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Welcome back to Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Lauren Lassabe Shepherd about the process of writing and revising her debut book, Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars (UNC Press, 2023). Lauren is a historian of higher education, and she teaches at the University of New Orleans. We had this conversation early this year when Lauren was still in the process of going over final page proofs, so you’ll hear us talking about that stage of publication. But the book is out now, and you can find it at any bookseller. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy our conversation about the hard work of turning a dissertation into a book, interdisciplinarity and imposter syndrome, and how to organize the results of a smash and grab archive trip, something I think a lot of us can relate to. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Lauren Lassabe Shepherd.
MENTIONED ON THE SHOW
- Adobe Scan
- William Germano, From Dissertation to Book
- Laura Portwood-Stacer, The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors
- Melody Herr, Writing and Publishing Your Book: A Guide for Experts in Every Field
- Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars
- Dr. Shepherd’s Op-Eds: “Critical race theory is just the new buzzword in conservatives’ war on campuses,” “Bringing CPAC to Hungary betrays the origins of the conservative movement,” “Conservatives have long embraced cancel culture,” and “School policies are at the heart of DeSantis’s political success”
- Rick Perlstein, including Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
- Nicole Hemmer, Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s and Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics Episode 22 of Drafting the Past, “Lyndsie Bourgon Sculpts the Story”
This is Drafting The Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. I’m your host, Kate Carpenter, and this is the 30th episode of Drafting The Past. In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Lauren Lassabe Shepherd about the process of writing and revising her debut book Resistance From The Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars.
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Lauren is a historian of higher education and she teaches at the University of New Orleans. We had this conversation earlier this year when Lauren was still in the process of going over final page proof. So you’ll hear us talking about that stage of publication, but the book is out now, and you can find it at any bookseller.
I’ll be sure to include the link in the show notes. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy our conversation about the hard work of turning a dissertation into a book, interdisciplinarity and imposter syndrome, and how to organize the results of a smash and grab archive trip, something that I think a lot of us can relate to. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Lauren Lassabe Shepherd.
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
So I have always enjoyed writing. I mean, as a kid, I always kept a diary or a journal, and I still have all of those. I haven’t sat down to read them, but maybe one day I’ll do that. So I mean, I’ve always enjoyed writing down the thoughts that are always kind of swirling in our heads, I guess, as thinkers and historians, even like I said, when I was a kid before, I thought of myself as anything like that, but it was always, writing’s always been a good way for me to communicate things.
So one of the stories that comes to mind when I was in third grade, my neighbor had a dog and the dog got out and bit me and I had to get stitches and my arm was in a sling. And I remember going to class, I guess the next day, and everyone wanted to know what happened. Why is your arm in a sling? And I couldn’t say it. So I wrote it down and then I ended up writing the whole story out for my teacher, and she read it to the class.
And I think my love for writing comes from just a love for reading. My dad growing up always had a book around, his dad, my grandfather was always reading Western paperbacks. I didn’t receive that interest from him, but certainly the reading interest.
What made you decide to go back to grad school?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Whenever I got to college as an undergrad, I really just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was a French major for a long time, and my parents were like, “Lauren, you need a job. What will you ever do with this?” So then I thought maybe I’ll be a French teacher. And so that was kind of my segue into education. And then I decided, well, wait a minute. As much as I love French, I also love English.
I also really love history. And so Mississippi State where I started my undergrad, had this hybrid create your own degree program basically. It was like a general liberal arts degree. And so I was on that track for a long time where I focused 18 hours in history, 18 in English, 18 in French. So anyway, and then I also got a K-12 teaching license, so I was a high school history teacher for several years.
And then when I went to grad school, I started on the history track and I was still interested in French. My master’s thesis was on the French colonization of the Gulf Coast, which is funny now because it’s so far from what I research and what I do every day now. But yeah, so that was grad school. And then I didn’t think that a PhD in history, which by the way, for listeners, my PhD is not in history, it’s in higher education administration, I didn’t think it was likely that I was going to find a job as a history professor.
And this is 15 when I started my PhD program. So I had the master’s. I was already teaching at a community college. I was teaching [inaudible 00:04:03] one and two. So that kind of gave me the practice as a professor that I wanted while still being realistic that I was probably never going to find a tenure track job at an R1 somewhere.
But I knew I wanted a PhD. I knew I loved the college environment. I wanted to stay there. I loved education. So I could have done, I think my program or my school offered an EDD in education. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write a dissertation. The EDD doesn’t always require that. So the PhD route that I followed was higher ed administration, which I kind of joke today is like a business degree.
If you look at the curriculum, a lot of it is about the law in higher education, finance in higher ed or good admin, lots of theory courses on student development. But yeah, I mean, it gave me all the things that I was interested in. I still had my own history background, and I was still teaching [inaudible 00:05:02] one and two after I left teaching high school. So yeah, I mean, I’ve kind of had a field in both worlds of the dark side of administration as well as in the history classroom.
Well, I want to turn and talk to you about the practicalities of writing. So when and where do you do your writing?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Now I mostly write at home, but I have been known to work in the coffee shop or in a restaurant. But really the environment that I need to function best is total silence. So if I am somewhere that’s public, I usually have noise-canceling headphones on, or I’m at the point in my writing where I’m just doing small revisions. And so it’s okay if there’s some little background distractions, but at the very beginning, I’ve got to have total silence.
So it’s usually at my house. I’ve written in every room of my house. I have a desk, I have a formal office space, but it’s not always here. Sometimes I’m outside in the backyard with my dogs because they need eyes on me all the time. And so my place in the house is usually dictated by where they’d like me to be. So I’ve been at the kitchen counter, dining table, you name it.
But I will say before when I was still working on my dissertation, so I graduated in 2020, so before Covid, I did have a favorite writing place and I probably need to get back to it. And that is there’s a satellite campus of the University of Southern Mississippi about 30 minutes from where I live now, and it’s on the beach. And so I would sneak up to the top floor in the library, and that floor itself is just gorgeous. There’s these huge floor to ceiling windows. It overlooks this really spacious lawn. There’s all these really old twisted oaks, and the lawn runs out into the Gulf, and so it’s just absolutely gorgeous.
There’s so much natural light. It’s quiet anyway, because nobody’s up there. And I used to just take up all the space. I would take up two massive tables and lay all my books out and all my printed papers out, highlighters, pens, and I did a lot of work there, but then the library closed after Covid, and so I just kind of got into the habit of writing here. But now that I think about it, yeah, I need to get back to that library.
Do you have a routine that you like to follow each day?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
No, I don’t. I will be very honest and admit that I don’t have a routine. I just get it in when I can. But I will say that if this is anything like a routine, I do usually have a concentrated week or two of time where I know I’m writing, and so I’ll know in advance, I’ll block off on my calendar any commitments that I could move around outside of the work that I have to do every day.
And yeah, I’ll just grind. I just pedal to the metal and get it all done in that space. And that’s helpful for me too, because I like the intensity of this is all I’m doing right now. This is the only thing I’m going to think about, at least writing for me when it’s on my mind, I can really flesh my thoughts out when it’s the only thing I’m doing. It doesn’t leave my mind whether I’m showering, whether I’m driving, if I wake up in the middle of the night and I have a thought, it’s all right there together and it helps me crank things out maybe a little bit more efficiently.
So how do you like to organize your research and writing?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Well, so the last two archival trips that I’ve had, I’ve come up with a pretty good system. So both the trips had a lot of just data, a lot of content that I needed to capture in the few days that I was there. So I really did just a smash and grab where I walked into the archive. The moment that it opened, I sat down and then I’m just taking pictures of everything. And so Adobe has their scan app. That’s been really helpful for me. I’m taking pictures and then automatically they’re saved in my phone as a PDF.
So, I mean, I usually can’t even read the documents. I just know this is this box, I need it, so I take a picture of it. If it’s not helpful to me, then maybe it will be one day or maybe I can share it with somebody else who’s looking at these same things. So, I take lots of pictures. Then that night I go to the hotel room or possibly even there’s a restaurant nearby, I’ll sit down, put headphones on, upload all the PDFs on my computer, look at what I have and start labeling.
The one thing that really has helped me label the last two trips, and by the way, this is shout out to whoever gave me this idea on Twitter, this is not original to me. I don’t remember who told me, but I can’t take credit for it. But it’s helpful to, in your camera roll, have a picture of the box in the folder. So in the order that all your files are can be a helpful reminder that this came from this folder or what have you. So, so then I label things in my computer exactly as they’re labeled in the archive, and that helps if I ever need to reach back out to the archivist and say, this is what I’m looking for.
There’s some continuity there, so I don’t have to figure out how did I recode whatever their coding system was. And then it’s really nice to have digital versions of everything. Actually, at my feet right now are several wicker baskets full of file folders of printed journal articles from my dissertation. And I’ve been meaning to go back and scan them all into PDFs to save with what I have now. That’s all digital, but I haven’t done it yet. But I think that’s my new system. It’s worked really well, probably until someone on Twitter tells me any better, that’s probably what I’ll keep doing.
I also love Adobe Scan, so happy to hear someone else shout out to it. Then what does the process look like to take that mass of material and work through it and get to a point where you can write?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
So for the book, I really was just undoing what I did for the dissertation, and so I guess I should start with the dissertation. I separate them because in my mind, they are two totally different monsters. They’re completely different projects, but one did come out of the other. So initially, it helps for me to have some sort of visual, and maybe that comes from my background in teaching K-12 and teaching students how to write. Let’s graph this out. I love a timeline.
So what that looks like is in Microsoft where it’s just bullet points. So I need to map things out chronologically to help understand the order of events first. So usually it starts with something simple like that, just a timeline. So, I haven’t developed any argument yet. I haven’t even begun looking for themes. I just want to know what is the order of events.
And then step two would be looking for themes and coding them. So what that looks like is the highlight function. I think for the book, I had four major themes. That was probably true for the dissertation too. But I mean, anything that had to do with the Vietnam War got coded red. Anything that had to do with civil rights got coded blue, and there was a yellow and a green for different things. But so once I have my timeline and I can kind of see this rainbow of colors from there, it’s just making, I guess I’ll compare it to like a Rubik’s cube. You’re trying to get all your colors chunked into certain things, and if that means moving them around on the timeline, then I can do that.
But that to me helps me map out a chapter structure. Even again, as I said, I don’t have any arguments developed yet. I just need to see when these big trends are coming and going and what they’re doing over time. So after I’ve got a timeline, after I’ve sort of coded everything, if I can make even bigger chunks of this data and figure out, okay, what would that logical chapter structure be? Oh, by the way, I should say the book, not the dissertation, but the book is in two parts, and that is largely a function of this coding.
That’s just how things naturally sorted out. I realized, okay, yes, this is a clear part one in part two, even though the book itself is only about three years, 1967 to 1970. So when it gets to, let’s say I’m starting on a chapter, just pulled up a blank Word document. I’ll just copy what I have from my newly arranged timeline, throw it in the Word document, and then just start writing.
I wish I could say I had a nice process, like, oh, I make this perfect outline, and then I just fill in the details from there. But that is so not true. I’m not a good outliner. I actually much prefer a reverse outline to figure out what it is I’ve said after I’ve said everything. So, I just start brain dumping. I put all my words and thoughts on the page, and then I don’t write in order. I don’t go from start to finish. I kind of do the meat in the middle, the 15 to 85% of the book. So basically no intro and conclusion. I should say that I don’t frame the story yet. At this point, I probably still don’t have my argument developed yet either, even though I might be able to sense what’s kind of bubbling up. But it takes time.
I know for my dissertation, I remember, I don’t remember this about the book, but for the dissertation for sure, I wrote chapters in two week increments. That was the time I allotted myself start to finish. So from the timeline of the brain dump to something polished that I’m willing to send off to my advisor was about two weeks. And so built into that is got my brain dump. Then I need to spend a little bit of time away. So it could be two hours. It could be that I just run an errand or do some other task during the day, or it could be closing the laptop for the night. I’m going to sleep on this, come back to it tomorrow. Let me see what I’ve said. Okay, this is trash or this is really good and I want to develop it. I can make those calls with a fresh set of eyes after a little bit of time.
So that’s been really helpful. Also, I will say I am a shameless reacher outer. If there is anybody that I have cited, whether in the book or the dissertation, there’s a strong chance that I have emailed that person and said, hi, so-and-so, again, this is a cold email. These people don’t know me. I’m just a grad student reaching out to say, I’m citing your work, X, Y, Z. Here’s how I’m using it, I’ve attached to the chapter, if you wouldn’t mind, can you let me know? And I’ll ask them something specific, not general, like can you give me some feedback?
Because you don’t want to burden someone with all this extra work. But if you ask something specific like, am I representing your ideas correctly, or do you think that I’ve got this right? I mean, I had a really high success rate. I had lots of responses doing that during the dissertation and again, later during the book, and I actually had more people willing to say, I’ll read more. Do you want to send over a chapter or do you want to send over a chapter or two? Yeah, that was very surprising and very, very kind of all the people that did that. And so, I mean, it helps to me to have more than just my eyes on the document or whether it’s this book or whether it’s a journal article or anything else I’ve written.
So I want to know more about your dissertation to book process. There have been lots of people in the show talking about a book that came from a dissertation. But for the sake of listeners, I’ll just say that you’re kind of the closest to that process that I’ve had. So when we’re talking now, you’ve just gotten final proofs, page proofs for the book, which is super exciting. Congratulations.
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
I’m curious, just kind of big picture first, what are we talking about timeline for finishing the dissertation and then turning it into a book?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
So start to finish, I mean, I started gathering, I started collecting data for the dissertation in 2018. I was kind of writing as I was gathering, but the hardcore like, okay, now I know what my arguments are, all of that probably happened over the span of longer than a semester. It was more than just the fall of 2020. I didn’t defend until February of 2020, so we’ll say less than a year, maybe eight months.
Then, so February, 2020, I defended. One month later, Covid hit and the entire world changed. So at that point, I was mean. I was very fortunate, I was one of the last students in my cohort that got to defend in person, and we were all just clamoring around looking for jobs, and because so many institutions were at a hiring freeze at that point, dissertation was done. It was in the back of my mind. I wasn’t worried about a book. I was worried about finding a job.
So I interviewed for and did my final interviews at the University of New Orleans in May. I think I knew at that point that I was going to be hired for August. So I spent the summer of 2020 doing what I thought was the revision works, writing what I thought was a book, and what was really helpful there. I’m sure many of your listeners are familiar with William Germano’s From Dissertation To Book. That was a helpful guide.
So I remember doing that that summer, making the revisions I thought I needed to do, and I made contact with an acquisitions editor at a university press, a press that I think is a very good press. I would’ve definitely liked for them to publish the book. So I reached out to her, we had a Zoom interview. It went really well. She said, “Okay, I’m going to send this off to reviewers.” Well, then I didn’t know what to do next. I was like, okay. And several months passed, and now I know that I burned up a lot of time doing that.
I could have maybe reached back out after definitely by six months. But I mean, oh gosh, I probably waited a year for her to tell me, I know, the reviewers didn’t like it. It was like, oh, okay, thank you. And that’s fine, because I know if I look back at that version of the manuscript, I said, I probably would not have approved it for publication either. So anyway, the Jamiah book was a help, but I’ll say far and away the biggest help, two other sources for listeners are Laura Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book from Princeton University Press, and also Melody Herr’s Writing and Publishing Your Book: A Guide for Experts in Every Field.
Same as I mentioned before, I’m a shameless reacher router. So I got in touch with Laura. I got in touch with Melody and was like, please, can you give me more specific guidance? And it was through, I guess Laura’s book that I realized that developmental editing was a thing. I can pay someone to peer review my work, and you will get much deeper feedback than you will get from just asking a colleague or a friend or somebody else that you know to give you some feedback.
So yeah, it’s an investment, I will say. But I did use a developmental editor, and that really, really helped take my dissertation and transform it into what looks like a book now. So that was incredibly helpful. So back to the timeline. Let’s see. I think I reached out to University of North Carolina Press, who was publishing the book and two other university presses.
I didn’t go trade press routes because I don’t have an agent, don’t have any connections there. Maybe for the next book I’ll do that. So I reached out to university presses and tried to find who are the presses that are on my bookshelf. If I turn around and look behind me at my books, there’s really three major presses that are overrepresented, and those are the three that I got in touch with. The acquisitions editor, had chats with all three of them. They were all interested. They all wanted to see the manuscript.
And for listeners who may not know this, you can send your book manuscript out to multiple presses at a time. You just have to be transparent about that. So I was. I let them all know what my timeline was, and at the time I was in my administrative role, so I wasn’t on a tenure track. I didn’t have any pressure to publish. I was just doing this because I wanted to. I was doing this because I had already written a dissertation. Why not make it a book? Why not get my scholarship out into the world?
So they knew that. Anyway, so the book went out for peer review, and that process took a different amount of time from all different places. Again, this is like would have been 2021, so we’re still in the midst of Covid. People are very busy. But UNC, my first reviewer responded within six weeks, I mean with a quick, and it was a very enthusiastic, yes, we need to publish this now. It’s timely, let’s get it out. The other reviewer took much longer. Reviewer two, I don’t know who you are, but thank you so much. It was a positive review. I did get a contract for it, so thank you.
I don’t mean to knock the time that took, but on my end it was just waiting and biting my nails. The other two presses also sent it out for review. I got that feedback. So the next step in the process, this is several months in, was looking at all the reviews, looking at the, I had two contract offers, and the third press was like, we are still extremely interested. We want to see these changes. And they asked for a book that was a lot different than the one that I had written. So I kind of decided, all right, so it’s going to be between UNC and this other press.
And so I looked at the peer reviews, I thought about which press, which editor I had the best relationship with, which one that I wanted to continue to work with. They were both great. And I ended up going with UNC because of one of the things, one of the big pieces of feedback I got from the reviewer, which is you’ve written this great book about how the new right has influenced higher ed since the ’60s, but kind of buried within that, you’ve also told the story about how the new right trained themselves, how they became, how they developed these political personalities and how they shaped the GOP for decades going into the future.
And I thought, yeah, I did do that. I did talk about those things, but things to me, I’m an ed historian, I’m not a political historian, although I’m extremely interested in that. They were like, this is a better book if you just swap around your thesis. If you make this a book about the GOP, and by the way, this is how it’s influenced higher ed. That was extremely daunting to me. I mean, imposter syndrome is real. Thinking back to making those decisions, I forgot, this is a question about timeline, I’ll say, this was in the summer, the summer, fall of 2021. So yeah, I was like, can I even do this?
Met with my editor and we talked about it. And so at that point, I had a lot more reading to do. I needed to learn more about history of the right, I needed to learn more about the GOP, about these specific characters that pop up in my book as people, and not just as pieces of evidence to this argument about higher education. So I had to go back to secondary sources. I didn’t do any more interviews. I should say this, the dissertation was a little bit ethnographic.
I interviewed, I mean, over 50 people about their time when they were students in the 1960s. And by the time I was ready to finish the book manuscript, any of them had passed. They weren’t even alive to go back to re-interview again. Also, January six had happened, and that was just a whole new context for talking to people about their involvement in the GOP over the years.
And so I decided not to do any more oral interviews. I just used what I had, but I did a lot more [inaudible 00:25:14] research. So I traveled to Hoover Institution at Stanford and some other places. But anyway, so I had to get a lot more data because I’m approaching the book from a second way. I had to do a lot more reading. And also I met a lot more, a lot of new people.
I started going to media studies conferences and political science conferences, and it’s a whole different field outside of the history of education where I had already known these people and been so comfortable talking about things. It was very new and exciting to be interdisciplinary. But also, like I said, imposter syndrome is always hanging over my head. Should I even be writing a political history when this is not … my PhD is in higher ed administration.
So anyways, I’ve definitely had to work through a lot of that. But I made the decision to publish with UNC. The book came under contract. Oh, so my editor gave me a verbal offer, so we had an understanding, but the physical contract didn’t come about until I guess the editor had to go to a press meeting or go in front of the board to get that approval. So that actually took a couple of weeks, but I signed the contract in March or so of 2022, did my revisions all throughout the summer, also did those [inaudible 00:26:39] trips throughout the summer.
And at one point my editor had to tell me to quit writing because I was like, “What if we did two more chapters on this, this, and this?” He was like, “Lauren, you’re at a hundred thousand words. You have to stop.” And I’m glad he did that too. I’m glad he reigned me in because I still have all of that and I can publish that to something else. That data’s not going anywhere. But the book, it was important for me at least to make it as concise as I could make it, because I like reading things that are a little shorter.
I think the book’s like 200 pages, but it was 300 pages. So that’s a big difference. The dissertation was 400 pages, lots of block quotes that didn’t make the book. But anyways, so that’s the long timeline. And then the book will come out in August of 2023. So, so I would say the whole acquisitions process for me took two years, much longer than the dissertation.
So tell me, I’m really curious to know what were the things you thought your dissertation needed to become a book versus after you worked with a developmental editor, what were the things you ended up working on?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
So one of the things to me that seemed most obvious was taking out so much of the signpost. In this chapter, I will talk about X, Y, Z, right? That’s that there. And so it really took me thinking like, okay, the books that I read and enjoy, what does that look like? I remember specifically one of the things I talked about with my developmental editor, they said, think of an intro chapter to a book that you like, and let that be your model.
And so for me, that was Andrew Hartman’s Award for the Soul of America. It’s about 10 or 11 pages. I thought that was a really nice link. So I mean literally when I say a model, like a physical model down to word count, not just style. So there was that. And then another major difference in the book is that it’s got to read cover to cover smoothly. Chapters can’t be just standalone.
I mean, they can in an academic text, but I would like to reach my book beyond just the classroom. I already know that everybody that I interviewed who’s still alive is going to read it and they’re going to pass it around their own circles. So there’s that. And I wanted it to be an enjoyable thing. And that was a different writing approach too, because I wrote each chapter of the dissertation as chapter one, this is the intro, chapter five is the conclusion, and it followed this very strict format.
But for the book, it was like, no, there’s part one and part two. I dabbled with a prologue for a little bit. I ended up taking that out. But I mean, there’s all these different, there’s just a different structure or style that is not as rigidly defined as the dissertation is. So taking out the signpost was huge, making the transitions much more fluid, having callbacks to different chapters rather than restating something that you had already said chapters before in a different way.
Just let’s make that one parenthetical reference like see chapter five. So that was a lot for taking out length. Also taking out these block quotes. This broke my heart, but it feels like every person I talked to that read a chapter that have block quotes in it were like, Lauren, no one’s going to read this. People will skip right over that. And I’m just like, no, that is the meat. This is the evidence before you, we can’t take this out. But I did. I took out so many block quotes.
Some are still in there, some I fought for, and those are really important ones. So anyone who is going to read the book, please read the block quotes. But yeah, that took out a lot of length. Let’s see, what else? Oh, footnotes. Cleaning up the footnotes. For my dissertation I footnoted everything. I mean, everything.
I was heavily reliant on these five people said this thing. So this is what we need to do. And then now I know or learned that in the book, the most recent text or maybe the one that’s considered the originator of this argument, you only really need to cite one that really condenses everything. You don’t have to cite every person who’s ever said this and every page that they set it on. And some things don’t need to be cited at all, right? Some things that are really well known, really well established that would be familiar to at least a historical reader in the field. Some of those citations came out. What else got rid of, so I should mention that the person who was my developmental editor has a background in political science. That was really important to me when I was looking for who to hire to do this.
I didn’t want someone with strictly an education background. I had that covered. I need someone to tell me, are these claims that I’m making about the GOP right? Are they correct? But I mean, the biggest difference in the two is length and the fact that what was a sub argument of the dissertation is the main argument in the book. It’s a completely different audience as well. You want to say that your dissertation is your scholarship. It’s going to be read by everyone in the field. But in all honesty, I was writing for my five committee members, and this book is written for the, I don’t know, maybe 700 people who are going to read it, I hope.
To talk about how all of this research and revision worked out on the page, I asked Lauren to read an excerpt from chapter one. Here’s Dr. Shepherd reading from Resistance from the Right.
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
The year 1962 marked the beginning of a critical decline in liberalism from which the United States only momentarily rebounded in 2018. Liberal mood has continued to deteriorate since that high point. Between 1967 and 1970, the national desire for liberalism plunged, although there was a brief uptick from 1970 to 1973, the Eric corresponding with American withdrawal from the Vietnam War. Liberalism and the American mood continued to depreciate throughout the 1970s.
Even when it began to swing back towards liberalism in the 1980s, scores remained closed to those of the early Vietnam War years. As the American mood became less liberal, conservative politicians capitalized on the opportunity to gain more success, sparking a quote, conservative ascendancy in American politics that has lasted into the 21st century. Ironically, the historical memory of American higher education, those years are synonymous with widespread liberalism on campus.
Common recollections of college life in the late 1960s and early 1970s include anti-war demonstrations, the creation of ethnic and women’s studies programs and the deconstruction of social norms and appearance, dress and recreation. Progressive changes in higher education from 1967 to 1970 are better understood as speeds accomplished despite an apathetic campus majority and a boisterous anti-liberal assault from the political, cultural, and religious right.
One of the challenges that I think this passage really highlights is that there’s sort of this popular belief about higher education in this timeframe that it was this very liberal, I think UC, Berkeley comes to mind for a lot of people on campus, but you’re kind of correcting that in this book. So how do you balance as a writer saying what you think you know is wrong, but also here is what I’m trying to tell you instead?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Yes. Well, that’s an interesting passage that you picked because that to me, that is the most dissertationy passage of the whole book. That was actually in the intro. Now it’s in the book chapter one. It was intro dissertation. But so first off, starting with the claim. So that whole first paragraph that I read is a claim about how the US was actually becoming more conservative in the post four years.
And so the first thing I do that the listeners can’t see, but there’s a graph in the book that has all this mapped out. So I know if you were listening, you’re probably think, oh, that’s just a lot of information at once. It’s visually there for you on the page, so it does not come at you quite so fast. But yeah, so I established that citing the political scientists who got us that information.
And then moving on from there, talking about claims about the campus. So the whole book is arguing that there’s this really small cohort of very energetic conservatives. They’re divided into a couple of camps. We’ve got conservative intellectuals, we’ve got conservative activists, we’ve got these traditionalists, social conservatives and religious conservatives.
And so what I’m arguing is those students, as small as they were, had a disproportionate impact on the campus through the things that they did and the messaging that they were spreading, and that when we think about the ’60s, we tend to ignore them or maybe throw them out to the margins as just part of this anti-intellectual or even white resistance to the civil rights movement is part of the larger backlash. But I think what the story that we all commonly understand is that that backlash wasn’t parents or maybe older generations who were off campus. It was among the students themselves.
Again, some more context. Most students on campus in the 1960s truly didn’t care about politics. And I make this case, I elaborate this a lot in the first chapter. Readers can read more about that if you don’t believe me. But most students were extremely apathetic. We don’t really see the campus war really heat up until the three years of the book, ’67 to ’70. And that’s mostly because of the Vietnam War. And that’s because students don’t want to be drafted.
But the other stories that I kind of tease out from that is like, well, who are the pro-war students? Who are the students saying, we need to be in Vietnam, we need to be fighting against communism and for freedom for the South Vietnamese? So I talk about students in ROTC a lot, but I also talk about students in clubs that historians will recognize, political historians will recognize, Young Americans for Freedom or YAF, but also talk about some of the intellectual societies like Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ISI and what role they played, not just in defending the Vietnam War, but also resisting demographic changes on campus.
We start to see more black students, more women students enrolled in courses, and what are their arguments against that? What are the intellectual arguments against making the campus more democratic? So, those are all things that come up. And the way that I push back against the story that we popularly understand is just by presenting what their arguments were. So through all of their interviews, the things that they wrote at the time. So finding their underground campus papers, that’s another thing we usually think about underground campus papers or underground campus radio shows as being products of the left. But the right was pretty, they were doing a lot of work there as well.
So you’re right, this passage is kind of less narrative than I often choose on this show. But one of the reasons it really interested me is that you talk a lot about sort of moods in this passage, which is something I always think is so interesting in political and cultural history, is that historians have to kind of deal with the big gestalt, the mood, the sort of feel of an era, which is really hard to track and verify, all of those sorts of things.
And then it’s also hard to write about it in a way that your reader can really identify, which I think you’ve done a really good job of here. So I’m curious to know how you dealt with that, how you talk about mood, and then also with it comes this question of how do you talk about what your historical actors are saying is happening versus what you, a historian with distance and analysis feel like is happening there?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Yes. I’m glad you asked that because that is another thing that came up in the developmental part. So in the dissertation, the evidence is kind of like front and center. It’s the main body of the chapter, and my interpretations are the bookends, and that’s not true for the book. My interpretations are dispersed throughout, which obviously is going to keep a reader following my arguments and my logic as I talk about what these interpretations mean, why they’re important and why I think they’re correct. I mean, in terms of, I guess, are you asking, how do I say this is what they told me, this is really what was going on? If that’s the question-
Yeah, a little bit. And just how do you balance that too?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Well, so the balancing thing is just, I mean, it’s just dispersed throughout my interpretation of the evidence. How do I understand it and process it? I think that is something that I’m able to do just from my own upbringing. I mean, born and raised in South Mississippi. I am surrounded by conservatism. I personally was a very conservative child growing up. And then through high school and college, these things make their way out of your system, I guess.
But I mean, I have a high tolerance even now for listening to somebody who’s probably even on the far right and maybe unpacking a lot of what they’re saying and contextualizing it with other things that I know to be true that maybe they don’t know to be true because it’s not the world that they live in or it’s not information that they’re ever exposed to. So, it’s just a matter of saying, here’s a claim I make. Here’s their evidence, here’s what they told me. And then contextualizing that, talking about its longer impacts. And I do that at the paragraph level, but also that’s really the whole structure for chapters in the book itself.
To better illustrate this, we talked about another short section that comes from chapter two. In this excerpt, one of the students that Lauren interviewed is discussing the perceived consequences of raising questions about the type of economics taught in his courses. Here’s Lauren again, reading from Resistance from the Right.
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
For students like Courtney, however, finding the words to speak out in class was less of a problem than the perceived repercussions of doing so. As an undergraduate, Washington State University was very Keynesian oriented he recalled. Even if you asked questions indicating you were a skeptic, you were immediately discriminated against in terms of grades.
I would’ve asked legitimate questions about how things worked. And my macro instructor, who was a very strong Keynesian, perceived that I was a skeptic. And I think it was fair to say that I got a B in that class instead of an A because of it. It is difficult for a historian today to assess the accuracy of such claims. Were professors in the 1960s biased against their conservative students for comments they made in class? And was that political bias reflected in grade penalties across multiple assignments? It is possible, but other explanations are likely. Another student offered the following interpretation of point deductions.
It’s not that professors deliberately persecute conservatives, but if you turn in a conservative analysis, they think you haven’t grasped the material and give you a low grade. So in that passage, the mechanics of those two paragraphs is, I had been previously speaking in the chapter about how conservative students felt like they were persecuted or victimized in the classroom for their political beliefs. And one of the ways that they felt it the most was in grade penalties. That’s what they claimed.
So I give you a passage from a student who says he’s in his macroeconomics course and he’s turning in sort of like a free market analysis. And because the instructor is such a strong Keynesian, he got to B instead of an A. And so there’s that claim, right? There’s the conservative representation. And then I chime in. So my voice says, I can’t really assess that. I can’t go back and talk to your professor. We don’t have these records of your grades.
At least the former student didn’t offer them up to me. So it’s hard to know, is that really true? Can I test that? So what I do here to sort of answer that is pull in a quote from another student at the same time who said, that’s not really the case. What’s happening is these students that think like, Courtney, they’re turning in their paper and it’s half-baked, and that’s the reason they got the low grade. So I actually didn’t have to do a whole lot of work except present both sides, which is what one of my peer reviewers really wanted me to do. So that’s sort of how I managed that.
That’s super helpful actually, just to see how that breaks down. Well, so you talked a little bit about how your perspective enables you to really unpack these things and contextualize them. And I know you’ve written quite a few op-eds and sort of essays for a more public audience. Is there a different process for writing those kinds of pieces?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
I mean, they’re much shorter. So time-wise, they’re not as time-consuming. I also usually don’t have to do any new research for an op-ed. I can pull from what I already know. And typically something will happen, all of my op-eds have been reactive to something that had just happened. I know some people plan op-eds ahead of time or in anticipation of some event that will occur. That hasn’t been the case for me. Maybe one day it will be, but the op-eds I’ve written about are in 2021, cancel culture, obviously, critical race theory and the hysteria surrounding that, CPAC and something else. I don’t know. I’ve written a fourth one.
So I sort of took that writing process looks like opening with whatever’s happening in the news at the moment that had happened within the last day or so. Explaining that as briefly as I can, perhaps in a paragraph or two. And then saying, calling back to what it is I already know to situate the current moment in the past. And then you do a callback to that first moment and say, there’s actually a longer history here and now you know.
But yeah, it’s a much shorter process. The things, for example, that I have written for made by history in the Washington Post, I drop a brief draft. Usually it’s like 1000 words, maybe a little less, maybe a little more. I think my longest one has only been 1200 words. So I draw up a thousand word draft. I email it off to the great people at Made by History in this example, and then they’ll respond same day or next day with some thoughts, some comments. And then I work through that. And sometimes we’ll pass a draft back and forth, three or four different emails.
Sometimes it’s in really good shape, the first one or two, one or two rounds we go through. But it’s got its own little mini peer review process, the same we would do for articles or larger manuscripts. And then this is assuming it doesn’t get rejected. I’ve written plenty of op-eds that never saw the light of day. So the ones that have made it through, that’s the process. I mean, in terms of the writing, there’s no new research because it all comes so quickly. You’re responding to something immediately in the moment so you don’t have to hit the archives.
Well, in our last little bit of time, I want to talk a little bit about inspiration. So I’d like to know more about, you’ve mentioned a couple names in the course of our interview, but are there people that you turn to that you read for inspiration for your own writing?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Yes. So I mean, it would be my dream if I could write like Rick Perlstein, that would just be amazing if I could write these. His books are probably a little longer than what I can do, what I can sit still for. But I mean, they’re page turners. And I remember being, I might’ve been in my master’s program, I don’t know. But when one of his books came out, which one was it? I guess it was probably Before The Storm. Anyway, I emailed him and I was like, this is so great. Where are your footnotes?
And he responded right back, like they’re on my website. And I did not know who I was talking to at the moment. Again, it’s me being like a shameless reacher router, Mr. Perlstein, this is fantastic work. Please show me your evidence. How embarrassing is that now? But he was so kind, and I actually know him a little bit better. I’ve had in-person chats with him, and I don’t think he remembers that about me, thank God.
But so he’s definitely one. Yeah, the example I used earlier for sure, Hartman’s War for the Soul of America. I also really enjoy both of Nikki Hemmer’s books. She’s another person that I have shamelessly fan mailed and thankfully know a little bit better today. Hopefully she also doesn’t remember those shameless fan mails that I’ve sent in the past. Yeah, I mean, trying to think of more examples here, but just anything that could be a page turner that keeps you engaged in the story.
I say that I write all over my house. I really only read in one place. And so as long as I don’t have a crick in my neck, and as long as I’m comfortable sitting in that spot and I’m still turning the page, that is what I sort of desire to be. And now that I’m thinking about it’s too, Perlstein and Nicole Hemmer, both, I mean, they’re historians, but they both have kind of a journalism edge to their writing. And so maybe that’s what it is that I like so much.
And I’ll be honest with you, most of what I read on a day-to-day basis is journalism, right? It’s the short form popular stuff. I don’t really sit down and read a historical text usually unless I’m in the middle of a project or unless it’s one that I’m really interested in, but probably 60% of the things I read, are journalism. So yeah, maybe that’s where I take that inspiration from. And it definitely helps in producing op-ed pieces for sure.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve gotten?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Oh, the last episode of Drafting The Past, your guest said something about writing being more sculpture than painting. I’m probably misquoting her.
A quick editor’s note that that was episode 22. Lindsay Bogan sculpts the story in case you’d like to go back and listen to it. It’s definitely a good one.
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
I don’t remember exactly the way she phrased it, but it’s so true because there’s this debate about what counts as writing. I took a walk and I thought about my project today. That counts as writing. I don’t always count that as writing. It’s certainly part of the writing process in the sense that it’s brainstorming. But real writing to me is the editing, it’s the combing through, it’s the deleting, it’s the shortening, it’s the making things more concise. So I like that a lot.
But I mean, I’m part of a writing group and we’ve been going strong since 2020, three of us. We have three core members and we’ve added some new people and some people have dropped out over time. But I can tell you that from that writing experience and then also from teaching my own students to write, everyone has a different process. So you’ve just got to find what works for you. But I liked her thought that the real writing is the cutting and the sculpture, the carving.
Before I let you go, is there anything you’re working on now that I can ask you about?
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Yeah, I have a lot of stuff in the pipeline. I’m working on a book chapter for an edited book about authoritarianism in the university. It’s a global and historical perspective. I really want to start book two, which will pick up off of where I left off from book one where Resistance from the Right leads off. I don’t know that I will continue to focus on the right so much. I mean, I will, that’ll be a focus, but it won’t be so loudly about what is the GOPP doing? It’ll be more about maybe legislation and policy changes over time.
I don’t know. I’m still developing these things. Also, because I’m not a full-time faculty member, grant funding is difficult. There are semesters when I’m not affiliated with the university at all if my courses don’t make, so that was the case in 2021, summer and fall, I didn’t have classes, so I didn’t have an institutional affiliation. So things are constantly in motion to get funding to travel to get my data. So we’ll see. But there are definitely things in the pipeline and yeah.
Cool. Lauren Lassabe Shepherd, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting The Past.
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd:
Yes, thank you for having me. I love this show.
Thanks again to Dr. Lauren Lassabe Shepherd for taking the time to join me for drafting the past. And thanks to all of you listening who have been supporting the show through 30 episodes. As usual, you can find links to all the books we talked about, including Lauren’s new book in the show notes at draftingthepast.com. And if you’d like to help keep the show going for another 30 episodes, consider donating at patreon.com/draftingthepast. Until next time, remember that friends still don’t let friends write boring history.