Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Administrative Note 17

This blog is taking a vaction for the Christmas holidays.  See you in 2012 with some new posts and a new series.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Blog CV (105): The Plan B Debate Revisited

Today's entry is a lengthy article from The Chronicle of Higher Education about alternative employment.  The article is entitled "More Universities Break the Taboo and Talk to Ph.D.'s About Jobs Outside Academe."  The author is Audrey Williams June and it appeared in the November 6, 2011 issue.  It is related to this blog, because it mentions the "Plan B" debate.  I think June and her sources exaggerate the attitudes of faculty about alternative careers.  My view is that most professors have gone from their student days to their faculty positions and know nothing else.  As a result, it is not hostility, but ignorance that accounts for their attitudes and lack of assistance.  This article, though, does offer students an opportunity to raise the issue with their mentors.  The conversation can start like this: "I was reading the Grafton/Grossman article..." or "The 'In The Service of Clio' blog said..." or "Did you read that article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about alternative employment, what should I be doing?"  Here is the article:
A gathering on Ohio State University's campus here last month had the familiar trappings of a traditional college lecture. Graduate students filed into an auditorium, and some cracked open their laptops or pecked the screens of smartphones as they waited for the speaker to begin.

But in one important way, this lecture was different than most they would attend as doctoral students.

The speaker, Paula Chambers, would talk openly about a subject that graduate students tend to discuss in hushed tones among close friends or trusted mentors-or anonymously in online forums. The taboo topic: preparing for nonacademic jobs.

"You're in charge of your career," Ms. Chambers said to the audience of about 200 students in the arts and humanities. "My message to you today is you need to prepare to be versatile."

Her speech was a defining moment for Ohio State, where humanities departments had pushed for an event that would give graduate students information about alternative careers. Interest eventually grew so large that the event was sponsored by the graduate school and the arts and humanities division of the College of Arts and Sciences-home to students in disciplines where a tight academic job market has made alternative careers more attractive.

The invitation to speak at Ohio State was a homecoming of sorts for Ms. Chambers, owner of the Versatile Ph.D., a Web site that supports a community of graduate students in the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences who want to pursue careers outside higher education or are contemplating such a move. She graduated from Ohio State in 2000 with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, and went on to a nonacademic career of her own.

Her speech was part of a first-time Alternative Career Day, which also included a panel of former graduate students in nonteaching careers, among them the founder and managing partner of a venture-capital firm and the director of admissions and student services at Ohio State's school of public affairs.

"This is like a stamp of approval on what I've been doing and talking about for so long," Ms. Chambers said of the event.

Cultural Barriers
While universities like Ohio State are putting new emphasis on helping Ph.D. students explore nonacademic careers, some research universities have been focused on those efforts for several years. Among them are the University of Pennsylvania and Duke, Harvard, Michigan State, and Yale Universities, which were the founding subscribers to the Versatile Ph.D. last year. They also employ career counselors who cater specifically to graduate students. Those counselors and others meet annually at the Graduate Career Consortium, where alternative career paths for graduate students have recently been a topic of discussion.

Ohio State's graduate-school dean, Patrick Osmer, plays a key role in conversations about post-graduate-school careers at his institution and nationwide. Mr. Osmer, also vice provost for graduate studies, is chair of a new commission set up to examine what graduate students know about their career options and what graduate programs are doing to help their students make the transition into employment. The commission, formed in September by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, expects to release a report in April.

"I've been thinking a lot about what we're doing on campus," Mr. Osmer says. "It's important that students and faculty know more about what the opportunities are."

The culture of academe often makes it hard for Ph.D. students to explore those opportunities. When they enter doctoral programs, their professors and many of their peers expect them to become professors-cut from the same cloth as their graduate advisers. Some faculty are against efforts to highlight career paths that don't lead to the professoriate, particularly because their reputations, and those of their graduate programs, hinge on students' finding teaching positions at top institutions.

But advocates for giving graduate students information about multiple career options say the realities of the job market demand it. And for some doctoral students, the work they seek after graduation is not an alternative career-a term that some say relegates nonacademic jobs to second-class status-but the only work they've ever wanted.

'Consolation prize'
Although Ohio State and other colleges across the nation are increasingly working to show graduate students that their degrees can be viewed as more than entry tickets to the professoriate, some Ph.D. students aren't getting the same message from their departments. Students are also not sure of exactly how to pursue alternative careers. And even when faculty members support their students, they usually don't have the expertise to help.

During her presentation, Ms. Chambers said she knew that some of the students in attendance couldn't talk about exploring nonacademic careers with their advisers, or even with their peers. Indeed, fear that their advisers would learn of their interest in alternative careers kept a handful of graduate students approached by a reporter from talking, even anonymously.

"As a rule, faculty have not been seen as friends in this conversation," she says. "That's true nationwide."

One Ph.D. student at a West Coast research university can relate. Last winter she came to grips with something she'd been struggling with since entering graduate school: Life as an academic wasn't for her. She never really liked doing research. The teaching that she once loved, and that she had hoped to do as a professor at a liberal-arts college, lost its appeal. And the academic job market, including in her social-sciences field, was abysmal.

But telling her adviser of her plans-at least at that point-was out of the question. "When I was a first-year grad student, he said, 'We train you to go into academe,'" says the student, now in her fifth year, who didn't want to be identified, because she feared her adviser's reaction to her plans. "It was clear that there weren't supposed to be any other options."

She has a new adviser now, and she doesn't know how he will react when she tells him soon that she won't pursue a position as a professor after she earns her doctorate next year. She has been exploring career options in higher-education administration, academic advising, and student or academic affairs. She has also considered doing research for human-rights groups or the United Nations. Other students in her program have gone on to work outside academe, but "the impression I have is that it's seen as sort of a consolation prize," she says.

No More 'Plan B'
The American Historical Association wants to change negative attitudes about career paths outside higher education. The association this fall strongly urged graduate programs to stop casting tenure-track jobs as the only acceptable career choices for their students-which, by default, makes any other position students may pursue a "Plan B." In a recent essay, Anthony T. Grafton, the association's president, and Jim Grossman, its executive director, called for "No More Plan B."

"We need to ask universities and career centers to be more helpful," says Mr. Grafton, a professor at Princeton University. "I would hope that deans would help with this, too. I think professors, especially, have to mobilize everything they can to help their students."

A new follow-up essay by the two authors suggests ways in which the association, universities, and faculty members could do a better job of exposing graduate students to nonacademic careers and supporting them as they search for such positions.

Mr. Grossman says Mr. Grafton's outspoken support of the issue should make academic historians pay heed to the duo's important message.

"He's one of the top people in his field at one of the top institutions in the country, and he's making this statement that having a Plan B isn't the way to go," Mr. Grossman says. More historians, he says, "recognize that it's in the best interest of their students to think more broadly about what they can do with their degrees."

What the history association is pitching has resonated with people in other humanities disciplines. Carmen Taleghani-Nikazm, an associate professor of German at Ohio State, agrees that the culture in academe has to change.

"I'm very open to all possibilities for my students," she says. "But there are people, mostly senior faculty members, who don't even want to talk about this issue."

The Alternative Career Day events last month could be used as a way to educate students and professors about Ph.D. students' skills that appeal to employers outside higher education, says Ms. Taleghani-Nikazm, who is also graduate-studies director of her department. Among the skills highlighted by the panelists were project management, perseverance, problem solving, and the ability to work independently-all of which are honed in writing a dissertation.

The reluctance in higher education to view graduate students who don't become professors as successful often stems from the linear career paths of most professors, says Katharine S. Brooks, director of liberal-arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin. "They wanted to be professors, and now they are," she says. "It becomes hard for them to see someone else doing something else."

D.J. Hovermale, an Ohio State Ph.D. student, will soon have a career that many faculty wouldn't have steered him toward. He originally wanted to return to his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Kentucky, to teach after earning his doctoral degree in computational linguistics.

When he started his Ph.D., in 2005, he was "feeling great" about the academic job market for scholars in his field, he said during the panel session at the Ohio State event. Although Kentucky didn't have a linguistics department, it was rumored that the university would start one soon. Then the recession hit, and Kentucky cut short its plans to expand.

"There were hundreds of people applying for every job listed," Mr. Hovermale said. "It didn't look like the prospects for getting an academic job were very good."

For Mr. Hovermale, practicality won out. He told his adviser that he was shifting to what was, for him, Plan B. When he completes his Ph.D., in December, he will go to work for the Department of Defense.

Making a Choice
Unlike Mr. Hovermale, Andy Holdsworth knew before he began his doctoral degree in conservation biology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities that he wasn't going to become an academic. So he made a point to choose an adviser who would accept his future career path and whose students had gone on to nonacademic careers.

"A lot of advisers don't want to take on people who have career interests like mine," Mr. Holdsworth says. "But mine was an endowed chair, very secure, he was well funded."

Mr. Holdsworth, who completed his Ph.D. in 2006, says he began laying the groundwork for an alternative career during the first semester of his doctoral program. He interviewed conservation scientists who worked at nonprofit groups and at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where he is now a science-policy coordinator.

Many graduate students in the hard sciences are in departments where a precedent has already been set for pursuing a career outside academe, often in industries associated with their fields or in government jobs.

But that's not always the case, says Nathan Connors, who earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Minnesota in 2004. He knew that some students went on to work in industries, such as at pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, but that "there wasn't a whole lot of open discussion about what the alternatives were," he says.

Mr. Connors, however, began thinking about alternatives on his own, even as he applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at Penn. "I was always a pretty strong writer from grade school all the way up," he says. "I thought maybe I could integrate analytical skills from graduate school and connect them with writing."

He also realized during graduate school that it would be difficult to balance being the parent of a young child with life as an academic scientist on the tenure track.

With the support of his postdoctoral adviser, Mr. Connors began to apply for medical-writing positions. He has worked for a regulatory-writing company and a company that publishes research articles in scientific journals. Now he's a freelance science and medical writer.

Mr. Connors empathizes with people who agonize over leaving academe behind. "You've been in school so long, and it's the culture that you know," he says. "To switch out of that is difficult and stressful."

The Value of a Ph.D.
It can also be tough for graduate students to figure out what nonacademic career to pursue. But Ms. Chambers and the other panelists at the Ohio State event advised students to volunteer at nonprofit agencies or other places where the work interests them. People with doctoral degrees, she told the audience, can apply for jobs in the federal government, educational consulting, policy analysis, public history, and finance, among other things.
Chad Allen, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in English at Ohio State, is among the faculty members who want to make alternative careers more accepted for Ph.D.'s. But he says graduate students have to make a tough choice.

"This is a hard thing to talk about because the truth is, to be a successful academic, you have to be really obsessive about your work," Mr. Allen says. "You can't take the time off to pursue other things."

Some of his first-year students were at the Alternative Career Day sessions. "I think they're just curious," he says. "They're thinking, 'Keep your options open.'"

That advice worked for Ms. Chambers, who skipped going on the academic job market altogether and went to work as a grant writer for nearly five years at three nonprofit organizations. Her advisers, although supportive of her decision to pursue a non­academic career, couldn't offer specific advice about how to land work outside higher education.

That information void pushed Ms. Chambers in 1999 to create an e-mail list called WRK4US, the precursor to the Versatile Ph.D. "It basically became my career," says Ms. Chambers, who managed the list as she wrote her dissertation. She kept it up even while writing grant applications for a living. Last year the list became the Versatile Ph.D., a full-time business venture for Ms. Chambers.

The site, which allows users to participate anonymously in discussion forums on various aspects of nonacademic careers, now has nearly 11,000 individual members, among them graduate students, new Ph.D.'s, faculty members, and people who are already in nonacademic jobs.

Twenty-seven research universities, such as Ohio State, pay subscription fees that support the Web site and give students, faculty, and staff access to premium content that includes first-person narratives from Ph.D.'s in nonacademic careers and archived panel discussions in which graduate students ask questions of those who work outside the professoriate.

"A lot of us think that the future and the health of all of our programs depends, in some sense, on redefining the value of the degree," Mr. Allen says. "The degrees are valuable beyond recreating ourselves on the faculty. And that's a good thing for all of us."

Friday, December 2, 2011

Blog CIV (104): The History Ph.D. as Novelist

Editorial Note: Today's posting is the third part of three essays that represents a return of the "The History Ph.D. as..." series. This article examines historians who have moved into the world of fiction as novelists. The article is exceptionally long even by internet standards (roughly 4,000 words), so it will be posted on "In the Service of Clio" in three parts. Part one appeared in Blog CII on Monday, November 28, 2011 and part two appeared in Blog CIII on Wednesday, November 30, 2011.

Having a Ph.D. can also be an unusual asset for a novelist. In 1997, Paretsky was a visiting scholar in Oxford and visited the Imperial War Museum, which she called an “incredible archive of everything about the war.” She decided to write a V. I. Warshawski novel that would “bring past and present together” in a novel about the recovery of Holocaust assets issue like dormant insurance policies and bank accounts.

This little story raises an important question: can a historian return to history after writing fiction, be it contemporary or historical in nature?  David believes so. “I had no worries, and quickly rattled off the first three chapters of my much-delayed history of the British soldier.” In that vein, Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ‘41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, co-wrote a novel Blindspot (2008) with Jane Kamensky, another historian, and found that fiction writing actually helped her in doing history. “What it turned into—and this is the thing that most surprised me—is that it fed back into my work as an historian,” she explained. “I'm working on Benjamin Franklin now, writing a biography of Franklin and his sister; I feel very close to both of them, as a nonfiction writer, in a way that I don't think I would have felt if we hadn't written this novel.”

How does one become a novelist? What are the detailed steps of publishing in a new venue? The first thing is to have a literary agent. An important note is that agents specialize: some do history, some do romance fiction, some do science fiction, and so on. Make sure you do research and approach the right individual for what you want to write. How? There are plenty of books on publishing and literary agents that you can find in the self-help section of any decent sized bookstore. There are many writers conferences that you can attend, and many feature sessions that give you face-to-face time with agents. This type of personal connection, like in many other fields, helps. Agents are swamped with proposals from aspiring writers and while we would like to think that our writing will sell itself, Tillman observed: “The world isn’t spun that way.”

Some creative writing classes might also be in order. Many schools have MFA programs in creative writing. Enrolling in a degree program is probably not necessary, but many do offer courses that will cover important topics that will be new to the historian such as character development and dramatic structure. Many agents require that first time novelists have a completed manuscript, so the exact sequence in which you go about this task might vary.

Sometimes getting an agent is a difficult thing in and of itself. Cobbs Hoffman methodically researched the agents she contacted and collected many rejections before finding representation. Even then, she had to go through two agents before she found one that successfully sold her book to a major publisher. “You do not necessarily benefit from being represented by a major, major agency.”

Another factor to consider in deciding upon this career path is that publishing is suffering in the national economy, just like most other businesses. Until recently, the publishing industry was always considered a recession proof entertainment medium. Books sold well regardless of the ups and downs in the economy, but the growth of personal, electronic media means now that there are other significant venues for the spending of discretionary income. In the last few years, publishers have been laying off editors and bookstores have been going out of business. Many houses are reluctant to sign new authors even if they have a proven track record publishing in another genre.

The implication is that authors have to be their own marketing machines. The publishers just are not going to be doing the same amount of work that they once did. This implication is more important for novelists than historians. “I learned early on,” Tillman explained, “that bestsellers are not written, they are sold.” Novelists have to be prepared to be on-line, visiting the blogs, using social media websites in addition to doing author events. “It’s more important than ever that authors get heavily involved in marketing their own books,” he added.

Some authors have chosen to go the self-publishing route. Cobbs Hoffman after having two agents tell her they could not sell her novel, decided on this venue, because she had to “do something other than press delete” with her manuscript. Keep in mind, she is an accomplished historian, winning the Allen Nevis Prize for her first book The Rich Neighbor Policy: Rockefeller and Kaiser in Brazil (1992). Carpenter also made that decision after playing with his Antimony manuscript off and on for twenty years: “It’s a way to get your product out there and get it noticed.” Most of the firms that produce self-published books are basically fee driven publishing houses and an author can choose from a number of available services, ranging from editing to marketing. These have additional costs and an author will still have to do a good deal of work in selling the book, finding reviewers, getting promotional blurbs from others, and submitting the book for awards. The problem is, as Carpenter admits, is that 99 percent of self-published work is “junk.”

Why then, would anyone go this route? “You are looking for that John Grisham effect,” Carpenter explained. If an author has something in print, it is easier to start conversations with publishers and agents about transferring to a bigger press. This process happened to Cobbs Hoffman. A major publisher picked up her book after it garnered critical praise and won some book prizes. She admits this would never have happened if she had not self-published the book: “I know for a fact that Random House would never seen it.”

Since this blog is about giving career advice to the new Ph.D., it is important to ask if being a novelist is a legitimate alternative career open to the history Ph.D.? That answer to that question is a complicated one. One of the hard facts about writing—regardless of its genre—is that it is difficult to making a steady living wage at it. Most book authors have some other job: journalist, academic, etcetera. Novelists are no different. A first time author might sell only 5,000 copies, which is better than your average academic monograph, but not that much better. It often takes several tries before a novelist has a commercially successful work. This is the “John Grisham effect” that Carpenter mentioned. It took two tries for Grisham, the author of legal thrillers, to become a best-seller. When The Firm (1991) started selling well, only then did A Time to Kill (1989) become popular. Michael Connelly, the mystery writer, did not become a best-seller until his fifth book The Poet (1996) appeared in print.

Most of the historians mentioned in this article have tenure-track positions and have turned to fiction as a sidelight to an academic career rather than as a substitute for one. In this case, Paretsky is the exception. She turned to fiction on a full-time basis. Even then, there are important qualifications in her story. Married to a University of Chicago physics professor, she knew she would not be able to find a history job in the Chicago area and went to business school, earning a MBA. She then worked at an insurance agency. “Insurance isn't anyone’s first choice for a career,” she remarked. She stayed there until she had three novels to her name. It was the $200,000 she received for selling the film rights to her V. I. Warshawski character that made it possible for her to leave the insurance company and focus on her writing. “It was foolish because I lost control of the character,” she says. “It was smart because it gave me the freedom to quit my job and become a full-time writer."

Connelly has made similar remarks about the financial windfall he received from selling the film rights to his books. Two of his books Bloodwork (1998) and The Lincoln Lawyer (2005) were turned into films of the same names. Those developments, however, came later in his writing career. He was a working journalist while writing his first four novels. “I sold Paramount the rights to Harry Bosch 18 years ago. I don't regret it. The deal I made allowed me to quit my job at the L.A. Times and be a full-time writer. But they never made a movie. We tried very hard. There were maybe six different scripts, but they just weren't Harry Bosch. So they put him on the shelf.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Blog CIII (103): The History Ph.D. as Novelist

Editorial Note: Today's posting is the second part of three that represents a return of the "The History Ph.D. as..." series. This essay examines historians who have moved into the world of fiction as novelists. The article is exceptionally long even by internet standards (roughly 4,000 words), so it will be posted on "In the Service of Clio" in three parts. Part one appeared in Blog CII on Monday, November 28, 2011 and part three will be out on Friday, December 2, 2011.

There are bigger concerns such as how well does a historian write fiction? “With difficulty,” Ian Mortimer, observed. Mortimer, who writes fiction under the pen name James Forrester, added, “Anyone with a PhD in history has spent at least seven years being told by university lecturers always to ‘err on the side of caution’ and to suspect all evidence for the past—to the extent that many academic books are more concerned with what we do not know than what we do. The idea of deliberately creating scenarios, events and characters that did not exist in reality is anathema. However, the biggest hurdle a historian has is persuading people that he or she can write a novel."
Mortimer notes correctly that there are good reasons for this skepticism. “Historians are mostly very poor writers. Nothing in a university education teaches us how to write history well, let alone do anything more imaginative. Most historians baulk at the thought because there is nothing firm for them to hold on to, nothing certain and therefore nothing indisputably true. We have to make a huge leap of faith to realise the ‘truth’ that makes historical fiction worthwhile is a deeper, more subtle truth than in history, concerned with the truths of life experience, not facts?”

Cobbs Hoffman agreed. “It’s very different,” she said. “You have to write better.” That requires more time to hone and polish prose. “You have to work harder at it.”

What issues does a writer face in trying to transition from one medium to the other? “Writing fiction was far harder than I could have imagined,” David stated, “and there were moments during the long and torturous edit process when it seemed that Zulu Hart, the first of the trilogy, would never be fit for public consumption.”

His editors told him to back away from historical, facts and narrative. That is a difficult thing for a historian to do. “Eventually I saw the sense of this. I wasn't being asked to sacrifice historical accuracy per se. Just to accept that a historical novel, or any novel for that matter, stands or falls on plot and characterisation; period detail is important, but only in so far as it gives a sense of authenticity. It must remain in the background and never be allowed to dominate the story.”

Does historical fiction do damage to our understanding of the past? That is a real issue that historians writing fiction must consider. “Historical fiction, as a result, often takes liberties with the ‘truth’: it compresses time, invents conversations and motives that real people never had, and generally tampers with the historical record for the purposes of plot.”

The real issue is how much. “The trick is to minimize those liberties, and to make sure that when you're writing about historical figures you “stay true to the spirit of that person,” George MacDonald Fraser, the novelist best known for his Flashman novels, reflected. Fraser is something of the reverse of most of the authors discussed here; he was a novelist/screenwriter who also did history.

The biggest issue in taking dramatic license is the use of fictional characters. Weir, for her part, wants to use her fiction to fill in gaps in the historical record and gain “insights that would not be permissible to a historian, and yet can have a legitimate value of their own.” As a result, she prefers to use real individuals as her main characters. “While I was researching my biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine,” she explained, “it occurred to me that I wanted to write a novel about Eleanor, in which I could develop ideas and themes that had no place in a history book, but which—based on sound research and educated guesses—could help to illuminate her life and explain her motives and actions.”

Martin agrees that historical fiction “fills in the spaces.” He disagrees, though, on the use of fictional characters. “Fictional characters have a freedom of movement in the story that gives you a freedom of movement.” If an author does not use fictional characters in a novel, then they might as well be writing history. “The fictional characters give me the plot,” he said. “That is what makes fiction, what happens to characters who move through history.”

At the same time, this fictionalizing of a real person’s life must be grounded in reality. “It is liberating to be able to use one’s imagination, but you can't simply indulge in flights of fancy,” Weir explained. “That sells short both those who know nothing of the subject, and those who know a great deal. I know—because my readers regularly, and forcefully, tell me so—that people care that the historical fiction they read is close to the truth.”

With these considerations in mind, an author still needs to do research to tell your story and get it right. “The research is the necessary spadework. Even when I was working on my doctorate I was writing poetry, the occasional magazine article. I'm more of a magpie researcher than someone who wants to live in it all the time,” Doig explained.

The knowledge a historian has of the past can be a useful in tool writing historical fiction. “Yet much of the research required for a historical novel is, I discovered, very different from that done for a history book,” David observed. “For Zulu Hart I already knew a lot of solid factual information because I'd previously written a history of the Zulu War. What I didn't have was the sights and smells. What, for example, did the inside of the War Office look like in 1879? Or what was the experience of steam travel from England to South Africa at that time?”

Harkness agrees: “As a historian you can only go as far as the evidence will take you. I needed to be able to shed that, to let the history serve the story rather than have the history bind the story. You have to rewire your brain, in a way.” She, however, chose to use her knowledge of the past to examine how it affects the present. At the center of her story is Ashmole 782, a long lost medieval document that may or may not contain the secrets of eternal life. “It really exists,” she said. The document was one of many manuscripts that Elias Ashmole, a 17th century bibliophile, collected and cataloged. “It really is lost—I've looked for it; that's its real title. This is the perfect jumping-off point for a novel. I can either be frustrated as a historian or intrigued as a storyteller.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Blog CII (102): The History Ph.D. as Novelist

Editorial Note: Today's posting is the first part of three essays that represents a return of the "The History Ph.D. as..." series. This essay examines historians who have moved into the world of fiction as novelists.  The article is exceptionally long even by internet standards (roughly 4,000 words), so it will be posted on "In the Service of Clio" in three parts.  Part two appeared in Blog CIII on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 and part three will be out on Friday, December 2, 2011. 

Writing and research abilities are two skills that a historian acquires in the process of getting a Ph.D. Both of these abilities can be transferred to the work of writing fiction. Believe it or not there is a long tradition of historians and other scholars writing novels instead of or in addition to scholarly studies. “English-speaking anthropologists have been writing fiction ever since anthropology began in the late 19th century,” Nancy Schmidt, an anthropologist and head of Harvard's Tozzer Library, remarked.

Historical fiction has also enjoyed recent popularity in the publishing world. Ivan Doig, who earned a Ph.D. in western history from the University of Washington and has published academically, has made more of a name for himself as a novelist, was asked about historical fiction: “I hope it's a great wave I'm caught up in. I don't think of myself as a writer of historical fiction. There are historical laws of gravity in historical fiction; big things are happening in the world, and my characters are affected by those."

Why is historical fiction currently so popular? Saul David, a British military historian and a professor at the University of Buckingham turned novelist, attributes the popularity of historians writing fiction to the success of another British historian, Alison Weir. Already one of the best selling historians in the United Kingdom, Weir’s historical novel, Innocent Traitor (2006), which is about Lady Jane Grey, became a best seller. Despite her Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, Philippa Gregory is an established novelist of the Tudor and Stuart periods. She believes her readers don’t read novels such as The White Queen (2009) “as history.” Instead she believes they consider it a work about “a woman speaking from the urgency of the novel.” According to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, who has also written a novel Sashenka (2008), “Real stories—whether in pure fiction or historical—have a certain indefinable power; we are endlessly curious about the past and hungry for learning that we hope will illuminate the present.” Journalist turned historian turned novelist Barrett Tillman put it simply when he said, “History drives the story."

Other historians agree with this assessment. “I learned history through historical novels,” Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, the Dwight Stanford Professor at San Diego State University, said. A historian, she is also the author of a novel, Broken Promises (2011) about the U.S. Civil War, Works of fiction are what first got her interested in becoming a historian. David had a similar experience. He was in his early teens “when I read my first Flashman novel and it's no coincidence that most of my history books are about the same Victorian wars."

Why do historians turn to fiction? “Every historian is a romantic,” Stan Carpenter, a history Ph.D. teaching at the U.S. Naval War College as a professor of strategy, remarked. Carpenter is also the author of Resurrection of Antimony (2009), a historical novel set in World War II. “Every historian has thought about living in the time period they studied. Writing novels “allows you to roam in that sphere of our own historical fantasy.” William Martin, the novelist, agrees: “I liked living in those worlds myself.”

There is also a good deal of overlap between historian and novelist. “The greatest historians working today—as has always been the case—are the ones that tell you a story,” Martin explained. He is the reverse of Cobbs Hoffman. He learned history as a work-study student at Harvard, assisting visiting scholars associated with the history department. In addition to being a novelist who has written mystery novels and historical fiction, he wrote the screenplay for the documentary George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn't Be King, which was an episode in the PBS series “The American Experience.” Work on this documentary eventually lead to his novel Citizen Washington. Deborah Harkness, an associate professor of history of science at the University of Southern California, who has also written a novel, A Discovery of Witches (2011), set in contemporary England with witches, vampires, and demons, agrees. “I'm a storyteller,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And I have really good material to work with: I've been studying magic and the occult since about 1983.”

British historian and novelist Jason Goodwin had a different reaction to fiction. “When I went to Long Kesh [a prison in Northern Ireland where he was incarcerated], I was persuaded to stop reading fiction by a friend who dismissed it all as sort of bourgeois nonsense. For 10 years I didn't go near fiction. I just concentrated on history and politics. When I was finishing my Ph.D., I started to read fiction again. It was like falling in love again. A very intense experience."

There are skeptics, though. The British historian Tristram Hunt, who teaches at Queen Mary, University of London and is a Member of Parliament, told The Times that he had a number of colleagues who had taken up fiction because it sold comparatively well. “There is a dangerous tendency among historians to slide into historical fiction, which must be avoided at all costs,” he said.

Hunt has a point. His worry is one that stems from the concern that many historians had a few years back about literary theorists who argued that history is a construction, that history is nothing more than a story that individuals tell about the past. This idea, although silly when considered in full, attacked the very foundation of history, and its integrity as a discipline. If history is nothing more than another form of fiction, why bother? In 1990 Sir Geoffrey Elton described postmodern literary theory as “the intellectual equivalent of crack.” The following year, historian Gordon Wood warned that historians might soon “put themselves out of business” if they went down this path. In 2005 Donald Kagan, in his Jefferson lecture, “In Defense of History,” warned about the perils of “pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo.” The British historian of early modern Britain, Lawrence Stone dismissed the literary theorists, noting, “The novelist is free to create events. Imagination does play a very important part in the writing of history but there is a reality principle out there."

These concerns are ones that individual historian need to consider when writing historical fiction. Writers, be they historians or novelists, develop something of a name brand. Sara Paretsky, a University of Chicago Ph.D., solved this problem by writing in a venue that has nothing to do with the field of antebellum New England. She has written a series of mystery novels set in contemporary Chicago featuring her main character, V. I. Warshawski.

For most historians turned novelists, this issue appears to be a small one. Cobbs Hoffman rejected the idea of using a pen name when she wrote Broken Promises (2011). She figured that she might “gain some capital” with her readers as a historian. Tillman took the same view. He already had a name from non-fiction books he had written and that was a major asset in selling books.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Blog CI (101): The Plan C Debate

The Grafton/Grossman vs. Lemisch debate was interesting, but not that instructive. Lemisch has a point that the AHA has not done enough, but his specific ideas are not feasible and vastly exceed the resources of the history profession. Grafton and Grossman have as a follow up to their Plan B article published another article in Perspectives on History entitled, "Plan C."  It is a clever title, but the main thrust of the article is to emphasize a second time the arguments they made in their “Plan B” article. The two certainly realize that the history business has some serious problems and they want to be constructive in finding solutions, like offering more sessions at the AHA annual conference on career management issues and using the AHA website to make the profession “less hierarchal.”

They also make it clear in this article that the AHA will not be taking the lead, which only underscores Lemisch’s complaints about the organization. They argue that solutions to the job crisis need to come from history departments that produce Ph.D.s. They advocated a program similar to the one I suggested in Blog XCVI, but they also make it clear that good projects like these must be the responsibility of individual institutions.

What are we to make of those positions? I understand their view and it is legitimate—the AHA is an umbrella organization and can hardly order the history department at Stanford (or at any other school) to do something—but they are arguing for their limitations. With that attitude, there is no doubt that those limits will sure enough be theirs and that of the entire organization. I also found much of the essay vague. What specifically do they want to see happen? Details are absent. Finally, I am a little disturbed with an important implication of this essay. They have basically written off those scholars that have already finished their Ph.D.s and graduated. They are talking about making changes to shape the future, but very little about helping some of the most vulnerable members of the AHA.

With those points made, there is still a lot that the Association can do even within the existing power structure of the history profession. My suggestions are listed below. Some of them are issues I have discussed before, but many are new:
1) Sponsor a Conference on What the AHA Can Do: Make this a weekend, non-academic conference. Invite roughly 30-40 historians (much more and it becomes counterproductive) who have been taking the lead on job market issues. Make the mission of this conference one of brainstorming and idea generation on concrete initiatives that the organization can take to solve the problem. Maybe the answer is very little, but some outside perspectives might also generate new ideas that no one in the leadership had considered.

2) Sponsor a Conference on What Departments Can Do: There is no anti-trust laws applying to departments talking to one another and trying to initiate similar programs that can move the profession in certain directions. This type of meeting will help a number of university officials across the country from having to reinvent the wheel over and over again Like the first proposal, kake this a weekend, non-academic conference. Invite roughly 20-30 historians from leading departments who can speak for their home institutions and are deeply involved with graduate student education. (Department chairs and directors of graduate education are probably the best type of people rather than distinguished, award-winning star of the department). Make the mission of this conference one of brainstorming and idea generation on concrete initiatives on what departments can do.

3) Subsidized Membership for Applied Historians: Grafton and Grossman made it clear they want to broaden the membership of the AHA as a way of expanding the career paths open to history Ph.D.s. The term “public history” is often used to describe these positions, but that is a misleading phrase and describes some very different activities that have little to do with the public sphere. I prefer the term “applied history.” The people that study the past other than academic historians include: archeologists, political scientists, librarians, archivists, journalists, documentary filmmakers, historical preservationists, professional writers, museum curators, and editors. There are a number of sub-divisions within those categories. Many of these people doing this type of work often hold a Ph.D. in history; many do not and do not need one. For example, a degree in architecture might be more useful for a historic preservationist than one in history. Many of these professions have their own professional associations that already attract the attention, time and money of people working in these fields. If the AHA wants to broaden its base, it needs to make membership in the American Historical Association attractive to these individuals and one way to do that is to make it very cheap for a several years until an awareness of the AHA and what it can do seeps into other fields.

4) Create Two New Divisions: The first should be for school teachers. This division can offer important advice to AHA members that want to go into this field of teaching on the requirements for getting teaching jobs that usually vary from state to state. It can also offer summer workshops that help keep school teachers well versed in history. The second should be for “applied history,” which is to say scholars in other academic fields that are often housed in different departments and colleges and usually require specialized skills (like fine art; legal; medical; and mathematical historians) and people that are doing history out in the public sphere. This division should develop programming that helps bridge the divide between history and other academic disciplines.

5) Discount Advertising: The AHA should offer steep discounts to organizations other than history departments wanting to put job announcements in Perspectives. These organizations would be institutions like archeology departments, public history firms, state agencies that do historic preservation, etc. By steep discount, I mean $1 for a certain word length, and $2 for a larger size. The idea behind this suggestion is that the AHA has to make itself an asset for organizations other than history departments, if it is truly going to be an inclusive to all career types studying the past. At the moment, other professions have done pretty well without much interface with the AHA. It is quite easy for people to advertise on H-Net and not bother with the AHA newsletter. A discount for these institutions is a loss-leader for the organization. The AHA might lose money in the short run from this advertising, but by making more services available to members, it makes membership far more rewarding and useful and will maintain and even increase the numbers of people that join the AHA.

6) Add Other Fields to the AHA Presidency Rotation: The AHA had several presidents who came from other closely related fields like political scientists, library science, and archeology. Some like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt did not even have Ph.D.s. Since the end of World War II, the AHA has been dominated by Ph.D.s in history departments. It is time for the AHA to begin making efforts to bring others into the organization. Broadening the leadership of the AHA, the flagship organization in the history business, is the first step in expanding the organization’s knowledge of other professional career paths where the history Ph.D. can find gainful employment and make a contribution to our understanding of the past.

7) Develop an AHA Alternative Career Speaker Series: Most AHA members have gone from grad school to professional employment as professors and often do not have good ideas or contacts in other fields that can help their students. Many historians have had to do a lot of trailblazing on their own that the rest of the profession does not appreciate. Why reinvent the wheel again? A speakers series that the AHA sponsors can make these experiences better known to the professorate ranks and will enhance the personal and professional reputation of these “applied” or “public” historians. It is a good way to get the conversation started that Grafton and Grossman want to see take place. These communities are not talking to one another and the AHA needs to take the lead in initiating these conversations.

8) Develop Conversion Programs: The AHA should invite a number of these “applied historians” to a series of small, weekend workshops or conferences designed to explain the skills that a new historian will need to find work in one of these fields. While a Ph.D. in history often bolsters the credentials of an applied historian, the degree often does not make one qualified to do this type of work. This was a point that a number of public historians made in Blog XLVI. Put another way, the degree is not a two way street, and the AHA needs to help their junior members find ways to use the assets the degree does bring.

So, how does a history Ph.D. trained to become a professor convert to working in another field? To answer that question some of the issues this type of program needs to address include: Will newly minted history Ph.D.s need another degree? A masters in library science is usually mandatory for most librarian positions; on the other hand, a historic preservationist might only require a certain number of courses in architecture. What other type of criteria are required? Clippings from magazines, newspapers, and websites are often crucial for people wanting to enter journalism. Articles and book reviews in academic journals are never really appropriate. Are internships important? In documentary filmmaking, this often the case. Where do you go to find these jobs? These type of jobs are rarely advertised in the AHA newsletter and there are specialized websites that list historic preservation jobs, museum positions, etc. What organizations should one join and which conferences should a budding scholar attend? Just as if you were a military historian, you would want to join the Society for Military History in addition to the AHA, there are professional museum organizations that one might want to join if you want to be a curator.

The product of these small workshops can come in several formats: a series of AHA published pamphlets that can be offered on the organization’s website: “The History Ph.D. as Documentary Filmmaker,” etc.; a series of sessions at the AHA annual meeting; template or syllabi for programs that history departments can use to convert their Ph.D.s into these career paths, or an AHA speaker series on alternative careers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blog C (100): The Plan B Debate: Counterargument and Rebutal

The same day that the History News Network published Response to Jesse Lemisch's essay "History is Worth Fighting For, But Where is the AHA?", they also published a counterargment from Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman entitled: "Response to Jesse Lemisch: It's Not Enough to Just Wish for Change."  That essay was a counterargument to Lemisch's original essay.  In it the mention their Plan C article, which is not what Lemisch was responding to when he wrote his original essay.  (I will have more discussion on that essay in a new posting).  The HNN then ran a rebutal from Lemisch.  Both are published in this posting:
Professor Jesse Lemisch has raised important and thoughtful objections to our recent essay, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History,” and we assume he would offer a similarly trenchant critique of our follow-up column, “Plan C.” The essence of his argument rests here:
What they propose is indeed too modest, almost tragically so. What we need is not cutbacks and accommodations but rather vastly expanded funding for higher education, plus a program for historians like the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. . . . [Grossman and Grafton] . . . accepted as a given the collapse of public support for the public good, and they seek to accommodate to it. What’s lost in this is the high value that we place on history and a complex that connects history to civilization itself. History is worth fighting for, and its importance goes far beyond the current vogue for saleable skills and narrow vocational justifications for education.
As historians who are accustomed to writing narrative, we will take the liberty of abandoning our normal style, in the interest of brevity, since as usual Professor Lemisch’s points are clear and straightforward:

1) We have not advocated cutbacks.
2) “Accommodation” is a slippery term. It can mean accepting an unacceptable status quo; it also can mean advocating change while working within an existing framework to accomplish things that ought to be accomplished. Yes, we need vastly expanded funding for higher education. AHA advocates for such funding where it has leverage. Yes, the first “Obama stimulus” should have included money to the NEH for projects to employ humanists (more realistic than “a program for historians like” FWP). Many of us pushed for such a program. But it didn’t happen and now we are here.
3) But the reality is what it is, at least in the near future: for decades colleges and universities have not offered enough tenure track positions to provide work for more than two-thirds of those who take doctorates in history, and now they are offering fewer of them than they did two or three years ago. Our choice—which is not new—is to train fewer historians or to find a more diverse array of employment opportunities. Like many AHA members, we as individuals wish the occupiers Godspeed, but as officers of a membership association, we also have a duty to serve the needs of the many members of our profession who need jobs now and will need them in the next several years.
4) Like Professor Lemisch we insist on the “high value that we place on history and a complex that connects history to civilization itself.” This is why we disagree with his assumption that broadening employment opportunities for historians is somehow wrong. History should be part of public discourse, and historians should produce some of that discourse. They can do this if they find employment across a wide variety of institutional environments, including government and business. Trained historians bring to their work a set of professional ethics, we hope, rooted in the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, which emphasizes the importance of evidence, civil and open debate, and freedom of inquiry. We want the values and insights of historians to work their way into every corner of American public life. To increase our influence, we must broaden our perspective on employment.
Here is the rebuttal from Lemisch that the HNN ran:
I’m glad that Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman support a break with the hierarchalism that has marked our profession’s view of non-academic employment, and I wish that the AHA, together with other professional organizations, would really get behind a new WPA. But once again Grafton and Grossman invoke “reality” to justify their accommodation to cutbacks in higher education and in history, at a time when the national and international mood is, “enough is enough!” Their goal is limited "to train[ing] fewer historians or to find[ing] a more diverse array of employment opportunities…"

Finding that the profession is cruelly preparing graduate students for jobs that do not exist, Grafton and Grossman propose to solve the problem by preparing graduate students for other jobs that also, unhappily, do not exist! This (as we say in New York) is reality? Indeed, in their “Plan C" in November's edition of Perspectives, they cite William and Mary College’s apprenticeships in archival and museum management which, according to James Axtell “have disappeared for budgetary reasons.” Not only can the College not support them, but, those of us who are indeed concerned with reality must ask which archive and which museum has the money to hire such people amidst the general collapse? How can you advocate “public history” in the absence of public funding? Reality, indeed.

Like many, I avidly leaf through the AHA program as soon as it arrives, mark it up, and fold back pages. In the content of papers to be presented at the Chicago meeting, I see a thriving historical enterprise (as they used to call it). But I see no sense of crisis. That crisis is the reality that we must face, and I see precious little evidence that this has dawned on the AHA. Grafton and Grossman want to limit the AHA’s activities to “working within an existing framework” and functioning as a “clearinghouse.” I live a couple of miles north of Zuccotti Park. More and more people, here and around the world are finding that a sense of reality dictates that we refuse to work within the diseased existing frameworks and refuse to simply adjust, as Grossman and Grafton advocate, to shrinking budgets. Enough of this deck-chair stuff while the historical enterprise steams ahead towards the iceberg.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blog XCIX (99): The Plan B Debate Again

Jesse Lemisch, a Professor Emeritus of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, disagreed with the "Plan B" essay that Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman wrote. Lemisch is the author of On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession, and wrote the following essay entitled: "History is Worth Fighting For, But Where is the AHA?"  It appered on the History News Network on November 7, 2011:
Liberals in the Obama era are accommodating to the unacceptable and turning their backs on traditional liberal values. Once again, the job of defending those values is left to radicals. Now history itself needs defense.

Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman, respectively president and executive director of the American Historical Association, offer “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History” in the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History. What they propose is indeed too modest, almost tragically so. What we need is not cutbacks and accommodations but rather vastly expanded funding for higher education, plus a program for historians like the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project, which produced so much of value, including the the slave narrative collection and the 48 volumes of the American Guide Series to the states.

But listen to Grafton and Grossman. They outline the continuing grim employment situation for historians, and present it as almost God-given, beyond human control:
As public contributions to higher education shrink, state budgets contract, and a lagging economy takes its toll on endowments and family incomes, there is little reason to expect the demand for tenure track faculty to expand… It’s not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets… it’s unrealistic... 
I hesitate to use so snarky a term as C. Wright Mills’s “crackpot realism,” but I find myself at odds with what Grafton and Grossman take to be realism. With the best of intentions, these AHA officers have nonetheless accepted as a given the collapse of public support for the public good, and they seek to accommodate to it. What’s lost in this is the high value that we place on history and a complex that connects history to civilization itself. History is worth fighting for, and its importance goes far beyond the current vogue for saleable skills and narrow vocational justifications for education.

Grafton and Grossman are certainly not in the same boat as the worst of the right-wing critics of higher education (like Florida governor Rick Scott, who says “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state"). Nor, I think, would they agree with the kinds of anti-tenure retrenchment arguments offered by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus (I wrote about this subject for Truthout). But what these critics from various points on the ideological spectrum have in common is an acceptance of things as they are, a failure of vision, and an unwillingness to embark on a battle to defend learning and what used to be called “liberal education."

As I write this, some five miles to the south of me on Manhattan Island people are in the streets trying to change, not accept, the current economic catastrophe, greed and increasing inequality. Their slogan might be, “Expand, Don’t Contract.” The day’s email brings a draft of a demand to be debated by Occupy Wall Street : “Jobs for all—a Massive Public Works and Public Service Program.” It appears that those druggies, drummers, sex addicts and student debtors down there in Zuccotti Square are doing more for civilization, history and education than is the AHA. It’s time for the AHA to catch up with them, and start fighting for history.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Blog XCVIII (98): The Plan B Debate Continues

While I was writing my next essay for the blog, the "Plan B" debate exploded with several postings on the internet, which ultimately resulted in a response from Grafton and Grossman.  I was planning to just provide links to these essays, but to make it a little easier to follow the debate, I will provide my own posting this week.  Think of these reproductions as an added bonus.  The first is an editorial from Scott Jaschik entitled "More Options for History Ph.D.s."  This essay appeared in Inside Higher Ed on October 31, 2011:
Last month, the president and executive director of the American Historical Association issued a call for their discipline to move away from the idea that Ph.D. training is primarily about producing the next generation of professors. They called for history departments to stop talking about non-academic careers as "alternative," and to instead see them as truly equal options -- and as options that should help shape the nature of doctoral education.

Their call was called "No More Plan B," as a counter to the idea that academic careers are necessarily Plan A. Today they are releasing a follow-up -- "Plan C" -- in which they provide more specific ideas about the kinds of changes history departments might consider for their Ph.D. programs.

Here are some of the ideas shared in the new piece by Anthony Grafton, a Princeton University historian who is president of the AHA, and James Grossman, executive director of the association:
  • Make public history a full part of the doctoral Ph.D. curriculum. Grafton and Grossman note that some history departments have embraced public history, and have become known for preparing graduate students for careers at museums, historical sites, government agencies and elsewhere. Despite the success of these programs, Grafton and Grossman write that "many of the largest departments have yet to embrace the legitimacy of public history as an aspect (not a track) of Ph.D. instruction." Right now, public history remains "a separate track," they write, and that status limits its ability to reach more students, and to provide an opportunity for them to find meaningful work with their doctorates.
  • Challenge the bias of mentors. Faculty members who advise graduate students, Grossman and Grafton write, still see traditional research-oriented academic careers as the ultimate goal of a Ph.D., and this attitude should change. "The result of this short-sightedness is not only to narrow students' options, but also to make it difficult to see or follow the pathways blazed by those historians who have moved in different and promising directions."
  • Create new graduate courses through alliances with other departments. Some of the skills that would enable history graduate students to have more career options aren't history-specific, and might be provided to doctoral students in a range of disciplines, Grafton and Grossman write. They suggest that courses in digital technologies and their use with scholarship would be the kind of offering that might be added. Another possibility might be courses on finance and management for Ph.D. humanities students.
While the new essay pledges that the AHA will strive to publicize non-academic career options, and will highlight such choices at its meetings, the authors stress that most of the needed changes will come on campuses. And the authors write that they believe it is possible for historians to continue to uphold the standards of their field, even as they reconsider career paths and the most important skills for Ph.D.s to have.

"Look around and, like it or not, you see a world of new jobs that demand new skills," write Grafton and Grossman. "Most of us believe that the kinds of learning we have cultivated and pass on to our students still matter, and most of us are still trying to do the kind of teaching we love in the teeth of reformers who want to cut costs by turning our lectures into YouTube videos and fixing us permanently at our computers to answer the queries of our viewing audience (formerly known as students).

"This persistence -- which is not mere Luddism -- is as it should be. Standards matter. But there's no sense pretending that the new world isn't out there. Some of those currently taking doctorates in history will carry on this project, changing the academy as has each preceding generation. But many others will have to blaze new trails, finding ways to remain committed to history, and to practice it, in venues that are not listed by most departments in their placement claims."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Blog XCVII (97): The Departmental Response to the Plan B Debate

In Blog XCVI, I addressed the Plan B debate that Anthony Grafton, the President of the American Historical Association and Jim Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, initiated. In my contribution to this discussion I argued that the organization is not as weak as it thinks it is when it comes to responding to the job crisis in the history profession. There are things that the AHA can do to change the employment situation. Now, it is time to turn our attention to individual history departments.

What can they do to change employment patterns? The answer is again a lot more than they think. The faculty in departments of history have a lot of influence on the Ph.D. glut. One solution that many people writing higher education newspaper columns and blogs have suggested is that these programs stop admitting students that they know will never find academic employment once they finish their Ph.D. That would indeed solve the problem, but it runs against the institutional interests of the departments. They need and want grad students. These junior scholars are necessary for the operation of large lecture classes that tenure track faculty teach and they can also be used as instructors of record to make up the difference between the tenured faculty’s work loads and the teaching obligations of a department to meet degree requirements.

So that idea is a non-starter, but there are several other things that a department can and probably should do if it continues to admit students that will not find academic careers. These suggestions will help students, but increasing the viable career options for Ph.D.s also services the institutional interest of history departments that want to maintain or increase graduate-student enrollments. I have four main proposals:
  1. Develop an Alumni Speaker Series: bring recent graduates back to campus and have them give talks about their careers. They can provide useful information about a number of issues: where did they find job ads? What did they learn about the application process that they did not know before? What issues (expected and unexpected) did they face once they started the job? How well did their training prepare them for their new positions? What would they do different if they had it to do over again? What are they glad that they did? This type of program is good feedback for the faculty, but it can also be an inspiration for currently enrolled students. It helps to let them know what others that have been where they are now have been able to do with the degree they are earning. In Blog XV I said that alumni networking was an important consideration that historians need to do more of; this is one of the reasons why and a way to do it.
  2. Develop a Non-Academic Career Speaker Series: bring historians to campus that are doing something other than teaching in a history department. These speakers do not have to be alumni of your school. The fact of the matter is that the majority of people in history Ph.D. programs are going to be doing something other than becoming an assistant professor of history after they graduate. History faculty need to start preparing their students for non-academic careers and that will be difficult for individuals who went from grad school to faculty positions. There is no reason to have them reinvent the wheel. Have people who have already done trailblazing work in finding non-academic utility for their degrees explain those efforts. They can answer important questions like: What can I do with a history Ph.D.? Where did they find job ads? Is it possible for me to do research, publish, or teach in this type of job? Can I move into a tenure-track position later if I do something else for the time being?
  3. Profile These Guest Speakers: departmental web sites and newsletters are great forums for biographical portraits or question and answer sessions with these historians. Developing a sense of community among the alumni is also important. This type of published product bolsters the reputation of a department as an institution, which is something different than the individual publishing efforts of their faculty members. This effort can have untold second and third order effects: enhancing the reputation of the department as a place to study for students because it makes real, creative efforts to help their students find jobs; it also makes a department look creative, which is always a good environment that makesit easier to recruit new faculty.
  4.  Develop the Resources of the Career Office: Each university has a placement office(s). These centers are usually designed for undergraduates, but graduate students in history would be within their rights to ask that they develop programs to help them pursue employment opportunities in which they can use the skills they developed in their Ph.D. studies. These programs would include workshops that will help students decide what career paths are available to them; that conduct practice job interviews; and explain the nuances of writing a impressive resumes.
In closing, I should note that if any of these ideas sound good and are things that your home institutions are not offering, you should ask the department, college, or university that it begin to do so. It is an entirely reasonable request. Part of a faculty member’s job description is to help prepare their students for using their Ph.D. after they graduate.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Blog XCVI (96): The Plan B Debate

The president of the American Historical Association, Anthony T. Grafton, and the executive director of the organization, Jim Grossman, published an article in the October 2011 issue of the AHA newsletter, Perspectives on History that has generated a lot of discussion. Before providing my views, I will try to hit the main highlights and have provided links to all the essays so individuals can read them in full, if they wish.

The article in question is entitled: “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History." It was the feature of the front page of Perspectives. Grafton and Grossman have made an effort to address one of the biggest issues facing the history profession—the vast underemployment or unemployment of history Ph.D.s. In an interview after its publication, Grossman explained, “We're trying to say, 'Wake up. Times have changed. There are more opportunities and that's a good thing.’” He continued, "This is not about the negativity of wringing our hands and saying that there are no more jobs."

In short, the two are tired of non-academic careers for the history Ph.D. being seen as a lesser alternative to a tenure track position. The core of their argument is:

If we tell new students that a history PhD opens many doors, we need to broaden the curriculum to ensure that we're telling the truth. If the policy arena offers opportunities, and we think it does, then interested students need some space (and encouragement) to take courses in statistics, economics, or public policy. Accounting, acting, graphic design, advanced language training: students thinking at once creatively and pragmatically have all sorts of options at our research universities. And of course there's the whole exploding realm of digital history and humanities, and the range of skills required to practice them.
They add a bit later:

Instead of cutting down the dissertation, departments need to find ways of keeping dissertation writers attuned to the full range of opportunities that their work opens. Why not incorporate preparation for the future into the later years of doctoral training? This might be the time for an additional course or two, adventures into new realms of knowledge that build skills for diverse careers. That such diversification offers an antidote to melancholy and writer's block is merely a bonus, even more so if these explorations can also add texture or new insights to a dissertation. Departments might also consider workshops that explore the world of work, bring in speakers from government and other areas where many historians find jobs, and mobilize their networks of contacts as advisers for their students. Internships could provide even deeper experience, although care would have to be taken to integrate them into dissertation writing calendars.
A lot of discussion, some good, some not has followed. The essay was the subject of a news story in Inside Higher Ed, and it was reprinted in The Chronicle of Higher Education. On the AHA website, Margaret E. DeLacy, made the astute observation that the proof is in actions not words:

If the AHA wants history graduates to feel good about moving into other livelihoods and to go on using the skills they honed in graduate school, it should help them continue to think about history after they have done so. As a long-time member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS.org) and editor of H-Scholar, I have found the AHA to be much less supportive than other learned organizations such as the MLA and the ACLS. For example, the AHA used to have a prize for independent scholars, the Feis award, but it was pulled and re-defined as an award for public history. "Unequivocal support" means actual support, not just rhetoric.
In response, Dan Allosso posted the essay “No More Plan B”—Apocalypse or Opportunity?” on The Historical Society blog. His response was more philosophical than practical. Robin Maitzen responded on her blog. In “More Ph.D. Puzzlement.” She stated that the purpose of a history Ph.D. program is to train people to become historians. The students enrolling in those programs want to be historians. “In the 20+ years I have now been involved in graduate education, the strongest trend I’ve seen is towards academic ‘professionalization,’ with workshops on everything from conference proposals to fellowship applications to academic job interviews, and ever-rising pressure to publish, attend conferences, and participate in professional groups and activities.” If they wanted something else, they would be taking courses in another field. She also made an astute point. “When I read the AHA statement, I felt, no doubt cynically, that there is an elided step in the logic, a step where they say ‘we want to keep Ph.D. enrolments up.’"

Michael Ruse, who directs the program in history and philosophy of science at Florida State University, wrote in his blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education that historians need to start rethinking the requirements for the Ph.D. degree. He said a dissertation should no longer be an unpublished book. “A massive, traditional, history-style dissertation is the last thing they need. Get them used to writing shorter pieces that are going to be criticized and revised again and again."

Okay, that is the debate. What is my response to all of this? Well, to their credit, I think Grafton and Grossman have addressed the most important issue affecting the history profession today. That is an important start, and to be honest it is an issue that the leadership of the profession (AHA officers and the faculty at “leading” departments) have basically ignored. I hope they will build on what they have started. There is a lot more that can be done. The Grafton/Grossman article was short on specifics. It read a lot like: “buy low, sell high.” We need more and I would like to see the AHA take concrete steps in helping its newer members prepare for a careers doing something other than teaching in a history department.

That is easy to say, but much more difficult to do mainly because most of the leadership of the profession has had little experience using their degrees in anything other than an academic setting. They have gone from grad school to the faculty. Very few have had any other type of career.

So, what can the AHA do? I have a few ideas. First, the AHA needs to make efforts to broaden its leadership. The simple fact is that more people study the past professionally than those that reside in history departments. Sometimes they are economic or business historians with appointments in a department of economics or a college of business administration; others are anthropologists or archeologists. Prior to 1945 the AHA had several presidents who came from other closely related fields like political science, library science, archeology. Some like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt did not even have Ph.D.s. Since the end of World War II, the AHA has been dominated by Ph.D.s in history departments. It is time for the AHA to begin making efforts to bring others into the organization, such as anthropologists, public historians, archeologists, documentary filmmakers, archivists, historical editors, museum curators, K-12 school teachers and professional writers.

The AHA should reach out to these other fields in two ways. First, it should create a new division for school teachers, and another for other fields. This division can offer important advice to AHA members that want to go into this field of teaching on the various requirements for getting teaching jobs in the various states. It can also offer summer workshops that help keep school teachers well versed in history. Second, the organization should add a non-historian to the rotation for presidency of the AHA.

I foresee several objections to these suggestions. One is that although the individuals in these other fields might use or contribute to history, they do not alter or shape in fundamental fashion our understanding of history the way academically trained historians do. Another and far more significant reservation is that bureaucratic reform does nothing to alter the job market and help reduce the surplus of unemployed historians.

Effective rebuttal to both of these criticisms is easy to make. The first point is simply not true. Individuals working in other fields often have a much bigger impact on history than the historian in a history department. Consider the audience of a documentary filmmaker or the number of people that museums enjoy. These are easily in the millions. Academic books never even get close to having that same readership. The editors working on The Papers of Thomas Jefferson are going to have a far more enduring impact on historical understanding than the author of a monograph no matter how insightful or innovative. To the second point about these proposals doing little to the job market, my response is short: you are absolutely correct—in the short term. The long-term is a different matter. Broadening the leadership of the AHA, the flagship organization in the history business, is the first step in broadening the organization’s knowledge of other professional career paths where the history Ph.D. can find gainful employment and make a contribution to our understanding of the past.

My second proposal is that the AHA run a summer workshop for newly minted history Ph.D.s designed to help them find alternative careers. To be effective, this type of program would be a multi-week, residential program that combines a mini-MBA course with some training in writing résumés and preparing for interviews. This summer institute should also help with networking and bring in corporate and not-for-profit recruiters to meet with the participants. History Ph.D.s are not normally what head-hunters are looking for but they often have very useful skills: language, writing, research, analysis that can used productively in any number of fields.

The objections to this type of program are understandable. Individuals went to graduate school because they wanted an academic career, not one in business. The AHA is also a scholarly organization, and job placement is outside of its mission. These issues represent some of the internal resistance to alternative careers that Grafton and Grossman were fighting. Responding to these objections is easy. For most people currently in graduate programs right now, a meaningful academic career is not realistic. The jobs simply do not exist. The statistics make that clear. The real option is between a non-academic career (or perhaps it is better describe as an alternative career) or none at all. Second, only the AHA is in a position to create such a program. Most colleges and universities have placement offices, which bring in recruiters, but those individuals are usually looking for a specific type of person and it is not a history Ph.D. These placement offices are not really going to do much to help the newly-minted Ph.D. There is an ethical impulse to helping other less fortunate Ph.D.s, but it is also in the institutional interest of those in the profession. As long as you have a mass of unemployed or underemployed individuals, they act as a weight keeping salaries down.

A third idea is that the AHA should offer steep discounts to organizations other than history departments wanting to put job announcements in Perspectives. These organizations would be institutions like archeology departments, public history firms, state agencies that do historic preservation, etc. By steep discount, I mean $1 for a certain word length, and $2 for a larger size. The idea behind this suggestion is that the AHA has to make itself an asset for organizations other than history departments, if it is truly going to be an inclusive to all career types studying the past, and so far, other professions have done pretty well without much interface with the AHA. As an institution, the Association needs to make it clear to other professions that it is a useful asset to them.

An obvious complaint is that this proposal discriminates against AHA member institutions. History departments have to pay more than other organizations because they are history departments. While this is true, the idea of increasing the job options that is put before individual AHA members is of greater importance to the profession as a whole and those history departments. The fact is, it looks bad for a history department to produced unemployed Ph.D.s. So, it is in a department’s interest to increase the employment opportunities for their graduates. Also, the AHA could make this a loss leader; offer low cost ads to non-history departments for a year or two and then charge them the regular cost.

Finally, leading departments need to begin…well…taking the lead in expanding or changing the curriculum. For the most part, I would suspect the best way to do this is to create “public history” or the-Ph.D.-as-“something”-programs; for example, journalists. I would bet that there will be a lot of resistance in these departments. (See Blog XLVI for a longer discussion on public history.) The history faculty at prestigious schools—I know that phrase is vague, so visit Blog LXXIX for a specific list—probably expect that their reputations will always trump the numbers. (“We’re Princeton, damn it! Our students are better and will always be able to get jobs.”) The problem is the numbers are the numbers and there is no getting around that fact. What will happen if more than one Princeton Ph.D. applies for the same job? (I was on a search committee and this very thing happened.) If the profession is going to change its attitude about non-academic employment, then schools like Princeton need to take the lead. It really is not that radical an attitude shift; there are plenty of non-academic jobs for economics Ph.D.s and those in political science. (I don’t mean to pick on Princeton—as a good USC Trojan I was using Stanford in the early drafts of this essay—but Grafton is from Princeton, and I figured it was fair to hold his school up for close examination.)

Okay, these are my ideas. I am offering them in an honest effort to follow up on the Grafton/Grossman article. If you have better suggestions on how to deal with the vast surplus of Ph.D.s I would love to hear them, and I suspect so would the AHA.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blog XCV (95): Another View of the AHA

Jason Knoll, teaches social studies at Verona Area High School in Verona, Wisconsin.  I met him earlier this year when he asked me to speak to some of his students attending the American Historical Association meeting in Boston.  No problem,  A month later Knoll published "A High School Teacher at the Annual Meeting" in the February 2010 issue of Perspectives on History.  I stumbled upon because he mentioned me in the article, but it is more interesting because of his take on the AHA annual meeting.  I reproduce it for your information:  
I’ve been a member of the AHA since my years as an undergraduate student, but I never went to an annual meeting until this year. What made my first trip to this massive gathering of historians even more memorable was the fact that I brought five of my AP European History students with me. The trip was an overall success: we sat in on five sessions, saw some of Boston, and walked away with a handful of books.  I picked my students by holding an essay contest in my AP European History class. I estimated the cost of airfare and the hotel and had them talk to their parents before writing the essay. Once their parents gave their approval, 17 students wrote an essay arguing why I should take them with me. The only information that I gave them was the theme of the meeting and the web address of the AHA. I did not give them my rubric beforehand so that they would not merely write to the rubric. I scored them on three criteria—their passion for history, what interest they have for the theme, and why they would benefit from the trip. The five best essays were written by young women.

Once I gained approval from my school board, I had to determine which sessions we would attend. I had two objectives—they had to fit into our curriculum and they had to hold the interest of high school students for two hours (after all, what we as historians might find interesting may not necessarily be so for others). I narrowed the list of sessions to around 15, told them which ones I thought would be most beneficial to them, and then let them as a group decide on the specific choices.

Since my students’ typical view of a historian was that of professor, we attended the session on Thursday about the various other careers in history—archivist, preservationist, curator, instructor or historian for the military, and documentary editor. They walked away with a newfound interest in what they could do with a degree in history.

The highlight of our trip came on Friday morning when we attended the session about Carlos Eire’s latest work, A Very Brief History of Eternity. My students and I all read and discussed the book so that we could attend the session, understand the panelists, and even perhaps ask questions. Prior to our departure for Boston, I e-mailed Professor Eire about our plan and asked if he would do us the honor of having lunch with us after the session. Much to my surprise, he replied that he would be delighted to do so. My students were able to follow along with the first two panelists’ comments, although they (and I) struggled with the third panelist’s arguments dealing with space and time (I think). We lunched at Au Bon Pain (since we don’t have those here in Wisconsin), and proceeded to have a very pleasant conversation with Professor Eire. He was extremely personable and answered all of my students’ questions with humility and understanding.

We spent Friday afternoon walking the Freedom Trail and then returned to our hotel to get ready for the receptions. We first attended the reception hosted by the National History Center. It was fairly obvious that we were not the usual attendees for the annual meeting, but the historians at the reception were actually quite welcoming to my students. Two people in particular (that I saw, although there could have been others) were very interested in what my students thought about the meeting—James Banner of the NHC and Marian Barber (Univ. of Texas). Since all of my students were young women, I thought it would also be appropriate to attend the reception hosted by the Coordinating Council for Women in History. Sandra Dawson (NIU), the executive director, took some time to speak to my students about the role of the Council and the two co-sponsors, the Peace History Society and the Committee on LGBTQ History. We ended the night by moving to the reception hosted by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. One of the panelists from the session on careers in history, Nick Sarantakes (Naval War College), spent a considerable amount of time talking to my students about majoring in history and the uses of a history degree. He even gave them his card and told them that if they ever had any questions about history to e-mail him; this had a tremendous impact on my students.

Saturday was our busiest day, with three sessions and the screening of the film, The Conspirator. Our first session was about the public uses of history and the global war on terror. It was interesting to hear the various arguments made by the panelists. More importantly, however, I felt it was important for my students to hear the calls for historians to be more involved in public discourse and to understand how policymakers and government officials have misused history. The midday session covered the various issues and topics in teaching genocide. As a teacher, I found it useful, but again, I thought it was a good opportunity for my students to learn about the issues that teachers deal with when teaching. Finally, we attended the lecture on military history by Gerhard Weinberg about myths of the Second World War. Although the students were a bit exhausted mentally, they were still enthused about listening to one of the world’s eminent historians. We parted ways after the lecture, with the students going to the film screening, while I went to the reception hosted by the Conference Group for Central European History. The students thoroughly enjoyed the film. Additionally, at one point during the night they rode in the elevator with Florencia Mallon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison). She was extremely pleasant towards them and took an interest in their experiences at the meeting. My time at the reception proved to be a great time for networking, although as a high school teacher I felt a bit out of place. I ended up, however, having pleasant conversations with Francis Raška (Charles University, Czech Republic), Eric Weitz (Univ. of Minnesota), and Marion Berghahn (Berghahn Books).

On Sunday, we decided to skip the sessions and walk through the exhibit hall one last time. The vendors were nice to us, although I was surprised at how expensive some of the books were. I was, however, able to pick up some exam copies of books for a new course, The History of American Foreign Policy, as well as my AP European History class. Afterwards, we took a trip out to Harvard and rubbed the foot of John Harvard. I wanted to see the history department, but unfortunately, the doors to Robinson Hall were locked.

I definitely count the trip as an overwhelming success. But I did leave with an uneasy sense of a disconnect between secondary school teachers and “professional” historians. Some people seemed to be surprised that I was at the AHA. Is it that shocking for a high school teacher to be at an annual meeting of historians? Such perceptions will perhaps disappear if the AHA can do more to promote high school teachers as historians and encourage their participation in the annual meeting. Of course, this cannot be accomplished by the AHA alone. Colleges, universities, and even secondary school teachers themselves have to play significant and important—and collaborative—roles in such a movement.

However, a sign that such desirable changes are possible lies perhaps the fact that many historians treated my students and me with kindness and respect during our stay in Boston. I specially thank them. I plan on attending the annual meeting next year and hope to rekindle some of the conversations I began this year.