Public Thinker: Kevin Gannon Sets the Record Straight

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
A professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, and the ...

A professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, and the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning there, Kevin Gannon is perhaps better known by his online nickname, “The Tattooed Prof.” With an active presence on Twitter—as well as appearances in major documentaries, like Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated The 13th—Gannon has made a name for himself as an engaged and energetic public intellectual. Author of the recent pedagogical manifesto Radical Hope, he speaks out regularly on issues ranging from teaching methods and 19th-century American history to current politics and broader topics of public concern.

Kevin Kruse (KK): We live in a world in which the label “public intellectual” gets attached, almost automatically, to anyone at an Ivy League university who’s even remotely engaged in the public sphere. The national media seems fixated on even the most minor events at a place like Harvard, where the firing of a residential college dean can generate endless articles.

Meanwhile, more substantial issues at other schools don’t seem to matter. Recent controversies, like the evisceration of funding for the University of Alaska system or major cuts to the University of Wisconsin system—both major academic institutions, ones that do the heavy lifting in terms of educating the public—were barely a blip on the media’s radar.

So, one of the things I find really fascinating about you and your work is that you have managed to make your contributions clear despite the deck being stacked against you. What is it like being a public intellectual from a place like Grand View, which unfairly gets overlooked with all the endless stories about Harvard? What is it like being at Grand View, doing this work?


Kevin Gannon (KG): Different. The media focuses on the easiest places to see. For example, if you are reporting in the genre of the free speech crisis, it’s only, “What are those crazy kids doing at Oberlin?”

And yet, when something really is a problem—the kind of problem that actually fits into that very narrow-focused area for higher ed when it comes to op-eds—chances are we’ve been seeing the same sort of discussions out here in the hinterlands for the past decade or so.


KK: Right, yes.


KG: If we want to really talk about higher ed in this setting, we have to talk about the land grants, we have to talk about the state systems, we have to talk about schools like mine. Even though Grand View is private, we still serve groups of students who have not traditionally been well-served by higher education. So, when you use the phrase “heavy lifting,” that’s what I think we’re doing here.

We’re schools with significant teaching requirements, with multiple classes in multiple semesters (what we call a 3-3 to a 4-4 to a 5-5 teaching load). Where faculty have extensive service expectations, because our faculty sizes are so small.

So, when people ask, “What does a professor do?” the answer is very different at places like ours. It’s interesting to be on platforms or involved in panels where the moderator might say, “So-and-so is at Princeton and so-and-so is at Harvard and so-and-so is at Grand View University.” You can feel it in the room, it’s as if the record is scratched, and everyone asks, “Wait, what?”

We do a lot here at Grand View. We do a lot of the hard work. And this is certainly not to cast aspersions on anybody at Princeton, for example, but we engage with higher education in different ways.

That whole story needs to be told and talked about. If you are trying to engage with these real questions—what should admissions look like, what should financial aid look like, or even what should public scholarship look like—and you are answering for Swarthmore and Harvard as opposed to Grand View and Pacific Lutheran, that’s a problem. We need to have that conversation in a more complex way.


Membership, Citizenship, and Democracy

By Robert Gooding-Williams

KK: I understand that people in my position have an incredible advantage that most folks don’t have, especially in terms of the demands on our time. The teaching load at a place like Princeton is much lighter than it is at any top-level state university or a private place like Grand View, where I’m sure you’re doing a lot more day-to-day work.

So, I think it’s easier for someone in my position to add a public-facing role to their existing duties. Yes, we teach and advise students and all the rest. But I’m pretty sanguine about how my responsibilities compare to what someone with a 4-4 load is doing in a department of a half dozen people, where all those tasks that we divide up among 50 people fall on the shoulders of just a handful of them.

That’s what really impresses me: just knowing how much you do out there in the world and how much you still have to do at home.


KG: Right. So, having said all that, I should point out that my teaching load is less, because of my administrative position. I basically have a full-time administrative gig (in terms of the responsibilities). But I still teach a course a semester, still do all the other stuff that I’m trying to do in terms of scholarship and public-facing work. Also, part of my job is to support other colleagues who are trying to do the same thing, whether it is in our community or on a larger platform. What I love to see is people like you, Glenda Gilmore, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Heather Cox Richardson: people in these comparatively advantageous positions, who use the room that that creates to do the type of work you are doing. Those of us out here, at the Grand Views of the world, are cheering that on.


KK: We see it in the same way, that we’re all working at the same endeavor. One of the things I really like about historians on social media, especially Twitter, is that the institutions don’t matter. The public at large might perk up more if Glenda says something compared to someone at a smaller school. But on Twitter it’s a level playing field.


KG: That’s an area I really appreciate too. There are more seats at a bigger table, and it’s a better conversation as a result.


KK: You mentioned your administrative job, and I want to ask a couple of questions about this. Tell me about the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning: What do you all do there? How do you work with the students and faculty at your institution, but also how do you reach out to the general public?


KG: Basically we’re a one-stop faculty development shop, so I oversee all our faculty and professional development for full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and staff. It is a center composed of a lot of different moving parts, which I really enjoy.

I sit on the Provost’s Council, I advocate for the resources we need for teaching and learning. I get to consider schools like mine within the larger higher-educational landscape, but then I also get to work a lot one-on-one with faculty as well.


KK: That’s great.


KG: On one level, I’m like a therapist: you come in and we talk about your teaching, which can always be so fraught and so personal, because we tie it up with our identity so much. A lot of us don’t come out of grad school with a whole hell of a lot of pedagogical training, so the bumps in the road the first couple of years can be really tough to navigate. But I’m lucky, I’m in an institution where teaching is front and center. And I work with colleagues who are really focused on that. Honestly, I learn as much from them as they do from me.

KK: Tell me about Continental History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This is a Routledge volume you’re doing?


KG: So, this is the textbook that I needed when I taught Civil War and Reconstruction because, man …


KK: It’s amazing how often these things come out of our own classroom experiences. “Wish we had a book that did this … well, fine, I’ll write the book.”


KG: I’ve been threatening to do it for a decade, and the last time I taught Civil War and Reconstruction I reached the end of my rope. Now it’s happening.

I used the term “continental history” because I actually start west and move east. I want to decenter the traditional story. At my Teaching and Learning Center, we talk about how real, authentic learning is when we can problematize how students receive knowledge, right? And so students who come into this course think, I’m going to take a Civil War class, let’s talk about Lincoln and McClellan. But the book actually starts with Commodore Perry in Japan.


KK: Really?


KG: So often the Civil War Reconstruction era is told like the Ken Burns documentary: there was a horrible thing, then the strains of “Ashokan Farewell” play, and then, somehow, everybody got better.

Except no, in a lot of ways things got worse. We really biffed it as a nation with Reconstruction. So, let’s talk about why violence doesn’t stop, let’s show how violence, instead, just transmogrifies—racialized violence in particular.

So, the book starts with Commodore Perry in Japan, and it ends with ex-Confederates, who were known as “blackbirders,” for operating raiding voyages in the Pacific, in which they kidnapped native Fijians and Polynesians, and sold them into slavery.

What I really want to convey to students studying this era is that we have to get over this teleological approach to the Civil War and Reconstruction. In many ways, in fact, this period is an amplification and extension of prewar trends, not a disruption.

And from the purely pedagogical standpoint, if I am a first-generation Latino student at one of the Cal State schools, and I’m taking Civil War Reconstruction and reading one of these traditional texts, where do I see myself here? Maybe in a paragraph about the California Gold Rush, where all my people are displaced, and that’s it. But is that really effective?

KK: That’s a great point.


KG: A lot of textbooks, or all textbooks, have a viewpoint behind them. There is no such thing as objective history. Most of them won’t tell you about it, but I say in my introduction, “I will, right here.” Then I’m going to talk about why I wrote this: “Here’s what I mean when I talk about settler colonial theory, and why that is a useful way for us to think about this particular period of the North American past.


KK: That sounds really promising. The way you describe that introduction makes me think. I reviewed Linda Gordon’s book on the second Klan, and one of the things that really struck me was that, in the intro, she just lays it all out. I’m paraphrasing here, but she basically says, “I’m writing this because we’re in the era of Trump and I’m fascinated by the resurgence of white supremacy. And, for the record, I’m the kind of person that the Klan would have hated and I’m going to own that at the start.” She says all this very clearly.

I remember when I read that. I initially thought: Oh no, that feels like a misstep. But then I thought: No, that’s actually very smart and honest and brave. To drop the professional pretenses of objectivity, to recognize that we’re all, at some level, subjective in our choices, and to say clearly to a lay audience, “This is why I’m writing this and this is where I’m coming from.” To say, “I do see a connection to the present day, but, having acknowledged all those things, now let me present the evidence for you to see yourself.”


KG: And that really invites more collaborative reading from your audience. Some of the most valuable conversations I’ve had with my students about history are when we talk about how do we as people, as complicated and full human beings, engage with history?

This idea in my writing—to say, “Here, I’m going to lay all my cards on the table”—has come out of classroom discussions that I’ve had with students, where we talk about these intensely personal, as well as political, issues like abolitionism, racism, mass incarceration.

Objectivity cannot be a clinical detachment. And we need to own the fact that we’re coming into this as people; we don’t come out of vacuums. Those powerful classroom conversations convinced me that opening a textbook with such honestly can be a really powerful way to invite readers in, to invite students in.

KK: Let’s talk about Twitter, as two of the many Kevins in the Twitter history universe.


KG: It’s good to have a reserve, yes.


KK: What’s your approach to Twitter? How do you see Twitter as an extension of your teaching, of your writing, of your general work in the public? How do you come at Twitter every day?


KG: My approach is really to have no approach.


KK: Someone once asked me what my “Twitter strategy” was and I laughed for a full minute.


KG: To me Twitter is a place where, if you have a strategy, then you lose some of the potentiality of it. Now, having said that, I come at Twitter as a tenured professor and a white dude. If I were a person of color or a woman, I would indeed have a Twitter strategy, and it would look different than what I do now, I think. I acknowledge that and realize that.

But by the same token, if I’ve got that space on a platform, then I can use that in ways that maybe some of my other colleagues might not be able to. So, I see it as incumbent on me to do exactly that.


KK: Agreed.


KG: But really it’s a place for me to think out loud. It’s just this chaotic, rapidly moving landscape that I really enjoy and, above all, just try to keep humor in. Also, there are times where I think, Okay, I’m becoming too snarky and too sarcastic and too piggish.


KK: I wrestle with that myself, all the time.


KG: There’s also the cool part about it, when you realize that there are other people who are doing these things and fighting these battles in similar contexts, wrestling with the same things as I am. I’m not alone and I’m not the only one who is grinding my teeth at night over this issue. That’s a really powerful affirmation.


KK: Absolutely. I find it does a lot to break down the isolation of academic life, where we spend most of our time off by ourselves, in the archives or in our offices reading, and it helps us form connections, which are good for scholarship and for our sanity, too.

But there are other folks on Twitter, of course, so let’s talk about fact-checking: pushing back on misstatements, for example, or correcting the record. What do you see as your role there?


What I Learned on Medieval Twitter

By Elyse Graham

KG: People ask, “Why do you push back against the Dinesh D’Souzas of the world?” I say, my response ain’t for them. Their minds are made up. I am writing for anyone else who is going to see that thread, and then see our responses linked to it.

It’s like when we talk about whether or not to impeach: you have to go on record. You have to say, “Here’s where I stand publicly on this.” Dinesh D’Souza is not going to change his shtick anytime soon, but if he’s got a million Twitter followers, someone has got to go on the record.


KK: Is there an instance that pops in your head of a really effective way in which you pushed back?


KG: One of the more interesting ways in which I’ve been able to talk about what it is we do as historians is a time when I actually fucked up on Twitter. I did a thread on Lincoln and included a quote that wasn’t his, that was a fabricated quote from the 1890s, actually. And a couple of people immediately tweeted and asked, “He didn’t say that, right?” Here I was, fact-checking someone else, writing this thread on Lincoln, and then halfway through I insert this bogus quote.


KK: Oh, yeah.


KG: Obviously, I’m embarrassed. So, I came clean, I said, all right, I inserted this fake quote, here’s what happened. Here’s how I got fooled. Here’s what I did wrong.

I have an Evernote file where I dump quotes that I come across when I’m reading something, either online or in person. I’ll transcribe the quote and the source that I got it from, and dump it in the Evernote file; it’s like my note card file. Then if I’m using a quote in an article or a manuscript, I’ll go back and verify and check the sources and all that.

But in the heat of this moment, I used a quote I hadn’t yet done that verification for. Twitter actually gave me a chance to really own what I did. I can’t be on the offensive—“Hey, Dinesh D’Souza, you’re making shit up”—and then throw out something where I’m making shit up.

It was a chance for me to reflect: this is what I did wrong, we don’t get it right all the time, so here are the pitfalls of living in an information age like this, where so many sources are digitized. I got into a lot of really interesting conversations with people about how the historical method and the research process works.

I think it’s important for people to realize that, as historians, we’re not just walking around with all of the answers to Jeopardy! questions in our head for a living. There’s a lot of work and thinking that goes into these things, and if you aren’t careful, this is the sort of stuff that happens.

The other Twitter incident that I’m thinking of is the Mississippi senator and his Robert E. Lee thing.


KK: Oh yeah.


KG: The idea that Robert E. Lee was “a great man.”


KK: This was the state senator Chris McDaniel, right, who was running for the Republican nomination for a US Senate seat, and he had a tweet about how Robert E. Lee was an honorable man, and on and on.


KG: McDaniel was tweeting the post hoc idea that Lee really didn’t love slavery, he just really loved Virginia, and that’s why he really fought for the Confederacy.

So, I did this thread, taking this figure who looks like a kindly grandpa in all the pictures, and I said: here are some of the things that Lee did as an enslaver; here are some of the things he said, particularly about slavery and black people; and here are some of the things that happened under his watch when he was president of Washington College, after the Civil War and emancipation. For example, his students were out there raping and lynching Black people, and Lee basically just threw up his hands and said, “What are you going to do?” And he never took any action against the students. This anecdote pushes back against the received wisdom, the consensus, the mythology that has agglomerated onto some of these figures.

And so here’s a political candidate, Chris McDaniel. The way he looks at Lee is actually an encapsulation of his world view, one which has been disastrous for so many people in our current context.

As a historian, if Lee is my entry point into critiquing his larger approach to things—racism, structural inequalities, the legacies of slavery—then that’s the one that I can take. I think it’s really important and it’s not just to be “the gotcha guy.” This sort of thing is a lens for us to see into something larger with very pernicious, very dangerous, and very violent consequences—even if that might seem overwrought at first.

KK: I love that. Those are two teachable moments, right? You showed how history works. And you showed its relevance to today. You’re right about the connections: that wasn’t an antiseptic look at Lee; it was really asking what this means for us today, in Mississippi.

And then the flip side, with the Lincoln thread: owning the mistake, and talking about the way in which it happened. Someone else might have quickly deleted the thread and moved on. But you steered into that and used it as a way to say, “Hey, here’s what we should do and here’s what I’m going to do going forward, concerning how we handled these sources in the past and how we need to be skeptical of them in the future.”

It speaks to some of the larger skills that we try to impart to students: not just thinking about history, but using the skills of history to think through the present day. Using the past to illuminate the present is something you did really beautifully in both of those threads.


This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohenicon