Friday, April 30, 2010

Blog XLVIII (48): Stephen Ambrose and the Burden of History

The New Yorker magazine has an interesting story in its current issue about the late historian Stephen Ambrose that is devastating to the man’s professional reputation. The story should give all of us a pause and show the danger in sacrificing professional norms in favor of going popular.

First, I should note, I liked Ambrose’s work from the moment I encountered it as an undergraduate. His book Rise to Globalism played a role in my decision to become a diplomatic historian. His biography of Richard Nixon also led me into working on Nixon, and for a long time it was the best book on the Milhous man.

Second, I think that a historian can write good history that pushes the historiography along and sells well among the public. Granted that is a lot easier to say than do, but I believe it is possible. It requires that the historian work at honing their writing skills—something that is not taught in all but a very few graduate programs.

Now, on to Ambrose who made his name as a military historian of the Second World War. He started his career as a Civil War historian, but—so the story goes—he got a phone one day from Dwight D. Eisenhower himself. The former president had just read his biography of Henry Halleck, a Civil War general, and asked Ambrose to join a group editing his wartime papers. From that conversation, the focus of Ambrose’s career changed. He pegged his career to that of Eisenhower. Roughly half of the books he wrote had something to do with Eisenhower and the European Theater of Operations in World War II.

Ambrose did good and important work. He was an associate editor of The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, and was one of the founding members of the Eisenhower revisionists; group of historians that argued that the popular image of Eisenhower in the White House as a clueless buffoon was almost 180 degrees opposite of what actually happened. Ike was in control and had people in his administration serve as lightening rods to deflect criticism from him personally. This work culminated in the early 1980s with a two-volume biography of Eisenhower. In the late 1980s, Ambrose wrote a sympathetic three-volume biography of Nixon, which was a surprise to the author, given his own politics.

His books always sold well above the average for academics—he was getting reviewed in The New York Times, but he became a phenomenal best-seller in the 1990s with the fiftieth anniversary of World War II. He established an impressive museum in New Orleans that focused on World War II. He was a “consultant” for the film Saving Private Ryan—he was hired only after shooting on the set ended—but director Steven Spielberg helped turn the historian's book, Band of Brothers into a successful mini-series on HBO. Ambrose collected oral histories of the common soldier that are now available at the Eisenhower Center located on the campus of the University of New Orleans. He gave a good deal of money to the University of Wisconsin to establish an endowed chair in military history.

His status as Ike's Boswell was a major asset in his career. Historians wanted to believe Ambrose, wanted to believe that Eisenhower cared about history. Ike did; he pushed for the creation of the official U.S. Army histories of World War II. Ambrose said, he conducted oral history interviews with the former President and he often cited them in his books. It gave his scholarship real credibility.

Ambrose got in a lot of trouble towards the end of his life with issues involving plagiarism. He often used the same words as another author, but with a new verb or noun here and there. As a result, he would not use quote marks, but he would cite the material with a footnote. He dismissed the controversy, saying he was a storyteller and was not interested in arguing about documents. That response might work for an 18-year old undergraduate who does not understand proper citation forms, but for a professional historian in his sixties it was a limp response. I banned him from my syllabus. I am sure he never noticed. His sale remained good and died a few months later, so he had other more important concerns on his mind.

Now, TheNew Yorker reports that in preparation for a display at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, staff at that institution found a letter dated September 10, 1964 after Ambrose had joined The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower team from Ambrose to the former President, in which he introduced himself: “For the past six weeks I have been reading your World War II correspondence and feel I am getting to know you intimately; therefore I think it only fair that you have the opportunity to see some of my writing.” He enclosed two books, including the biography of Halleck that Ambrose said resulted in Ike’s phone call.

So much for that story.

In fact, over the years, the story changed. Ambrose said Eisenhower asked him to take up writing his biography. Turns out the truth was a little different. On October 15th, Ambrose wrote Eisenhower again. “It therefore seems to me that the time has come to begin the scholarly biographies of the leaders of World War II,” he stated. “I would like to begin a full scale, scholarly account of your military career.”

Ambrose, at various times, claimed he spoke with Ike for “hundreds and hundreds of hours.” That is in itself difficult to believe. For good reason. The footnotes to Ambrose’s book, The Supreme Commander, cite nine different interviews with dates. Turns out that seven of these citations conflict with the president’s daily schedule. Ike was nowhere near Ambrose on those occasions.

Ambrose used these “Eisenhower interviews” in other books. With time the footnotes became more and more vague, while the number of subjects the two supposedly discussed expanded.

What are we to make of all this? Well, Ambrose basically made stuff up. A reasonable question to ask is how important was this fictional evidence to his accounts? Maybe not that much, but how can we be sure? Ambrose cut corners with his citations and when he could not find the facts he wanted, he made it up as he went along. What other crimes against accuracy did he commit?

Writing well in history is difficult. Ambrose always said he was a storyteller first and foremost. Okay, fine. History serves that function, but truth and factual accuracy have to be the foundation of historical writing…even popular history. It might be a burden, but the people buying books of popular history want real stories, not fiction. There are other sections in the book store for novels. Ambrose mislead his readers--intentionally--and for that there is no excuse. None whatsoever.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Blog XLVII (47): The History Ph.D. at a Foreign University

An option that many scholars looking for employment fail to consider is going overseas. As with any profession, there are advantages and disadvantages to this career path. The essay that follows is based on my own experiences living in Korea and the United Kingdom, and interviewing a number of expatriate professors.

One of the great advantages to teaching oversees is the opportunity it offers to learn about different cultures and gain new perspectives. This response is one most American academics make when explaining about the advantages about working oversees. When asked what was the best thing about working abroad, Barbara Keyes, an American teaching at the University of Melbourne in Australia, replied, “As a scholar of foreign relations, I find it fascinating now to be a participant in foreign relations, and to be learning in depth about how non-Americans view the United States.”

Another reason for teaching oversees is that there is a good deal more prestige to being a professor in foreign cultures than there is in the United States. “One nice thing about being in a small pond is you get to brief ambassadors, get phone calls from TV and radio frequently,” Keyes observed.

There are also professional rewards to living overseas. “The academic world in the UK is much more densely populated than anywhere in North America, with the possible exception of the Boston-NY-DC corridor. There are more universities and therefore more conferences/seminars etc., in a relatively small area, and it is therefore much easier to attend them,” Nik Gardner, a Canadian who taught at the University of Salford in England, explained.

Dan Kowalsky has taught at Washington University in St Louis, The American University in Cairo and the University of Bristol before taking his current position as a Lecturer in Modern European History at Queens University Belfast. He voiced views similar to those of Gardner and has found it easier to do European history while living in Europe. “I've also been able to collaborate with scholars in Ireland, England, France, Spain, Germany and Russia, which has greatly broadened my horizons personally and professionally. As a historian, I really love being in old Europe. My current house is older than the United States! It is thrilling for me to be a part of this wonderful, terrible tapestry that is Europe's past and present.”

While being abroad can be enriching professionally, there are significant social challenges to living overseas. “The absence of others with similar cultural reference points (pop culture, sports etc) can make it a bit lonely at times.” Gardner observed. There are far more serious social costs to working oversees. “Being away from home and family is tough, and it gets harder every year,” Kowalsky noted. “I've been employed overseas since 2002. In those eight years, I can't tell you how much I've missed. Never mind holidays. I'm talking about missing the funeral of my grandmother, the wedding of my sister, countless births, too many deaths and uncounted family gatherings. What I have missed is nothing less than my life as it once was, and this causes me grief every single day. Now I have a little girl and she has virtually no contact with her American cousins or grandparents or uncle and aunts. This seems wrong to me, yet I can't simply abandon this life I've created for myself in Ireland. I do my best to get back once or twice a year, but those visits are always a bit frenetic, and they are no substitute for living in my native land.”

Researching while working oversees is a difficult matter and will often be a function of your expertise. For example, teaching in the United Kingdom makes being a historian of the British Army quite easy. On the other hand, being a historian of the U.S. South while you live and work in Australia is far more difficult. Financial funding for research is often competitive in many countries and there is often a rich get richer dynamic at work.

The system of university appropriations in many countries, Britain in particular, is tied to research and publication. Funding is dependent on the quantity of publications and graduate students that a department produces. If production falls below a certain level, the department will take a financial hit. It is something like a ball club having to win a certain number of games and sell so many tickets to stay in the major leagues, if not they end up in the minors. As a result, productive scholars are an important institutional asset to departments. In short, the more you publish, the easier it will be to get a position.

One of the challenges that Americans face when working oversees involves language issues. There is no issue in countries like Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom for obvious reasons. Since English is the new Latin, though, Americans face fewer professional challenges than they might suspect. Universities in Denmark, Germany, India, Korea, Pakistan, and Turkey use English as their language of instruction. The law in the Netherlands requires that all graduate courses be taught in English.

There are limits to this universality of English. For example, even though the University of Ottawa is in Canada, it is bilingual in French and English. Most Canadian universities are either all English or all French, but a scholar should be prepared to learn French if they plan to work in Canada. While graduate classes in the Netherlands are in English, undergraduate courses are taught in Dutch, and if you teach at a English-language institution like Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, you will still probably need to learn a good deal of Turkish just to function in society.

Teaching is also different at foreign universities. The teaching loads are generally lighter. Many times the classes offered are seminars, and the teaching load is only two classes per semester. “I've been very fortunate to work in a department where I have not only been allowed, but encouraged to teach courses that are squarely within my area of research,” Douglas Ford, an American teaching at the University of Salford in England, observed. “This is quite different from the situation in US universities, where starting academics spend a large proportion of their time preparing classes on subjects such as Western Civ, or general survey courses that are far removed from their area of research.”

There are differences in the students as well. Ken Osgood, an American who was the Mary Ball Washington Chair in American History at University College Dublin, explained, “The Irish were very deferential.” As a diplomatic historian, he also noted that they were better informed about world affairs than what he saw at U.S. universities. Nick Cull, a British national who teaches at the University of Southern California and was at the University of Leicester before then, notes that there are reasons for this situation. Students in the British educational model (Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand to name a few) begin specializing in depth much sooner their American cousins. The degree is a major. As a result, they often know what they know quite well, but have little familiarity with other fields. The history undergraduate will not know fields like economics and English literature. The result is that while students are better informed, it is difficult for them to generalize and see “big picture issues.” Cull is quick to note, though, that the similarities among college students on either side of the Atlantic are stronger than the differences.

One of the reasons for lighter teaching loads is that most foreign universities, be they in Europe or Asia, demand more administrative service work than is the case in North America. For example, professors in Great Britain are expected to serve on admissions committees, be second and third readers for undergraduate exams and papers for institutions other than their own, help recruit students, participate in search committees, and work on the commissions that evaluate the strengths of departments in their field all across the UK. The amount of time devoted to this work varies significantly. In Britain, it the amount of service is directly tied to the amount of research you do. The more you publish, the less service that is expected of you. On the other hand, in Korea such work is a responsibility expected of a scholar upon promotion and tenure.

The amount of pay varies significant from country to country. Americans will generally find the pay at foreign universities to be equal to or a little less than what they would make in the United States with some important qualifications. For example, a lecturer in history (the British equivalent of an assistant professor) would earn around £35,000. Given the exchange rates, this figure will convert to something around $50,000 to $70,000. That seems like good pay, but this new lecturer is not living in the United States, they are living in the United Kingdom and will find they have a little less buying power than if they were in the United States. “This issue is more of a concern for those supporting a family on an academic salary,” Gardner notes. “Britain offer pretty generous social benefits for families with children, but it doesn't compensate for higher costs of fuel, clothes and particularly housing.”

With that point made, many schools in the United Kingdom have more money and can offer better salaries. Compensation in Australia is quite good. In short, this issue requires a good deal of attention.

On the flip side, foreign scholars coming to the United States need to make sure that they have things like auto, health and dental insurance. (This blog has an audience outside of the United States). No one will be denied medical care, but unexpected medical bills can prove ruinous to a foreign scholar in the USA.

Pay becomes a real issue when it comes to international travel and retirement. If you are working in a country that has a currency that is weak against the U.S. dollar, returning home will be expensive. That could become a serious issue if your research requires travel in the United States, or if you just want to return home to see friends and family. Pay is also an issue associate with savings. The pension and money put away for retirement will be in the currency of the country in which you work. If that country has a currency that is strong against the dollar, like the United Kingdom, returning home poses few financial hardships, but if you spend ten years in a country that is weak against the dollar—or the currency of your country—then returning home becomes difficult. For example, after a decade in New Zealand you might have NZD100,000 in savings, but that money suddenly becomes less than half if you try to return to the United States and if even less than that if home is in the United Kingdom. In short, the longer you are gone, the more difficult it is to return.

Where can you go to look for jobs oversees? There are several sites that you should consult. A web site that lists jobs across the globe is: The web site, as its name implies, lists jobs at universities across Europe. The website advertises positions in the United Kingdom and Ireland, but it is much broader than the name implies. It includes positions on the continent and in the countries of the British Commonwealth. The Times Higher Education Supplement has job listings that are similar. For positions in Australia, see the web site. For jobs in Canada, University Affairs magazine is a good place to go. The Canadian Association of University Teachers Bulletin has on-line job listings. For jobs in Korea, visit:

The pace of the interview process is extremely quick at most foreign universities. “Many jobs advertized overseas do not have the long gestation period as they do in the States,” Kowalsky explained. “It is not untypical for a job announcement to be followed with interviews the following month, and the winning candidate announced immediately thereafter.

Gardner agrees: “The hiring process in the UK seems rather efficient, but also impersonal compared to what goes on in North America.” The reasons for this are fairly simple. “A candidate's research profile is pretty evident on his/her cv. Teaching ability is a bit more difficult to gauge, but if it's a secondary concern, which is the case at most (admittedly not all) British universities, then you don't need to worry about having candidates lecture to undergraduates or articulate their ‘teaching philosophies.’”

As is the case in most places and professions, timing is often important. “The best time to look is late spring,” Kowalsky explained, “when last minute replacement positions often go begging.”

Americans looking for academic work oversees have certain strengths and liabilities. Graduate programs in the United States are extremely prestigious. One of the best ways to enhance a school's reputation is to hire people from the universities at the cutting edge of their discipline. That is why 14 of the 15 faculty in the Department of Public Administration at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea are graduates of Ph.D. programs in the United States. Since graduate programs in the United States are often far more rigorous than what one would encounter abroad and search committees often see this professional focus in their applications. Daniela Stockmann, a German national who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and is now an assistant professor of political science at Leiden University in the Netherlands, observed that American trained academics are “better at knowing expectations.”

On the other hand, immigration laws and work visa regulations often work against U.S. scholars. For example, Canadian universities are legally required to state in their job ads that Canadian citizens will receive preferential treatment over scholars from other countries. There are various ways around these laws—being in country, having a spouse who is a citizen, or having dual citizenship—the legalities will vary from country to country. The short of it is that you must be prepared to deal with this issues and know that it is possible that you will be at some type of competitive disadvantage.

The best way to make yourself as competitive as possible is to spend some time on the websites of the institutions you are applying for and tailor your application package for that position. If you are asked to provide a syllabus, know how the school does its assessments and the length of its teaching terms.

Finally, most of the issues roiling American academia are present oversees. British universities have produced more Ph.D.s than the job market in the United Kingdom requires. Some foreign universities are facing budget shortfalls. In Australia the jobs are often few and far between in certain fields. As with any profession option, there are advantages and disadvantages to working overseas. Ultimately, it will be up to each individual to decide what is best to meet their own specific interests and objectives.