Scholars Talk Writing: John K. Roth

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By Rachel Toor

For the past few years I’ve carried on an email friendship with an academic I had never met in person: John K. Roth, the noted Holocaust scholar and professor emeritus of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.

We’ve talked via email regularly, ever since he contacted me after reading one of my columns in The Chronicle. I was a bit star-struck to hear from someone like Roth — who has written, co-written, or edited more than 50 books and been named a U.S. National Professor of the Year, among other honors. His latest book, published just last January, is Sources of Holocaust Insight: Learning and Teaching about the Genocide.

The middle of a pandemic is an odd time to finally meet, but when I found myself in his part of Washington state last summer for a weekend of mountain hiking, we met in a park for a socially distanced visit. In October, we met again in his mountain town. Knowing a good candidate for the Scholars Talk Writing series when I see one, I asked if he’d be willing to do an email interview about writing, faculty retirement, and scholarly friendships. What follows is only a sliver of our conversation.

What does retirement look like for you?

Roth: I enjoyed more than 40 years of teaching and writing at Claremont McKenna College, but I saw some of my colleagues stay too long. No longer at the top of their game, they kept newly trained and promising younger teacher-scholars from getting their turns. I didn’t want to be like that. My model was the baseball hall-of-famer Ted Williams, who hit a home run in his last Red Sox at bat and then retired.

In my Huck Finn way, I lit out for the territory: rural, small-town Winthrop, near a special granddaughter, in the magnificent Methow Valley of Washington state.

But the internet gives me access to books, journals, and research partners all over the world. Retirement — a prolonged sabbatical — allows me time to write or edit the numerous books I have published in the last decade. A young friend recently asked me, “Do you write every day?” Just about, mostly in the afternoon. Morning time includes workouts to keep my aging body limber and my mind as nimble as it can be. Some days I wear a T-shirt that says, “Life is Good.” For a writing scholar, retirement helps to make it so.

Tell us about your men’s book-club-without-a-book.

Roth: About 20 years ago, a remarkable group of retired men in the Methow Valley — a former president of the University of Washington, an Episcopal bishop, a physician, a geologist, and a veterinarian among them — created the TEDG (the Tuesday Evening Discussion Group). Their spouses and partners had book-discussion groups. The TEDG took a different path.

In lieu of book reading, a member of the group, which is critically aware of its privilege, presents a topic and discussion follows. I joined the TEDG more than 10 years ago. (We’ve considered whether it’s anachronistic and problematic to remain all male. Critical assessment concludes that it’s worthwhile to stay that way.) The members are among the best-read, most widely traveled, curious, and progressive people I have known. Amid the scientists and doctors, a lawyer friend and I represent the humanities.

The TEDG helps me write because it shows me how much I don’t know. Because scientists and doctors are neither immune to unexamined assumptions nor unaware that physics and medicine do not prescribe everything needed for dealing with life’s most crucial questions, I feel that philosophy has something to offer them.

It seems to me you have a gift for academic friendships. How has that played out professionally?

Roth: Curiosity about what other writers do, thanks to them for what they show, questions about things I don’t understand or accept — scholarly friendships grow from interactions like those. At least that’s how I became friends with many of the people whose work I have read. Networking — something crucial not only for younger scholars but old ones like me — thrives when one reaches out to share admiration and gratitude, which critical judgment can communicate as well as praise.

One of the things I value most about my writing career is that I have had the chance to compile edited volumes on wide-ranging topics including torture and sexualized violence in genocide and Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations. I have been in a position to invite and encourage younger scholars to write and publish. These projects have taught me that writing is done not only by individuals but also by communities.

Presently, I am helping to lead a group of scholars — younger and older, women and men, Jews, Christians, and secularists — wrestling with what it can and should mean to be a Holocaust and genocide scholar in pandemic times. That includes not only Covid-19 but also immense threats to democracy and the natural world, as well as resurgent racism and anti-Semitism, hostility to science, and irrational attraction to unfounded conspiracy theories. In our troubled times, responsible writers should not take their opportunities for granted. A possibly endangered species, we must support and encourage one another.

When you were offered a job in 1998 as director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an op-ed you’d written 10 years before surfaced and politicized your appointment, which led to your choosing to step away. What did you learn about writing from that episode?

Roth: Two insights stick with me. First, writing has consequences that an author does not control but still must own. My criticism of Israeli postures toward Palestinians and the possible portents lurking in them caused offense — sometimes justified, sometimes not — that I failed to understand until it was too late.

Second, writing has consequences that an author does control and must keep owning. My writing failure did not have to be my last word; indeed, I determined it must not be. The immediate result was Holocaust Politicsa book I would otherwise not have written. Quite a few others have followed. Personal experiences that saddened me became the foreword for the most productive years of my writing life.

Your thoughts in general about writing?

Roth: The Holocaust did not start with shooting and gassing. It began with words, anti-Semitic words in particular. Elie Wiesel warned: Be careful with words; words can kill. That insight underscores that writing is inseparable from choices. It is always an ethical act.

In our broken, cratered world, what should I write about and how should I write? Can writing break through when lying, misinformation, and disrespect for evidence let chaos and carnage have their way? It is not too much to say that the human future hinges on how well writers respond to that challenge. Even an aging philosopher must try to meet it.

My preference is for spare and lean prose — such writing becomes robust. The magisterial Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg taught me much about how the Holocaust happened, but I studied him as a writer, too. On one occasion, he remarked that an editor had complained that he wrote short sentences. The editor’s observation was correct but not his complaint. Most of the time, short, understated sentences — partly because of their sometimes-piercing silences — say more than long ones. Revising your sentences to test that hypothesis is always a good writing rule.

Nothing teaches writing better than a newspaper column with a 600-word limit. A discerning editor helps, too, but the discipline of journalism is hard to beat. Don’t bury the lede. Instead bury words that don’t earn their keep.

Opportunities to write for newspapers can be few and far between, but not so the responsibility to write comments on students’ papers. And nothing I did in my teaching was more important than writing seriously and personally to the students who submitted papers for me to read, though I sometimes resented the time that responsibility took.

I discovered that crafting a significant review of a student’s work helped me learn to write, because what I needed to say had to be concise and clear. I also learned that one word of praise is worth four of criticism to help a student writer to improve. My investment keeps paying dividends when, years later, students report that they kept a college paper or two because of the comments I wrote for them.

Being a poet is beyond me, but poets help me to find out what I can do with words. Kay Ryan, Adrienne Rich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William Stafford are among my poet teachers. So is Muriel Rukeyser in a poem called “Yes,” which ends by saying, “Your biggest surprise / Comes after Yes.” Writing projects arise from within, but sometimes an opportunity presents itself. Would you review this book? Would you try an op-ed on this topic? What about writing or editing a book on this subject? Say yes.

Sometimes — in my case many times — saying yes leads to rejection. Yes, I’ll submit a proposal here. Yes, it will be good to send my book manuscript to this publisher. Yes, I can scarcely count the rejections I got. Yes, each one stung; some still do. Yes, the sun rises. Another day at my writing desk, especially at my age, is a gift. I keep saying yes. To be true to the calling, that’s what every writer has to do.

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