The Post and Telegraphe

This is just like that time when…

Like many historians, I awoke this morning and recoiled when I opened Twitter and stumbled into an New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” The author, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that he is concerned by what he believes is “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” He then offers examples of such analogies, and suggests that instead historians should address a variety of “historical processes” that led to the current day. I found the essay frustrating (and judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’m not alone in that feeling among historians), but set it aside to go about my day.

But the essay has stuck with me for three reasons, so here I am to respond. First, the headline (which was almost certainly not written by the column’s author), which is delightfully ironic in placing the construction “X Shouldn’t Be Pundits” at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Punditville, USA (i.e., the New York Times opinion page). Second, the essay employs a series of straw men. Somewhere out there, the author assures us, are historians making “facile analogies” between the politics and personalities of 2017 and Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Huey Long. Sure, I’ve seen a few of those pieces, and so have you, but they are far from the majority of work that historians have done in the past six months. Even when I have seen essays that employed analogy, they were rarely “facile.”

It’s particularly useful here to note that Temkin is wrong in one of his examples, in which he claims that C. Vann Woodward avoided analogy in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. One scholar quickly found evidence that Woodward had specifically said that he did use analogies, and in direct reference to Strange Career.

So historians are using analogies, but there’s a very good reason for that: analogies are in the air. I hesitate to generalize broadly at the risk of committing the same sin I just condemned, but anecdotally I can offer from the classroom and public talks in the community that one of the more common frames people use to ask questions is, “so is X like Y?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but it’s an impulse that seems common (at least among my own students and the audiences I encounter). In my own case, I demur on questions too much about the late twentieth century, since it’s far outside my research specialty. However, I will engage on most analogies that deal with the Civil War or earlier, and use what’s offered in the question to work towards an effective answer. As Woodward notes in the tweeted quotation, analogies aren’t meant to capture direct comparison, but rather a way to set something familiar side by side with something less so.

Prof. Temkin wants historians to engage the public and offer factual and nuanced portraits of the past. I agree. But especially when speaking outside the profession, whether in an essay for a news publication, at a public talk, or in the classroom, that means we need to start with where our audience is and work from there. And many of them are working from analogy.

Fall 2017 Book Orders

Below are the required texts for my courses for the upcoming semester. For students, please note that these texts will be on reserve at Whittemore Library, and that I do not permit the use of electronic editions.

HIST 120 American Lives

HSTA 304 The American Revolution

HSTA 306: Historiography of a Field

As part of our discussions this semester, we have spent significant time discussing the evolution of the field of the history of the early American republic. Over time in every field, interests shift as historians begin to ask new questions, revisit old ones, open up new archival sources for study, and so on. For historians and history students, it is critical to be able to trace these transitions in order to better situate both the individual books and articles we are reading and figure out the contours of the field over time.

One of the best ways to understand the direction of a field is to examine its flagship journal. Fortunately, one exists for the topic of this course: the Journal of the Early Republic (JER), which began publication in 1981.

For this project, each student will be assigned six consecutive issues from JER to examine. These will be assigned at the beginning of class on April 14. For your assigned year, you should do the following:

  1. Review the articles ONLY (you are not responsible for the Book Review section, Notes & Documents features, or Editor’s Notes) for each of the six assigned issues. We will discuss how to do so in class on Friday, April 14.
  2. For each article, assign it from one to three major topical categories. There will be a pre-circulated list available, but you may also add your own categories.
  3. Maintain a bibliography in a Word document that lists the author, title, and issue of each article, as well as the topics you have assigned to it.
  4. In the joint Google Docs spreadsheet, enter your data into the established template as demonstrated by 8am on Friday, April 21
  5. Draft a reflection of 600-800 words (excluding footnotes) about your review of the assigned issues. You should consider some of the following:
  • Do you see any commonalities in the types of sources that these authors are using? The ways they frame research questions?
  • Are there any differences between what you reviewed in this journal volume and other texts you’ve read in this and your other history courses, for example, the methodology you considered in answering the above, or how they approach certain concepts, such as race, class, and gender?
  • In examining these specific issues, what surprised you?
  • How would you compare the topics covered in your issues to those found across those examined by other students in the course?

You can find the journal through the Whittemore Library website via JSTOR and Project MUSE.

In this assignment, we will work collaboratively to model the topics covered in JER going back at least twenty years. That is, you will share the results of your survey of the assigned year in a Google Docs spreadsheet so that we can compile and analyze data and discuss trends and changes. This will be our topic of study on April 21, so you must submit your topics by 8am that morning in order for us to have a successful discussion.

Requirements

  • The assignment is due in two parts.
    • Part 1 (topics in Google Sheets) is due on Friday, April 21 by 8am. We must have all the data entered by then in order to discuss it as part of our class session that day.
    • Part 2 (reflection) is due via dropitto.me by 5pm on Friday, April 28 (NB: use Lastname_JER.docx as a filename template).
  • Citations should be in Chicago Manual of Style format.
  • Any reflection uploaded after 5:00pm on the due date will be assessed a late penalty of 5 points per day. No reflections will be accepted after 5:00pm on Friday, May 5.

HSTA 306: Response to Baptist

For historians, a book review is an opportunity both to assess the quality of a historical work and to place the author’s argument in conversation with other scholarship. At its best, therefore, a quality review synthesizes the arguments of the historian, assesses the quality of the research, and comprehends the historiographic significance of the work. It is a genre in which historians must be fluent both as writers and readers.

Over the past few weeks, we have read and discussed the entirety of Ed Baptist’s 2014 book, The Half Has Never Been Told, another essay in the field of slavery and capitalism (by Caitlin Rosenthal), and several responses to Baptist.

Your assignment is to write your own response/review of Baptist, taking into account the other perspectives we have read. In your review, you should briefly lay out the argument of the book, identify its major strengths and weaknesses, and assess the historiographic contributions of the book.

Requirements

  • Approximately 750-1000 words (excluding footnotes)
  • Discuss The Half Has Never Been Told and at least two of the readings related to it
  • Citations should be in Chicago Manual of Style format
  • Submit the paper via dropitto.me by 5:00pm on Friday, April 14 (use Lastname_Review.docx as a filename)
  • Any review uploaded after 5:00pm on the due date will be assessed a late penalty of 5 points per day. No reviews will be accepted after 5:00pm on Friday, April 21.

On the Start of a New Semester

Tomorrow is the first day of classes at my university. Last Friday, the campus was almost eerily quiet, but by the time I arrive at my office in the morning, thousands of students will have returned to their dorms and filled the parking lots. January is always a harder time of year to start fresh than September—the dark and the cold take their toll, but nonetheless it’s usually a time of excitement and new beginnings.

This particular January is tougher. Like so many others, I felt like I tripped and flopped my way through the end of the fall semester. November and December are a blur. I spent a great deal of time in the last two months questioning whether my profession has value for society, and whether I have anything to contribute with my voice. That resulted in losing my voice. Not literally, but rather my ability to convey thoughts in writing. I’ve never had writer’s block this severe. For weeks, I could barely manage to send emails, and the only writing project on which I got any work done was one with a due date in December.

In the past few weeks, however, I feel like I’m coming back. I’ve met a few writing deadlines and caught up on a few on which I’d fallen behind. I know that the study of history has value both inherently and in society. I know that my voice is important. I need pep talks more often than I used to (and I have many on Twitter to thank for discussing their approach to reclaiming solid ground). And I know, even on my least enthusiastic days, that this is the most important moment in my life to engage in studying the past.

History is not a panacea, of course. There are limits to historical parallels, much as I occasionally indulge them myself (is this moment most like 1798? 1828? 1850? 1861? 1932? 1968? Give me enough time, and I’ll come up with a few more). History cannot predict the future. What we must do in our study is engage with how we got to the present moment with clear eyes. We need to understand all the factors, whether structural to society or particular to the whims of individual historical actors, that have brought our path here.

Tomorrow in my classroom I’ll undertake to convince a new group of students about the value of studying the past. This is the job I signed up for.

Spring 2017 Book Orders

Below are the required texts for each course I’ll be teaching in the upcoming semester. For students, please note that these have been ordered for the bookstore, but are also available via Amazon and other outlets in both new and used formats. Please also note that I do not permit electronic editions.

HIST 151 United States History to Reconstruction
(Sections 01X and 002)

Michael P. Johnson, ed., Reading the American Past: Selected Historical Documents, 5th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), Vol I: to 1877. ISBN: 978-0-312-56413-1

David Waldstreicher, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (New York: Hill & Wang, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-809-01650-1

The course will also utilize a free online textbook, The American Yawp.

HSTA 306 The Early American Republic

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014). ISBN: 978-0-465-04966-0

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990). ISBN: 978-0-679-73376-8

Is there a right way for academics to tweet?

At a recent presentation on social media that I gave with Liz Covart, several of the attendees asked questions both during the session and at the social gathering afterwards about our strategies for using Twitter. In particular, they were concerned about using Twitter in the “right way,” to try to use the correct social conventions in order to be effective on the medium. We had a good conversation about the question, but it’s worth thinking through in a bit more detail. (I’d advise that what follows is my personal approach. Your mileage may vary.)

The first thing I said—and I usually start here when talking about Twitter—is that there isn’t really a correct approach, or at least certainly not just one. I recognize that it can often seem that way, and it’s hard for me as an insider at this point to see some of the unspoken conventions of academic Twitter (and at this point I’ve been on long enough I’ve also shaped those convention in some small way). And I’m deeply cognizant of the ways in which those conventions or the appearance thereof can seem daunting. But they really are less set than they seem to be, and I hope they don’t deter people from trying to be active.

In any case, I’m not a Twitter absolutist. I’m comfortable with a world that includes academics who are power users and include their Twitter work in their academic tenure and promotion materials, people who use it casually in one way or another, and people who don’t use it at all. It’s just not a required service by any stretch of the imagination, and suggesting that it should be seems to me misguided. Does one miss out on certain conversations that way? Yes, of course. But all of us miss lots of conversations, and there’s not anything that makes Twitter more useful than going to AHA or OAH or being in an R1 department with a regular seminar series or being in the classroom regularly.

In any case, some of the people in the conversation use Twitter essentially to serve the function of reading recommendations. They follow users whom they think tweet interesting links, articles, and occasionally have interesting discussions. That’s great! If that’s what works for you, it’s actually an effective and defensible strategy for Twitter, and takes advantage of something that Twitter is actually pretty good for.

For me, the most important decision to make about using Twitter is to decide what you want from it and use it clearly that way. My own strategy, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is to treat Twitter like the hallways of a conference, where you can discuss serious matters about academia and the news, but also shares stories with friends about one’s kids, sports, pop culture, and the news. (For this reason I don’t include my Twitter account as part of my academic reappointment materials.)

There is one important caveat: privilege and topic matter a great deal. When I write publicly (whether on Twitter or elsewhere), I do so as a white man who writes about things that occasionally interest people, but rarely make them angry enough to harass me. I have not received threats of death, rape, or other harm to myself or my family. (I’d like to keep it that way.) We need to work to counteract that as best we can, but today, right now, the terms of engagement are different and more challenging for women, people of color, those in the LGBTQ community, and anyone who writes about sensitive issues such as race, slavery, the Holocaust, to name just a few of the most obvious.

Taking that into account, I would encourage anyone considering social media engagement to think first about how and how much they want to present themselves. If you don’t want to put yourself out there, but instead want to lurk and read? You can. Do that! But if you want to interact, the best thing you can do is present yourself exactly as you would like to be seen in that space. You can be incredibly specific in how you choose to do that—starting a Twitter feed solely about your research, or about your favorite sports team, or to share blog posts you’ve written—or be a bit more eclectic. The best and most interesting accounts in my feed are the ones with what we might call a high “Polonius factor” (to thine own selves are they true).

And in closing, if there’s any way someone feels I might be able to help in thinking through these issues, please feel free to contact me.

A Few Resources

“Perfectly Practical Tips for Using Twitter” by me and Liz Covart

“My Social Media Story” Part 1 and Part 2

Patrick Iber, “A Defense of Academic Twitter,” Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 19, 2016