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.

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