Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Blog CXVI (116): Twentieth Century U.S. History

PictureThe next entry in the “Eight Questions” series comes from Timothy Stanley. He is an associate fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford. He previously taught at the University of Sussex and was the Leverhulme Research Fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Stanley earned his Ph.D. in history at Trinity College, University of Cambridge in 2008. His main areas of interest are religion, conservatism, elections, and culture.

Book cover imageHe is the author of Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party's Soul, and a biography of conservative commentator Pat Buchanan: The Crusader: the Life and Times of Pat Buchanan. He also co-wrote: The End of Politics: Realignment and the Battle for the Centre Ground and edited the anthology: Making Sense of American Liberalism: Taking the Pulse of the Left in Contemporary Politics. Stanley focuses his writing on biography and narrative, and approaches his subjects on their own terms. He interested not in what he think motivates a subject but what they think motivates them. This approach has enabled him to get close to both liberals and conservatives. He uses their stories to draw a social history of politics, and truly believes that history is made by great men and women, although many of them have started out rather modestly. His next project is a history of politics in Hollywood.

Stanley has also written as a journalists, writing for magazines on both sides of the Atlantic such as The Atlantic, History Today, The Spectator, and National Review. He has also written for British newspapers like The Guardian. In 2012 he covered the U.S. presidential election for the Daily Telegraph. His personal website is: http://www.timothystanley.co.uk/

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The great benefit of studying or teaching US 20th century is that there’s a lot of public interest in it. Depending on how close to 2012 your field goes, you may have to spend a lot of time justifying why it’s really “history” to other historians. But for the average student, this is the kind of subject that has immediacy and relevance. Your classes will always be well subscribed and publishers will always be interested in your books.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
Maintaining detachment from the subject is a big problem when it comes to American 20th century history. I’m at an advantage because I’m British – the evils of Bush or the saintliness of Kennedy (real or imagined) aren’t personal to me and so I can teach them with objectivity. But there’s no denying that much of the 20th century field is heavily politicized. That’s one of the reasons why it’s been relatively slow to produce research on conservatism or religious politics: many scholars are contemptuous of both.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
In the last ten years, political historians have moved away from seeing conservatives as either mad or bad. We’ve grown a greater appreciation of the intellectual tradition and emotional motivations behind the American Right. Slowly, that political perspective is broadening out into the cultural and social – so Matt Lassiter is examining life in the Sunbelt suburbs and Jennifer Burns unveils the sex lives of the Objectivist.

How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
It’s obviously important for getting faculty jobs to have plenty of teaching experience. No matter how great your publishing profile, appointments are informed by whether or not you can carry or create a course. But teaching is also important as a way of articulating and testing your ideas. I’ve always designed courses to match my current research – and there’s no better way of clarifying your thoughts than detailing them to 19-year old novices.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Look to publish an essay in a good journal as early on as possible. That way, you always have a “calling card” that introduces your work to others. When picking a thesis, bear in mind the ability to publish with a trade press. Make the most of the fact that there’s a big popular field for your audience and don’t be ashamed to cash in on it. When you do, the thesis will require a total rewrite. Don’t think you can just submit your dissertation and it will automatically get a popular audience – it won’t.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
Experience and perseverance are the two most important qualities to an early stage history career. You need experience of teaching and writing before landing an assistant professorship. And you won’t get the experience unless you’re prepared to do part-time teaching work and you publish at least one major journal piece. Nowadays, it’s typical for postgrads to “float through casual work” for a couple of years before getting a position. If you can afford it, persevere. You also have to be prepared to move a lot, which is tough on relationships.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Go with what you’re interested in, but try to bear in mind an angle that could be publishable. A Ph.D. at a highly regarded university will impress more than one at a less celebrated school. You’ll find that your life develops in a different way from your peers. They’ll be earning money and building a career much earlier than you. But by 30, they’ll be burned out and you’ll just be taking off. You’ll never earn as much as them, but your quality of life will be significantly higher.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
You’ve spent several years getting that PhD, so don’t waste the qualification. If you can, move in with your folks or with a friend and do part-time teaching. Wait and the job will find you. I took a year, which is unusually brief. It was a year of panic and despair, but in the end it was worth it.

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