WEST POINT, NEW YORK—Many different institutions around the country sponsor Summer programs for scholars and writers. One of the best of these programs is the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History. It is a hidden gem and I cannot recommend it enough.
The Seminar was at one time a program that the U.S. Army official sponsored to help faculty at other institutions to develop enough expertise to teach the military history that was required for ROTC programs. That requirement was phased out and the department of history at West Point decided to run the program with private money as a way of bolstering professional interest in military history. I participated in the first Seminar with this new focus back in 1999 and returned to West Point to give a talk to on June 30, 2011.
The Summer Seminar is wonderful in that it is a number of things all at the same time: it is a graduate seminar in military history, it is a research seminar, it is a teaching workshop, it is a distinguished speakers series, and it is an opportunity to develop a professional network of like-minded peers. For me it was like taking a new Ph.D. field in military history two years after I graduated.
I found the teaching workshop element to be the most unexpected reward. I have to admit in my arrogance, I expected that the civilian academics would do far better in this regard than the military officers. The history department at West Point has a mix of civilian and military faculty. The military officers were fantastic at sharing their approaches towards teaching. They were far better teachers than the civilians. They had many ideas that I incorporated immediately afterwards and others that I still plan to use. (Like having students take the same exam twice; once on their own and once with a partner. The higher grade is the one they keep. Taking the exam a second time forces a student to figure out what they got wrong the first time and they usually learn a bit in the process.) I could go on, but there point is there is a lot of teaching ideas the Seminar offers.
One of the major features of the seminar was a series of “staff rides” that the group takes. (A staff ride is an educational tool that the Royal Prussian Army developed in the 1830s-1850s. It is basically a tour of the battlefield itself, supplemented with a series of historical readings before hand and a discussion of ethics and decision making at the location itself). The east coast of the United States is littered with battlefields from the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the U.S. Civil War. (The seminar mixes up which battlefields it visits from year to year.) When I was a Fellow the seminar visited spent eight days on the road visiting mostly Civil War sites; this year the group had fewer but were more mixed.
A difference between my Seminar and this year’s version is that the 2011 group had several panels of experts discuss and/or debate the historiographical nature of the field. I sat in on one on the Vietnam War before giving my talk about the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The panel was quite informative, entertaining and drew a small group of visitors—faculty from other West Point departments and historians at a few other universities in the nearby area. (I am afraid my talk based on a chapter from my book on the boycott of the 1980 Olympics kept in line with the tradition of military officers doing better than the civilians; my contribution was part of a speakers series rather than a distinguished speakers series.) The Seminar also spent a day at the Roosevelt Presidential Library touring the museum part of the complex and learning about the archives.
The cadre for the program are very good about looking at major military developments across the globe. In this sense, the military history they teach is world history. A shortcoming of the West Point program when I attended and that still remains ten years later is that it focuses on ground power. The program pretty much ignores naval and air power. Of course, that omission reflects the major focus of military history. Few historians in the United States or in any other country focus on the other mediums in which militaries project force. The majority write about armies rather than navies or air forces.
Another unexpected benefit of the Seminar was that I developed a network of friends and peers that I have relied on time and time again. More than 10 years later the group as a whole is still in touch with one another. Having a group of friends and peers in your area of expertise is an amazing asset. To give you just one example, since 1999 I have attended a number of conferences and at least one other person from my seminar has been there; a number of us have put together conference panels. I should add that I dedicated my third book to the Fellows in my year group.)
I would strongly recommend people consider attending a summer program be it the West Point Summer Seminar or another one while they can. These modules are often three to six weeks in length and it is difficult to take that much time if you are married or have children of a certain age. A number of different institutions sponsor them. The best known are the Summer Seminars and Summer Institutes that the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsor. (Every year the number, topics, and locations change. Go to the NEH website to see if they are sponsoring a program you would like to participate in). These types of endeavors often provide house and/or stipends for their participants.
I would also recommend that you attend a program that allows you to build on your expertise but also stretch a little. For example, if you are a historian of Victorian England attending a seminar that focuses on the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century is not going to give much, nor is attending a program on modern Latin America, but perhaps one that focuses on British Imperial history in the 19th and 20th Centuries would be right. I attended three other summer institutes: one that examined security studies and was geared more towards political science, a weekend long program that focused on teaching security studies, and a six week long NEH seminar on sport history. These all helped this diplomatic historian develop expertise in strategy—which I know teach—and military and sport history, which was very important in helping him write a book about the 1980 Olympic boycott.