Monday, March 30, 2009

Blog III: Class and History

People going into the history profession need to know something about the field: it is extremely—and I mean extremely—class conscious.

Allow me to explain with a story or two. My father spent 22 years in the United States Army as a quartermaster—or supply—officer. He retired as a lieutenant colonel. During his military career, he returned to his undergraduate alma matter, the University of Texas at Austin, and spent two years teaching ROTC in the early 1970s. He had the rank of major at the time. Now, UT had the right to say yes or no to the officers that the Army intended to assign to the ROTC detachment, and he told me that the university said no to an officer who had flunked out of Texas and then finished his degree at some other school. Why? Well, all ROTC officers were members of the faculty. My father signed a contract with UT in which the university gave him the rank of associate professor of military science and paid him $0, which in the early 1970s was a lot of money. He was an active duty officer and was getting his Army salary, but as a member of the faculty he had all the rights and privileges as another professor, including membership in the faculty club, checking out books from the library, and attending university committee meetings. As I was getting ready to go to grad school, he told me that he met more rank and status conscious people in those two years at UT than he did in his entire military career. Apparently one of the things that really bothered the civilian academics is that he was an associate professor but only had a master’s degree. I have always tried to keep that story in mind and not get to arrogant. I know I have not always been successful, but I do try.

Here is another story. Another family member works at a university and was attending a job talk for a newly minted Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkley. The candidate was interviewing for a position in a new program that the university had just started up. This individual had developed this argument that nuclear weapons were weapons that were developed intentionally with no intention of ever being used, and that they would never be used. Now, I was not at the job talk so I do not know how they handled the fact that the United States used an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki—but that is beside the point. My relative quickly saw a problem with this argument and asked the candidate if they were serious; would the United States refuse to use nuclear weapons if, for example, North Korea attacked the South and was close to driving down the length of peninsula, taking out the Republic of Korea government. Would the United States allow a legitimate, multi-party democracy and fifty years of American foreign to go down the drain? The response of the candidate was yes. Suddenly a number of other people started asking questions, poking big holes in the candidate’s argument. Afterwards my kinsman called me and said the argument was so weak that it was difficult to understand why the candidate was under serious consideration. My relative speculated that the only reason that individual was getting a serious examination was that they had graduated from Berkley. The more I thought about it, the more I figured my relative had just hit the reason why the candidate was getting serious consideration. The program was trying to buy reputation on the quick.

These two stories illustrate the class factors at work in the historical profession. Actually, to be correct it is status rather than class. (Almost all academics are middle class in their origins). But there is a certain consciousness about status that dominates the workings of the profession. Is it fair? No, but it is there and you need to be aware of its presence.

How does it work? People coming out of premier schools will have certain advantages, and there are people who expect their due after doing the proper ticket punching. Questions about quality aside, people coming from the more proletarian schools—if anyone with a Ph.D. can be described as proletarian—will just have to accept the limits of their station in life.

Well, remember what I wrote last time. You can make your own opportunities. History is not a true class or caste system, because you can produce quality work and move yourself forward. You might have to try harder and longer, if you come from a school with a more modest academic reputation than UC, Berkley, but you can be as successful as you want to be.

I should note that this caste system cuts two ways. While I was at Texas A&M University—Commerce (a regional school within the state of Texas), I was on a couple of search committees. We had several Ivy League applicants and most were never serious candidates for the position, because it was clear that they were not prepared for teaching at a school like A&M—Commerce. (I will have much more on that topic when we get to job hunting). Many, many graduates of premier schools tend to underperform once they get out into their academic careers, expecting that their degree and the reputation of their mentors will carry the day.

In short, going to a prestigious school helps—it gets you in the door—but that is all it does. You are better off going to Yale than the University of Toledo, but your personality, the quality of what you have to say about the past and the quantity of your publications will do a lot more to determine if you get to go through the doorway.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Blog II: The Republicans

Okay, one of the first things worth saying is that anyone entering the history profession can have any type of career they want. If you want to be a devoted teacher, you can do that. If you want to be a serious researcher who becomes a major figure in the field, you can do that as well. It is really a function of what you want to do. In this sense, the historical profession is quite unique. You can make your own opportunities, and those people that are most successful are the ones that generally realize that fact.

With that being said, there is a qualification that I must offer. The history profession is extremely “Republican.” Now, I do not mean to say that history professors are lining up to vote for George W. Bush. Quite the opposite in that regard.

What I mean to say is the rich get richer and the poor don’t get so much. What does that mean, you might be wondering? Well, if you are the bright young grad student at Princeton or Yale or Stanford, you are far more likely to get a competitive grant than someone at say the University of Toledo or the University of Utah. If you got one grant, you are far more likely to a get a second one and a third, even if you do not really need them. Grad students coming from well-established programs like UC, Berkley are far more likely to get the premier jobs than it is for someone at the University of Texas at Arlington. It is also easier for the professor at established schools like the University of Michigan to get their books published by the big publishing houses, be they academic or commercial, with good marketing departments that will get their books reviewed in major journals and have their ideas and findings circulating among their peers. Finally, when it comes time for applying for grants it is usually the guys at the major schools that get them rather than their peers at Indiana State University, which facilitates a second or third book.

Now, while some individuals have an easier career path than others that does not mean a smart person cannot raise from being consigned to a small Podunk school to a major university. I know of a historian with an endowed chair at an Ivy League institution who received his Ph.D. from Southeastern Illinois State University.

What any historian needs to do to move up in the world is to do original research that is meaningful and important. It might take you longer and require more effort to get to that point if you do not have the same resources as others, but if the work is important it will get you noticed. That is how you make your own opportunities in graduate school and after: sustained effort and regular publishing.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Why this blog? Why am I blogging? More importantly, why should you waste your valuable time looking at this site?

Well, my answer is simple. I have learned a lot about the history profession since I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Southern California in 1997. The type of stuff that you never get told in grad school. Put another way, I have gone through a steep leaning curve in learning “how the game is played.” A friend of mine used that phrase to describe me—he meant it as a compliment—and I have been gnawing for a chance to share my insights about a host of important factors that shape careers and the dialogue that takes place between historians. I have shared a number of the insights with students of mine going off to earn advanced degrees at other institutions and with people I have met and talked with at conferences, but these individuals are only a small handful. I thought about writing a memoir about my first decade as a professional historian with a title like Lessons from the Frontlines: The Memoirs of a Sexy, Young College Professor। This book would have been aimed at grad students and new faculty. The problem is that books take a long time to put together, and I am not sure my ideas would sustain an entire book. With questions about the effectiveness of going the book route, I also had reservations with other venues. I wanted to a lot more than what I could express in newsletter articles, even a series of them. My ideas are also too long for me to express them in a session or two or three at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. I do love the sound of my own voice, but even I know my limits despite what many people think. After the blogging phenomenon developed, I realized that what I wanted to write was better situated for this medium.

Another important reason for initiating this project is that I want to help my own little sub-set, diplomatic history, come to have more influence in the overall profession। I have some well-defined ideas on how diplomatic historians might go about gaining more stature among Clio’s other minions। Now, I will be aiming a lot of my comments towards issues in my own field, but I think what I have to say will also prove useful and relevant to all historians and most people in the other liberal arts and the social sciences. I think with a little adjustment in specific examples, what this blog will discuss will be relevant to almost all academics. And, of course, these observations that I am about to make are open to anyone who directs their web browser to the address of this blog.

Before we begin, there is one other issue that I suspect is on people’s minds: Why me? What expertise or authority do I have to speak on these issues? Well…good question…and my response is: I thought of it first। As to my expertise, I will leave that to the readers to determine, but if they want a little help they can take a look at my vitae, which is on-line at . I think it will show that I have enough publications, prizes, grants, and fellowships to give me some authority to speak on professional matters.

One last thing: I should explain what the reader will find missing. I have no intention of discussing issues of scholarship. “The problem with the author’s contention is that he makes no effort to put this situation into the political context of…” There are other, traditional forums which are best to discuss these issues, like Diplomatic History and other fine journals. I intend to discuss professional matters that only rarely get their full due.

Okay, lets blog.