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.

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