History Buzz March 9, 2012: Julian Zelizer: Dual life as scholar, mainstream news pundit

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

Zelizer: Dual life as scholar, mainstream news pundit

Source: Daily Princetonian, 3-9-12

Related: Top Newsmakers: This Week… Julian Zelizer: Assessing the Bush Presidency & “Decision Points” in the Media, Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman, HNN, 10-11-10

Photo by Ananda Zhu
History and Wilson School professor Julian Zelizer has appeared 18 times on Bloomberg television in the past month.

Like many American fathers, after Wilson School professor Julian Zelizer wakes up in the morning, he takes his kids to school and then heads to the gym. But instead of watching sports highlights or listening to music while he lifts weights, Zelizer mulls over ideas for his weekly CNN column.

It is rare for professors to appear in mass media as much as Zelizer does. In addition to teaching HIS 583: Readings in American Political History this semester, Zelizer has appeared 18 times on Bloomberg television in the past month. On Sept. 10, he authored a column in The New York Times about the history of one-term presidents. Two days later, he was back in his home outlet, penning away on the political legacy of 9/11.

Throughout his tenure as a professor, Zelizer has made somewhat of a career out of radio, television and opinion political commentaries. He has established his status as a public intellectual in the pundit-dominated world of media.

Zelizer’s commentary focuses on contemporary politics, and he said that he often tries to put current events in historical perspectives for viewers or readers.

“So what’s going on in the elections now? Have we seen some of this before, or what can we learn from the past? That’s usually what people want me for,” Zelizer said.

Zelizer, whose mother Viviana Zelizer is a sociology professor at the University, grew up in what he described as an academic family. During his undergraduate years at Brandeis University, he developed a passion for politics and began to aspire to a career in which he could learn and teach about politics.

According to Zelizer, his first media appearance was a completely chance occurrence. During his first academic job as a professor of history and public policy at SUNY Albany, a local television network reached out to him for comment on the ongoing impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

“One of the local televisions was putting a panel together on the issue on campus, and they invited me to appear,” Zelizer said. “They kept having me back after that.”

The media’s requests for Zelizer to appear continued, and were occasionally beyond the purview of his primary area of expertise. In what he said was “the single outlier” in his long history of political commentary, Zelizer made a series of appearances on the local production of Monday Night Football.

“I was at a restaurant bar, and they were doing a local sports show live,” Zelizer said. “The football host said, ‘Does anyone here like the New York Jets?’ which is my favorite team, and I raised my hand.”

“They had so much fun with the [idea of a] professor who knew so much about football, and for several years I would go every Monday … and [do] these 15-minute clips on the professor taking calls about the NY Jets.”

While he said he remembered the incident, as funny stories, these appearances actually helped solidify his presence as a media mainstay.

As he began making more and more political commentary in the public sphere, Zelizer noticed that his work in the media bolstered his skills as a professor.

“It sometimes helps with my teaching, because when you are on a radio show or write op-ed, there’s a certain amount of clarity you need to achieve,” Zelizer said.

While on the air, he said, he needs to be succinct and cannot expect his audience to be familiar with the issues he is discussing. These skills are transferrable to the classroom.

“When I come into the classroom, it’s helped me to really think through the assumptions I have about what students know and help me be clear on some of the big issues,” Zelizer said.

Additionally, he noted that his weekly column for CNN has helped him get in the habit of writing consistently, which has perhaps made the process of writing eight published books considerably more manageable.

Zelizer’s combination of scholarship and media appearances has produced a synergy effect, according to politics professor Martin Gilens, who is teaching POL 327: Mass Media and American Politics this semester.

“Good scholarship takes substantial time and effort,” Gilens said. “But scholarship in the social sciences and humanities can be strengthened by the discipline of thinking broadly about public issues and about the implications of academic insights for matters of public importance.”

Gilens said that Zelizer’s commentary has provided the public with access to thoughtful, well-informed commentary on the important issues facing the country and the world.

“So much ‘punditry’ these days is ignorant or partisan or both,” Gilens said. “Professor Zelizer’s ability to bring his insights as a political historian to a wider public audience makes an important contribution to the quality of the public debate.”

Zelizer said that he does not have any trouble balancing his public appearances with his teaching and responsibilities at the University. He said he usually teaches courses on subjects that he is working on at the moment and added that he normally teaches three courses a year.

Last semester, Zelizer taught WWS 460: The Great Society and Social Policymaking and WWS 529: Great Leadership in Historical Perspective, a course open to graduate students in the Wilson School about the leadership styles of people who have been successful in politics.

Julia Blount ’12, a history major who has Zelizer as her thesis advisor, said that Zelizer successfully balances his life as an academic and a commentator.

“I don’t think that his involvement in the media has influenced the way he has advised my thesis at all, at least not in terms of the content of the feedback he provides,” Blount said. “It quickly became clear to me that his involvement in the fast-paced world of the media has made him one of the most responsive professors on campus in terms of returning emails … which I really appreciate.”

Another advantage that Zelizer’s public profile brings to the University is a deep Rolodex of public figures who are sometimes difficult to get in contact with. Among the guests Zelizer has helped bring to campus are a filmmaker who made a documentary on AIDS in Africa and the mayor of Philadelphia, who spoke to the campus community about urban politics and poverty.

“It has been effective that I get to bring interesting people for the students to meet,” said Zelizer, who often speaks on campus and in the local community himself, usually about elections or his research.

Zelizer said that his greatest assets are his passion for the subjects he works with and his efficiency in getting work done.

“I like to work in my office,” Zelizer said. “I love to be here. If I have class, I prepare for it. If I’m writing, I work on the book I’m working on a little bit.”

Throughout the process of writing the 300 editorials, 13 books and numerous academic papers he has published during his time as a professor at the University, Zelizer has developed specific writing techniques and strategies.

“Being methodical is a very important strategy,” Zelizer said. “It’s not you sitting on the top of the mountain and it all comes out; you have to sit down and think through what you want to do. Every day, I kind of build this up.”

Though becoming such a visible public figure was something he said he never anticipated, he noted that he is very satisfied with his dual roles as a University professor and public intellectual.

“I feel fortunate to have this job,” Zelizer said. “When I started, I thought [the media] was a one-time thing; I never pursued it. It’s been a pleasure to write. It’s an honor to participate in public life.”

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