Fame Comes In Many Forms

A friend of mine recently passed on to me a still from this season’s House of Cards (I don’t view the seasons via Netflix or Amazon; I wait for the DVDs/BluRays to come out). I understand that there’s a story line about Civil War reenactments at Spotsylvania involving the central character, but I didn’t quite expect this image:

House of CardsThat’s right: Vice President Francis Underwood is reading Gordon Rhea’s book on the battle of the Wilderness. One can also see works by Andy Trudeau, William Matter, and a volume edited by Gary Gallagher on the Wilderness Campaign that contains essays by Gary, John Hennessy, yours truly, and others.

I wonder how this will look on my annual Faculty Activity Report … under public outreach, I guess.

A Dust-Up Over Lincoln and Colonization

For some time most Lincoln scholars have taken for granted the notion that the sixteenth president abandoned his notions about colonization with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. One Lincoln scholar, Mark Neely, took great pains to dismiss an account by Benjamin F. Butler that detailed Lincoln’s continuing interest in colonization as late as April 1865.

Philip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page have asserted that Lincoln continued to press for colonization after he issued the proclamation. Magness went so far as to challenge Neely’s treatment of Butler’s account, leaving the door open to the possibility that Lincoln did meet with Butler in a conversation where the subject of colonization might have come up. Magness also pursued the issue of James Mitchell’s role in Lincoln’s post-proclamation activities.

I found Magness’s work to be provocative, and I invited him to speak at the 2013 Benjamin P. Thomas Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Association. At about the same time, Allen Guelzo offered a review of Magness and Page’s book to which Magness has taken exception. Basically, Guelzo dismisses a good deal of the book’s argument, while Magness suggests that certain documents whose existence are questioned by Guelzo do indeed exist.

As Magness has charged Guelzo with “professional misconduct” in offering a “willfully mendacious portrayal” of Magness and Page’s findings, this disagreement does not promise to fade away quickly. One hopes that those fireworks do not distract from the more important implication of Magness and Page’s work: that while Lincoln may have gone silent in public about colonization, he remained committed to it as an option (if no longer the only one) behind the scenes.

Are Academics Their Own Worst Enemies?

On Sunday the New York Times published Nicholas Kristof’s plea for academics to become more involved in public discourse. As one might suspect, within hours academics who participate in public discourse and outreach protested the message, pointing to themselves and fellow professionals (including people who have written for the Times) as providing examples that challenged Kristof’s plea (it might be pointed out that one of the reasons academics jumped all over this argument is because they are linked to each other by social media).

I’m not going to engage those responses (many of which are predictable). Rather, let’s return to some of Kristof’s observations and assess them.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

This is absolutely true. Kristoff quotes a source that confirms my personal experience:

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

Again, that rings true in my experience, although during my time at Barrett, The Honors College, my colleagues grasp far more readily what I do and appreciate it (that Barrett emphasizing teaching makes this ironic, but then my colleagues are rather impressive in their command of a broad range of interests). However, I was chided last year by my home unit’s evaluation committee for not producing more monographs and scholarly articles (this rested in part upon a rather bad misreading of my materials, but also reflected a willingness to disregard what I actually did and to dismiss the audience I reached). Given my productivity over the past several decades, I dismissed this assessment, just as I used to counter complaints from members of my home unit that I was able to publish so much because I had a ready audience (as if that were a crime!) by observing that such an assessment failed to grapple with the quality of what I was writing (no one among my colleagues has ever risen to take on that challenge).

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

This may go too far, for the university presses with which I’ve worked in history show an interest in reaching a larger public. More to the point, however, is both what’s valued and what’s dismissed. The tenure process in history rewards candidates who publish a focused monograph and a series of articles in various scholarly journals, although my experience suggests that few of one’s colleagues at one’s own institution actually read what others write (and thus they all too often rest their evaluation upon assessments provided by external reviewers or look to other ways to measure the quality of scholarship while evading an opportunity to engage the content of that scholarship). So, for example, a journal’s acceptance rate is sometimes cited as a sign of whether an article that’s published constitutes worthwhile scholarship.

However, many of the responses to Kristof’s commentary missed the point. Did he actually mischaracterize how the academic world functions? Did he not cite history as one discipline that had exceptions that test the rule?

As someone who engages with the public all the time, in real places and virtual spaces, using a number of media, I don’t feel slighted or forgotten by Kristof’s observations. In some ways, I feel vindicated.

History as Identity and Ideology

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin commented on a report filed by Al Jazeera on the commemoration of the firing upon Fort Sumter, in part because it featured Walter and James Kennedy, commonly known as the Kennedy brothers and authors of a series of books that have become, er, controversial.

I always find interesting what the Kennedy brothers have to say.  Indeed, at times you can simply play all four of these interviews simultaneously, and they make about as much sense (and it’s an interesting experience to hear the same themes pop out from each section of the interview).  Try it.

However, Kevin made an allusion to something one hears a great deal, and one reads it a great deal on the internet, including the comments sections of several blogs.  The argument, simply put, is Continue reading

Debating Lincoln

I see where my posting of a short exchange of views in three part harmony on Fox has sparked a discussion at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory over exactly how to engage such folks in debate.  Kevin asserts:

While those of us familiar with this Lincoln scholarship might enjoy a good laugh, we would do well to keep in mind that DiLorenzo and Woods are probably influencing the general public more through their publications and activism than all of the recent scholarly studies combined.

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An Observation: Content/Controversy

Last year I admit to pondering why I was blogging.  It seemed to me that at that time the experience had lost some of its initial attraction.  Aside from reacting to certain events, I was not sure whether blogging had any other concrete purpose for me.  Those considerations contributed to my decision to leave Civil Warriors (and yes, folks, I’m no longer there, regardless of what I still read … some people need to update their information), although I must confess that I did not anticipate what would happen next with Crossroads.

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Who’s Afraid of Kevin Levin … and Why?

Over the past several years Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, has become one of the most-consulted blogs in Civil War era history: it also enjoys a broader audience among historians and teachers of all stripes and a public interested in history.  Over that time the blog has shifted focus a bit and become more focused on several issues, each relating to the blog’s title.  At the same time, Kevin’s gained a reputation in certain circles for his discussions of Lost Cause historiography, the evidence concerning “Black Confederates,” and the relationship between present issues and understandings of the past.

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Just Do It: Academic Historians and the General Public

There has been some chatter recently on academic historians’ blogs about how Americans view history and historians as well as the academic historian’s role as public intellectual and educator.  I’d love to share with you one of the online essays that started this all, but (how delightfully ironic) it is behind a paywall, limiting its exposure to dues-paying members of the American Historical Association.  Several responses are more readily available: I direct you here and here (which follows here, so you can get some idea of the content of the original remarks).

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Harold Holzer’s Excellent Diversion

In the scandal that keeps on giving, I now present for your inspection Harold Holzer’s recent entry commenting on the charges against Dr. Thomas P. Lowry on the New York Times Civil War blog, Disunion.

Holzer offers two arguments.  First, historians should be “ashamed” of themselves in this affair.  Not Lincoln scholars, not academics, not Civil War historians, but “the entire historical profession.”  Second, the impact of Dr. Lowry’s reported deception in doctoring a date on a Lincoln endorsement was to contribute to a myth of a kinder, gentler Lincoln, instead of the determined Commander-in-Chief he was in real life … a man who supported many measures to make warfare more violent and more lethal.

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