In the great lexicon of “Commonly-Used Words that Mean Absolutely Nothing in Contemporary Discourse,” the term “biased” is perhaps the most meaningless of all. Go through a few Amazon book reviews of recent historical scholarship and you will undoubtedly read reviews that don’t actually engage in the book’s content but claim that the author is “biased.” Scroll through social media and view discussions about essays in online news sources, and sure enough you’ll see people complaining about bias.
Complaining that a writer has a bias is more often than not a completely meaningless gesture that simply intends to end discussion about a particular topic. Rather than engaging the writer’s argument, claiming bias means shifting the argument towards questions about the writer’s motivations. And more often not, this exercise is speculative and the critic really doesn’t know anything about the writer’s motivations or his or her scholarship and personal experiences. If you cannot explain those motivations or clearly explain what the author is biased for or against, then claiming “bias” is meaningless.
I’ve experienced claims of “bias” in my own writing on this website. One of the most popular essays I’ve written here explores Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery before the Civil War. As you can see in the comments of that essay, several readers claimed that I was “biased,” overly generous to Grant, and that I wouldn’t be so generous to Robert E. Lee. While I’ve mentioned Lee in passing in various essays here, I have never made him a featured subject and have never discussed his relationship with slavery, so there’s no proof I would actually treat Lee differently from Grant. The claims against me are speculative in nature, based on feelings and a speculative judgement that I would be biased in that case. In reality, these claims against me say more about the reader than my scholarship and are a perfect example of why claiming “bias” is meaningless.
All writers approach their subjects with biases shaped by past life experiences, education, and political motivations. Having biases is in fact perfectly natural. The burden of proof in determining whether those biases irreparably damage the writer’s argument falls onto the critic, however, and thinking about bias claims this way actually makes the task of convincingly arguing that an author is biased all the more difficult. Even when the case of a writer being biased is completely noticeable, such as the case of Dinesh D’Souza’s relentless distortion of history and the Ku Klux Klan to support his hatred of the Democratic Party, focusing on the writer’s arguments is a far better course of action that speculating about his or her personal motivations.
Focus on the game, not the players.
A few months ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Suhi Choi’s recent book about the Korean War and how it has been remembered in both the United States and (South) Korea. Choi, a communications professor at the University of Utah, employs public history techniques throughout the book to analyze oral histories she conducted with victims of the No Gun Ri massacre, media accounts of the massacre, and various monuments that have been erected in both countries to commemorate the war as a whole. I enjoyed reading the book for its content and arguments, but what I enjoyed the most was its brevity. Clocking in at 115 pages of main text and five chapters, the book was a quick read (with the exception of some jargon-y passages throughout) yet thoroughly researched and intellectually stimulating. The book’s shortness reminded me of the Southern Illinois University Press “Concise Lincoln Library” series that has published numerous short studies on various aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life that are typically between 100 and 150 pages long.
While I acknowledge that different historical topics require studies of varying length and depth (I currently have one book on my nightstand that is more than 800 pages long), I find myself increasingly supportive of the idea that academic histories, generally speaking, should be shorter and more concise than what they typically are now. I am no expert on publishing books with an academic press, but I’ve been told by those who’ve been through the process that they normally don’t accept anything less than 75,000 words, or roughly 250 to 300 pages. That makes sense because most PhD dissertations end up being about that length, but I think there should be some sort of system in place to encourage and publish more scholarship that would be more appropriately covered in a study between 100 and 150 pages.
As a scholar who regularly reads books from academic publishers, I crave the analysis, interpretation, and detailed research that such books offer to their readers. As a reader, however, I am more likely to go back to a short book and read it again in the future, whereas with a longer book I feel less inclined to read it in full or go back to read it a second time. It’s important for me to read as many print books as possible to get a more comprehensive understanding of historical topics that fascinate me, but the presence of thoughtful online essays and history blogs has changed how I read and reduced the amount of time I dedicate to reading full-length print books. I admit that nowadays page length plays an extremely important role in determining what I read next. 150 pages is more often compelling to me than 500 pages.
To kick off the new year I’ve done a little bit of maintenance work on the website that I’d like to share with readers.
My Resources page has been updated to include some of my better writings from 2015. The collection spans back to my first days blogging here at Exploring the Past back in 2013. It’s a good way to keep track of writings that would otherwise be hard to find though the search function on the website.
I have also created a Google Doc that contains all of my open access publications from other websites and papers I’ve presented at conferences. You can view that document here. I will also leave a permanent link to the document on my Curriculum Vitae.
Please take a look at these writing and enjoy (hopefully).
Today marks two years of blogging at Exploring the Past. I’ve long been interested in blogs and toyed with the idea of blogging about history for at least a couple years before starting in 2013. A requirement to start blogging for a digital history graduate class, however, ultimately pushed me to establish my own website. A desire to publicly share my thoughts on the historian’s craft, my interest in nineteenth-century history, and bits of my master’s thesis research on the Grand Army of the Republic also influenced my decision to start blogging. I didn’t know at that time if I would maintain a long-term commitment to public writing or if anyone would take much interest in what I had to say.
Two years later, things have gone better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve written about 250 posts in that time, ranging from short anecdotes to 1,500-word essays. I’ve had nearly 40,000 visitors to the site, many of which have left kind, generous comments of support and thoughts that have challenged my thinking. Equally important, blogging has exposed me to a network of scholars, allies, and friends within the historical enterprise that have helped enable my growth as a professional historian. Given the speed and simplicity of digital communication with colleagues around the world today, it’s hard to imagine a time when members of professional organizations like the American Historical Association and the National Council on Public History only communicated through letters, occasional telephone calls, and annual conferences. It’s great having social media tools like Twitter and WordPress today to help facilitate dialogue about historical content and methods with others online, and I happily embrace the opportunity to contribute my part to those conversations.
From time to time I get questions about how and why I blog as much as I do. My response is that writing has become an important part of my life over the past two years, something I’ve dedicated more and more time to for various reasons. The enjoyment I receive from the experience is sublime, and the challenge of becoming a graceful, competent, and persuasive writer is one I can only accomplish through the sometimes arduous process of sitting in a chair and typing away at the computer. There’s no shortcut or magic pill to becoming a better writer; you must simply write. Doing so for a public audience (as opposed to writing for a teacher or keeping a diary) improves my craft because it puts my work under public scrutiny and challenges me to write with clarity and precision. At the end of the day, blogging makes me a better writer and thinker.
2014 was a good year for me personally and professionally. I graduated from IUPUI with a master’s degree in history and found full-time employment with the National Park Service. I made trips to both sides of the country, including one to Monterey, California, for the 2014 NCPH conference and one to Pennsylvania/Maryland/Virginia for the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College’s summer conference. I moved back to my native St. Louis in June and have been able to spend a lot of time with friends and family in the area since then. In addition to blogging at Exploring the Past, my publications in 2014 included my first journal article, my first magazine article, three professional book reviews, and several online essays for History@Work and Sport in American History, among other websites.
All that said, there was also terrible personal loss and sorrow that overshadowed these accomplishments, so I am ready to move on to 2015.
It’s been hard for me to define concrete goals for 2015. Obviously I want to keep growing as a person and a professional, but the path towards growth remains a bit of a mystery to me at this point. Writing will continue to be an integral part of my life, but from there, who knows? Hopefully readers will stick around to see what happens next. I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for their readership, comments, and support, which all mean so much to me.
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!
A colleague and I recently engaged in a fascinating discussion comparing and contrasting works of “popular history” and “academic history.” Through this conversation I realized that I’m not sure how to define the proper criteria for what constitutes a work of “popular history.” Does a work of historical scholarship become popular once it hits a certain number of book sales? If so, what is that number? Does one need to have a certain educational background in order to be considered a popular historian? Can a work geared towards academic scholars become popular with a non-academic audience? Can a clear distinction be made between works of popular history and academic history?
Some professional historians with PhDs believe that they alone are qualified to shape and participate in the historical enterprise. A couple years ago historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein attempted to act as gatekeepers in a condescending article for Salon that dismissed popular history written by non-academics and argued that only PhD historians were qualified to write credible historical scholarship:
Frankly, we in the history business wish we could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism) who pontificate with great flair and happily take credit over the airwaves for possessing great insight into the past. Journalists are good at journalism – we wouldn’t suggest sending off historians to be foreign correspondents. But journalists aren’t equipped to make sense of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
I find this perspective badly flawed and unrealistic. Yes, a history PhD provides a blanket of scholarly authority and a thorough training in research, writing, and interpretation. But to suggest that only history PhDs alone can “do history” negates the fact that people of all education levels use historical thinking on a daily basis without the help of history PhDs. There are many different ways people learn about and understand history, including film, television, blogs, twitter, and cultural institutions like history museums and historical societies. All of these mediums attract larger audiences than books written by academics. The wish that historians, journalists, etc. would simply stay in their academic “silos” of expertise and dictate their knowledge to the rest of society–without the input of non-academics–smacks of what Tara McPherson defines as “lenticular logic.” In a complex and wide-ranging critique of academic “silos” and the racialization of the digital humanities, McPherson argues that “the lenticular image partitions and divides, privileging fragmentation. A lenticular logic is a logic of the fragment or the chunk, a way of seeing the world as discrete modules or nodes, a mode that suppresses relation and context.” History is all around us and anyone can participate in the making of new scholarship, not just the academic gatekeepers. To suggest that one’s credentials are more important than the substance of their arguments is profoundly un-academic to me.
Notwithstanding Isenberg and Burstein’s arguments, can we still make generalizations about what makes a work of history “popular history”? In the course of our conversation I attempted to outline a few distinctions to my colleague.
Interpretation vs. Reporting: Some of the more popular works of history I’ve come across tend to do more reporting of “what actually happened” rather than closely examining primary and secondary source documents for new ways of interpreting the past or questioning common understandings of historical events. For example, Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America is a widely popular retelling of the events leading up to Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to United States General Ulysses S. Grant, but the narrative Winik embraced didn’t change our understanding of these events and simply repeated past interpretations about the supposed beginning of a national reconciliation following Appomattox. Meanwhile, a more recent book published by an academic press and written by an academic scholar about the same events in April 1865 will most likely not gain the same audience as Winik’s book. Elizabeth Varon’s Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War interrogates our popular understanding of Lee’s surrender to Grant and convincingly shows that the Appomattox surrender was not necessarily the starting point of a happy national reconciliation that past scholars have argued. Her book is more interpretive than Winik’s and leaves us asking new questions rather than accepting a grand narrative about Appomattox.
Methods vs. Content: Academic scholars are trained to place their scholarship within a larger framework that analyzes how historians have interpreted and understood a historical event over time – what is commonly referred to as “historiography.” In a previous essay I criticized David McCullough for never placing his book 1776 within the historiography of George Washington studies. We never get a sense in 1776 of where McCullough’s understanding of Washington’s generalship fits within the scholarly discussions about this topic, and we struggle to figure out how and where McCullough is obtaining the information he is using to inform his scholarship (and the footnotes are awful, although the organization of footnotes is often controlled by publishers, unfortunately). The work of other scholars gets flattened in works of popular history, and historical methods are replaced by a focus on content and narrative. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad to focus on content at the sacrifice of methods, but had I written the way McCullough writes while in graduate school I would have failed all my classes. As a historian I want to see the author’s methodology, sources, and historiography regardless of topic, but I suppose it remains an open question as to the necessity of these things and where they would fit within a work intended for a non-academic audience.
Type of History: Certain types of history are more popular than others, and national histories and grand narratives remain popular despite changing interests from academic historians. In the 1960s and 1970s academic historians sought new ways of understanding the past through the experiences of ordinary people rather than grand narratives about politicians, monarchies, and cultural elites. They started asking questions about marriage, divorce, alcohol consumption, group rituals and sexual habits, and they started using social science techniques (from economics, anthropology, and political science) and devising quantitative methods for answering these questions in an effort to capture a more holistic understanding of past societies. Also crucial to this “new social history” was a focus on local context, whether it be families, tribes, cities, counties, and states. According to Gordon Wood, “by the 1970s this new social history of hitherto forgotten people had come to dominate academic history writing,” and almost every facet of human behavior was placed under scrutiny by historians (2). Gone was the focus on grand narrative and national history. Despite these radical changes (and subsequent ones) within the academy, non-academic interest in the work of social historians remains lukewarm to this day. Wood points out that history degrees awarded to students from 1970 to 1986 declined by two-thirds (3), and the numbers still look questionable today. Go to a Barnes & Noble history bookshelf and you’ll find a plethora of books on war, politics, and national histories, but few studies on gender, social history, cultural history, or local history. The Bill O’Reillys, David McCulloughs, and Walter Issacsons are still the big sellers at popular bookstores.
Despite these generalizations, I came to realize in my conversation that there are exceptions to all these rules. McCullough’s 1776 presented a bold interpretation suggesting that Washington’s subordinate generals deserve more credit for their role in keeping the Continental Army together in 1776, and by all accounts McCullough is a meticulous researcher and well-respected by most academic historians. Columbia University historian Eric Foner’s magisterial 1988 “academic” publication Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 delved deeply into historiographical arguments and interpretive history, yet it gained widespread popularity and remains a standard in Reconstruction studies. Bruce Catton, Douglas Southall Freeman, and Allen Nevins–all journalists–inspired generations of Americans (and future history PhDs) throughout the mid twentieth century to study the American Civil War through their meticulously researched narratives on the war. And academic historians throughout the 1950s and 1960s were seen as highly respected public intellectuals.
The more I think about it, the more unsure I become of this academic-popular divide. In the end I think all historians can learn a lot from each other about method, content, style, tone, and organization without putting each other into boxes based solely on book sales.
Post-NCPH 2014 Blog Posts
- Angela Sirna raises questions about failed public history projects and asks if a failed project can be translated onto a resume or CV.
- Matthew Barlow also shares his reflections on failed public history projects and community-based work. Failure Bingo ™ looks like fun.
- Erica Fagen discusses the writing of women’s history (or lack thereof) on the internet. (See also here and here for related discussions).
- Graduate students from Loyola Chicago’s public history program have a host of fine blog posts that were written during and after the conference.
In the Classroom
- A recent study shows that taking notes by hand is more beneficial than typing on a computer when it comes to recall and retention of information.
- Public schools outperform private and charter schools, but the public perceives the opposite.
- How to write strong, concise paragraphs in research texts.
- Keep your writing short.
- Should you get your Ph.D.? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately and don’t have a clear answer at present.
- The Fulbright Scholarship Program is facing deep cuts and possible extinction. ‘Murica.
- Nein (aka Eric Jarosinski) is one of my favorite Twitter users. He was recently interviewed while visiting Germany, and I enjoyed what he had to say about teaching, especially the fact that the real goal of good teaching involves teaching a process of critical thinking, not just content.
- New research suggests that the Black Death of 1348 was not a bubonic plaque spread by rats but a pneumonic plague spread by airborne viruses instead.
- National Geographic will be airing a new show that features “historians” digging up war graves from World War II in Eastern Europe. The cast includes Craig Gottlieb, an appraiser who was sometimes featured in History Channel’s “Pawn Stars.”