Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Blog XLV (45): The History Ph.D. as Historical Editor

Marc Selverstone is an associate professor at the University of Virginia. He spends most of his time working with the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center. His main responsibility is to conduct historical editing. More specifically, his job duties are to transcribe and annotate transcripts of White House audio recordings. He is an editor of three forthcoming books: The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, vol. IV and V and The Presidential Recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson, Digital Edition: Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War: Escalation, July 1964-July 1965. He joined the center in 2000 after receiving his Ph.D. in diplomatic history from Ohio University. At the Miller Center, his work focuses on the recordings of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, with a special emphasis on their foreign policy, particularly that involving Vietnam. He is author of Constructing the Monolith: The United States, Great Britain, and International Communism, 1945–1950 (2009), and The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam, which is under advanced contract with Harvard University Press.

I feel very lucky to have landed and remained in one of the best non-tenure track jobs in our field. The Miller Center of Public Affairs offers a remarkable environment for scholars to participate in wide variety of significant and timely projects while simultaneously pursuing their own intellectual and research interests. Located at the University of Virginia, the Miller Center is a private, non-partisan institution that seeks to research, reflect, and report on issues of concern to the United States, with an emphasis on the workings of the American presidency. While the Center seeks to realize its public service mission through the sponsorship of national commissions, debates, conferences, and a vibrant speakers program, it also houses an extraordinary group of historians and political scientists studying, writing, and teaching on topics centered around American domestic policy and foreign relations. The work we are doing here—transcribing the once-secret White House tapes, recapturing the institutional history of the most recent presidential administrations, and exploring the variety and complexity of American political development—should benefit scholars for generations.

I should start by noting that I was very fortunate to have finished my Ph.D. in the spring of 2000. At that point, the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program (PRP) was just beginning to ramp up its effort to transcribe and annotate the secret White House tapes of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, with an eye toward doing the same for their predecessors dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. I was hired to work on the Kennedy tapes within a month of earning my degree. Since my boss assured me that no one in their right mind could listen to these very challenging recordings eight hours a day—absolutely true—he indicated that I would likely have time work on my own research projects and teach a bit as well.

These opportunities materialized sooner than I would have imagined, largely because professors teaching in my field at UVa were then on leave. As a result, I team-taught and led my own courses on the Cold War and the Second World War, respectively. Similar opportunities arose for my colleagues in the PRP and we soon became regular instructors for the history department; we now teach both surveys and seminars, even when the faculty for whom we had previously pinch-hit are in residence. We do so, however, not as members of the department but as affiliated faculty. Unfortunately, our status within the university’s general faculty leaves us ineligible for tenure, creating a not insignificant measure of job insecurity. More on that in a moment.

By the time I arrived at the Miller Center, it was fast becoming a busy place with lots of interesting projects afoot, and this upsurge in activity had a sizeable impact on my professional life. Within a year of landing in Charlottesville, I was approached to head up two separate projects that sought to deploy Miller Center resources via the Internet in an effort to support secondary-school teachers in history and the social studies. The first project involved the writing of historical and historiographical essays which addressed the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs). Working closely with the Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH), which is also located at UVa, we produced hard-copy and online versions of these pieces and linked each of them to relevant primary sources. The second project was associated more exclusively with the Miller Center, as I was asked to manage the content side of AmericanPresident.org, a website on the American presidency that the Miller Center had recently acquired. Both of these invitations likely stemmed from work I had pursued during my graduate years designing interactive, historical decision-making simulations.

These jobs eventually consumed far, far more of my time than I imagined they would at the outset. This was especially true of AmericanPresident.org. Not only were we reconceptualizing the entire website and instituting a new content management system, but with numerous errors marring the original site, I now had to oversee the rewriting of all informational essays and accompanying textual passages. Work on the site probably consumed the better part of three years, allowing me few opportunities to concentrate on either the White House tapes or my own research and writing projects—including the dissertation, which needed to be turned into a publishable manuscript.

Yet within the scope of AmericanPresident.org and the SOLs, I had great latitude in bringing both projects to life. Indeed, one of the great benefits of working at the Miller Center is that it rewards entrepreneurship, and aside from these two initiatives, the work we were doing with the White House tapes offered intriguing possibilities for seeing how these resources might be deployed in a classroom setting. Owing to my background and continuing interest in secondary-school education (I had taught high-school history for four years in the late 1980s), I began to offer workshops for teachers on how they might use the tapes in class. Collaboration with VCDH and the university’s Curry School of Education encouraged me to go further and build an online portal so that these tapes and associated activities might be more accessible to teachers and students.

If I were to characterize the take-away from these experiences, it would be that my varied background in both secondary-school education and the use of digital technologies has led to as many professional opportunities as has my formal training in history. While the Ph.D. was obviously a key criterion of my employment at the Miller Center, those other experiences seem to have been at least as valuable. Not only did they help get me in the door here, but they continued to open up other doors, making my job more rewarding—and likely more secure.

That security, however, is qualified. General faculty and research positions are often precarious and vulnerable to swings in the economy, and mine is no different. Although PRP is funded in part from grants, a healthy slice of its budget comes from the Miller Center itself, which has depended to a great extent on private philanthropy. The PRP thus felt the pinch that so many others did over the past decade, with the economic crunch resulting in some programmatic restructuring. In an effort to enhance our job security, my colleagues and I moved to harmonize our performance review process with that of A&S faculty, so that they were as rigorous as possible—not only to prove our bona fides to the Miller Center and the university but to enhance our prospects should we need to go out on the job market. In time, we were granted promotion and the non-tenure track equivalent of tenure, which goes by the acronym “ECE”—the “Expectation of Continued Employment.” I have heard it described as tenure-lite, though current and former administrators here have relayed that they consider it to be tenure in all but name.

That wrinkle aside, the job has been and continues to be both and stimulating and rewarding, with the tapes remaining at the center of my work. The PRP is presently finishing Kennedy volumes 4 and 5, which take the Kennedy story from late October 1962 through early February 1963; Johnson volumes 7 and 8, which cover June and July 1964; and we have begun a new thematic series on Vietnam, Civil Rights, and the War on Poverty, all of which will be published digitally. While my time with the presidential website and the SOL project was draining and occasionally exasperating, I am proud of what we accomplished and of the service these resources continue to provide.

Where does the historian look for a historical editing job? The answer is the usual places: The Chronicle of Higher Education and H-Net have sections for this type of employment.
I am cognizant of working for an organization, with both a mission and a “brand,” and of the attendant promotional and service responsibilities therefore incumbent upon me. In this respect, the job differs from that of a traditional academic position in a history department; both have a service component, but the Miller Center’s charge and identity render it a more “corporate” institution. At the same time, I have the opportunity to teach, to work on my own projects, pursue independent research that is both connected to and distinct from my tape work, to speak with and learn from first-rate colleagues, and to participate more generally in the very engaging life of the Center.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good example of someone who has made the transition to other fulfilling work with a phd. The key to this - as Marc notes - is to have developed other skills along the way to land that non-TT job. Despite what professors like to say, a Phd is not going to get you a job on its own. If you think this, you're in for a big surprise after you get your degree.