always manages to reconstitute itself. Broader reforms that aimed, at least, to smooth the roughest edges of capitalism—like the regulation of business excesses or the creation of Social Security and Medicaid—are, we gather, no match for white supremacy.

Democratic politics, especially in a country with a racial history like ours, is necessarily messy, impure, and capable of producing no more than partial victories, and, even then, only when pushed hard by political movements. But deflating and deriding the progress it has made in the past and the promise it might hold for the future invites the hazards of defeatism. It distracts from the kinds of economic, educational, and criminal-justice reforms that mainstream progressives hope to enact. These are the tools we have at hand. It would be a shame not to use them.

Read the entire review here.

The State of the History Job Market

History

The number of full-time faculty jobs in history has declined over the past year, but the history job market appears to be stabilizing. The number of Ph.D.s in history is dropping.

Here is Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed:

The new data appeared in the American Historical Association’s annual jobs report, released Wednesday. The report is based on jobs posted to the AHA Career Center and the separate H-Net Job Guide. About 25 percent of historians work outside academe, so the report does not reflect the entire jobs outlook, but it is considered representative of overall disciplinary trends.

“We may have reached a point of stability in the academic job market,” reads the report, written by Dylan Ruediger, an AHA staffer. During the 2018-19 hiring cycle, the AHA Career Center hosted ads for 538 full-time positions, making for a 1.8 percent decline year over year.

Read the entire piece here.

“Title Policing”

Golden GOphers

Here is David Perry, senior academic adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities:

Historians value integrity, David; you should too if you truly are one of us.” So wrote a senior professor, a named chair at a regional public university on the West Coast, chiding me in an email. My sin: calling myself a “senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota” in an opinion essay I wrote recently for CNN.

This professor decided I was falsely claiming to be some kind of senior adviser to the faculty, rather than merely an academic adviser, senior in rank, assigned to work with undergraduates in the history department. By suggesting that history departments need senior advisers, he wrote, “you make us look like incompetent fools.” He added: “Good for you that you have this public profile. But please don’t advance it by trivializing what tenured and tenure-track history faculty, including those at your own university, do.” As for my job title, he insisted that “no such positions formally exist at universities, those that still have standards, at least.”

Then he CC’d the chair of my department — the classic academic equivalent of asking to speak to my supervisor.

Read the entire piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.  There is a person like this “senior professor” at every university.

It is Time for a President of the American Historical Association Who Does Not Work at a Research University

AHA2020 Carousel Slide testNOTE:  This is a revised version of a post I wrote in January 2013.

What do all of these former American Historical Association presidents have in common?

2020: Mary Lindemann: University of Miami

2019: J.R. McNeil: Georgetown University

2018: Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University

2017: Tyler Stovall, University of California-Santa Cruz

2016: Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh

2015: Vicki Ruiz, University of California-Irvine

2014: Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago

2013: Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago

2012: William Cronon, University of Wisconsin

2011: Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

2010: Barbara Metcalf, University of Michigan

2009: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University

2008: Gabrielle Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University

2007: Barbara Weinstein, University of Maryland

2006: Linda Kerber, University of Iowa

2005: James Sheehan–Stanford University

2004: Jonathan Spence, Yale University

2003: James McPherson, Princeton University

2002: Lynn Hunt, UCLA

2001: William Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin

2000: Eric Foner, Columbia University

1999: Robert Darnton, Princeton University

1998: Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia

1997: Joyce Appleby. UCLA

Apart from the fact that they are outstanding and groundbreaking scholars, they were all teaching at research universities while they served as president of the American Historical Association.  In fact, the last president of the AHA who did not teach at a research university was Nellie Nielson. She was president in 1943.  Nielson, who also happened to be the first female president of the AHA, spent most of her career at Mt. Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women in South Hadley, MA.

I can understand why so many AHA presidents come from research universities.  They have time to write, produce, and thus make a name for themselves in the profession.  But I wonder if it is time to buck this trend.

Back in 2012,  William Cronon urged the profession to reconnect with the public through teaching, the Internet, and other digital efforts.  I know that Cronon’s interests reflect the interests of the AHA staff.  They are building a larger tent that covers not just academics who write award-winning books, but professors from smaller institutions, public historians, digital historians, podcasters, K-12 teachers, park rangers, and a host of other non-academics who “do history.”

So why not think about an AHA president who lives and works in the trenches–a sort of “people’s president” who represents the vast majority of historians in America, both inside and outside the academy?  Why not have a president who is a professor at a liberal arts college who spends most of her or his time in the classroom, does her or his job well, and has few aspirations of working at a research university? Why not a public historian or a director of a historical society or history museum?  Why not a high school teacher?  It would be fun to imagine what kind of AHA presidential address these historians might deliver or what kind of initiatives they might promote.

Historians and the Work of Translation

book-glasses-translate-translation

I just finished Houghton College political scientist Peter Meilaender’s essay “Crossed Lines: The Importance of Translation in an Era of Growing Political Indifference.”  The piece, which appears in the Michaelmas 2019 issue of The Cresset, really resonated with me.  It is a reflection on the work of translation, born out of Meilaender’s reading of a collection of translated short stories.

Meilaender writes:

…only the lover is a faithful translator.  We today need more such translators–more peopel with the kind of curiosity and good will that motivates them to move outside their home culture, and with the kind of love that inspires them to it again, bringing with them the fruit of their travels.  Not all of us need to be such translators, but all of us should honor them, and we should want our public life to be enriched by their work as intermediaries, go-betweens, ambassadors.  At its best, that work embodies a form of intellectual virtue that holds out the promise of mutual understanding without papering over genuine difference.  It accepts the consequences of Babel while maintaining the hope that division and confusion need not be the last word, the ultimate and incorrigible fate of humanity.  It calls us to sing a polyphonic new song, with multiple languages in counterpoint and in harmony.

This essay resonated with me so much because I have been involved in the work of translation most of my adult life.  Translators, of course, must know something about two (or more) cultures.  They must know how to speak the languages of both cultures.

As a Christian, I have inhabited, and continue to inhabit, American evangelicalism.   I can speak the language.  I have spent the better part of my life in this culture. I know it well. I know its strengths and flaws. (I was also a practicing Catholic until the age of 15 or 16, so I can also speak the language of that culture, although I now do so with a heavy evangelical accent).

As a historian, I have inhabited, and continue to inhabit, the culture often described as the “historical profession.”  (I will be taking part in a community ritual associated with this culture in January 2020 when I will attend the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York).  I know this culture well. I know its strengths and flaws.  I can speak the language.

Some of what I have published over the years are works of translation–efforts to bring these two worlds together.  Other books and articles I have published are not works of translation. They were written in the language of the profession.

Public historians and academically-trained historians who write for the general public are always involved in the work of translation.  (See my recent reflection on this here). So are teachers.

Sometimes I need to translate my middle-class life to my working-class family, and sometimes I find myself doing the opposite.

I think it is imperative for the health of our communities that we all do the work of translation.  The divisions we face in the United States today are often due to a lack of skill in this area.  If you live in a social world where you are not forced to engage in the hard work of translation, you may be part of the problem. (And I am speaking here to my fellow academics as well). Meilaender suggests that the translator engages in moral activity.  She must have empathy for both cultures and use her work to seek “mutual understanding.”

But the translator always faces a conundrum.  Meilaender writes, “We today need…more people with kind of curiosity and good will that motivates them to move outside their home culture, and with the kind of love that inspires them to return to it again, bringing with them the fruits of their travels.”  I really like this sentence, but we also must acknowledge that sometimes a translator can get confused about exactly which culture is “home.”

It is Time for a President of the AHA Who Does Not Work at a Research University (#aha19)

AHAlogo

NOTE:  This is a revised version of a post I wrote in January 2013.

What do all of these former American Historical Association presidents have in common?

2018: Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University

2017: Tyler Stovall, University of California-Santa Cruz

2016: Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh

2015: Vicki Ruiz, University of California-Irvine

2014: Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago

2013: Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago

2012: William Cronon, University of Wisconsin

2011: Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

2010: Barbara Metcalf, University of Michigan

2009: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University

2008: Gabrielle Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University

2007: Barbara Weinstein, University of Maryland

2006: Linda Kerber, University of Iowa

2005: James Sheehan–Stanford University

2004: Jonathan Spence, Yale University

2003: James McPherson, Princeton University

2002: Lynn Hunt, UCLA

2001: William Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin

2000: Eric Foner, Columbia University

1999: Robert Darnton, Princeton University

1998: Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia

1997: Joyce Appleby. UCLA

Apart from the fact that they are outstanding and groundbreaking scholars, they were all teaching at research universities while they served as president of the American Historical Association.  In fact, the last president of the AHA who did not teach at a research university was Nellie Nielson. She was president in 1943.  Nielson, who also happened to be the first female president of the AHA, spent most of her career at Mt. Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women in South Hadley, MA.

I can understand why so many AHA presidents come from research universities.  They have time to write, produce, and thus make a name for themselves in the profession.  But I wonder if it is time to buck this trend.

Back in 2012,  William Cronon urged the profession to reconnect with the public through teaching, the Internet, and other digital efforts.  I know that Cronon’s interests reflect the interests of the AHA staff.  They are building a larger tent that covers not just academics who write award-winning books, but professors from smaller institutions, public historians, digital historians, podcasters, K-12 teachers, park rangers, and a host of other non-academics who “do history.”

So why not think about an AHA president who lives and works in the trenches–a sort of “people’s president” who represents the vast majority of historians in America, both inside and outside the academy?  Why not have a president who is a professor at a liberal arts college who spends most of her or his time in the classroom, does her or his job well, and has few aspirations of working at a research university? Why not a public historian or a director of a historical society or history museum?  Why not a high school teacher?  It would be fun to imagine what kind of AHA presidential address these historians might deliver or what kind of initiatives they might promote.

*Inside Higher Ed* Covers the Erin Bartram Blog Post on Leaving Academia

AHA-Building

Headquarters of the American Historical Association, Washington D.C.

We blogged about this yesterday.  Get up to speed here.

Here is a taste of “Calling Academe’s Bluff.”

Janet Watson, an associate professor of history at UConn, worked with Bartram in graduate school and reached out to her about her essay.

That Bartram is now in such a position “is further evidence of how the academic job market is increasingly dysfunctional in ways that are harmful both to students and to the people who teach them,” Watson said Monday.

Joshua Eyler, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct associate professor of humanities at Rice University, shared Bartram’s essay on Twitter. He told Inside Higher Ed that there isn’t “a lot of space for this kind of grieving, which is why the kind of frank and open discussion of it in her essay is so important.”

Agreeing with Bartram, he said, “I think it is still true that the dominant reason people enroll in Ph.D. programs in the humanities is to one day be faculty.” That doesn’t mean everyone does so for that reason, he said, “but it is a major motivating force.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said his organization and the Modern Language Association are working on career diversity precisely because they’re confident that keeping people like Bartram “in our respective communities benefits us, the individuals and public culture.”

“If we cannot find good ways to maintain productive relationships among historians who follow diverse career paths, there is not only individual loss but also for the discipline and public culture,” he added via email.

Read the entire piece here.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Positive Changes in the Historical Profession

Classroom

This dispatch from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association comes from Zachary Cote, a middle school history teacher in Los Angeles, California.  Some of you may remember his great posts from the 2017 AHA in Denver.  Enjoy!  –JF

In perusing the various sessions here at the AHA, I have noticed two things:

1. Sessions lean more heavily toward teaching the subject over purely new research, and

2. Historians are vocalizing something resembling an identity crisis.

I will address the second point in this post rather succinctly and save my thoughts on the first one for another, more in-depth response. If one scans the AHA 2018 program, one finds sessions dealing with “reflections,” “Why history matters,” enrollment issues, “The State and Future of the Humanities,” among others with similar themes. When I see words and phrases like this I sense urgency and perhaps a bit of fear. Sessions with such topics imply a sort of redefinition of what the profession entails. In fact, when I attended the “Why History Matters” session this morning, I could hear the urgency expressed by professors and graduate students eager to equip their students with the skills that will help them find jobs outside of the academy.

As a middle school teacher, I cannot offer too much commentary on this perceived shift in the historian’s focus, but I can express my excitement. In teaching 8th grade, I can already see in some of my students a disregard for history and historical thinking. This worries me, but it also encourages me to be a teacher that can change their attitude toward historical study.  In attending some of these sessions, it appears that my micro-observations are fairly widespread.

I am excited to see the academic side of the historical profession shifting its focus to further bridge the gap between the public and the past. The profession is changing, and I am comforted that at least some in the academy are not only recognizing it, but taking steps to respond.

“Finding the Courage to be Human” in Academic Life

Convo

I was cheering inside when I read Robin Marie Averbeck‘s wonderful, life-giving piece on “praxis.” She writes, “As a scholar and a citizen I am supposed to be producing knowledge and perspectives to enrich the public…but what is the meaning of producing thought if we are not simultaneously engaging in praxis?”

Averbeck continues at the  U.S. Intellectual History Blog:

Because praxis – for me, at least – isn’t just what petitions you sign, marches you attend, or boycotts you participate in. It’s what you do when your back is up against a corner during a politically charged departmental dispute. It’s how you show your support for the marginalized and oppressed in contexts and spaces not explicitly about their second-class status. And it’s also about friendship, and the obligations we have towards those we call comrades. This means it can also be incredibly difficult; at times you’re so unsure what the right action is that it tears you apart. But that’s how you know you’re breathing life into your vision for a different world; there’s no praxis I recognize as such without angry outbursts, mutually validating bouts of shit talking, painful disagreements and loneliness-annihilating reconciliation. To really do praxis, in other words, you’ve got to find the courage to be human, to be honest, and to place your politics in the same place in your heart where you relish your love for others.

There’s little to no place for that kind of thinking within the bureaucracies of the formal academy, where the admonishment of Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin – to keep the notion of love out of the practice of politics – seems to reign supreme. And yet a yearning for something like this rolls along underground; you can see it and hear it at the hotel bars of conferences – when all the papers are given, and all the Q&As politely conducted – packed with people who pounce on an opportunity to talk shop while also joking, flirting, boozing. But, some might say, all this is merely gossip, cocktail conversation – not to be placed side by side with finished manuscripts and carefully footnoted analyses. Therefore, so much of it goes unrecorded, dismissed, and discarded; and in place of this cacophony we form images of meaningful thought being born in quiet spaces of isolation: libraries, archives, offices.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Confessions of a Lonely Christian Historian

Messiah

I think all of us who pursue a life of the mind are, to some degree, lonely people.  We live in the world of ideas.  We spend a lot of our time in isolation–reading, studying, thinking, writing. We tend to be introverts.  For those committed to independent thinking, the chance of being marginalized from this or that community only increases.

Recently I have read several things, heard several things, and have been in several conversations that have reinforced a sense of the professional and intellectual loneliness that I have experienced over the last several years.  At the risk of becoming overly confessional, self-indulgent, or dark, I thought I would mention them here.

I am sure some folks will appreciate my thoughts.  Others will deconstruct them in negative ways.  These are the risks I take every day when I write at this blog.  One day I feel that writing at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is an act of courage. The next day I wonder if what I have been doing here for the past eight years has been one big act of foolishness.

So here goes:

I am a first-generation college student and the son of working-class parents.  This means that I am constantly trying to live between the worlds of my uneducated extended family and my own advanced education.  This has been even harder since the election of Donald Trump.  It can get pretty lonely at times.

As a faculty member at a Christian college who tries to do good historical work and be a contributing member of my profession, I realize that my decision to devote the first half of my career to a place called “Messiah College” has raised red flags.  I will never know how my work as a professor at a Christian college has influenced the ways the profession has received me or my work, but I have no doubt that it has and it does.  I am sure that most of my historian colleagues do not have to explain as much as I do why they teach at the place where they teach.  As much as I honor and respect the work of historians, and try to participate in that work when I can, I will never feel part of the historical profession nor do I think I will ever be fully accepted within it.  This used to make me feel lonely, but the older I get the less I am bothered by it.

I am an evangelical Christian.  That comes with certain beliefs and ways of understanding the world that make me different from other historians and even different from other Christians at my institution, especially those in the humanities who tend to gravitate toward other Christian traditions.

I am a faculty member who wants to defend the traditional liberal arts, the discipline of history and its patterns of thinking, and the pursuit of a humanities education that transcends political and social agendas.  I am often criticized by those–many of whom teach humanities in my own institution–who see the goal of Christian college education differently.  I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues.  I wonder about my place in the mix.

I am a historian and Christian who is critical of conservative evangelicals and other right-wing attempts to blend Christian faith with political power or promote the idea of the United States as a Christian nation. My critique of the so-called “court evangelicals” makes me a bit of an outcast in my church community (although I feel this changing a bit) and perhaps raises some red flags among conservative colleagues at my institution.

I believe Christian colleges are doing a nice job of training people for our capitalist economy, but they are doing a poor job of investing in the preparation of people for life in a democracy. This means that I am viewed as suspect by most people in society and especially by those champions of pre-professional education who now dominate so many Christian colleges, including my own.

What makes this all so difficult is the fact that I have fellow-travelers and conversation partners in all of these areas.  And the same people who are fellow-travelers in one category will often part ways with me on other issues.  This, of course, is normal. I would not expect anything different.  I think all of us deal with this in some way, but I wonder if those of us who live a life of the mind experience such loneliness more than others. Finding common ground can be hard work.

Bowen: The Historical Profession is “abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market.”

bowenThis morning’s post by Mike Bowen resonated with many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and struck a chord with folks attending the Annual Meeting of the AHA in Denver. Read it here.  In this post, Bowen offers some thoughts on the history job market.  –JF

Writing about the academic job market from the inside is very difficult. No one likes a braggart, and no one likes a complainer. If you stray too far in either direction your message can get lost amidst the visceral reactions emanating from the comment threads.

I tried writing about the job market once, back in the heady, pre-recession days of 2008. Frankly, the article is embarrassing and I wish I had never published it. It is too inflammatory and should have been more constructive and conciliatory. The response to the piece is why I spent the next nine years away from the topic.

Based on their reaction at the meeting in the graduate students/junior scholar job panel two days later, the AHA staff didn’t appreciate my contribution. There was no subsequent dialogue about any of the points I brought up. The AHA staff rediscovered a couple of those points in 2011 or 2012 on their own, and others have drilled down on the communication issue on non-academic sites, but there hasn’t been any substantive movement towards fixing the lack of communication or late notices for interviews.

More alarming to me were the grumblings among the job seeking community. You can see that a little bit of dialogue happened on the IHE comment thread, but the readership of the Chronicle forums was severely underchuffed. For the first time in my life, I was called a “special snowflake.” Someone said that I was “entitled.” God knows what would have happened if Twitter had been around back then.

The point for bringing all of this up…the profession is abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market. Everyone knows that there is a major concern that needs to be addressed, but no one will actually make even a half-hearted effort to try. That has compounded the problem.

As the organization that is most closely associated with the job market, this situation comes back to the AHA somewhat. However, in late 2014, the executive director of the AHA wrote in Perspectives that the AHA is not here to help people find jobs in academia. I am legitimately, with no sarcasm intended, glad that he admitted this and has turned the organization to career diversity initiatives. I don’t need the help (see below), but I know others do.

The remaining stakeholders generally fall in to one of four camps. One small group outside the faculty wants to put everyone on five year contracts and do away with tenure. Some proposals have been more radical than that.  Another, slightly larger, group of contingent faculty wants to unionize. That may be a viable solution in some circumstances but, given today’s political climate I can’t envision a movement becoming so widespread that it works at every institution. The third camp is composed of job seekers who hope to God that they can land on their feet next academic year and are otherwise powerless.

The larger fourth camp is generally the rest of the profession, and they tend to ignore the situation. Job seekers make faculty members uncomfortable largely because, while many want to help, they can’t do much. You can’t really blame them either. Is it worth going to battle with a college administration, risking potential blowback down the line, to try to get more lines? More often than not, in an age of disinvestment in higher education and the dominance of STEM, the answer is no. So rather than confront the problem, the faculty retreats inwards and worries about themselves.

The net result is that we continue on the same path we have been on, motivated largely by inertia. We are a profession composed of highly-educated, socially-aware people, yet we have collectively thrown our hands up at a problem that we find too difficult to solve. I wish that we could engage in an honest discussion about this without politicizing it. Our discipline is fading , and the job crisis is part of the reason why.

Postscript: I have received  e-mails from people offering to help me transition out of academia. I appreciate the contacts, but it isn’t necessary. When I received notice of my non-renewal, I connected with a local job coach and subsequently landed a very good job in the editorial department at a research and publishing firm. I now manage a great team, am surrounded by wonderful co-workers, and have a supportive boss.

More importantly, I was able to get on with my life. That distance is what is allowing me to write these blog posts. I still adjunct at JCU one night class a semester to keep a foothold in the field and to supplement my income but, barring a miracle, the new job is my first priority now. It has to be. Do I want to get back into history full-time? Absolutely. I feel that teaching history is my vocation, but my past experience tells me that that is highly unlikely that there is a place for me to do so. That is just the reality.

 

Historians Against Trump

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Charles Lindbergh addresses an “America First” rally in Fort Wayne, IN on October 3, 1941

A group of historians has released an open letter opposing the candidacy of Donald Trump. I just signed it.

Here is the letter:

Today, we are faced with a moral test. As historians, we recognize both the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenge it poses to civil society. Historians of different specialties, eras and regions understand the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating. Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.

Historians Against Trump does not align itself with any political party or candidate. Many among us do not identify as activists and have never before taken part in such a campaign. We are history professors, school teachers, public historians and museum professionals, independent scholars and graduate students. We are united by the belief that the candidacy of Donald J. Trump poses a threat to American democracy.

As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity. Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests and movements that shape world events. We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence. Donald Trump’s record of speeches, policies and social media is an archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.

The Trump candidacy is an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve. No less than his sham “Trump University,” Donald Trump’s contempt for constructive, evidence-based argumentation mocks the ideals of the academy, whether in the sciences or the liberal arts. Academia is far from the only profession endangered by Trumpism. Donald Trump bullies and suppresses the press, and seeks to weaken First Amendment protections as President. Trump singles out journalists for attack and mocks physical disabilities. Both the judiciary and individualjudges face public threats from Trump. Non-white, non-male professionals and civil servants are irredeemably compromised in Donald Trump’s eyes.Judges are disqualified from service because of their ethnicity; women Presidential candidates succeed only because of their gender; the President of the United States is under suspicion as illegitimate and alien because of his skin color and heritage.

Donald Trump’s candidacy is the latest chapter in a troubled narrative many decades in the making. In another era, civil society institutions such as the academy, the free press and the judiciary were counted on to safeguard constitutional democracy. That this is no longer the case cannot be blamed solely on Trump. Donald Trump’s candidacy has profited from the fears of people living precariously and a political culture of spectacle and cynicism, both of which long predate his emergence as a candidate. The impulses and ideologies that animate the Trump campaign will not disappear once he is defeated in November.

It is all of our job to fill the voids exploited by the Trump campaign, building an inclusive civil society in its place. Along with Historians Against Trump, groups like Writers On Trump and Citizen Therapists are organizing in defense of the ideals in which their professions are grounded. Historians Against Trump will be marching alongside these and many other groups as part of the peaceful protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. We will continue our work into the fall, publishing essays and articles that place Trumpism into historical perspective.

We have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built. This means equipping the public with historical skills and narratives that are “factual, accurate, comprehensible, meaningful, useful, and resistant to cynical manipulators who sell snake oil as historical truth.” When Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination on July 21st, a Grand Old Party born out of the struggle for abolition and justice will have succumbed to snake oil. We are here to say, “No more.” Join us in standing up to Trump—for our history, for our future, and for each other.

Historians Against Trump

July 11, 2016

Here is an Inside Higher Ed piece on the letter.

On Integrating "Public History" and "Academic History"

I recently came across this post by Alix Green, the Head of Policy and Lecturer in History and Policy at the University of Hertfordshire.  Green is a public historian who recently attended his first National Council of Public History conference.  He came away from the meeting surprised at just how marginalized public historians are from the more traditional historians in academic history departments across the United States. 

Here is a taste of his post-conference post:

I’d always thought of public history in the USA  as a big field.  I guess I’d just made assumptions based on the 150+ programmes on offer and the energy of the discussions online and in print.  It was only going to the conference, and, in particular, the educators’ breakfast, that made me realise how atomised the field actually is in many respects.  The single academic with sole responsibility for directing an institution’s programme is common: an additional colleague if recruitment is good.  The public historian seems often to occupy a demarcated space on the edge of the history department,  responsible for ‘saving’ it through strong graduate employment outcomes, but at the same time not entirely integrated into the culture.  Maybe the worst place for a public history programme is in a history department, came one wry comment.  It was clear that the laughs that followed were in recognition of this sense of disjuncture between ‘public’ and ‘academic’ history in universities….

…I can see why professionalisation of public history led to efforts to delineate its differences from the academic discipline.  But I don’t think we do public history as field finding its identity and purpose, or ‘mainstream’ history (or indeed our students, institutions or external partners) any favours by partitioning it off.  It shouldn’t just be the bolt-on – the public engagement phase formulated once the research project is complete, or the member of staff kept on the periphery of the ‘real business’ of the department.

Public history can be a vibrant and integral part of scholarship and teaching, and it can also be a topic for critical, historiographical and comparative study…A key question, it seems to me, is how to balance the need for a locus for professional identity with the need for a more integrated historical community of enquiry.

Trace Your Academic Family Tree

Richard Dunn

A couple of years ago we did a post on the History of History Tree.   Here it is:

It is a well known fact that historians and genealogists have a rather contentious relationship. While I am sure that their disagreements have something to do with the proper way of exploring the past, I can’t help but think that the real source of enmity between them is related to the fact that the genealogists are notorious for hogging all the microfilm readers.

Now history and genealogy come together through the History of History Tree. The tree is still pretty sparse,…but when and if it fills out this could be a really interesting resource. 

I was thinking about this post when I was surfing around the other day and came across Mark Cheathem’s post: “My Academic Family Tree.”  Mark traces his academic lineage through the great southern historian C. Vann Woodward.

Inspired by Mark’s post, I decided to do some work on my own academic family tree.  Here is what I have come up with:

Father: Ned Landsman

Grandfather: Richard Dunn

Great-Grandfather: Wesley Frank Craven

Great-Great Grandfather: Wallace Notestein

Not too shabby!

What does your academic family tree look like?

"Publish or Perish" in Baccalaureate Institutions

According to this survey by the American Historical Association, historians pursuing tenure and promotion at bachelor’s institutions are judged very heavily on scholarship and “research output.”

87% of the 2440 full and associate history professors at baccalaureate colleges surveyed said that teaching was “highly valued.”  28.8% of history professors at research universities said that teaching was “highly valued.”  This, of course, should be expected.  Faculty at research universities have lighter teaching loads and are required to produce original research, while historians at teaching institutions need to be able to teach effectively.

In the same survey, 84.6% of research university professors said that print monographs were “highly valued,” but so did 61.1% of history professors at bachelor’s institutions.

On average, research universities require 1.3 monographs and 7.3 peer reviewed articles for promotion to associate professor.  Bachelor’s institutions require 1 monograph and 3.8 peer-reviewed articles for promotion to associate professor.

What does this mean?  It would appear that baccalaureate institutions place more demands on their faculty.  They have to be effective teachers and produce a significant amount of scholarship.

Check out yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed for a full report on this AHA survey.  It also has some revealing things to say about digital history and the job market.