Should Yesterday’s News Be In Your Journal Article?

jah katrina

Trying too hard for relevance, or doing what historians do best?

Say you have a paper you’re thinking about submitting to a journal. Your first draft was written before November. Now, in the new political dispensation, do you go for the Trump tie-in? I’m wrestling with this question and I know at least one colleague who has a similar quandary.

Obviously a lot depends on your subject matter. It probably won’t work if your lead is, “The ancient Phoenicians, like Donald Trump…” If, on the other hand, you have a paper about American conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century that’s been sitting around and you think maybe you should finally do something with it (ahem, guilty), then the question becomes much more interesting.

The advantages of the tie-in to contemporary events are fairly straightforward. Grab interest, show relevance, maybe even offer historical depth and insight to a question that’s on peoples’ minds.

But the drawbacks are pretty big too. First of all, if you’re going to try to grab attention and show relevance, why are you planning to shop it to a journal in the first place? Go for the Atlantic or something! In the journal process, there’s a risk that your references to contemporary events will not age well at all. While your historical analysis may hold up, the tie-in to current affairs may appear dated really quickly. In fact, if you submit now and the article comes out in 2018 or 2019, you could end up being dated before it’s even published.

I’m inclined to think the risks outweigh the rewards. How many books have we read that use Obama’s election as a hook? Many of them are already stale. I’m thinking through this as I write. My sense is that references to current events are likely to work best when they meet two conditions:

  1. They’re done with full cognizance that it’s not really history. We’re too close to it, too invested, with too much unknown. It may add color and grab interest, but don’t make it more than it is.
  2. They emerge organically from the historical analysis. They’re earned. In other words, can you honestly say that you’re not reaching for relevance? Does the past you’re writing about really inform the present in a vital way?

If you can meet these two conditions it’s likely to go better. I’m not entirely sure my paper meets these two conditions but I’m tempted to take the risk anyway. It’s so alluring!

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