Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Blog CXI (111): Eight Questions: African American History

The next post in the Eight Questions series comes from Chad Williams who is an associate professor of history at Hamilton College.  Williams specializes in modern U.S. and African American history. He did his undergraduate work at the University of California, Los Angeles.  He then earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. Williams' specific teaching and research interests include World War I, African Americans in the military, war and society, African American intellectual history and the African diaspora. His first book Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) won the 2011 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award from the Organization of American Historians and the 2011 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History. This book studies how the First World War helped shape African Americans' identity as Americans.  One reviewer noted: "Williams’s study does an excellent job of weaving these complex ideas in a clear narrative. The narrative is written in a clear and accessible way."  A recipient of a 2011 Dean’s Scholarly Achievement Award, he has published articles and book reviews in numerous leading journals and collections. Williams has earned fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Ford Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He is currently completing a study of W. E. B. Du Bois's historical writings on World War I.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The greatest strength of African American history continues to be its methodological and conceptual breadth. African American history has always been at the cutting edge of developments in the historical profession. The field of African American history is characterized by intellectual creativity and the unique ability of historians to craft new frameworks for understanding the black experience. For example, Thomas Holt's recent book Children of Fire offers a fresh take on the African American history survey by eschewing a traditional linear narrative and instead adopting a generational approach. African American history pushes the boundaries for how we view and study history more broadly by revealing the full human complexity of peoples of African descent.

What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
The dearth of tenure-track employment opportunities remains the biggest issue facing the profession. I think this challenge is especially acute for scholars of African American history. On the one hand, there is fierce competition over the small number of positions offered each year in African American history, unfortunately leaving many highly qualified candidates without employment. At the same time, job searches in United States history often do not give specialists in African American history a serious look. This is due to the continued, and quite frankly, pernicious assumption that African American history somehow falls outside the scope of American history proper. I cannot keep track of how many times I have been asked, "Can you teach an American history survey course?" The most significant issue facing the field of African American history is thus the continued need to not be seen merely as a "sub-field" of American history but as absolutely central to how we think about history as a whole.  
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
The current vogue of the "long civil rights movement" has certainly spawned a wealth of recent scholarship that has broadened the temporal and geographic scope of the African American struggle for equal rights and citizenship. However, the proliferation of “long civil rights” scholarship also threatens to obfuscate as much as its reveals. In the search for agency, resistance and activism, historians of the “long civil rights movement” run the risk of losing sight of the full complexities of black life. Indeed, the everyday actions and daily motivations of African Americans have been shaped by a multitude of factors, the quest for civil rights among them, but not always the most determinative.
Some of the most exciting work that both addresses and goes beyond the “long civil rights movement” framework examines black life during the interwar period, the era of the so-called “New Negro.” Historians have explored the seemingly familiar terrain of the post-World War I years and shed new light on the complexity of the black experience. Books such as Davarian Baldwin's Chicago's New Negroes, Anastasia Curwood's Stormy Weather, Erin Chapman's Prove It On Me, and Minkah Makalani’s In the Cause of Freedom have offered wonderful reinterpretations of issues such as black migration, urban consumer culture, African American marriage, gender and sexual politics, and radical black internationalism.

How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
I view teaching as incredibly important. A small liberal arts college will obviously emphasize teaching more than a research institution in hiring and promotion decisions. But irrespective of the institution, quality teaching can only serve as a boon to ones career, while poor teaching may in fact be a detriment. I also find that teaching helps sharpen my scholarship, allowing me to test out new ideas and think them through with my students. So beyond simply career development, teaching should be a key component of your intellectual development as a historian.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Given the current realities of the market, establishing a publication record should ideally begin in graduate school. While finishing the dissertation and obtaining your Ph.D. is obviously the main goal, I would encourage doctoral students to consider opportunities for early publication. Aiming to publish a peer reviewed article is ideal, even if it is not in a top tier journal. Don't waste time waiting months for a reply and the strong possibility of rejection. Most important, begin the process of transforming your doctoral thesis into a book. Even before embarking on the exhausting journey of securing a publisher, seriously think about what type of book you want to write, as opposed to simply how you plan to revise your dissertation.  
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
Of all the numerous intangibles that can affect an academic career, institutional support looms large. This can encompass a number of different things, such as funding for research, resources for course development, assistance in spousal hiring, and the active promotion of a collegial environment. In the case of scholars of African American history, the importance of institutional support goes hand in hand with the issue of intellectual community. We all ideally want to work in environments with supportive colleagues whom we can share ideas with, learn from, and who take genuine interest in our scholarship. Finding such a place can be a challenge for African American historians, who often must look beyond their place of employment for a sense of community.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
I have never flat out told an undergraduate interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in history to think again. If someone has a true passion for the study of history I would wholeheartedly encourage them to consider graduate school. With that said, they must have a clear understanding of the challenges that lay ahead, especially the gloomy reality that immediately securing a tenure-track appointment will be extremely difficult. I would therefore emphasize that it is no longer tenable to approach graduate study, in history or any other discipline, with a narrow set of career goals. Think creatively. Graduate school should be seen as a once in a lifetime opportunity to mature as a holistic scholar and develop a broad array of skill sets that can be put to use both inside and outside of academia.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
The inability of new Ph.D. recipients to consider employment opportunities beyond the traditional tenure-track appointment in a history department route is a failure of the current system of graduate training. The AHA's recent focus on encouraging historians, especially recent Ph.D's to consider careers beyond academia narrowly defined is welcome and long overdue. Because graduate school lends towards specialization, most Ph.D. holders do not even realize they are qualified for jobs outside of academia. Working with museums, foundations, and teaching at the secondary level are all more than viable options. Curriculum development is a potentially exciting opportunity as well. While various aspects of African American history are now regularly taught at the secondary level, many teachers lack both the knowledge base and resources to effectively convey the complexities of their subject matter. There is a need for qualified historians to engage in this type of work.

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