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.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. S.

    Consider this your first test comment in a very interesting blog thus far. Good luck with it!