How Lauren Lassabe Shepherd Does History

Editor’s note: This is the twenty-ninth entry in a series on how historians—especially contingent historians and those employed outside of tenure-track academia—do the work of history. If you know of someone we should interview, or would like to be interviewed yourself, send an email with the subject line HOW I DO HISTORY to [email protected].

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd (@llassabe on Twitter/X and on Bluesky) is a historian, writer, and teacher. Here’s how she does history.

What is your current position and where are you working?
I am an educational historian who researches the history of the academy and its relationship to the political Right in the U.S. As I type, I am currently an instructor in the School of Education at the University of New Orleans teaching across different graduate programs–the Masters in Higher Education Program and then “at large” teaching graduate research foundations courses in the School of Education.
By the time readers see this profile, I won’t be formally working in the academy at all. As is common for contingent workers, when our contracts are up, when our courses don’t make enrollment numbers, or when by some administrative whim our classes are canceled, we’re out for the semester. That’s my case for Spring and Summer 2024 until I’m scheduled to resume my research methods course next fall. So for the next eight months, I’ll be an independent scholar with a side hustle as a fitness instructor.
Keeping up with scholarly work while out of a scholarly job is made a little easier by my involvement in the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Community Scholars program but more on that in a later answer.
Preparing to teach a Pilates class at my local studio in Gulfport, MS. All photos provided by the profile.
What’s a typical work day or work week look like for you? 
My days and weeks depend on if I am teaching that semester, so here’s an idealized week from this past semester.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, I both take and teach Pilates and yoga at a women’s fitness studio. Tuesday and Thursday mornings I usually meet with a friend who is a personal trainer to strength train. After I get home each weekday, I take care of our five dogs (feeding, walking, playing outside with them) and wrap up any household chores. Then I sit down at the computer for a few hours to work.
Work looks like answering emails, putting together my weekly lecture and materials, updating the course’s learning management system (LMS), and grading. Even though I teach the same two courses regularly, I find that I can’t help myself when it comes to totally revamping the lectures and assignments. As I reinvent the wheel each week, I think about the uncompensated burden I place on myself. Nevertheless, I persist in the name of self-actualization!
Around lunchtime I take a break to rest my eyes, stretch my legs, and reconvene with the dogs who have been lazily asleep at my feet for hours and who need to go outside. Sometimes I’ll do household chores (laundry, dishes, etc.) or run an errand.
In the afternoons I usually get to do my “work outside of work,” like reading, writing, editing, or just thinking about a research project. My book was released in August, so this fall I’ve had several afternoons dedicated to book promotion, whether that’s writing an op-ed, being interviewed for a podcast, or doing something more public facing related to the book. That’s all been exceptional to my usual routine, but very fun.
I pulled out my own little degree plan roadmap from 2016 to count how many graduate courses I took in quantitative research–27 hours! These courses ranged from introductory educational statistics to multivariate analysis to advanced experimental design. Remember binders??
Your PhD is in Higher Education Administration (HEA). Please tell us about the discipline and how it prepared you to be a historian.
I often kid to my colleagues who came from a pure history background that my PhD is more like a doctorate of University Behavioral Science. While I am formally trained as a historian (my undergraduate and master’s degrees are both in history), my PhD coursework trained me to be a social scientist. The program requirements were weighted half toward quantitative research and the other half toward university studies and theory.
Outside of the quantitative methods focus, my coursework included classes on theories of college student development, campus organization and administration, social justice, the community college, the professoriate, adult learning, and higher education law, finance, leadership, and history. These theory classes were my favorite of the program, and they remain my favorite areas of study.
Regarding dissertation research, I was lucky to have two historians in our department who served as advisors on my committee of otherwise quantitative and qualitative experts. I relied on my Masters training in historiography and methods when it came to archival work. Oral histories also were a big component of my dissertation, and for this method I returned to an undergraduate course I took on the Vietnam War which required students to conduct interviews with veterans (my campus was within an hour of three military bases). I also relied on formal qualitative methods, specifically ethnographic research, which led me to undergo the IRB process, something professional historical associations like the American Historical Association (AHA) no longer recommend but which I think is still crucial.
Have you always been interested in history?
I think so. My earliest memories of being interested in the past stretch back to childhood. I used to quiz my grandmother about her life. She grew up in rural Louisiana in the 1930s, was married and had her first of four children at age 14. She spoke a Cajun patois and didn’t have much formal education.
Even at a young age I remember understanding that our childhoods were very different. In the 90s when I would’ve been bugging her about our family’s past, my parents (her son and my mom) were both college educated, had professional jobs, and we enjoyed a stable middle class suburban life that was so far removed from her upbringing on a rice farm in Avoyelles Parish. She passed away in 2001 when I was 11, and I still think about her constantly. So much knowledge of our family’s history left with her passing.
One particular historical interest she passed on to me is a fascination with Huey Long, Louisiana’s former governor and likely presidential challenger to Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Long was a populist and charismatic. Her interest in him is perhaps why I like to look for eccentrics in my own research.
Was there a particular moment that made you want to study history/become a historian?
Not a particular moment, but I can identify people–family and teachers–whose combined influences perhaps started me down the path to studying history professionally.
There was my early curiosity about my grandmother’s past, which I think was organic.
Then there were my parents’ teachings. My dad was extremely influential on my thinking generally. I developed my first political ideas around a socially and politically conservative framework he built for me growing up. He’s still someone I can talk politics and culture with productively for hours, and I think it’s fair to say we both leave our conversations feeling fulfilled. My mom, a devout Catholic, also influenced the ways I understood the world. Growing up Catholic, I developed sensibilities about power, submission, hierarchy, tradition–even aesthetics–from a young age. Those understandings have been especially helpful for researching conservatism.
Then there were my teachers. In elementary school my favorite subjects were always social studies and reading. My social studies teacher, the wife of an evangelical preacher, taught the Lost Cause version of the Civil War (this was the 1990s!). It’s probably worth mentioning the school I attended in Mississippi was formerly named Jefferson Davis Elementary (named so in 1956–two years after Brown v. Board and almost 100 years after the Civil War). It was on Jefferson Davis Road.
It’s always fascinating as a historian to identify where some past phenomenon has intersected your own life. For me, learning the political purpose of Lost Cause mythology, and then reflecting on my own exposure to it in school, has made the study of the past and politics in education all the more important.
My friend and PhD classmate, Shea Gibson, is now a professional photographer. We agreed to take my graduation photos outside and from six feet away. Here, I’m standing in front of the administration building at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, MS in 2020. (Shared with permission).
Tell us about your undergraduate and graduate experiences.
My Bachelor’s degree is in History with a license to teach secondary education from the University of Southern Mississippi, famous alumni including the late Jimmy Buffett and the infamous NFL player Brett Favre. I majored in French for the first year before my dad gently explained that I would never get a job. So, I did what any faithful student with a knack for the humanities would and changed my major to General Liberal Arts, deciding that my undergrad would be in preparation for law school.
By my junior year I had expressed my desire to go to law school in enough circles (including among professors and lawyers) who cautioned me that I wouldn’t have a happy career in family law, nor would I make enough money to pay back what the degree would cost. I changed my major again to secondary education deciding I’d become a teacher like my mom.
After undergrad I worked as a K-12 history teacher (with an English certification that I’ve never had the chance to officially use) for almost 10 years. While teaching, I earned my Master’s in History from William Carey University, a small Baptist liberal arts college. With my Master’s I started teaching World Civilizations I and II at night at a local community college and helped launch the dual enrollment program for juniors and seniors at Gulfport High School where I worked at the time.
I went straight through from my Master’s program to a PhD back at the University of Southern Mississippi but decided to enroll in the Higher Ed Admin program rather than a History program. It was 2013 and at that point I knew what the job market was like for humanities fields. And while Southern Miss is an R-1, it doesn’t carry the prestige I would’ve needed to be hired for a tenure-track history position, even at the community college where I was already an adjunct. So my PhD program choice, like my first undergraduate degree choice, was practical and entirely based on my potential employability.
The cover of Resistance from the Right: Conservatives & the Campus Wars in Modern America (University of North Carolina Press, 2023).
Your book, Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus War is out now. Please tell us about it and why we should read it.
Resistance from the Right is based on my dissertation. The book tells two histories.
First, it tells the story of how conservative students in the 1960s fought against the campus antiwar and Black Power movements. As small as the student Right was, they had an outsized influence on higher education policy, precedent, and law (from the campus to the federal level) when it came to punishing student activists on the left, who they considered to be their political enemies.
Second, and most importantly, it tells the story of how these students cut their teeth as conservative influencers. The students who appear in the book are familiar to us today: Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Jeff Sessions, Bill Barr, Pat Buchanan, and David Duke. There are others whose names we may not immediately recognize, but who have been nonetheless influential over the last six decades as conservative activists, media figures, lawyers, donors, university presidents and trustees in positions of power over higher education. The goals have remained the same: return the academy to its conservative foundations and punish progressives who challenge that vision.
If you want to put today’s right-wing panic over colleges and universities in a longer view, you should read it.
What’s it like to write a book, at times, without an academic institution? How do you do research or get books? 
The task of researching without an institutional affiliation is made more manageable by my involvement in the Society for US Intellectual History’s Community Scholars program through the IUPUI Institute for American Thought, which gives me remote access to the IUPUI library and a university email address. Contingent readers will recognize the value of a university domain when it comes to communicating with archivists, funding agencies, and even other academics. Remote library privileges give me digital access to books and academic journals.
Interested readers should reach out to [email protected] to find out more about the program and apply.
Can you explain your focus on why conservatives in academia instead of another project (i.e. conservatives in electoral politics or conservatives shaping the federal judiciary)?
Researching conservatism in academia was a natural outgrowth of my upbringing, my interest in politics and history, and my PhD in HEA.
The book was originally my dissertation, but before that it was a paper for my history of higher ed course. I was taking the class in 2016 during Trump’s first presidential run. At the time, there was much discussion about his Vietnam draft deferments, which he received first for being a student, then for his bone spurs. I wondered how Donald Trump the college kid had fared during the campus unrest of the late 1960s. Turns out he didn’t have much to do with it, but I quickly found many other now-prominent politicians who did.
Also, I noticed much had been written about massive white resistance surrounding K-12 integration, but I felt like I wasn’t reading about a similar backlash as more Black students started attending majority white state campuses in the 1960s and I was almost certain that it had to have existed. So those two curiosities that semester opened up a line of inquiry that has now become my professional expertise eight years later.
The Hoover Institution Tower at Stanford University was an important research site. It holds the records of the College Republican National Committee, as well as the papers of many important Young Americans for Freedom alumni.
In your opinion, what do the campus wars and fights over higher education tell us about the larger history of conservatism in the twentieth century and beyond?
Political historians are still undecided about what the bookends are of “20th century conservatism.” They usually focus on “postwar conservatism” which, as best as I can tell, begins unintuitively in the 1930s out of the Old Right tradition with resistance to the New Deal or in 1955 with the founding of National Review magazine, and ends either in the 1990s when the Republican Party took over Congress and enjoyed bipartisan support from neoliberal Democrats, or immediately following Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008.
So the jury of experts is still out on when the conservative 20th century was. Plus, the story of the campus wars that I tell are packed into one thin slice of the long Sixties, 1967-1970. But what I can say with confidence as a historian of higher education answering a question about political history is that the Right’s mobilization on campus reflected the national postwar conservative movement.
I say this with certainty because, as I detail in the book, it was elders in the movement (people like National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr., conservative activist Marvin Liebman, members of the John Birch Society, etc.) who trained, financed, and otherwise mentored the right-wing students waging war on the campus Left.
That reflection still holds true today. The conservative activism we see on campus now comes in the form of Turning Point USA, Campus Reform, and College Republicans of America. These are all far-right clubs whose members do not represent the average college student and who continue to take their cues from fringe elders in the national conservative sphere like Candace Owen, Charlie Kirk, and Ben Shapiro.
An image of a box from the College Republican records at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Are you currently working on a new research project or piece of writing? Maybe book two? If so, can you give us an idea of what’s next?
Yes! I am eagerly working my way through a handful of archives to write a social and political history of American higher education since the Sixties. That is my second book project. I don’t have a well-developed timeline for completion yet. It will be a while.
In the meantime, I’ve been trying to track down source material for a handful of far-right faculty in the U.S. after World War II. These are professors who self-described as white nationalists and include Revilo Oliver at the University of Illinois and William Luther Pierce of Oregon State University. There aren’t many of them, but I’m trying to find out everything I can about their time as faculty. Not sure what the final product for that project will look like. Probably something smaller than a book.
I have taught introductory qualitative and quantitative research methods to graduate students a few times now, and always find a way to sneak in historical approaches. One day I’d like to write (or read, if someone else will write this) a how-to book on historical methods for qualitative researchers.
You are a historian of U.S. higher education. What are some works that have informed your research? Who are some scholars that have inspired you and your work?
I really admire public facing historians, of any field, for their ability to communicate their academic work to popular audiences. Often the writing that comes out of education studies is a tangled mess of social science jargon meant to be read by few scholars and understood by even fewer. I’m strongly in the camp of those who believe that at least some of our work as scholars should be accessible to everyone. We do that by not only writing clearly when we publish, but by writing and speaking in public places: on social media, on podcasts, at community events, and in national popular media outlets.
So the historians who have influenced me most are those who do that.
In terms of the history of education, historian Adam Laats has been inspirational for his research on grassroots conservatism in the K-12 realm. He’s a talented writer who has authored numerous academic books (five now with two more on the way), but more importantly, he constantly writes pieces for public audiences. He’s also a prolific Twitter poster whose content is reliably funny and always interesting. So there’s plenty to admire there: his research, his writing talents, and his commitment to public scholarship.
In the same vein, I really admire the political historian Nicole Hemmer who studies postwar conservatism and whose books have informed my own. Like Adam, she is a committed public historian: she hosts (and has produced) several podcasts (Past Present, On this Day in Esoteric Political History, and A12) and contributes a regular opinion column at CNN.
Others I admire for their public scholarship include Asheesh Kapur Siddique (who, in my opinion, almost always gets it right when it comes to hot takes on the humanities), and of course, the great Heather Cox Richardson, whose commitment to communicating history to the masses needs no elaboration.
What’s the best advice you have received or tell people about conducting research?
I like the quip about research being “me-search,” implying that scholars pursue topics that are driven by introspection or a need for self-examination. First, I think it’s true. But it also gets at the motivation. Understanding what draws me to my own research interests–figuring out what knowing the answer to my research question will help me know about myself–makes the pursuit more worthwhile and honestly, more urgent.
What’s the best advice you have received or tell people about writing?
I’ve gotten so much good writing advice from Kate Carpenter’s podcast, Drafting the Past, which is a show about historical research and writing. Each episode she interviews a historian and asks them this and similar questions, and their responses are always insightful. There are dozens of helpful nuggets in every episode.
The best advice I’ve gotten came from Lyndsie Bourgon on Episode 22 in which she uses the metaphor of writing as sculpture. I’ll get the quote wrong, but she essentially says that the best writing comes not from getting words on the page (though that is the first step), but from the carving, the whittling down, the cutting, clarifying, smoothing that comes with editing over several drafts.
I completed my PhD in 2020, defending my dissertation in February just a few weeks before the pandemic struck the US. My graduating class didn’t have a formal ceremony until a year later. This is the cover of my dissertation next to a container of Clorox wipes, a reminder of our early suspicion that the virus could be passed along surfaces.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about what historians do and how they work?
When I was teaching high school a colleague, a science teacher, once told me that history was an easy subject because it “never changes.” That’s a great example of the misconception many people have about the past: our understanding of it does change, all the time. And our ability to critically analyze how and why it changes is the skill set that makes our discipline useful (for those who think entire fields of study need to be useful to be pursued).
 What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I struggle with anxiety and panic disorder. This is probably surprising to anyone who knows me professionally since I haven’t been very open about it. It would not surprise my family and friends, though.

If money, time, and distance were not issues, what’s a dream project you’d love to tackle? Or what’s a class you have always wanted to teach, but just haven’t had the opportunity to?
If money and time were no obstacle, I’d open a dog rescue. My husband and I have five dogs and we always tease each other about rescuing a sixth (an even number so each one would have a mate), but we both immediately laugh it off as a terrible idea. It is a terrible idea.
If you weren’t a scholar, what other kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
It’s really hard to imagine myself doing anything else since I’ve always loved the classroom, books, conversation, and learning in general. I actually am a certified yoga and Pilates instructor and I do teach those things on the side. Perhaps that would be my full-time non-scholarly job, though it is still a form of teaching.

Contingent Magazine believes that history is for everyone, that every way of doing history is worthwhile, and that historians deserve to be paid for their work. Our writers are adjuncts, grad students, K-12 teachers, public historians, and historians working outside of traditional educational and cultural spaces. They are all paid.

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