Where Historians Work: Q&A with Kenneth Minkema of the Jonathan Edwards Center

“The search for gainful employment drives a willingness to be diverse in your ways of being a historian.” ~ Dr. Kenneth P. Minkema, The Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University.

Minkema photo

For this week’s “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America,” The Junto features a Q&A with Dr. Kenneth P. Minkema, the Executive Editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, and the Executive Director of The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. Dr. Minkema is also a member of the Research Faculty at the Yale Divinity School.

In today’s Q&A, Katy and Ken chat about many topics, including the role that mentors and advisors can play in shaping career choices in graduate school and beyond, and how finding the right “fit” or “vocation” can be a true source of professional inspiration and purpose.

JUNTO: Tell us about the work that you do. How does it relate—or not relate—to the research you undertook in your doctoral studies?

KENNETH MINKEMA: I completed doctoral studies at the University of Connecticut in 1988, having completed a dissertation on—what else—Edwards. But more precisely, I wrote on the Edwards family as a ministerial dynasty in eighteenth-century New England (think Middlekauff on the Mathers and Nagel on the Adamses, prominent multi-generational family studies that appeared at that time).

Since then, I have come to be responsible for nearly all of the activities of a major historical papers and digital humanities project. The Yale Edwards Edition is venerable, going back to the 1950s, when a multivolume series was begun by a team of editors under the direction of Harvard’s Perry Miller and published by Yale Press.T hat series, 26 volumes, was completed in 2008. Out of the Edition’s offices the Jonathan Edwards Center was created to support research, education and publication in Edwards Studies and related fields. In the process, we became a digital humanities project as well, digitizing all of the printed volumes as well as supplemental born-digital sources that amount to nearly 100,000 pages. So, while we perform all of the functions of a research center, assisting scholars, students and others, and coordinating several outreach initiatives, we are also still transcribing and editing texts by Edwards and documents that relate to his life and legacy.

JUNTO: What was the journey after graduate school like for you? Can you reflect on some of the choices you confronted when you made the decision to work with for — and later lead — the Jonathan Edwards Center?

MINKEMA: Following doctoral studies, I adjuncted for one year, teaching classes at UConn and at University of Hartford. Meanwhile, my mentor and long-time friend Harry (Skip) Stout, who had become part of the Yale faculty the previous year, joined the board of the Edwards Works, eventually becoming the General Editor (so he’s technically the “leader,” while I’m the managing editor). When the project received its first multi-year grant, enabling it to establish a central office for the first time at Yale Divinity School, Skip put my name forward and I was hired, beginning in 1989. (I arrived a couple of days before a tornado hit downtown New Haven, tearing right up Prospect Street in front of the Divinity School; I recall stepping over downed power lines and trees on my walk home, and of course electricity was out for days. Welcome to New Haven!)

Over the years, and especially early on, I applied for and have been recruited for other positions, but I made the decision to remain with the Edwards project, because I felt a real sense of purpose there. It has become my life’s work, my vocation or calling. I feel very fortunate to have found just the right niche for myself, in which I love what I do. Not many people get to realize that. But I owe that to the advice and support of many people (not least of all my wife, Lori).

JUNTO: How did your relationships with various mentors (advisors, professors, colleagues) and the broader scholarly community shape your career trajectory? Do you have any advice for graduate students seeking to build stronger relationships with mentors?

MINKEMA: Looking back, I see how my experience illustrates how important a network of supporting individuals can be, how one’s life depends on a complex of relationships. At UConn, the cohort of graduate students of which I was a part was very mutually supportive, as were the faculty. My advisors were very unselfish with all their students, and yet practical in their advice, an ethic I try to observe towards my colleagues and pass on to students. Skip introduced me to editors of the Edwards project while I was a doctoral student, when I began as a volunteer transcriber. These included significant scholars in American history, religious studies, and literature. But he also introduced me to Edwards specialists, the scholars doing the detailed work, who took me under their wing and trained me in all of the aspects of Edwards’ manuscripts and related issues. I owe them so much. They freely shared their knowledge and their scholarship, as well as their love of historical texts. Through the Edwards connections, I also came to know a constellation of volume editors, young and old. And through the years I have worked with a series of associate editors, all of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.

These smaller circles of relations stand within larger ones. For example, over a couple of decades and more, the Edwards project hosted and co-hosted many conferences, which attracted a steady stream of presenters and participants, till at any given conference we had very healthy attendance. What resulted was a true fellowship. More recently, that fellowship has been extended and expanded through the Edwards Center’s international network of affiliates, an innovative initiative that seeks to engage our global users, encourage use of primary sources, and further dialogue, research and teaching about Edwards and related topics. This has proven successful beyond imagination: there are now ten affiliates in eight countries, with more on the way. Through this network, I have the opportunity to consult with students and researchers from many backgrounds, to teach in various settings, and to sponsor the work of up-and-coming scholars, educators and religious leaders.

JUNTO: What skills as a historian did you bring to your position with the Jonathan Edwards Center? What skills did you learn while on the job? How do these skills complement each other in your daily work?

MINKEMA: I was trained in a fairly traditional manner, with the expectation that I would most likely teach a full load in undergraduate settings. But when I became involved in historical editing, I had to re-tool myself. That process was begun in part as a doctoral student when I was encouraged to publish primary documents, and was led by the hand by eminent journal editors. My training under the Edwards editors was essential, and I joined professional organizations such as the Society for Documentary Editing. But much of this was learned on the job or alongside others.

Other skills I had to learn were grant writing and reporting, maintaining budgets, administration, supervising a staff, liaising with a major university press, and, last but not least, learning the ins and outs of computerized and online work (when I started, the desktop computer was in its very infant, and very unreliable, stages, and our printers were the clacky, daisy-wheeled variety through which we fed paper with perforated edges).

This experience enabled me to become involved in assisting in other worthwhile initiatives. I served as an administrator for a series of residential and non-residential fellowship programs at Yale that supported doctoral students, young faculty and senior scholars. That led in turn to serving as an officer of a professional society.

I found that I took great satisfaction in being able to assist others in their work, to facilitate the meeting of minds and hearts in professional settings, to create the kinds of networks from which I benefited so much. Meanwhile, the Edwards Edition office became a defacto research center, and so morphed into the Edwards Center, where we respond to countless onsite and online requests for assistance. These efforts have expanded in the Edwards Center into community-sourcing initiatives, overseeing the publication of a journal and monograph series, teaching, student advising, and partnering with other projects and institutions.

JUNTO: In our phone conversation, we discussed how the study of Edwards is not simply a study of theology, but rather is a study of broader historical context. What role does a historian play in distilling the life of a very complex, prolific person, such a Jonathan Edwards, for a diverse audience?

MINKEMA: Edwards is of course incredibly important in the history of western and Christian thought, on a par with Calvin and Luther really, and considered the most eminent metaphysician between Leibniz and Kant; but I tend not to look at theology or philosophy by themselves. Naturally, Edwards is predominantly the focus of professional theologians and historians of religious thought, not to mention scholars from many other disciplines; but he also is widely read, and widely claimed, by religionists from all parts of the world and from many traditions. I recall some early conference sessions in which the scholarly and the religious would rub against each other uncomfortably, as a person of faith would get up and give what amounted to a testimony against the intellectualization of Edwards. I guess that was our version of the culture war. But I think the Edwards community has overcome that, as adherents of academy and church complement each other and adopt each other’s approach where appropriate, because in the end we are all seeking quality and accuracy of expression and interpretation.

I approach Edwards as a person of his times; for all that he is unique, he is also a window on the period, both noble and ignoble. So, as a historian, I try to be impartial and not privilege him. I seek to highlight the connection between formal theology and life as lived. I want to illuminate the realities of his familial, local, regional, and transatlantic contexts. As his editor (if I may presume to call myself that), my main task is to provide the most accurate and comprehensive text and commentary possible for future generations, and to encourage readers to take the time and effort to read him.

JUNTO: Do you have any final thoughts on career diversity for Early Americanists that you’d like to share?

MINKEMA: Continue to acquaint yourselves with the latest advances and applications in digital humanities. I was a member of that transitional generation that, in less than two decades, went from paper and pen to manual typewriter to electric typewriter to computer, so understanding the digital world did not come naturally. But now it is not only vital for superior teaching and personal research, but provides the basis for being flexible and adaptable. With this foundation, one can teach in various settings whether onsite or online, or work in public history capacities, in libraries and museums, in historical editions, in advocacy, in philanthropy, and so forth.

JUNTO: We appreciate you sharing these insights with us, Ken! Thank you!

Junto readers, check back on Tuesday, June 20 for the next installment of “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America.” Till then!

2 responses

  1. Ken also mentors other traditionally-trained historians who become documentary editors sort of by accident, and many of us have been lucky enough to have Ken’s wisdom as we slog thorough our own documentary projects. He has certainly paid Dr. Stout’s kindnesses forward…

  2. Pingback: Loyalist Trails 2017-23 – UELAC


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