Is this a beat or what?
In February of 2015 I wrote a post about my move from blogger to blogger/columnist at Slate. I had been running The Vault, Slate’s documents blog, for a few years, while transitioning out of academia. I’d also been pitching and writing stories loosely about history, for Slate and other places.
Along the way, I’d been wrestling with the question of whether my interests—history, and how history moves about in culture—can make up a journalistic beat, the way technology, science, politics, business, or culture might. The post set out my vision of the way such a beat might work, listing four kinds of pieces I expected to write at Slate (and, by extension, for other outlets, during the non-Slate half of my workweek).
How have the intervening ten months gone? A checkup.
In that post, I wrote that I wanted to:
Cover new and interesting historical research. This was a key concept. I wanted (want!) to present history as ever-changing, rather than static. I think a lot of people—both historians who are interested in writing for the public, and editors who are thinking about publishing historical content—have a fear of talking about debates in the field too much in public-facing writing, because it feels like inside baseball. But I think when done well this can be fascinating. (Example: In the podcast about the history of American slavery I worked on for Slate this year—more on that below—we talked about historians’ shift toward increased acceptance of slave narratives as historical sources. This is a fascinating bit of historiography that also says something about the changing way we think about history, and I don’t think it’s too un-engaging for non-specialist audiences. Not at all!)
But I digress. Here are some things I wrote this year that fit into this category, and that I really liked:
“Red Summer”: This was a piece for Slate that started with a new book (1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back, by David Krugler) and spiraled into a bigger exploration of self-defense as an African-American tradition. There’s a little bit of historiography wound in there, alongside the history.
“What If Historians Started Taking The What-If Seriously?”: For Aeon. Counterfactuals! What are they good for? I had fun reading some arguments, pro and con, that have been recently articulated by a bunch of thoughtful scholars, and deciding what I think about the topic. Aeon is a great place to publish this kind of idea-oriented essay; long may it live.
“Who Was Hugh Glass?”: Glass, the mountain man whose story is told in the movie “The Revenant,” has had quite the career as an American folk hero, having been the topic of newspaper articles, novels, movies, and an epic poem. This piece for Slate follows his story across almost two centuries of permutations. I’m including this one in this section because I relied heavily on Jon T. Coleman’s book about the topic, as well as an interview with Coleman.
Write original histories, based on primary and archival sources. This is by far the category of story that I have found the hardest to pitch and execute, and the one that I feel the saddest for not having pursued more often. It takes some work to figure out how to make these pieces happen. (You might notice that all of the three pieces I list below are about the history of childhood; that’s because that was an academic expertise of mine, and it’s just easier to write about these archives without doing a ton of background research. When I consider writing longer pieces about archives outside of my comfort zone, I quail at the amount of time it might take.)
“Boyhood”: One of my favorite stories of the year, for Slate, about an archive of tiny books left behind by the Nelson Brothers. The Nelsons lived on a farm in New Hampshire and created a paracosmic world of their own in the 1890s. This one had no peg, no reason to be; it’s just about a super-interesting archive that is fun to look at, charming and mundane at the same time, and very compelling to think about.
“Ode to Green Slime”: I liked this piece for TheAtlantic.com, written for the Objects Objects series: a mini-history of the appeal of green slime in kids’ culture.
“Insights from the Cleveland Play Census”: A post for Belt Magazine, digging into a report on Cleveland kids’ play that was published in 1915.
Cover what’s happening in museums, archives, digital history, and historical education. This quadrant is also a little skimpy by comparison, though I do end up covering some news of this kind through the Vault. I think more of this will happen naturally as time goes on.
“The Pen”: For Slate, I spoke with two women who are writing a history of the prison where they’re incarcerated, as well as the educator who’s facilitating their research from inside. Exactly the kind of story about history that I want to be covering.
Chase down history in the wild. I wanted to write more about the way history works its way into everyday life and popular culture. (The funnest!) These are the best ways I did this in 2015.
“Vox’s Victorians”: This beat is pretty impervious to the need for Hot Takes™, and that’s something I like about it, because my opinions are far more likely to be ambiguous and cautious than sizzling and hyperbolic. The only exception to this rule is my adverse reaction to mishandlings of history. These crimes can make me pretty inflexible and vitriolic. Vox’s viral first-person essay by the couple who cosplay a Victorian lifestyle prompted this quick-and-mean response for Slate. It might have been a little bit jerky, but I stand behind every word.
“How to Write Erudite History for Teenagers”: Does the writing of M.T. Anderson count as “in the wild”? To me it does, since his books are aimed at a YA audience, yet contain super-sophisticated meta-thinking about the nature of history. I interviewed him for this Q&A for Slate and he was very game to answer my questions about his process; I enjoyed writing this one up.
“What Happened Here?”: This local history quiz, which I made up for Slate in an attempt to force myself to learn more about the place where I live, was really my way to think about consciousness and unconsciousness about everyday historical place. The execution was a little bit various in its results—I’m not actually sure the concept of a scavenger hunt worked to get the point across, though the prompts were fun—but I was pretty attached to the follow-up I wrote, in which I talked about the results of my own investigations.
“Against Generations”: This piece for Aeon was a good chance to combine historiography and the history of sociology with some analysis of contemporary discourse. This essay also made space for me to think about the way a lot of people use generational language to parse the nature of historical change. I want to do more like this.
I kept on writing my documents blog, The Vault, which had its third anniversary in November. I’m happy to report that I’m not sick of it yet. Occasionally I think “That’s it; I’ve found my last good document,” and then the next week I find something else I love.
Here are my five favorite posts from this year:
I also began writing about objects for Mental Floss, in a series they’re calling Show & Tell. This is Vault-esque work, but more focused on things (as opposed to documents)—a shift that appeals to the material-culture part of my academic self.
Finally, I did two big bits of work this year: one that’s wrapped up and finished, and one that’s almost *knock on wood* there.
The podcast I made this spring and summer, along with Jamelle Bouie at Slate—Slate Academy: The History of American Slavery—was a writing project that was really a research, administrative, talking, and negotiating project. It was demanding, through and through: a trifle of different types of demanding-ness, layered in a tall glass dish. We were trying to present historical material in a conversational format: just two people talking, interspersed with interviews with historians. Avoiding a lecture-y tone, while getting across the major bits of information and the biggest arguments, was a tall order. I had to think in terms of audio for the first time, trying to calibrate my interview questions so they’d elicit answers that would sound good. And, more than anything, there was the subject matter: complex, upsetting, demanding the utmost in respect and attention. I’m pretty proud of the way this series turned out, but boy oh boy, did it give me some insomniac nights.
And! I turned in my book manuscript at the end of June. Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Public Science in the United States will be coming out with UNC Press in the fall of 2016. *knocks on wood again*.
I’m proud of what I did this year, and I still think my “history beat” concept works. The question becomes: Is it sustainable? Now that I’m totally out of academia, can I keep on writing in this way, mostly for the Web, and get paid enough to make the amount of research it takes worthwhile? We’ll see.