A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

Early American Historians on the Opinion Page

Yoni

Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

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

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

Jill Lepore (Harvard University and The New Yorker)

Yoni Appelbaum (Senior Editor at The Atlantic)

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

Gautham Rao (American University)

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

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

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

Rao responded to the exchange on Twitter:

Lepore ended the session with some advice of her own:

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

2. “Be brave, but don’t be shi..y”

3. “Delight your reader”

And then there was moment.

Inside the Mind of the Literary Editor

Writing

If you write books, Lauren Toor’s interview with literary agent Susan Rabiner is a must read.  They cover the art of making an argument, the practice of narrative history, and the topics that are “hot” right now in trade publishing.

Here is a taste:

Can you define what you mean by narrative?

Rabiner: Sure. You don’t create narrative by simply inserting lots of anecdotes, character portraits, or description. Those features are terrific but are not meant to stand on their own. They are part of a story that creates a kind of tension in the reader — a need to find out where the book is going and how it will add up.

And remember, the story doesn’t have to be a story about people. It can be the story of an idea — how and why we once believed something and now do not. It can be the story of an event that we have been interpreting one way but should be re-examining in a different light.

Read the entire interview here.

From a Ph.D in Medieval Literature to a Public Critic

JosephineLivingstoneI really enjoyed this interview with Josephine Livingstone, a culture staff writer at The New Republic.  She describes the difference between academic writing and public writing.  Here is a taste of her interview with Rachel Scarborough King at Public Books:

RK: How do you compare the kind of writing you do now to your academic writing? What do you like and dislike most about the public-facing writing that you do?

JL: Being productive is a big hallmark of my attitude toward this work, which is a little different from how I saw the academic work that I did before. The difference between that and my academic writing is kind of temporal. When I wrote my dissertation, I felt like I was speaking to myself and to the past. I was trying to make diagnoses implicitly about the modern world, but mostly my materials were medieval, and what I was doing was trying to push back certain arenas of postcolonial theory to apply to culture before the era of mass colonialism. For me it was kind of about trying to define my existence as not being part of the contemporary world. And I liked living elsewhere, which is a form of fantasy, but I really enjoyed it, and it felt productive and like I was doing something that had an ethical drive behind it.

But the work I do now I think of as service to the community of people who make art; I feel that reviews are a very important part of the economy—okay, maybe they’re not very important, but they are in some way a part of cultural production in 2019. And so I feel this ethical duty now to take every work of art seriously even if it’s a minor novel that’s coming out and I just want to boost that person’s name. You have to take every work of art equally seriously and ignore how famous or prominent the person who made it is. And that is an ethical drive, but it’s really different from the ethical drive that I felt in the academy.

RK: So do you see yourself as taking skills you learned in grad school and translating them, or are they different skill sets?

JL: A lot of my writing is about gender and race, and I definitely draw every day on the critical theory and some of the primary texts that I read in grad school—there’s no line there, it’s like a fuzzy overlapping boundary. The thing that Jill Lepore calls academic jargon is much maligned in the media. The first editor I ever had would give me so much shit about it, but I think that when you’re in an academic community you devise certain kinds of shorthand for much bigger ideas that help you to imply much more than it looks like you’re saying. A good example is that I used to use the word “horizons” a lot, and my editor would always be like, “Stop using this word,” but to me the word “horizons” implied this critically aware way of describing social historical context and how that limits or inflects an individual’s thinking. That makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t make sense to most people, so it took a lot of unlearning.

I also like Livingstone’s thought about being a “public intellectual”:

I think it would be very grandiose for me to think of myself that way, so no. I also don’t think that public intellectual is something that—like, no one ever introduces themselves at a dinner party and someone asks them what they do and they say, “Oh, I’m a public intellectual.” It’s more of an idea and a way for people to group and better understand a sector of professionals at work now who don’t quite fit into old typologies of who does what, because the public intellectual is something that has always been around. Today I think it incorporates things like editors, people who founded publications, columnists but not op-ed writers; it includes some podcasters and some radio people. Yeah, I think it includes so many types of people that the term “public intellectual” has to somehow describe a sensibility more than a workday.

Read the entire piece here.

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)

Some Thoughts on the Audience of *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dWho is the audience for Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump? There are three audiences.  Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. The 81% of white American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.
  2. The 19% of white American evangelicals (and non-white evangelicals) who did not vote for Donald Trump
  3. Anyone who wants to understand why 81% of American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

I realize that many of those in the 81% will want nothing to do with this book. But I hope some will read it.  I hope the book can serve as a way of encouraging dialogue in churches and other places where evangelicals gather together in communities of Christian fellowship that transcend politics.  (I am assuming, of course, that some of these places still exist.  I think they do).

I also realize that those who study evangelicals at the highest level–many of them former evangelicals or disgruntled evangelicals–want to take evangelicalism to the woodshed for its many sins.  Their scholarship is good and needed, but I part ways with many of them when it comes to reaching the church.  As a Christian, I am a member of the body of Christ–the Church. That is where I must find my primary identity.

Of course I still have a responsibility to live out my vocation in the academy,  the classroom, and as a professor at a Christian college.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that some posts are written with my church community in mind.  Others are written for American historians or members of the academic community.  Still others are for the general public.  These groups often overlap.  I have written books for my students, my academic discipline, the general public, and the church.

As a Christian, I have chosen to worship among American evangelicals.  In 2016, a large number of my tribe voted for Donald Trump.  I don’t think that was a good idea.  I have even written a book to tell my tribe that I do not think it was a good idea.  But in the end, I must live with the people in my tribe and try my best to fulfill my vocation as a historian and educator in their midst.  Some will say I go too far in the criticism of my people.  I know this from the letters, e-mails, and phone messages I receive–some of them pretty nasty.  Others will say I don’t go far enough in criticizing my people.  I know this from the reviews of the book.

The trashing of evangelicalism is popular these days and you can get pretty far and become pretty successful in academic/scholarly circles–especially in the fields of history and religious studies–by doing this.  I am sympathetic to scholars who call evangelicals to task for their sins.  As I am learning on the Believe Me book tour, many people had (or are having) very, very bad experiences in evangelicalism.  They are hurting.  They are angry.  I am listening to their stories.

But in the end, I will continue to defend the term “evangelical” because it still means “good news.”  For me, this “good news” is the ultimate source of hope for those who are hurting.  I am still willing to fight for the “good news” of the Gospel because this message changed the trajectory of my life and the life of my family and extended family in positive ways.  And I have seen hundreds of other lives changed by this message—men, women, people of color, poor people, rich people, gay and straight people.

In the end, I want to use my vocation as a historian to be a more direct part of the solution in the evangelical church rather than someone who merely diagnoses the problem or calls-out evangelicals for their many sins.  I am not sure I can do this as an academic, but I am willing to try.  Perhaps other Christian and evangelical scholars are called to something different.  But if they are called to something different, they will need to convince me how they will use their gifts and knowledge to serve the body of Christ.  This point relates not only to the content of their work, but also to its style and means of dissemination.

If we pursue this path within evangelicalism today, it will mean that we must serve those with whom we disagree on a whole host of political and cultural issues.  It will also require us to work hard at uncovering the common spiritual and theological ground that draws us together every Sunday morning despite our differences. I am convinced that this kind of engagement deepens our faith, helps us to see the flaws in our precious arguments, makes us better listeners and communicators, and teaches us to love.  It may also mean, in some cases (but certainly not all cases), staying in a particular religious tradition rather than leaving for a more a comfortable place of worship and fellowship where people think more like us.

Postscript:

I am sure that for some of my readers, this post just made me a subject of analysis, rather than a detached scholar.  Of course such analysis goes both ways.  I have seen many of my fellow academics as subjects of analysis for a long time! 🙂

Scholars Respond to Trump’s Border Policy

immigrants

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?

Olaf

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.

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.

On Writing Your Second History Book

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Benjamin Park, an early American historian who teaches at Sam Houston State University in Texas, has live-tweeted a great session from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) on how to go about writing a second book.

For most academic historians, their first book is a revised version of their dissertation. Much of the research and writing for the first book is accomplished during graduate school. (Although revisions are always necessary for turning a dissertation into a book). Second books, however, are usually written under different circumstances.  Graduate students become faculty members and their lives change.  They have to prepare lectures, attend meetings, and, for some, take on the responsibilities of family life.  Writing that second book become a lot more difficult when one’s attention is pulled in so many different directions.

The members of the panel:

Kathleen DuVal of UNC-Chapel Hill

Paul Erickson of the American Antiquarian Society

Timothy Mennell, University of Chicago Press

Tamara Plakins Thornton, University at Buffalo

Catherine Kelly, University of Oklahoma

As I read Ben’s tweets I once again realized how different my career has been when compared to the traditional career trajectory (or at least the one that is considered normal among people who attend SHEAR) in the profession.

Here are some of Park’s post

The Reading Habits of Journalists and Public Intellectuals

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Check out Danny Funt‘s piece at Columbia Journalism Review titled “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader? In the course of the essay he discusses the reading habits of Adam Gopnik, David Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Traister, E.J. Dionne, among others.

Here is a taste:

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most respected magazine writers of the day, as much for the sharpness of his sword as the depth of his artillery, once wrote, “The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.” There’s a lot of equipment inside a gym—without knowing better, you might spend an hour doing a few curls and then bouncing around on a balance ball. A balance of news and broader information is desirable, but the optimal proportions can be elusive. Discussing reading habits tends to make people nervous about coming off, as one newspaper writer put it, “like a pretentious twit.”

I encountered no fanatical workaholics like Aristotle, who read with a brass orb in hand so if he dozed off and released his grip, a bang on the ground would startle him back to work. None was quite as industrious as the late writer David Foster Wallace, who advocated studying a usage dictionary on the toilet. Nor did I interview any stunt readers like Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs, who spent a year ploughing through Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, 44 million words in all.

A couple years before his death in 2008, the legendary critic John Leonard estimated that he’d read 13,000 books for work. As he once explained, “I spend half my day writing about television, and the other half writing about books, and I read instead of sleep.” One way or another, Serious Readers must overcome a basic problem: There are only so many hours in a day.

In the Trump era especially, just keeping up with the news can be suffocating. At 7 each morning, the New York political analyst Jonathan Chait gets up in his Washington home and reviews the tweets he slept through, followed by policy news and Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. From 8 onward, with a break to cook and eat dinner with his family, he’s plugged into following news on the computer, taking short pauses to write when inspiration strikes.

“I’ve been draining down my long-term capital because the value of reading books is very high even if the payoff is delayed,” Chait says. “I can constantly get ideas from the news, but you need depth elsewhere.”

“You can’t live like this forever.”

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.

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.

Johann Neem on the Importance of Scholarly Writing

Scholarly-penJohann Neem, an American historian at Western Washington University, is very aware of the fact that academic writing can be impenetrable.  He also believes that it is important for historians and other academics to write for the public.

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Neem defends both kinds of writing.

Neem’s argument makes perfect sense to me.

Here is a taste:

Basic research in the arts and sciences is the source of wisdom. Yet that wisdom needs to be shared. There are in all disciplines scholars who fit Cicero’s definition of the ideal orator, combining eloquence with wisdom. Yet Cicero recognized that the philosophical pursuit of truth requires different things from us than public engagement because it is a different kind of activity. We do neither academics nor the public any service when we conflate the two. Indeed, doing so is a category mistake.

We want physicists who write for each other. I appreciate that, at conferences and in academic papers, they have challenged each other’s conclusions and, in doing so, have pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge. Yet I am also grateful for my scientist friends who posted on Facebook links to videos and essays in which scientists explained, in terms that I could understand, why it was so significant that we had heard black holes colliding.

I enjoyed physicist Lawrence Krauss’s clear articulation of why a citizen like me — who could never understand an academic paper in physics — should continue to support investing oodles of money in basic research: “By exploring processes near the event horizon, or by observing gravitational waves from the early universe, we may learn more about the beginning of the universe itself, or even the possible existence of other universes.” This matters: “Every child has wondered at some time where we came from and how we got here. That we can try and answer such questions by building devices like LIGO to peer out into the cosmos stands as a testament to the persistent curiosity and ingenuity of humankind — the qualities that we should most celebrate about being human.”

I appreciate the scientists who have taken time to write for readers like me about the importance of hearing ripples in space-time. But I am also thankful for the many scientists who spend most of their time talking to each other. Instead of writing for me, they devoted their efforts to producing inaccessible scholarship that, over time, produced public insights of profound beauty.

Read the entire piece here.