As historians, many of us often face an internal struggle. In our work, we meticulously research a topic to unpack the particularities of an issue within a given time period. Yet, aside from publishing our work in journals and books, we are confronted with a desire to do more with this information. How can we use our knowledge to effect change? What do we, as historians, have to offer our communities?
Public history is a way to bridge these two impulses. An op-ed, in particular, can be an opportunity to draw on your skills as a historian (especially as a researcher and writer) to voice comment on present-day issues.
Last January, I found myself frustrated by the response of NYC public schools to the Omicron wave. As a historian of education, former public-school teacher, and alumna of the NYC school system, I was outraged by the recent developments—the case numbers were rising immediately following the holiday break and it seemed contradictory for one of the nation’s largest school systems to pare back measures put in place just months earlier to reduce the influx of COVID. Public school teachers and students alike voiced their concerns. Teachers rallied to demand “weekly COVID testing of all students and staff” and high school students staged a walkout to “urge NYC to offer the necessary remote learning options and safety precautions as COVID cases rise!” After speaking with friends and family working in the school system, I decided to use my position as a historian to contextualize and amplify their concerns and grievances.
Topic and News Outlet
While many of us are familiar with reading op-eds, we are less accustomed to writing in the genre and this can be an unnecessary barrier. An op-ed is typically an 800-1000-word opinion piece on a current event or issue. As historians, our op-eds typically provide readers with some historical background, context, or opinions about how current events or issues fit into some larger past. In addition to identifying a topic of concern, it is also helpful to pinpoint the targeted audience and venue for your work, since that will largely shape your recommendations and the language you will use to frame your argument. In my case with COVID in NYC schools, for example, I wanted a news outlet that targeted politicians, since I hoped to spark discussion that would eventually push for a policy change. I also looked to publish a piece in a New York-based newspaper or magazine because it commented on the specific policies employed in the NYC public schools.
Writing Structure and Challenges
The organization of an op-ed piece is largely formulaic. It starts with a lede. This can be an anecdote or a news hook to grab the readers’ attention and present the contemporary (sometimes pressing) issue. You then introduce yourself and explain your qualifications as it relates to the topic. This is followed by a short but in-depth description of the problem (using hyperlinks to help readers access the relevant information). After this, you can suggest potential next steps and recommendations to address the problems you’ve highlighted. This section can be the most challenging for historians because we are not trained to write about the future—we’re much more comfortable writing about the past! My work is not generally policy oriented, but I drew on the historical context, research I collected from contemporary news articles, and talks with the various stakeholders to make informed recommendations. An op-ed usually ends with a conclusion to circle back to the lede or a call to action that underscores the urgency of the matter. Not all pieces have to include a call to action, you can also bring up the significance of the moment or show relevance of learning from past decisions. This is by all means not the only way to write an op-ed, but it does provide a structure to get you started so you can be creative. (See resources below for more ideas!)
While you may be nervous about publishing in a different genre, like any writing it gets easier with practice. If you’re seeking to write to broader the audiences, op-eds can be an effective way to draw on your skills as a historian to discuss the present-day implications of your research, historicize contemporary issues, and spotlight the concerns of those in your community.
Make sure to drop any other tips and your published op-eds in the comments section!
Duke University’s Communicators Toolkit for Writing Effective Op-Eds
David Shipley’s Advice in the NYT about Writing an Op-Ed
The Washington Post Guide to Writing an Op-Ed
Featured image: Backlit Keyboard, Colin, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.
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