When I retired in 2017 after more than four decades as an English and history teacher, I was faced with a dilemma.
The timing of departure stems in part from a series of broken commitments that have left me reluctant to pursue an active institutional connection. That didn’t preclude continuing relationships with colleagues, friends and former students, of course, but it did mean that my days of university teaching were well and truly over. What to do next?
It is a widespread problem. While teaching and learning is a calling, it is not a calling that can simply be abandoned once the need or opportunity to earn an income is gone. But my goals as an academic had been largely achieved. My books are widely respected in their fields, and although another is now under review by editors, I did not wish to continue writing scholars.
My new path gradually emerged. First, I needed a transition period. But as I sat down and reflected, the public sphere went into a frenzy, with the Trump agenda, the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election. And amid the chaos of the January 6 insurgency, the pieces of my future fell into place. .
My career has been at three public universities in three major cities, and I have always been engaged in a variety of extramural activities known as “public history” – or, less frequently, “humanities”. public â. These included advising historical societies and museums on exhibitions, programming and written materials (such as brochures); assist journalists with backgrounds and sources; and as an advisor, panelist and speaker for public radio and television. In my areas of expertise, I have also occasionally advised US and international public agencies.
This work was rarely time consuming, but it was a stimulating and enriching extension of my teaching and my research. It also facilitated exciting new contacts and relationships. These experiences paved the way for my new niche in the post-Trump era: publicly presenting unusual perspectives and alternative, often historical, contexts on contemporary issues.
I started out by writing opinion pieces and letters focused on national and state policy, particularly in relation to the pandemic. Yet although I have published letters and what we used to call editorials in newspapers and educational media, I have experienced a somewhat frustrating introduction to the modern world of publishing, where publishers hardly blame never receive bids and rarely communicate their decisions. I only found out that some of my letters were published while reading the newspaper or checking online: a rewarding experience for a person socialized in academic practice.
Yet I persevered. I also touched on broader topics, in particular the state of the media and civic education: issues such as right-wing attacks on voting rights and misrepresentations of critical race and gender theory. what schools teach about race. None of these topics were new to me, but writing for a general audience required sophisticated communication skills (and my wife’s sharp editing).
These activities flowed almost naturally into others. I have systematically contacted local and national journalists to offer them my historical advice. Many have ignored my emails; one of them replied that “the research would interfere with my objectivity”. But others have welcomed my contribution, and some have become friends. And as my âguest essaysâ and letters gained a wider audience, journalists and public radio stations started contacting me.
Interviews on national radio and, above all, public forums are particularly rewarding after nearly 50 years in the classroom. While today’s audience is virtual, it’s empowering to talk to people who are largely self-selected and actively interested, who usually respond with excellent questions and comments. Fortunately, nothing looks like RateMyProfessors either!
I have also extended my outreach activities to local, state and national elected officials, as well as to nonprofit advocacy groups, especially those involved in education, municipal administration, state issues and community projects. law. Again, some ignored me, while others spoke to me, in person or by phone. Government officials briefed me on the functioning of their institutions while I provided background information and alternative perspectives on key issues. The exchanges were generally rich and mutually enriching.
I increasingly recognized that I was refining the knowledge and skills that I had acquired and practiced during my academic career, and I began to feel a noticeable impact on opinion and politics. At the same time, I am well aware of the limits of my work.
Some right-wing voices – and perhaps more moderate ones – will question my right as a retired professor to speak out on political issues, even if I draw on my professional expertise. Some will call me a “partisan” even if I am not engaged as a representative of any party. Others will claim that I violate the “terms” of “objectivity” and “traditional” professional standards, even though trained and experienced academics have always combining professionalism and objectivity with responsible activism. I will not be influenced by any of them. And I will point out to them the right-wing academics still affiliated with universities that violate established standards of objectivity. The complaint of the right is at best ill-informed and contradictory, and at worst hypocritical.
Becoming public is certainly a lifelong learning experience. So far, however, it has been a very satisfying retirement âcareerâ. It offers the rewards of academic life without the constraints and contradictions of college or narrowly defined professionalism. I recommend it more widely. The urgent challenges of our time demand it.
Harvey J. Graff is Emeritus Professor of English and History at Ohio State University, where he was Ohio’s first distinguished scholar in literacy studies and founding director of LiteracyStudies @ OSU. He is the author of numerous works on social history.