U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“The Ideology Problem in Teaching and Scholarship” (S-USIH Conference Guest Post)

Editor’s Note: This is another in our ongoing series of guest posts reporting on panels from the recently concluded Society for U.S. Intellectual History Conference in Indianapolis. The following is a review of the opening plenary session for the recent S-USIH conference in Indianapolis, entitled “The Ideology Problem in Teaching and Scholarship.” Its author, Trevor Burrows, is a graduate student at Purdue University. His areas of interest include American religious history, twentieth-century social and political movements, and the long 1960s. He is beginning work on a dissertation, set in Chicago, concerning the place and impact of religious institutions and thought among various “Movement” groups of the 1960s and ’70s. He blogs regularly at Religion and American History.

What problems does ideology pose in our teaching and research? What do we do with our ideological commitments when we enter the classroom? Does airing them openly help or hinder our larger pedagogical goals? Where do we find ideology in our research subjects, and what role does ideology play in our own scholarship, in our choice of topics and methodologies? These are a few of the questions raised during the opening plenary session of this year’s conference. The theme, “The ‘Ideology Problem’ in Teaching and Research,” was addressed by a lively panel including Andrew Hartman, Susan Curtis, Michael Kramer, Christopher Shannon, and Rick Perlstein.

Although each panelist approached the theme from a different perspective, the group shared a general consensus that our ideological commitments cannot be divorced from our work. Furthermore, all seemed to agree that ideology is not to be found in one’s explicit commitments alone but is instead, to paraphrase a common statement from the panel, to be found everywhere. It cannot be boxed up and set aside when we write our lectures or lead classroom discussions; there is no “ideology” switch that can be flipped off when we are planning our research projects or reading through sources. While not every panelist addressed the question explicitly, this point seemed to be taken as something of a fact. Considering the truly diverse scope of institutional settings and specializations represented on the panel, this consensus seems significant –especially in light of the persistence of the “objectivity question” throughout the profession’s history.

Yet if all more or less agreed on this point, a firm answer to the remaining question – what do we do with the inescapability of ideology – was less apparent. Andrew Hartman and Susan Curtis both recognized that some of their most influential teachers were also the most overtly ideological in their teaching. They stressed that critical thinking was no less an obligation or ideal in those classrooms than in others. Christopher Shannon suggested that in our research and teaching there is a point where the evidence stops, where different ideologies must be weighed against each other if questions of significance and meaning are to be considered. (During the Q&A Shannon proposed that this process of adjudication may be what separates our work from being purely descriptive in method and instrumental in purpose, and may meet a specific need of students.) Using modern conservativism’s lack of intellectual commitment as an example, Rick Perlstein suggested that devotion to a notion of balance – to both sides being heard – could at times actually distort the historical record. And Michael Kramer, echoing several other panelists, recommended disposing of the idea that ideology was a mask or cover, and recast the scholar’s role as identifying how, where, and when ideology was at work — including in objects other than text. If there was a common thread to these responses, it was perhaps in the broad suggestion that ideology, far from being something to run away from, could in fact do valuable work in the classroom and research alike.

These suggestions naturally raised a number of important responses from the audience. Several questions suggested the possibility of distinguishing between the ideologies of which we can be aware and the more subterranean, but no less influential ideologies that inform our work. Is there a difference between the two? If so, what does each require of us as teachers and researchers? Similarly, another question pertained to whether or not the effect of ideology in the classroom might be empirically assessed, whether there was any pedagogical literature that might gauge the effect of a more prominent ideological approach to instruction upon the students themselves. Both of these questions offer possible next steps for thinking through the “ideology problem.”

Walking away from the panel, I was reminded of a graduate seminar in American religious history that I attended a year ago. Toward the semester’s end, the professor asked whether or not it mattered to us if a historian announced their own religious predilections at the start of their work. The class was split. But when the professor asked the class to guess the affiliations of some of the scholars we were studying, the students frequently guessed incorrectly. The question implicitly raised by this impromptu experiment was whether the quality of a piece of scholarship is affected, positively or negatively, by the ability to discern the author’s ideological inclinations.

Should we laud such scholarship – work that has at least constructed a veil of plausible objectivity – more than its opposite, where ideology seems worn on the scholar’s sleeves? Is that the only alternative? If we have recognized that ideology saturates everything, that it cannot be “turned off,” are efforts toward fairness, balance, and objectivity a ruse? In light of the impossibility of absolute objectivity, how do we weigh the merits of historical scholarship? These are not new questions by any means, but the panelists of the opening plenary session helped to recast them, and the “ideology problem” in general, in fresh and provocative ways.