Thursday, June 18, 2009

Blog XV (15): The Ties that Bind

A few years back I wrote an article on Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as president of the American Historical Association. I learned a lot about the profession (then and now) from working on that article, and I will probably make reference to these lessons in another essay or two, but for now I want to concentrate on how the profession has become divided into smaller and smaller fields. Back in 1912, when Roosevelt was president, many history departments at what are now major, research universities had three and four members. These scholars often had extremely general teaching duties. One individual might have been “the Europeanist,” “the Americanist,” and so forth. Many of these institutions did not award the Ph.D. degree. Today, these same departments might have fifty members. At many other schools back then “the historian” might have been a member of the general liberal arts faculty.

In the years since, historians in the United States have become more specialized in their research and teaching duties as whole new fields have opened up. Many, many schools now award Ph.D.s in history. This growth has been for the good of historical inquiry, but it has created a good deal of balkanization within the profession. Diplomatic historians of American foreign relations do not read much about the Punic Wars, and scholars writing about the Roman Republic do not read much about U.S. foreign policy. You might be at some departmental Christmas party and hear someone going on about learning from all fields, but that is generic academic rhetoric. There is only so much that you can read, especially if you are trying to keep up with new research in your own field. I do not know about you, but I only have 24 hours in a day. Historians might read a little outside of their field here and there, but if they are serious about staying abreast of their own topics and have a research agenda of their own, then the key words are “a little.” The result is that most historians know little about historiographical developments in fields that are significantly different from their own.

Yet, historians will often be in a position to pass judgment on scholars working in areas about which they know little. Sometimes they will not even know the title of the main journal in the field. The most common manifestation of this trend is in job searches. (I will have another essay or two devoted solely to that topic). Another symptom of this trend comes in the running of big scholarly organizations like the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, or foundations that award grants and fellowships. Committees make all the important decisions that these organizations and institutions make in selecting book and article prize winners, choosing those that will present at their annual meetings, picking grant recipients, and nominating candidates for the leadership positions of these organizations.

These two facts require that a smart scholar develop some understanding of the ties that bind them to others. What does that mean? Well, a rising tide raises all boats. Put in other terms, the success of one sport historian is good for the field of sport history and the success of the field is good for all sport historians. Or the success of one Michigan State Ph.D. alum is good for all other Spartans working in the field of history.

How does this collective approach manifest itself? Well, one way is in voting for candidates for leadership positions in various scholarly organizations. I will give my vote to an alum of one of my three alma matters over another candidate. I also prioritize: the school where I took the higher degree takes precedence over the others. I also support diplomatic historians over nominees in other fields, just because they are diplomatic historians.

Another manifestation of this collective approach comes in making donations. I would love to give money to all three of my schools, but where I got my Ph.D. takes priority over my MA, and BA alma matters. I have also donated rare and difficult to find books to the libraries at the University of Southern California, because it is where I got my Ph.D. There are other ways this approach comes into play, but you get the general idea—reputation building is a team sport.

Now, this gets us to another related issue: academic jealousy. There is often a lot of backstabbing and bitter resentment among academics when one of their colleagues achieves a major professional success; be it an award, a grant, or a job. Sadly this phenomenon is a fact of life, but it is the wrong approach to take. First, it makes you look petty, because—well—you are. Second, it runs counter to your own interests. A better attitude is that their success is my success; yes, I would prefer the Pulitzer or the fellowship or the job for myself, but if not me, then it is better that one of my USC or diplomatic history peers get it rather than a UCLA Bruin Bear doing some dopey field of history that has little to do with my areas of study. In short, if it enhances my school’s reputation or the standing of my field then I profit at least indirectly. That attitude well help you prosper in the turf wars of this balkanized discipline.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Blog XIV (14): The Life You Live

Many people who are interested in pursuing academic careers have refined tastes. They like museums rather than television, enjoy artistic films or plays more than the commercial blockbuster, appreciate fine cuisine but not chain restaurants, and like to spend time at coffee houses rather than a sports bar. In short, they want to live an urban rather than a rural life. When I was in grad school, I used to joke with my friends about having no intention of going to a small town in the undeveloped region of some small state. The fact of the matter, though, is that most colleges and universities in the United States are located in small cities and towns. Most of these places are Podunk; some are not, but most are.

Now, the size and type of a place you live raises a number of issues about the quality of life that you and your family are going to live. How far will you be from your family and friends? How easy is it for you to visit family members that live in other parts of the country? What type of social opportunities will you have? How good are the schools that your children will be attending? Will they have the same type of opportunities you had? And so on and so on.

Now, there are two different responses to facing limited social opportunities and a poor quality of life. The first is: you need to make sacrifices for your career and that a bad job is better than no job at all. It is also easier to get a better position when you are already employed. In short, the rich get richer.

The other response is: life is short. You never get to make up time. A job is important, but what good is it if it makes you unhappy? Being miserable is no way to go through life.

I am not entirely sure which is the correct response. I spent six and a half years in a small town in East Texas. It took longer to leave than I expected or—and this next point is important—wanted. I believe I could have used those years in better fashion as far as my social life was concerned. With that point made, I got a lot done that laid the foundation for a career that is going well now and moving forward. I am just not sure it was worth the price I paid. Issues such as these will be important ones for you in grad school and in the immediate years afterwards, and you are the only one that can decide which route is best for you. I wish I could offer something more solid as a recommendation, but what I am trying to do is alert you to this issue.