Friday, November 13, 2009

Blog XXXIII (33): The History Ph.D. at the Service Academies

In this entry, Dr. Robert Wettemann, Jr. discusses employment at the service academies. A military historian, Wettemann has been a Fellow at the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History. He also taught for two years at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He previously taught at McMurry University. Wettemann currently serves as an historian with the U.S. Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, NC. He is the author of Privilege vs. Equality: Civil-Military Relations in the Jacksonian Era, 1815-1845 (2009). His current writing projects concentrate on the evolution of U.S. Army Special Forces education and training, and the field adaptation and modification of military technology to better meet military operational needs. He earned his Ph.D. and M.A. in history from Texas A&M University and a B.A. with Honors in history from Oklahoma State University. He has also written on various aspects of public history and vintage base ball. Here is his guest blog:

When it comes to military history, it does not get any better than going at one of the service academies. Although I later had the opportunity to do some research at
West Point, the closest thing I ever had to a real introduction to life at a service academy came in 1999, when I attended the Summer Seminar in Military History at the United States Military Academy. Based upon the caliber of military professionals that I came into contact with (no pun intended), I knew that it would be an interesting place to work if I ever had the opportunity.

I received a phone call from the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in October 2006, asking if I was interested in serving as a visiting professor. Although I was not that far along in my academic career (I was up for tenure in Spring 2007), I jumped at the opportunity, and with the support from my university administration, managed to secure what would become a two-year leave of absence and ultimately would lead to my departure from civilian academia altogether. Beginning in the summer of 2007, I had the pleasure of spending two years at USAFA as a visiting professor in the History Department (known at the Academy as DFH).

Arriving at USAFA, I quickly discovered that the internal dynamics of the department were different from anything I had encountered elsewhere, in terms of both organization and climate. At Air Force, the permanent professor, a PhD-holding colonel, functions as the head of the department. The department’s senior staff was comprised of a handful of senior lieutenant colonels, who possess Ph.D.s, and the permanent civilian faculty (about 25% of the faculty at USAFA is civilian) who are master educators and scholars in their own right. The remaining members of the department, lieutenant colonels, majors and captains, all have M.A. or M.S. degrees and varying levels of teaching experience. Some have never taught before, others had been at the Academy for a number of years. As a visiting professor, I stood outside this “chain of command,” but found myself considered as a valued member of the department, always free to provide my input on issues of teaching, research, curricular development, and assessment.

As a visiting professor, I had a dual function at USAFA. On the one hand, I was there to teach and conduct my own research and writing, and bring a civilian perspective into the classroom by providing coursework and insight in my area of specialty. On the other hand, I was also there to extend my teaching and research expertise to cadets and other members of the department. With regards to teaching, I had the opportunity to teach four different courses during my tenure at USAFA. My first semester, I taught three sections of History 202: Introduction to Military History, that is part of the Core Curriculum that all cadets would take while at the Academy. The other courses were upper division courses either required for history majors, as was the case with History 330: Historiography and Methods, or were electives, like History 483: Great Americans, or a special topics course of my own design, History 495: The Era of the American Revolution. There are some similarities about all classes, most notably the small class size. Air Force (along with the other service
academies) try to limit class size as much as possible, so that there are never more than twenty cadets in a room at one time. This allowed for a greater degree of dialogue between student and professor than you might find in a typical university. It also allows you to do some creative things in the classroom, like simulations and small group activities. In “Great Americans” I shaped the course around a series of “diametric duos,” individuals who opposed each other at critical phases in American History, with Sam Adams and Thomas Hutchinson, Thomas W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, and Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur serving as examples. In the classroom, these debates played out as “historical deathmatches” with cadets taking on the roles of these individuals and playing out these debates, with the remainder of the class posing questions and serving as a jury. In teaching the Historiography and Methods course, I introduced USAFA to team-teaching methodology used at my home institution, in which two published scholars worked with students to produce well-researched scholarly papers based upon primary sources. This was an alternate approach from previous efforts that concentrated more on historiography, but based upon the success of the course, it has since been used by instructors who continue to teach the course at USAFA.

When it comes down to teaching cadets, one can say, with tongue firmly in cheek, that they are just like other college students, except that in the near future they will be able to call in an air strike or artillery support. While part of the military education process centers around teaching future combat leaders, you should not think of teaching at a service academy as simply educating better killers. There are special needs and considerations that you need to recognize in a military environment. Unlike traditional college students, who may have jobs and will shape their coursework around their own schedule, cadets share a tightly regimented schedule that offers little in the way of flexibility, either in what they do in a given day or in what courses they take in a given semester. They will, for the most part, particularly in upper division classes, come prepared and ready to engage at levels I was not accustomed to at a traditional institution. In teaching them, I viewed my greatest challenge as forcing them to embrace notions of ambiguity, and force them to recognize that answers in the world were often comprised of varying shades of gray, something they did not always get at an answer that often emphasized formulaic thinking and finding the “approved solution.”

In addition to contributing to the education of future officers of character for the U.S. Air Force, I also had the opportunity to help advance the quality of teaching and research carried out by members of the department. At the beginning of each academic year, I both participated in and assisted with new instructor training within the department, observing mock lessons prepared by instructors with limited teaching experience, offering suggestions and recommendations as to what they could do to develop and improve their own educational style. Members of the department were also strongly encouraged to visit other instructors in the classroom and evaluate their teaching in preparation for identifying outstanding educators within the department. In addition to teaching evaluation and critique, I also had the opportunity to assist in the education of young officers who were interested in making history a more significant part of their military career. This mentoring not only included discussion of future research and dissertation topics on either a formal or informal basis, but the reading and critiquing of papers and book chapters. This exchange went both ways, as I also had members of the department read and comment on my own work, as I not only completed a manuscript but started on another, while I was at Air Force. This is something that any faculty member should take advantage of at an institution like a military academy. Rarely will you have an entire department full of subject matter experts willing and able to critique your own work.

The faculty I encountered were easily some of the best scholars and educators I have ever had the opportunity to work with. Recognizing that in some academic departments, a faculty may be balkanized based upon their historical disciplines and political views (and may, in some cases, not even speak with each other), I was constantly amazed by both the high degree of collegiality and the overall social cohesion within the department. I am not sure whether or not that was a product of the environment or the fact that 75% of the department was military and possessed a set of shared experiences, but I have rarely seen this degree of collegiality in and out of an entire department. It certainly made my two years at Air Force memorable.

Many people have asked me about what I liked most about my time as a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. It is difficult to isolate my single favorite experience. Just being in a department like DFH ranks among the best time of my career (thus far). My time in a military environment prompted me to make a complete change in my career path and seek out a way to make a greater contribution to the nation’s uniformed services. From an educational standpoint, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with cadets. I periodically had cadets over to my home, and spent time on weekends assisting with the USAFA History Club. I also had the opportunity to take cadets on a tour of Boston, MA in conjunction with my course on the American Revolution. I know they enjoyed recreating the revolution at the Old State House, Boston Massacre site, Old South Meeting House, Boston Tea Party site, Bunker Hill, and U.S.S. Constitution, as well as spending a day retracing the British retreat from Concord to Lexington. While those were great times, as were Friday nights at the Falcon Club and joining my DFH colleagues at Society for Military History meetings, my favorite time at USAFA was my ten days I assisted in Basic Cadet Training for the incoming cadets. As part of the training cadre for “Operation Warrior,” I assisted in familiarizing incoming cadets with the rudiments of airbase defense and attack, and played a supervisory role for an operational force detachment in the field. Each day, I drew a weapon and blank ammunition, then headed off into the woods, ambushing squads of anxious “basics,” then assisting them as they made their own assault on positions occupied by their fellow incoming cadets. It was hot, heavy work, as I carried weapons, ammunition and personal gear all over the Cadet training facilities in Jack’s Valley, but it is an experience I will never forget, especially when I am laboring over a book review or compiling another index in a windowless office.

My path to a service academy teaching experience was certainly not a traditional one, and it prompted me to make employment decisions that I never would have considered prior to my time there. However, I regard my time at Air Force as one of the greatest developmental opportunities in my professional career, and given the opportunity, would do it again. Giving up the comfort of tenure at a civilian institution was certainly a gamble, but based on the growth experience that I had at USAFA, I would do it again in an instant.

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