Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blog CVIII (108): Eight Questions: Revolutionary America

  The next essay in the “Eight Questions” series comes from Peter Messer, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University.  At MSU he serves as the graduate coordinator and teaches classes on Colonial America and Revolutionary America.  His main interest lies in the theory and practice of politics in eighteenth-century America.  He is the author of  Stories of Independence: Identity, Ideology, and History in Eighteenth-Century America (Northern Illinois University Press, 2005).  In that book, he traces the emergence of distinctively American attitudes about society, politics, and government.During the colonial period, provincial historians celebrated the autonomous origins and local institutions of their communities as a way of arguing for greater independence from Great Britain. Imperial historians, on the other hand, stressed allegiance to the mother country and the English institutions that continued to sustain them. When relations with Britain reached a crisis, these visions of provincial pride and imperial loyalty came into open and irreconcilable conflict. The resulting debate produced not only a declaration of independence but a new political order grounded on the provincial vision of the origins and progress of America.  Messer's next major project explores the relationship between committees and crowds in Revolutionary America. It focuses on the ways in which Patriot leaders organized opposition to Great Britain and coerced and cajoled a reluctant population to embrace a cause to which many of them felt only tangentially connected or concerned.  He did his undergraduate work at the University of Oregon and earned a Ph.D. from Rutgers University.  Prior to working at Mississippi State, he taught at Texas A&M University—Commerce. 
What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The greatest strength of the field is its diversity; scholars are taking a wider perspective on what counts as history (emotions and senses) while continuing to investigate the margins of the traditional narrative of United States History (race, class, and gender), and expanding our understanding of some of the better studied subjects (the coming of American independence, the ratification of the constitution, the various electoral controversies, wars, the rise of capitalism, the rise of the plantation economy). Of late, I should note, it has done the first two with more consistency and focus than the last one, and I think this is true of the historical profession in general. We have become very adept at expanding our sense of what history is and who is included in it so that we know more about our past and present (though some historians may still subscribed to the quaint notion that they are only writing about the past). The result is that we have a much better sense of what these supposedly transformative events in the history of the United States meant to the people who experienced them and the degree to which they were, in fact, transformative.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
In the broadest sense, for both, the lack of jobs. One relatively unique problem that faces the field of Revolutionary America and the history of the Early American Republic lies in the contemporary political fascination with the period. We are constantly bombarded with politicians and social commentators who want to compare themselves to the founding generation to argue that the nation reconstitute itself along the lines envisioned by the founders. This moment of contemporary relevance offers both an opportunity and a challenge to historians of the period. It is an opportunity because it has the potential to allow historians of the period to speak to and be heard by the general public, and to provide meaningful commentary on past events and a useful perspective on current ones. That opportunity, however, becomes a challenge when we realize that in order to do so historians will have to become conversant again in the stories that people outside of the academy want to hear. To be sure scholars have continued to produce work on the subject of “the Founders,” and the war for independence—David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, Pauline Maier’s Ratification, Richard Beeman, Plain Honest Men, Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty—but if we really want to reclaim these subjects for history then they will need a sustained reexamination from a broad cross-section of the professional. Alfred Young’s treatment of Deborah Sampson in Masquerade, for example, revisits well covered ground from a new and different perspective. Benjamin Carp’s and David Fowler’s recent work on the Boston Tea Party and Sons of Liberty, respectively, offer other illustrations of how we might revitalize some of the traditional historical topics much out of fashion with academe, but a subject of continued fascination outside of it. In truth, nothing can prevent self-serving presentists of whatever stripe from appropriating the past for their own ends (they have been doing so since Thucydides at least); nonetheless, historians should remember the emotional investment people have in the myths of the nation’s founding and to treat that investment with a respect and diligence commensurate with that investment. This moment in time offers historians of the Revolution and Early American Republic who do that a useful opportunity to make a meaningful contribution not simply the profession but to civic discourse as well.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
I’m going to cop out a little bit and say that the most interesting work being done in the field is the most interesting work being done in the field. The reason I say it that what is most interesting is always the work itself. You can look at Thomas Slaughter’s recent biography of John Woolman and be drawn into a compelling narrative that raises an important question about the role of ethics and morality in history and history-writing. You can also look at Peter Silver’s book on white/Indian relations in Pennsylvania and find it a compelling argument about how racial identities are shaped in the late eighteenth century. Annette Gordon Reed, on the other hand, provides a fairly standard biography, but of people who are not usually and have not been the subject of biography. Finally, you could consider Kathleen Brown’s book on the subject of cleanliness that offers a history of something that until recently we not necessarily considered having a history. So there are four very different books, each compelling and thought provoking in its own way, but really having nothing in common other than being well researched and well written. And yes, I realize that of the books I listed only one even remotely fits into the genre of big stories about the big events that historians have lost control over, which I think only underscores my point about how historians have ceded that ground to other writers.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
It depends entirely on where you work. Some schools take it seriously, some say they do, and others openly ignore it. So the moral of that story is to figure out what your institution wants and act accordingly. If you do not yet have an institution, just remember there are more jobs at schools that have to value teaching than there are at schools that can only value research and devise your entry on the job market accordingly. Also, and having done two searches this year I am reminded of how many people do not do this; try to figure out what the school to which you are applying values, and craft your self-presentation accordingly, unless of course you will only take one type of job, but that is a luxury most people do not have.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
The flip answer is whatever people like. The way the issue is unfolding here at MSU is that anything that is evidently and documentably peer reviewed is OK; the caveat, of course, is that especially at the level of the administration people are obsessed with documenting the impact of a journal and for the most part new electronic formats won’t have the impact yet. Then there is the fact that people are still uneasy about new formats, so you do not want to make yourself appear too novel in that regard. Now to contradict myself, to a point; it is clear that the old style of monograph publishing is on the wane; students can’t read a whole book or won’t and publishers are increasingly skeptical of the model of pages between hard covers. A new Ph.D. would be well advised to prepare for a shift in format that will occur in their professional life time to a style of publishing that will emphasize more interactive content and formats, and minimize traditional journals and books. If you are prepared you will be at the head of the wave and not get washed out by it.

What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
I imagine it differs as to what you want as a career; at the beginning the most important factor is the popularity of your field and the reputation of your alma matter; obviously, that is not true for all people at all times, but if you had to bet on something I would advise those categories. As your career develops both become less important, what matters is what you are able to do as universities value producers. At that point school resources become important. If schools can support your research that will enable you to progress faster in the field than if you have to rely solely on outside sources (funders like evidence that the school believes in you before they fund you). Where does family fit in? A family can provide the spring board for a career or it can direct your career in directions you may not have envisioned, or perhaps desired. So the flip answer is that it depends entirely on how you choose to use it.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Don’t do it unless you can get a fellowship and not take out any loans, and are comfortable with the idea that you may well end up selling insurance anyway. I would also stress, as above, that students familiarize themselves as much as possible with alternative outlets for historical research and alternative methods for publishing and reaching an audience.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
My advice would be to teach where you can and to continue to try and find venues for your work; the key to eventually finding your way to an academic job is to appear to remain engaged with the profession. I would also recommend that people scour the web (or anywhere else) for employment opportunities that do not tie you to a university. The government and the private sector both employ historians, though the work is not always what you would have prepared to do as a graduate student. A Google search of “Beyond Academe” turns up a bunch of sites including one dedicated to historians looking for work outside of academe. For better or worse I’ve not yet needed to use such a site, so I can’t attest to its actual utility, but in theory it seems worthwhile.

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