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Doctoral candidate studies modern significance of Civil War

By web

Section: Features

February 10, 2012

Yoni Appelbaum is taking history into the 21st century. With a dissertation at Brandeis, a position at the Atlantic, and a lecture series at Babson College, Appelbaum is exploring one of the greatest conflicts of American history. The Civil War, he says, is still alive in the collective imagination and he works “to trace the twists and turns in our collective memory of the conflict.”

He lauds a former professor as his source of inspiration: “As an undergraduate, I studied the Civil War with Professor Eric Foner. There is no substitute for a talented teacher.”

For a long time, though, he “largely set aside” his interest in the war between the states. It was not until he met Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, who, according to Appelbaum, had “embarked on his own exploration of the period” that Appelbaum began once again to inspect the motives and consequences of the conflict.

Appelbaum said his dissertation at Brandeis focuses on the American population in the late-19th century who “developed social institutions in a manner that seemed constant with their deep commitment to individual independence.” He believes these motivations are still “alive and resonant today,” that people still “grasp intuitively its ongoing significance.”

Appelbaum substantiates his doctoral studies through lecturing as well as writing contributions for The Atlantic, for which he has written for more than a year. He began his course at Babson with the hope of inspiring students just as Foner had initially inspired him, but taking the scholarship into the 21st century.
“In the fall, I offered my own course on the Civil War and American Freedom at Babson College, in an effort to convey to a new generation of students the same excitement that Foner had offered me,” Appelbaum said.

His posts for The Atlantic, he says, allow him to explore topics outside the realm of traditional academia, and in a format conducive to study. “In the age of Google, all scholarship is digital scholarship—it’s just that some is consciously composed to take advantage of the format, while the rest isn’t, but gets scanned and digitized anyway.

“If scholarly work has value, and I think it does, then communicating with our several publics is an essential part of realizing that value,” Appelbaum added. “My writing for The Atlantic is, in part, a series of experiments to try to work out what history will look like in the digital age.”

At Brandeis, Appelbaum also finds encouragement from the community—faculty and students included. “I’ve been mentored by professors who offer terrific models of engaged scholarship and teaching,” he said. “The value of Brandeis resides in its people. It’s not the largest history department in the country—far from it—but the quality of its faculty is unsurpassed,” Appelbaum said.

“Perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve had a chance to teach Brandeis students who approach the world with a diverse array of perspectives, but with a common degree of interest and excitement.”

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