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.