Top Young Historians: 15 – Bruce J. Schulman


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

15: Bruce J. Schulman, 3-12-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Professor of History, Boston University;
Director, American and New England Studies Program, BU (1997-2002)
Area of Research: Modern U.S. political and presidential history
Education: Ph.D., History, Stanford University, Sept. 1987
Major Publications: Schulman is the author of From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980, (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), (Revised Edition with New Preface published by Duke University Press in 1994); Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, (Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995); The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Politics, and Society, (The Free Press, 2001); Bruce Schulman JPG
He is the co-editor with Julian Zelizer of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, (Harvard University Press, forthcoming). Schulman is currently working on Reawakened Nation: The Birth of Modern America, 1896-1929, Oxford History of the United States, Volume VIII, (Oxford University Press).
Awards: Schulman has been honored with teaching awards including; Commendation for Outstanding Teaching, Boston University Dean’s Office (2000, 2001); Harriet and Charles Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award (UCLA, 1993); Eby Award for the Art of Teaching (UCLA, 1993); UCLA Mortar Board Commendation for Outstanding Teaching (1990, 1992).
Other awards include; OAH Distinguished Lectureship Program (2004); New York Times “Notable Books of the Year” for The Seventies (2001); Blum-Kovler Foundation Fellowship (1999); Fulbright Senior Professorship (Declined, 1999); Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History Fellowship for 1996-97, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for 1992.
Additional Info: Formerly Assistant Professor to Associate Professor of History, UCLA (1987-93) and Director, California History Project (1989-90). Schulman is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post, and other publications. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on numerous television and radio programs.

Personal Anecdote

As I flew off to my first on-campus interview, I thought back to the first I had ever seen: a chilling parade of three young candidates during my first year as a graduate student. The candidate was a young woman, Ms. K., we’ll call her, gangly, obviously uncomfortable in her new, just-bought-for-the-occasion suit, she seemed a walking, talking compendium of anxiety, tension, nerves, worries. I have never seen a condemned prisoner walking to her or his death–at the movies I even cover my eyes for that sort of scene–but I imagined that they looked just like Ms. K. as she stood in the corner of the little lecture room waiting to be introduced. She would try to impress us–or really, try to impress the assembled faculty–with her job talk, an hour-long lecture on the subject of her dissertation research. The acid test would follow, when she would be forced to demonstrate her adroitness in answering difficult questions.

Now, Ms. K. was just finishing her Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley. She obviously possessed a distinguished academic record, and, for all I know, she endured the ordeal of this interview, recovered splendidly, and went on to a successful academic career. But I prefer to believe that the scene I am about to describe broke her spirit, sundered it utterly. And you should believe it too. It makes for a better story (and, remember, like many graduate students in History who are twisted and defeated by academic life, Ms. K. probably succumbed to temptation, enrolled in Law School and now commands a six-figure salary in a prestigious, powerful firm. So you don’t have to feel too badly about it).

Remember that Ms. K. had probably never delivered a lecture before–that the normal nervous butterflies of public speaking, fluttering vigorously in the stomach of an inexperienced lecturer, reached the frenzy of mating season as they realized she was interviewing for a job. And not just any job–for a plum position at “one of the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning,” in the Bay Area, one of the nation’s most desirable places to live, and near her home in Berkeley too!

What a disaster. I cannot remember the subject of the talk. I couldn’t remember it even five minutes after I left the room and, to tell the truth, I cannot even tell you if the material was fresh, the approach innovative, the anecdotes revealing and funny. It was, as the proverb goes, all in the delivery. Ms. K. simply could not get the words out. She constantly tripped over her tongue, mauling her own words. And every time she did so, she drew attention to the gaffe and heightened her own nervousness by repeating the mangled sentences.

I cringed without relaxing for fifty minutes, and made certain to offer hearty applause when the lecture ended. It was obvious that any chance she had for the position had evaporated, that she was no longer a serious candidate. I expected–and such was my naivete that I really, God’s truth, did expect–that no one would ask a question. There was no point; they would allow this wounded animal to slink away without further torment.

You see, I had been concentrating so much on my own cringing and on Ms. K.’s agony that I neglected to observe the people around me. My nose not yet trained to sniff academic carrion a mile off, I had not heard the slathering of the hungry dogs, seen the circling vultures, sniffed the stalking hyenas (oh, you know what I mean).

One of the Department’s most prominent members immediately raised his hand. He, by the way, is a lovely man, a superb historian, and one of the few academics I have ever found truly inspiring. He really loves his work, and he is one of a tiny minority of academic historians working today animated by a real and lively curiosity. He really wants to learn things, to grapple with whatever big issue piques his interest. He has been criticized for dilettantism in the hyper-specialized world of the contemporary academy, criticized also for oversimplifying complex topics (unlike, say Physics, where practitioners seek simplicity and call simple theories “elegant,” historians worship complexity. More than once, I have heard colleagues utter as the highest possible praise: She or he “adds another layer of complexity to the problem.”).

This senior professor also loves an argument. His books are deliberately provocative. His classroom manner is wry and challenging. He relishes friendly combat, sincerely believing that in the parry and thrust of adversarial conversation lies the secret of learning, of knowledge, of “advancing the field.”

In measured tones, then, he asked the hapless candidate the first question. I don’t remember the actual question, but its thrust was something like “Isn’t it true that everything you’ve just said is a crock of bull”? Those weren’t his actual words, of course, but you get the idea. The blow staggered the interviewee. How could it not have?

She recovered enough of her composure to make an answer. But whether she just wanted to get out of the room as soon as possible or whether her instincts told her a job candidate should not openly disagree with a senior member of the hiring department and a prizewinning author to boot, she didn’t deny that everything she had just said was a crock of bull. “Maybe, you’ve got a point there,” she conceded. “I’d never realized it before.”

Instantly, the Department’s famed “radical” historian picked up the scent. This memorable character was born on precisely the same day as my father, and only a few miles away. But he had long ago traded the clipped, nasal, rapid-fire talk of outer-borough New York Jews for an ever-so-slow, slightly pretentious manner of speaking. His labored style was affected, affected in the true sense of the word–it not only betrayed a trace of haughtiness, but was clearly a conscious strategy. It added drama to everything he said, and it, along with a half-dozen equally poison-tipped arrows in his rhetorical quiver, made this radical historian one of the best lecturers I have ever heard and one of the most infuriatingly difficult persons to converse with.

“Isn’t it true,” he asked (imagine a Gramaphone playing an old 78RPM record at too slow speed and you can hear his voice), isn’t it true not only that your work is absolutely worthless, but that you yourself and your entire life are a crock of bull”?

That just about finished Ms. K. There were a few more desultory questions, some muted applause, a quick emptying of the room. Now, many years and many, many of such interviews later, I understand exactly what those senior Professors were doing, exactly why they posed those crippling, mean-spirited questions. They wanted her to defend herself; they were provoking the candidate to fight back. Your task in an academic interview is to impress, and to so it is far better to be bold than right.

IT’S BETTER TO BE BOLD THAN RIGHT”: Call this the FIRST LAW OF THE JOB TALK. If you have exaggerated some point and a questioner suggests a necessary qualification, make a mental note of it for later, thank the person for the advice after you get the job, but never, never back down during the interview. For contemporary academics, brashness, even obtuseness are signs of a “fine young mind at work”–and that, after all, is what every Search Committee seeks. If you can disagree with that Pulitzer Prize winner, firmly and effectively, if you can brashly trumpet the originality and import of your conclusions, the prize is yours. Be bold, be bold,” that muse of academic interviewees John Milton wrote. “write everywhere, ‘Be bold, but not too bold. Better, though the excess than the defect.”


By Bruce J. Schulman

  • Still, there was much in life, as in art, that made Seventies Americans grimace. The collective wince of the late 1960s and early 1970s–the profound anguish over Vietnam, race riots, Watergate–gave way to the national smirk of the Carter years–the malaise that President Carter diagnosed in his crisis of confidence speech. But this omnipresent skepticism–this sense that nothing is serious, nothing can be trusted–undermined a campaign for national renewal, one that would have to be based on ardent conviction. Punk rockers and maverick directors forged new paths; ironically, they helped clear the way for a more wide-open, southwestern libertarianism that would share little with them but a defiant style and a set of common enemies. In the background, amid the wasted days and disco nights of the 1970s, rumbled a new, furious political movement. Thunder was gathering on the right. Bruce Schulman in “The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society, and Politics”
  • Many Americans express contempt for “bleeding ponytails.” They share the prevailing sense that the baby boomers of the 1970s traded in their radical politics for a selfish, corporate culture, exchanging marijuana and VW minibuses for martinis and SUVs. . . .
    But the “sell-out” label misses the point. These icons, and their 21st century children, have preserved a Seventies emphasis on authenticity and freedom, on political transformation through personal liberation. But the market–in particular starting new businesses–became the favored means for personal liberation and cultural revolution. To be sure, something has been lost in this metamorphosis. But the legacies of the 1970s, the changes in latitude and changes in attitudes, remain potent. Like it or not, the long, gaudy, depressing Seventies re-invented America. We still live in their shadows. — Bruce Schulman in “The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society, and Politics”

About Bruce J. Schulman

  • But the ’70s, as Bruce Schulman’s new book argues, is more than just the sum of its “Dukes of Hazzard” lunchboxes and “Whip Inflation Now” buttons — more than just a repository of kitsch to be plundered for cheap laughs. Shulman’s study aims to “offer a rich, evocative portrait of the United States in the 1970s,” and it succeeds… With The Seventies, the period finally has that noble thing, a standard text…The Seventies provides a superb overview of the period, and points the way for further exploration. For the nostalgic reader, remembering the decade fondly but not well, it may be a longer, stranger trip than expected. — Josh Ozersky in the Washington Post reviewing “The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society, and Politics”
  • “In “The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics,” Bruce J. Schulman essentially answers: both. The “great shift” is away from the public-spirited universalism that gave America the New Deal and the civil rights movement, and toward the sovereignty of the free market and private life. In other words, the 1980’s began in the 1970’s…. A book of shrewd historical analysis and clear anecdotal prose… His central argument is utterly persuasive. On or about November 1968, American character changed. In the case of most Americans of Schulman’s generation, much has been given and little asked, and it’s easy to think that nothing short of “the moral equivalent of war” will snap us out of our separate commercial trances.” — George Packer in the New York Times reviewing “The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics”
  • “Prof. Schulman is the best professor I have had at BU. He is so passionate about History and teaching. His use of multimedia during his lectures not only makes the class interesting but provides tangible examples.”…
    “I loved Schulman. He’s nice, funny and so smart!”… “Schulman is absolutely the greatest professor BU has to offer. If you do not take a class with him, you’re missing out. I cannot rave enough about him. Take any class you can with him!”…
    “Unbelievable lecture…feels like a privelage to hear him speak. The most fascinating course I’ve ever taken in anything, and he is just a freaking cool guy in general.”…
    “he’s a great speaker, intellegent and witty.”…”To encourage discussion, he runs around Morse Auditorium with a microphone like Geraldo Rivera, which is pretty amusing.” — Anonymous students

Posted on Sunday, March 12, 2006 at 2:18 PM

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