Early American Historians on the Opinion Page

Yoni

Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

Yesterday I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to participate in a session at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic devoted to historical writing for popular venues.  The session was titled “Early America on the Opinion Page: Writing Historically-Minded Pieces for Contemporary Audiences.”  (Thanks to Caitlin Fitz of Northwestern University for organizing the event).

I was honored to sit on a roundtable with the following historians:

Jill Lepore (Harvard University and The New Yorker)

Yoni Appelbaum (Senior Editor at The Atlantic)

Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers University and National Book Award finalist)

Gautham Rao (American University)

Lepore, who chaired the session, asked each participant to send her the first few paragraphs of a recent op-ed piece.  She pasted these excerpts into a document and distributed it to the standing-room only crowd.   I chose a piece I wrote last year for The Atlantic. Each member of the roundtable took fifteen minutes to talk about the history behind the piece and offer insights into their own experiences with op-ed and other forms of public writing.

Many of the participants talked about the risks involved in writing for the public in a social media age.  Several of the panelists have received death threats for their public writing. I talked about the difficulty in bringing complexity and nuance to opinion pieces.  My favorite response came from Appelbaum, who encouraged the audience to find a community of friends and family who love and affirm their work in the midst of the inevitable criticism that comes when we write for the public. It was the first time I have ever heard the word “love” invoked in this way at a secular academic history conference.

Lepore and Rao had a really interesting exchange about book reviewing in popular venues.  Rao (a fellow Mets fan by the way!) lamented the fact that magazines and newspapers often choose non-academics or non-historians to review important history books.  Lepore disagreed.  She thought it was a very good idea that non-academics and non-historians reviewed these books because such reviewers are free from the politics of the academy and the historical profession.

Rao responded to the exchange on Twitter:

Lepore ended the session with some advice of her own:

1. “Drive Responsibly”:  Bring your best work and your deep commitment to civic responsibility to the public sphere.  If you don’t write well or make weak arguments you weaken all of our reputations as historians.

2. “Be brave, but don’t be shi..y”

3. “Delight your reader”

And then there was moment.

My Favorite Moment From the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society of the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)

Yesterday I was part of a panel of early American historians who write op-eds and other public pieces for public consumption.  The panel included Jill Lepore, Erica Dunbar, Yoni Appelbaum, and Grantham Rao. I will blog about this panel later today, but I thought I would share an exchange that occurred during the session:

Me (during my presentation):  “I am an evangelical Christian.”  (This was relevant because I was talking about an op-ed I wrote about Trump in The Atlantic).

Audience member during Q&A, speaking to the standing-only crowd: “I think it is worth noting here that we have a real live evangelical in our midst.”

Me:  “Yes–and after the session I will be outside in a cage so you can all examine me more fully.”  (Yes, I can get a bit snarky).

Audience: Awkward laughter.

Jill Lepore (addressing the aforementioned audience member): I’m gonna stop you right there. This is not a session about John or his faith, it is about writing op-eds for public audiences.

Thanks, Jill.

I also appreciate all of the evangelicals and people of other Christian faiths who came up to me after the session and offered words of encouragement for my work.

More later.

SHEAR 2019

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On July 17, 2019 I will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.  You can check out the program here.

I will be part of a roundtable titled “Early American History on the Opinion Page: Writing Historically-Minded Pieces for Contemporary Media.”  Jill Lepore (Harvard) will be presiding and my fellow panelists are Yoni Appelbaum (The Atlantic), Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers), and Gautham Rao (American University).

Here are a few other panels that caught my eye:

  • A “Presidential Plenary” on the United States in the wake of revolution that includes Annette Gordon-Reed, Frank Cogliano, Sarah Pearsall, Kathleen DuVal, and Rob Parkinson
  • A session on Federalist New York that includes a paper on Angelical (Schuyler) Church by Tom Cutterham
  • A session on religious disestablishment that features Jonathan Den Hartog, Brian Franklin, Rebecca Brenner, Elise Neal, and Johann Neem.
  • A session on the scholarship of the late Jan Lewis that includes talks by Carolyn Eastman, Peter Onuf, David Waldstreicher, and Nicole Eustace.
  • A session on “singular careers” in the new nation that includes papers by Seth Perry on Lorenzo Dow’s “eccentricity,” Steve Bullock on Parson Weems, and Jennifer Brady on “dramatic reading.”
  • A session on Joanne Freeman’s new book The Field of Blood.
  • A session on teaching “major topics to non-history students.”
  • A roundtable on politics in the 1790s that includes Rosemarie Zagarri, Sara Georgini, and Barbara Oberg.
  • A session on “telling the republic’s founding story in its moments of peril” that includes Seth Cotlar, Rob Parkinson, Honor Sachs, and Serena Zabin.
  • A session titled “Religiously Remembering the American Revolution” featuring Kate Carte, Tara Strauch, Adam Jortner, and J.L. Tomlin.

See you in Boston!