The Role of Historians in “Unfaking the News” (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL reports on a very relevant panel held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

This afternoon’s AHA19 panel, “Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Age of Trump,” was a lively and much needed discussion on the role that historians can and should play in bringing their scholarship to the general public through mass media.  It was by far the most political session I’ve attended, but it’s hard to envision how that could have been avoided, considering the session’s namesake politician’s evident lack of historical understanding and (according to the Washington Post just two months ago) average of five false or misleading claims per day since becoming president.

The format was round-robin and each round of discussion was started with a question posed by session chair Kenneth Osgood.  This allowed for plenty of back and forth from the panelists and a good deal of follow-up questions and commentary from the audience.  What follows are two of the questions asked, with a summary of the responses from the historians on the panel.

1)  What’s an issue facing the country that cries out for meaningful historical understanding?

Nicole Hemmer – “The crisis of political journalism in the Age of Trump.”  According to Hemmer, the values of objective reporting have come under fire and the solution of some to just offer both sides has led to false equivalencies being created and unchallenged notions being promoted on the air and in print.

Jeremi Suri – “The bureaucracy (the ‘Deep State’).”  Despite its demonization, and view by some during the current government shutdown that it’s even unnecessary, Suri explained how bureaucracy is a good thing.  It makes our lives better and we need it.  At a conference with attendees from all over the country, his example of the air traffic controllers who are currently working without pay had easy resonance.

Julian Zelizer – “Partisanship and polarization … we need to understand just how deeply rooted this disfunction is or we’ll always be waking up like we’re Alice in Wonderland.”

Jeffrey Engel – “How much do we need to be educators, how much do we need to be citizens, and how do those responsibilities overlap?”  He continued, tongue in cheek, “When Trump sends that next tweet, we need to be able to step in and say, ‘well no, John Adams also tweeted that.’”  In some of the more sobering analysis from the panel, Engel admitted that over the past two years he has genuinely started to think that the Republic is in danger.  “What does the history we are talking about mean to us today?” he asked.  “These are unusual times.”

2)  Is Donald Trump just saying out loud what other presidents have thought in quiet?  Is the Trump Presidency unprecedented?

Hemmer – “The ‘just saying it out loud’ is important … that matters.”

Suri – “What makes Trump unprecedented is that despite the impossibility of the job, he doesn’t even try to do it.  He’s the first president to not be president.  He is running the Trump Organization from the White House.  He is using the office to help his family … He is running a mafia organization from the Oval Office … Every other president has tried to do the job; he is not doing the job.”

Zelizer – The unusual question we’re continuing to see played out is, “how far to the brink is the party of the president willing to go in support of their president?”

Engel – “Abraham Lincoln’s most recent thoughts didn’t immediately pop up on your phone.”  He continued, “If any other president had admitted to having an extramarital affair with a porn star, their world would have exploded.  It’s important to know just how far we have, and how far we have not, come in the last two years.”  Engel explained that never in the discussion of Stormy Daniels was anyone seriously questioning whether it happened.  The debate was always over whether it was illegal.  And for him, that’s a shocking development.  He also cautioned that historians have to be careful with how they use the word “unprecedented.”

Suri – “We need to move people away from the false use of history.”  For him, the word unprecedented means “beyond the pale for the context that we are in and the trajectory we’ve been on.”  He stressed that historians need to push back against the impulse to say that “everything is Hitler,” just as much as they need to push back against the narrative that “everything is normal.”

Osgood had opened the session with the observation that “these challenges were not invented by Donald Trump, but they have been exacerbated by him.”  Towards the end of the panel he added that for Trump, “Twitter is the source of his power.”  With that in mind, perhaps it’s a good thing that Kevin Kruse, Kevin Levin, the Tattooed Prof, and other so-called “twitterstorians” are practicing public history online and on the air.

Thanks, Matt!

Thank You Rick Shenkman!

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Rick Shenkman, the founder, publisher, and editor of History New Network (HNN), has retired.  In a farewell interview with M. Andrew Holowchak, Shenkman tells us why he founded HNN:

HNN began with a grievance.  During the impeachment of Bill Clinton, you may recall, there were cries that Congress censor him rather than impeach him.  In their reporting the media kept citing the censorship of Andrew Jackson and sometimes John Tyler.  I was doing research at the time for my book, Presidential Ambition, and knew that James Buchanan had been censured too.  I tried to contact various media outlets like ABC News and the New York Times to let them know about this forgotten moment in our history but got nowhere.  I fumed about this.  It seemed crazy that journalists would ignore a historian who had valuable information to add to an important debate. (Here is the article I wound up writing about censure.)

This was the genesis of HNN.  It seemed obvious to me that historians should have a national platform to help journalists and the public make sense of the news.  I set out to create one in 2000.  (We went online in 2001.) 

Today, of course, it is not uncommon for journalists to seek the expertise of historians.  Rick had something to do with that.

I check HNN every day.  It has become an invaluable resource. As a blogger who tries to keep my site fresh, I usually gravitate towards HNN’s “Breaking News” and “Historians” tabs in the top right corner of the website.  There have been many weekends when I need a few additional entries for my Sunday Night Odds and Ends feature and I always find something of note at HNN.

Rick has also made HNN a place to go for news, videos, and interviews from the American Historical Association and other conferences.  In fact, I first met Rick when he was covering an AHA meeting.  He was the guy running around the lobby conducting video interviews with historians who had just presented papers or talks.  In the process, he has done a wonderful service for the historical profession and the general public at large.

An accomplished historian in his own right, Rick has long served as a model for how to bring good history to public audiences.  His work at HNN has inspired my own work in this area and has certainly influenced what I do at this blog.

I came to HNN through the late Ralph Luker‘s blog Cliopatria.  Luker was one of the first historians to see the potential of blogging.  A check of his daily link roundup became a daily ritual for me.   I remember hoping that one day I might receive a “Cliopatria Award” for history blogging, but it never happened. 😦

In November, Rick e-mailed to tell me that he was retiring and wanted to run one more of my pieces.  I pitched a piece based on my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Rick published it on December 30, 2018, his last issue.  Just recently he wrote to inform me that a piece I had published earlier in the year was one of the most read posts of 2018.

Rick has been publishing my stuff for nearly fifteen years.  Some of my pieces have been original to HNN and others have been reposts from other sites, including The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I will always appreciate his willingness to bring my writing to a larger audience.  Thanks, Rick!  Enjoy your retirement!  I am sure that HNN is in good hands at George Washington University under the leadership of Kyla Sommers.

Here are most of the pieces I have published over the years at History News Network:

Trump’s White Evangelicals are Nostalgic for an American Past that Never Existed for Blacks and Others (13-30-18)

Why is Christian America supporting Donald Trump (6-29-18)

John Fea’s new book sets out to explain why 81% of white American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 (6-19-18)

You Are Never Going to Believe Which Verse Was Most Quoted in American Newspapers Between 1840 and 1920 (6-15-18)

The Discipline of the History Professor in the Age of Trump (9-13-17)

What the Trump Presidency Reveals About American Christianity and Evangelicalism: An Interview with John Fea (7-30-17)

Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity (7-17-17)

Historian John Fea’s twitterstorm in defense of the NEH (3-16-17)

John Fea warns evangelicals to be wary of David Barton (2-2-17)

What Was Missing from Trump’s Inaugural Address? (1-25-17)

Another Kind of Identity Politics (12-10-16)

Still Misleading America About Thomas Jefferson (2-7-16)

Has the Sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War Been a Failure? (4-29-14)

Why K-12 Teachers Should Attend the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting (12-12-13)

William Pencak, R.I.P. (12-9-13)

Why Didn’t Obama Say “Under God” in His Recitation of the Gettysburg Address? (11-20-13)

Is a Historian Worth $1.6 Million? (11-23-11)

Interviewing at the AHA (12-30-09)

The Limits of Cosmopolitanism in Early America (5-25-08)

Are Christian Conservatives “Christian” or “Conservative” (11-30-07)

Is America a Christian Nation?  What Both Left and Right Get Wrong (9-30-07)

Protestant America’s Selective Embrace of the Pope’s Teachings (4-17-05)

The Messages You May Have Missed Reading Dr. Seuss (3-8-04)

Scholars Respond to Trump’s Border Policy

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The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a piece on the way scholars stepped-up to the plate during the “Trump border crackdown.”  I am glad that The Chronicle is noticing our work.  Here is a taste of Mark Parry’s article:

…In recent weeks, seemingly every Trump immigration move has prompted a real-time counter-mobilization of academic research, either by scholars themselves or by journalists calling on their expertise.

You see that in John Fea and Yoni Appelbaum’s breakdowns of how a biblical passage cited by the attorney general was used by defenders of slavery. You see it in Aliza Luft and Daniel Solomon’s analysis of Trump’s animalizing rhetoric. You see it in the debate over whether it’s fair to call America’s migrant detention centers concentration camps. (The answer, say two experts, is a qualified yes.)

For some scholars, research that had percolated for years suddenly carries an immediate resonance. On Monday, for example, the political scientists Emily M. Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed published a journal article documenting how news outlets stoke fear of Latino immigrants through imagery depicting them as criminals. Farris drew on her research in a Twitter thread contrasting two images that have shaped the family-separation narrative: the photo of a little girl crying as a border agent frisks her mother, and a picture released by the Trump administration of faceless boys in detention.

“We should think about how those images play a role in who we think is deserving of our concern,” Farris, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University, said in an interview. She added, “Images are powerful, and we don’t necessarily think about them as mediums for the ways we can interpret different policies.”

In interviews with The Chronicle, other historians and political scientists emphasized a dilemma of engaging this debate: how to raise alarms about the potential for human-rights abuses while conveying a nuanced understanding of a fast-changing situation. (Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday intended to stop family separations. It remained unclear on Friday how relatives would be reunited.)

The academics’ challenge is complicated by a paradox of scholarly communication right now. Thanks to social media and the proliferation of outlets like Vox and Monkey Cage, scholars are mixing it up in public like never before. But some scholars are frustrated that academe’s fact-backed warnings don’t penetrate to policy makers or large swaths of the public. Their struggle: getting readers to consider their evidence without dismissing them as Ivory Tower elites yet again denouncing Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Social Media Scholarship?

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Yesterday I was in Northfield, Minnesota where I gave a talk about blogging, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (the blog), and the relationship between social media and civic engagement.  I spoke as part of a series on digital publishing sponsored by faculty and staff from Carleton College and St. Olaf College.  (Thanks to the DeAne Lagerquist for the invitation!)

During our conversation several professors talked to me about the possibility of starting their own blogs.

I don’t pretend to believe that our blogging model at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is normative.  We post a lot here and have developed a unique approach.  So yesterday I tried to suggest some ways that busy academics might make blogging work for them as teachers and scholars.

One model for academic blogging comes from Mark Carrigan in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Social Media is Scholarship.”  It is excellent.

Here is a taste:

Before I created a research blog, I used to carry a series of ornate notebooks in which to record my ideas, reflect on what I had read, and sketch out my plans — or rather I tried to carry them. Inevitably I forgot them at the most inopportune moments, reducing me to scribbling notes on scraps of paper, only to fail to transcribe them at a later date. Even when I managed to record my notes, my overly-enthusiastic scrawls often proved indecipherable when I came back to them.

In contrast, my research blog is accessible to me wherever I have a mobile phone or computer. The expectation that others might read my notes forces me to work out what I am trying to say, rather than scribbling down in shorthand ideas that might feel meaningful to me at the time but are often confusing later.

Sharing those blog posts through my social-media feeds often leads to useful conversations — at a much earlier stage in the research process than would otherwise be the case. It creates an awareness of what I’m working on, and has often been the first step in eventual invitations to speak or collaborate. The fact that I can categorize and tag my online notes helps me see connections between different projects I am working on, highlighting emerging themes and deepening my understanding of how the topics fit together. Having my notes online also makes them extremely easy to search, providing a fantastic resource when I am writing papers and chapters.

My point is not that everyone should use a research blog. There are many reasons why it might not be suitable for you: (1) Without a smartphone, a blog would be much less useful; (2) some people find that writing by hand actually helps, rather than hinders, the creative process; and (3) many academics are uncomfortable with sharing work-in-progress online with an unknown audience.

Exactly which technology works for which person will depend on many factors. But in my case, moving from a research notebook to a research blog helped me become a more efficient and effective scholar. Rather than being an unwelcome drain, social media has helped me use my time more effectively.

Read the entire piece here.

Another Piece on Bad Academic Writing

c504f-snoopy-good-writing-is-hard-workOver at The Atlantic, Victoria Clayton wonders why academic writing is so complex.  Here is a taste:

A nonacademic might think the campaign against opaque writing is a no-brainer; of course, researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work. Cynics charge, however, that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example. The main reason, though, may not be as sinister or calculated. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly. “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley said. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would probably also mean more people, including colleagues, would read their work.

Read the entire piece here.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

Tips for Public Writing

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, academics Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost offer “10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences.”  Schaberg and Bogost are the editors of Object Lessons, a book and article series “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” During the 2017-2018 academic year they will be conducting four NEH-funded workshops for scholars who are interested in reaching larger audiences with their writing.

Here are some of their “challenges”:

Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.

Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars — especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.

This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


Read the entire article here.

How to Write and Publish an Op-Ed

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History Communicators has posted a piece on writing op-eds by Nicole Hemmer of the University of Virginia. It is worth your time.

Here is a taste:

So you want to write an op-ed. And you should! As a scholar, you have a vast expertise that extends well beyond the subject of the books and articles that you’ve written. Whether you’re pitching a piece to the new history section at the Washington Post or to any newspaper, magazine, or news website, here’s some general advice to help you navigate the unfamiliar terrain of op-ed writing.

The first thing is that the old op-ed genre is being transformed. For print publications, writers are still limited to somewhere between 700-900 words (generally; there are exceptions) but so many established places like the Washington Post, New York Times, the Atlantic, New Republic, and Politico have online spaces that allow for longer, more in-depth pieces.

There’s also more of an appetite for history writing than there used to be. When I was a fellow at the Miller Center in 2008, the person who taught me the art of op-ed writing cautioned against anything more than a dollop of history in any op-ed. Probably good advice for academics, who like to overexplain, but think about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” which was essentially an extended historiography essay, or Mason William’s brilliant piece for the Atlantic, “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble.” Loads of history in both.

All of which is to say that there’s more freedom and innovation in the genre of argument-driven, analytical writing than there used to be.

Still, the op-ed genre requires some things we don’t do as much in scholarly writing. First, brevity. If you can’t make your argument in around 800-900 words, you either need to recast the argument or rethink how you’re making it. Editors will often allow you more words if you’re publishing online, but it’s worth mastering the discipline of short-length writing.

Brevity also extends to sentence and paragraph length. That means fewer examples (pick one stellar one rather than three). It also means less hedging. You can certainly qualify statements, but don’t get too in the weeds. It helps to step back and think about it from the perspective of your audience: it’s less about what you know and more about what they need to know in order to follow your argument.

And speaking of arguments: they’re absolutely essential. Op-eds are a persuasive form of writing. Just because something’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s enough to hang an op-ed on. Sometimes you can write your way to an argument; I usually talk or text my way to them, to the annoyance of my friends. But once you have that — that one line that explains why conventional wisdom is wrong or why history is essential for understanding some contemporary development — then you’re good to go.

Structurally, that sentence will appear in what is called the “nut graf.” Most op-eds will have a short paragraph, occasionally two, that set up the piece, and then the nut graf: the paragraph that lays out your argument. Then the rest of the piece is about developing that argument — again, as briefly and as tightly as you can get away with.

Read the rest here.

Yet Another Jill Lepore Interview

2116c-leporestoryYou may recall this post from yesterday.

Today we offer a new Jill Lepore interview post.

B.R. Cohen of Public Books interviews Lepore about “the challenge of explaining things.”

Here is a taste:

BRC: As we talk about the historical trajectory of such things, of how things change and develop, I have a corollary question. How can we write about history in ways that don’t come off sounding like what I think of as a tired mode: the academic translating obscure scholarship in smaller words and shorter sentences and calling that “writing for a broader audience.” You don’t take that approach. Did you evolve away from it early in your career? Or did you always know you would produce public (not just academic) commentary?

JL: I only ever wanted to be a writer. I love history, and I especially love teaching history, but I never intended to become an academic, and I’m baffled by the idea that reaching a wider audience involves using smaller words, as if there’s some inverse correlation between the size of your audience and of your vocabulary. You don’t talk about, say, technological determinism to a freshman the same way you talk about it to a colleague, right? Is it easier to talk to a freshman? No, it’s harder. Is it more important to give that student a clear explanation of the concept than it is to chat with your colleague about it? I think so, though I suppose that’s debatable. I love the challenge of explaining things to other people, in the same way that I love other people explaining things to me. I love being a student. Nothing is so thrilling as diving into scholarship I’ve never encountered before and trying to get my bearings, learning what so many scholars have been piecing together over a very long period of time, and trying to figure out how to bring that learning to bear on a problem that I, like a lot of people both inside and outside the academy, happen to be struggling with. The hitch is getting the scholarship right. I always worry I’ve missed something, or distorted something, or failed to understand the big picture. That’s the downside: missing something crucial. Nothing is more concerning, or more discouraging, than getting something wrong; there’s no real way to right it. It’s horrible; it kills me.

Read the entire interview here.

Joyce Appleby: RIP

joyce-applebyJoyce Oldham Appleby, a giant in the field of early American intellectual and political history, died earlier this week at the age of 87.  If you are unfamiliar with Appleby or her work I encourage you to head over to The Junto and read Michael Hattem’s excellent obituary.

I never met Appleby, but I read and admired her work. I read Capitalism and a New Social OrderLiberalism and Republicanism in Historical Imagination,and Telling the Truth About History in graduate school.  Appleby’s published disagreements with Gordon Wood and others from the “republicanism” school of the American Revolution were staples on the reading lists of all early American graduate students in the 1990s.  Her book Inheriting the Revolution made me aware of the role memoirs could play in understanding the American Revolution and the early republic.

In 1996 Appleby and James Banner Jr. founded History News Service (HNS) in an attempt to get more academic historians to write for a public audience.  As a newly-minted history Ph.D who was trying to imagine a slightly different kind of career than the one I was encouraged to follow in graduate school, my interests intersected with the mission of HNS and I began sending op-eds to Appleby and Banner.  Anyone who wrote for HNS remembers the editorial good-cop (Appleby)/bad cop (Banner) routine they used when editing the work of those of us who were new to this genre of writing.  Banner would cover the piece with the proverbial red ink.  In my case he pushed me to write more succinct sentences and dispense of academic jargon.  Appleby was no less of a critic, but she had a softer, more encouraging, touch.  Both of them made me a better writer. Banner made me realize that it would take hard work to master the craft of public writing. (And I am certainly not there yet).  Appleby made me feel like there was actually a chance I could contribute to this genre.

After I learned that she had passed away I went back and re-read some of the e-mails she wrote to me in her role at HNS.  Here is one from 2004 that I will always remember:

“Excellent rewrite, John.  I am ready to turn this  over to Jim for fine-tuning.  I have made one suggestion in caps for your conclusion.  I hope that you will consider it.  Many thanks.  I wish you’d write more for HNS.  You are a natural writer.  Joyce

Joyce Appleby probably never thought again about the last two sentences of this e-mail, but this small kindness meant the world to me and kept me going.  Thanks, Joyce.  RIP.

Yes, I Can Do Better

aucoinBrent J. Aucoin is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Southeastern in Wake Forest, NC. He is also the author of a brand new book Thomas Goode Jones: Race, Politics and Justice in the New South.

A couple of weeks ago Rick Shenkman, the editor and publisher at History News Network (HNN), informed me that Aucoin had submitted a piece to HNN criticizing a post I wrote at Religion News Service titled “Why the Founding Fathers Wanted to Keep Ministers From Public Office.”  Rick wanted to publish Aucoin’s piece, but also wanted to publish my response to it.

As you will see from my response, I think some of Aucoin’s criticism of my piece is valid.

I will say this.  It is difficult to write very short historical pieces for public audiences, especially when such pieces are anchored to current events in a heated political cycle.  I hope my response to Aucoin reflects how I could have done better with my original RNS piece.

Here is part of that response:

Aucoin also criticizes me for failing to qualify my conclusions and adequately addressing evidence that is contrary to my argument.  On this point I accept his criticism.  My article is deceiving because it suggests that all of the “founding fathers” wanted to keep ministers from public office when in reality only some of them—in this case some of the framers of the state constitutions—opposed the idea of clergy holding political office.  Though I think today’s political activists who use the founding era to justify clergy running for office still need to reckon with some of these state constitutions, my argument was sloppy on this point.  I wrongly assumed that readers would understand the limitations of my argument based on the evidence I referenced.  I will try to frame my arguments more carefully in future posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.

Read the entire forum here.

Writing History for the Public

a1b2a-writingI am almost positive that at some point in the last seven years I have written a post with the same title as this one, but I am too lazy to check.  (OK–I just checked. A few have come close, but it looks like I have not written anything with the exact title).

I have stolen the title of this post from Jaime McClennen’s short post at Historical Communication.  If you are a graduate student or academic historian interested in writing history for the public I encourage you to check out some of McClennen’s links, including pieces by Michael Hattem and Liz Covart (published at The Way of Improvement Leads Home), and some of my own reflections on the subject.  (Thanks for the link, Jaime!).

Here is a taste of my January 2016 post “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing for Public Audiences“:

…If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, gave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Read the entire piece.

Flora Fraser Wins George Washington Book Prize

FloraHere is the press release:

Flora Fraser, whose book The Washingtons offers a rare and comprehensive view of Martha Washington and the relationship between the nation’s inaugural first couple, wins the $50,000 George Washington Prize.

A noted biographer whose work has focused on the women behind the great men of history has won the 2016 George Washington Prize. Flora Fraser earned the $50,000 prize for her book The Washingtons: George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love.”

The award, which is one of the nation’s largest literary prizes, honors the best new works on the nation’s founding era, especially those that engage a broad public audience. Conferred by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, it was presented to Fraser on May 25 at a black-tie gala at the Mount Vernon estate.

“I feel greatly the honor that has been accorded The Washingtons,” Fraser said. “George and Martha’s marriage was an inspiring partnership to chart. The George Washington Prize, fruit of another partnership among three distinguished homes of learning, Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, is an accolade which I shall long treasure.”

Published in 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf, The Washingtons has drawn widespread praise from scholars and critics. While many books have chronicled George Washington’s life and public service, no other has so thoroughly examined the marriage bonds between him and his wife. Few primary sources exist on the life of Martha Washington, who destroyed all but one of the couple’s personal letters. But Fraser’s diligent research has resulted in a more comprehensive understanding of the nation’s first First Lady—and through her important story, a fuller sense of the nation’s first President. Fraser portrays a couple devoted to each other and steadfast in their loyalty: from their short courtship, through raising a family at Mount Vernon, to the long years of the Revolutionary War, to the first U.S. Presidency, and to retirement at their beloved Virginia plantation.

“Flora Fraser’s book The Washingtons opens a whole new vista on Martha and George Washington’s married life,” said James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. “Through Fraser’s stylish prose, this iconic couple becomes more human and accessible. The result is a wonderful read.”

Fraser, who lives in London, is also the author of Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton; The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline; Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III; and Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire. She chairs the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, which she established in 2003 in memory of her grandmother, a historian and author of many noted British biographies; her mother is the noted biographer Lady Antonia Fraser.

The Mount Vernon event also honored six finalists for the 2016 George Washington Prize: Mary Sarah Bilder for Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Harvard), Kathleen DuVal for Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (Random House), Robert Middlekauff for Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader (Knopf), Janet Polasky for Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (Yale), David Preston for Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution (Oxford), and John Sedgwick for War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation (Penguin).

Established in 2005, the George Washington Prize has honored a dozen leading writers on the Revolutionary era including, last year, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical Hamilton. Publishers in the United States and the United Kingdom submitted more than 60 books for the 2016 award.

Learn more about the George Washington Prize at washcoll.edu/gwbookprize.

How to Write Academic History for a Public Audience

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Do you want to write good history for a general audience?  Alane Salerno Mason, the Executive Editor at W.W. Norton, offers some advice.

  1. Keep your introduction brief, and introductory
  2. People the story
  3. Let the people move
  4. Honor chronology
  5. Don’t bury your favorite details
  6. Avoid subtitles
  7. Don’t talk down to your audience
  8. Accept that some subjects are inherently of minor interest and others fall into genres that have become overcrowded
  9. A book should not be one’s first and only attempt to address the public.
  10. Break any rule when to do so serves a higher purpose

Check out Mason’s post at W.W. Norton to see how she unpacks these points.

The Problem with “Crossover Scholarship”

 

logoOver at Inside Higher Ed, Karlyn Crowley, an English professor at St. Norbert College, has written a fresh piece about academics writing for the public.  Rather than calling this practice “crossover scholarship,” she prefers the phrase “crossover ecology.”

I will let her explain:

I want to argue for a new term: crossover ecology. That’s because we need to stop conceiving of crossover scholarship in a one-way direction: us to them. This paradigm solidifies the false divide between academe and the public, and everyone loses. When we recently hosted the wonderful national OpEd Project, I heard through the grapevine that a colleague said to an untenured faculty member at my institution, “Op-eds won’t get you tenure.” While that is technically true, it misconceives crossover scholarship as uni-directional rather than multidirectional. The latter produces interesting scholarship, and the former is bad career advice.

What Crossover Ecology Gives You

When I was in graduate school, it was clear that most people couldn’t write anything that might appeal beyond the ivory tower until at least their second book. The reading public “out there” seemed to be fluffy, a compromise, and other than making more than a few dollars on book royalties, it was hard to see any benefits. But today we are in a different historical and technological moment that has not only meant a democratization of public voices and news due to technological access but also that the public can have a different impact on academic scholarship.

I argue that crossover ecology — where public and academic work build on one another in a cycle — produces better work for all communities. In particular, crossover ecology affects four things:

  • Voice. It forces scholars to write with verve, clarity and purpose to communicate broadly.
  • Impact. It can build a large audience that ultimately translates to cultural influence.
  • Agency. It shortens the time from thought to publication; ideas don’t languish.
  • Quality. It fosters collaborative and communal thinking not in isolation and feeds scholarship rather than detracts from it.

Read the entire piece here.

Civil War Historian James McPherson on Writing

Battle_Cry_of_Freedom_(book)_coverOver at The Chronicle of Higher Education Rachel Toor interviews the Princeton historian, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and author of dozens of books on the Civil War-era.

Here is a taste of her interview:

How did you tackle such a gigantic project — writing the entire history of the Civil War in one volume?

McPherson: One chapter, or section of a chapter, at a time. I don’t write from an outline — I’ve tried it, and it proved to be a waste of time. In my head I had a general outline of the whole book and a somewhat more specific outline of what I hoped to cover in each chapter.

I would sit down to read the sources, secondary and primary, for each part of a chapter, and then write that part before going on to repeat the proc­ess many times until I had a complete book. As I wrote each paragraph, the subject of the next paragraph would become more clear in my mind, and that proc­ess repeated itself through countless paragraphs.

The second and third drafts rarely changed organization or substance; they focused on sentence structure, clarity, and finding just the right word (with frequent use of a thesaurus) in the right place. In revising at the sentence level, I would change the passive voice to active whenever possible, try to change “to be” and other nonaction verbs to action verbs, and to break up some compound or complex sentences into two or more shorter sentences when it seemed appropriate.

I also read my second draft aloud to myself as a way to catch sloppy or unclear syntax from two perspectives — sound as well as sight.

How did that book’s success affect you?

McPherson: It was a two-edged sword. On one edge, I enjoyed the praise and 15 minutes of fame that it earned, the royalties that it paid, the invitations to give lectures that paid additional fees, the prominence in the historical profession that I acquired, and other benefits of success. On the other edge, this notoriety cut deeply into family time, into the leisure for exercise and hobbies like tennis and bicycling that I had previously enjoyed, and into the peace and quiet that are part of a quality life that was eroded by my newfound prominence.

Read the entire interview at the Chronicle of Higher Education

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society: Update 119

Bible Cause CoverThe Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society is done.  Oxford University Press tells me that it will ship from the warehouse in the first week of March.

I have been pleased that several scholars have taken notice of the book’s release.  If all goes well, there will be a forum on the book at Religion in American History and HistPhil.  In November I will be making my first trip to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio for a roundtable on the book sponsored by The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts.

This is all very exciting, but it is also a bit scary.  How will the book be received?  Will it be “popular” enough for general audiences?  Will scholars dismiss my narrative approach?  Though this will be the fifth book that has appeared with my name on the cover. The anxiety does not go away.

With this in mind, I really resonate with Joseph Adelman’s recent piece, “Making the Academic-Public Audience Transition.”

Adelman just completed an academic monograph based on his dissertation and is now writing a trade history of the U.S. Post Office.  He writes:

Unlike the first book, Project #2 has a tight deadline in book terms. That means I’m trying to write a book more quickly and without the expanses of time one has during dissertation research. Second, it’s aimed at a general audience, which requires a different writing voice, a different way of thinking about notes and citations, and so on. I had thought that wouldn’t be as much of an issue because I have some experience with public writing, but the scale of the project has made that a bigger challenge. Third, the project has a much longer time span—I’m writing a general history of the Post Office in America from its beginnings in the seventeenth century up to whatever’s going on in Congress when I finish the final draft of the epilogue. That means a new set of sources, including some with which I am less than comfortable. Who knew that reading typewritten primary sources could be so discomfiting?

The largest challenge by far, however, has been trying to write a synthetic work. Unlike the first project, which involved years of archival research, my post office project needs to be completed relatively quickly and stay at a relatively broad level. I don’t have time to spend five years reading pamphlets on postage reform or studying newspaper accounts of the postal workers’ strikes in Chicago or New York in the 1960s and 1970s. I need to rely on other scholarship. That goes against my instincts as a historian, which tell me to go to the archives, to pull sources, to read deeply, to wrap my arms fully around a topic before I commit my thoughts to writing.

I’m not completely abandoning archival work, both because it’s in my blood and because the book needs some archival sources to be credible. But I am working on crafting a narrative that relies on other historians for the background and bringing my voice to the fore for the narrative. It’s something I do every week in the classroom when I write lectures or lead discussions. Putting it into a book manuscript has been more difficult.

I had these identical struggles when writing The Bible Cause.  I have written for general audiences before, but Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? was more didactic and argument-driven than The Bible Cause.  The task of writing the history of a 200-year old organization was not easy.  I had to produce a narrative that was about a mile wide and an inch deep.

In the end I had to abandon historiographical debates and focus on telling a story about the American Bible Society and how it intersected with the history of the United States. Whenever I found myself writing about how historians approach this or that subject, I replaced those paragraphs with an interesting story I had uncovered in the archives.

Adelman is right.  There really is a difference between writing academic history and synthetic history of general readers.  The training in academic writing that many of us received in graduate school is very hard to shake.

Liz Covart on Popular History

Ballard

Covart: People like history books about ordinary lives

Why are popular history books popular?  It’s a great question.  Liz Covart, the host of Ben Franklin’s World, offers an answer.

 

Covart concludes that ordinary readers flock to popular history for three reasons.  First, because popular books feature people.  Covart suggests that people like books about the American founders, but they like stories about the lives of everyday men and women even more.  Second, popular books use “plain, evocative language.”  Third, popular books “make judgement calls.”

Here is a taste of her post:

Each week, I receive e-mails with requests that I present more episodes about how non-famous, non-elite men and women lived.

You know who tackles this topic best and writes about it the most?

Academic historians.

If readers want to read about everyday men and women, why are popular history books popular?

They are popular because they feature people readers can follow and live through vicariously. I suspect that many history lovers settle for books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they can’t find books about people like Martha Ballard or George Robert Twelves Hewes.

The feedback my listeners provide strongly suggests that they would love to read books about men or women who lived average lives; books that allowed them to witness the past through the eyes of someone like them.

Read the entire post here.

 

Writing for General Readers is a Difficult Task for Academics

My thoughts below were prompted by this tweet:

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I like to think that I am writing for a public audience.  I tried to do this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, Why Study History?, and The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, but I am still not convinced that I pulled it off.  Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and the Bible Cause were/will be published as trade books by Westminster/John Knox and Oxford University Press respectively, but they are/will be marketed to academics as well.

I wrote these books more with my fellow academics in mind than I did with the general reading public in mind.  As I constructed sentences I thought more about how scholars would interpret them, rather than whether or not they would be compelling to non-academic readers.

Writing for general audiences requires a complete reorientation of how I was trained to write in graduate school.  While I certainly want my writing to be based on good history, I am coming to grips with the fact that I can’t always worry about what my academic peers will think about my narratives. If I am writing for non-scholars it will mean that my arguments are going to be less nuanced than the stuff I write for scholars.  It also means that I will choose to write about subjects that may not make “original contributions” to the academic discipline of history, but still might be new or informative to readers who will have no clue whether or not the last book on subject X was written only ten years ago.

I will keep trying.