Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Blog CVI (106): Eight Questions: Diplomatic History

Today's entry represents the start of a new feature on "In the Service of Clio."  The blog is asking a number of newer scholars in many different fields for their take on career management issues.  The idea behind this series is to increase the voices and perspectives that are aired in this forum.  While this blog is familiar with some fields of history more than others,  that is not the case for all of them or even most of them. The first entry in this series is on diplomatic history and our guest blogger is Jonathan Reed Winkler.  He is an associate professor of History at Wright State University.  Winkler is the author of Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I (Harvard University Press, 2008).  This book has won three major book prizes: the 2008 Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize in Naval History, the 2009 Distinguished Publication Award from the Ohio Academy of History, and the 2009 Paul Birdsall Book Prize from the American Historical Association.  He received his PhD with distinction from Yale University and his B.A. from Ohio University.  He has previously taught at the University of Maryland and the U.S. Naval Academy.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
To my mind, the greatest strength in the field of U.S. foreign relations is the constant connection to contemporary affairs. Our field is vibrant, to be sure, with a tremendous amount of scholarship, a multiplicity of methodological approaches, and deepening interconnections with other historical fields. But behind it all lingers a sense—or perhaps a demand—of relevance for the field to current crises or events. How did we get here from there? Is any of this new? The general public and university undergraduates, and not just our fellow academics, want to know why the U.S. is involved in the places where it is and what all is going on. Our field is well placed, more so than most others, to answer those questions or at least show how to begin to think about them.

Thinking about the larger profession of historians, it seems to me that the demand from the general public is one of the greatest strengths for the historical profession. The public wants to know what happened in the past, for all of the reasons that the past is useful for constructing community, defining identity, and providing guidance. Who are we, and where did we come from? How did our ancestors deal with difficult decisions at times of great trouble? That interest will remain strong despite the ebb and flow of passing academic fashions or scholarly disputes, and can never confined only to those with great educational attainment. This connection to the public remains a source of strength and protection, something the historians in the academy should recognize and embrace more.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
The field has gained a vitality that would astonish those who, in the 1980s, were condemning it as one that had lost its way or had little to say to outsiders. But that vibrant outpouring of scholarship, the proliferation of new approaches and interpretations, has presented a different problem: one of aggregating all of the work and retaining a sense of what are the most meaningful contributions the field can make to other historical fields or to those in other scholarly disciplines. What are the core questions that the field should address? How can the field overcome the growing divide between those who work on topics after 1945 and those who do not? Unlike its cousin, the field of military history, the study of foreign relations is not necessarily concerned with war or the threat of force to attain national objectives, although questions of expansion and national power are at the heart of the field and where, traditionally, most of the work had been done. But there are many scholars in the field who work on other issues of international relations that have nothing to do with those matters (or at least only tangentially). There are also those who, for whatever reason, disdain the pre-20th century period as lacking in importance or relevance. Increasingly we can see foreign relations scholars working on the early republic or the Gilded Age finding solace with their peers working on other topics in those time periods. It seems to me that the issues are going to be, over the next generation, deciding whether those working in the field will be expected to have a core appreciation and understanding of what might be called the security side of the field or not, and whether they will be expected to be conversant with the full sweep of U.S. foreign relations, not just the 20th century forward. If the answer to one or both questions is no, then how should one distinguish among the different types as the divergence continues?

There are many issues facing the historical profession, but the one I have been pondering the most recently is what many are calling the higher education bubble. When and how the bubble will pop we do not know, but when it does the effect on what we do could be severe. History will to a great extent be protected more than some humanities disciplines—there is a market for what we do (it is not always remunerative, but people will show up for a history talk). But there will be growing challenges to the relevance of certain historical work, a need to justify more forcefully why someone should be studying, say, transvestite vampire prostitutes in 14th Century Moscow or why such work is only appearing in journals few read and no one cites. (On this as a problem in English literature, see Mark Bauerlein’s recent article “The Research Bust” in The Chronicle of Higher Education for more). To be sure, esoterica in history can be illuminating and often essential—that’s the only way certain historical paradigms can shift. Some fields (such as naval history) are in crisis for lack of understanding about certain auxiliary topics that actually affect the core interpretations in the field. But the profession needs to think about how to weather the relevance issue as the higher education bubble pops, administrators ask for more tuition, the sports programs stumble onwards, parents question the utility of a college degree, students demand topics that the faculty do not think of as ‘important’ or ‘worth studying,’ unaffiliated historians publish books that the public actually buys, and many promising scholars never find a secure position from which to conduct research and publish.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
I’d identify two areas where what I see as the most interesting work is being done. The first is international history that is based on serious multi-archival, multilingual research. With the access to government records (the U.S. government’s recent reclassification efforts notwithstanding) that is available around the world we’re seeing young scholars with the language abilities to work in these archives do so. For example, we can point to the work of Lorenz Luthi and Sergei Radchenko on the Sino-Soviet split, drawing on U.S., Soviet, Chinese and other government documents and providing a multilateral picture that is valuable not just to foreign relations historians but historians in multiple fields. I’m aware of a number of ABD and recent PhDs. as well who are doing similar path-breaking work with new archival materials that is invigorating this field. Achieving the level of language proficiency required for effective archival work in those records is very difficult, but very rewarding.

The second is on the growing incorporation of science and technology topics to the study of foreign relations. I’ve just concluded a substantive historiographic review of the literature on U.S. foreign relations dealing with technology and the environment since 1941, so I am a little biased here, but it has only been in the last fifteen years or so that our field has really taken on these topics in a meaningful way. The work that has been done is vibrant, innovative, and very useful not just for us but also for scholars in the history of technology and environmental history fields. We’re starting to ask new questions about the past based on our present concerns, from cyberwarfare to global warming, which means that we’re uncovering new topics and reexamining older established topics. I have a sense that we will see a paradigm shift in thinking about the 20th century and foreign relations from this. While we have mostly concentrated on the impact of nuclear technology on world affairs (i.e. nuclear weapons and the Cold War, proliferation, et cetera), I think in the future we will see far more work on the impact of electronic technology on calculations about national power and weakness, be it from developments in weapons systems and military capacity, global information and cultural exchanges, financial transactions, and so on. But as with language, being able to engage these topics effectively requires a level of understanding about the technology that has to approach what was known and understood at the time, and that is not always easy. After all, how many of us ever actually keep the instruction manuals from our cell phones or DVD players?
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
For a career as a scholar working at a university, I think teaching is essential. It forces you to organize, to condense, to present effectively and to consider the impact of your explanations. I think that teaching the survey course is particularly important, and not out of a sense of shared labor with the others in the department. Rather, it is too easy to find oneself stuck only in one’s own discipline and forgetting the context. Teaching the survey—both the larger geographic and chronological ones or the particular field–I have always found to be useful in remembering the bigger picture and forcing me to consider the larger context of topics in my own research. It is a skill that one must develop over time and keep fresh through repeated practice. But it is a skill that has long been considered a signature part of our profession. If you read memoirs or obituaries discussing the great historians of the early and mid-20th centuries, such as Bemis, Merk, Bailey, or Blum, for example, their skill as teachers come across as one of their greatest legacies.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
The publishing field is going through a major realignment now, and the academic presses are much less inclined to pick up works that are too narrow, and certainly ones that suffer from poor writing and too much academic jargon. I’d counsel that even before a doctoral candidate finishes he or she talk to those in the program who finished several years before to understand what the process of finding a publisher was like and what expectations there were. There should certainly be discussions with likely publishing houses, if only to get a sense of what is expected and what will not be of interest. This information can help the doctoral candidate to structure the dissertation in ways that will make it more marketable without compromising the core requirement of turning out a quality dissertation. And, to be honest, going onto the market with a contract is never a bad thing. But above all, the new PhD. must remember that history is literature, and make the finished product as polished a piece of writing as possible.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma mater, etc.?
That’s a tough one to answer, because those influences are going to be different for each individual depending on whether the career objective is to be an excellent teacher, a stellar researcher, or effective academic leader (one should aspire to lead, not just manage), or some combination of the three. But, here are my views on this some seven years into this profession. It seems to me that reputation of both the graduate program and the advisor can matter a great deal in getting one to the short list for hiring, but that is only beneficial at the beginning of the career. Few care where you came from if you cannot hack it, and few look at that part of your CV the farther in you go. Conversely, some will resent your work if you appear to have gotten a position because of your program and advisor (and not much else at the time of hiring). The popularity of the field matters, but again, one cannot coast on that alone. My own topic was not ‘popular’ but in retrospect it certainly was timely. If a place is teaching-oriented, the research background is anyway of secondary importance to the ability to teach and to be effective for the institution in the classroom. I’m also less wedded to the importance of the resources at the institution. That can certainly matter if one is working on a subject (say, East Asian literature) where you need to have the materials at your research library. But this is less the case in my area of work. Secondary literature from across the state is available through a cooperative library network, so I can obtain anything I want in a day or two, and for primary research I expect to travel to the materials (archival collections and repositories) in any event. It would be nice to have more funds from my own university, but I was trained in graduate school to expect that there would be no funds and to seek them out from external funding sources on my own. That has an additional benefit—it shows autonomy and resourcefulness, rather than dependence (on one’s own institution), and can be a catalyst for more funding later.

But what does matter if one is to be successful in this business? Being resourceful, for one. Do not expect the institution, the publisher, or anyone else to provide all the support needed for the career. Find out ways to solve problems yourself. Being connected, for another. That does not mean coming from the right background or academic institutions. Rather, it means developing a network of those working in the field, in neighboring fields, and in completely unconnected fields, and at all manner of institutions (not just the most research-oriented). This is how opportunities open up and lasting friendships are made. A third is being balanced. Turn out quality work, not a giant quantity of work. We should, it seems to me, aspire to publish things that will still be consulted two generations from now. Far too often I see work that is meant to make one look important now but which, upon closer inspection, leaves rather a lot to be desired and will not be remembered in two decades. Fourth, being reflective. What seems to constitute success when one is in graduate school is not necessarily what the version of you twenty years later would define as success. Reflect on the career as it develops. Be willing to adapt to the circumstances to make the career successful in different ways as time goes on. Reject any sense of jealousy that your peers seem to have ‘made it.’ And remember what Cornelia said about jewels and her children.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
To go out into the real world and work first. Too often I have encountered undergraduates who have internalized the education system as ‘the world’ and seek to demonstrate their ability to master it by pushing all the way through to the doctorate as if it were the best trophy of all. But that’s not a reason to get the PhD. or to become an academic. One should become an academic because, having considered all of the possible paths in life, that is the one that best suits his or her temperament. But if they are hell-bent on going through to get a Ph.D, it is imperative that we give them ‘facts of life’ early on about what the Ph.D is and what seeking one entails. We’re pushing here for an annual event with our undergraduate student organization aimed at juniors to disabuse them of the notion that obtaining a Ph.D is ‘perfection’ in the academic system, inform them of what the profession is really like, and impress upon them how to prepare now (in their junior year) for success in a graduate program.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Think laterally. If teaching at a 4-5 institution on a small salary, or perpetual adjuncting, or no job at all, is not how you envisioned the academic career, consider other places where the demonstrated intellectual attainment will still be a marketable skill. The federal government’s history offices are an excellent alternative, and one does not necessarily have to live in Washington, D.C.—there are historians all over the country working on all manner of topics. Such employment is seen as a plus among diplomatic historians seeking an academic appointment later. There are companies that specialize in contract research for clients to provide historical or contextual background on important topics, and they employ PhDs. Use network connections to find out what other job opportunities there are in the broader business world—it may be that the skill set developed for the dissertation (such as quantitative or economic analysis) is of use for looking at contemporary problems. Finally, remember that success is a personal definition—working outside of the university on rewarding projects that earns a salary is never failure. One will always be a historian, and can even do research on the side or in the free time albeit at a diminished level. Quite a few serious scholarly works have been written by those who are not even in the academy. I can think of several who, empowered by their day job, have acquired an additional skill set that permits them to analyze evidence (particularly financial and governmental data) in ways that they would never have been able to understand as a mere academic, and sometimes would never have thought to consult.