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.

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