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.

More on George Scialabba

George Scialabba

Some of you may recall my post a couple of weeks ago about George Scialabba, the writer and cultural critic who spent most of his adult life working a clerical job in a basement office with no windows at Harvard University.  I would encourage you to read his stuff.

Today The New Yorker has published a piece on Sciaballa.  Here is a taste:

…His idols are Noam Chomsky, Richard Rorty, and Christopher Lasch; Scialabba’s book“What Are Intellectuals Good For?” is dedicated to them. He has also, it’s worth noting, written about feminism—in essays on Ellen Willis and Vivian Gornick, for example—with a sympathetic self-awareness rare among men. He has published three collections and about four hundred pieces, sustaining a life of freelance criticism with years of punching the clock. On August 31st, he retired from the day job.
A week and a half later, the magazine The Baffler threw him a campy retirement party, “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge. There were toasts by Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, Rick Perlstein, and Nikil Saval. The Cambridge City Council had just passed Resolution 658, making that day, September 10, 2015, George Scialabba Day. The whole idea was a cackling jab at the pomp and officiousness Scialabba himself so utterly lacks. The City Council’s resolution noted that Scialabba had “diligently fulfilled the room scheduling needs of overpaid professors for 35 years” and asked Cambridge residents “who still practice the habit of reading to place their collective tongues in their collective cheeks” and celebrate his marvelous deeds.
“I really don’t see any justification for it,” he’d told me the day before. To his admirers, Scialabba is something of a literary monk, shuffling virtuously in the background, spurning public attention. His writing completes the portrait: his measured essays generally concern better-known thinkers, more roaring, titanic writers whose own work stomps imperiously down the page. “As far as I know, I’ve never had a genuinely original idea,” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t a boast.
Scialabba’s monastic reputation may stem in part from his personal history. At the end of high school, he joined Opus Dei, an extreme Catholic prelature. He wore a hair shirt, spent some nights sleeping on the floor, and devoted hours to silent prayer. He forswore, as he later put it, the “delicious excesses” then being touted by his generational cohort. (This was the nineteen-sixties.) Scialabba grew up in East Boston, in a working-class, Italian family; then he went to Harvard. There, he submitted some of his syllabi to the local chapter of Opus Dei to be inspected for heresy. (He dropped a few courses deemed unacceptable.) But the split between his orthodoxy and his burgeoning interest in European philosophy became unbearable. He broke down, then burst out, abandoning the Church with a flourish of uncharacteristic theatricality: just after graduation, he marched into a meeting of his chapter of Opus Dei and announced that he no longer believed, that he was through with the whole medieval, benighted Church. Then he clammed up, frozen and flabbergasted by his own outburst. He was led gently out of the room. Modernity had claimed another soul. “Voltaire and Rousseau have corrupted better men than me,” he said.

What followed was a crushing depression that forced him to drop out of graduate school, at Columbia, and blocked his intellectual labor for about a decade. “I couldn’t sit reading a book for more than ten minutes,” he told me. The first depression was followed by others, and the academic career that the he had fantasized about ended before it began. He became a social worker, which, in his case, largely amounted to processing monotonous paperwork in the Boston suburbs. He did it for six years, then he got the job at Harvard, seeing to the clerical needs of academics whose ranks he would never join.

Writing History for Teenagers

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion interviews M.T. Anderson, the author of a couple of young-adult historical novels, including The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation.

Here’s a suggestion:  Every academic historian should attempt to write a book for a teenage audience.  It would help them rid their prose of jargon and be better story-tellers.


Here is a taste of Onion’s interview:


In writing for a younger audience, you must have had to make some choices about how much of that stuff they’d be interested in or how much to step back and write about the history as a story. How did you decide that? 
When I was in high school, I went for one year to a British boarding school, Winchester College. And I was taking a one-year history course on Anglo-Saxon history. On the first day of class the teacher said, “We’re going to be studying England during the Anglo-Saxon period for a year. There is plenty of time for us to read every single source that is related to Anglo-Saxon history. You will have the same tools the historian does. You will have read everything they could read.” Obviously we were 17 years old, so we weren’t going to make any incredible leaps of historical knowledge, but at the same time it was so exciting to us to think, “This set of five or six long documents, this is the core of what’s known, and we’ll have the tools to debate it.”
There are some interesting points of clarification in the book—I’m thinking of the footnote where you describe the difference between communism, socialism, and Marxism. [At the end of the 200-word footnote, Anderson concludes: “While these terms—Bolshevik, Communist, Marxist, socialist, and Soviet—are sometimes used interchangeably, many people have died to make distinctions among them.”] How do you decide, with a concept like this, which is something historians spend their lives debating and trying to clarify, how much of it to talk about in a book that’s for people who are 16 or 17?
That is a total killer. That’s a real challenge of doing this. It was a little weird to put it in a footnote. Most of the facts I try to fit into the general flow of a narrative, and yet that is such a complicated set of terms that I felt like it didn’t fit into the flow. It slowed it down; and yet it’s vital. So yeah, because realizing also that, the kids I’m writing for have no memory of the Cold War, which was over more than a decade before they were born. That’s a complicated thing when kids don’t necessary have any context at all. That footnote was important to me, because the term socialism is used so often in this country and not really understood well; it was important to me to actually explain what it means. Because otherwise I felt like you read through this book and you realize Nazism is called National Socialism; Stalin is always talking aboutsocialism; and then you think it comes across as “socialism is evil.” Unfortunately, it has been simplified in this country. We don’t tend to realize that our firemen and our schools and our roads are, in a sense, socialist creations. 

Who is George Scialabba?

I haven’t read much of George Scialabba‘s writing. Back in 2012 I did a post on a Scialabba piece on intellectuals, academia, and Christopher Lasch.  But after I read Craig Lambert’s article on Scialabba’s retirement at The Chronicle of Higher Education I realized that I need to read more of him.

What fascinates me the most about Scialabba is the fact that he has spent the last thirty-five years working a clerical job at Harvard University.  Since it is difficult for one to make a living as an essayist and book reviewer, Scialabba worked arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard, operating out of a basement office with no windows. Over the years he has written over 400 reviews and essays in the Washington Post, Village Voice, The Nation, The American Conservative, Commonweal, Dissent, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, Foreign Affairs, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, to name a few.  He has published four books.

Here is a taste of Lambert’s piece:

The Harvard English professor and New Yorker contributor James Wood calls him “one of America’s best all-round intellects.” The author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that “he is not only astoundingly intelligent, he knows just about everything — history, politics, culture, and literature.” The political theorist Daniela Cammack, currently a visiting lecturer at Yale, declares, “For my money, George is the finest living writer of nonfiction English prose. I know that’s a grand claim, but I stand by it. Every time a new book of [his] essays has come out, I’ve stayed up ’til 4 a.m. devouring it. That doesn’t usually happen.”
“When people bemoan how few public intellectuals there are these days, essays like George’s are what they’re missing,” says Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer at The New Yorker“He is skeptical without being cynical, earnest without being sanctimonious, and truthful without being a scold, and that might be his rarest quality of all.”
On August 31, Scialabba retired from his “day job” at Harvard, and then something extraordinary happened. John Summers and other Scialabba fans at the inventive, contrarian quarterly The Baffler (“The journal that blunts the cutting edge”) staged a party under the banner “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” and a sellout crowd of 230 filled the venerable Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, on September 10 to honor the shy writer.
The Boston Globe ran a feature on the event, and the city of Cambridge declared the date “George Scialabba Day.” Speakers converged on Harvard Square to pay tribute to Scialabba; these included The Bafflers founding editor, Thomas Frank; Ehrenreich; and the celebrated 86-year-old linguist, philosopher, and social activist Noam Chomsky. A short tribute filmfeatured a couple dozen Scialabba fans from the literary world voicing their encomiums. The Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band played jazz, one of Scialabba’s favorite musical forms.
Onstage, those toasting the guest of honor mixed insight and humor. Frank, for example, devoted much of his time to the misquotation and misattribution (commonly to Albert Einstein) of Scialabba’s most famous sentence, from a 1983 review he wrote for Harvard Magazine: “Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.” Ehrenreich rose to observe that not one of the featured speakers had a “regular” job; Chomsky, as an emeritus MIT professor, came the closest. “Noam, you’re the most respectable one here,” she declared. “When Noam Chomsky is the most respectable person in a gathering, you’re in trouble.”
In a way, Chomsky’s appearance brought Scialabba’s career full circle, as he had unintentionally launched the honoree’s vocation decades earlier. In 1979, Scialabba heard Chomsky dissecting political issues on the radio and was impressed by the scholar’s cogency; he had known him only as a linguist. He began reading Chomsky, including the two-volume series The Political Economy of Human Rights (South End Press),which he felt would “set American political culture on its ear.” Several months later, “the culture remained upright,” Scialabba recalls. He’d seen no reviews of the books.
Somewhat scandalized by this, Scialabba wrote to Eliot Fremont-Smith, literary editor of The Village Voiceenclosing a 3,000-word review to suggest the kind of treatment he felt Chomsky’s work merited. The self-effacing 31-year-old acknowledged that he was no writer and wasn’t submitting the text for publication, but Fremont-Smith replied to disagree, asserting that Scialabba was a writer and that he wanted to publish the piece in the VoiceThe rest is history — specifically, intellectual history, the field Scialabba would work in, were he an academic.

I also found Scott McLemee’s article about Scialabba at Inside Higher Ed

Quote of the Day

Scholars too often speak only among themselves, in rarefied vocabularies. I think one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in as a society is because people who actually know something refuse to communicate that to the public. In graduate school I made a vow that I would never allow my work to become so recondite that I couldn’t communicate with a larger audience.

-Randall Balmer, John Philips Chair of Religion, Dartmouth University