Monday, April 23, 2012

Blog CXV (115): Eight Questions: Southern History

Jason Phillips is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University. He holds a BA in history from the University of Richmond, an MA in history from Wake Forest University, and a PhD in history from Rice University. Phillips works at the intersection of cultural, intellectual, and military history. His first book, Diehard Rebels: The Culture of Invincibility (University of Georgia Press, 2007) explains the deeply ingrained attitudes and wartime experiences that shaped the reality of white southerners who fought to the bitter end, resisted Reconstruction, and embodied the Lost Cause myth. His articles have appeared in numerous journals and essay collections. The Organization of American Historians selected his Journal of Southern History article, titled “The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence,” as one of the ten best American history essays of 2008. He is working on a second monograph, Prophecy of Blood: Anticipation and the American Civil War, that studies American forecasts of the war to understand how widespread perceptions of the future shaped collective actions during the conflict and social memory after it. Phillips is also editing a collection of essays, Master Narratives: History, Storytelling, and the Postmodern South, that showcases eleven southernists who work at the intersection of southern fiction and history. In recent years a willingness to see southern worlds that exceed binaries of race, religion, gender, geography, and class has greatly enriched southern studies. Master Narratives begins the difficult task of transcending another rigid dichotomy, modernism and postmodernism. Louisiana State University Press is publishing the book in spring 2013.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
Southern history is strong in many ways. As someone who also does Civil War history, I love the chronological breadth of southern history. Civil War historians are embracing the broader era of the war, as evident in the new journal, the Journal of the Civil War Era, but Civil War history is still a blink of time compared to the centuries of southern history. This chronological breadth makes southern history a huge field of diverse historians who are all devoted to explaining the same, enigmatic region. One way southern historians have tackled this challenge is by employing interdisciplinary categories of analysis. The field’s cross pollination with literary studies has always been strong, but more recently, southern historians have borrowed from anthropology and archaeology in fascinating ways. But if I have to select one, greatest strength, I would have to pick the Journal of Southern History. Southern historians are fortunate to have one of the most prestigious academic journals as their own. The Journal pushes the field without succumbing to faddishness and explores the South through a lens that reflects larger historical problems in American history.

For the profession, the enormity of our subject—humanity’s past—places historians in a unique position within academia. Historians work in the humanities, the social sciences, business and economics, engineering and technology, and the natural sciences. We practice an art and a science. Few professions touch as many fields of knowledge. This breadth forces historians to be generalists despite the increasing specialization of academia. Historians who study diverse places, times, and subjects still engage each other professionally, whereas other disciplines have become so specialized that they fracture into sub-disciplines with methodologies and theories that no longer sustain a single disciplinary dialogue.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
For roughly twenty years, scholarship on historical memory invigorated southern history by importing analytical frameworks from anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and literary criticism that showed the relationship between social constructions of the past and contemporary power dynamics. Memory gave southern historians a new, more sophisticated way to study not only nostalgia and myth but also race, class, and gender in the region. As an analytical category, memory also connected southern history to trends in new cultural history. Plenty of collective and collected memories of the southern past remain unexplored, but the field has already derived as much energy and momentum from the subject that it is likely to acquire. The biggest issue facing the field is finding a replacement for historical memory that can reinvigorate the field and connect it to burgeoning fields and inquiries across the discipline.

Presentism not only contaminates the questions and arguments that historians articulate, it inflates the importance of the recent past at the expense of older eras. On the job market we see presentism with the proliferation of positions for twentieth-century history and the near extinction of positions for Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern history. Historians are drastically shrinking their own field of inquiry perhaps to prove their relevance in a time when funding for higher education diminishes, but the impact of elevating the history of now above older periods could be disastrous for the profession as a whole. The discipline must support vibrant work that sparks discourse across centuries as well as across the globe.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
Southern historians have imported many of the “hot” topics that have energized the discipline in recent years. These trends often stretch the time or space of inquiries, like reconsidering the “long” civil rights movement or viewing the South from a transnational perspective. Other hot topics like southern environmental history seem long overdue but nonetheless offer interesting conclusions by showing how the history of an “exceptional” region relates to the historiography of American environmental history, a field that established its central debates and narrative by focusing first on New England and the Midwest. Recent interdisciplinary work in the field is also very fascinating. Archeological work on plantations and slave markets has provided a new understanding of slave life for example. Works that rely on the digital humanities are showing how southern historians can ask, argue, and share new research through new technologies. Southern historians’ long association with literary criticism and fiction gives them a unique opportunity to challenge the form and not just the content of historiography. James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro (1994) still points a way to more sophisticated work on how southerners have grappled with the uncertainty of knowledge. I participated in a conference at the German Historical Institute where historians analyzed uncertain knowledge in American history and many of them set their work in the South.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching experience is a requirement for success on the job market. Most positions in higher education will value teaching as much or more than research, so graduate students need to acquire teaching experience in a variety of courses and formats. Beyond the job market, teaching is valuable for professional development because the craft of teaching hones historians’ ability to tell stories, present arguments, engage historiography, write and revise work, and explore diverse fields.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Publish articles in the top peer-reviewed journals in your field. In southern history, there’s only one—the Journal of Southern History. But if your subfield is chronological or thematic, you could seek publication in those areas as well. Articles in major journals will be read by a wider professional audience than other publications, including essays in anthologies and even your book.
This does not mean that publishing articles matters more than revising and publishing your dissertation. The sequence of publishing articles before the book will increase the quality and quantity of your research. Working with journal editors and referees will sharpen your work before it becomes a book, and well placed articles advertize your forthcoming book to best advantage. Plus, from a practical perspective, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to pull articles out of a book manuscript after it as has been submitted to a press.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?

For historians, the reputation of the alma matter is the least important factor and the others vary greatly for individuals and fields. Family is an independent variable; if you have one or highly value your extended family, the location of a job or the pressures to pay bills can be major factors at the start of your career. If you can postpone having children until you have a tenure track job and are sure you can surpass the standards for promotion and tenure, that’s the safest decision. If not, you’re taking major risks and missing lots of sleep in order to start a career and a family simultaneously. If family is not a major part of your life, school resources and the popularity of your field may determine how, where, and when your career begins.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?

If you love history, few career options are more appealing than spending years reading, researching, and discussing the past with great scholars. Start with an MA program to get a taste for graduate school. Even if you don’t continue for a Ph.D., earning the MA will open career opportunities for you. If you’re still interested in working on a Ph.D. after the MA experience, target eight to ten programs that are strong in your field. Contact potential advisors and current graduate students at those programs. Take a test prep course to maximize your GRE scores, because unfortunately those numbers matter. If you’re accepted into a Ph.D. program, pursue the degree only if you receive a fellowship or assistantship from a solid program. If good universities are not willing to invest serious money in your education at this point, your chances of eventually succeeding on the job market may be slim. You should not consider going into major debt to earn a history Ph.D. Even if you get a good job after graduate school, your salary will not erase that debt.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?

Everyone who finds a job in a history department has a losing record on the job market, so try to stay positive. There are many rewarding careers available to a new Ph.D. in history. Archives, museums, publishers, foundations, secondary schools, the government, and a host of other employers seek professionals with the skills that a new Ph.D, has mastered in graduate school. Consider all your options instead of fixating on a standard academic career.

If you still want to work in a history department, there are many ways to stay professionally engaged while hunting for a job (teaching whatever courses you can grab, participating at professional conferences, applying for post-docs and grants), but the best thing you can do is publish. And not all publications are equal. As I pointed out above, you should publish articles in the top peer-reviewed journals in your field. Find courses to teach to pay the bills and hone your pedagogy, but don’t assume that teaching will be viewed as proof that you are still engaged in the profession. The surest way to demonstrate professional development and activity is by turning the strongest chapters of your dissertation into articles at major journals. Don’t undersell your work by submitting it to obscure journals or small anthologies; once you’ve published those gems you can’t submit them to better journals.

Meanwhile, stay ready and strengthen your application. Share your cover letter with people who have recently succeeded on the market for advice on how to make it stronger. Review your teaching portfolio and writing sample. Reconsider who is writing letters of recommendation for you. You need a strong letter from your advisor, so keep him/her updated on your work—you want that letter to be current. Strengthen your relationship with other scholars by building new professional relationships and seeking new references. One of these relationships might get you a job in a history department; academia can be a small world after all. Work on your interviewing skills. Practice your job talk in front of an audience, and schedule mock interviews with colleagues and mentors who are willing to help. If those are not options, interview yourself in the mirror to polish your oral expression. Once you’ve gone the extra mile and done everything in your power to strengthen your application, you can face the fate of the job market with the comforting thought that you have done everything you could.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your comments on "presentism"--I think this may be the first time I've heard an historian of the U.S. admit such a thing in public! Bravo.

    John Hosler
    Associate Professor of History
    Morgan State University