Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Blog CXIII (113): Eight Questions: Canadian History

Nic Clarke received his Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa in 2009. He is a sessional instructor at both the Royal Military College of Canada and the University of Ottawa.  His research primarily focuses on the history of disability in Canada. His current work explores the different perceptions of martial ability and disability held by lay people, the medical profession, and the military during the 1910s. He is using Canadian Expeditionary Forces enlistment papers and service records as a means to identify common health problems afflicting Canadians.  It is the first study to provide a detailed description of the mechanics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force medical examination, the evolution of physical standards for service, and the increasingly complex categories of fitness developed by military authorities as the Great War continued.  He has had articles published in The International Journal of the History of Sport, First World War Studies, Canadian Military History, Histoire Sociale/Social History and BC Studies.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
“Canadian History” is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of fields of historical research that are founded on the experiences of the myriad peoples that have lived (and continue to live) within the boundaries of Canada. As a result, the field of Canadian History is not only vibrant, but also constantly expanding into new and exciting areas of research. In relation, the growth of interdisciplinary studiessuch as the Canadian Century Research Infrastructurethat ally historians with other academics have provided important new approaches, viewpoints, and tools for the study of Canada’s past.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
The biggest issueand this has been developing for some timeis the ever increasing devaluation of the discipline of history. Historians must shoulder some responsibility for this reality. Too often we have been content to keep our research within the guild, rather than engaging with the wider public. As a result, large sections of the public have little idea of what we do. Concomitantly, the profession is facing a general devaluation of academia, especially in the field of the Arts. This is evinced in Canada by the beliefheld by a number of different sectorsthat academic research must be utilitarian or have direct commercial applications. Few of the people who hold this belief see Canadian History as utilitarian beyond, perhaps, a vague idea that Canadians should know some ‘important’ dates, individuals and events from Canada’s past. This position both overlooks the fact that historical research has multiple utilities outside the ‘ivory tower’, and negatively impacts on the support provided to the discipline. Take for example: (1) the Government of Canada’s announcement in the 2009 Federal Budget that “[s]cholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [were to be] focussed on business-related degrees”; (2) the slashing of the Council’s budget by $14 million in 2012 Federal Budget; and (3) the repeated funding cuts to Library and Archives Canada –Canada’s national library and archives.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
All of it! I am constantly amazed and enlightened by the myriad different studiesranging from work on Canada’s First Nations through explorations of childhood to reinterpretations of Canada’s experience of the two world wars and beyondthat are sprouting in the field of Canadian History.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
I would argue more valuable than most people realize – even though our profession lives by the mantra of “publish or perish”. Members of history departments are, as a general rule, expected to teach. Hiring committees look at teaching experience when vetting candidates for positions. In some cases short-listed candidates’ teaching skills are directly tested by hiring committees. Therefore, a strong teaching dossier and extensive teaching experience can greatly aid one’s quest to gain a position.

More generally, teaching provides you with assets that can be employed in your professional life far beyond the classroom. For example, the information presentation skills (and confidence) one gains from lecturing undergraduate students can be leveraged when presenting conference papers, public lectures, and media interviews. You can also gain important new insight into your own research when preparing lectures or discussing material with students. Many academics learn as much from their students as they teach them.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Book, book, book! Rightly or wrongly, many hiring committees tend to look much more favourably on those candidates with a book or a manuscript than on those candidates without one. This does not mean that you should stop publishing articles (especially if you are publishing them in well-regarded journals), going to conferences, or teaching (all of which are valuable assets in the job hunter’s quiver). Rather, you should focus your energies to ensure you get your manuscript completed as quickly as possible.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
This is a very difficult question to answer because the issues that influenceboth positively and negativelyone’s career development vary from individual to individual. Even when two individuals face the same issues, those issues can have widely disparate affects on their careers depending on a wide variety factors (down to, and including, the temperament of said individuals). That said, I will comment on the question of one’s alma mater and family.

While having completed your Ph.D. at a highly ranked institution can not hurt your career, ultimately it is your contributions that will carry more weight and get you noticed. In other words, your actions will influence your career development more than the institution from which you gained your Ph.D.

I have two small children and I would be lying if I said they did not impact on the time I have available to write and research. However, I believe the benefits of family far outweigh the disadvantages. The support from a partner, children, and wider family provide cannot be overvalued, nor can the fact that they stand as a constant (and at times loud) reminder that there is more to life than your research. Both the support and the reminder are immeasurably important to career development. Family support will help you through the evitable tough times you will face as you travel down the rocky road that is an academic career. The reminder will save you from burnout.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Make sure that you know what you are getting yourself into. Doing research for your Ph.D. will not be the history equivalent of The Big Bang Theory. While you will have fun and meet a lot of interesting people, you will also do a heck of a lot of work, most of which you will conduct by yourself. (That is not really shown on TBBT, now is it?) Doing a Ph.D. can be very lonely, not to mention frustrating and alienating. In all likelihood many of your friends and family will not understand what you are experiencing, no matter how hard they try. A few of them might also question the value of what you are doing altogether. Others will wonder why you cannot just finish this “Ph.D. thing” in a year or so. In relation, doing a Ph.D. can place significant stresses on your relationship with your partner. I was very fortunate to have a very supportive wife. However, our relationship was still negatively affected by my (ultimately successful) attempt to complete all my coursework and comprehensive studies in a year and a half. We barely saw each other.

Do not expect to gain a tenure-track position immediately after gaining your Ph.D. While some lucky individuals do graduate from Ph.D. straight into a tenure-track positionand I know one of themmost people do not. Expect to be unemployed or underemployed for sometime. Also expect, if necessary, to work outside your field altogether.

What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
First, do not get down hearted and do not give up. The current economic climate is tough and that fact, combined with the large number of new Ph.D.s being minted every year, means that competition is fierce. As such, you have to expect rejections, and often quite a few of them (I’ve had 20+ so far). Keep building your academic dossier with publications andif possiblepart-time teaching gigs. Sure it is not the tenure-track position we all dream of, but a well-developed dossier helps you get on track to gaining such a position. Second, be honest with yourself. Do you really want to work in academia? Both public and private employers highly value the research, analysis, writing skills, and experience that you have. Often the jobs these employers are looking to fill with someone with your skill set pay well and provide intellectual challenges (and, therefore, job satisfaction). Importantly, taking such jobs does not require you to completely divorce yourself from academia. You can still research, publish, and teach. Sure this work will be conducted on your own time, but it leaves the door open for a return to academia – often with valuable new skills and knowledge– should the right position come along.

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