Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Blog CXXI (121): Eight Questions: Agricultural History

Jim Giesen is an assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University where he oversees the graduate program's concentration in Agricultural, Rural, and Environmental History. He also directs the fledgling Center for the History of Agriculture, Science, and the Environment in the South (CHASES) and is executive secretary of the Agricultural History Society.   He earned his BA and played basketball for DePauw University.  He earned his MA degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.  Giesen is the author of award-winning articles in Environmental History and Agricultural History and of the book Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South (University of Chicago Press, 2011).  He has recieved teaching awards from the University of Georgia and Mississippi State University.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
To be honest, I don’t know what my field is. I’m not sure I’ve ever had one and I’m not sure that fields matter like they used to.

I attended the University of Georgia to work with James Cobb, a historian of the South who has worked on the economic and cultural history of the region, chiefly. This is a guy whose work runs from nuts-and-bolts analysis of the political processes behind courting factories to the South in the mid-twentieth century, to examinations of Willie Nelson lyrics. I was attracted now only to the breadth of subjects that he studied but also the variety of approaches he took. To say even that he’s a “southern historian” is a bit thin because one of his primary intellectual concerns has been to describe the ways that the South was and is connected to the rest of the world. I’m not sure training under Cobb made me a southern historian, per se. The other historian who closely influenced my graduate training was Bryant Simon, now the director of American Studies at Temple. Bryant’s three books are on South Carolina mill workers, Atlantic City, and Starbucks. There’s not much that binds those three subjects together. So I guess I’ve been trained to think that being in a field can be temporary and that there is a tremendous amount to be learned from pushing at perceived boundaries. I think you limit what you can learn if you present your work at the same conference again and again.
But of course institutions like fields and boundaries. I’m the executive secretary of the Agricultural History Society, which is one of the oldest professional organizations for historians in the United States. There was a time when people understood what agricultural history was. But today we’re running a whole campaign to recruit new members based on the idea that people who are doing ag history don’t even realize it. “Think you’re not an agricultural historian?” the saying on our postcards goes, “Think again.” All these people out there working on farm labor and immigration, or food history, or rural institutions–they’re doing agricultural history but they don’t necessarily think to join our society, read our journal, or present papers at our conference.
All of this is to say that most days I call myself an agricultural historian, but I know I am also an environmental historian and I was trained as a southern historian. Each of these fields has their own historiography, their own central questions, their own institutional backing. Since I arrived at Mississippi State in 2006, I’ve been trying to put some of these fields together in new ways. Last fall some colleagues and I created the Center for the History of Agriculture, Science, and the Environment in the South (CHASES), which we are working to build into the premier research center for scholars interested in southern science, agriculture, and the environment. The more we get into it, the more I see the lines between all of these fields blur. And I think that’s a good thing.
I still really haven’t answered the question. So let me say this. The strengths of the fields of southern history, agricultural history, and environmental history, are that people are combining them in ways that reveal a great deal about the past that we didn’t know or misunderstood.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
The biggest issue facing agricultural history is clear: people don’t realize that they’re doing it. From an intellectual standpoint, the result is that people who are doing similar work—asking the same kinds of research questions, teaching the same kinds of classes, evaluating the same kinds of sources–don’t always come together to exchange ideas. Let me give an example. I know of a student at one of the top environmental history programs who is writing her dissertation on an important but understudied government agriculture program. Across the country there’s a student at a top Ivy League school who is working on the same program for his dissertation. Neither of them thought of themselves as agricultural historians. One was environmental, one was cultural. Only when they came together for a special workshop did they realize that they were doing very similar things. Each of them is going to produce a better dissertation because they made the connection at that workshop. I think historians become better the more connections they make outside of their fields.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
This answer isn’t going to be surprising considering what I’ve written above. The most interesting work bridges fields in interesting ways. Let me provide a couple of examples. Mark Hersey, my colleague here at Mississippi State, trained as an environmental historian with Donald Worster at Kansas. His first book is an examination of the environmental vision of George Washington Carver. There’s no doubt that it’s bona fide environmental history, but it’s also about sharecropping and land use and segregation. It’s a book that historians of the South need to read if they want to better understand the constraints black farmers faced, and that’s a topic most southern historians thought they knew just about everything about.
I’ll flip the perspective for my second example. Albert Way’s recent book, Conserving Southern Longleaf: Herbert Stoddard and the Rise of Ecological Land Management, is a book that environmental historians need to take seriously if they’re to understand conservation in a distinctly non-western context. The environmental history of the South played out differently than it did around Walden Pond or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, yet until about five years ago environmental historians weren’t taking the region seriously enough.
I also need to add here that there are always pioneers. In the case of southern environmental history among the most important is Mart Stewart. He was writing about the force of nature in the South–and self-identifying as an environmental historian–as early as anyone else and I think he’d be the first to tell you that this didn’t always redound to his benefit. Southern historians—even the editors of the Journal of Southern History–just didn’t know what to make of his environmental approach to coastal Georgia. More and more historians are realizing just how pioneering and important his work has been. Tim Silver is the other. His work on the environmental history of human interactions with nature in the Mountain South remains a model for the field.

How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
In terms of the professional development of historians I don’t think it’s easy to separate teaching from research. As an example I’ll use my sister, an elementary school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools (shout out to Oscar Mayer Elementary!). She calls me every now and then to talk about the history that she’s covering in class. What often start as a question about content quickly morphs into a conversation about methods and analysis. The fundamental question “how do we know what we know?” is at the heart of good teaching. And if that’s true for fourth graders, it’s true for college students. I think a graduate class in how to teach history is a good idea. I wish our program had one. And I’m certain that there are techniques and strategies about learning that history grad students should better understand. But beyond that I think there are diminishing returns to training history grad students to be teachers. Make them better thinkers, researchers, and writers and they’ll be better teachers. And after they’ve passed their exams, give them a chance to teach on their own.

What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Despite all of the changes in publishing that have happened over the past few years and the expected change over the next decade, the basic nuggets of advice handed down for generations remain true:

• Never let anything you’ve written sit in a drawer.

• When you have a topic, make it yours by presenting papers and publishing.

• Have thick skin. You’re going to get rejected. Learn from it.

• Expand your project in ways that make you uncomfortable. You might have to learn some cliometrics, or a different language, or weed science. It’s going to make your work better.

What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
My honest answer is that this probably depends on the person. I do think that, in almost every case, great work gets noticed. Yes, people with Ph.D.s from Princeton have advantages on the job market. But it’s not because they won a lottery to get a Princeton degree. Their abilities and work had something to do with it. That said, the most important thing to do to land a position where research is valued is to publish. And manuscripts are double-blind reviewed. Your work is judged on its own merit. (Yeah, I know this process is not always perfectly meritocratic but I do believe that it most often is.) The most important thing to do to land a teaching job is to have teaching experience and to be able to document your success. You can get that anywhere.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
I tell them not to do it. It’s not a growth field. It’s not the best way to spend you 20s (and 30s). Once they convince me that they’re going to do it I tell them precisely what it was that got me through grad school. It’s the only thing that did it, to be honest. That’s smart, motivated people. Find them. Surround yourself with them. Befriend them. Play basketball with them and drink beer with them and, more importantly, talk to them about history as often as you can.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
It’s the same advice I give grad students who are struggling: it’s okay to not do this. If you’re set against a career change, find out what you’re doing wrong. Call friends with jobs and ask them to look at your CV and cover letter and teaching statement. Ask your letter writers to see their letters. Get lots of advice from all kinds of different people. And then reevaluate.

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