Junto March Madness: Some Reflections

Colonial historians celebrating Morgan’s victory.

The final outcome of the Junto March Madness wasn’t really a surprise. Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery: American Freedom was the most heavily nominated book when we compiled the bracket, and no challenger really came close to defeating it as it stormed through the tournament like a juggernaut. Morgan’s easy victory invites reflection on why the book remains such a well-loved classic. Today, I am going to offer a few preliminary thoughts as to what we can can learn from the tournament, with all usual caveats about the unscientific nature of the process still in force.

One surprisingly constant feature of the tournament was the success of classics of the field against less road-tested rivals. Of course, this analysis only works up to a point—previous ‘”classics” of the field didn’t even make the first cut, with the field of 64 comprised entirely of books from about 1968 onwards. This probably isn’t too surprising. Works that remain widely read decades after publication, after all, are generally notable for quality research, elegant writing, and analytical sophistication. Yet it did make me wonder about how we think about recent scholarship. Academic book reviews frequently demand that readers in a variety of fields engage in new scholarship—the feedback loop before those insights really do have wide resonance in the field, however, seems considerably longer. I wonder if this is a product of how small the academic community can be at times—I’ve seen it remarked elsewhere how many ‘cutting-edge’ ideas become commonplace before publication, given the way in which works-in-progress are trailed at conferences, seminars and other locales where historians gather. At the very least, though, I will redouble my efforts to ensure that my teaching, in particular, takes account of recent developments in the field.

Recent books that went deep into the tournament included Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire, Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship and Daniel Richter’s Facing East From Indian Country. That reflects a profession that has made great strides toward greater understanding of the complicated histories of race, and the impact of cross-cultural contact on American historical development. The prevalence of these trends was reflected in the books that made it to the Elite Eight—by my reckoning, there were no books explicitly addressing political history that made it that far. (If you take a strict definition of political history, only two political books made it to the Sweet Sixteen). I’m going to need more time to come up with a good answer as to why that’s the case, but it does suggest, at the very least, that there should be fertile ground for political historians to take advantage of new insights in social and cultural history to reinvigorate their own fields.

On a further note about the success of Rediker and Richter in the tournament, both those books are more clearly aimed at general readers than some of their rivals in the tournament. I’ve used both productively in undergraduate teaching; I also recommend both to non-majors and non-historians when asked for general books on American history. Given that works of more explicitly ‘popular history’ were largely absent from the list of nominations, the success of these books does indicate the importance of well-written general introductions to a subject. I’m not suggesting that any of the books in the tournament lacked analytical depth, but the books that went a long way into the tournament generally had broader resonance than their rivals.

One final reflection, the two books in the final (Morgan and William Cronon’s Changes In The Land) are now long-established classics of the field. Neither of them, though, were written as the culmination of long research careers on the subject. Morgan was far more renowned as a historian of Puritan New England, but his pre-eminent book today came from a historiographical journey down South. Cronon’s book is famously (and remarkably) the product of a seminar paper written as a graduate student. There is a tendency for all professional historians—myself included—to define our works narrowly and to defend our territory staunchly. The results of the Junto’s March Madness suggest that we would do well to guard against developing and defending cults of specialism. If there’s one thing above all that I hope to gain from having observed and participated in this exercise, it’s to remind myself to keep reading widely, to keep challenging myself, and to tackle fields of history outside of my comfort zone. Some of the most popular, inventive, long-lasting and broadly-conceived works come from a fresh pair of eyes.

6 comments on “Junto March Madness: Some Reflections

  1. Some really interesting thoughts, Ken. I especially appreciate your closing comment on specialization as a narrowing of interests, and I think it’s a good reminder to all.

    Along that vein, I’d like to offer my own relatively simple (simplistic, perhaps?) theory about why the classics did so well: everyone has read and appreciated them already, much more so than newer, more cutting-edge work. Which is to say that most everybody who has done work in early America (including undegraduates, as John Fea pointed out this morning) has encountered Morgan in some form or another (and the same goes for Cronon, Laurel Ulrich, and a few others).

    Or, to put it another way, our field has a relatively slow absorption rate. So something like Hamalainen’s Comanches, which has received (I think) universally positive reviews, hasn’t yet been fully absorbed into the world of those outside Native American history. Richter’s book, on the other hand, is now over 10 years old, is often used in undergraduate survey environments, and otherwise has permeated the early Americanist discussion broadly. The difference is one of degree, of course, but I think it could help explain some of the results.

  2. Brian A. Graham says:

    An extremely thoughtful, well written reflective essay which illustrates the utility of our fun little exercise. Although I appreciate the “unscientific nature” of our little endeavor, I feel that combined with trends in academic publishing and the journals in our field, it is nevertheless representative of the state of the field and the graduate training we have received over the past three or four decades.

    Like Mr, Adelman’s well written comment, I too wish to offer a simple observation about why there exists a “relatively slow absorption rate.” Historians are by nature rather conservative. I don’t mean politically, but methodologically. We favor the literary over the mathematical. We also tend to replicate the methods and interpretations of our advisers. Someone made a comment a few days back about “academic pedigree,” and let’s face it, although we like to imagine the life of the mind as being meritocratic a number of other factors nevertheless creep in. The overwhelming majority of authors were white, male and attended elite private institutions on the east coast of the United States.

    Ken wrote about how small the academic community can be, and I fear it is only going to get smaller. With the percentage of adjunct positions increased to an alarmingly high number, I fear that scholarship with be restricted to those relatively scarce elite institutions with the funding to allow research to be done by those privileged few who were able to surmount the high costs of obtaining academic employment.

    Earlier in this tournament I was championing Rebecca Goetz’s book The Baptism of Early Virginia and a couple of people mentioned the high price of obtaining a six month old hardcover which got me thinking about how higher academia has neglected the commons. Unless one is lucky enough to attend Yale, the University of Illinois, or University of California, or other major research institutions, one is forced to either rely on inter library loans and wait for the handful of available copies to become available or buy a copy for one’s self. The same process applies for accessing “free scholarship” produced by unpaid authors via JSTOR, but I digress. Because of the library where I adjunct, I struggle each year with assigning my book review assignment for my survey courses. Imagine a library where the vast majority of the limited history monographs were obtained before 1985. I think unequal resources is also a factor in the slow dissemination of cutting edge research.

    I wish to thank the tournament organizers for an entertaining, smoothly running affair, and I thank everyone for providing me with an opportunity to revisit some old books and reflect.

  3. Ken Owen says:

    Thanks for your comments, Brian – I think the questions about how ‘meritocratic’ the life of the mind is are well worth considering further. It’s interesting that though the authors of the books in the final stages of the tournament were largely white, male graduates of elite private institutions, the subjects of their books often weren’t.

    So I think there’s something structural that’s worth examining here. Joe and others have pointed out that the most-loved books with the widest audience are those that have been on undergraduate and comps reading lists for different academic generations. But the academic opportunities for women in the 1960s and 1970s were clearly much narrower than the opportunities today. It takes decades to make a full professor; changes can’t occur overnight. So if we were to repeat the exercise in, say, 20 years time, I would hope that the demographics of the authors would have changed significantly.

    I do wonder how much this will be the case. If repeating a similar exercise next year, I’d like to look at books published since 2000. Comparing the field that would be compiled from that process to the more general bracket would be a very instructive process, I think.

    • I also think it’s worth examining (see thought experiment below). I still am deeply surprised that A Midwife’s Tale didn’t advance further because I think it does have that canonical status (now over 20 years old!) on syllabi and in the hearts and minds of historians. One of the other things I’ve wondering about during this process is the relationship in voting between book and author. Having only accepted one title per author, I’ve been curious for which voters have been clicking. For example, would a different book (Founding Mothers and Fathers?) by Mary Beth Norton have fared better than Liberty’s Daughters? Did Foner advance so far because of admiration for his entire career? I don’t know the answers, of course, and I’d rather debate something else, so let me move on.

      Your comment about the syllabus (and our previous discussions about what gets put on syllabi) has me wanting to propose a thought experiment, and maybe we can do a post here at some point on this or a related question. Essentially, it’s this: What is gained and lost by replacing Edmund Morgan on your syllabus with either Kathleen Brown or Rebecca Goetz?

      Not sure if we can get a full discussion going here, but I think that’s one way to frame the discussion.

      • What is lost in ditching Morgan for Brown or Goetz is readability. No small part of the staying power of his work is the elegant simplicity of his writing style, even at its most analytical.

  4. M.J.G. says:

    With Brown you gain women and gender. I noticed that towards the end of the tournament there was only one book (Ulrich) that presents a narrative of early American history that incorporates women and/or gender in any serious way.

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