Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Blog CXX (120): Eight Questions: Intellectual History

Lauren Kientz Anderson, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Kentucky, has just accepted a visiting Assistant Professorship at Luther College in Decorah Iowa. She earned her Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 2010. She is the Wednesday blogger at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog. Her teaching and research interests lay in African American Intellectual History, the interwar period, and black women’s history. She is working on her first book manuscript, A Spirit of Cooperation and Protest: The Internationalism of African American Women, 1920-1939, which analyzes the way bourgeois black women of the interwar era understood and conceptualized internationalism. She argues that this era witnessed a transformation of interest among black women from Europe to Africa and India and analyzes four different types of internationalism through four different women—tourism (Yolande Du Bois-Cullen, Paris), communist internationalism (Mabel Byrd, Geneva), Christian Internationalism (Juliette Derricotte, Mysore, India), and Pan-Africanism and Colored Cosmopolitanism (Eslanda Robeson, London and Africa).

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
Close reading and the contextualization of ideas are strengths of U.S. intellectual history. Most intellectual history works take a few thinkers and deeply analyze their ideas and their interaction with their world. This allows us to examine how individuals affect the world around them, the limits of individual power, and the ways that ideas transform individuals. Sometimes, though, intellectual history takes on a major idea, like religious freedom, and traces it throughout a large chunk of time, or takes a specific chunk of time, like the last quarter of the twentieth century, and explores all the major ideas therein. I’m thinking here of the two 2011 award winning books, David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom and Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture, which have received a lot of interest and discussion on the USIH Blog.

History is a powerful subject because it is in each of us and yet is an entirely new world to discover. In teaching, we have a challenge to make the past relevant to students (who were in junior high when 9-11 happened!), while also communicating how the past is another country. We also get to use the power of storytelling, while exploring the nuance of the situation that goes beyond the story. History encompasses both social science and the humanities; it is a broad and deep and terribly exciting profession.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
Intellectual history was passé for many years because it was seen as the study of dead white elite men, a study which totally missed the analysis of race, class, and gender, which came to dominate history. Indeed, the students in my U.S. Intellectual History course this past semester (spring 2012) still started the course by arguing that intellectuals were dead white men. It is a challenge to the field to incorporate the new perspectives gained from the study of social and cultural history, which at the same time continuing to justify our particular strength of close reading of major thinkers and contextualization of ideas. Some of us continue to study the history of “elites” (of all colors and genders) and need to be able to justify that effort. Others are studying the way that ideas affect culture and culture affects ideas, which does not necessarily mean the study of elites.  For other thoughts on the future of U.S. intellectual history, she this guest post by Dan Wickburg.

I think the current economic crisis is negatively affecting any discipline that is not directly connected to a specific job. At the same time, the United States continues to have a deep trench of anti-intellectualism throughout our culture. The recent attack on Black Studies in the Chronicle of Higher Education blogosphere is an apt example.  (I weighed in here).
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
There has been a resurgence of interest (or perhaps organization of already existing interest) in intellectual history since Tim Lacy and others started the U.S. Intellectual History Blog and conference. These two have morphed into the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, which was founded in 2011. Consult the past conference schedules to see some of the up and coming topics in U.S. intellectual history. I am excited to see Derrick Aldridge’s intellectual history of hip hop finished and published. I also thoroughly enjoyed hearing updates on Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas at the USIH conferences, because of her nuanced understanding of the way that Nietzsche worked his way into the American psyche.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching keeps us grounded in the ideas prevalent among the young today. It lets us practice the clear statement of our current thoughts. It also exposes us to the ability of some ideas to transform and reminds us of the persistence of other ideas, (like, for instance, my students eager articulation of the ability of an individual to transform society and their struggle to understand the limits of an individuals’ power). Teaching keeps us humble and pushes us to think about the real-life worth of our professional work.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Many of the other individuals who have answered this question have given fantastic advice. Let me spend a few moments on the power of new social media as a kind of “publication.” As a weekly blogger at USIH, I receive many more readers than my academic publications will (probably) attract. It has taken a long time (the blog has been active for five plus years) to build a readership and much of it has come because of the excellent posts by my fellow bloggers. Blogging gives me a chance to articulate my research and teaching ideas as they come to me and have immediate feedback on the quality of my pursuits. At the same time, there is always a danger of exposing too much, personally or research-wise. I don’t want a future publisher to think that I have already given away my book on the blog.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of
field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?

I sat on several search committees during my graduate school career and from that vantage point, I would say it really depended on each individual member of the search committee what they valued most. Some were attracted by the newness and intellectual potential of the project. Others looked at language capability (for positions outside the US), publication record, alma mater and other things. I would say the role of an advisor is very important. Some students are attracted to famous advisors who then provide no career or research guidance. They may be able to write letters with impact, but they do not help the student to finish the degree on time or craft their project. I had the advantage of an advisor who met with me weekly to discuss my projects and ideas, while also letting me flounder a bit and find my own footing. He’s not famous, but I also don’t think I would have written the dissertation I did without his guidance and encouragement. But now, will that dissertation and the publications stemming from it help me land a tenure-track position?

During graduate school, institutional resources help you focus on your project without a huge teaching load, help you practice teaching, and also help you get to the archives. Family helps you stay sane, while also driving you crazy. But I still think the personality and helpfulness of the advisor is central to graduate school success.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Do it because nothing else will make you happy. Take some time to figure out what project will really excite you and keep you interested for 10 years. Do your best to find out your potential advisor’s personality as well as his/her reputation. Contact them by email and see if they respond. Ask to be put in touch with his/her other students (graduated, if possible, or current). Recognize that getting a job is going to be difficult, but don’t be too careerist in your life choices. Go to as many conferences as you can afford and get over your shyness to talk to as many different type of people as you can; if they don’t talk back let it be about them, not you. And most importantly, always remember and remind yourself about what you love about history. Talk to friends and family about the exciting minutia that you learned or discovered that day. Work as much as your body will allow, but then find things (other than tv) that will renew your energy. I love art and friends for that.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Try everything. Be willing to move anywhere. You can do anything for a year. But also assess your life-goals and family needs. Expect that you will have several temporary positions before you land a tenure-track job. And no matter what, keep working on the book. Make that a priority before teaching and job hunting, rather than vice versa. Work on it everyday, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Everyone can spare 15 minutes, right? And it will remind you where you are in the research process. Otherwise, if you wait for a vast uninterrupted chunk of time, it’ll take you a lot of it just to reorient yourself towards your research. But at the same time, let articles and chapters stew for a while before you work on them again with fresh eyes. Don’t let fear (of finding a job, of moving, of not being good enough) get in the way of writing. Find a place (inside of yourself and physically in the world) that makes you feel peaceful and go there. And write!

At the same time, care about your students. Let them know that you are interested in their lives and in their intellectual progress. But let go of their success; give it up to the universe—they are in charge of their life choices and you can’t make them for them.

And be able to make friends quickly, with all different kinds of people. Be open to what everyone can teach you and how they can help you on your journey. It’s not about networking—it’s about intellectual touchpoints—the connecting of minds for a brief or a long time. Be an interesting person—read widely, have hobbies, love your research—so that there is always something to talk about with new people.

1 comment: