Published: May 17, 2021

Given the riled-up state of our civic culture, my misadventure at a conference at Utah State University in Logan qualifies as a story worth retelling. As I prepared to speak at this 1992 conference, it was not my plan to stage a public performance of the reasons why we cannot expect vexation and irritation to work well as forms of persuasion.

Quite the contrary: I thought I had conjured up a clever technique to motivate young historians to be innovative and brave.

The failure of my technique was so dazzling that the event became a lasting memory in the minds of many in the audience. For a decade or two, I had repeated encounters that followed a set pattern. I would run into people who I thought I had met somewhere. Upon seeing me, these people would look stricken, shaken, and unnerved. Initially speechless, they would finally get out these haunted words: “I was in Logan in 1992.”

Here is how I pulled off this extraordinary achievement in unforgettable failure.

The conference at Utah State featured presentations from young scholars who had been assigned to present original, thought-provoking, and eye-opening statements about the state of knowledge of Western American history. After they gave their speeches, they were to receive comments from more established scholars, and then they were to revise their statements for publication.

These young scholars had accepted a tough assignment. Understandably, given the allocations of authority and power in the academic world, the young scholars were more inclined to provide overviews of recent books and articles, and less inclined to set forth bold assertions and status-quo-rattling interpretations.

Having somehow infiltrated the ranks of “more established scholars,” I planned to use my spoken comments to persuade the younger folks to unleash more in the way of bravery, originality, and fresh thinking.

How would I offer this persuasion?

I would rile them up!

I did not waste a moment on diplomacy and tact. The statements presented by the young scholars, I said bluntly in my public remarks, were not lighting up the world. For perfectly sensible reasons, rather than breaking free of established thinking and challenging their elders, the young presenters chose to be cautious, deferential, and even timid.

Alas, history records a striking mishap in word choice: I ensured the complete failure of my attempt at persuasion by throwing in the word “wimpy.”

What on earth did I expect this abrasive approach to achieve?

Here was my plan: with my forthright criticism, I would incite the young to prove me wrong. Sequentially, with neurons goaded into hyperactivity by a rush of the excellent (and entirely natural!) chemical adrenaline, they would leap to their feet to set me straight.

Here is what I expected them to say to me:

You called us “timid, deferential, and cautious.” Well, OK, if you think we aren’t capable of offering fresh and original insights, then fasten your seatbelt. Listen closely, because you are about to hear a bunch of dynamic perspectives on the American West, powered by a spirit of originality that you never saw coming.

No one followed this script, but at least part of my hoped-for scenario did work out.

I got the young scholars riled up.

“Where does Patty Limerick get off in thinking that she has the power to set the standards for this field?” was only one of many remarks that seared their way into the audience’s memories. And into mine.

So now you have a sense of why, over the next few years, so many people said to me, “I was in Logan.”

And yet there were two important outcomes of that conference that the audience members didn’t get to witness.

First, they didn’t get to see the “de-riling” that took place later that day. Maybe I would go too far if I called what happened afterward an evening of reconciliation, but something pretty darned close to that took place soon after the collision.

Second, I left Logan with a recognition that does not seem to be universally shared in the United States these days: I had noticed that getting people riled up and defensive is not the best way to inspire, persuade, and encourage them.

I hope that this is a recognition that is recruiting converts as I type.

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