Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

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Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Someone sent it to me recently.

I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.

Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way.  Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.

Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.

Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes.  In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Menthe Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.

The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolutionthe French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).

Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.

In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.

In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality.  But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”

We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.

Historians Approve Anti-ICE Resolution

AHA2020 Carousel Slide test

At its annual meeting in New York City, the American Historical Association approved the following resolution:

RESOLUTION CONDEMNING AFFILIATIONS BETWEEN ICE AND HIGHER EDUCATION

In light of the serious and systematic violation of human rights committed by both the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the US Border Patrol (USBP) in recent years—and considering their presence on US university campuses for recruitment and research purposes—we resolve the following:

WHEREAS, several US universities have contracts with and host recruitment for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the US Border Patrol (USBP); 

WHEREAS, ICE and USBP have been cited for numerous human rights abuses at the border and in detention facilities; 

WHEREAS university contracts with ICE and USBP legitimate both agencies as a branch of government and potential employers; therefore, be it

Resolved, that the AHA urge university faculty, staff, and administrators to sever existing ties and forgo future contracts with ICE and USBP; and

Resolved,that the AHA support sanctuary movements on campuses that seek to protect immigrant students and workers.

I am not sure what this resolution has to do with the study of history.  If I was present I would have rejected it. The AHA is not a political organization.  In this sense, I am mostly in agreement with the former AHA president and Cornell University historian Mary Beth Norton.  Here is a taste of a recent piece at Inside Higher Education:

Members of the American Historical Association approved a resolution condemning college and university contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 70 to 60, at their annual meeting over the weekend. They approved an additional statement in support of professors teaching off the tenure track, but voted down two resolutions expressing concern about academic freedom in Israel.

The successful resolution on ICE now goes to the AHA’s governing council for further consideration. Per association policies and procedures, the council may accept it, refuse to concur or exercise a veto.

Alexander Avina, associate professor at Arizona State University, was the first to speak in favor of the resolution, saying that his own parents were undocumented migrants and that he now teaches such immigrants in the borderlands. He urged the AHA to take “a stand against ongoing state terrorism” and the idea that universities should make millions of dollars by working with agencies that perpetrate it.

Ashley Black, a visiting assistant professor of history at California State University at Stanislaus, said she teaches students who were part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and who now live in a “state of fear and insecurity.” She asked the AHA to endorse campuses as sanctuaries in the interest of student safety and learning.

ICE had no vocal fans in the room, but a number of historians spoke out against the resolution on the grounds that it strays from AHA’s mission and established rules and practices. Mary Beth Norton, former AHA president and Mary Donlon Alger Professor Emerita at Cornell University, said she might support a resolution that adhered to the AHA’s Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance, highlighting threats to historical sources, academic freedom and historians’ movement. Yet she did not support the resolution as written.

Norton said later that the document said “nothing about historical scholarship or historians. Accordingly, it is outside the purview if the AHA as an organization, even though expressing outrage about ICE is entirely appropriate for individual historians in their capacity as citizens.”  

Avina said that he and his colleagues behind the resolution hope that the council will “accept and publicly support” it.

Read the entire piece here.

A Secondary Teacher (with a Ph.D) Reflects on Her Day at #AHA19

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Megan Jones of The Pingry School is back with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on a “potpourri of panels” from Friday’s program.  (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

A Potpourri of Panels – A Selection

Ingredient #1/Session #51: Teaching World History Through Cities.

I have taught modern World History before and have never been happy with my grasp of the material or the framework I’ve used. My school is revamping our World curriculum for the 9th grade and I’m interested in what higher-ed professors do to frame their courses. Using cities as a device is interesting, but as a person who grew up in a rural area I always find that urban focus a bit eye-roll-inducing. You cannot entirely represent the world in urban spaces, ESPECIALLY during the premodern era. But yeah, I get that cities are interesting and useful and the source material is more readily available. Maribel Dietz at LSU gave a really interesting presentation about her course on sport and spectacle in premodern cities, and the ways she uses her own campus to illustrate the role of sport in culture. (From the literal tigers in the Roman Coliseum to the figurative Tigers of LSU, so to speak.) Experiential education is all the rage in the secondary independent school world, and I’ve done a bit of such teaching for faculty and students. Dietz’s assertion that the best teaching is done on site when you can point to the actual physical space under consideration resonated with me; of course, not everyone has access to the resources one needs to physically transport students to a space in which students can interrogate the place and its built environment.

Ingredient #2/Session 72: Loyalists in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

Kaci Tillman’s work on women Loyalists in the Delaware valley during the American Revolution sounds fascinating, particularly in that her work reveals how some women (mostly Quakers) operated as autonomous agents – to the extent they could – within the legal and political context of the late 18th century. Tillman highlighted one subject who identified as a “neutralist” and entirely rejected the Patriot/Loyalist dichotomy. Another woman purposely confused Patriot soldiers as Hessians and performed the part of an ignorant woman, throwing the Patriots off the scent of a Loyalist man whom she was harboring in her attic. These are the perfect examples of anecdotes to use when presenting a paper at an academic conference – I cannot take it when historians do not reference actual individuals in their work. Additionally, the women’s historian part of me had a thrill when Mary Beth Norton stood up during the Q&A to encourage Tillman and another panelist to dialogue about the notions of masculinity and femininity present during this time, and how that informed our understanding of the Revolution as a whole. When is Tillman’s book coming out? And, I really need to read Norton’s book on Salem.

Ingredient #3/CCWH Session 10: The Coordinating Council for Women in History

The CCWH hosted a roundtable discussion covering new directions in the field, this one focused on sexuality and reproduction. The first discussant, Sanjam Ahluwalia, referenced a recent article by two white male historians lamenting the “suicide” of the discipline, in which they partly blame the decline of the discipline on historians who’ve turned to topics (namely, social and cultural history) that have little direct relevance (they argue) to the larger political and diplomatic context of the world. I don’t quite agree with the article and its assertion that the social and cultural turn has led to the decline in history majors, nor do I agree with the apparent categorical dismissal of the article by the roundtable audience. However, I do agree with what Deirdre Cooper Owens said in her analysis of why gender studies is so critiqued nowadays – because academic history is now being written by people who are not white, not male, not cisgendered, etc. And it is not only focused on white men; Owens said she focused her work on the [black female] patient – and that this was not rocket science. As a number of panelists mentioned, the importance of women’s history (which is often paired with gender history) is that women are centered and that centering changes the story entirely. Gender history challenges the binary nature of culture and society, and that is disconcerting for many.

Thanks, Megan!

Loyalism in the Age of Revolutions (#AHA19)

loyalists

Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School on Gurnee, IL is doing yeoman’s work from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Here is latest.  Enjoy!  (Read all of Matt’s posts here).  –JF

I wrote a research paper last semester on the ways in which evangelical women used religion to interpret and defend the American Revolution.  I included a section on Phillis Wheatley, but rather than rekindle the debate here over whether or not she was an evangelical, I’ll save that for my post on Saturday’s session, “Who is Evangelical?  Confronting Race in American Christianity.”  The original plan for my paper had been to include Loyalist women, whose evangelical faith led them to the opposite position, but space and time constraints forced me to narrow my focus to Patriots only.  Thus, I was thrilled to see two sessions titled “Loyalism in the Age of the Atlantic Revolutions” on the agenda today at AHA19.  Both sessions were arranged by AHA President Mary Beth Norton.

I’d be remiss at this point to not put a plug in for my graduate program, which is offered through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in cooperation with Pace University.  The program offers K-12 history teachers, such as myself, the chance to earn an MA in American History online for a fraction of the cost of most graduate programs, and best of all, the lectures are all led by preeminent historians in their respective fields.  The professor of my course last semester on women and the American Revolution was none other than Carol Berkin, who chaired the second session today on new research.

Timothy Compeau started that session off with his paper “Retributive Justice? Loyalist Revenge and Honorable Manhood in the American Revolution.”  It offered a fascinating look at the ways in which Christian virtue and masculine honor culture were in conflict during the Revolutionary Era and how this acutely affected Loyalist men.  According to Compeau, these men provide an excellent window into studying that culture.  He pointed out how Patriots specifically attacked the manhood of Loyalist men, such as when Alexander Hamilton claimed that Samuel Seabury was impotent or when Thomas Paine wrote that Tories were unfit to be husbands or fathers.  He also explained how due to the war, Loyalist men were limited in the ways that they could respond to such questions of honor.  Many chose Christian responses of forgiveness and restraint, out of necessity if not desire.  But some did find ways to square the use of retributive violence with their Christian faith.  In the end, many Loyalist men were able to claim that their choice had been the more masculine one, as it took greater manhood than the Patriots had to suffer all the indignities that were forced upon them.  As Compeau succinctly put it, “by defending the Crown, loyal men gained nothing put honor.”

Elite, white, Loyalist women of the Delaware River Valley were the focus of Kacy Tillman’s paper and she brought up names that were familiar from my own research, such as Grace Growden Galloway and Elizabeth Drinker.  Tillman sought to parse some of the differences among such Loyalist women.  Some were what she called active Loyalists, others were passive Loyalists.  Some assumed the label while others had it attached to them.  And many of them were Loyalist by association, be it familial, religious, or both.  Tillman’s thesis was that all of these women faced violations of their bodies and their writings (“stripped and script,” as the title of her paper aptly put it) as a result of their Loyalism.  One of the things she noticed in her research was that one can learn just as much from what these women didn’t write than what they did.  Perhaps that’s why I had such difficultly using those sources for my own paper.  “It’s hard to read for silence,” Tillman said.  “But we have to be able to do so when reading the letters of Loyalist women.”

James Sidbury rounded out the session with some words of reassurance related to my own experience in researching Loyalists.  He started off his talk by defending the truism that history is often written by the winners, but then qualified that observation.  “There’s been a whole lot written about the Revolution,” he said.  “It’s inevitable that something is going to be written about [Loyalists].”  His paper focused on the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia who helped found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone.  Those colonists, while remaining loyal to the British Crown, led an uprising against the company that ran the colony and attempted to create an autonomous enclave within the colony by using many of the Enlightenment ideals of rights and governance they had learned in Anglo-America.  As Sidbury’s talk made clear, despite the Nova Scotians’ embrace of some American ideals, the new United States explicitly excluded non-whites from political participation.  Thus, it makes sense that monarchical government still held much ideological appeal for Black Loyalists in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

Thanks again, Matt!

Donald Trump and Witch Hunts

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Donald Trump has said multiple times that the Robert Mueller investigation into his presidential campaign’s relationship with Russia is a “witch hunt.”  The use of this phrase invites historical analysis.  I took a crack at such analysis last May.

In the latest issue of Perspectives on History, American Historical Association president and veteran early American historian Mary Beth Norton provides some historical analysis of her own.  Norton is the author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

Here is a taste of her piece, “An Embarrassment of Witches: What’s the History behind Trump’s Tweets?“:

WITCH HUNT!”

That’s how President Donald Trump’s tweets tend to refer to the investigation led by Robert Mueller into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.

Except for modern adherents of the Wiccan religion, people today do not believe in witchcraft—and Wiccans do not believe in the sort of witchcraft that became the subject of prosecutions in early modern Europe and America. The consensus among historians now is that witches did not exist in the past, and so by employing the term “witch hunt,” the president is implying that he is as innocent today as were the persecuted “witches” of centuries ago.

He is assuming, probably correctly, that Americans today understand his phrase in exactly that way. Anyone raised or resident in the United States has surely heard of the most famous “witch hunt” in American history, that which occurred in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692–93, named for the town in which the trials occurred: Salem. Indeed, many high school students today must read Arthur Miller’s famous 1953 play, The Crucible, which effectively used the vehicle of the Salem trials to comment on the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of the 1950s, which had ensnared Miller and many of his acquaintances. Even though Miller changed many historical details to make his points—for example, turning the elderly John Proctor into a younger man and the child Abigail Williams into a femme fatale who seduces him—his image of the trials retains its hold on the American imagination.

Read the rest here.

Mary Beth Norton on Women in Academe

Norton_11Norton is the president of the American Historical Association and Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History at Cornell University.   She reflects on her experience as a woman in the academy in a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “The Awakening: Women and Power in the Academy.”  Here is a taste of Norton’s contribution:

In three books on 17th-century Anglo-America, I have focused on women who exercised or sought power: Anne Hutchinson, a religious leader in early Massachusetts; Lady Frances Berkeley, the aristocratic wife of the governor of Virginia in the 1670s; and the so-called “afflicted girls” of Salem, Mass., in 1692, who for a few months upended normal hierarchies with their complaints about witchcraft. In the first two instances, the women in question were high status, living in a world in which status was more important than gender, and in which low-status men were expected to defer to high-status women as well as to high-status men. In the third case, the young women were low status, many of them servants, thus making their impact on society so shocking that we still puzzle over how to interpret and explain why their accusations led to such disastrous consequences.

It might seem that academic hierarchies are comparable to the early modern world I have spent so many years studying. Are tenure and a full professorship at a university the equivalent of 17th-century aristocratic standing for women? Superficially the analogy might appear correct, but it ignores the intervening centuries, when — starting in the early 18th century — gender came to override status to such an extent that all women, regardless of their rank, were denied access to the reins of power. That history of the overwhelming effect of gender on one’s identity remains relevant for female academics today. But it can be minimized, as my career suggests.

In 1969, I joined the history department at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. I had three female colleagues: two other junior women and a senior chaired professor, a rarity in those days. Yet that pattern was familiar to me from my undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, where the only woman in the history department was a distinguished older scholar. Harvard, my graduate institution, had just one female historian, who was untenured and had been selected from among recent Harvard Ph.D.s. I learned subsequently that both the senior women I knew had experienced significant gender discrimination during their careers.

Read the rest here.

Clare Potter is Tweeting the Mary Beth Norton Conference

For those of you who were unable to make it to Ithaca, NY this weekend for the Liberty’s Daughters and Sons conference being held in honor of Mary Beth Norton, Clare Potter, aka “Tenured Radical,” is tweeting at #MaryBethNortonConference.

My favorite tweet so far:

MBN’s cell phone goes off – “When the Saints Go Marching In” Stern look from Pauline Maier at lectern big lulz

Historiann Interviews Mary Beth Norton

Historiann recently conducted a three-part interview with noted early American historian and women’s historian Mary Beth Norton.  Read them here:  part I, part II, and part III.  Here are a couple of snippets:

From Part I:

H:  What inspired your interest in women’s history?  How did shifting to focus on women’s history affect your career? 

MBN:  I came to women’s history through academic politics and interdisciplinary Women’s Studies. When I was in graduate school in the mid-to-late 1960s, of course, hardly anyone was studying women’s history. (I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I once had a fleeting thought about writing a dissertation on Mercy Otis Warren, but rejected the idea because I did not want to be ‘typed’ as a woman writing about a woman. As I look back, I’m very glad I didn’t write that dissertation, because it would not have been very good.) 

I finished my PhD and started teaching at the University of Connecticut in 1969. I read the early articles on women’s history as they were published (e.g., Barbara Welter’s “Cult of True Womanhood”), but didn’t think of tackling the topic myself until after I moved to Cornell in the fall of 1971. I was the first woman ever in the Cornell History Dept, although the university had admitted women undergraduates almost since its founding in the 1860s and over the years Cornell had trained some prominent female history PhDs. That fall, about five young women were hired in the College of Arts & Sciences; several of us met at the reception for new faculty. I quickly became friends with Judy Long (then Laws), a new member of the Sociology Department, who was already doing scholarly work on women. At the time, Cornell had an existing, underfunded graduate-student run “Female Studies” program. Dissatisfied with it, Judy convened a group of female (and one male) faculty members to brainstorm about creating a program on a sounder academic footing. Cornell had very few women with tenure-track (much less tenured) appointments at the time, so I felt it incumbent on me to participate in establishing that program, even though I was not initially interested in Women’s Studies. Yet extended contact with Judy and the others members of the group led me to start thinking about the role of women in the Revolution. . .and to use a cliché, the rest is history.

My focus on women at such an early stage in the evolution of the historical study of women made me stand out from the crowd in the 1970s, not always in a good way. Some people were very skeptical about what I was doing and its value.  One senior historian I knew rather well said to a female friend of mine (who was then still a graduate student and reported the comment to me): ‘why did she have to switch to women? Loyalists were perfectly OK.’ Fortunately, Cornell had already given me tenure on the basis of my first book, so venturing into a ‘risky’ area, as it was then seen, did not affect my academic position there. Also, the Cornell history department gives its members great flexibility in the choice of topics for courses, so when I was ready to begin teaching as well as researching women’s history, I didn’t have to jump through any hoops to start doing so. Coincidentally, that I was working on revolutionary era women during the bicentennial also gave my research more visibility than otherwise it might have had. So I made frequent appearances on the lecture circuit before Liberty’s Daughters appeared in 1980.

From Part III:

Historiann:  Over the course of your career, you have worked with both trade presses and university presses.  Can you tell us about the advantages and disadvantages of publishing with each kind of press? 

MBN:  The type of press one works with depends on the aim of the book in question. I was fortunate to win the Nevins Prize for my dissertation from the Society of American Historians. That prize carries with it publication–at the time, by a trade press (now, it might also mean a university press). Little, Brown published my dissertation on the loyalist exiles, but my editor there made it clear to me that they published it not so much because they wanted that book, but because they wanted my next one. So my contract contained an option clause–and that meant Liberty’s Daughters too was published by Little, Brown. One benefit of a trade press is–fewer barriers before publication once one has a contract (i.e., no need to respond to outside specialists’ comments, only your editor’s). But that’s also a drawback, because one always needs subject-based feedback, so if one works with a trade press one has to generate some of that feedback for oneself, asking friends or colleagues to read the [manuscript].  Another immediate benefit is perhaps more attention from ‘public’ media rather than simply the academic world, and of course the possibility of earning more money in advances and royalties.

But a definite drawback in dealing with a trade press is whether the book will be kept in print, because such presses do, after all, have to make a profit, whereas university presses are more likely to need merely to break even. My dissertation, The British-Americans, never had a paperback edition and went out of print quickly. (Today the Cornell Library has a down-loadable copy freely available on its web site, if anyone wants it.) Because of publishers’ consolidations, Liberty’s Daughters had several different publishers over the years and for a while was so vastly overpriced as a paperback that people stopped assigning it in their courses. I was delighted when the last trade press finally let it go out of print, the rights reverted to me, and I was able to take it to Cornell University Press, where It’s now a staple of their backlist, good for the press and good for me. Founding Mothers & Fathers and In the Devil’s Snare were both published by Knopf, with Vintage paperback editions. Both are still in print and the latter, at least, sells well enough that I’m sure it will be in print for the foreseeable future. When I realized that Separated by their Sex would be an ‘academic’ book, aimed at a more limited and specialized audience, my Knopf editor and I concurred that my option clause with them would not apply, so I was able to take that to Cornell also, and thus I had my first (and very positive, I might add) experience of publishing initially with a university press.