Monday, April 18, 2011

The Historian as Op-ed Artist: An Interview with Jonathan Zimmerman

Chris Beneke

You may have run across
Jonathan Zimmerman’s op-eds on the History News Network or while browsing the editorial pages of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Toronto Globe and Mail, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor, or USA Today. If there is a definable art to writing an op-ed, this NYU historian has mastered it. Even while serving as department chair and engaging in other academic leadership—Zimmerman recently completed his term as president of the History of Education Society—he manages to write two or three op-eds per month. In all, he has published more than 300 opinion pieces in major newspapers and magazines.

Despite his commitment to the op-ed form, Zimmerman isn’t convinced that an op-ed will change any reader’s particular mind. Yet he believes that it remains a critical democratic exercise. Zimmerman observes that "our history is replete with examples of collective moral progress. And pamphleteers—the op-ed writers of their day—helped speed it along, with the logic and power of their prose."

Recently, Prof. Zimmerman spoke at my home institution, Bentley University. I caught up with him afterward via email to pose a few historically oriented op-ed questions.

Chris Beneke: When you visited Bentley, you made a revealing (and funny) point about not beginning your op-ed: "Scholars have long disagreed . . ." Are there any other practical do’s and don’ts to which historians trying to publish op-eds should pay special attention?

Jonathan Zimmerman: Well, that's the first and most important point: always remember that you are NOT writing for an academic audience. So your readers don't care about debates among professors, unless these debates bear directly on an issue of the day.

And that brings me to my most important suggestion. Whatever you write, you need to link it to what editors call a "news peg"—that is, something that happened VERY recently. In the 24-7 media world, things become yesterday's news—to borrow another cliché—more quickly than you might guess. So if you see something in the paper that you want to write about, you need to write about it as soon as humanly possible

And when you do write, make sure to put the point of the piece—the reason you're writing it—no later than the second or third paragraph.

That's what editors call the "nut graph"—the paragraph that establishes the central claim of the piece. Editors get hundreds of these things per day, so if they don't get to your nut graph right away . . . they'll stop reading.

Beneke: Should a historian only consider topics related to her primary area of research? Will editors be interested in anything else an historian has to say?

Zimmerman: When you write about something in your area of expertise—and when your "slug," or italicized bio, indicates as much—you do have a better chance of getting into print. But I would never advise anyone to restrict their op-eds only to the subjects of their historical research. If you have spent 10 or 20 or 30 years reading and teaching history, you know a huge amount about many, many things—and vastly more than almost everyone else knows about them. I think you have a right and possibly even a duty to share that knowledge with lay audiences.

Beneke: It’s pretty clear that blogging will not advance your career as a historian. What about op-ed writing?

Zimmerman: Well "advance your career" is probably still a stretch. But I will say that it won't inhibit your career, as it might have in the old days.

When I first started out, several senior scholars advised me not to write op-eds: it's a distraction from your "real" work, and it might make you seem flip or facile. I very much doubt that a junior scholar would receive such advice today, because the idea (or ideal) of the "public intellectual" is more deeply inscribed and accepted.

Beneke: Do you think that historians are peculiarly well-equipped to contribute op-eds, or would we be deluding ourselves in believing that?

Zimmerman: I wouldn't be a historian unless I thought the discipline had something very important to contribute to public dialogues. I do not think op-eds are the only way to do that!!! They're just my way. I do think each of us has a responsibility to share what we do with lay audiences. So we should all explore different ways of doing that.

For more on Zimmerman’s approach to the op-ed, click here.

1 comment:

Randall said...

Chris: Thanks for the interview.

I'm really interested in his point about audience. I wonder what other sorts of things would get jettisoned from the history ship that sails into popular audience waters.