Friday, July 27, 2012

Blog CXXVI (126): Eight Questions: Ancient History

The next entry in the Eight Question series comes from Daniel L. Schwartz of Texas A&M University.  Schwartz is a historian of antiquity and teaches classes in Roman history, the history of Christianity, and world history.  He holds a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara; an MA in Christian Thought from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; a post-baccalaureate certificate in classics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and both a MA and PhD in history from Princeton University.  He has previously taught at Bryn Mawr College and been an Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.  He is the author of Paideia and Cult: Christian Initiation in Theodore of Mopsuestia (2012). His articles and chapters have appeared in publications such as the Journal of Early Christian Studies and the anthology Revelation, Literature and Community in Late Antiquity.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The greatest strength of Late Antiquity, the Mediterranean and its hinterlands from roughly AD 200-800, is its youth and vibrancy. Late Antiquity developed as a field in response to an approach to ancient history that could be rather narrowly focused on Greece and Rome during specific periods of their history. The differences between the highest points of classical civilization and what developed as Roman imperial power weakened and eventually fell apart in the western half of the empire, led earlier generations of scholars to marginalize the period we now call Late Antiquity. As a distinct field, Late Antiquity has largely been about carving out a space for the study of this period on its own terms. This new-found space has proven very fruitful indeed. The field includes scholars working on culture, religion, politics, and economy over a very broad geographical region: from Celtic Ireland, to upper Egypt, to North Africa, to the Iranian plateau and beyond.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
The biggest historiographical issue facing the field is how best to discuss the differences between Classical Antiquity and Late Antiquity. Though the field came into existence as a reaction against paradigms of “Decline and Fall” and “Dark Ages,” preferring instead to speak in terms of continuities and discontinuities, several prominent scholars have recently suggested that things have gone too far and the field needs to be reined in a bit. One scholar even prefers to describe the period as “the end of civilization.” In short, those studying political developments, architecture, and economy tend to prefer models of decline, while those studying culture and religion tend to downplay them. This debate promises to persist within the field of Late Antiquity for some time.

The poor job market is clearly the biggest issue facing the history profession in general. Many of the other respondents have already elaborated on this situation, but I would like to comment on it from the perspective of Late Antiquity specifically. While the field has gained considerable prominence in the last few decades, it continues to lack a clear niche in academic departments. The “Dark Ages” heritage of Late Antiquity can still be seen in the fact that the field often falls into this gap between the two departments. Ancient history is often done in the classics department and many history departments have no one working earlier than the Middle Ages. Only rarely will a recent PhD in history be competitive for positions in classics departments, which are generally more geared toward teaching language and literature. Whether you are a graduate student or a new PhD, you can hedge against this problem by preparing yourself to wear a number of hats. Do an MA in classics before starting the PhD or plan on gaining expertise in Medieval history through the course work and teaching you pursue. An interdisciplinary degree plan with historical and linguistic work relevant to the study of Judaism, Christianity, and/or Islam can also make you competitive for positions in religious studies departments.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
The best work being done in Late Antiquity fully engages the geographical breadth of the field. The period offers a moment when vernacular literatures begin to flourish at the edges of the Roman world: Coptic in Egypt, Syriac in Mesopotamia and the Levant, and Arabic are the prime examples. The scholars using these sources to study the social, cultural, and religious histories of the period discover fascinating accounts of an integrated world in fruitful dialogue across considerable distances. Furthermore, they find that those contacts do not merely radiate from a Roman core to provincial peripheries, but rather indicate robust local cultures with much to offer students of the period.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Research universities will always place a high priority on publication and anyone employed in or seeking employment in such a context cannot forget this reality. Nevertheless, teaching is absolutely critical to a career in Late Antiquity. Given the fact that the place of the field within many history departments is somewhat tenuous, teaching can often make the difference in securing employment. Once you attain a position, your ability to successfully attract undergraduate and graduate students is essential. Fortunately, the field’s emphasis on cultural history, especially religion, gender, and class, translates well to the classroom and offers much of interest to students at all levels.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
The answer to this question has to be career specific since the expectations of your department and university will require you to pursue certain things. At a community college or a teaching college you would do well to pursue several journal articles of your dissertation and hold off thinking about longer projects for a time. You may even want to consider adapting your research to journals with more of a pedagogical bent.

However, if you are in, or aspire to be in, a tier one research university, you will need to focus on turning the dissertation into a book, and rather quickly. Think carefully about the feedback you received from your readers before, during, and after your dissertation defense. Make every attempt to get your work into the hands of people you respect in the field. Test the waters with some conference papers and perhaps a journal article from a section of your dissertation that can be easily extracted. After that, buckle down and make essential revisions, but avoid the impulse to rewrite your entire project. When you send your manuscript to a publisher, the editors you work with will send it out for review. No matter how much work you have done on it, those reviewers will ask for revisions that are specific to the publisher or series. If at all possible, revise for the people who will put your book in print.

When choosing a publisher, you will again need to take into consideration the expectations of your institution. Especially if you are in a smaller field like Late Antiquity, you must keep in mind that you will be evaluated throughout your career by people who know very little about your field. You can save yourself a great deal of grief by finding out what they think counts as a good publisher. Hopefully there will be some overlap between what they recognize and the places you want to publish.
Finally, be confident in your work and aim high. This will require you to work quickly so that you have time to resubmit to another publisher if your work is not initially accepted. However, you just might land your dream press early on and that will put you in an excellent position.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
All of these issues will have some bearing on how your career develops, but no one issue is decisive. The reputation of the alma mater might get you an interview, but rarely will it get you the job. Your research, writing, and references will be much more important. Being in a less popular field means fewer jobs, but also likely means fewer applicants. Once you get a position, being the only one of your kind in the department can free you to teach what you want without the concern of competition with senior colleagues. Rarely will your department or university have expectations for productivity wildly out of keeping with the resources they provide for meeting those expectations. Generally speaking, if tenure means two books, you will likely find considerable teaching leave. If you are teaching four classes each semester with minimal leave and research support, you will not need to publish as much.
This leaves family, which I think is likely the most significant of the issues listed. Single income families are increasingly rare and managing two careers requires a great deal of coordination. If you or your partner feel compelled to be near extended family, geography presents a huge limiting factor. Your partner’s career may also limit you geographically or leave you taking on greater household and childcare responsibilities due to the relative flexibility of an academic career. That flexibility is one reason why an academic career is so appealing. However, research, writing, and teaching preparation require considerable self-discipline and securing time for these while fulfilling family roles can be a considerable challenge.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
This is a very difficult question. A simple internet search will produce numerous references to what a horrible mistake it is to go to graduate school in the humanities. The course of study is difficult, the costs consistently increase, and the job market has rarely produced enough positions for all of those completing the PhD.  While the hyperbole has grown a bit tiresome, undergraduates should not consider graduate school without being well aware of what they will face during their degree and while looking for employment afterward.

For a student who understands this reality and still wants to do doctoral work in Late Antiquity, the only sensible advice is to begin studying languages. Ancient Greek and Latin for primary sources as well as French and German for access to modern scholarship are absolutely essential. Furthermore, the interesting work I discuss above in response to the third question requires students to gain additional languages, ancient and modern. Students increasingly need access to Syriac, Hebrew, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, or Middle Persian. Depending on the research topic, Modern Greek, Russian, Italian, or Spanish could also prove critical. The timely completion of a PhD requires considerable language acquisition before day one as a graduate student.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
My first inclination is to speak to those still in graduate school. One of the reasons this rough job market is so painful is that recent graduates have so much sweat equity in their degrees. If you are still working on the Ph.D., you need to make sure some of that effort goes toward thinking about developing a broad skillset. Consider ways you could use your research and writing skills as well as your historical understanding in library, publishing, government, museum, and business settings. Put some effort into getting experience in one or more of these fields.

Next, advice must go to directors of graduate study at Ph.D. granting institutions. Departments need robust professional development programs that orient students toward the particulars of the academic job market, but also toward alternative careers for those with a Ph.D. in history.

If you are a recent Ph.D. having trouble securing an academic position, you need to ask yourself some hard questions about your passions and the resources you and your family bring to the table. The last thing you want to do is live on credit card debt while hoping that an academic job will materialize. If you are able to make ends meet as an adjunct or have a partner with a solid income, you have quite a bit more flexibility. If you are the main or only wage earner for a family, your options are far more limited. Consider the careers listed above while continuing to look for an academic post. Be open to the idea that you just may find your niche in an unexpected place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Blog CXXV (125): Eight Questions: Western History

The next entry in the Eight Questions series comes from Eileen V. Wallis in the field of Western History.  Wallis received her BA in history from California State University, Northridge; her MA is in History with a public history emphasis from Sacramento State University; and her Ph.D. is in history from the University of Utah.  She is an assistant professor of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.  Her research interests include California and the American West; the Progressive Era; public history; U.S. women's history; and agricultural and environmental history. At Pomona, she teaches classes on California history, public history and women's history.   She is the author of Earning Power: Women and Work in Los Angeles, 1880-1930 (2010).

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
I believe the greatest strength of my field is its diversity. The American West is such a vast topic that there is room for an enormous range of time periods, topics and approaches. One scholar might work on indigenous peoples in the 17th Century southwest, while another might study the 21st century Pacific Coast, and yet they are both, at least in my view, “western” historians. Studying the American West shakes up some of the more rigid ideas within both history and the historical profession about how the United States became what it is today, and where it may be going in the future.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
I would say that the biggest issue western historians face is the still somewhat slippery concept of “the West” itself. In many ways we are still grappling with the questions Frederick Jackson Turner raised more than a century ago, and that the New Western Historians raised again in the 1980s. What is the west? Is it a process or a place? Where does it start? Where does it end? Is there still an “American West” today, or have the forces of modernization obliterated regional differences? Ask ten different western historians these questions, and in all likelihood you will get ten different answers. This makes for fun arguments at conferences, but it does mean we do not have the same collective conceptual framework other fields have.

For the larger history profession jobs, as several previous posters have already mentioned, remain a major issue. The market for historians of the American West is not quite as oversaturated at it is in other specialties because there simply aren’t that many programs. But many colleges and universities are not hiring historians in the American West, and not replacing those that retire, even as demand for courses is on the rise. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where I teach, used to have four full-time tenure-track faculty specializing in California history. Now there is just me. Fortunately we have several excellent adjunct professors who help meet demand. But that is of course no substitute for hiring full-time tenure-track faculty.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
The work I find most interesting looks at the intersections between a range of different variables: race, social class, gender, economics, etc. Scholars are finding that subjects that might seem to be rather narrow can actually have tremendous depth when you look more closely.

The continued racial diversity in the American West, for example, means just about any topic has potential racial and ethnic dimensions. Exploring the experiences of African-Americans, indigenous peoples, Asian-Americans, Latinos, etc., as well as those of Anglo- and Euro-Americans fosters a much richer understanding of the region’s history.

Gender is one of my own research interests. When I entered graduate school in the late 1990s women were still sometimes left out of western history books. When they were included it was often as romanticized symbols, not as historical actors in their own right. Since then, though, topics as diverse as coal mining, the Gold Rush, and the impact of World War II on the American West have also been made richer by adding gender and sexuality into the equation.

I am also intrigued by the continued integration of environmental history with the history of the American west. I live in and study California, a state with a deep and yet conflicted relationship with agriculture. So I am particularly excited about the number of young scholars revisiting agricultural history but now contextualizing it with the broader story of western and global history.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching is absolutely critical. New Ph.D.s with a focus on the American West will not end up immediately at a research one university. Most that find positions will be at community colleges or state schools. Here at Cal Poly, part of the Cal State system, teaching is weighed equally with scholarship and service in tenure and promotion decision.

More importantly, teaching is part of what scholars do. This may be my own background in public history speaking, but if we do not put ourselves out there talking to students and to the public then our ability to increase broader historical knowledge is and always will be negligible. If you do not enjoy teaching and if you are not willing to work at being the best teacher you can be in my opinion you should really reconsider a career in academia.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
The best guidance I received as a Ph.D. student came from my advisor at the University of Utah, the late Dean L. May. He stressed that historians of the American West had to be careful not to be typecast as solely regionalists. He encouraged me to think strategically about what opportunities would be out there in the future. He was the one who steered me towards a focus on California history, where there are often more opportunities for both teaching positions and publishing opportunities.

So I will give the same advice. Choose a topic for your dissertation that, however small, has larger implications for American or perhaps even international history so that you are as marketable as possible. Book projects that take this approach are also much more likely to find a publisher.

That being said, one of the blessings of a focus on the American West is that every western state has a lively history community. There are many smaller scholarly journals that welcome submissions. The first article I ever published, before I had even completed my degree, was in the Utah Historical Quarterly, the well-respected journal of the Utah State Historical Society. So while you are writing your dissertation or revising it for publication look around for opportunities to get your work out there.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
Reputation of one’s alma matter is still important, but perhaps less so in the history of the American West. There are some fantastic universities out there that don’t even have specialists in the field. I would say the reputation of the faculty who trains you is more important than the school itself. Many of the most important and exciting scholars in western history are at state universities.

Networking is extremely important. Attend the Western History Association’s annual meetings even if you are not presenting. Get out there and meet people. Volunteer on a committee or write a book review for a scholarly journal.

Finally, be prepared to market yourself. Most historians of the American West teach additional fields, so if you have never taught a state history class or a United States survey course try and get some experience under your belt before you go on the job market. At the very least put together some sample syllabi you can show a hiring committee to demonstrate how your broad training will benefit them when it comes to staffing classes.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Think long and hard about why you want a Ph.D. in history. Having a Ph.D. is not going to guarantee you a job, and it is an enormous commitment of time, money, and energy. I worked in a museum for a year and a half between getting my MA and returning to school for my Ph.D. While it was hard to give up a steady paycheck and go back to being a starving student I was convinced I needed the Ph.D. to advance in my career, and so it was. I also thus went in with both eyes open. I understood why I was in school, and what I wanted out of it, and that made the slings and arrows of academia easier to bear.

I would add this: read as much as you can while you can! Undergraduates often tell me they are sorely pressed for time, but trust me: when you’re teaching full time it will be much worse. So take this opportunity to read as widely and deeply in the field you are considering pursuing as you can. This will have the added benefit of educating you about the major scholars and new trends in the discipline before you try and select the right program for you.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Be patient and be flexible. There are lots of great opportunities to put your history training to work. K-12 education, state and local historical societies, the federal government, museums, historical tourism, and film and television can all use historians and those with historical training.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Blog CXXIV (124): Eight Questions: Urban History

The next entry in the Eight Questions series comes from Daniel Amsterdam of The Ohio State University. He is an urban historian of American politics whose research focuses on social policy, state development and cities. He received a BA from Yale University, a MAT from Brown University and the Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Among other awards and honors, he has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded Mellon fellowships by the Council on Library and Information Resources and the American Council of Learned Societies. A piece that he co-authored on recent immigration and suburbanization won the award for the best article published in the Journal of Urban Affairs. His current book project is entitled The Roaring Metropolis: Businessmen’s Forgotten Campaign for a Civic Welfare State. In it he describes how elite businessmen came to embrace a wide-ranging yet politically conservative vision for American social policy in the decades surrounding World War I. After struggling to implement their agenda before the war, they redoubled their efforts, prodded social spending in American cities to new heights, and helped make the 1920s a moment of elaborate government expansion. The book is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press. Amsterdam teaches classes on U.S. history since 1877 at Ohio State.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The greatest strength of urban history is that it sits at the intersection of an incredible array of fields. Historians of the American city have made seminal contributions to the study of everything from the roots of the American revolution to the rise of contemporary conservatism and countless issues in between: the formation of the working-class and of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie; international and internal migration; African American, Latino, and Asian American history; gender and sexuality; cultural production and culture as a form of resistance; eighteenth-century mercantile capitalism and late-twentieth-century capital flight. The best urban historians are intellectual omnivores.

As for the history profession in general, its greatest strength is that it is rooted in countless instances of generosity. We comment on conference papers, read drafts of one another’s work, review articles, and listen to one another’s intellectual struggles basically for free. One way to think of the unique economy of the profession: we happily give away work that we have spent years of our lives creating for the rock-bottom price of a footnote.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
The hardships that recently minted Ph.D.s are facing on the job market, and that current graduate students will face in the future, deserve as much attention as they can get. But one repercussion of the current job crisis that I do not think is getting enough airtime is that an incredible amount of scholarly work is going to be abandoned before it is fully completed. The crisis in academic publishing will only compound this. We all know that even the best dissertations are just drafts of future publications and that some of the most important conceptual and empirical breakthroughs come in the transition from dissertation to book or articles. I would like to see the profession searching for ways to help young scholars bring their research to its fullest potential even if the realities of the job market mean that they have to do so outside of tenure-track positions or academia altogether. On our current course, we are going to miss out on a lot of great discoveries and a lot of important ideas. This goes for the field of urban history and for the profession in general.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
To my mind, some of the most interesting work is being done by scholars who are using the study of cities to upend national narratives. Historians like Kevin Kruse and Mathew Lassiter have examined the politics of Sunbelt cities and suburbs and have fundamentally changed the way that we think about the rise of modern conservatism. William Novak has used the close study of legal regulations in nineteenth-century cities to explode the myth of America’s laissez-faire origins. Urban historians’ main methodology is the community study. It can lead to parochialism. Scholars like these are using it to think big.

I also think that some of the strongest work in the field continues to be done by scholars who do what urban historians can do best: use space as an analytic category. Most recently, Eric Schneider, Alison Isenberg, Colin Gordon and Nathan Connolly have been leading the way in this.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Before enrolling in a Ph.D. program in history, I taught in elementary and high schools and earned a master’s degree in teaching. I’m convinced that this has helped me receive attention on the job market that I might not have gotten otherwise and that my past teaching experience has made my transition to life as a faculty member immeasurably easier. Ph.D. programs should consider integrating graduate certificate programs in teaching into their curricula. It is a way to simultaneously improve university instruction, to bolster the credentials of graduate students on the market, and to prepare them for alternative careers in primary or secondary education as well as in public history, which often entails teaching and educational outreach.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
I am finding the traditional route—working on articles and revising my book manuscript—pretty rewarding. One of the great surprises of my post-graduate-school career is how friendly a lot of editors at journals and university presses are. Most of them are willing to talk and offer advice. I would urge other new Ph.D.s to try to initiate these conversations as soon as they can. I have also found that having a couple small side projects going that are totally unrelated to the main focus of my research keeps me excited about all of my work.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
Mentors. I had the best mentors in graduate school imaginable. They gave infinitely of their time and shaped my thinking and my work in countless ways (of course, all of the shortcomings in this blog post and the rest of my work—past, present, and future—are my responsibility alone!). I think the single most important thing that a prospective doctoral student can do is to make sure that they enter a program with a faculty who have good professional reputations and who view graduate mentoring as a fundamental and exciting part of their jobs. I am also lucky to have excellent mentors where I currently work. They have made a huge difference in helping me figure out how to begin to achieve my professional goals.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
I would spend more time interrogating them rather than giving them advice. Will they regret having gotten a Ph.D. if they do not get an academic job? Can they view graduate school as a labor of love rather than as a professional steppingstone? Really? You know it is a ton of work, right? What about the opportunity costs accrued from sitting out of another career for all those years? Really? Okay, but really?

If this inquisition did not discourage them—and they promise not to enter a Ph.D. program if they have to take out a cent of debt to finance it—then I would not discourage them either. I loved graduate school. I would go back if they would have me and it paid enough.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
If they are still hoping to find an academic position, I might check to make sure that they have found a seasoned member of the profession who has sat on a lot of search committees and who is helping them through the process. If they showed interest, I might also put them in touch with a number of people I know who deserved tenure-track jobs but are now doing amazing things—working in museums, schools, at non-profits, as political activists—and in many cases prefer their current careers to academia. A lot of my friends who have moved into other professions have been surprised by how little time they have spent nursing regrets.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Administrative Post 19

Due to the July 4th holidays and a number of computer issues, there will be no posting this week.  Please return next week when the Eight Questions series returns with a discussion of Urban History.