Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Category: Uncategorized

Killing the Dad Book Table

On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I was not surprised to see the usual tables of “Father’s Day” suggestions piled high with books about famous white men, making war and doing politics, largely authored by people who look remarkably like their subjects. Around this time last year, I was thinking about related issues, most notably “relevance” and writing for “the public.” There’s lots of talk about Dad Books, which overlaps with talk about crappy popular history, followed by self-flagellation about historians and our bad writing. None of it ever goes anywhere. But I think a lot of the talk of bad writing is overblown, just as I think a lot of the talk about “the public” and its interests is misguided.

If you’re a historian and you want the people in your life to read “good” history, it has to start with knowing what your family members and friends are interested in. One of the things we say is awesome about our discipline is that there’s a history of everything. If there is, surely there’s some good, well-written history on anything the people in your life are interested in.

My dad is a potential reader but rarely an actual reader. By that I mean he loves to read, but he is also a true Yankee who can’t stop working and volunteering. The one time he makes sure to read is our one week of vacation every summer. Still, I get him books all the time, hoping that one day he’ll read them, and he often does. He has a degree in meteorology, works as an architectural consultant, volunteers as a firefighter and an EMT, and teaches both of those subjects. He likes history, but he doesn’t particularly go in for the conventional Dad Book.1)He did read a used copy of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ once, because we all got stories from that one Christmas, but I don’t know whether he picked it up himself or it was mine that I left at home. To that end, I’ve tried to get him books about topics that interest him, but that might bring in a subject he doesn’t even realize is relevant, or examine it in a way that a popular history isn’t going to.

Here are some of the books I’ve gotten him, and how they went over.

Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life Dad read this several summers ago when we were in Maine, and told us all about his reading every night at dinner. I loved it, but I’m not sure my mother and sister did. He didn’t idolize Guthrie beforehand, so I didn’t worry that this would tarnish a hero for him.

Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon, Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics I got this last year on the recommendation of one of my doctors at UConn, because it seemed up his alley. I don’t think it’s been touched yet.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History I bought for my father before I’d read it myself. I think that was a mistake.

Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City I think my father read this, or part of it, because I think I remember him recounting a story from it to me.

Peter Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation and Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 I got him these because he loves reading about big civil engineering projects, but I wanted to show him how historians can write about the same thing very differently. He read both, and when he was reading the second one, which was Sheriff’s, he mentioned it to me and said how amazing it was that it was presenting such a different interpretation. I count this as one of my real successes.

Ryan Dearinger, The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West I spotted this in a University of California Press sale last fall and snared it for him. He had a hearty laugh at the title when he opened it at Christmas, but I don’t think he’s read it yet.

David Wyatt, Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California Another gift this past Christmas, so I don’t think it’s been read yet, but I hope he might like it.

Obviously not all of these have been successes, and some have been outright failures. I think that’s a risk you run any time you get someone a book, though. I’ve certainly been given books that I’ve never broken the spine of. Sure, we should think about how “readable” a book is, but I don’t think that’s the thing that’s going to solve the problem. The first step is knowing the people you’re giving or recommending books to. The second might be asking your colleagues for recommendations if they are well-read in an area and you are not. There are plenty of academic history books that are perfectly readable to interested laypeople, but there are some that are dry and unreadable even to those of us who read this stuff for a living, so we should help each other navigate around those boulders.

To that end, any suggestions for books I should get my dad?

References   [ + ]

1. He did read a used copy of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ once, because we all got stories from that one Christmas, but I don’t know whether he picked it up himself or it was mine that I left at home.

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Well, folks, it’s the one year anniversary of this website, so it seems like time for me to think about what I’ve done.

I say that I’ve been “writing dangerously”  not because anything I’ve written here has been particularly provocative, but rather because doing anything other than keeping your head down and publishing your ass off is often framed as “dangerous” for young scholars, particularly those of us living life on the job market.

All in all, I’ve liked the space I have here, and I’ve liked what I’ve done with it. People often ask me if my writing here takes a lot of time, the unspoken question being “Does this take away from your real work?” I can honestly say no, it doesn’t take a lot of my time, but that’s mostly because the things I write about are things I’m already thinking about. Sometimes I poke at a draft of something for a while, but most of the time, I’ve thought it through in my head by the time I sit down to write.  Heck, the anniversary of this blog was actually two days ago, but I wasn’t ready to sit down and write this till today, so I didn’t!

I’ve written a lot on teaching, and some on the intersections between the past and the present, and now I write about both of those things on other blogs too: Teaching United States History and The Daily Context.  I have also written a bit on the strange historiographical and disciplinary conventions I find myself tangled up in. Those have been some of my favorite pieces to write, and they’re the ones that will always stay here, I think, because they’re so central to my scholarship.

I can’t say what any of this writing has done for anyone out there, but I think it’s done some things for me. It’s certainly helped me practice writing in a different voice, to such an extent that I can really feel the shift between this voice and the more scholarly voice I use in other forms of writing. Sometimes it feels like I have a bad kickdown cable, honestly. But I think being aware of these different voices has helped me refine each one, just a little.

It’s also just helped me think better. My high school had signs in all the classrooms that said “Writing is Thinking,” and I’ve done a lot of thinking through writing in this space. As a result, I’ve put a lot of in-process thoughts out into the world, which is sometimes tough, and I know that some might find it dangerous for an early career scholar. But really, isn’t every bit of writing we put out into the world unfinished in some way? As long as I don’t claim that what’s here is the equivalent of peer-reviewed writing – and it is most certainly not – I think I’m okay with it.

So, in this age of data, let’s look at what people read.

My most-read piece was this description of think-alouds, the assignment I use in my intro classes. Second, another piece on teaching, “Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics.” which also received the most comments by far. Both posts deal with something that I think we don’t talk about enough when we talk about teaching – the assumptions our students bring with them when they enter our classes and approach the texts we give them. I remember the Twitter conversations that erupted over the second post, mainly from scholars who were aghast at the lack of religious knowledge my students generally bring to the classroom. But my goal with both of these – and indeed with all of my posts on teaching – was never to shake my head at “kids these days.” I cannot claim to have figured out how to deal with my students’ assumptions and blind spots, but it seems fruitful to continue thinking about them and comparing notes with each other.

The #3 piece on my list of the most-read is one that I really liked, but that generated almost no response at the time, so I was really surprised to see it ranked so highly. I didn’t think many people read it! It was a piece I wrote just before Christmas about my frustration with the “Hillary didn’t win the working class” narrative, a narrative built on ideas about labor, race, and gender. She did win the working class, and she did talk about labor issues, but since the dominant image of “the worker” in America continues to be a white man with a wrench (or a coal miner’s helmet), policy proposals delivered by a woman that aimed to help workers who were also women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and non-white Americans were written off as things for special interests, not “American workers.” I actually think the piece holds up even better all these months later.

There are two pieces I wish more people had read and engaged with: last fall’s “The planks in our own eyes” and the more recent “Confessions of a horse shed historian.” The first dealt with my discomfort as a historian of Catholicism in the broader field of American religion, and the second with my discomfort as a historian of things non-religious in the field of American religion. I understand why some people might have worried that I was attacking their scholarly priorities; I can assure you that was never my intention. But I do think the people who engaged with both were generally those who, I suspect, feel these same discomforts in their own scholarly lives, and I hope my giving voice to them was helpful.

We’re always telling our students to think about audience when they read a text. When I started here, I wasn’t sure who my audience would be, or even if I’d have an audience. I’m still not actually sure on either count. But I’m going to keep doing it, and if anything I’ve written or anything I write in the future is interesting or helpful to those of you who do read, I’m going to count that as a win.

Confessions of a horse shed historian

David Hall famously wrote of the “horse shed  Christians,” those people in early New England who, during service, were just as likely to be out back by the horse shed talking about the price of wheat with their friends as they were to be in the church listening attentively.  I’m stretching the metaphor a lot for the purpose of this little essay, but I hope you’ll go with me.

Much of the time, I feel like a horse shed historian of American religion.

I am an editor for H-AmRel, I list religion as one of the things I study, I did a comps field in it. But while I’m usually always at the first service, by the second one I find myself out at the horse shed, talking about other things with other historians.

To some extent, we’re all like this. We often have a primary field and several secondary ones. Knowing a few fields well is key to formulating productive research questions, and usually those fields are defined by theme, by geography, and by time period. Specialization is not only the way the academic discipline works, it’s prudent.

I think about the history of the 19th century in America, including Americans abroad. I think about the history of women. I think about the history of ideas. I think about the history of social status. But it’s really only when operating in the history of American religion scene that I feel as though I’ll never be a full member, in the old New England sense.

I have discerned two distinct markers of full membership. They are not explicitly stated anywhere, and indeed many of you reading this might recoil at the suggestion that they exist and have power, but I hope you can hear me out. It strikes me that if a historian can manage one of these things, they can scrape by and get full membership. Having neither means I probably know you from the horse shed.

First, if you’re not a historian of mainline/evangelical Protestant Christianity or conversant enough not to embarrass yourself when talk turns to Protestant theology and church structure over drinks at a conference, you’re not a full member. Understanding Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism, etc etc etc beyond a few notable events or figures is optional.

The argument one might make here is that, for better or worse, Protestant Christianity has dominated American public life and institutions. If you’re going to be a historian of religion in America, you have to know this stuff. And I’ll grant you that, to an extent. But the LDS church is about as American as you can get, and Catholicism is the largest denomination in the country and has been for a long time. Knowledge of neither is sufficient or even always necessary for membership.1)Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.

Second, and to my mind more important, is that if religion isn’t the central topic and driving force of your scholarship, you’re not a full member. This, I find, is as applicable when I’m among historians of Catholicism as it is when I’m among historians of Protestantism. I find it more the case among historians of religion than any other historians I work with. It is also, unfortunately, much harder for me to articulate and explain, but I’ll give it a whirl.

We have all these fields, and most of us work across fields all the time, because people in the past lived “across fields.” But most of us have a place we start from. A thing that we want to know more about, more than anything. The framework in which we operate. Talking with other historians of religion, I have heard scholars (who were not there) described as “not really a historian of religion” or “not really a historian of Catholicism.” These comments indicated that religion was not central enough to a particular scholar’s work for it to “count,” that history of religion wasn’t the singular place from which the scholar formulated their questions and departed.

Religion often seemed pretty central to the books we were discussing, so at first I was confused. How could they not really be historians of religion? Sometimes, it was because the book wasn’t a certain percentage about religion. What was the right percentage? That was for them to know and for me to find out, apparently. Sometimes, it was because the historian had written a book in which religion played the central role but had also written a book in which religion didn’t play the central role, even if it was there. Sometimes, it meant that their work on religion didn’t give sufficient attention to The Institutions Where Religion Happened and The People Who Defined What Religion Was. Sometimes it was just that the history of religion was forced to share the page with the history of women.2)Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.

This is why I find myself at the horse shed.  I didn’t go to grad school to study the history of religion explicitly, though I had done extensive work in American Jewish history in college. I didn’t have a department with any prominent historian of American religion. I listen attentively and hope no one asks me my thoughts when conversation turns to Joseph Bellamy. But I found a dissertation topic that interested me, and a good part of it was about religion. I wrote it, and now I’m revising it for publication, and I know it’s not going to be about religion enough to count. 3)Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.

My study of the history of religion has been and continues to be fruitful and fascinating, but I don’t think it’s ever going to get me to full membership because it’s never going to hit both of those markers. Moreover, I’m not actually sure I know whether there’s any topic that I always want to know more about, other than the 19th century in America, which might be a problem.4)A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?” A much as I have felt compelled to convince historians who don’t focus on religion that what I study is important and worthwhile, a thing many of us have had to do, I have also felt that I had convince other historians of religion that what I study is enough about religion – and not too much about other things – for them to care about it.

Sometimes my students complain that there’s “too much religion” in US I, and of course I know that relative to how important religion was to the people I study, there’s actually far too little. Part of the reason that this issue of full membership is so frustrating to me is that it seems to work against the goal that many of us have: to help others understand how important – how integral – how integrated – religion was and is in the history of the United States. It feels like these markers of full membership exclude lots of people from scholarly conversations that would help further this goal. And to put it bluntly, if historians of religion are going to complain all the time that “regular” historians don’t pay attention to our work, I should never have to hear, or feel, like certain scholarship about religion isn’t about religion enough. That’s the stuff that sends me to the horse shed, folks. And you know what? It’s not bad out here.



References   [ + ]

1. Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.
2. Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.
3. Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.
4. A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?”

AHA 2017; or, Twitter networking with wet feet

I had a grand old time in Denver for the 2017 American Historical Association meeting. I was there, ostensibly, to present on a panel under the auspices of the American Catholic Historical Association. In retrospect, this trip felt like a big shift in how I “do” conferences. I’m sure much of that was to do with where I am in my career – a year out from the defense, on the market – but there were other factors that I think were important, and it might help to be explicit about them.

I headed out to Denver on Friday morning from a snowy Connecticut. My flight was delayed getting off the ground, and then sat waiting for a gate in Denver, and by the time I got to the city I had already had to cancel a lunch meeting with Andrea Turpin.  By the time I got to my hotel, it was nearly 2:30, when I’d intended to go to my first panel, but as I was tired, hungry, and wet up to my ankles, I decided to bail on that and wander over to the book exhibit.

Coming around the corner, I threw my hand up to shade my eyes from the  late afternoon sun pouring in and heard “Erin Bartram, nice to put a face to a name.” Why, it was Our Lady of Colorado herself – Historiann – appearing out of the dazzling sunlight to lift me up when I was at my most bedraggled! We had a brief, lovely conversation, and she did the thing that the best scholars do – she introduced me to a person I wanted to meet. It may have made all the difference. That evening, I met up with Pete Cajka and a bunch of other young historians of religion including Daniel Silliman for drinks and scads of free appetizers given to us by the establishment to appease us after they moved us to a new table. And then moved us again.

Saturday was my long day, starting with the women historians’ breakfast, where I met Mandy Cooper briefly,  and then had a cheery conversation with a bunch of young women historians about syphilis, medieval hospitals, child slavery, and death.  We then had a wonderful talk by Ada Ferrer, on how to reconcile her mother’s rejection of the Cuban revolution with the fact that the dominant narrative suggests her mother would have been the sort of person who embraced it. It was a great reminder that we shouldn’t ignore or brush aside an outlier that challenges established historiography, even if it’s not immediately clear how to make sense of it or how it might change the narrative.

Then I went to a roundtable on the future of Catholic history geared to graduate students in the field. The lineup shifted around a bit, including a good talk by Kyle Roberts on the future of Catholic history and DH.  At 3:30, I presented on Catholic controversies over reading in the aftermath of the Civil War as part of a panel on new ideas about Americanism. You can read more about the roundtable and our panel over at John Fea’s blog, where Bill Cossen (my co-panelist) wrote both up in great detail.  (I was going to report on my Saturday panels for John and then realized that I would just duplicate Bill’s post, and I don’t think we need Rashomon-inspired AHA reporting.)

In between these two things? I had crepes for lunch with Amy Kohout and it was glorious.  And that evening? I went out with all the Catholic historians and reminisced about Holy Cross with Charles Strauss despite the gentle mockery of our colleagues.

Sunday morning, I met up with Ameya Warde and we ate free AHA bagels and toured the book exhibit, where we ran into (accosted) The Tattooed Prof himself.  On a whim, Ameya and I went to one last panel: “Racial and Scientific Visions of Progress among 19th-Century US Reformers.” It touched on a lot of groovy stuff but also emphasized to me that it is good for those of us who study Catholic history and those of us who study Protestant history to talk to each other and present with each other, and to do it more than we do now. If not, we risk assuming things are “Protestant” and “Catholic” when maybe they’re just “American,” “white,” “male,” or “middle class.”

[To that end, I’m re-upping this piece that I wrote on the continued exoticization of Catholicism in the study of U.S. history, hoping it might earn a read from some new people who read this. When I first wrote it, I had a very lively conversation on Twitter…with other scholars who work with Catholicism (yeah Moxy, Monica, and Catherine!), and noticeably little with anyone else. Maybe it was just an off day, but I suspect it’s more than that. I’d love to know what those of you who do the history of non-Catholic things in America think about the claims I’m making, even if you think they’re hooey.]

You may have noticed one thing about almost all of these links to the people I met. Many of them were friends I only knew on Twitter, and this AHA meeting allowed me to meet so many of them in person, where they were as delightful as I expected. I hear lots of junk about how Twitter is a waste of time for academics (as though we aren’t adept at finding hundreds of other ways to waste time without Twitter), and that it can be a dangerous place for academics (if Stephanie McKellop can take what she does, surely I can handle the eggs who randomly tell me I’m a disgrace and should get back in the kitchen).

For me, even in this year where Twitter seems like a cesspool much of the time, it’s been an absolute blessing, and I’m glad it will keep me in contact with all of these people till the next time we can meet in too-huge conference rooms, at too-early breakfasts, on too-snowy sidewalks, and over too-many free drinks.


How Much Should We Assign? Estimating Out of Class Workload — Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence

“How much should I assign?” is one of the most basic questions teachers ask when designing and revising their courses. Yet it is also one of the most difficult to answer. To help instructors better calibrate their expectations, we’ve created a course workload estimator that incorporates the most important insights from the literature on how students learn.

Source: How Much Should We Assign? Estimating Out of Class Workload — Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence

Like all of us, I think, I have received complaints that I assign too much reading. This happens no matter what class it is. Betsy Barre’s new tool for estimating how long it takes students to read and write given what kind of reading and writing you want is a very cool thing, and the surrounding essay is absolutely worth a read.

I’ve done some public annotating on the article with which you can certainly read and engage with; I’d love to hear what people think about the charts, and particularly how primary sources figure into this for those of us in history. What I think we really need to talk about with our students is different styles of reading. Skimming is very useful, but many of my students have told me it’s not a way they learned to read, it was the reading strategy they were taught to use. With think-alouds, I try to encourage them to slow down, because if you skim primary sources, they don’t take long but they probably also seems like a confusing waste of time.

In discussing the kinds of reading, I think it’s okay to say that deep, engaged reading is hard. It’s not a thing you can do while you watch The Walking DeadI suspect sometimes my students think I’ve assigned more reading than I have because it takes them a long time to read it – not because it’s a lot, but because they’re doing 3 other things at the time. I know I want to be able to “multitask” too, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s only when I got a nice new notebook last month and made myself start reading secondary lit at a desk with no computer that I started getting actual work done on the article I’m writing. Encouraging students to find a place that’s quiet so they can just focus and read should be top priority.


America’s Public Bible

Lincoln Mullen has come out with another great digital project of interest not only to historians of American religion but to all historians of U.S. history more generally (Yep, if you think religion isn’t relevant to your work on the 18whatevers, you’re wrong). Go play with America’s Public Bible right now!

Mullen’s site allows you to explore how individual Bible verses were used and understood in the U.S. between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, using the Library of Congress’ amazing Chronicling America database of newspapers.

For instance, in this Hamilton-ian moment, let’s look at Micah 4:4. It brings us to an article on peace in the Vermont Telegraph in 1836, a plea for the temperance movement in an 1856 newspaper from Abbeville, S.C., and a piece on viniculture in Illinois in 1857.  It also, however, brings us to an account of a speech by Isaac Mayer Wise, who uses the verse to discuss “the progress of religious freedom in the world.”

As I’m getting ready to work through my subject’s religious commonplace books in preparation for writing some new material for the manuscript, I am so excited to be able to compare her thoughts on individual passages to public interpretations of the same passages.

In addition to the explicit, directed uses we’ll all have for the site, playing around with it reminds me of the way I experience the Texas Runaways feed on Twitter – the verses serve as an entry point for exploring a moment in time as much as they stand on their own importance. I mean, I didn’t even know people in Illinois were interested in viniculture in the 19th century!

A few notes on sources:  As someone who studies Catholicism in the U.S., the use of the King James Bible is understandable but might leave some of us hanging, which is why it’s good that Mullen already said the next version of the website will address that issue. For the Unitarian mother of my Catholic convert, the Book of Sirach is a constant source of inspiration, so I look forward to seeing how her contemporaries read it.

Using Chronicling America also leaves us with some gaps which are important to be aware of for anyone using the site. A quick look at the list of newspapers available in digital form reveals that some parts of the country are woefully under-represented in the collection. That being said, maybe Connecticut and Massachusetts can stand to be marginalized for once and let Arizona and Florida shine!

This site is exactly the kind of digital project I like to see as a scholar, and I’m also interested to see how we might put it to use in the classroom. I already give my students a couple of Mullen’s other small digital projects in the U.S. surveys and look forward to integrating this into my research and teaching.

Writing, relevance, Father’s Day books, and the humanities

I read several pieces online yesterday, and saw a few Twitter conversations, and they all went into the same pot in my mind and stewed together. Like all stews, they’re better the next day, so I thought I’d put a few words down.

The things that I read and thought about were Jonathan Wilson’s piece What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?, L.D. Burnett’s short post on the advice we receive on writing, and (3) here:

It struck me that all three had something to say about how and why historians communicate with various publics. Burnett talks about the way writing as a craft is framed, and the plague of style guides, which led us to a conversation about authorial voice that really  made me think about the scholarly voice – and scholarly voices – that are given space not only in the academy but in the wider world.* Thomas and Wilson’s comments, in turn, made me realize how utilitarian our talk of “relevance” often is, and how that is connected to the question of voice(s). I think the crux of Wilson’s argument – the part that really helped these thoughts crystallize – can be found in this passage.

First, as the arts of citizenship, the liberal arts may be the arts of politics (whether broadly or narrowly defined). That is, we may undertake liberal scholarship to persuade, to warn, to channel or impede power, or to define a community….Alternatively, therefore, some branches of the liberal arts may be understood more critically as the “humanities” in a newer sense: they are the arts of flourishing (or surviving) as a human person rather than the arts of citizenship per se.

I would argue that all historians have to do hard work to be relevant, but I’d also argue that utilitarian relevance – which seems more in line with Wilson’s first concept – is much easier to communicate in our society than the humanistic relevance of the second. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my friends in foreign policy and history of science in the 20th century find it easier to place articles in public outlets than my friends who are medievalists. Articulating and defending the value of work on 6th century history seems harder not because what people in the 6th century did is irrelevant to us, but because its relevance falls in this more humanistic sphere.

While I’m not sure I count as an Early Americanist, they’re the group with which I most often identify because “19th century proper” doesn’t ever seem to be a category. [Seriously, my dissertation dates are 1820-1890, presenting and publishing is sometimes a bit hard.] As Wilson notes, they’re a group that gets looked to for this first kind of contribution – helping us understand “the arts of citizenship” and the country’s founding myths. They’re also the scholars most likely, as Wilson point out, to be able to publish “trade books that people will want to buy.”  Walk into any bookstore right now and look at the Father’s Day setup. Anything you see on that table, I guarantee you, falls much more into Wilson’s first category than his second, which just reinforces that that first category is the history that is relevant.  It speaks to citizenship and therefore by definition or practice circumscribes the boundaries of historical relevance; it means we get individual citizens and then groups – “women,” “slaves,” “Indians.”

But if we include Wilson’s second conception of history’s contribution to the liberal arts – the arts of flourishing and merely surviving – we expand the definition of what is relevant, and therefore expand our own obligation to make that argument.  I’m pretty sure that the arts of surviving and flourishing are actually still things many of us are concerned with, but to make the argument that we should care about those arts requires swimming against the social/political/economic currents of our society. Making the argument that thinking about how people lived, loved, and just got by in the past is one that all supporters of relevance should be thinking about.

Or to put it another way, if you write about a topic that you think you could one day easily see on the Father’s Day table at Barnes & Noble, think about whether the definition of relevance that would allow your book to appear there would exclude the work of many of your peers.  If yes, and if you think that’s a problem, maybe we need to work on not just making an argument that history is relevant, but also making Wilson’s (harder? braver? bolder? riskier?) argument about how history is relevant.

*Strunk & White would not approve of this sentence’s structure.



“I am very desirous that she should make the experiment”

Part necessary web-presence, part commonplace book, this website will be updated in fits and starts. It will feature musings on history and pedagogy, as well as archival miscellany that I find along the way. It is an experiment, and I hope it will be a successful one.

The title quote, as well as the tagline of the website, comes from the papers of the Sedgwick family of Massachusetts, in which I’ve been living for many years. I will quote them a lot because they’re sassy and wonderful.

© 2017 Erin Bartram

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