By Tim Galsworthy |
I recently came across a New York Times op-ed by Republicans antagonistic to Donald Trump. This group declared their intention to forcibly oppose Donald Trump’s re-election, announcing the formation of the “Lincoln Project” to co-ordinate their efforts. This op-ed, and the Lincoln Project’s website, relied heavily on memories of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln to define their mission. These uses of historical memory set off lightbulbs in my mind. My own research explores the relationships between the Republican Party and Civil War memory in the civil rights era. I felt I had something to contribute to the conversation. Therefore, I embarked on producing my first opinion piece.
In this blog I will be discussing opinion pieces and their importance for PhD students. In my opinion piece I explore how Civil War memory has been central to historic contests and divides within the Republican Party. This was my first attempt to tailor my research for a broader audience, bringing it into conversation with contemporary issues. Hopefully this will be a useful introduction for other PhD students thinking about producing an opinion piece of their own.
My first job was identifying where the best place for my planned opinion piece was. There are plenty of outlets for academics to write opinion pieces. These range from opinion websites like The Conversation to blog websites, including a brilliant one called Pubs and Publications! I decided on “Made by History”, a series by the Washington Post in which historians offer reflection on relevant topics. I had seen other PhD students published by Made by History before and I opted to reach out. The Made by History team responded very quickly saying they were potentially interested in my piece and that I should produce a draft.
At this stage it is important to determine the rules and parameters of who you are writing for. How many words should your piece be? What sort of style do they expect? How long will the process take? After establishing points such as these I set about writing my piece. This was my first time writing a formal opinion piece rather than a blog post and I was initially unsure what tone to write in. Moreover, as a historian used to backing points up with extensive evidence and historiography, I was unsure what depth of analysis I should go into. As with all writing my first draft was somewhat rough and ready, but importantly it was ready. I sent my draft over and awaited feedback.
Over the period of about a week I received helpful comments from the Made by History team as my piece went through a series of drafts. Some comments related to content while others related to my writing and structure. I redrafted my piece as I received feedback from different readers. I cut out superfluous examples, tightened up my language, and foregrounded my opinion and argument more clearly. Finally, it was copyediting and – after sending over a by-line, a headshot, and my Twitter details – ready to go. My piece was published on 6th January 2020.
I have already discerned a range of benefits which producing an opinion piece might yield. Receiving feedback was highly beneficial. By taking this constructive advice onboard my piece became much firmer and clearer. I began to understand the form my piece should take, especially in terms of weaving primary evidence in with my opinion. To reach the desired word count I had to be selective. At times when writing my thesis I have found it hard to cut out examples and arguments which I have been strongly wedded to. The experience of receiving feedback and re-writing my opinion piece has made me much more willing to locate the strongest elements of my research, understanding that everything cannot go in the final version.
Moreover, writing an opinion offers a vehicle for your research to reach a broader audience. Producing this piece through a body such as the Washington Post will allow my research to reach distant and different corners. In an academic world increasingly defined by buzz words such as “impact”, opinion pieces answer this need to speak beyond the walls of the academy.
Perhaps more than anything else, producing this piece showed me that my work is relevant. At times our topics feel niche and removed from the world around us. Writing this piece – integrating my research, primary sources, and contemporary materials together – demonstrated to me that my PhD does have a point. We all sometimes struggle to answer the “so what” question of why our projects matter. This opinion piece has certainly shored up my response to this inquiry.
I produced this opinion piece at an opportune time. In the United States a major debate is currently swirling about the role of historians in public life. I think this discussion applies to academics more broadly. Andrew Ferguson has written a piece in The Atlantic calling on historians to stay out of politics, resulting in a slew of counter pieces calling for politically-attuned scholars. There is also ongoing furore surrounding the New York Times‘s 1619 project. I believe academia is in a catch-22 situation. If we seal ourselves away in an ivory tower we are accused of being elitist and out of touch. If we climb down from that tower and state our views we are accused of meddling, while remaining elitist and out of touch. Ultimately, academics have no power over how the public feels about them. Some people might care what we have to say, some people might dismiss us without thought. Writing this opinion piece has shown me that we have to continue trying to engage with wider audiences. We must continue writing opinion pieces and producing informative Twitter threads (even if we are not as adept at this as Kevin Kruse). As long as we have something useful and constructive to say we must say it – this is our duty as people dedicated to achieving greater knowledge and understanding. While we cannot control how the public responds to our opinions we must make sure they are always available when and if the time comes for their hearing.
Tim Galsworthy is a History PhD student at the University of Sussex. He is will soon be taking over as chair of Pubs and Publications. He is also one of the Postgraduate Secretaries for the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS)
Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abraham_Lincoln_seated,_Feb_9,_1864.jpg
Image 2: https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/typewriter/o/opinion.html
Image 3: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/14279306964