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Weird History Department News: Thad Russell Has The Last Word

October 21, 2010, 3:21 am

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.

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