Histories in Progress: Writing and Teaching the Past as it Unfolds

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“You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.”[1]

“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.”[2]

With comments like these, President Donald J. Trump made our dissertations “relevant” again.

Like so many historians, we explore issues of contemporary relevance—NATO’s debates over détente in the 1970s and 1980s and undocumented Latin American migration to the U.S. in the post-1965 period. The recent presidential election campaign and the new administration’s rhetoric and actions thus far have prompted us to reflect on writing contemporary histories in the “age of Trump.”

How can—and should—historians separate their study of the past from what they see unfolding in real time? Of course, these divisions are often artificial. Echoes of past social, political, and cultural developments in the U.S. reverberate—sometimes quite loudly—in current debates. The resonance that Trump’s pledge to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico achieved, for example, reflects a resurgent nativism with roots in the early twentieth century, now directed toward migrants whose movement northward is structured, in part, by the long-term consequences of post–World War II U.S.–Latin American relations. Donald Trump’s remarks about NATO members needing to pull their weight could be seen as simply the latest in a long series of transatlantic debates over allied defense contributions. The bookends historians place around their stories are, to a certain extent, flexible.

Our topics show different challenges to writing histories that are intimately connected to current concerns. The temptation to see contemporary events as the latest manifestations of familiar trends can be compelling. In some cases, acknowledging these similarities can be productive. There are, nevertheless, sound methodological and intellectual reasons for the distinction between the events of the past and those of the present. One of the central arguments for this separation is access to archival records. Much of the documentation needed to write a history of NATO, and particularly the alliance’s nuclear decision-making and deployments, remains classified for reasons of national security. When conducting oral history interviews with migrant rights’ activists, the researcher must consider the fact that participants might self-censor their comments on issues of contemporary political relevance, or overstate potential links between their past actions and current events. These methodological questions illustrate the complex waters historians navigate in separating out, and distinguishing, between the past and the present. In both of these cases, the politics of the present shape the available sources and our access to them.

Since we cannot know what comes next, perhaps we are only writing the first act of a much longer story. This sense of uncertainty can make the perennial change over time question all the more acute, but being in this position while writing our dissertations has encouraged us to think about the unique aspects of our research, and to reflect on points of comparison. Reactions to Trump’s candidacy and election across the Atlantic Alliance, for example, raised clear continuities with the past—of allied concerns about successive presidents and their commitment to Europe—but also an unprecedented point of comparison. After all, before Trump, much of the election cycle talk in the United States about NATO consisted of accusations that one candidate or another had harmed Washington’s standing in the Alliance or undermined allied trust in the United States, not advocated for the organization’s demise. ­A similar tension between continuities with the past and significant breaks with precedent were evident in the Trump campaign’s approach to immigration policy. For all the parallels that might be drawn between Trump’s wall-building rhetoric and prior instances of nativism, there are unique conditions that have generated the current influx of undocumented migrants—the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act’s legacies, NAFTA, and socio-political instability in Central America, to name a few—and the contemporary brand of anti-immigrant sentiment embodied in Trump’s words.

We are also struck by the rich opportunities for scholars to engage and connect with diverse audiences through their work. It is telling that historians have already found a voice in these conversations, be it Kevin Kruse’s activity on Twitter during the recent election cycle or the launch of The Writ, a blog run by some of our colleagues at the University of Toronto which collected historians’ immediate post-election reactions in concise posts. At the heart of the success of these kinds of efforts is an ability to make their research accessible and engaging, a goal we should all aspire to in our own writing. As we formulate our dissertations with a view to their transformations into monographs, we are aware of the need to balance analytical sophistication with stimulating and digestible prose. We often talk about the oversaturated job market and the number of dissertations defended each year. We talk less about the dissertation process as a creative one with many applications outside of academia. By recognizing history’s intrinsic value and imagining the myriad ways in which history can—and should—play a role in larger conversations, we can also begin to change the way doctoral studies in history are seen as part of a career trajectory, academic or otherwise.

An accessible and engaging approach is just as important in the classroom. History may not repeat itself, or even be linear, but our students still come with questions about how, and why, we got to where we are today. Even in Canada, Trump has made these sorts of inquiries all the more prevalent. In our teaching over the past few months, we have encountered countless questions about what Trump’s election means going forward. What will be the consequences of Trump’s election for civil rights? How will the Trump administration handle challenges of nuclear proliferation, climate change, or international economics? Will international institutions and treaties—like NATO or NAFTA—survive the next four years? As historians, our wish is always to look backwards. We cannot answer these questions, but we can teach our students about how the United States has faced and endured challenges in the past. By imparting upon our students a sense of the importance of the past in the present, we can begin to equip them to think about—and shape— the kind of future they want.

Susan Colbourn is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Toronto and a fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. Her doctoral dissertation, “Defining Détente: NATO’s Struggle for Identity, 1975–1984,” examines transatlantic debates over the perceived collapse of détente.

Erica Toffoli is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation, “Imagining ‘Illegality’: The Origins and Reinvention of the Mexican ‘Illegal Alien’ in the U.S., 1965-1986,” explores the construction of “illegality” and undocumented Latin American migration to the U.S. in the post-1965 period.

[1] “Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World,” July 21, 2016, The New York Times.

[2] “Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,” June 16, 2015, Time.

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