Defining the History Beat

As of this week, I’ll be shifting my role at Slate. I’ll still be writing the Vault, but I’ll also be contributing more frequently to the History section, writing longer pieces on a regular basis. I wanted to write a bit here about my understanding of the history “beat,” as I’ll be defining it in my new capacity as Slate’s history writer.

Science journalists follow science as it’s developing now. They cover new research, but also write about trends in inquiry, profile people in the field who are undertaking interesting projects, and talk about the place of science in public life.

Historical writing in general-interest non-academic publications is much spottier—a poor cousin to regular coverage, responding to anniversaries or controversies in the news, but rarely seeming to constitute an ongoing project with its own goals (a few notable and admirable exceptions aside).

I’m lucky that Slate is willing to let me think broadly and ambitiously about this job, and I’d like to try to build something new.

With that in mind, here’s the history beat as I see it:

  1. Cover new and interesting historical research. I’ll be reviewing just-published historical books or articles I think Slate readers would find interesting, and interviewing historians about the research that went into their work. (I’ve done this a few times at Slate, writing about Mark Smith’s sensory history of the Civil War or Laura Puaca’s book about women who advocated for each other while pursuing careers in STEM in the Cold War era.) I’ll also write about new directions in historical inquiry, as I did in this piece about “big” and “small” history in the Boston Globe’s Ideas section. And I’d love to start covering research-in-progress more often.
  2. Write original histories, based on primary and archival sources. I’ve been keeping lists of interesting primary sources that are too complex for Vault posts; bigger archives that I’d like to explore and write about more extensively; and the names of mostly-unknown historical figures and episodes that beg further investigation. A few longer pieces of this kind I’ve published in the past years are this one, for Slate’s History section, about the Montagnards of Vietnam, or this one, for Aeon Magazine, about Ladies’ Home Journal’s “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” advice column.
  3. Cover what’s happening in museums, archives, digital history, and historical education. Vault posts often tangentially discuss new exhibits and digital collections, when I use documents and objects that come to me courtesy of those resources. I’ve written more comprehensively about these worlds a couple of times—for Lapham’s Quarterly’s Roundtable blog, about the Viral Texts project; for Times Higher Education, about the “History of X in Y Objects” trend; and for Slate’s Browbeat blog about the @HistOpinion Twitter feed—but I have a lot of room to grow here. Adding more coverage of historical pedagogy is a particular goal of mine.
  4. Chase down history in the wild. I’m interested in the way people talk about history on the Web, in local political debates, in fiction, at the movies, in conversation with each other. I’ve done some of this coverage in the past when I wrote for Slate about historical Twitter accounts, uses of historical medical images online, and the books that made historians love history, and for the Virginia Quarterly Review about the idea of the Letter of Note. I think of this part of the beat as “History as Culture.”

Historians, history fans, archivists, booksellers, editors, teachers, and readers have been so supportive of the Vault. I’d love to get feedback, help, story ideas, emails, tweets, and tips from you as I begin to do more with history at Slate.