A Conversation with Caroline Janney (part four)

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Janney, Carrie(part four of four)

We’ve been talking this week with Dr. Caroline Janney, author and past president of the Society of Civil War Historians. Currently on the history faculty at Purdue University, she’ll take up a new post next fall at the University of Virginia as the John L. Nau III Professor of Civil War History and the director of the Nau Center. “It’ll be Gary Gallagher’s former position,” she said, quickly adding, “I can’t fill his shoes.”

Like Gallagher, one of her mentors, Janney has spent a lot of time bridging the divide between the academy and the public. ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski asked her about that part of her work.

Chris Mackowski: I want to go back to something we talked about a minute ago: the public speaking you do. When I’m out talking at roundtables, I hear your name come up often. The audiences you’ve spoken to rave about your presentations. You’re someone who comes up often when people are talking about their highlights. How does that compare to the academic part of what you do? 

Caroline Janney: There are many ways in which they have a lot in common. Trying to explain the hows and whys of whatever topic I’m addressing to a public audience is not all that different than in a classroom, at least an upper-level classroom where students have chosen to be in that class. Both respond well to energy and excitement. It’s just the way I talk—I couldn’t do it differently if I wanted to.

Being receptive to questions is important, too. I try not to be the professor that just stands there and lectures on stage, but an interactive experience, where I’m asking them questions and they ask me questions, so I feel like the learning goes in both directions. I truly believe that.

On the other hand, I admit that there is a certain writing style that I have to use for academic audiences, but I also want my writing to be accessible for the general public, so that’s something I try to be very conscious of in the way that I write.

I think that both reinforce one another: talking to people and visiting places. One of the things I like about roundtables is getting to visit places like Austin and Kansas that I might not otherwise get to visit. The opportunities have been learning experiences for me, so it’s really a two-way street.

CM: Do you see a disconnect between public history and academic history—between the academy and people that are working in the field at historical sites and national parks and places like that?

CJ: I don’t want to suggest that there isn’t because I’m sure there are many people that think that there is. For me, the park service is especially important, not just because of my own time there, but important because of the colleagues and friends that I have in the park service, and I know I couldn’t do my job without them. They are an invaluable resource and overwhelming generous with their time. I know how much hard work they do on the front lines and I’m very conscious of that and grateful for what they do. That’s not exactly the answer you’re really looking for.

CM: I’m not really looking for any answer in particular. What’s so refreshing about this is that you’re just so optimistic and so forward thinking. It’s just a pleasure.

CJ: Perhaps I’m not being realistic; I know there are budget concerns and things that hamper what people on the front lines can and can’t do, such as not having resources. And I’m not unaware of the disconnect that public historians often feel from academic historians and vice versa. But I truly believe that we are better off when we collaborate and work together. 

CM: I feel the exact same way. For me, when Joe Q. Public walks through the door of a historical site, at the end of the day, he has to have some sort of way to connect with history or find it relevant to him in order for them to take that story away with him. The more ways historians can help to facilitate those stories, the better.

CJ: And in that way, I do see the parallels. I understand why someone on the front lines might not see it the same way, but for me, it’s the same challenge with a student in a general survey course. There are students that have to be there and don’t necessarily want to be there. How do I convince them that there are things you can get out of the class if you think about history in a slightly different way—ways that you can then connect and see your world in a different way. I tend to take it as a challenge to try to help them open that door much in the same way that those at public history sites do every day.

CM: As you move forward with your writing and your teaching, do you have any particular goals or aspirations?

CJ: There’s always the next book or project, and wanting to continue to speak or write in a way that sheds new light on what we think are familiar topics. I think I’m just so grateful for all of the opportunities that I have had, I just want to be able to keep doing what I’m doing and having those opportunities.