By Edward Shore
Dr. Peniel Joseph, an accomplished scholar, teacher, and a leading public voice on race in the United States, holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department at the University of Texas-Austin. This past January, Dr. Joseph inaugurated the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CRSD) at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and serves as the center’s first director. He teaches several courses, including “The Civil Rights Movement and Public Policy,” “Social Movements, Racial Justice, and Democracy,” and “The New Jim Crow: Race, Inequality, and Social Policy.” He is the author of several books, including Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2006), Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Obama (2010), and Stokely: A Life (2014), a biography of black power activist and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader, Stokely Carmichael. In addition to research, teaching, and administration, Dr. Joseph authors weekly editorials about race and racial inequality in the United States for CNN. His latest essay, “The Lessons to Learn from Donald Trump Voters,” explores racial anxiety and the growing ideological divide between the traditional Republican establishment–supporters of free trade, de-regulation, and low taxes–and the party’s insurgent white, working-class, and non-college educated base. Thinking in Public caught up with Peniel Joseph to talk about the importance of public scholarship and its impact on his own research and teaching, as well as strategies for junior scholars who are interested in writing about history and current events for a general audience.
What made you want to write for CNN? How did the op-ed come about? Did you pitch to them or did they invite you?
I believe CNN reached out to me several times over the past few years, initially following the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington, then subsequently about issues related to race, democracy, social justice, and politics.
How does your background as an academic historian shape what you write?
Do you get much feedback and/or trolling to your essays?
Does this writing benefit your academic work or teaching?
What other value do you see in writing for the public?
Writing for the public helps one refine complex ideas and boil them down or distill them to an easily digestible and comprehensive essence. It allows us to convey to the larger general public outside of universities, colleges, and higher educational institutions the way in which ideas not only matter, but shape the course of our society.
Do you have any thoughts on how junior scholars can find their voice and find an audience? Why is that important? And how can they balance “academic writing” obligations versus “public writing?”
I think junior scholars should find their voices in several overlapping ways. Scholarship is your most important vocation starting out, deep archival research and expansive, really obsessive reading, are the hallmark of good historians. Read as widely and deeply as possible. Read great writers, those with accessible voices and prose styles. Read journalism, fiction, biography, memoir, political history, social history, histories of other cultures, peoples, continents, places. Find your voice and always remember that clarity is the sign of profound thinking. Work hard on your first book as that will introduce others within the guild to your work ethic, analytical mind, prose style, and voice. Simultaneously young scholars should try and get their research findings, arguments, analysis into the larger public. This matters because our knowledge production can advance not just pedagogical concerns and questions within narrow specialities, although they can and should do this. Virtually every historical question being investigated today connects with important policy, political, social, economic, cultural issues related to power, war, peace, race, gender, sexuality, the environment, the elderly, children, healthcare, prisons, religion, life, and death, so are, in a manner, already engaging with the public. Balance is important. Establish a track record, secure tenure, full professor, alongside of public writings. The more solid your academic reputation the more sought after your expertise will be for general audiences.
Anything else you want to add?