Friday, November 6, 2009

Blog XXXII (32): The History Ph.D. at the Public Policy School: Swimming in a Sea of Numbers

The next essay in this blog comes from Jeffrey A. Engel. In this blog posting, he writes about working at a public policy school. Engel is an assistant professor of history and public policy at Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service. He also directs the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs. A graduate of Cornell University, he received his Ph.D. in American History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is author of Cold War at 30,000 Feet: the Anglo-American Fight for Aviation Supremacy (2007), which was awarded the 2008 Paul Birdsall Prize from the American Historical Association. He also edited The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President (2008), the private diary of former President George H.W. Bush while de-facto United States Ambassador to Beijing in the 1970s. He is a member of the editorial board of Diplomatic History and of the Executive Council of the Transatlantic Studies Association. Here is his guest blog:

I teach history in a public policy school. It is not for everyone, demanding both a thick skin and a willingness to forgo students who reflexively believe the study of history matters. But I would be hard-pressed to want to teach anywhere else.

I came to this strange new world of the professional school largely by accident. As with everyone else in this field, I needed a job. We all blanket the country with application letters when in search of our first gig. Among my blizzard of letters and vitas was one addressed to the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. I told them I longed to teach at such a prestigious school with such a distinct mission of service. I lied (or at least, cribbed liberally from their website), having in fact never actually heard of the Bush School before cutting and pasting its address into my boiler-plate letter. (When seeking an historian, most policy schools advertise in venues historians already know well, including H-Net, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the American Historical Association’s publications, and so on.)

This was the best cut and paste I ever did. In the past five years I’ve come to appreciate in depth the real advantages and merits of teaching students outside of a traditional history department. Our program exclusively delivers a master’s degree in international affairs. All of our students desire a career outside the academy. More accurately, they have enrolled in a terminal master’s program because they desire a career, end stop. Most want to work in the national security field, broadly defined. They seek employment with the federal government, or with the ever expanding legions of private contractors whose existence belies the idea that the era of big government could ever actually end. Some work for non-governmental organizations and non-profits. All desire to serve the public good in some way.

Few, if any, have their heads in the ethereal clouds of academic minutia in the way I fondly recall of myself and my graduate-school colleagues. They want to know with every class why the material they are studying matters; how it will help them in their careers; how it will help them better the public’s interest. Such practicality is innately foreign to me, and I admit, at times grating. Fascination with Bismarck’s strategy seems to me reason enough to study and dissect his every move. But I’ve learned to appreciate their desires, and thus their point of view. I’ve grown, granted at times kicking and screaming along the way, to appreciate that every lesson can have a point, even if our understanding of that point frequently differs. For many of my students the study of realpolitik, or economics, or strategy, is an end to itself: we study such things to become more proficient at them. For me their study trains the mind to better appreciate the world’s complexity. We agree that study itself is useful; and we proceed, largely amicably and with no small amount of bemused befuddlement at the other, on our mutual journey of understanding.

And I love it. I genuinely enjoy teaching students who want to learn, and professional students most certainly fit that bill. They are largely paying for their education, and they expect their investment to pay off, not only in terms of their enhanced marketability post-graduation, but also in terms of their improved skills. I don’t teach them how to destroy Al-Qaeda or to protect fissile material, to their frequent frustration. Would that I knew such practical things. But I like to think I teach them to think better, to solve problems more efficiently and creatively, and thus to be better prepared to find solutions for whatever the world throws at them. As the child of two teachers, having been educated myself at a series of land-grant
institutions, I take seriously the perhaps old-fashioned (perhaps even progressive) notion that the people of those states invested heavily in me and my education, so that I might serve the public good. I relish the notion that I repay their investment—granted, the investment of peoples from a different state, but such is the reality of the national job-search—daily when I educate the current generation of students and the next generation of policymakers. This is a thrill indeed. It is also a thrill with little pain. For one thing, our program teaches only graduate students, and only master’s students at that. Other policy schools teach undergrads and PhD’s. So far, we do not, and one might well argue that master’s students lie in that particular sweet spot, from a pedagogical perspective, between ignorance and utter passion. They are, by and large, more knowledgeable and interested in their subject matter than undergraduates fulfilling a humanities requirement; yet they do not rain draft chapters upon me as a doctoral candidate might. I have not altered my syllabi or reading assignments much (perhaps 25%) from what I would teach in a “traditional” history department. Yet I have altered every lesson and classroom game-plan, every one, to better suit my student’s needs.

Why then the requirement of a thick-skin, as mentioned above? Two reasons, the first already mentioned. I appreciate the practical approach of my policy-students through force of will and a conscious recognition of their devotion to public service. It does not come naturally to someone as academically-inclined as I, believing again reflexively, that history might indeed be studied merely because it is fascinating. This point has been made.

Of equal importance is the notion that I exist as not only the school’s sole historian, but also its sole humanist. The economists and political scientists surrounding me find the study of history quaint and amusing. To their eyes, historians are largely good only for stories, only infrequently with a point. I don’t do numbers. They spend liberally on new data-crunching programs and research assistants eager to enter numbers for purposes not altogether clear. I use Microsoft Word, and not well at that. One must be thick-skinned to withstand the friendly (and frequently, not so friendly) barbs of social scientists who care passionately about statistics and methodology, and who argue with great vehemence that quantitative analysis—which they describe as the only really “rigorous” analysis, explicitly devaluing all else—is the only type worth doing.

But I have the last laugh, because they also use their impressive statistical skills and quantitative conviction budget-season comes round. Professors in professional schools are routinely paid more than equally-trained colleagues located in traditional academic departments. So too are our research and travel budgets significantly higher than most historians are allowed. I’m willing to thicken my skin quite a bit indeed for these benefits. Plus, to be honest, we eat better on this side of campus, though my doctor and wife would each prefer I did not indulge in this particular perk. Most important of all beyond these material and culinary advantages, teaching in a policy school offers the opportunity to be around colleagues and students who desire to make a difference. That is worth more than I could possibly hope to quantify (lacking the methods to do so to their statistical satisfaction anyway).


  1. Interesting perspective from the numbers-crunching social scientists. After getting the country into two unwinnable guerrilla wars, worsening poverty, and making the country safe for crass, crony corporate capitalism, the social scientists are still convinced they have all of the answers. Fascinating.

  2. Jeff Engle's essay is good on working in the public policy enviroment. My own experiences suggest that certain type of historians are better fit than others: military, diplomatic, economic, and political historians can offer relevant course work to these programs.

    While they are willing to hire historians, and often do, they do not regularly advertise their jobs in places that historians regularly consult. So, where do you go to find these type of jobs? Consider these: