U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Summer Plans for Intellectual Historians

Today I’ll take a step back from my series of posts on building an intellectual history of the South from 1965 until the 1990s—but not too much of a step. Instead, considering that for many of us the semester is coming to a close, I’d like to consider the ways in which historians maximize their time during the summer. It means different answers depending on where you are in your career as historian, but here I’ll sketch out my personal plan for the summer. By all means, as with any blog post, I hope to hear from readers as well, and gauge how historians use prime research and reading time in June, July, and early August.

First priority will be the start of comprehensive exams in the fall. Reading for both 19th and 20th century history, this will take up the bulk of my time. As it is, building reading lists is a wonderful opportunity to consider the gaps in your own knowledge and historiography. While the lists lean towards political and intellectual history, a diverse reading list is always a wonderful way to build a broad reading list. However, while the comps lists by themselves will be an arduous task, I won’t confine my reading to just those lists.

I have three book reviews also due early in the summer, so those books will occupy my time. But, beyond that, I’m going to devote considerable time to reading up on 20th century Southern history. While some of those books will be on my comps lists, my focus here is on recent works that have recently come out. One that I look forward to reading is the new Angie Maxwell work The Indicted South, which tackles questions of white Southern identity throughout the 20th century. While the book ends in the 1960s, it’ll still offer plenty to consider on the South during the Age of Fracture (for lack of a better term), as earlier manifestations of being Southern have to be considered, especially around issues of race, when asking how the South changes by the late 20th century.

Zandria Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago, a book I’ve mentioned before, will also receive my attention during the summer. Conceptions of being African American in the 20th century deserve more than a monolithic definition. As I’ve written about before, considering what it means to be African American in the South versus other regions of the nation offers new ways of asking questions about the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power era, and other moments in African American history. Thinking about the plight of poor white Southerners during this era as well is key to my work, and I’ll be reading such books as Southern Diaspora by James Gregory to help me in that area.

For a brief moment I’d like to consider the state of African American history as well. I’m going to finish Pero Dagbovie’s African American History Reconsidered once the summer starts. Dagbovie’s book asks some intriguing questions about how we conceptualize African American history, and would be useful for any scholar who asks the question, “So just how should we continue to do African American history?” I think a similar book on Southern history (and, perhaps, intellectual history) would be welcome as well. In addition to these items, they’ll be a few journal articles I’ll close read. They offer interesting historiographical and methodological questions, and it’s about time I start digging into my research articles folder on my laptop.

I want to spend the summer considering these big conceptual questions for the sake of my dissertation and, to a lesser extent, for articles I’ll be working on. Suffice to say the summer will be a busy time for me. And, frankly, it’s important to admit up front that beyond my comps reading I may not finish as much research work as I’d like. Being flexible as a scholar, even during the summer, is important. It’s easy to beat yourself up over not finishing something, as opposed to admitting it wasn’t done, adjusting your schedule accordingly, and continuing to work hard. Happy summer folks. Make sure it counts.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert,

    Thanks for pointing me to the Dagbovie book.

    One biography I plan on looking at during the summer is Robert Norrell’s Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington.

    One of my interests is the evolution/creation story and I’m wondering how you see this in the current historiography of the New South and African-American history. Are there any monographs I should look at that might shed light on this? In particular, did any civil rights activists or organizations look to Darwin positively or attack social Darwinism during their campaigns against segregation?

    I’m aware of the religious element through the various biographies of individuals and organizations who participated. Yet, I was wondering if a specific attack or defense of evolution or creationism intersected with the movement in some way.

    • Hmmm…..this is a really intriguing question! Allow me some time to mull this over. For the moment, I’d highly recommend “The Indicted South”–the first section, chapters 1 through 3, is entitled “The Long Shadow of Scopes”, and delves deeply into the Scopes Trial. As for civil rights, off the top of my head I can’t think of anything that looks at that specific angle, but I’ll look and see what I can find. Now that I think about it, such an angle would be quite useful, as it would show just how much civil rights organizations had to respond to broader issues in American thought.

  2. Robert,

    I’ll definitely look at Maxwell’s book, as it seems that the first third delves into the Scopes trial.

    “. . . it would show just how much civil rights organizations had to respond to broader issues in American thought.”

    Sometimes the lesson that undergraduates take away from studying the civil rights movement is that the people involved did nothing but eat, drink, sleep, and think about the movement 24/7 (although, the seriousness of their situations, especially during the Freedom Summer, probably did, to some extent, take up most of their conscious attention). I would be interested to know how these “broader issues,” as you say, influenced the decisions and actions by some African Americans.

    This is why I became interested in the Space Race during the Sputnik-to-Apollo 11 phase for my Masters thesis. I wanted to know what African Americans living during the height of the civil rights movement thought about the exploration of outer space. I found the work of Mary Dudziak and Thomas Borstelmann intriguing for exploring new angles to civil rights historiography. Maybe the sci-fi writings of authors like Samuel Delaney would be more appropriate, but I assumed that these trans-national and trans-international issues would be fascinating for all ethnic groups regardless of profession and not limited to the realm of fictional writers or filmmakers.

    • Excellent points here. Civil Rights activists, like anyone else, were reading the news, watching movies and television, and living within a larger American culture. They would have been hard pressed to escape thinking about other issues–especially since many issues (the Cold War, postwar economic policy, etc.) were, in some sense, also connected to the concerns of civil rights activists.

      And I agree with you that such trans-national issues would be fascinating to research, regardless of racial or ethnic groups. It’s something that we downplay at times, especially when we focus on fields such as African American history. It’s too easy to fall into a trap of looking at “just” civil rights, without considering what else is going on in the 1960s.

      For instance, one topic I’ve been considering pursuing for some time is the reaction among African Americans to Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”. If it hasn’t been written about, at some point I’d like to tackle it myself. Your point about the Space Race is key too. Did activists, and African Americans in general, see it as siphoning of resources from domestic concerns, or were they also proud of America’s exploits in space? Or both?

      Jeez…space travel and the Black imagination….that’s a book I’d like to read. Or write, heh. But these are compelling questions you bring up here.

  3. In my experience, reading for exams is itself a full-time endeavor so definitely don’t feel pressured to be doing research on top of that! (Of course, it will get you thinking a lot about research directions etc. but one of the best parts about it is just the opportunity to step back from your own research & learn by osmosis from other scholars’ research Q’s and how they framed their books.)

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