Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Blog CVII (107): Eight Questions: Early Modern Europe

The next entry in the Eight Question series comes from Isaac Land.  He received his B.A. from Oberlin College and his M.A. and PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He was a Fulbright Scholar in London. He has taught at Wayne State University and Texas A&M University--Commerce.  He is currently an associate professor of history at Indiana State University. His teaching and research interests have focused on the intersection of national and international histories, and on a related topic, the history of sailors and port cities. His first book is War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). He has also edited a volume of essays, Enemies of Humanity: The Nineteenth-Century War on Terrorism  (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). He is currently writing a methods textbook aimed at senior undergraduates and junior graduate students. 

What is the greatest strength of your field?  In the history profession?
One of the most exciting and unexpected developments of the last 10 years has been the emergence of vast, searchable databases.  This includes subscriber-only digitized books (ECCO, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online) but also court records (Tim Hitchcock’s nearly 200,000 transcripts of criminal trials, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ ) and the slave trade website, http://www.slavevoyages.org out of Emory.  Remarkably, both of these are accessible to the public without a subscription.  It will be interesting to see how the opportunities presented by these (and future) databases transform graduate student research and also the way that we teach methods courses.  I am not a number-cruncher, but clearly anyone who is going to use these vast databases in a serious way needs to learn some social science methodology.  Check out the program for January’s American Historical Association meeting in Chicago and notice how many technology-driven projects are out there now.  Crowd-sourcing?  Text mining?  Geographical Information Systems (GIS)?  It’s a brave new world, folks.

What is the biggest issue facing your field?  The history profession?
There has never been a better time to be interested in history (see above), but the job market for people who call themselves “historians” is bleak.  Nonetheless, conferences are well-attended by young graduate students (I just hosted the Midwest Conference on British Studies here in Terre Haute, which drew 140 people, mostly people in their 20s presenting their first conference paper), and the fascination of the subject matter remains a powerful draw.  In an economy in which people are coming to expect to have multiple careers, maybe we should encourage the young to pursue a well-paying career in another field, saving money with the intention of “retiring” to follow the Ph.D. path in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, paying hard cash to do so.  Without being a financial Luddite (I will not join Ezra Pound in condemning money-lending as the root of all evil), perhaps we need to move away from the notion that we’ll borrow lots of money today in the vague hope of being able to pay it all back with interest tomorrow.  I would also endorse the idea of shortening Ph.D. programs as a way of lowering the overall cost.  It’s a bitter truth that you reach the job market, doctorate in hand, panting with exhaustion, only to be told that a doctorate by itself won’t get you a job anyway.  (We seem to be moving toward a model where it’s the doctorate plus the published book that earns you credibility.  So why the lengthy Ph.D. program, then?)

What is the most interesting work being done in your field?  Why?
In the past, debates about early modern Europe often centered on the chronology: What counts as modern, anyway? (Ask a medievalist some time, and they’ll give you an earful about how the Renaissance is overrated.)  What forces drove “modernity”?  More recently, the geographical categories have come into question as well.  Does “the modern” arise out of Europe, or out of Europe’s interactions with the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Americas?  It is a sign of the times that recent work by prominent figures in the field (Natalie Zemon Davis, Lynn Hunt, Carlo Ginzburg, and Simon Schama) situates Europe in a global context and engages with new conceptual frameworks such as borderlands theory and Atlantic history.
The lively debate over books like Kenneth Pomeranz’ The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the World Economy and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe decenters Europe in one sense, but reminds us that countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands remain an indispensable reference point, even for scholars who do not “work” on European history as such.  A glance at the editorial board of the Journal of Early Modern History confirms this trend.  Notable “crossover” books like Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World and Anne Salmond’s anthropologically-informed The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas show that this oceanic, transnational approach to the European experience is a way to make what used to be called “early modern Europe” accessible and intellectually exciting to a wide readership.

How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
This really depends on whether you are hoping to work at a small liberal arts college or a major research university.  If you are interviewing with both kinds of schools, just remember to go easy on the teaching when you are talking with the research institution so that you do not get typecast as someone who’s “soft” on the research end of things.  That said, everyone values teaching, so don’t speak dismissively about it, even if you need to move on quickly to what your second and third book will be about! (Yes, the research universities expect to hear about second and third books in the interview.  Not unreasonable, given that some schools have a two-book standard for tenure now, so do not get stuck on talking just about your dissertation.)
            You may be surprised at how much the communication skills that you learn in teaching will help you give more effective conference papers, write better book proposals, and so forth.  It’s all about explaining what you think is important to people who don’t know much about your particular topic… and whose attention may waver.  Odd that the same techniques work with sleepy 100-level students and a room full of brilliant people with doctorates, but maybe all audiences have certain traits in common?

What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
In History (unlike many other fields), journal articles are good but books are the coin of the realm.  Publish an article or maybe two in the best journal you can, but then concentrate on the book manuscript.  Do not let anything else distract you.
Get letters of introduction if you want to approach a publisher.  Watch out!  A number of prestigious publishers have submission guidelines on their website inviting “cold call” book proposals, but they throw them in the trash if they don’t come already recommended by someone known to the editor.  Cultivate big names in your field, or perhaps someone who has published a book with that editor recently, and get them to open the door for you.

What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
People who work with a well-known advisor, do a good job of networking (both within and outside their graduate program), and find a way to publish just one article in a major peer-reviewed journal within their field either before receiving the Ph.D., or within about 12 months of receiving it, can do quite well.  I got my doctorate in 1999 and a number of people from my cohort at the University of Michigan are at places like Cornell, Stanford, Duke, and a host of flagship state research institutions like the University of Illinois.  It can all work out quite well, but do not assume that a letter from your advisor or just the name of your degree-granting institution will magically open doors for you, because they won’t.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
One might think that following the stock market crash of 2008, students would be ultra-practical, but I am surprised at how many young people I encounter who have reached the opposite conclusion: The job market is lousy all around, so I might as well pursue my dreams.  Just in the last year, I have met a student who changed his major from Accounting to History and another who dropped out of an elite engineering program at a college down the road to pursue History instead.  (Another student showed up in my methods class after his ex-wife advised him to go back to school and major in History.  One might wonder about the source of this advice, but he did quite well, so maybe she meant it sincerely.)  I find that it is difficult to discourage students with horror stories about the academic job market; they imagine that they would be happy adjuncting at a community college without job security or health care benefits. I think part of what attracts them is the prestige of pursuing “the life of the mind.”  (People who admire laws, sausages, and doctorates should not inquire too closely about where they come from.)  I show my students some grad school syllabi: a book a week in every course, plus additional material, plus whatever you are reading for the paper that you write.  That puts off some people, and it’s wonderful that the Web allows this generation of young scholars to conduct a detailed reconnaissance of grad programs before even considering applying.
            If you must pursue a doctorate, do not take out any loans to do so.  There are some elite programs that will give you something approaching a free ride if they admit you.  To be blunt, if you aren’t good enough to get into those sorts of programs, you’ll probably do poorly on the job market with your less-than-prestigious degree.  How will you pay the loans back then?

What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
It will sound hollow coming from someone who is comfortably tenured, but not getting an academic job may be a blessing in disguise.  Many people imagine that an academic career is intellectually stimulating, but too often we send overqualified people to teach elementary skills and concepts to students who are not especially committed to the learning process (recall the Robin Williams character in Good Will Hunting—we don’t all end up at MIT).  Frankly, we send people to college at a time in their lives when they are not very contemplative, so even smart college students from strong academic backgrounds are often underachievers because their minds are on, well, other things.
Pursuing research can also be very isolating work (solitary reading about things that do not interest anyone you know, except colleagues at conferences—and that’s on a good day).  Think about what you value most in life and what will bring you into contact with lots of people who share those values.  In 2008, I helped out with flood relief efforts in my community (my wife works for the American Red Cross) and it was really fun to be part of a team and see how appreciative people were to receive simple things: bottles of clean water, toys for their kids, and so forth.   Maybe you could work for a nonprofit in an arena that matters to you.    When I saw the movie Love Actually, I envied the people who worked in the London office that was all about providing famine relief.  I know every job has its office politics and frustrations, but at the end of the day, wouldn’t it be nice to have a simple explanation for what it is that you do—and have spent your day with people who understand the purpose of your work?
A bright student of mine is quitting his job as a manager at a gourmet sandwich shop to pursue a Ph.D. in History.  He has every right to pursue his dream—I told him he’s going through his midlife crisis a little early, in his 30s—but the market for a really good sandwich is much larger than the market for sophisticated books (and the people who write them).   There is a local food renaissance going on in the United States and many other countries.  We need more small farms to raise healthy produce and livestock.  Work the land and philosophize in your spare time.  Voltaire would approve.

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