Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Weird History Department News: Thad Russell Has The Last Word

Angry young man? Photo credit
Today's HuffPo has a blog post by former Barnard adjunct prof Thaddeus "Bad Thad" Russell who, by his own account, was kicking a$$ in History and American Studies on the Upper West Side of Manhattan until his colleagues finally found out what he was teaching.  The story is a little murky, it's true.  Russell, who took his PH.D. at Columbia, describes himself as an "eccentric" and claims to have been highly influenced by his counter-cultural upbringing and education.  He gave a job talk which horrified his colleagues and their counterparts at Columbia and, after four years of impermanent work at Barnard, was not offered a tenure-track position.

If Russell's job talk was anything like this post about the job talk, I can see why.

What kind of a teacher/scholar is Thad Russell?  Again, not clear: some of his work is terribly conventional, some aggressively unconventional. He seems happiest proclaiming the qualities that make him unclassifiable as a scholar, listing the many varieties of academic cant on the right and on the left that he smashes every day before breakfast.  Not surprisingly, Russell claims to have been a very popular teacher whose devoted students labeled him "Bad Thad" for his out-of-the box ways.  Students totally dig cant-smashers, except for the ones who don't:  this fringey conservative student website listed him as an "enemy professor."  That's cool.  However, in his current "I hate everyone and everyone hates me" mode I have difficulty understanding what Russell is talking about or what he actually believes about history, even after having read his descriptions of his scholarship and teaching philosophy several times. It is within the realm of possibility that the people who heard his job talk may have had a similar problem as Russell performed a celebrity "Bad Thad" persona that seems to have been aimed less at reinterpretation than at letting "the establishment" know how boring and ignorant it is.  For example, as Russell writes,

My students were most troubled by the evidence that the "good" enemies of "bad" freedoms were not just traditional icons like presidents and business leaders, but that many of the most revered abolitionists, progressives, and leaders of the feminist, labor, civil rights, and gay rights movements worked to suppress the cultures of working-class women, immigrants, African Americans, and the flamboyant gays who brought homosexuality out of the closet.

I had developed these ideas largely on my own, in my study and in classrooms, knowing all the while that I was engaged in an Oedipal struggle to overthrow the generation of historians who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, controlled academic history, and had trained me. They were so eager to make the masses into heroes that they did not see that it was precisely the non-heroic and unseemly characteristics of ordinary folks that changed American culture for the better.

Are you confused?  I am.  I just keep thinking, What is it that you do exactly? And, is anyone editing the Huffington Post nowadays? Go here to see a list of things that Russell has written, including a new book called A Renegade History of the United States, which is the only book I have ever known to be endorsed by both historian Nancy Cott and sexpert Susie Bright.  He is currently adjunct faculty "on special appointment" (whatever that means) at Occidental College, and seems to have transitioned to a freelance writing career.

A few lessons drawing on what I can understand from Russell's account of his unhappy termination at Barnard come to mind.  One is that senior people should never say, even lightly, that a visitor has has a good shot at making his or her job permanent.  It's very careless:  the visitor takes it seriously, and the people who say such things often have no power over that decision, no clue how it will be made, and no idea who the person they are talking to really is.  The second lesson is:  at life-changing moments, try to keep your pants on.  For example, when invited to give a job talk or any kind of scholarly presentation, going out of your way to show how unbelievably far out and unique you are can really backfire.  A group of historians is unlikely to start falling all over themselves with delight when they discover that a job candidate is a self-described eccentric who thinks his future colleagues are full of $hit.

The final lesson, I suppose, is a happier one.  If you think you have ideas, and you believe in yourself, when the scholarly establishment says "no," find a way to keep on writing anyway.  I had never heard of Thad Russell before tonight and now I have.  And so have you.


jason fossella said...

huffpo lets post pretty much anyone with a claim to celebrity. Jamie Lee Curtis has a whole series on social issues which is pretty light and fluffy, but not bad. and I loved her in True Lies.

perhaps the TR should get a gig on there?

Anonymous said...

Even though I'm inclined to be sympathetic to a guy like Russell, he comes across as a pompous ass.

the more people proclaim how renegade they are, the less its true.

this is schmaltzy self-promation for an interesting but not particularly profound historian.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this guy to my attention. I have ordered his book from Amazon. Seems like an original thinker -- something we could use more of in Academe. Most academics seem very conservative, even when teaching subjects like Women's Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, etc. We need more original thinkers and fewer plodding followers, on the Left as well as on the Right.


squadratomagico said...

I was as bemused as you were when I read this yesterday -- you really capture the confusion of the piece, how hard it is to figure out exactly what he's trying to say. However, you didn't mention my favorite bit: "many white Americans envied slaves ... since slave culture offered many liberating alternatives to the highly repressive, work-obsessed, anti-sex culture of the early United States." It's possible there's an element of truth in that statement, for some whites, in some times and places, but I find it hard to take as a general characterization of a common white attitude. And I think placing slavery in a dichotomy with "repressive" is pretty fucked.

Frowner said...

If I may delurk...I find the guy's basic project interesting and in line with pop-scholarly books like The London Hanged. I'd actually like to see his book, since the political activism I do has shown me a lot about how "disreputable" working class and queer subcultures change larger society and how they help structure radical politics.

I don't find the freelance stuff very promising, though, since it over-simplifies so dramatically. He doesn't seem to situate the goals of the "repressive" forces very well--it seems important to talk about how early American elites wanted to distance themselves from Europe and monarchy and so had a particular need for a rhetoric about virtue. I'm also wary of his discussion of [female] prostitution as an unmixed good and a sign of liberation rather than as regular old labor with a rather fierce set of drawbacks. If he's really engaged in an Oedipal struggle with his 60s mentors, perhaps he should bear in mind the sixties folkie/radical trope of "prostitution is awesome and [women] prostitutes are cool and liberated!"

Maybe his work fits with the cultural trend which has given us (for example) Boardwalk Empire, those Maturin books and the (really terrific) YA books about Octavian Nothing--the desire for a "real" version of the past, the belief that the "real" version of the past is sexed-up and violent (which is sort of true) and a free-floating, partially justified suspicion of standard narratives.

It seems very difficult to write a proletarian history like this without either seeming censorious and out-of-touch or unrealistically boosterish and oversimplifying.

LouMac said...

I'm with Anonymous 12:32. Those who need to loudly proclaim themselves to be something, usually aren't.

Anonymous said...

The worst kind of "liberal." If you are a person of color who disagrees with him you are "self-hating." There's a lot more to the story...signed: a former colleague

Matt L said...

That HuffPo post was silly.

It sounds like Bad Thad was a visiting lecturer who thought he was more indispensable than he really was.

Historiann said...

I'm with Matt L. His lede sentence tells you pretty much all you need to know about his self-delusion and cluelessness (or his willingness to capitalize on the cluenessness of others, anyway): "Five years ago, I had every reason to believe that my job as a history professor at Barnard College was secure. Why--because he was tenured, or had seveal years' worth of encouraging letters from the Tenure and Promotion committee in his department documenting his progress to tenure? No--he was an adjunct! What on God's green earth would lead any adjunct anywhere to believe that he has "every reason to believe that my job as a history professor . . . was secure."

I've interviewed for a lot more jobs than I was ever offered, so I understand his feelings of rejection and his need to find an excuse outside of his own performance. But, the fact is that there are a lot of smart and talented people in the world, and they sometimes get the job instead of us.

His pose as some kind of bold Libertarian truth-teller seems pretty fake to me. How cool for the youngish white male professor to say he "hated being 'Professor.' I cursed in class. I talked about sex. I used politically incorrect terms. My students said they had never heard the things I was teaching them in class." Russell took for granted the unearned privilege of respect and deference from students, got "cool points" that women and faculty of color couldn't get for behaving in a juvenille way, and then was surprised to learn that his colleagues didn't feel the same way as his students. Amazing!

(For the record, I talk about sex, prostitutes, and pirates in my classes--as do most social and cultural historians trained in the 1990s and 2000s--so I don't buy his schtick that he was so challenging and daring compared to his peers. My students also say they've never heard these things before--but I chalk that up not to my amazing and inventive derring-do, but rather to the fact that they're college students who haven't yet read a lot of books by professional historians.)

Well, I suppose everyone got what they wanted, because after all, he "hated being 'Professor.'"

Susan said...

I've met other versions of Russell, who loved being the bad boy (and they are usually men, for the reasons that Historiann suggests). They love to shock, but that can't be the only thing up your sleeve. I mean, when I'm teaching I love to give my students new ideas, and I admit that I want to mess with their assumptions, but there's more to it than that!

Squadrato nails the weirdness when he says people envied slaves. Is that why slaves took enormous risks to escape slavery and the "liberating" alternatives it offered?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Historiann and other posts that call this other TR out. Nevertheless, and despite my being suspicious of cults of personality that develop around instructors, this editorial in the student paper is perhaps of some interest:

Abe said...

All the haters should actually read some TR before they dismiss him out of hand. I don't get the sense that any of the posters so far have read his stuff, expect for the HuffPo piece which admittedly could use some editing. This may be a consequence of trying to condense a complex set of ideas (and yes, they are complex) into 1000 words. try this for starters, then check out his first book -- a brilliant revisionist history of Jimmy Hoffa. It's also worth pointing out that Renegade History broke the Top 100 on Amazon a few days ago. As the academic reading this blog will appreciate, it's exceedingly rare for a scholarly (or even quasi-scholarly book) to do that well. Not that selling books makes his stuff good, but he hits a populist nerve in a way few historian, even of the "social historian" bent manage to do. But I'd really caution people against judging TR's scholarship based on a piece that only mentions the content of his academic work in passing.

Tenured Radical said...

Abe: You are right about that, and that is a good caution. Readers should note that this piece (which some commenters are picking out) is about the un-wisdom of trying to take public revenge on others by publishing your own, inevitably self-serving, account of what happened (something that more than one of *us* in the blogosphere has done.) But don't forget the last part too -- if you are an intellectual, *be* an intellectual. Don't count on an academic world to support you, or assume it is the only path to academic production -- particularly if you have contempt for its values. And finally: keep writing, which as you point out, Russell has, evidently with some success.

Historiann said...

Abe--no one here commented on anything but the linked HuffPo article in which he complained of being denied a tenure-track job after an interview he was assured was a mere formality. Anyone who says he believed this is either a self-deluded fool, or is misrepresenting the facts of his employment with a manufactured controversy.

He may be a great historian, and if he is, good for him. I don't think I need to read his collected works (or blog posts) to call him out on the one I commented on.

Anonymous said...

I've started reading Renegade History, and I have mixed feelings. I love the lucid prose and contrarian provocations. The ubber-anarchist celebration of lawlessness and individual freedom is sexy (although, in my opinion, naïve and inescapably bourgeois in its focus on individual autonomy). The arguments are well supported by relevant evidence. At the same time, quotes are taken FAR out of context, distorting the complexity of historical reality in a way that seems disingenuous. The nonsense about slavery mentioned above is only one example. Indeed this may be a symptom of the exponentially increasing superabundance of and ease of access to historical evidence. As Mike O'Malley argues here and here: "We are at the point where anyone with a wireless connection can dig up a thousand examples capable of proving any inanity imaginable."

I think Linebaugh and Rediker's Many-Headed Hydra and especially Rediker's more recent Slave Ship are vastly superior treatments of the historical significance of what used to be called "lumpen" elements.

But these are the kinds of interpretive debates that historians have all the time, and should not be the basis for hiring, firing, or promotion. In fact, I'm considering assigning portions of Renegade to my students as a fun text to teach against. Contrary to what Historiann claims above, if Russell was led on and then let go, he has a legitimate reason to be upset. Although his job was by its very definition unsecure, and even if he was aware all along that his scholarship was insanely offensive, that does not justify his ousting after a unanimous vote of confidence by the Barnard faculty (see the story linked above). I would like to hear more from Anonymous 2:22 on this, since she seems to have the inside dirt.

Whatever the case, perhaps instead of arrogantly wagging our fingers at Russell for being a stupid crybaby, we should question the ever-growing, all-enveloping adjunct system that set the stage for this drama in the first place?

Anonymous said...

A long time ago I had a summer job at Columbia. I got to work with Thad, who was a grad student then. I have no idea about the circumstances surrounding his job talk and the decision not to rehire him, but reading his blog post brought back a few memories. He was a good guy at heart, and maybe he's a very good teacher, but he put many people off, including the women and people of color I worked with. His politics on race and gender were a mess, yet he went on and on about how radical they were. If you disagreed with him, he condescended to you. I want to think he's changed since then, but from his blog post it looks like that's not the case.

Anonymous said...

What better evidence to support Russell's claims! Here, supposed intellectuals call his work "not particularly profound," "pretty fucked," and "weird" without ever having read it. Moreover, we now find out that his alleged personality defects and the "mess" that is his politics were all that mattered to some who worked with him. All of this demonstrates Russell's major claim -- a claim made by many others as well -- that the intellectual quality of one's work has little or nothing to do with one's standing in academia.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Sounds to me like the whole fucken thinge is just a self-promoting stunt to drive sales of his booke. "I was an adjunct and I got shitcanned and then I wrote a booke so please buy my booke" doesn't sell nearly as many bookes as "I was an iconoclast and the establishment protected its prerogatives by attempting to squelch my groundbreaking scholarship and so I wrote it uppe in this awesome booke so please buy my booke".