Our Stories

Politics Prof Picked as Oregon's Outstanding Researcher

Professor Richard Ellis was named Oregon's Outstanding Researcher of the Year. The Oregon Academy of Science generally looks to the hard sciences to honor researchers, but Ellis' prolific record of research and publication is difficult to ignore. The Willamette professor has written or edited a dozen books on the American presidency and political culture.

Most academic work is read only by other academics, but Ellis strives to write for a broader audience as well. His most recent book, To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance, now in its fourth printing, has reached well beyond the Ivory Tower. In 2005, the year of its publication, the book outsold every politics and law book on the Library Journal's list.

Ellis' account of how the Pledge developed in response to anxieties about immigration and "alien" ideas like Communism has been featured on National Public Radio's Fresh Air and in newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe. Locally, the Portland City Club initiated a conversation about the book by selecting it as the Citizens Read book of the month. The book has also met with critical acclaim from scholars, garnering the Langum Prize for the best book published in legal history.

While the plaudits roll in, the Mark O. Hatfield Professor of Politics is quietly finishing up his next project -- a history of presidential travel from George Washington to George W.

The things we take for granted Ellis takes as subjects: presidents shaking hands with crowds, travels abroad, presidential protection by the Secret Service, taxpayer funding for presidential trips. None of these phenomena would have been familiar to Washington or James Monroe, yet today's presidency is unimaginable without them. Readers can discover when and how these changes occurred, as well as what they mean, when Ellis' book is published in 2008.

The 'How To' of Historical Research
Ellis' research looks more like history than what many think of as science; he contacts historical societies, studies presidential papers and scours hundreds of old newspapers. "The digitizing of historical newspapers and other resources has transformed the way historians and political scientists conduct research," Ellis says. "A 10-year project can become a two-year project."

Changes in information technologies may have made research easier, but writing, Ellis says, remains as slow and laborious as ever. "Good writing is always hard work. Nothing is more painful than throwing out what one has spent weeks writing, but nothing is more essential to good writing than the ability to ruthlessly prune." He recently hit the delete key on 25 pages.

Ellis has observed that many good researchers never think of themselves as writers, and as a result never focus on the "how to" of compelling writing. Some academics even distrust good writing, he says, feeling that compelling prose may disguise weak argument or shoddy evidence. "I always thought of myself as a teacher-scholar, but only in the last decade have I begun to shed my graduate school biases and think of my vocation as not only researcher but writer."

The writing process, for Ellis, is a necessary part of the research process. "While I enjoy research, I'm always eager to get started writing. It's a back and forth process. I use the writing to find out what I don't know and where I need to do more research."

The Envelope Please
Scientists from around the state will be on hand to congratulate Ellis as he receives the Outstanding Researcher award. "I'm delighted that the nomination has gone to someone in the social sciences," says Jeff Myers, president of the Oregon Academy of Science and geology professor at Western Oregon University. "In the past, the awards have gone to people in the hard sciences. It's nice to see the academy expanding."

"Ellis' students are clearly lucky to share his insight and experience, and Willamette University is equally fortunate to have Ellis as a colleague," Myers says, adding that Ellis was "enthusiastically chosen."

The Oregon Academy of Science promotes science education and scientific research in the state, encouraging communication among Oregon scientists and mentoring new generations of scientists in Oregon high schools.