…Those Liberal Historians

Barack Obama

Generalizations are a normal function of human thought. We preach the importance of not judging people without first getting to know them, but it’s an undeniable fact that we make generalizations about others before meeting them because we believe they give us a sense of order and help us explain the actions of a group of people or things. We make generalizations based on a wide range of factors that include appearance (gender, skin color, ethnicity, clothing, etc.), mannerisms, employment, and education levels. But generalizations can also distort our understanding of the world and lead us to false assumptions about others with little evidence to back up our views. There are times when generalizations are appropriate (like that moment when a sports broadcaster announces that “the fans are going wild!” even though not all spectators may be cheering at that particular moment) and times when they are not appropriate (like making a claim about an entire racial minority group based on an interaction with one person from that group).

As a practicing historian, it’s always humorous to me when generalizations are made about historians and their political preferences, which are usually labeled under the vague phrase “liberal historians.” You hear claims like this all the time, but I think Matthew Hennessey takes the cake in writing for City Journal. In his mind, “liberal historians” are actively scheming to defend President Barack Obama at all costs in an effort to cement his legacy as a great U.S. president. Hennessey claims that he’s not exaggerating or cherry-picking in constructing his argument, but he does just that in a vain effort to connect historical appraisals of past left-leaning presidents with a speculative prediction about historians’ future interpretations of Obama.

I want to address a few of Hennessey’s claims about these historians. Then I’ll address the concept of “liberal historians.”

Cherry-picking historians’ attitudes

Hennessey immediately screws up by stating that most historians “make their living in academia.” That is patently false, as there are literally tens of thousands more historians teaching in k-12 classrooms and working in public history settings that include national parks, museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, government agencies, and businesses. He then proceeds to suggest that historians will give Obama a pass on things like health-care, foreign policy, and immigration. Quite humorously, he also believes that “they will hail him for trying to close the military prison at Guantanamo [sic] Bay.” Regarding the latter claim, Hennessey clearly has no awareness of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a national collaboration between academic history and museum studies programs that has vocally criticized Obama’s inaction and whose project leaders are far from conservative. But hey! Liberal historians love Obama and will do anything to defend him, right?

Hennessey then jumps into historical analysis and argues that historians are too light on FDR and LBJ. Regarding FDR, he complains that “historians love the New Deal and the welfare state” and seems to believe that no one ever talks about Roosevelt’s controversial actions, such as his effort to pack the Supreme Court in 1935 or his executive order relocating Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. I guess he’s never read the liberal Ira Katznelson’s critical analysis of the New Deal in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, nor has he bothered to study any number of recent studies on FDR’s controversies, which include this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one. I’m sure there’s at least one “liberal historian” in that group of authors.

Hennessey also argues that LBJ gets a free pass for escalating the Vietnam war while Richard Nixon gets blamed for Vietnam “when he isn’t taking heat for everything from the Clinton Impeachment to the obesity epidemic.” Of course LBJ gets plenty of blame from historians for Vietnam, so that claim doesn’t even merit a response. In arguing that historians blame Nixon for Clinton’s impeachment, he links to a 2005 article quoting a Republican congressmen who stated that “I…thought that the Republican party should stand for something, and if we walked away from this, no matter how difficult, we could be accused of shirking our duty, our responsibility.” Regarding the claim that Nixon is blamed for the obesity epidemic, the article Hennessey links to lists several different reasons for this supposed epidemic, one of which includes poor policy planning under the Nixon administration. That’s cherry-picking and exaggeration in my book.

What does it mean to be a “liberal historian”?

There are several noteworthy ironies in claiming that liberal historians will do anything to protect President Obama’s reputation and legacy.

For one, historians argue about any and everything, from the most serious and fundamental to the most trivial and pedantic. These disagreements cover writing styles, historical methods and interpretations, and present-day politics. Historians who lean to the left of the political spectrum include communists, socialists, democratic socialists, and liberals who rarely agree with each other. Tony Judt, for example, infamously critiqued Eric Hobsbawm in 2003 for never renouncing his membership in the communist party. More recently the socialist publication Jacobin has published a series of critical posts against Obama that include “Obama to America: Work Harder,” “Obama Channels Reagan on Welfare,” “Imperialists for ‘Human Rights‘,” and “What Does Obama Think They Were Doing at Stonewall?” None of these articles are very complementary to Obama.

If Congress were run by historians right now, it probably wouldn’t be much more productive than it already is thanks to the arguing and bickering that would take place.

Secondly, academic historians allegedly face a crisis in which they struggle to connect their scholarship with the public, so much so that Nicholas Kristof wrote a plea in the New York Times calling for professors to write for public audiences and involve themselves in policy debates. Yet academics in the minds of people like Hennessey have so much power and influence over public dialogue that they fear a vast left-wing bloc of historians successfully shoving propaganda about the greatness of President Obama down the throats of the American public.

Finally, there have been and continue to be plenty of notable right-leaning historians in the field. Niall Ferguson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Russell Kirk, Daniel Boorstin, Jacques Barzun, and Jay Winik immediately come to mind for me, although there are no doubt many more. And one of my favorite books from graduate school, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, was written by the conservative historian John Lewis Gaddis, who just so happens to be good friends with former U.S. President George W. Bush.

I don’t doubt that many historians, if not most, lean to the left. That generalization is actually backed with evidence. But this idea of a homogenized group of “liberal historians” conspiring to protect President Obama is utter poppycock. When you make generalizations without evidence to back up your claims, those claims ultimately say more about you than the they do about the group you are attempting to generalize about.

End rant. Cheers and happy new year!

How Much Would You Pay to Visit Your Local Art Museum?

Visitor Use Statistics for the Indianapolis Museum of Art from December 9 to December 22, 2014.
Visitor Use Statistics for the Indianapolis Museum of Art from December 9 to December 22, 2014.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is a good art museum, staffed by friendly people and located on beautiful grounds. Some of the employees and interns there are my friends, and I was on a research team that conducted an evaluation study at the museum earlier this year. I visited the museum at least a half dozen times while I lived in Indianapolis and think the institution is an important civic destination for the entire city.

I was quite surprised a few days ago when I heard about the IMA’s recent decision to raise its admission fee from free to $18 ($10 for kids 6-17) starting in April 2015. Buried deep within an official December 12 announcement about a “new campus enhancement plan,” the IMA (beyond the usual desire to boost memberships and the “we need to guarantee long-term financial sustainability” argument) justifies the price hike on the basis of visitor convenience, asserting that “visitor research has shown that the IMA guests do not like paying for parking and key programs like exhibitions separately.” Elsewhere the IMA board chairman, Thomas Hiatt, further justifies the increase by arguing that the new admission fee is in line with other Indianapolis destinations like the Children’s Museum and the Zoo and cites the Huntington in Pasadena, California, as a model institution for instituting an admission fee to boost both visitor attendance and financial endowment.  Finally, a few supporters have argued–with some justification–that the new pricing model is actually cheaper for visitors.

Let’s take a deeper look into these claims and assess their validity.

Visitors want to pay one uniform fee: This claim is misleading at best, disingenuous at worst. The announcement never mentions that the museum is currently free to enter (except for optional special exhibits and parking), and it implies that visitors are okay with this price hike because it combines special exhibit and parking costs. So, rather than keeping the bulk of the museum free and keeping the special exhibits an optional expenditure for those interested, visitors allegedly want everyone to pay an admittance fee because it’s more convenient that way…

The way an evaluation question is framed can do much to shape the possible answers a visitor provides. My suspicion, which I feel pretty confident in, is that the evaluation question that provided this result was probably worded along the lines of “If the IMA were to institute an admission fee, what would you consider a fair pricing structure?” You can easily see how a question like that suddenly leads to an announcement that says “visitors think the new price model is more fair.”

The new pricing model is cheaper for visitors: There is some justification to this argument. The current pricing model stipulates that an adult weekend visitor to the IMA’s special exhibit would have to pay $20 plus a $5 parking fee, whereas the new model combines both fees into its $18 admittance price. But of course the visitor who only wants to visit the free permanent and temporary exhibits now has to pay $18 as well, so we could ask: what percentage of visitors pay the current fee to enter the special exhibits?

The IMA maintains limited visitor use data online here, including attendance over the most recent two weeks (which is pictured above). The chart also distinguishes between the number of visitors who went through the entrance and the number of visitors who visited the special exhibition gallery. For the period between Tuesday, December 9 and Monday, December 22, 2014, 5,805 visitors out of a total of 13,176 visitors (44%) visited the special exhibit, which means that more than half of all visitors chose not to visit the special exhibit.

This sample is limited in numerous regards, obviously requiring a necessary margin for error. Different seasons bring out different attendance numbers and visitation patters; some of these December visitors may have been school groups who may or may not have visited the special exhibits; and we don’t know how many visitors had memberships that allowed them access without paying an addition fee for the special exhibit (although another online statistic indicates that only 6.58% of all visitors in 2008 were IMA members). We can tentatively conclude, however, that it’s pretty close to 50/50 in terms of visitors getting a cheaper deal with the current and future pricing models.

The new pricing model is in line with admittance fees to other Indianapolis cultural institutions: The $18 admittance fee is on the higher end of Indianapolis cultural institutions that charge a fee, making it more expensive that the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum, the Eitlejorg Museum, the Indiana State Museum (but not the “Total Museum” experience that includes an IMAX film showing), and a number of other places. And yes, it is cheaper than the Children’s Museum and the Zoo. But I think it’s mistaken to compare the art museum’s fees with other cultural museums in Indy rather than other art museums throughout the country, especially the Midwest. Art museums are not the same as children’s museums, history museums or science museums. Art, in my opinion, is a public good. As this article helpfully points out, public goods are defined as goods that, if provided for one, are provided for all in an accessible manner that excludes no one. Consuming art is not like purchasing tickets for an Indiana Pacers basketball game through a market that limits access and excludes people from a given commodity. The other types of museums can be justified as public goods too, but I think we get a more precise understanding of the value of an art museum visit if we draw comparisons to other art museums. Let’s take a look at the new IMA admittance fee (for adult individuals) compared to other Midwest art museums:

The Art Institute of Chicago: $23
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art: $5
Cincinnati Art Museum: Free
Cleveland Museum of Art: Free
Columbus [OH] Museum of Art: $12
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis: Free
Des Moines Art Center: Free
Detroit Institute of Arts: $8
Dubuque Museum of Art: $6
Indianapolis Museum of Art: $18
Milwaukee Art Museum: $14
Minneapolis Institute of Arts: Free
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago: $25
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit: $5 suggested donation
Museum of Wisconsin Art: $12
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Free
Rockford Art Museum: $7
Springfield [IL] Art Museum: Free
St. Louis Art Museum: Free

It’s clear that IMA will be on the high end of admittance fees for larger Midwest art museums.

The Huntington is an appropriate “model” for the IMA’s new price model: William Poundstone points out several problems with the IMA using the Huntington as a model for their new admittance fee. While the Huntington tripled its attendance and endowment after instituting an admittance fee ($20 adults on weekdays and $23 on weekends), that fee was implemented in 1996, thus this increase gradually took place over 18 years. 3 million additional residents have moved to LA since then, and the Huntington has grown since that time to include several gardens, a conservator, a wing dedicated to the history of science, and its American art gallery has tripled in size. In sum, the Huntington in California is on a completely different scale than the IMA in Indiana. Poundstone minced no words, arguing that “to imply that the Huntington’s admission fee had anything to do with increasing attendance or endowment gifts is like saying the Obama administration is responsible for beards, food trucks, and Iggy Azalea. Correlation doesn’t prove causation.”

Conclusion

Using my knowledge of evaluation practices, available online data about IMA visitation, and comparing IMA’s new admittance fees to similar Midwest museums, I have attempted to point out inconsistencies in the IMA’s justification for their price jump while at the same time acknowledging that the $18 fee may be cheaper for a decent number of visitors who want to see the special exhibition galleries. I think the new model will lend itself to more people purchasing memberships, but am skeptical of IMA’s ability to bring in new audiences or even attain its yearly attendance numbers in recent years due to this price change. I understand that the IMA is reliant upon memberships to help offset costs, and I think it’s more than fair to charge some sort of admittance fee for that purpose. That said, the jump from free to $18 is high – probably too high. Why not charge in the $5-$12 range instead? Finally, based on comments from friends in the area and from this article online, it appears that the IMA failed to properly communicate this policy change to the public before making plans to implement the new fees in April. That is unfortunate, and it raises questions about IMA’s willingness to communicate with the local community in a shared endeavor towards building a museum that fits the needs of residents while also meeting the bottom line.

What do you think?

Cheers

Brooks Simpson on President U.S. Grant and His Alleged “Corruption”

Who says Twitter is only good for selfies, LOLcats, and tweeting about coffee?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a columnist for The Atlantic, took to Twitter the other day to ask his followers a question about the extent to which President Ulysses S. Grant was “corrupt” compared to his contemporaries. He specifically requested the help of Brooks Simpson, Arizona State University history professor and noted Grant scholar. Simpson fired off a series of tweets in response that conveyed a nuanced, thought-provoking interpretation that I find extremely helpful for my own purposes. I get more questions from visitors at my job about Grant’s presidency than about his generalship during the Civil War, and these corruption questions pop up frequently. Simpson’s response will definitely be a part of my arsenal next time I’m asked about Grant’s alleged corruption.

Here’s what Simpson had to say:

There you go.

Cheers

The New Deal, Anti-Lynching Legislation, and the Concept of States’ Rights

03bKatznelson.jpgI consider myself a scholar of nineteenth century U.S. history and spend most of my reading time on books and articles covering this period, but I always make sure to spend time reading about other time periods, countries, and forms of scholarly thought (philosophy, sociology, anthropology, etc.). Lately I’ve been reading more twentieth century history from authors like Tony Judt, Rebecca Skloot, and Ira Katznelson. I recently finished Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, which is probably the best book on the New Deal that I’ve ever read. Fear Itself reminds us of the importance of revisionism to historical inquiry. A popular narrative of the era promoted by past historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argues that President Franklin Roosevelt built a diverse political coalition–black and white, rich and poor, North and South–to advocate for pragmatic economic legislation to combat the Great Depression amid a history of lassiez-faire principles in governmental economic and social policy. Katznelson uses Fear Itself to question this narrative and explore the boundaries and shortcomings of the New Deal. Despite the well-intentioned goals of New Deal agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and the National Labor Relations Board, Katznelson concludes that the logic “states’ rights” and white supremacy ultimately limited the reach of the New Deal’s social and economic benefits to whites only.

One case in point lies in the effort to establish a federal anti-lynching law in 1935. To wit:

The [anti-lynching] bill went nowhere, despite the continued resurgence of lynching and the particularly ghastly October 1934 murder of Claude Neal, who had been accused of rape and murder. With a crowd of some four thousand, including many children, bearing witness, Neal was stabbed, burned, and castrated. He was forced to eat his own genitals before being dragged by an automobile to his death; then his body, mutilated and nude, was suspended from a tree in the courthouse square of Marianna, Florida. Photographs were sold for fifty cents. Neal’s toes and fingers were put on display.

With the Justice Department refusing to intervene during the next half year, despite the fact that Neal had been seized from a jail in Alabama and thus had been transported across state lines, [Senators] Wagner and Costigan moved to have the Senate take up the bill in April 1935. The president remained silent. In March, Eleanor Roosevelt explained to Walter White, “The President feels that lynching is a question of education in the states, rallying good citizens, and creating public opinion so that the localities themselves will wipe it out. However, if it were done by a Northerner, it will have an antagonistic effect.” Southern senators successfully killed the proposed law by preventing the legislation from coming to a vote. They did not, in the main, defend vigilante justice. Rather, they argued that Congress lacked authority to pass such a law; in assaulting states’ rights, it violated the Constitution. They also again claimed that their region could control lynching on its own, citing efforts where governors had intervened to stop such violence, and insisted that southern race relations, marked by bonds of affection, were superior to those of the North [167].

No federal anti-lynching legislation was ever passed during the 1930s or 1940s.

I grew up in a community friendly to the concept of states’ rights and was taught that state sovereignty was the best path towards upholding liberal democracy, political equality, and economic freedom. But this horrifying story exposes some of the shortcomings in states’ rights theory.

For one, “states’ rights” is not an end in itself; it is merely a means towards a larger political end-goal. Whenever someone invokes a states’ rights argument, we must always ask “to what end”? In the case of Claude Neal and thousands of blacks like him who were lynched during the height of racist thought in political and social practice during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the logic of states’ rights acted as an means towards the larger end-goal of maintaining white supremacy in the United States.

That said, I’ve come to believe that states’ rights is neither inherently good nor inherently evil precisely because the concept is a means for justifying so many different political positions, some of which might promote good policy and some of which could be hurtful to many people. The meaning of states’ rights changes with the context, and any political platform that aims to place the concept in black and white terms is bound to find intellectual loopholes throughout. And it’s unwise to assume that local power is inherently more fair and just than a federal power simply because of proximity or relationships with local residents. People oftentimes do bad things to others without regard for personal connections. More than 75% of all child abductions are carried out by perpetrators who are relatives or acquaintances with their victims. The so-called “black on black crime” phenomenon is not a racial issue so much as its an issue of violent neighborhoods. As Jamelle Bouie argues, “People don’t go across town to steal or kill—they commit crime against their neighbors. And in the United States, where most lives are still segregated by race, that means blacks victimize blacks, whites victimize whites, and so on.” And of course there is plenty of corruption on the state level and lower.

Governmental tyranny occurs at all levels of power, whether it be a neighborhood association, a city, county, or state government, or the federal government in Washington, D.C. Providing fair standards and procedures for holding political leaders accountable at all levels of government is absolutely necessary for a healthy democracy, and any resort to “states’ rights” must always require a further exploration into what, exactly, a person means by this term.

Cheers

Kindling the Fires of Patriotism: The Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, 1866-1949

Master's Thesis Cover

The folks at IUPUI ScholarWorks have finally digitized my master’s thesis on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic, which was completed back in May of this year. The IUPUI University Library runs ScholarWorks and strongly advocates open access policies that allow free public access to scholarship created by IUPUI graduate students. I heartily endorse these policies because I find the idea of dedicating two years of your life to a project that merely leads to a hardback copy of your thesis on the history department’s dusty bookshelf to be absurd.

If you’d like to view and/or download a PDF copy of the thesis, you may do so free of charge by clicking on the link here.

Cheers

Promises and Perils of Online Archives

The popular biographer Walter Issacson recently penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he muses on “what could be lost as Einstein’s papers go online.” The essay was sparked by the recent digital publication of the first thirteen volumes of Einstein’s papers by a consortium of institutions that includes Princeton, Caltech, and Hebrew University. Issacson uses this development to explore the nature of online archives more broadly, weighing the potential benefits and consequences of opening primary source documents to what he describes as “the wisdom of the crowd.” There is a tension underlying these thoughts, and as the essay title suggests, Issacson seems fairly preoccupied with what could be lost as the archives go online:

My initial joy about the project was tempered, however, by a pinch of sadness. I realized that most future Einstein researchers would no longer have to make the journey to the cozy house on the edge of the Caltech campus where the scholars of the Einstein Papers Project were eager to embrace their rare visitors and ply them with guidance, insights and tea. They wouldn’t likely spend delightful days there—as I did for my biography of Einstein—with the science historian Diana Kormos-Buchwald and her colleagues as they debated such issues as how to explain what Einstein meant when he referred to quanta as “spatial” or his fellow Jews as Stammesgenossen (tribal comrades).

The next generation of scholars will also lose the tingling inspiration of seeing original documents. I remember how much closer I felt to Benjamin Franklin —suddenly, he seemed like a real person—when, at his archives in Yale’s Sterling Library, I first touched a letter that he had written, marveling that this piece of paper had actually once been in his hands. I even made a pilgrimage to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which Einstein helped to found and where most of his original documents reside, so that I could draw inspiration. What sublime experiences will researchers miss if they simply view the documents online? What will be lost if the archives, with their passionate staffs, morph into unvisited repositories?

Issacson, however, does express some excitement about the power of computing to help us ask new questions about these documents:

My brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures. While I was doing research years ago for my biography of Franklin, the Packard Humanities Institute in Los Altos, Calif., was at work on a digital collection of his papers. After a lot of begging, I wheedled a beta version of the CD-ROMs. They let me search all of Franklin’s papers for specific concepts . . . with the new digital version of Einstein, I have been looking at the 237 times he talked about Palestine—and imagining what a smart researcher could do by tracing the evolution of the 6,720 times he used the phrase “light quanta.”

With online archives, research can be crowdsourced. Students from Bangalore to Baton Rouge can drill down into Einstein’s papers and ferret out gems and connections that professional researchers may have missed. That will reinforce a basic truth about the digital age: By empowering everyone to get information unfiltered, it diminishes the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Scholars and experts will still play an important role in historical analysis, but their interpretations will be challenged and supplemented by the wisdom of crowds.

I share Issacson’s enthusiasm for the experience of traveling to and conducting research at archival institutions. I’ve conducted research at many different institutions, but I will always fondly remember my own experiences at the Indiana State Library when I lived in Indianapolis. Although I didn’t know it when I first moved to Indy, it turned out that my house was within walking distance to ISL. There were many Saturdays filled with early morning research, lovely lunchtime walks around downtown, and more research in the afternoon. The detective work of research is fun in and of itself, but the adventure of traveling to a new place and soaking in the character of the surrounding area makes the archival experience sublime.

All of this said, however, I don’t find myself as pessimistic as Issacson about this experiential loss with the move to online archives. Doing research online is, of course, also an experience. Digging into archival resources like Google Books, HathiTrust, The Internet Archive, and Chronicling America requires the same sort of detective work and interpretive skills that one uses at a brick-and-mortar institution. And it’s hard to describe the jubilation you feel upon discovering a crucial primary source that you would have never found or had access to at your local archival institution. Likewise, while the tactile experience of holding a real document in your hands is very, very special, the best web designers and archivists can make digital primary sources equally (if not more) accessible to researchers by providing clear scans, zoom in/out functionality, and text transcriptions that make these documents more approachable and understandable (especially for students in a k-12 setting who may be unable to visit an archive in person).

It’s also important to keep Issacson’s thoughts on digitization in context. All of the digital primary source collections he mentions are from noteworthy great white men in U.S. history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Einstein. Historians and archivists pick and choose what history gets digitized, and it remains an open question as to what should be digitized for online publication and whether or not this effort to publish documents related to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Males over ones connected to women and minorities merely duplicates the same dominant practices in the history book publishing industry since the nineteenth century. There are literally billions of primary source documents that could be digitized, but the lack of time, cost, and labor to digitize will prevent a sizable number of documents from going online in the foreseeable future. For every Smithsonian undertaking a “digitization strategic plan” there are probably hundreds of archival institutions that lack the ability to digitize anything in their collections. In sum, researchers understand that producing good scholarship means still going to the archives and digging through the actual sources – it can’t all be done online.

The real loss with online archives, as I see it, is the loss of interaction with all of the talented and helpful archivists who help researchers accomplish their goals. I suspect that most researchers don’t have tea with their archivists or bump into world-renowned historians of science at the archives like Issacson does, but almost all can recall an instance in which an archivist pointed them towards collection material they were unaware of, helped transcribe a document that seemed unreadable, or took the time to go into the back corner of a dark room to find requested documents. I can recall many such moments, and my own research over the years wouldn’t have been completed without the help of archivists. They are important people, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ll still need their services and expertise well into the future, whether online or offline.

Cheers

Avoiding Buzzwords and Jargon Phrases in Writing

"Buzzword Bingo" Photo Credit: http://mavenagency.com/blog/2011/03/the-sting-of-buzzwords/
“Buzzword Bingo” Photo Credit: http://mavenagency.com/blog/2011/03/the-sting-of-buzzwords/

Clearly defined terms and active language are fundamental to good writing. If readers don’t understand the vocabulary you employ in your narrative, the potential for frustration and misunderstanding on their part raises exponentially. The point is obvious, but surprisingly hard to put into practice (much academic writing proves the point). We converse with our friends and loved ones on a day-to-day basis assuming they will understand our vocabularies the same way we do, and it’s easy to assume when writing that our reading audiences will readily understand our arguments and “be on our level,” so to speak.

As a historian I must always be cognizant of terms and phrases that could potentially distort my arguments: what does it mean for a person, place, or thing to be either “modern” or “traditional”? What is “culture”? What is “identity”? What does it mean to “learn”? Do my readers understand these terms the way I do? Likewise, I must also strive to use a clear, active tone that places actions in the subject of my sentences. As this guide from the University of North Carolina suggests, an active sentence asks “why did the chicken cross the road?,” whereas a passive sentence might ask, “why was the road crossed by the chicken?” I am as guilty as anyone of using imprecise terms and passive language in my writing, and I constantly strive to do better with each blog post, essay, and article I write.

Buzzwords and passive, jargon-laden phrases should be avoided in writing. All writers, regardless of topic, rely on words and phrases with specific meanings to convey their ideas, but many words necessarily change over time. “Liberal” and “conservative” political philosophies, for example, represented a set of ideas in 1775 that meant something different in 1850, 1900, and 1990. Anyone writing on these eras must use precise definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” to clarify their arguments. I believe buzzwords and jargon phrases can do much to distort good writing. A word becomes a buzzword when its use becomes so ubiquitous and wide-ranging as to become completely devoid of any clear meaning. A phrase becomes jargon when its use is restricted to a small, exclusive group of people while confusing readers on the outside. Both are bad!

Below you will find a list of ten buzzwords and jargon phrases that I avoid in my own writing, although I’ve been guilty of using some of these terms in the past without fully thinking about their meaning.

1. General Public/Average Person: Whenever I hear the term “general public” I envision unthinking humans whose brains are empty vessels waiting to be filled by all-knowing scholars and expert practitioners. What is “general” about this public? What is “average,” and who is an “average person”? How does our definition of “average” highlight our own biases and prejudices? In the quest to write for a general public or an average person, who might be left out of the conversation? Wouldn’t it be better to write for a “non-academic” audience or simply “the public”? Countless writing guides suggest that writers “simplify” or “dumb-down” their writing for the general public/average person, but I think it’s far better to write clearly for the sake of acknowledging the intelligence of your readers, who–regardless of intelligence level or education background–don’t need to be inundated with deliberately obstructionist language.

2. “The Ways in Which”: 99.9% of the time this jargon phrase is completely unnecessary and easily replaced with either “how” or “the ways.”

“Harry Smith’s study of the Civil War era examines the ways in which Civil War veterans fought for generous government pension benefits in the 1880s.”
“Harry Smith’s study of the Civil War era examines how Civil War veterans fought for generous government pension benefits in the 1880s.”

3. Foment: When you foment, you “instigate or stir up (an undesirable or violent sentiment or course of action).” This word could be an appropriate verb for describing many historical actions, but for some reason I have only seen it within the context of slave rebellions. Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner “fomented” rebellion against white slaveholders, but the thirteen colonies never fomented rebellion against the colonies, laborers never fomented rebellions against their employers during the Gilded Age, and Civil Rights activists were never seen as fomenting civil unrest in the 1960s. Why is it that only slaves are charged with fomenting anything? Far better, it seems, to use words like “instigate,” “encourage,” “incite,” “provoke,” and “urge.”

4. Discourse: One of the worst examples of academic jargon in existence. Most folks participate in “conversation,” “discussion,” or “debate.” Academics participate in “discourse.” The former terms represent action verbs, whereas “discourse” represents a boring, passive noun. Changing a verb to a noun is never good.

5. Jettison: Most folks “throw,” “drop,” or “remove” things. Academics “jettison” things. Another jargon term worth avoiding.

6. Engagement/Civic Engagement: Countless education programs, centers, and non-profit organizations win financial grants and private donations because they state in their mission statements that they promote “engagement” or “civic engagement.” But what do these terms mean, especially the latter? As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, these terms represent a million different things to millions of people, but I suspect no one really knows what it means to participate in engagement or civic engagement.

7. Impact: Much writing—regardless of topic—attempts to explain correlations and causations between people, places, and things. In describing these relationships, writers discuss “impact.” But again, what does it mean for something to have an “impact”? Even more problematic, “impact” as a verb refers to hitting something or a collision, which is not the same as describing the effect of one thing upon another. As this brief essay points out as an example, “Impact means collision . . . Laws don’t impact people. Laws affect people.”

8. “Lifelong Learning”: Lord, what in the world does this phrase mean? What is the University of Missouri-St. Louis trying do with this “Lifelong Learning” program? Isn’t the goal of any self-respecting education institution to help sharpen their students’ critical faculties and develop a lifelong passion for learning and discovery? Have you ever heard of an education program whose mission statement says, “Yada-Yada University: committed to promoting a 23-year passion for learning!”?

9. Disruption/Disruptive Innovation: There is a lot talk these days about “disruptive innovation” as a form of radical change in business and education. But the term is a buzzword, used so often and in so many contexts as to render it completely meaningless. As Matthew Yglesias argues, the term is now “a lame catchphrase.”

10. Postmodern: The ultimate academic buzzword, used to describe any cultural, social, philosophical, economic, literary, or political thought since World War II. Wikipedia can only say that postmodernism is “a departure from modernism” (whatever ‘modernism’ means!). Here’s what Dick Hebdige had to say about “postmodern” in his book Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things:

When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age . . . a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ . . . the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university . . . then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword.

Have any buzzwords or jargon phrases to add? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Cheers

My First Journal Article

GAR veterans from Garland Post 423, Waveland, Indiana. Photo courtesy of 40th Indiana: http://40thindiana.wordpress.com/waveland-in-cw-vets/
GAR veterans from Garland Post 423, Waveland, Indiana. Photo courtesy of 40th Indiana: http://40thindiana.wordpress.com/waveland-in-cw-vets/

I am pleased to announce the official publication of my first scholarly journal article. The article–which is entitled “One Nation, One Flag, One Language: The Grand Army of the Republic and the Patriotic Instruction Movement in Indiana”–is included in the December 2014 issue (Volume 1, issue 6) of The Americanist Independent, an online academic journal and multimedia website run by California-based independent historian Keith Harris. Keith is an expert in Civil War history, memory, and veteran culture whose first book was recently published by Louisiana State University Press, so it’s quite an honor to have him publish my own scholarship on the Hoosier Civil War veterans who composed the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana.

One great thing about The Americanist Independent is that the journal is open access, which means that you can download my article and tons of other great scholarship for FREE. Simply follow this link to register as a user of The Americanist Independent website and boom! It’s all yours.

This journal article is an outgrowth of the third chapter of my Master’s thesis on the Indiana GAR. I spent a considerable amount of time during the research process going through the official records of the Indiana GAR’s annual meetings, which include a wide variety of speeches from state leadership outlining goals, objectives, and political statements for the rest of the organization’s membership. Starting with the meetings during the mid-1880s and 1890s, I noticed that Indiana GAR leaders spent an increasing amount of time complaining about the types of textbooks Hoosier schoolchildren used in their history classrooms and their allegedly “poor” understanding of Civil War history. The organization established an official leader of “Patriotic Instruction” in 1907 who traveled the state giving presentations about the Civil War and encouraging patriotic sentiments in young schoolchildren. The Indiana GAR eventually promoted three interrelated goals for encouraging patriotism in Indiana public schools: the implementation of history textbooks with a “correct” interpretation of Civil War history, the raising of American flags and hosting of lavish patriotic ceremonies, and a comprehensive “military instruction” program that included firearms training and military drill for all boys.

Be sure to download my article to learn more.

Cheers