Editing in the Time of COVID: An Interview with Johann Neem

Will Mackintosh

After the recent announcement that Johann Neem would be joining Andy Shankman as co-editor of the Journal of the Early Republic, Panorama editor Will Mackintosh grabbed the chance to ask him a few questions about how he sees the task in front of him.

Will: What does it feel like to be joining the editorial team of the Journal of the Early Republic right now, in late 2020, a year in which there has been, ahem, a lot of history?

Johann: Honestly, a bit crazy. It took an act of faith. I had to believe that no matter what happens between November and January, and beyond, we will still need serious students of United States history. I had to believe that no matter what happens between November and January, there will still be institutions that support scholarship, even as the future of colleges and universities seems uncertain. I had to believe, also, that there will still be people who are willing to put in the time and effort to produce that scholarship, even as fewer scholars are on the tenure track. I know many junior scholars, in particular, who are not provided the resources that come with a tenure-line position, and I have been impressed by how committed they are to write because they believe. And I find that commitment inspiring and worth honoring. I think it’s correct, too. No matter what our position, and no matter what happens in the coming months or years, as scholars, we have a responsibility to work collectively to generate authoritative knowledge about the past.

Will: What inspired you to throw your hat in the ring to be considered for co-editor of the Journal of the Early Republic?

Johann: The main reason that I agreed is because I was asked and I felt obliged to serve SHEAR, an organization that has done so much for me. Organizations like SHEAR are capacity-building—they enable scholarship to thrive. We depend on SHEAR and, in turn, I want to give back to it.

One of the things that makes being an editor particularly appealing for me right now is the slower, deliberate timeline. Good scholarship takes time. It can take years to write an article, and decades to write a book. But we’re living in a moment where social media encourages speed. I’ll admit that I too have been seduced by the instant gratification of social media and other public forms of writing. I believe in public writing, but I think any historian who speaks publicly is indebted to the slow, painstaking, difficult work of scholarship. But it’s harder to be a scholar these days. When I was a graduate student, I expected that most of my work would be unseen. Every few years I’d have an article or a conference paper, and I’d write a couple books. But between these moments of glory, the scholar’s duty– and opportunity– was to lose themselves in their work and teach their students.

I think it’s harder to do that these days. It’s not just social media. Universities have pressured scholars to prove relevance by speaking with/to the public, forgetting that unless we have strong disciplinary journals like the JER, that depend on longer-term timelines, we will not develop the kinds of knowledge that will be worth sharing in our classrooms or in public.

Will: How do you see mission of the Journal of the Early Republic in relation to the larger field of early American history?

Johann: I think that it is great that we have several journals that cover the same period from different angles. The question I ask is what gives the conversation that SHEAR and the JER generate coherence? What distinguishes it from other ways into the era? In other words, if we are a professional organization that sustains a diverse community of scholars, what makes members of that community able to speak with each other? To me, the JER’s mission and SHEAR’s is shaped by the emergence of a new polity—the early American republic. Understanding that entity and its impact on the people within and beyond it is our organization’s mission. But how to do it is an open question, and we SHEARites disagree mightily (I am glad to say) on what questions to ask, what methods to use, and what lessons to draw from our findings. Some of the best work being done today frames the early American republic in contexts that were not available to us when the JER was first established. We are also more aware than ever before that we need to understand and share the experiences of the many kinds of people who shaped and were shaped by the early American republic. In some cases, our research obliges us to speak truths in our classrooms, our scholarship, and in public media that are unpleasant or politically unpopular. That’s our responsibility.

Will: What are some of your goals for your editorial tenure at the Journal of the Early Republic?

Johann: I see the role of editor as, just that, a role. It’s a kind of trust. An editor should not impose their historiographical arguments on the scholarly community, but instead facilitate others’ capacity to share their ideas. Being an editor, to me, is about welcoming, encouraging, and promoting different perspectives to ensure that the field is healthy and robust, and that the journal reflects the field in all its diversity and complexity. As editor, I want to continue to bring in new voices that will deepen and enrich our understanding of the era of the early American republic. I want to be sure that the JER is a place where all the big questions are asked. My goal, therefore, is simple: to be an editor, not a partisan, and to invite interpretations that ask us to confront our current understanding of the period.

Will: How would you describe your style as an editor? What should authors and readers know about you?

Johann: I think an editor’s role should be developmental, not just gatekeeping. I am not an expert in all things but I’m going to try my best to help authors produce their best work.

I care a lot about historiography. I think academic journals exist to expand the boundaries of what we know, to refine existing interpretations, and to challenge them and move beyond them. For me, a good article clearly states the significance of its argument for the discipline. The author should articulate why their work matters. There are many uses for history, but an academic journal article needs to have a historiographical purpose.

I never fully appreciated the importance of historiography until I started teaching. As I designed, and then continuously refined, my course on the early American republic, I gained a new appreciation for the work we do. The best articles required me to change what I taught. That, to me, was the rubber hitting the road: Changes in scholarship shaped what questions, and what ideas and frameworks, I brought into the classroom and offered to my students. The same holds true wherever history is used—in public history sites, in courtrooms, and in the media. In short, the best articles force us to see some part of the world differently than we did before.

22 October 2020

About the Author

Will Mackintosh is associate professor of history at the University of Mary Washington and the founding editor of The Panorama.

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