Historian Thomas Sugrue on Public Thinking

Sugrue

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

DJ: We could talk shop all day. How and why did you decide to communicate this history with the public?

TJS: Throughout my career, I have chosen topics that have contemporary relevance. I don’t see a bright line between past and present. When I was in graduate school, one of the harshest criticisms you could level against a historian was that he or she was a presentist. Somehow our historical scholarship would be compromised by our engagement with the world that we live in now. I’ve never found this argument to be persuasive. It’s a fallacy to see the present as somehow uprooted from history. The opportunities and constraints that we experience in the here and now are the result of historical processes.

I also don’t draw a bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy. I think those of us who have the skills to write clearly should exercise those skills. We should try to reach beyond a couple hundred specialists in our scholarly subfields.

DJ: You said there’s no bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy, but is the process different? Is the process of writing an article or book chapter different from writing op-eds? Walk us through the mechanics.

TJS: When you write an op-ed for the New York Times or the Washington Post, you might have 750 or 800 words. You have to take a lot of complex material and boil it down to its essence. That requires making really hard choices about what’s in and what’s out. We historians love detail. We love the specifics, but when you’re writing short, popular pieces, you’ve got to let a lot of that detail fall by the wayside.

Some would say that it’s dangerous to simplify complex arguments, but I think it can be done well. The key is to be faithful to the substance of your argument even if you’re leaving a lot of the evidence out. Readers who want to know more can find my articles online or go to their local library or bookstore and pick up a copy of one of my books.

DJ: What have been some of the other ways you’ve shown up as a public thinker?

TJS: I have been asked to be an expert witness in a number of civil rights cases. That requires another type of writing. I’m an archive hound. I’m really rigorous. I try to leave no statement that I make in a book or a scholarly article unsupported. I try to turn over every last stone. The burden of proof, already high, is even greater when you are engaged in research for a legal case, because your work is going to be used in an adversarial process. I go through every word, every footnote, and make sure everything is absolutely precise. I know my work is going to be subjected to close scrutiny by lawyers who want to demolish my credibility.

Another way in which I engage different audiences is through public speaking. I’ve given hundreds of talks and workshops and lectures, not only at colleges and universities, but also to community organizations, museums, religious congregations, and foundations. I once even gave a keynote at a chamber of commerce event, because that audience needed to be exposed, more than most, to scholarship on race and inequality. I speak to people who agree with me, but also to people who don’t.

Read the entire interview here.

Back in 2014, I offered my two cents on public scholarship in a 9-part video series published on YouTube as part of the old Virtual Office Hours.  Here is episode 1:

 

Writing Online as Public Scholarship: A Success Story

ChineseI just came across Ben Railton’s blog “American Studies.”  I found it on The Octo, a collection of blogs assembled by Joseph Adelman for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Railton teaches American Studies at Fitchburg State in Massachusetts.

I really like his recent post (May 9, 2017) on how he got started with online writing.  In fact, I found it downright inspiring. The lesson: Persist!

Here is a taste:

As of November 2010, the same month when I began this blog, I began trying to write op ed pieces for newspapers on histories that I believed were missing from contemporary debates over issues like immigration and diversity in America. Over the next four years I drafted and re-drafted a number of such pieces, waiting for moments when the particular issue would rise to the top of the news cycle once again and then sending the pieces out to various newspapers’ op ed pages. I apologize to any editors if I’m forgetting them, but as best I can remember I not only never got any of those op eds published (that I know for sure), but also never received a reply of any kind to any of those submissions (other than the automatic form-reply sent upon initial submission). While I didn’t entirely give up on the possibility (indeed, I kept revising and re-sending the pieces when suitable occasions arose), I have to admit that it started to feel like a minor and largely quixotic pursuit within the overall frame of my career, a way to pretend (I wouldn’t have used that particular word at the time, but I’m trying to reflect as honestly as I can) that I was aiming for public scholarly connections and audience beyond those that this blog or my books or other publications could reach.

In November 2014, thanks to the Scholars Strategy Network, and specifically to its then-Media Director (now Executive Director) Avi Green, that all changed. President Obama was preparing to deliver a prominent, televised speech on his immigration (and Dream Act)-related Executive Order, and I was preparing a new version of my immigration histories op ed (now based in part on the many book talks I had given for The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America [2013]). But this time I shared the piece with Avi first, and—after ruthlessly and crucially forcing me to cut it down and make it more engaging—he encouraged me to place it with Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s website on all things American politics and society. With the help of Avi’s contacts there, my revised immigration op ed, “No, Your Ancestors Didn’t Come Here Legally,” was published on TPM Café; the piece would go on to receive more than 110,000 views, land at #4 on the list of TPM Café’s most viewed posts from 2014, and become the first of more than two dozen biweekly pieces of mine for TPM (and a model for the pieces I’ve written and continued to write for numerous other websites, including my most recent ongoing work as a blogger for the Huffington Post).

There’s a lot that I could say about that moment and what it meant for me, but I think my main takeaway would have to be that it, and thus Avi and SSN, helped me realize for the first time the unique and vital role that short-form online writing can play in a 21st century public scholarly career…

Read the rest here.

Lost Museums Colloquium

Jenks Museum at Brown, circa 1890

This is a very cool idea for a conference.  Steven Lubar, who has been working on a project examining Brown University’s lost Jenks Museum, is sponsoring this conference in his role as the director of the public humanities program at Brown.  Here is the Call for Papers:

In conjunction with the year-long exhibition project examining Brown University’s lost Jenks Museum, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, and the John Carter Brown Library invite paper proposals for a colloquium on lost artifacts, collections and museums. (Other formats—conceptual, poetic, and artistic—are also invited.)  The colloquium will be held at Brown University May 7 and 8, 2015.
Museums, perhaps more than any other institutions, think in the very long term: collections are forever. But the history of museums is more complicated than that. Museums disappear for many reasons, from changing ideas about what’s worth saving to the devastation of war. Museum collections disappear: deaccessioned, traded away, repatriated, lost to changing interests and the ravages of time.
We are interested in this process of decline and decay, the taphonomy of institutions and collections, as a way of shedding light not only on the history of museums and libraries, but also on the ways in which material things reflect and shape the practices of science and the humanities, and also to help museums think about current and future practices of collections and collections use.
We invite presentations from historians, curators, registrars, and collections managers, as well as from artists and activists, on topics including:
  • Histories of museums and types of museums: We welcome case studies of museums and categories of museums that are no more. What can we learn from museums that are no more? Cast museums, commercial museums, and dime museums have mostly disappeared. Cabinets of curiosity went out of and back into fashion. Why? What is their legacy?
  • Artifacts: How do specimens degrade? How have museums come to think of permanence and ephemerality? How do museums use, and “use up” collections, either for research (e.g., destructive sampling), or for education and display; how have they thought about the balance of preservation and use? How can they collect the ephemeral?
  • Museum collection history: How long does art and artifact really remain in the museum? Might the analysis of museum databases cast new light on the long-term history and use of collections
  • “Lost and found” in the museum: How are art and artifacts “rediscovered” in museums? How do old collections regain their importance, both in artistic revivals and in new practices of “mining” the museum as artists finding new uses for old objects?
  • Museum collections policy: How have ideas about deaccessioning changed? How should they change? How do new laws, policies, and ethics about the repatriation of collections shape ideas about collections
  • Museums going out of business: When a museum needs to close for financial or other reasons, what’s the best way to do that? Are there good case studies and legal and financial models?
  • The future of museum collections: How might museums think about collecting the ephem- eral, or collecting for “impermanent” collections. What new strategies should museums consider for short-term collecting? How might digitization and scanning shape ideas about the permanence of collections?
Papers from the Colloquium may be published as a special issue of Museum History Journal.
If you’d like to present at the conference, please send an abstract of about 250 words and a brief CV to Steven Lubar, lubar@brown.edu. Deadline for submission of paper proposals is September 15, 2014.