doomed to distraction

Tag: existential crises

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 … Continue reading

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.




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?”

No, I didn’t read that article in The New Yorker

In the past few weeks, I’ve added a couple more online writing outlets to my list of things to do. I’ve started contributing to Teaching United States History, which I’m really excited about.  I’ve also started something else, with my friend Chris: The Daily Context.  It is a group blog, aimed at non-academic readers, providing introductory historical context to what’s happening in the news. Each post is 1000 words max, preferably shorter, and includes a primary source and links to further reading.  This is meant to be rapid response history, so no long editorial process. If you could give a good solid answer to a student who asked a question about the topic in class, that’s all we’re looking for. We are using Facebook a lot, and inviting our academic friends to both write for us and share our posts with their friends and family.

Why do this? You’d be right to point out that there are lots of other ways to communicate this information to the public. Why don’t I pitch a piece for a newspaper? Why don’t I write for an existing blog? Why don’t I tweetstorm?

I could, I suppose. Those are all great things to do, and I’m glad lots of historians are doing them. But the reason why I want to do this, and why I’d love to have more of my colleagues join, is that I don’t think a lot of what we’re doing right now is very accessible to a non-academic audience, both because of the forms we use and the approach we take to writing.

To put it more bluntly, lots of what we’re writing is for people like us.  I love the conversations we have in the blogosphere and the Twitterverse but ultimately, very little of that is reaching the people I grew up with.

Because here’s the thing – I’m not sure I’m really supposed to be here. I’m from a working class family in rural Connecticut. I was in no way the poorest of the poor, and I had the advantage of growing up white, in New England,  with an okay school system and a small-but-friendly library. But most of the people I went to high school with – the 99 people from a six-town district I graduated with – didn’t go to college, let alone finish it. We grew up in a small, isolated part of the state where rich people from the city came to hide away. “Cultured” people drifted through our lives, and we patiently listened to their complaints about the poor selection of fish in the grocery store and helped them find the train station at the end of the weekend. I knew those people, but I was never going to be of those people.

I left that place, went to a liberal arts college, then went to graduate school, and like everyone else in academia who came from a background like mine, I’ve been faking it ever since. Laughing and nodding like I’ve read that person or could share a similarly amusing travel anecdote, blushing furiously every time I said something that revealed I didn’t speak the cultural language of everyone around me. Every one of those moments sticks in my memory. “Fake it till you make it” is bunk, as is the idea that you can talk about this openly and bear no repercussions. But maybe I can come clean here. To everyone who’s ever asked me this question: no, I didn’t read that article in The New Yorker. And you could probably tell.

The thing is, when I go home, I’m not sure I’m supposed to be there anymore either. I so deeply respect the people I grew up with and the work they do and the lives they live, but they’re uncomfortable with me. I want to share what I do with them, but can’t find a way to do it.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m trying this. Because the people I grew up with are not reading our tweetstorms, and they’re not reading our academic blogs, and they’re not reading our pieces in The Atlantic and The Washington Post.  And maybe they don’t want to read The Daily Context either. Maybe they do. Either way, I need to try. I want to be able to write a piece in The Atlantic, and I want to write my book, but if I truly believe that the study of history can enrich people’s lives – and I do – I need to be able to write this too.

I need to know that who I am now can write for who I was then.




The American cantus firmus

There is an abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents.

Source: The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear

In a beautiful piece in The New Yorker entitled “The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear,” Adam Gopnik advises us to differentiate between the coming changes that we think are wrong but are reversible, through activism and electoral politics, and the changes that violate our fundamental values, which he claims are irreversible. Gopnik describes this second kind of change as follows:

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

This paean to the enduring values of the republic feels necessary at this point – a life preserver when it seems like the word has gone topsy-turvy.

What do we do, then, with the fact that all of these things – intimidation and imprisonment of dissidents, conjured-up allegations, discrimination by religion and country of origin – are as much a part of our nation’s history as the values Gopnik says should stand against them? Does it mean that our republic is strong enough to endure periods where these tactics intensify, even if the victims of those tactics don’t endure, or that we’re likely to tolerate an intensification of these tactics to the point where we’ve gone too far to go back?

It seems that one way to resist these things that purportedly run counter to the ideals of the republic is to learn more about the conditions under which they have long been tolerated by large swaths of the American public. If we are to save what Gopnik calls “the beautiful music of American democracy,” we must reckon with the fact that much of the time, Americans have been more willing to tolerate dissonance than dissidents. These “best shared traditions” have rarely been shared equally, and there’s no time like the present to think about why that’s been (and continues to be) the case.

Sometimes in a piece of polyphony, the cantus firmus is stretched beyond recognition; you wouldn’t even be able to pick it out if the composition didn’t bear its name. The American cantus firmus has been remarkably pliable, and we’d be well advised to make a study of the ways it has been stretched, reshaped, and inverted if we want it to remain anything more than the title of the piece.

What’s the state of our nation?

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton (thanks, Corinne!), and it absolutely lived up to expectations. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve made my peace with the musical, despite some quibbles with the interpretation of the period it presents, and thought about how it might impact my scholarship and my teaching. I thought I was done processing Hamilton,  But then I saw it in the Age of Trump, and I hope you’ll indulge me in what is a rather naive and self-indulgent examination of the feelings it provoked.

To have (black) George Washington pointing at us all while singing “history has its eyes on you” was chilling in a way I did not expect. Lately, it’s felt like everyone in the U.S. is conscious of this, whether they think history will look on this as a moment of triumph or tragedy. I thought that I might see history with the election of the first female president, something I now doubt I’ll see in my lifetime, but since the election, the gravity of this historical moment has weighed on me in a way I couldn’t have imagined before November 8. When I can summon up black humor, I joke that I’ll change the subtitle of US II to “Laws and programs that are currently being repealed.”  But it doesn’t feel like a moment for humor, no matter how black.

Instead, we’ve all been doing what we can, and one of the things I can do is teach. The problem is…my teaching has seemed exceptionally flat, even futile, since the election, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on why. Certainly I think that much of my teaching serves to complicate narratives of progress and perpetual freedom that many of my students come in with. I think it’s important to show students just how hard fought certain freedoms have been, and how much resistance there has been (and continues to be) to rights that many of us take for granted.  I still think that’s an important part of teaching United States history and I will continue to do it.

Since the election, though, I have realized on a much deeper level how fragile and susceptible the “American experiment” was and is. We know this intellectually, and as an early Americanist, I suppose I’m really supposed to know it. I think I always knew it on an intellectual level in my teaching life as well, since I’ve often had students arguing that Japanese internment was a good thing, or that there must have been a way to reform slavery without ending it that would have made it “okay” for black Americans, or that it would be better for all women to stay home since they were the natural caregivers, or that we should reintroduce literacy tests.[1]This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.

In response to this, I’ve tried to teach about historical contests over civil rights, and human rights, and the equality of individuals before the law. I’ve hoped that showing students how the “other” is a shifting category might give them pause, especially when they realize their immigrant ancestors were considered “other,” even as they are now considered “American.”

It doesn’t feel like enough right now. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like the right approach. Before the election, I argued that we needed history, not just civics, but in this moment, I don’t quite know how to go forward in the classroom. Despite a full awareness that much has been broken in our country’s past – often much more severely than at this moment – it feels like something just broke and I didn’t know how much I counted on it till it did.[2]Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

This feeling of brokenness made me realize that in teaching all the ways the U.S. hasn’t lived up to its stated ideals, I may not ever have been clear enough  with my students – or myself – exactly what those ideals have meant to people, and what they’ve created when they worked.  But I don’t mean the ideal of individual liberty, something my students spend a lot of time thinking about. Instead, I’ve been thinking about whether my teaching really examines ideals like “the common good,” “the public interest,” “accountability,” and “public service.”

These are all concepts shaped by specific historical forces, and have often been deployed in ways that served to divide, rather than unite, but they are important concepts nonetheless, even if the specific terms aren’t in our founding documents. Some would argue they’ve never been true ideals, or not consistently held to, or have often been held up as ideals merely as cover for larger foreign policy goals, and I might agree somewhat. But I would argue they’ve been ideals, and that hewing to them even somewhat has been an important part of maintaining the norms that have sustained the experiment.

In talking to friends who’ve seen Hamilton, there’s always a discussion of the points at which everyone cried during the performance. I didn’t cry at Laurens’ death, but I did cry throughout “It’s Quiet Uptown,” along with the rest of the theater, because how can you not. I can’t even listen to that on the cast recording without crying. And I cried when Eliza told us about the orphanage. What caught me off guard, though, was my reaction to a line in a song that’s never really resonated with me before.

When Laurens walked downstage, with his pint held high, and sang “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away,” a completely unexpected sob caught in my throat. In that moment, instead of understanding that as a paean to individual liberty, I felt deeply how precarious freedom is without the norms of civil society – or even the most modest commitment to the common good – to support and sustain it.


1 This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.
2 Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

Who tells your story, or, how Hamilton is and isn’t changing my teaching

The experience of being a historian of Early America[1]This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” … Continue reading during the moment of Hamilton has been a complex one for me, and it’s brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the surface.  Looking back over my summer, and the goals I had for my research and teaching, I realize that Hamilton emphasized and amplified some ideas about history that exist in popular culture and among academics. Now that I see the effects those ideas have had on me, I want to put them down explicitly, first in a post about teaching, and at some point, in a post about scholarship.

Hamilton – like every popular book about a president or a war or a “founder” – reinforces lots of ideas about hierarchies of knowledge in the study of history, even as it is subversive in other ways. In plainer language, so much popular history presents specific kinds of people and topics as the foundations of historical knowledge. The stuff you have to know, if you know anything at all. The stuff people expect you to know.

When you study Early America, and something like Hamilton happens, all of a sudden your friends (hi, Corinne!) and your students start asking you about political things in the late 18th century and you realize you don’t know the things they expect/want you to know.  You know outlines, contours, arguments, historiographical debates, and the bits and bobs you include in your survey classes. And some people respond to your lack of specific knowledge of Hamilton’s views on credit with thinly-veiled skepticism about your qualifications to teach history. And you start to think that you don’t teach enough political history, and that you don’t know enough about these people who are so important to the lay audiences you interact with.

If you look at my aspirational list of primary sources I want to be familiar with, you’ll notice Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is there. There’s a million things I haven’t done, and reading that is one of them. Nor have I read anything from The Federalist since college, though I at least own it (and a pocket Constitution, which I had before it was cool.)  Nor had I read a lot of Lincoln’s writings recently before I prepped my Civil War class last year.[2]As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a … Continue reading Even now, it feels dangerous to admit that publicly.  We have a hard time admitting that we haven’t read a classic piece of secondary lit (though maybe it would be cathartic if we all publicly admitted one), and to admit that we study Early America and haven’t really read much by “the founders” makes us feel ashamed. And it doesn’t make a difference to say, in response, “Yeah, but I’ve read a lot of Orestes Brownson…”

In teaching, the only thing I am ever challenged on by students who (as a result of my gender and age) don’t know if I’m really qualified to teach is my knowledge of political history.[3]And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars When a student who was particular skeptical of my qualifications quizzed me on some really arcane stuff about the Tyler administration, I couldn’t really say “I don’t know about that and it’s not a priority for me to know about that right now.” But I was thinking it.

It shouldn’t be surprising that students expect me to know political history and don’t even know to care whether I know lots of other things about history. Whether we like it or not, our popular discourse of American history reinforces the idea that political history is the basic framework, and our teaching often reflects that. We don’t stop the survey at 1877 for no reason, but we also don’t stop it because that was the year of the Nez Perce flight to Canada or the year of the Great Railroad Strike.

My resistance to getting to know and love Hamilton stemmed partly from this knowledge. Honestly, I just thought “Great, another thing about a founder that emphasizes that the stories of these dudes are the most important things to know.” And then, as I got to know and love it, I started thinking that I was maybe not a good historian because I didn’t talk enough about politics in the US I survey. That maybe I was not a good historian…because I didn’t know enough about political history.

When I looked at my course, though, and I looked at my lessons and documents and what they cover, and I pondered what I would remove in order to insert a more detailed discussion of the Adams administration[4]Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language, I realized three fundamental truths at the exact same time.

  1. I don’t know that lots more political history would help me make the argument I want to make in my US I survey. The argument I choose to make is an important one to me, and I don’t want to lose it.
  2.  I would only be able to devote more time to political history because it has been populated by men who had privilege and access to write like they were running out of time and, leaving aside the burning of those papers, have that writing preserved and made accessible. We get to know them as individuals in a way that we don’t with millions of other people, and that makes their voices and personalities louder. Something about that makes me uncomfortable, but I’ll leave that for my subsequent post on Hamiltoneffects on my research.
  3. I actually teach plenty of political history! You know what things I don’t teach enough about in the US I survey? The history of women and gender. Environmental history. Agricultural history. Labor history. The history of free black Americans. The history of immigration. The history of the Southwest. The history of the Midwest. The history of lots of native groups. The history of utopian communities. Latinx history. The history of Swedish colonialism. The history of French/British Canada. Sylvester Graham. The history of the Caribbean. Nicholas Biddle. The history of religions. The history of ideas. The history of sex. The history of medicine and diet. Whatever the heck happens in British North America in the first half of the 18th century (this is a joke but also maybe not?) Rarely does anyone complain that I’ve not taught enough about these things. I have even gotten complaints that I teach too much about religion and slavery, and if anything, I know I don’t teach those things in proportion to how important they were to the people we’re looking at in the past.

And so, I decided not to put any more in my class about that bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman. He’s in there, just as he’s always been. So is the general, the Pride of Mount Vernon (and that time when he led his men straight into a massacre), and Thomas (you simply must meet Thomas!), and America’s favorite fighting Frenchman. And we’ll still read Bacon’s Declaration and the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and the Declaration of Independence and a letter between Washington and Morris. And we’ll still talk about partisan fighting.

But Hamilton has changed my teaching, and will continue to do so, because it’s made it even clearer to me that teaching American history at the college level has to be meta. We have to talk with our students about the narratives of American history they know, even without knowing that they know them, talk about what work those narratives do, and talk about what work those narratives can prevent us from doing if we think they’re sufficient. I used to do this incidentally; now I’m going to do it consistently.

So, sure, we’re going to talk about why every other Founding Father’s story gets told, and whether that’s even true.

We’re going to talk about what happens when they try to tax that whisky, from the perspective of the people whose whisky was taxed.

We’re going to talk about who’s really doing the planting.

We’re going to talk about immigrants.

We’re going to talk about why Eliza has to put herself back in the narrative, and why we have to work so hard to put so many people back in the narrative.

And we’re going to put Sally back in the narrative.

And that will be enough.




1 This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” because I wasn’t doing modern U.S., and the categorization stuck.
2 As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a requirement. That professor then turned me into secret Americanist.
3 And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars
4 Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language

“a radical act of hope” is what we need

If you haven’t read Kevin Gannon’s amazing and inspiring teaching manifesto, you owe it to yourself to stop right now and read it. He outlines the cycle many of us go through, over and over, of being inspired and enthused about teaching, only to fall into despair. As he puts it: Why bother teaching when it doesn’t matter? When no one cares about what you do or why you do it?” His response to the despair is moving, and we should all print it out and hang it by our desks.

And alongside that, I’ve been reading and thinking and reading and thinking on race and justice and the police state. How can I not? It seems like a radical act to hope for social justice, sometimes even more so when you’re a historian of the United Sates. As Jamelle Bouie pointed out to someone who couldn’t understand why the videos of police violence that are becoming so familiar don’t seem to be causing change:

I can reflect and march and engage with the political process to try to effect change, and I can listen to and amplify the voices that matter in this debate, but I can also teach. I can teach my students to think about these issues in historical context, and help them make connections between their lives and the lives of people in the past. I can help them read writings by the Klan and the Black Panthers and Fannie Lou Hamer and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and think about the ways those writings resonate in our own historical moment. I can help my students understand the really tough and painful reality that explains why those lynching postcards didn’t change the minds of white America, and how they instead reflected the minds of white America.

I think that if we take Kevin’s manifesto to heart, and are engaged scholars and teachers, we can’t reject his message. No matter how hard it is to hope and act on that hope, we must, if we truly believe historical thinking can be a positive force in the world. If we despair and disengage, we abdicate our responsibility to help our students become more engaged and aware people, and lose our opportunity to grow with them. It’s difficult to hope, but the alternative? Unacceptable.


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