How my dad has helped me be a better historian

Last week, I talked about how Garrison Keillor has served as a (perhaps unlikely) influence on my work as a historian.  This week, I’d like to talk about another non-historian to influence what I do as a historian: my dad.

My dad has been a local reporter in one way or another for much of his career.  Currently, he runs a news website for my hometown,  Before that, he’d worked in radio and TV reporting (along with other aspects of radio and TV) for years.  While my dad has worked in larger towns such as La Crosse, WI, much of his reporting has been conducted in small towns such as Mauston, WI, and Decorah, IA.

One of the things I enjoyed about my dad working as a reporter growing up is that he knew almost everything that was going on in town, which is easy to do in a small town.  Certainly, he knew whatever news he had reported on the radio or internet, but even better, he usually knew parts of the back story that didn’t get reported.  I learned from hearing the “rest of the story” from my dad in the kitchen.  So in addition to growing up listening to Garrison Keillor tell stories about the goings-on in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, MN, I also grew up listening to my dad tell stories about the real town of Decorah, IA.

As a reporter, dad’s style is much different than Garrison Keillor’s – much shorter and to the point.  But like Garrison Keillor, Dad taught me something about stories.  He taught me to pay attention to not just what’s happening, but why it’s happening and how people react to it.  Many histories focus a lot on events: this happened and then this and then this and then this.  It’s possible to write interesting histories that are mainly about events.  But Dad taught me that what’s really interesting is not just the events themselves but the people involved in the events.  These people have motivations, thoughts, and feelings, and it’s those human aspects of what happen that are usually the more interesting part of the story.  Therefore, I’ve tried to write histories that are not just a catalogue of events, but an explanation of why events occur and how they affect those involved.

My dad also taught me that when talking about the humans involved in events, it’s best to be fair but honest.  Being fair means that you don’t attack people personally in what you say publicly, you don’t report rumors as truths, and you don’t report unflattering things just for curiosity’s sake.  There are historians out there that seem to take delight in making their historical subjects out to be monsters, and I don’t aim to be one of them.  Being honest, however, means that if it’s a matter of public record that someone has done something and there’s a reason for the public to know, then you should report that, even if it does put the person involved in a negative light.  As much as I’m not interested in historical smear campaigns, I aim to avoid hagiography as well and instead be forthright about the good and bad things my historical subjects did.

My dad’s academic background, in addition to journalism, is in political science and sociology, two of the social sciences.  I’m sure that’s where I get some of my interest in the social sciences from, since I’m pretty sure I didn’t get it from my humanities mother.  What Dad really taught me, though, is to pay attention to people, whether as groups or individuals.  And that’s a lesson I try to implement as much as I can in my work.

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