The American Historian

When, Why, and How I Write Op-Eds

Geraldo Cadava

Writing and submitting op-eds can become an obsession. You’ll refresh your inbox every few minutes, waiting for an editor to respond, often in vain, hopefully not. You’ll scour the internet for recent headlines to help you tweak your piece, keeping it fresh. You’ll ponder your unique contribution to an already crowded news scape. When your piece gets published, you’ll experience a rush when you see your byline and as your friends and professional acquaintances congratulate you. In this sense, publishing an opinion piece can offer an immediate, though fleeting, sense of recognition in a profession that doesn’t always afford such pleasures, since we historians usually toil away on projects that take years to complete. But more importantly, writing op-eds can be a necessary public service and can help you hone your scholarly arguments.
I’ve chosen to write op-eds selectively, when my particular areas of expertise align with current events. I write when I feel that I have something important and, perhaps, original to say. I felt compelled to write in the weeks following the passage of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 (S.B. 1070), the state’s “show me your papers” law that, among other things, required local police to verify the immigration status of anyone they suspected of being in the state illegally. It was amazing how quickly mainstream news sources and blogs became saturated with news about Arizona. Everyone had an opinion, even people who knew very little about the state and its long history of anti-immigrant politics. I was from Tucson, Arizona, and I happened to be writing a book about the Arizona-Sonora border region. I was the one who should be writing about Arizona, I thought. So I did, and it taught me two lessons. Sadly, the first was that bad happenings in the world often create opportunities for historians to write hard and write fast, to join the public chorus of outrage, and to deepen public debate. Second, I realized that if I chose to not write, it wouldn’t stop other less-informed writers from doing so.
With a sense of duty, I wrote more. I wrote again when Arizona’s S.B. 1070 was before the U.S. Supreme Court, about a year after Governor Jan Brewer signed it. I wrote once more right after Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, when many observers credited Latino voters with his victory. A few months later, I wrote about the Republican party’s dissection of what had gone wrong in their courting of Latino voters—what the New York Times called the “Republican Autopsy Report”—and about the emergence of Latino conservatives who hoped to repair the GOP’s relationship with Latino communities. Then the 2016 presidential race started, and I wrote about the Republican party’s immigration proposals, Jeb Bush’s longstanding efforts to gain the support of Latino voters, and the first Latino to run for President, Benjamin “Boxcar Ben” Fernandez, who ran as a Republican in 1980 against Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and other conservative stalwarts. In other words, I picked my moments. This seems to be the approach adopted by most historians: Timothy Stewart-Winter after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, N. D. B. Connolly during the unrest in Baltimore after the murder of Freddy Gray, or Julio Capó Jr. in the wake of the recent mass shooting during “Latin Night” at a gay club in Orlando. Examples abound.
I did not, however, try to write op-eds at every opportunity, to become a kind of regular contributing columnist. My own work rhythm and personality aren’t in sync with the constant cycling of news. In order to write a good piece, I think, you have to drop everything you’re doing and not stop until you’re done. If you don’t put other things on hold, and if you choose to plod ahead a little at a time—as you might with an article or book—the moment might pass you by. Personally, once I got started I found that I couldn’t do much else. Even more than I usually do, I felt tethered to my e-mail and trustworthy news sites. I also believe that our opinions about the connection between past and present wield the most power when they’re deeply informed, based on long periods of research and thinking about our subjects. Frankly, I don’t think I have well-considered ideas about everything going on in the world, certainly not once or twice a week, like many columnists. There are other ways, of course. One could anticipate anniversaries that will require historical contextualization, or one could write pieces based on their research that could be ready to go with the addition of a snappy news hook when the moment struck. But I haven’t had such foresight.
In picking my spots, I’ve found a practice that works for me, but in many ways it goes against advice given by experienced op-ed writers who teach others how to write op-eds. For example, the leaders of the Public Voices Fellowship (or Op-Ed Project), which I participated in at Northwestern University a few years ago, encouraged us to write all the time, to always have an op-ed in the hopper. The Public Voices Fellowship is a great program, one that’s geared towards increasing the proportion of women and minorities writing opinion pieces. When I was a Public Voices Fellow, the supportive and talented leaders told us that 85 percent of all op-eds are written by white men. That’s shameful. They hoped to change the situation. Still, they wanted us to write a lot, more than I was comfortable with. In one exercise, we practiced saying “yes” to a hypothetical request to be interviewed or write a piece. Just say yes. Yes, yes, yes. They encouraged us to think of expanding circles of expertise. The topics I know most about are the U.S.-Mexico border, Latin American immigration, and Latina and Latino History. But in their eyes that also meant I should have opinions about borders around the world, global migration, and race and ethnicity in the United States. At least I would be more informed about those subjects than 90 percent of Americans, they argued. Perhaps they were right, but I couldn’t do it. There was too much to write. I could have spent all my time looking for news to write about, but I wanted to do other things.
To be sure—this is a phrase that Op-Ed Project leaders encouraged us to use in every piece we wrote, to signal we’d thought through counterarguments—I’m exaggerating their expectations to make a point. They didn’t expect us all to become regular columnists, and even if they did, plenty of columnists manage to do lots of things besides write columns. There are superhumans such as Jill Lepore and Ta-Nehisi Coates, but other examples exist of prolific popular authors who are also effective teachers, mentors, parents, and authors of other genres besides journalism. Still, I did, and do, feel a tension between the work of an academic and the work of writing op-eds. In an important sense, the two kinds of work are complementary and, at best, can be mutually reinforcing. I think my scholarly writing has become better because I’ve written op-eds that have forced me to highlight my main arguments and carefully think through their logical unfolding. Moreover, part of the beauty of academic freedom is the flexibility it offers to take risks and experiment with different forms of writing, including op-eds. But writing op-eds and seeing them through to publication takes time and emotional energy, and there are only so many hours in a day to fill with tasks that compete for our attention.
Yet we write. A lot. In 2014 Nicholas Kristof caused a kerfuffle by writing one of his regular columns for the New York Times about the waning influence of academics in public life. “Professors, We Need You!” it was called. Some of the smartest rejoinders came from academics who pointed out how much public work academics already do. Leading outlets, such as Kristof’s own, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker regularly publish op-eds by historians. Claire Potter at The New School, Kevin Kruse at Princeton, and Corey Robin, a historically-minded political scientist who teaches at Brooklyn College, all have considerable followings on Twitter or their own websites. Most of us, I’d say, use Facebook as a platform for airing our historically-informed opinions. First and foremost, we write because we want to shape public discourse. We know that if we don’t, others will. My partner, also a historian, has shared with me an anecdote about a time that Tom Sugrue said to an audience of listeners that writing is a form of activism. I’ve come to think of my writing in this way. It’s the thing that I know how to do to try and change our world.
How do I know if anyone listens? I guess I don’t. Expressing ideas that I hope will have an impact is a bit like advertising. Companies spend billions to make commercials that they hope will sell whatever they’re selling. They won’t know if an advertisement they produced led a particular individual to buy their product, yet they keep doing it. Companies keep advertising, we keep writing. Sometimes readers send me an e-mail to say they appreciated what I wrote. Hundreds of others send e-mails or comment online that I’m a fraud and a scoundrel. Friends and colleagues like or share posts on Facebook, and sometimes—rarely!—someone follows me on Twitter. But hopefully our impact goes beyond such metrics. I take a leap of faith every time I write. I have to believe that someone wants to hear what I have to say. My partner, a wise muse, as you can see, also told me about a mentor who defended jargon-filled, theoretical, academic prose—just the kind of self-inflicted wound that Kristof considers responsible for our marginalization—by saying that she won’t give up on any form of discourse that could change the world. I’ve taken this to heart as well. It’s another reason that I will continue to write op-eds in addition to books, journal articles, reviews, essays for government agencies, and anything else that could make a difference.


Geraldo L. Cadava is an Associate Professor of History and Latina/o Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland, first published by Harvard University Press in 2013, and which will appear in paperback in August 2016 [or “later this month”]. He is currently writing a book entitled, The Silenced Minority: The Rise and Fall of the Hispanic Conservative Movement, 1967-1994.