Debra van Tuyll, pictured above on a trip to Ireland, is a professor in the Department of Communication at Augusta University. The 2019 winner of AJHA's Kobre Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism History, van Tuyll recently received the Donald Shaw Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression.
She has served twice on the AJHA Board of Directors and is co-coordinator of AJHA's annual student conference, the Southeast Symposium. She also is editor of the Southeastern Review of Journalism History, which focuses on student work.
In this member spotlight Q&A, van Tuyll discusses her Civil War-era research, the importance of providing outlets for student work, her international community of scholars, and her hobbies outside of academia. - Erika Pribanic-Smith
When and how did you first become involved with AJHA?
I actually got my start with AJHA by attending the Southeast Symposium as a graduate student. The meeting was in Gadsden, Alabama, that time, and I decided to give it a try since my home is Birmingham, and that meant I could visit my parents that weekend as well.
In the first meeting Friday night, I noticed a woman across the room who looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her at all. It finally occurred to me that she was Susan Thompson. Susan had been in a Media Law class for which I was TA at Alabama during my master’s program, and then we’d ended up working for the same newspaper in North Alabama, but I hadn’t seen her for probably close to 15 years. I went over and spoke to her, and after we had our momentary reunion, she introduced me to her dissertation adviser, Dr. David Sloan.
Well, he, of course, encouraged me to get involved in AJHA, as did Susan. She and I even shared hotel rooms at some of the conventions, and of course we stayed in touch because our dissertations touched each other – she was doing the penny press up to 1860, and I was doing the Confederate press. We even had some newspapers and editors in common. She ended up getting a teaching job at my undergrad alma mater, the University of Montevallo, after graduation and living in the house that my parents-in-law had lived in when my father-in-law was a professor at Montevallo. Yes, he was my professor, but that was before I met his son.
As editor of the Southeastern Review of Journalism History and an organizer of the Southeast Symposium, what do you believe is the importance of offering presentation and publication outlets for student research?
Well, that’s a no-brainer—I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for the Southeast Symposium offering presentation opportunities for students! More importantly, though, it’s offered an outlet for my undergraduates as well. I discovered a long time ago—1999, in fact—that students respond better to learning history when you can make it real to them, and nothing makes it real like doing research, especially on local topics. I’ve had a host of students present at the symposium, and they’ve all gained confidence in their research abilities, which has led to a marked improvement in other academic areas as well.
What advice do you have for young scholars pursuing journalism history research?
Just do it, and don’t get discouraged when it isn’t easy. Nothing is as rewarding as research, and it’s fun, too. I remember my first archive visit as a Ph.D. student. I went to Emory in Atlanta to look at the papers of Joel Chandler Harris because he’d had a correspondence with an editor I was particularly interested in. I ended up looking at some other collections as well, and I remember so well picking up a letter on that thin blue stationary that was so ubiquitous during the Civil War and realizing it was from Robert E. Lee. I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh! They’re letting me hold a letter from Robert E. Lee!” That was a heady moment. I love it when my students have those moments, but the only way they do is by getting out and doing the research.
I had a student once, an older, returning student, who didn’t have a lot of confidence, but she took on a research subject whose children were still living. She contacted them, went to North Carolina to interview them, got access to some family papers, came home and wrote a paper that won best undergraduate paper at the Southeast Symposium the next semester. She couldn’t believe she’d done work at that level, and that was a turning point in her undergraduate experience. It is for so many students—we, their faculty mentors, just have to open up opportunities and get behind them.
You’ve been touted as the preeminent scholar of the southern press in the Civil War era. How did you become interested in that subject area?
So, that’s a story, too. My mother loved the Civil War period. Read every book she could about it. When we moved to western Maryland for my senior year of high school, we lived eight miles from Sharpsburg, the site of the Antietam battlefield. She dragged my brother and me to that battlefield, to South Mountain, to Harper’s Ferry. We weren’t interested. We could have cared less about the Civil War at that point in our lives.
Many years later, I was teaching—you guessed it—a journalism history class at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. I had a student who wanted to do a paper on a topic related to the Civil War, and I suggested she look at how the Augusta Chronicle covered Sherman’s March to the Sea. I knew what was then Augusta College, where my husband taught and I had done some adjuncting, had a full run of the paper, so source material was easy. She, however, didn’t want to read six weeks’ worth of papers, so she chose a different topic.
Well, one day, I was on the AC campus, waiting in the library for my husband to get out of class, and I decided just to go see what the Chronicle had done with its coverage of Sherman. I found the Chronicle microfilm, pulled the reel that covered November and December 1864, sat down at an old hand-cranked microfilm reader and fed the film in. I started reading, and I was hooked. Literally, that spur-of-the-moment decision changed the direction of my academic interests. I was expecting to do my dissertation on the different management styles required for visually and verbally creative people, based on my experience in public relations at Texas A&M.
You’ve also organized a transnational/international journalism history conference. How has that enriched your historical study?
I’d known—or at least thought I did—for a long time that the European understanding of news and entertainment media was different from the American, but my only direct evidence was published scholarship. Until 2007 or so, I’d never met a European journalism scholar. But then I attended my first international conference at Cardiff University, a conference on the future of journalism. I was in a conversation with a group of people during a tea break, and one of them caught my accent and exclaimed, “You’re American!” I responded, cautiously, “Yes, I am,” and he replied, “You’re the ones who invented journalism.” I was stunned. All I could say was, “We did? When?” I mean, we all know Americans didn’t invent journalism. It was around long before we were even a country.
That was verification that I had been reading the European literature properly—they do think differently about mass communication than we do. I mean, that wasn’t really a surprise. Media is shaped by culture, and their culture is different from ours. And because of those differences, European models and thinking don’t always make sense to Americans, but it’s worthwhile to understand how scholars who are different from us understand mass communication. That sort of exercise gives us a chance to look deeper and differently at the news and entertainment of American media.
Through the transnational journalism history community I’ve been able to put together with two European colleagues, I’ve had the chance to get to know scholars from Scandinavia, China, Latin America, Africa, and all over Europe, including Russia and its former satellite states. I’ve heard so many different perspectives on what the press is and what its functions are supposed to be. It’s really expanded my understanding of what the possibilities are. I’ve found my work in this field and with these people invaluable in helping me understand—truly understand—the connections between culture and media.
This work has also given me a global network of colleagues I can call on when I need help. For instance, I was writing something about the flow of journalism-related technologies and wondered whether the linotype had ever made its way to China. I mean, that’s a language with 2,000 characters, I believe. Imagine what a linotype would look like with those 2,000 characters plus all the other characters you’d need to set type. Those machines are huge just with English’s 26-character alphabet. But I knew exactly who in China to ask. He answered my question and even sent me some citations to check out about the history of the linotype in China.
What interests or hobbies do you have outside of journalism history?
I play the harp, the mandolin and the tin whistle in an Irish band—or I did before COVID hit. We’ve been together seven years now. I play harp with a former student who’s now a good friend, her father, and her son (father plays cello; son plays mandolin).
I also love traveling, particularly to Ireland where my husband’s oldest sister and her daughter and family live. My niece lives in Co. Tipperary, which is God’s country as far as I’m concerned. A friend who passed away two years ago had a farm there, Fairy Fort Farm, that his son now runs, and that’s where we stay most of the time. There’s a real fairy fort right behind the main farmhouse, and Larry the Leprechaun lives at the foot of a nearby tree. It’s a truly magical spot. We get to take care of the farm animals, including Pippi the dog, gather firewood from around the farm (there’s no central heating in the cottage where we stay), and just relax in a spot where no one can find us and there’s virtually no cell phone or WIFI access. It’s a slice of heaven!
You’ve recently won the Donald Shaw Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Symposium on the 19th Century Press, about a year after you received AJHA’s Kobre Award. Looking back on your illustrious career, what are you most proud of?
That’s sort of funny. I don’t think of my career as illustrious—I think of it as just doing what you’re supposed to do if you’re a scholar. But, to your point, I think the thing I’m most proud of is having spent the last 30 years producing professionals who are now spread throughout the country and who are shaping my field. I think particularly of my students at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky—so many of them started out so very underprepared for college. Union is in the heart of Appalachia, about 20 miles west of the Cumberland Gap. To give you an idea of how remote the area is, we lived halfway between Stinking Creek and Bimble. To watch students from that part of the world blossom into competent, high-achieving professionals has been a real blessing.
In terms of scholarship, that’s harder, but I’d say I’m proud of helping to build the literature on the Civil War-era press, particularly in the South, and of building a community of scholars who lend each other a helping hand rather than undercut one another. My colleagues in Civil War journalism history are the best—well, actually, I can say that about my journalism history colleagues generally. They’re the most generous, warm group of people you could ever want to know. We don’t compete with one another—well, not much, anyway. We build each other up. We offer support, we share knowledge and resources, and I love that about us. To the extent that I’ve been able to help build that sort of nurturing community is something I’m truly proud of.