Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Blog CXXII (122): Eight Questions: World History

The next post in this series comes from Tiffany Trimmer.  She is currently an assistant professor of history at Bowling Green State University, where she has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on world history, historiography, empire, human rights, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and migration.  She recieved her Ph.D. from Northeastern University in 2007.  Her contribution to this blog comes in the midst of a move to a new job.  In Fall 2012 she begins teaching as assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.  In Wisconsin she will teach courses on world history, global migration, and imperialism.  She is currently completing two research projects: a series of articles about the trans-imperial politics of labor emigration in early twentieth century British Malaya, and a book manuscript on turn-of-the-century academic representations of long-distance labor migration titled Solving the World’s “People Problem”: Social Scientists and Migration Management, 1870 -1939.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
World historians remind people that the inter-connectedness we think of when we hear the word "globalization" began long before the 20th century. We help people understand how long-term, and long-distance, patterns of interaction have linked their home communities to the wider world. Good world histories humanize the big, nebulous, word-scale processes that have made our present-day world the way it currently is. The migration of peoples, ideas, technologies, and diseases; long-distance trade, and the amassing of wealth versus the continuation of inequality; the formation and expansion of empires and nation states; warfare—these are some of the key processes that world historians explore in an effort to link local, regional, and world-scale narratives about humanity’s past.

History allows a person to investigate what life might have been like for those who came before us. Although there are always available evidence limitations, figuring out what you can about how people lived their lives in different historical eras or regions, and under different belief systems and labor statuses helps us put our own lives in perspective. It is also a fabulously imaginative exercise. The cool thing about being an historian is the paper (and artifact) trail—we get to take up the challenge of piecing together glimpses of the past from what remains behind.

What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
World history has been engaged in a re-branding campaign for the past two decades. The goal of this image makeover has been to emphasize the research that world historians do in addition to teaching survey courses. The Journal of World History as well as books like Donald Wright’s The World and A Very Small Place in Africa and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence have been influential in this transition process. Yet more work needs to be done to promote the research side of world history. Innovation and clarification of the field’s research agenda could come via re-examination of some of the core paradigms associated with the field. Wright and Lauren Benton (Law and Colonial Cultures) have both offered re-workings of Immanuel Wallerstein’s world system’s paradigm. More recently, Peter Gran’s The Rise of the Rich challenged world historians to abandon the Rise of the West paradigm (and its civilizational unit of analysis) popularized by William McNeill in favor of explanatory models that focus more on long-distance networks of people brought together by common economic agendas. In addition to publishing more, world historians also need to methodologically innovate their way towards a better reputation. Making the complexity of local-regional-world scale interconnections tangible enough for a wide range of audiences to grasp is our biggest challenge.
Despite the field’s emphasis on promoting new research, not all established world historians believe graduate students or untenured professors should be permitted to write world histories. This has made for some surreal conference sessions at the annual meeting of the World History Association as young scholars in the midst of world historical research were told they were incapable of such a task. Part of this discrimination may stem from the changing definition of what constitutes a world history—a change fostered by the past few decades of re-branding world history as a research field as well as a teaching field. In the era of world history as just a survey course, the perception was that a world history had to be as all-encompassing a possible. More recently, the notion of a world history as an analysis of connections between parts of the world has opened up the prospect for studies that selectively focus on one or more case studies that are then situated within their broader world historical context. A rallying cry of “We’re World Historians Too! Get Used To It!” has become more prevalent as successive waves of Ph.D. students employ world historical methodologies in their dissertation research. Expect the definition of what constitutes a world historical monograph or journal article to keep evolving.
This uncertainty about what is meant by the label “world history” can complicate job search strategies. Newly-minted Ph.D.s debate whether or not they should explicitly market themselves as world historians, particularly if the world history component of the job description seems tied to the teaching requirements more than the research agenda. As a hedge, you can certainly play up the trans-national, trans-imperial, or trans-regional connections highlighted in your research. But I think the best strategy is to have a succinct explanation of what your world historical research and teaching goals are ready to go at any part of the interview process. This does not mean lengthy monologs on what it means to be a world historian. But, if a member of the search committee seems to be working from a definition of world history that does not match yours, find a way to re-frame their usage of the label by discussing a brief, but illustrative, example from your research or teaching.
For the historical profession as a whole, I think there is remarkable continuity in defining our primary challenge: relevance and public outreach. One could trace an intellectual genealogy of sorts from Carl Becker in the 1930s, through Howard Zinn and David Hackett Fischer in the 1960s, to the historians assembled in the 2009 essay collection Recent Themes on Historians and the Public edited by Donald Yerxa. Connecting with wider reading, viewing, and listening publics starts with a good summary of how and why your own research helps people better understand how the world around them got to be that way. Then it requires seeking out venues—op-eds, blogs, volunteer work—that let you connect with people who you would not otherwise meet.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
My brain short-circuits when I try to make a quick list! Because of our field’s focus, world historians read broadly. Thus, my list is probably going to seem a bit idiosyncratic. But, here goes. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ Drawing the Global Colour Line traces the migration of ideas about white racial solidarity (and corresponding voting and property owning restrictions targeting Blacks and Asians) in the late 19th – mid 20th century “White Men’s Countries” of Canada, the U.S., South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. It does a really good job of illustrating how ideas and policies can circulate among like-minded individuals living on different continents as they react to challenges from the “outside world” (in this case the global labor migrations of the era). In doing so, it fulfills one of the key goals of world history—bringing large-scale, fuzzy ideas down to a concrete level that readers can easily grasp.
Situating the United States within its broader geo-political and cultural contexts is another current trend. There are two books on my summer reading list that accomplish this in different ways. John C. Weaver’s The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900 traces the process of settlement and evolving ideas about land use in the same set of countries featured in Drawing the Global Colour Line. Donna Gabaccia’s Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective highlights how transnational ties continued to connect immigrants (and through them, the U.S. as a political entity) to the wider world.
Histories of long-distance networks held together by migration, trade, and imperial expansion also continue to be influential. Kerry Ward’s Networks of Empire: Forced Migration in the Dutch East India Company stands out in this regard. Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Women in World History traces an individual’s life as she moved across parts of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century. The history-through-life story approach also shines in Stewart Gordon’s When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors and Monks Who Created the Riches of the East. Gordon puts together a kind of biographical sketch of the region of Asia ca the 700s-1500s c.e. A similar kind of regional understanding, this time for the late 18th – early 19th century Atlantic, comes together in Wim Klooster’s Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History.
Big History, histories of environmental change, and debates about the place of Europe within world history are also perennial favorites. David Christian’s Maps of Time, Fred Spier’s Big History and the Future of Humanity, and Cynthia Stokes Brown’s Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present are helping world historians expand their horizons. A starting point for the second category is Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz’s edited collection The Environment in World History. Lastly, Ricardo Duchesne’s new book The Uniqueness of Western Civilization will keep world historians busily debating each other for months to come.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
The most confounding piece of advice I have ever received from senior colleagues was “teaching is important but do not spend any time on it.” An active publication agenda is vital to staying employed. But becoming a solid teacher is also essential. Teaching requires more than just writing lectures and grading exams. There is also the commitment to steadily improving your presentation skills, establishing the confidence to handle whatever a class throws your way, and developing the flexibility to change teaching styles from semester to semester. Building up these competencies takes actual minutes and hours out of your day. So, look at your week and carve out specific times to write and specific times to prepare for class. Build in a back-up time slot for teaching emergencies so that if teaching prep takes more time than expected it does not threaten your writing time slot.

Given the desire of historians to better connect with the general public, it is ironic that grad students and new professors are sometimes encouraged to short change the development of their teaching skills. When someone in an airport or a dentist office tells you they hate history, ask them why. My completely unscientific sampling of responses from such encounters puts “my professor was so boring!” as the most frequent answer. Teaching is one key way the historical profession can engage with a broader range of people. It also forces historians to articulate the relevance of what happened in the past in a way that captures the imagination and curiosity of people living in the present day. Ask your students if they have ever drank a café mocha. Then tell them that mocha represents the Columbian Exchange in a paper cup. Let the discussion of world history begin…
We are not just deliverers of content. Historians teach people how to contextualize disparate facts in relation to broad patterns of change and continuity, how to make meaningful comparisons, and how to identify and navigate the biases and contradictions within historical evidence. While teaching is not the only thing on my to-do list each day (publish!), I think it should be ok to look forward to that part of my day.
One last note on teaching as it applies to the field of world history: there is no way around the fact that world history survey courses are always works-in-progress. Deciding what to cover, and what will just have to be skipped, is a special kind of intellectual and pedagogical challenge. Balancing world-scale (big-picture) patterns and themes with specific case studies of times and places that students can investigate via primary sources takes experimentation, and frequent tinkering. Keep asking yourself: what overarching story are you trying to tell? how/why is it relevant to people born between 1990-1994? Two good primers on the pedagogy of world history are Peter Stearns' World History: The Basics and David Christian’s This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity. There are also two journals that publish articles on the teaching of world history: World History Bulletin and World History Connected.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
If your dissertation hangs together coherently, write an article that highlights your favorite examples and summarizes your main arguments. Make a list of the three journals that you consulted most regularly when you were writing your dissertation. Submit the article to the first journal on the list. If it gets rejected, revise and send to the second journal on the list. Persevere. Persevere some more. Once you have successfully placed your article, move on to the book prospectus.

If your dissertation chapters feel like they are going off in different directions (this can occasionally happen with world history dissertations) consider turning them into a series of articles that showcase the different case studies or analytical frameworks that comprised your dissertation. Develop the first article and send it to a journal. Develop the next article while you are waiting to hear back about the first article. Evaluate any parts of the dissertation that are not going into an article as a potential first chapter of a book. Find the angle from the non-article parts of your dissertation, dig out the materials and citations you did not get to incorporate into your dissertation, and plot a course forward. Keep moving your writing forward on multiple tracks. Naturally, this is far from ideal if you are applying to (or have already been hired by) a department that will only tenure for a book. But if you do not have a book-in-the-making when you graduate, keep going anyway. The point is to establish a track record as a publishable scholar.
Also: force yourself to give conference papers on a regular basis. You never know when a conference panel will turn into a special issue of a journal or an editor's request to see a revised version of your conference paper.
Other professors may disagree with this, but I strongly advise against taking a job before your dissertation is finished. The relief of being off the job market is tangible, as is the pay increase. But, in the long term, the requirements that come with the new position will eat away at your writing time and jeopardize your publication prospects.

What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
The number of faculty in a department can have a major effect on what you can actually accomplish in a day, a semester, or a probationary period before going up for tenure. The 2008 financial crisis resulted in hiring freezes, and early retirements of senior faculty, that some departments have yet to recover from. All levels of historians working in a department—from the full professors down to the adjuncts—have seen more tasks handed to them as fewer people remain. It can be incredibly hard to avoid new service entanglements that threaten your writing and course prep time. Time management is vital; but not just in the obvious sense of budgeting a set amount of time for each thing that needs to be accomplished. It is not a bad idea to experiment with using it in a slightly more assertive way. Develop a really specific set of writing deadlines, and chapter circulation or journal submission timeframes, and do not be afraid to cite them when other members of your department ask you to take on more work. Sometimes you will lose, but there may be an opportunity for accommodation.
Developing a clear vision of who you are as a writer and teacher of history is vital. Keep refining this sense of your professional self. It will help you fight for your research time. It will help sustain you through rejections from journals and book publishers. It may take some of the sting away when your students write or say mean things about you. It will help you promote yourself each time you apply for a fellowship or go back on the job market. And you will be on the job market multiple times during your career. Moving is sometimes an enjoyable adventure, but if you have a significant other and/or children there's the guilt of asking them to change their lives so you can keep being a history professor. You kind of owe it to them to be a really good history professor.
Which means that part of having a lasting, and satisfying, career as a historian is accepting the fact that you have to just keep going—keep writing, keep applying for research funding, keep expanding your own knowledge base, keep refining your teaching skills, keep striving for a better balance between writing time and departmental obligations. Learn from your mistakes as a teacher, as a writer and researcher, as a colleague.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Understand what the job of being a history grad student entails and make yourself as well-rounded as you can before you begin the application process. Volunteer at a historical society or museum so that you can emphasize hands-on experience with primary source materials. Plan out which course's final paper will become your writing sample and throw all your effort into making that paper the clearest, most convincing historical argument you've ever made. Seek out professors who will critique your writing in a detailed and constructive way. Learn from their critiques and keep striving to be a better writer. Ask to see a graduate syllabus. If your campus does not have a graduate program in history, approach the graduate directors of programs you are considering applying to and see if they will share one. Start reading historiographical essays (the historian's version of a literature review) to familiarize yourself with the major authors, arguments, and methodologies currently shaping the historical fields you are interested in. (Ask your professors for citations.) Set aside an hour a week to look through the major scholarly journals in your area of interest to get a sense of the research and writing standards graduate professors will expect you to work towards. Develop your foreign language skills to their fullest potential. If possible, participate in peer tutoring or similar programs so that you can market yourself as ready and able to become a graduate teaching assistant.
Weigh the pros and cons of taking some time off to gain other types of professional experience (and build up some savings). If you end your undergraduate career with a really clear sense of what historical topic you are eager to get to work researching and writing about, the momentum may carry you through. (Use your application's personal statement to describe where you see your research going as you progress through masters and doctoral studies.) But burn-out is real, and graduate stipends generally do not let you live much better than you did as a college student. Sometimes taking a year or two off before applying can help you clarify what it is that makes you not want to be anything other than a historian. A rejection letter might have the same effect. Use the time until the next round of applications to enhance your application and keep refining your writing.

What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Maintaining an institutional affiliation is the key to being taken seriously. Consult with your advisor or department chair about ways that you might hold onto a university email address and an appropriate way to word your email signature. Keep pursuing your publication goals as if you already had a tenure-track job. Volunteer your expertise to historical societies, museums, public school systems, and other venues that will help validate your life's work. Blog and publish op-eds as a way to keep your name and your research relevant. If you are not place-bound, be ready to pick up and go.
One of the most frustrating parts of being on the job market is trying to answer the "is it me, or is it them?" question. Sometimes it is clear why you did not get a job offer (not enough publications, teaching demonstration that went off the rails). Other times, you will never actually know. Keep working towards more publications for your cv, keep refining your teaching demonstration. If your research crosses or combines several specializations, make sure your sales pitches for each type of job are plausible and persuasive. Consider utilizing different letter writers to play up your strengths for different types of jobs. Ask faculty members to bluntly tell you what types of jobs you should or should not be applying for. If you suspect you might have a quirk or an interviewing weakness, go through mock interviews to see if faculty members in your department pick up on it. Keep your letter writers apprised of any professional developments and publications you've accomplished since the last round of recommendations they wrote for you.


  1. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

  2. This is really great advice. Thanks for posting! I will definitely be holding on to this. I teach the World History survey (but I'm an American Historian), so the suggestions on teaching world history are especially appreciated!