Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Blog CX (110): Eight Questions: Religious History

The next entry in the "Eight Questions" series comes from Angela Lahr.  Oxford University Press published her first book, Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares: The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelicalism (2007).  A reviewer in Church History called it a thoughtful and thought provoking analysis." Another writing in The American Historical Review, observed: "Lahr's book is significant and persuasive contribution to our understanding of the origins of political evangelicalism in the twentieth century, and it should receive a wide readership."  Lahr is currently an Adjunct Professor of U.S. History at Finger Lakes Community College.  Before that she was a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Westminster College for five years.  She was also a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University--Commerce for a year.  She earned a BA in history from the University of Evansville and recieved her MA and Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
A recent AHA study of history departments shows that the history of religion is one of three fields – along with diplomatic history and military history – to have increased over 6 percent in departmental representation over the last five years (Perspectives on History, September 2011). At its best, the history profession seeks to understand the human condition as it evolves over time. Religious historians who study the role of belief systems in societies highlight a fundamental component of the human condition. Because of its focus on what people believe, why they believe it, and the impact of those beliefs on individuals, cultures, societies, and institutions, historians who research religion can also be an asset in demonstrating the connections that exist between other fields (both topical and geographic). 
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
According to the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 28 percent of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised. Among its conclusions is the claim that “religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.” (http://religions.pewforum.org/reports) “Very diverse and extremely fluid” could also be used to describe other periods of American religious history, and explaining how and why religious landscapes differ and remain the same over time is one of the tasks of historians. This survey underscores a basic challenge for historians of religion. How does one communicate and explain the belief systems of the past to the present? This challenge is undoubtedly not new, nor is it unique to the field of the history of religion, but it continues to confront historians nonetheless.
Some of the most interesting work historians of American religion are doing recognizes the role of fluidity in understanding the belief systems of the past. These historians address the changing belief patterns of individuals and groups and evaluate the significance of those changes. Others examine the causes and consequences of the fluidity of belief systems across porous borders. Studies on religion and the Atlantic world have long taken up this challenge. In his recent book, Darren Dochuk discusses the influence of migrating Bible Belt evangelicals on Sunbelt conservatism (From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism). Other scholars have tackled the impact of immigrant groups on the religious practices of communities and on larger cultural and political forces.

How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Institutional support (or the lack thereof) can greatly impact the value of teaching on a professional career. Aside from that, teaching can be as valuable as one makes it. It can be frustrating. It can be time-consuming. It can inspire new questions and spark new areas of interest. It can improve and clarify speaking and writing skills. It can be rewarding.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
Career development is a process that is largely unique to each individual, depending on a combination of personal goals and values on one hand and the state of the field and quality of education on the other. Obviously, individuals who earn a degree in a sought-after field from a top-tier school and who are willing/able to move anywhere for a job will have more opportunities. Speaking from my own experiences, changes in my personal and professional goals have also profoundly impacted the direction of my career.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Make sure that you are well aware of the state of the job market and ask yourself if you are prepared to face the worst-case scenario after earning a Ph.D. – not being able to find your “dream job.” If you decide that you are prepared, do some serious research into the discipline, your field of interest, and the reputations of the Ph.D. programs you are considering. Then, develop a back-up plan . . . and a back-up plan for your back-up plan. Don’t stop there. Make some efforts at working toward your “Plan B” so that if you do need to fall back on it you won’t have to start from scratch.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Be realistic. At some point you should assess available opportunities outside of academia and take stock of the skills that you have acquired in attaining your Ph.D. Which of those are transferable? Focus on highlighting those skills to find employment elsewhere. Earning an additional degree is always an option, but other well-known opportunities include positions in public history, the government, secondary teaching, library work, and college administration (among others). Be prepared to be patient. You may have to start out in an entry-level job.

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