Telling Meaningful Stories Gets Professor Bryant Simon an Election to the American Historical Society
By: Nick Santangelo
A great professor can inspire students to find their passion, to make the most of their education and to turn that education into a rewarding profession. For Bryant Simon, a great professor inspired him to become, well, another great professor. But don’t just take the College of Liberal Arts’ word for it—take the Society of American Historians’. Dr. Simon was elected to the society this spring in recognition of the literary and scholarly distinctions in his writing.
“There’s an emphasis on storytelling,” says Dr. Simon of being elected to the society, “and I have always cared about writing and wanting to be involved in conversations with writers and telling my stories in a way that would matter to my colleagues in the History Department but potentially reach or be appreciated by a larger audience for the way the story is told.”
Lessons from the Past—or for It
Now just might be the perfect time to bring historical storytelling to the attention of a larger audience. Everyone lives through history every day of every time period, of course. And College of Liberal Arts students can always explore Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Museum of the American Revolution, Elfreth’s Alley and other historical locations and museums around Philadelphia. But this particular moment—filled with political, societal and global movements—seems prime for inspiring young minds to learn more about the historical trends and events that led us to the present.
Dr. Simon sees a revived interest in history among Temple University students. He cautions, though, against assuming history can reveal the exact trigger that caused an event like Donald Trump’s election.
“It is an admittedly confusing moment for people,” he says. “I think the past can help people understand it. People are more interested in understanding political histories than they might have been.
“Leading up to the election I was teaching a recent U.S. history class. Students were a little bit more on the edge of their seats. Students were looking for the kind of moment where they could see Trump on the horizon, and it’s kind of a bad way to think about history, like trying to see in a rear-view mirror. Things don’t happen that way. You can see traces of it, but it doesn’t mean it would follow to this. So I think in some ways people were looking for a sloppy history.”
Even historians, admits Dr. Simon, have had a difficult go of identifying how history could have been interpreted differently to predict President Trump. Rather than trying to understand how the past drove us to the present, Dr. Simon thinks “the more interesting discussion” is the inverse: how we can better understand our past based on what’s happening now?
You might write something that you think makes a lot of sense, and there’s no news about it
Still, in 2006 the professor wrote a book about Atlantic City, Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, and he believes much of what the country needed to know about Trump it could have learned from his business dealings at the Jersey Shore’s gambling mecca. Dr. Simon laments that “no one really listened” to the warnings.
This sort of thing is all too common for historians, extending well beyond the president. Dr. Simon says historians of many stripes have been called upon in recent years to help the public understand current events. This was particularly the case with the movements both to protect and to dismantle Confederate States of America statues in 2017. Those events came to a head with violent protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Va. last summer. Many of the historians who spoke to the media about then, however, had been writing about the subject for years with little interest from the public until the issue entered the cultural zeitgeist.
“It works in weird ways. You might write something that you think makes a lot of sense, and there’s no news about it,” says Dr. Simon, “and it can be a tragedy that brings you to the news. My friends who were writing about Confederate monuments did not necessarily relish Charlottesville. But they were ready to talk and give perspective on it.”
An Education for Your Future
Learning history can do a lot more than bring context to what’s happening in the news, of course. Dr. Simon believes Temple history students—and indeed, students in each of the College of Liberal Arts’ disciplines—learn the types of skills and knowledge that are directly transferable to virtually any career. He thinks “businesses sectors of the economy are finally coming to realize” this, too. While he argues there are “like a hundred reasons,” for students to study history, this one might be the most important of them all.
“Really what history can do is mainly teach you the skills you need for almost any job—it teaches you how to listen, how to think, to develop your own kind of arguments about things and to assess evidence,” explains Dr. Simon. “And then to write. This could describe almost any job in the economy.”
A history education teaches students not just to form an argument, either. It teaches them to evaluate and articulate that argument, says the professor. They’ll learn to think creatively about how to solve big-picture problems. Conducting historical research also helps students check two boxes that employers put on virtually every job listing: works well as part of a team and is a self-starter.
“History in its own way is both individual and collaborative,” says Dr. Simon. “You have to interact with people, interview people, interact with sources, find those sources, but you also have to work on your own at your own pace.”
Whether it’s History, English, Anthropology or any College of Liberal Arts program, Dr. Simon stresses that the key takeaway for students is figuring out how to think, evaluate and express themselves. A decade after the Great Recession, he says that “finally we’ve gotten to the point where employees are understanding it, and now the challenge is to convince parents.” Dr. Simon understands that parents only want the best for their kids, and, as a father himself, he empathizes with that.
But a liberal arts degree can help make sure they do get what’s best—Temple just needs to explain to those parents how their kids will get there by learning the liberal arts skills laid out above.
Finding Meaning in Tragedy
Certainly a history education has helped Dr. Simon lead a very successful career. His election to the American Historical Society is some measure of validation for research, writing and critical thinking skills he developed as a student and grew as a professor. Just last fall, his latest book, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government and Cheap Lives, received quite a bit of press when it was published. Imagine that—history in the media without a current event drawing attention to it.
The book itself explored a 1991 tragedy at Imperial Food Products’ chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. When the building caught fire, workers found themselves trapped inside by doors that had been padlocked from the outside. The building hadn’t been inspected a single time in the 11 years it had been open. The sprinkler systems failed, and a faulty hose spewed flammable liquids, causing the walls and ceilings to catch fire. Twenty-five workers, many of them single mothers, lost their lives that day.
It’s a way for us to think about what’s lost in really scaling back in local newspapers
In his narrative, however, Dr. Simon went beyond these micro issues and looked at the macro picture: decades of deregulation in the food industry to prioritize cheap labor, cheap food and higher profits created the environment in which this tragedy could occur. The locals Dr. Simon spoke to for his book research said employees knew the plant was unsafe. They had little other choice but to work there all the same.
“They were poor,” says the professor. “There’s nothing more expensive in America than being poor. They were making a dollar above minimum wage.”
Dr. Simon was living in North Carolina finishing up his dissertation at the time of the fire. Part of what inspired him to write about it nearly three decades later was the local newspaper coverage from the Raleigh Observer and the Charlotte Observer. So, maybe media coverage of crises isn’t so bad after all. Actually, Dr. Simon sees great value there. That’s coincidentally a topic that itself is popular in the media today, with outlets like Deadspin and HBO’s Last Week Tonight recently having covered the erosion of local, independent news publications.
“It’s a way for us to think about what’s lost in really scaling back in local newspapers—the ability to cover events, and give meaning to events and to give them a meaning in ways that they are unforgettable,” says Dr. Simon.
The local coverage of the Imperial Food Products fire helped make Dr. Simon’s book research much easier than it otherwise would have been. He says his book was “different” because it “was like a social autopsy,” but much of his research came from reporting that had already been done for the local papers.