Behind these times: on professional standards and not losing your marbles.

John Judis has published an interesting intellectual biography of recently deceased historian Martin J. Sklar (1935-2014), whom I had never heard of until I saw this article.  (It turns out that there are some very good reasons for this–read on.)  Judis’s essay focuses on Sklar’s conversion from committed socialism to being a huge fan of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.  It’s weird–you can read the whole thing if you want, but it was the details of Sklar’s professional credentials and ambitions that interested me.  He started as a precocious sixteen-year old college freshman in 1951 at the University of Wisconsin, and took his B.A. and M.A. there.  However, he got stalled.  Really stalled.

If Sklar’s career had proceeded along the same path as some of his fellow graduate students, he probably would have ended up like [Walter] LaFeber as a renowned professor at an Ivy League university. But Sklar had difficulty finishing what he was writing, and he was also pulled to and fro by the impassioned politics of the times. After he got his MA at Wisconsin, he moved to New York to work on Studies on the Left. Then he became a Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester. He could have easily converted his research on Wilson into a Ph.D. thesis, but he got involved in student politics and embarked on a reconceptualization of the history of American capitalism, based on a study of the 1920s. Some of this research ended up in an incredibly difficult but original essay in Radical America, but much of it resided in a larger manuscript that sat unpublished in a file cabinet, as did other writings. Sklar would sometimes extract these writings and read from them in order to make a point, but would then stash them back away. Sklar left Rochester and graduate school in 1969 to get a job at Northern Illinois University’s left-leaning history department, which included his friend Parrini. In spite of the enthusiastic support of his colleagues and students, he was denied tenure by the administration in 1976 because he had not finished his dissertation.

He went to work for In These Times until 1979.  Then, sometime in the 1980s (?)–Judis doesn’t say exactly when–

He finished his dissertation at the University of Rochester under his friend [Eugene] Genovese. His thesis became the basis for The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism 1890-1916, which appeared in 1988.

Whew!  That only took 30 years!

Sklar’s book represented a turn away from his utopian and revolutionary politics. Where he had previously portrayed corporate liberalism as a threat to socialism, he now celebrated it. He still identified himself as a member of the left, but he had no patience with the left that existed, including In These Times. In one letter to me, he described the left as “the triumph of philistinism” and remarked of “leftists” that the “conventionality and in most cases mediocrity of their minds is staggering.” He got a job at Bucknell, and in 1992, published a number of old and new essays in The United States as a Developing Country.His book of essays was largely ignored by historians, but The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism was acclaimed by some specialists. It won the J. Willard Hurst Prize in Legal History. Sklar hoped to land a job at Columbia, which had an opening in his field. He had the support of some graduate students and professors, and was invited to give a presentation, but to his dismay, he was not offered the job.

Sklar was embittered about Columbia’s rejection, which he blamed on leftists in the department. At the same time, he became increasingly estranged from his colleagues at Bucknell, whom he believed did not appreciate his work. He said he fought with them over curriculum. He didn’t think he was being adequately compensated. I don’t know what really happened. I thought he was acting erratically. I got the magazine Lingua Franca, which was covering the academic world, to commission a story on Sklar’s feud with Bucknell. When the magazine went out of business in October 2001 before the article was finished, Sklar wrote me an odd letter accusing me of having somehow killed the article. He was not a happy camper. He retired from Bucknell in 2004.

“To his dismay, he was not offered the job. . . . which he blamed on leftists in the department.”  I’m sorry he was so unhappy–but seriously?  Seriously?  A dissertation that takes you 30 years, one monograph and one edited collection does not make you ready for the Ivy League, even twenty-five years ago!

What an instructive comparison to the women historians of his generation, most of whom were just happy if they could find a tenure-track job and win tenure somewhere, anywhere.  And I bet very few of them changed their political allegiances based on the jobs they weren’t offered.  Why did so many of the men of the so-called left of the 1950s and 1960s become right-wing douchebags?  Sklar became viciously anti-Obama in his last decade of life, writing letters to real right-wingers like Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Henninger, and John Yoo, and praising Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and even Newt Gingrich as the real left! 

Why, one has to ask, was Sklar so obsessed with the self-identified left? My guess, based on my acquaintance with him, is that it had to do at the bottom with his feeling that he had never been given due, and that the left, and particularly leftwing historians, were primarily to blame.

Yeah:  and it would have worked, too, if it weren’t for those meddling leftwing historians!  (I get it that Sklar’s meltdown must have something to do with the vicious infighting among midcentury leftists, about which I am largely ignorant and am very willing to be educated here in the comments below.  It’s all just Judean Peoples Front versus the People’s Front of Judea to me.  I recognize that understanding these feuds are  important to the history of the movement; it’s more that I’m a lumper, not a splitter, and I just can’t tolerate the narcissism of small differences.)  Even without the Valentines to Sarah Palin, Sklar’s belief in the awesome power of leftist historians should have clued us all in to the crazzy.

In the end, Judis’s biography of Sklar makes me wonder if Sklar’s lack of scholarly productivity is related to his very tenuous grip on reality in the past decade (or the past twenty-five years, if he thought that one book in 30 years was going to get him a job at Columbia.)  Here’s a 100% snark-free question:  If he had been in dialogue with scholars and submitting his work for peer review consistently through his professional life, would he have lost it like this?  (I get it that this is a chicken-and-egg question, and that it’s possible that he was alienated from his profession is that he was kind of nutty, but still.)

There are habits of mind that engaged scholars have that are not merely or only groupthink.  Humanities scholarship may not change the world, but it just might help you as a writer and an intellectual hold on to most of your marbles.

21 thoughts on “Behind these times: on professional standards and not losing your marbles.

  1. Being of the leftists of the 60s, i.e. missing the 50s, I find myself way to the left of America’s mainstream left. (May still qualify for a douchebag badge though.)

    Why would someone be interested in Sklar’s biography falls outside my area of expertise. Move from left to right, dropping out, accomplishing little and being resentful of that or the other are in no way unique.


  2. One of my grad-school professors assigned Corporate Reconstruction and essentially structured his entire Progressive-era graduate survey course around it (this would have been 1993, I think). I’m going to confess that I never finished the book. And that professor himself has always been on some strange continuum of leftness-rightness/Judean People’s Frontness that I never really sorted out. So I’m sort of not surprised that Sklar… um… veered a lot.


  3. An ex-husband of hers? I don’t know. (Neither of them has Wikipedia entries–I looked!)

    Koshembos: I know that professional failure isn’t all that special, but I found Sklar’s sense of entitlement pretty outrageous. Even by the 1970s–or especially by the 1970s!–it seems like the paths for achievement in journalism or activism versus academia were very distinct. I’m not saying that academic success is the greatest thing ever–just that it has its own professional standards and benchmarks. Being angry and switching political allegiances because one hasn’t achieved those standards and benchmarks and is therefore not reaping the rewards thereof is just nutty.


  4. A fascinating story – sad in some ways, but also revealing of a sense of entitlement. Ironically, my guess is that his work at In These Times was held against him more than anything else, as academics (left and right) are (small c) conservative about qualifications, and would not respect that at all.

    But the story reminds me of research a friend did in the 1980s on her small women’s college. She found that in the late 60s, men were hired without their Ph.D. finished, and then tenured for finishing it. Of course, all the women had to do real publishing (thought not a book) for tenure. So in some ways its not surprising that someone who had been around in the 60s hadn’t quite caught up with the way the world worked in the 90s. Or even job searches. Like there were multiple candidates. . .

    I tend to be skeptical and critical of the value of the speed-up of scholarship in the last 25+ years, measured by numerical outputs. Then I hear a story like this, and I think, yes, it is not all bad.


  5. University of Rochester, Christopher Lasch, Gene Genovese! This story makes perfect sense in that particular culture. Lasch in particular (the “leftist” anti-feminist homophobic public intellectual) must have been a huge influence. And there are elements out there, for example in “The Baffler,” who continue to promote this Laschian perspective in some ways (to be fair “Baffler” publishes feminists but continue to defend Lasch pretty uncritically).


  6. Oh, I should have commented after looking at the Judis piece–I was assigned the Sklar book by James Livingston. I’d forgotten about his studying with Sklar but, yes, duh.

    Stories like this make me feel like I should be looking at students over my glasses and saying, “And that, children, is called an ‘old boys’ network’ It’s also where we got “conference interviews” from, believe it or not.”


  7. Side note: it says something that *Lingua Franca* thought Sklar’s feud with his Bucknell colleagues was newsworthy, but it probably just says something about *Lingua Franca*.


  8. I vaguely remember the name, from back when the Progressive Era was more on my radar screen, but not much about the rest. The basic trajectory from left then to right when is not itself all that unique.

    A more interesting account about somebody zigging when everyone else zagged, but basically staying on the left, and keeping it creative and productive in a variety of venues and ventures might be the recent obituary of Gabriel Kolko. A book by him back in undergraduate days helped me see how history was an interpretive craft and a work of the imagination, although I lost track of where he was long before it mattered again.

    The critical point in the Sklar nosedive would appear to have been 1969-1976. If he expected to get tenure at Northern Illinois by that point in academic time with a dissertation-length manuscript locked away in a drawer, from which something had been published, I could see him imagining almost anything about Columbia.


  9. Just to step back, I’m sure most of us know someone from grad school who was brilliant but never finished, or never finished that first book, because it had to be perfect. I always wonder whether this is inevitable, or whether there is something about the academic world that encourages it.


  10. Yes. And from what I recall, it’s the people who were awarded the super-fanciest fellowships (not TA-ships, which is what most of us got) who had the highest propensity for dropping out! So success in academia is 95% perspiration & persistence. Hit the marks and advance to the next level.

    Susan may be right that Sklar’s work for In These Times was held against him, but Judis’s article doesn’t suggest that that was the case. I agree with her point about the small-c conservative nature of academia, for sure. (However, someone who hit the marks & had an impressive publication record who also wrote for a political journal like ITT would probably NOT have had that work count against him, or at least he would not have had a voting majority against him for that kind of political journalism.)

    Widgeon’s comment about Rochester nurturing that kind of so-called “leftist” bubblethink is interesting. Some commenters on Twitter responding to my Tweet advertising this post have suggested that maybe Sklar, like the men Widgeon cites, had a hard time coping with the challenges of race & gender, both politically and intellectually. However, Judis’s article gives no such indication that Sklar was hostile to these issues.

    What we need is someone who was at Columbia in the early 1990s to comment on this. Anyone? Anyone?? Bueller?


  11. And EngLitProf: apparently, even Lingua Franca didn’t find enough there there to write about that particular faculty feud, and they wrote about every faculty feud you might imagine back in the day.


  12. I don’t think Sklar’s switch in political allegiances is not entirely a product of his professional crack up. Gene Genovese had a similar “Road to Damascus” moment without the professional collapse. They might be connected, however.

    The professional disaster and the political transformation might be rooted in the same sense of perfectionism. I sympathize with the perfectionism: its hard to share your stuff when you know its less than perfect and are worried someone might think you are an idiot. It is even harder to do the longer you wait.

    The perfectionism in politics makes sense too. One of the stories of the Anglophone left is people trying to figure out what the “correct line” should be after 1956 & especially 1968. There were a lot of leftists in the 1970s and 1980s who were engaged in a sort of ideological transhumance, rejecting the lowland barnyards of Stalinism and the post-Stalinist communist parties in Europe in favor of grazing lands of the Trotskyist factions in the upper valleys. Others moved even further up the mountain to Maoist summer pastures above the treeline. And when that didn’t work out they kept going until they reached the feedbag of the Heritage Foundation. But each move was an attempt to find a purer, more ideologically correct position from which to survey and critique the world. (I think there was an essay about this in the New Yorker (March 27, 2006) called Breaking Away by Louis Menand.) I think that Sklar’s perfectionism translated into this quest for the ultimate political resting place.

    I think you are right, Historiann. The professional collapse was a product of not being open to criticism and engaged with the colleagues. Sklar’s other problem was finding his life’s work in the dissertation. He probably would have been a much more successful scholar (regardless of political orientation) if he had just stuck with Wilson for his topic. The dissertation is supposed to be your last paper, not your first book.


  13. This is a very smart post — all the tributes to Sklar have left me with the sinking feeling that he man suffered from much more than professional disappointment, even bitterness. But I think it is really important not to “idealize” or essentialize what it means to get a job (or tenure) at Columbia or any other top school. In the stars align the right (or in a particular) way, just about anyone who has published one book can get one, and just about any one who has published one or two or three books can not get one. Some of the people who get them are deserving, some are not. Some of the people who don’t get them are deserving, some are not. The lines about Sklar’s reaction to get getting a job — with all that is involved in any one person getting any one job — was the first sign to me in the article (though hardly the last) that there was more involved in Sklar’s career than his friends knew or were willing to talk about.


  14. This is the opposite of perfect: I’m astonished and discouraged today by the reappearance of all the same old media pundits who got us into Iraq in the first place. It’s as if the disaster never happened. What’s the point of history if nobody remembers?


  15. Historiann, I read your blog, in part, to remind myself that not going on to graduate school in history was a smart choice (even if law school was not really a very good choice either). I graduated from the University of Rochester as a history major in 1978, so it’s funny to read about Professors Genovese and Lasch. Except for Professor Lasch I generally avoided that part of the department. From reading this, I am inclined to think that was a good choice also. I must say Professor Lasch was a very nice man and I learned a lot from him without actually agreeing with most of what he said.


  16. Ha! Well, grad school ain’t for everyone, that’s for sure. Thanks for your memories of your u’grad days at Rochester. I think it must have been a gas (in some respects, annoying in others) to have worked in that department at the time. Like the Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times?

    James Goodman’s points are well taken. Shockingly, from what I hear from friends and blog commenters, it’s still possible for white men to get big jobs and promotions in R1 departments to full proffie on only one book. But that’s not the standard that the rest of us are held to. I would say that there is a lot of luck and happenstance involved, but there’s a lot more of that kind of magic fairydust sprinkled on the white dudes. As a friend of mine said last night over dinner (a white man friend, BTW): “My privilege! My beautiful, beautiful privilege!!!”


  17. I agree, which may be part of the reason why MS was (stupidly) outraged when he didn’t get that job. Women and women-like men assume they won’t get it.


  18. I’m afraid that I stumbled onto this discussion belatedly. I was a close friend of Martin Sklar. John Judis’s eulogy (the premise for most of the foregoing discussion) is a mix of (Shakespeare’s) Mark Anthony’s eulogies of Brutus (sincere praise) and Caesar (insincere praise and unsupported speculation). Sklar’s posthumous book was published by Cambridge in 2017, and will likely earn the favorable scholarly reviews that his two previous Cambridge-published books did. The journal Telos will published a symposium about Sklar in 2019. At least one young scholar is already making extensive use of his papers at Emory University. I am confident that Sklar’s writings will be read and taken seriously long after John Judis and snarkier critics have been largely forgotten.


    • If Sklar later expressed anger at being looked over by Columbia for the position, it is not apparent in this personal papers from the time of the interview. He writes of having been invited to apply for the position, focused towards diplomatic history, which he admitted was not his specialism. In the event, the job was given to Lloyd Gardner (a William Appleman Williams student and co-founding editor of Studies on the Left – the journal Sklar created whilst at the University of Wisconsin) who certainly was a historian of American diplomacy.


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