The Uncompromising Jill Lepore

high resolution, croppedI’ve mentioned here before my enormous history-geek fangirling for Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. Lepore is an excellent example of someone who works inside and outside “the academy” (aka the university) with equal success, which is one of the reasons I have so much admiration for her (the other being the precision and skill with which she researches and writes; her articles and books are meticulous but still enjoyable reads). Her impressive dual-track career is also why Lepore made perfect sense to deliver the keynote address at Columbia University’s recent “History in Action” conference, the theme of which was “The Many Conversations of the Historian.”

The professor introducing Lepore said that while she hadn’t titled her talk, she had told him that it could be called “How Not to Become a Historian.” She was mainly speaking to the many graduate students in the room, especially those who intend to make a career in the academy but want to work outside it—as writers, consultants, or commentators—as well. In general, graduate advisors don’t encourage that type of career plan, especially when students are still in grad school, since they’re supposed to focus on amassing a list of academic publications, conference presentations, research grants, and other accolades during that period.* Career-diversity programs like History in Action are relatively rare (Columbia hosts one of four pilot sites funded by an American Historical Association-Mellon award), and as Lepore noted early in her talk, “We don’t have this conversation at Harvard.” In many departments, it’s still heretical for grad students to suggest that they want to do work aimed at a non-academic audience. Their professors might do that very same work—but that’s considered a privilege of tenure.

Lepore’s chatty, funny, pop-culture-filled talk, however, could have been titled “Don’t Wait for Tenure to Be the Historian You Want to Be.” Reflecting on her own career, Lepore discussed how she’s been able to do the things she’s done—in addition to the New Yorker gig, she’s also founded an online magazine, co-written a romance novel, and tried to produce a history TV show for kids (which never got made)—while still rising through the academic ranks. The short answer to all of this seems to be that she doesn’t compromise and produces excellent work. Lepore adheres to rigorous standards in everything she does: background reading, primary source research, writing, teaching. “If you’re going to do work outside the academy, never abandon your standards of academic excellence,” she told the conference-goers; there’s no reason to do less good work for the public just because those efforts don’t “count” in the academic world.

But Lepore also refuses to compromise in another sense of the word: she’s very secure in her sense of self and has been willing to walk away from her academic career rather than give up on something that she really wants to do. She acknowledged that she has the privilege of being able to take that step now, as a renowned professor and writer (Lepore’s also married and presumably not the sole economic contributor to her household, which is another kind of security), but described holding the same attitude even while in graduate school. “Don’t put the cat in the cradle,” she advised, riffing off a song that promptly got stuck in my head for the remainder of the day. Meaning, in the academic context: if there’s something you really want to do, don’t put it off, because you’ll never reach the imaginary point where you’ll feel truly free to do it. First there’s grad school (my advisor will be angry if I spend my time on that project!), then there’s the tenure track, if you’re lucky (I have to get tenure, I can’t spend my time on that project!), and by the time you get tenure (if you get tenure), so many other things have come along that it seems impossible to pick up something you put down over a decade ago. If there’s something you feel passionate about, Lepore declared, you just have to make the decision that you’re going to do it. And if others tell you that pursuing your passion is a career-killer, sit down and think about what’s most important to you, keeping in mind that you’ll never get a second chance at your career (or life!).

Lepore gave plenty of other good advice that I hope some of the grad students in the room will take to heart, but much of her talk covered ground that I, personally, have already grappled with. The part that really hit home with me, and which I’ve been reminding myself on a daily basis since the conference ended, came up in the Q&A. One of the audience members (not a graduate student) asked Lepore how she manages her time—how can she possibly teach, write books, write for the New Yorker, attend conferences, and so forth, in addition to being a partner and mother?

Again, Lepore’s answer is that she’s uncompromising. She does not compromise on deadlines—her own or anyone else’s. “Academics have been socialized into believing that deadlines don’t matter,” she lamented, as I slid down in my seat and averted my eyes, and many of them (us) work “indefensibly slowly” as they (we) attempt to achieve perfection. She fights this at every turn, holding her students to firm deadlines and making it a matter of principle that she’ll meet her own. Her advice for making this happen: think with clarity about a project at the outset, get a good sense for how long it’s going to take you to finish it, work efficiently, and complete the project on the schedule that you set. And as for perfection? “It’s not a work of art, it’s a piece of work,” Lepore stated, a maxim that I should needlepoint and hang over my writing desk.

Now, I know plenty of scholars who will push back against this stance. A project takes as long as it takes, they’ll say, and you never know what’s going to pop up in your research and send it spinning off into an entirely new direction. Writing is hard and can go surprisingly slowly. You just can’t rush these things. And certainly, sometimes life intervenes and prevents us from completing things on schedule. On the whole, however, I agree more with Lepore’s line of thinking than the counter-arguments. It’s unquestionably important, as she emphasized, to do excellent work, for any audience. But there’s also a lot to be said for being responsible, reliable, and realistic. Working efficiently and acknowledging when I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns (will adding four more books to my list of background reading really improve my work, or were the first two books sufficient?) are probably the two things I struggle with most in my writing, and they’re the things that keep me from meeting deadlines. And missing deadlines not only makes me feel like crap, it makes editors less interested in working with me in the future.

I am trying. I’m trying really, really hard, and I have both a spreadsheet of commitments and a Google Calendar filled with reminders to help me with these efforts. The spreadsheet and calendar aren’t magic; they’re tools to assist me. My job is to know what I need to do and work—methodically, efficiently, but still meticulously—to get it done.

I still want to be Jill Lepore when I grow up. And dammit, Jill Lepore meets deadlines.

* I did my share of traditional academic work during graduate school, but spent a good portion of my time on non-academic stuff, like editing and writing for general audiences. Outside the walls of UC Irvine’s History Department, I heard a lot of faculty (and often other grad students as well) express surprise that my advisor “let” me be so “distracted” by that kind of work.

First of all, paternalistic bullshit like that drives me crazy. Advisors are not in charge of their students; they advise their students, who then make choices informed (hopefully) by that advice. Second, my advisor and I talked before I even applied to the program and I described the kind of alternative-academic career path I planned to pursue. His enthusiasm for my goals was one of the major reasons I chose UCI History, where I found many other professors and peers who were equally supportive. My advisor didn’t “let” me work outside academia—he actively encouraged and assisted me in making that happen, while also reminding me that there were certain academic benchmarks I still needed to hit if I wanted that Ph.D. How I balanced my two pursuits was up to me.

Photo via Harvard University. Credit: Dari Michele.

3 thoughts on “The Uncompromising Jill Lepore

  1. Dear Maura, Really, how else does the public gain knowledge about anything worthwhile other than through the efforts of those who have been trained academically reaching out and enlightening us, the great unwashed? The charm of working in health care for me is that there is seldom time to quibble, only time to act. Experience provides a more expansive and detailed background in which to consider those actions (quickly!). It has always worked for who I am. This is a very interesting blog. I think that one must also consider the unique aspects of their own personality. There is usually a reason for striving to create the “work of art and not the work” and the answer, dear Brutus, lies within oneself. And, when you have found insight about the why of who you are, to me it provides fertile ground to decide what is possible and maybe desirable to change and what is so deeply ingrained that it’s just who you are so you have to learn to live with it. Such a rambling discourse but that’s enough. I will say that I have always believed in the power of internal dialogue. And you look great with the bear or whatever that animal is! Love, AG

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