Student's diversion leads to high-profile writing gig

At The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum went from commenter to correspondent

Photos/Mike Lovett

Yoni Appelbaum

Massachusetts native Yoni Appelbaum, a doctoral candidate in the American history program, was a web surfer whose draw to The Atlantic landed him a regular byline.

At first, he wasn’t so different from his peers: Working hard to write a dissertation on American civic life in the 19th century, lecturing at Babson College and raising two young children in Cambridge with his wife.

As anyone would, Appelbaum took a break every now and again to surf the Internet. He frequently found himself on the website of The Atlantic magazine, reading senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog. Under the pseudonym “Cynic,” he began commenting on posts. Those comments begat occasional commissioned contributions to the blog and, ultimately, status as a correspondent, which allows him to write when and about what he pleases.

For the former Columbia University Dispatch columnist and founder of the Columbia Political Review, it was a dream come true. But the offer was also fraught with concerns about time commitments and the reaction of his peers.

BrandeisNOW: What was it about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog that interested you?

Yoni Appelbaum: One of the things that came to excite me about the blog was how Ta-Nehisi embarked on his own autodidactic exploration of the Civil War. It was so exciting that a major intellectual voice engaged directly with scholarly accounts and primary sources and his own trips to the major sites to do the work that academic historians do, but to do it publicly and humbly and interactively with a large and diverse audience.

What prompted you to begin commenting?

Dissertations take time and I think almost without exception, doctoral students occasionally take solace in distractions. I put up a comment on his blog [in 2008], mostly for catharsis, not expecting that anyone would read it, much less reply. But people did reply and it turned out that he had built a wonderful community of commenters who discussed and enlarged and engaged with the points that he was making.

[Commenting] is the kind of thing I did when I felt particularly moved or angered by something – not with the expectation that I would really be changing anyone’s mind or reaching even the author of the thing that I was commenting on.

You commented under the name “Cynic.” How did you choose that username?

I thought “I’ll aim for something generic that sets expectations I can only exceed.” With a name like Cynic, I figured I could be constructively critical and still have a chance people would be pleasantly surprised.

As time went on, people came to know me under that name and in any conversation, once you’ve established a degree of honesty and good will, that’s a valuable resource that you can leverage into more probing and provocative conversations than you can with someone you haven’t encountered.

When did The Atlantic approach you about taking on an official role?

Ta-Nehisi asked me [in November 2009] who I was, and I sent him an email, and we chatted…Then in June of 2010 he asked if I’d write a little essay. I wrote a brief essay trying to explain how Grant’s reputation had been sullied in large part by those who took a jaundiced view of the effort to establish full and equal rights for all Americans and how his reputation was gradually being restored in line with the accomplishments. That’s the first thing I sort of wrote on commission for the blog.

What sort of reaction did you receive from that first piece?

It sparked a lively conversation. I think the reaction from the community was very delighted. We all want an audience, and we would all like to believe the world would listen to what we have to say if they could only make out our voice.

What came next for you at The Atlantic?

There was a stint where I spent a week as a guest blogger when Ta-Nehisi was away. In March 2011, I found out that Ta-Nehisi had gone to his editor, the redoubtable Bob Cohn, who is a powerhouse force in digital publishing, and told him he would like to see The Atlantic find some way to give me a more regular shot at contributing content. They, in fact, asked me to become a correspondent.

What was your reaction?

It was like reading the morning paper and finding that the sequence of digits on top happens to match your lottery ticket – equal parts euphoria and disbelief, with a small admixture of trepidation.

Did you consider turning down the offer?

Sure. I thought pretty hard about it for two reasons. One was that it meant dropping the pseudonym and owning my own content. They felt quite reasonably that if they were going to get behind a writer’s content, the writer should too.

Also, I was worried about the reaction of the academic community to a graduate student dabbling in new forms of digital content. That fear, I’m glad to say, turned out to be entirely misplaced.

The strong preference and reasonable preference of my editors was that if they were going to do this, they wanted to tell the world why they were doing it. Not “we found a random graduate student from Massachusetts who can write for us.” It was a story that said good things about what’s happening online.

How often have you been contributing and what have you been written about so far?

Once a month. The nice thing about being a correspondent is that I get to choose the topic and timing of the things that I want to write. It’s essentially permission to write about what I want to write about when I want to write about it, which is a tremendous and sometimes overwhelming freedom.

I wrote a cultural history of maple syrup. For their Civil War special, I wrote an account of the Gettysburg Cyclorama and how it shaped and reflected the evolving memory of the Civil War. I wrote a piece on the appeal of David Barton, who uses history in an ahistorical way, but manages to be read and can shift the views of larger audiences than almost any academic historian.

Most recently, I wrote about a class at George Mason University, which staged a historical hoax. That’s by far my most popular. Some don’t draw 10,000 readers, and that one drew more than 300,000. Even the ones whose audiences prove far more limited, the numbers in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, I have to remind myself that academic monographs measure frequently in the hundreds – and that’s purchases, not reads. I’m now able to communicate with a vastly larger audience than any of my academic work is ever likely to reach. That is tremendously rewarding. What I’ve really been doing for the Atlantic is experimenting in their sandbox with how historians will reach and interact with their publics in the digital age.

I think I took the work of two of my advisers in particular – my adviser Michael Willrich and Jane Kamensky, who also is on my dissertation committee – as an example of what engaging a public audience could yield. They’ve done so successfully and have been supportive of my own efforts to do so.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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