Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Administrative Post 21

The blog is on vacation this week as I take a research trip for my next book.  Return next week for another posting.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Blog CXXIX (129): Eight Questions: Modern European History

The Eight Questions series now turns to Modern European History.  Margaret Peacock is an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama, where she teaches courses on both Imperial Russian and Soviet History.  She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Texas.  She is the author of the forthcoming book: Contested Innocence: Images, Childhood, and the Struggle for Cold War Legitimacy.  She has also had articles published in The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, Cold War History, and the Russian-language journal Poslednie Obnovleniia.    In 2009 she was featured in a story in The New York Times about the academic job market.  She told the paper that during her job search many hiring committees were worried about making offers before their finances prevented them from holding other searches.   “I also know that many of the offers being made by departments to their chosen candidates are not as generous as they have been in past years, with higher teaching loads and less room to negotiate salary,”she said. “I am becoming increasingly convinced that I got in under the wire.”  Here is her essay:

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The greatest strength of Modern European History, I believe, is the lesson that it offers in revising how people think about the world around them. As any professor of the Modern European History survey course will tell you, in the end, one of the most important lessons that this history can teach the individual is that modernity is complicated and sometimes creates as much destruction as it does progress.

Likewise, the greatest strength of the history profession is its call to each person to see civilization as a fragile thing, filled with people of differing beliefs and social systems, all deserving respect and attention.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
I am a Russian historian, where the Putin administration is slowly increasing its hold over access to information. Archives that were once open are now closing and sensitive documents are disappearing. Many in my field are beginning to see the 1990s as a window of research opportunity that is unfortunately closing.

Regarding the profession in general, I think the recent economic downturn has brought to the fore a problem that has existed in our field for decades. The United States is producing too many graduate students who cannot find tenure track jobs when they finish their Ph.Ds. Many of these recent grads are forced to take low-paying adjunct positions that do not make a living wage and are entirely exploitative. This problem is compounded by the rising culture of hiring adjuncts that has taken place in the United States. Universities that are now driven on cost models have decided that they can save money by simply staffing their courses with adjuncts who get no benefits and make an average of $12,000 a year. It is a travesty and a problem that is, in the long run, going to impact negatively the quality of higher education and the pool of intellectuals who are able and willing to work in the United States.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
Every historian will answer this question differently. For me, the most interesting work is being done in the Cold War era by historians who are willing and able to do global, transnational, and comparative research. These new approaches are interesting because they are moving away from the traditional, geographically motivated structures of historical inquiry and are instead interested in seeing global connections that might otherwise be obscured.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching is valuable, without question. I think that the answer to this depends on one’s institution. We all enter the field with the idea that the three-legged stool of research, teaching, and service is what holds academics together. This is more the case at liberal arts colleges and less so at research universities where tenure is largely determined by publication record. I personally love teaching and have found fewer things more fulfilling than working with students who are enthusiastic about learning.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
In history, it is all about the book. Try to get a couple articles out, preferably not from chapters of your dissertation, and write a good book that has a broad appeal. In addition, you should write your dissertation as if it were a first draft of a book. Unless you are at the University of Chicago, the days of writing exhaustive, 700 page tomes are over. Write something smart and elegant that will not be too hard to convert for publication.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
If by this question you mean, what are the factors that determine whether or not you get a job, I can say that the field does matter. Given how saturated the field is with Ph.D.s who cannot find work, I would suggest to anyone thinking about doing a doctoral degree to consider not working in European or American history. I have sat on two search committees and voted on many more searches. The European and American vacancies receive an overwhelming number of applicants, most of whom are viable. In contrast, the fields of Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and to some extent Latin American History are in great demand and are not graduating the same number of students.

I am no expert on career success. Receiving funding and support from my department and from the Fulbright-Hays grant was crucial. I worked under a great doctoral advisor who was willing to give me the attention I needed. It helped, I think, to come from a top-20 graduate program [See Blog LXXIX (79): Hail to the Victor] and to publish some before going on the market. That said, I do not think that one has much control over one’s success once one goes on the market. I have had many brilliant friends who were looked over for reasons that make no sense.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
I hate to sound cynical, but my advice would be to think very carefully about making this decision. It involves a 7-10 year commitment, a serious expenditure of money, a tremendous amount of work that often receives no recognition, and can very likely end with no job. That said, if a student is committed and can see no other future for him or herself, then I would advise the following:
  1. Start on your languages three years ago. You need to be able to do research in two languages in order to get past the second year.
  2. Pick your grad school carefully. If you cannot get into one of the top programs then you probably should not be doing this. [See Blog LXXIX (79): Hail to the Victor] Moreover, choose your school according to the scholar with whom you want to work. Make sure that your future advisor will actually be willing to work with you and will support your project.
  3. Do not go to a school unless they are providing funding. This is not like law school and you will not make enough in the future to pay back loans.
  4. Go to a place that you can tolerate. Make sure it is in a city that you can enjoy.

What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
I can only offer sympathy. The standard advice is that you should have friends read your cover letters and listen to your job talk to help you polish it. References from big names in the field are always good and being able to cull connections does not hurt. But the truth is that in the end, hiring choices are impossible to control. Departments will often choose a candidate for reasons that have nothing to do with your publications record or the prestige of your program. I have some bright colleagues who have turned to teaching at private high schools. Others have jumped between one-year appointments and adjunct positions in the hopes that their continued publication with keep them viable on the market. Some have turned to consulting in the private sector. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that it is not your fault and you should not see your lack of employment as a reflection of your intelligence or your viability as a scholar.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Blog CXXVIII (128): Eight Questions: Gilded Age and Progressive Era History

The Eight Question series turns to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  Edward Frantz is an associate professor at the University of Indianapolis.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 2002 where Willliam Cronon, the current president of the American Historical Association, served on his committee.  Frantz is the author of the The Door of Hope: Republican Presidents and the First Southern Strategy, 1877-1933 (2011). At Indianapolis, he teaches courses on, the Civil Rights Movement, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1917), and the U.S. during the two world wars and Great Depression (1917-1945).  He is a member of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  He has an active Twitter account: @EdwardFrantz.  Here is his essay:
What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The greatest strength of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is that it continues to remain relevant and instructive to our lives in the present. It was a complicated, confusing, and complex time, but one that contains in it so many fascinating areas for a scholar to investigate.

The greatest strength of the historical profession, I believe, is that we deal with the human condition, which is inherently rich and interesting.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
Perhaps the most significant challenge for GAPE period, as it is often now abbreviated, is its fairly narrow chronological span. As the years go on, it will be interesting how departments define the areas in which they hire. Historians have long argued about the validity of the labels Gilded Age and Progressive Era, which could further contribute to the uncertainty. In turn, this might make it harder to train the next generation of specialists in the area. Because the questions that we ask are so essential, I have confidence scholars will find new and interesting ways to tackle issues in the GAPE period, but those structural challenges are real.

The history profession writ large simply has to deal with its relevance to the academy and to larger society. Too many of us focus our energies so narrowly, I fear, that we miss out on a broader public that tends to be quite interested in what we do. We cannot miss this opportunity. Moreover, we have not done enough to assert our importance in the face of the current emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathfields and other standardized testing that has dominated K-12 education.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
This is a tough one, simply because so many people are doing so many interesting things. I continue to find the transition from the end of Reconstruction through about 1900 to be absolutely intriguing. Therefore I find most interesting the projects examining meanings of freedom, restrictions on that freedom, the birth of the modern, and the various clashing world views that took place during that era. Overall, however, whenever I tend to pick up a publication like The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, or attend a conference, I am amazed at the creative things that my colleagues are doing. The financial crisis of the 2007-2010 is causing people to look at economic crises of the Gilded Age with fresh eyes, and those are quite interesting studies, too.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Absolutely indispensible. Teaching is where we test our ideas, our command of subject, and convey our passion. In turn, students — both graduate and undergraduate — help to fuel our own intellectual interests. Although those who read a variety of publications might think that teacher/scholar model is dead, I would submit that it often healthier than people tend to think.

New audiences of students, asking new questions, also keep professors sharp, on their toes, engaged, and relevant.

As a graduate student, I tried to be a teaching assistant in a wide variety of classes. These experiences made me a better teacher, scholar, and historian.

Finally, a dramatic portion of a career (particularly at a medium or smaller sized school) is summed up by the people whose lives we help to change. This component is extremely rewarding.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Any direction they can find. The terrain is shifting so quickly that it is hard to foresee what academic publishing will look like in ten years. Being able to write for a variety of audiences, in a variety of genres or styles, would seem to be particularly necessary.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
I would be hard pressed to say which of these affects career development most, because a career really is shaped by all of these. I was lucky enough to land a tenure track job right when I finished my Ph.D. That is not true for most people. But if you get on that path, the arc of a career can be quite interesting. I am a decade into my ride, and it has gone in directions that I never would have imagined when I started graduate school.

If we were to focus on the first two to three years upon earning the Ph.D., I would say the things that matter most are the topic that you choose for your dissertation and the support that your institution can provide. Your dissertation, for better or worse, will define you to the rest of the academy for years to come. Thus, it needs to be chosen with the greatest of care. The institutions that can support their junior faculty with lighter teaching loads and plenty of time for research and writing are the ones that help young faculty jump start their careers most successfully. Each of the other pieces, though, is vital, and all deserve scrutiny.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
In pursuing this quest, you will have odds about as long as the 14 year old who dreams of becoming a professional athlete. If you do not know the ins and outs of how the historical marketplace works (and odds are you do not), educate yourself. It has never been easier to find out about departments and professors. Look at websites. Talk to advisers and everyone you can at your current school. Contact prospective programs.

The discipline itself is as rewarding as one can imagine, but it is also an extremely hard slog, where the definition of success tends to be so narrowly construed that even some people who are undeniably successful feel like failures.

As an undergrad, you probably are not aware of how specific and narrow many fields of study are. Each of these contains special opportunities as well as special challenges. Choose a future field extremely carefully.

I would also recommend that you identify graduate programs where faculty members can be strong advocates for you. With the market unlikely to change any time soon, you will need to be shepherded by someone who is deeply invested in your training and will want to help you throughout your whole career.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Look elsewhere! Your skills tend to be the ones that all employers desperately want. Most historians are not particularly good at marketing themselves, but if you can work on this, you should be able to convince a variety of employers that you would be an asset to their company.

There is nothing wrong with a life outside of a history department. Indeed, one can live a life with history and not be a professional historian. In fact, many of my friends from graduate school do so. This also means that there are alternatives within academia that you should not rule out, either.

You can still publish, write, and research, without a job in a history department. Public history is thriving, and there are so many alternative careers now that you should not dismay.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Administrative Post 20

The blog is taking a little vacation while I am away on a research trip.  Return next week for more comments and observations as we blog about careers in the history business.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Blog CXXVII (127): Military History

Douglas Ford of the University of Salford, where he is a lecturer in the School of English, Sociology, Politics, and Contemporary History, is the next contributor to the Eight Questions series.  His comments are on military history.  After spending his first two years as an undergraduate in the United States, Ford transfered to Royal Holloway, University of London where he earned a BA in history.  He then earned a MA and Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.  Before arriving at Salford, he taught at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.  Ford's articles have appeared in the three main journals in military history: The Journal of Military History, War and Society, and War in History.  He has also presented papers at military conferences in France, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  He has written three books: Britain's Secret War Against Japan (2006); The Elusive Enemy: U.S. Naval Intelligence and the Imperial Japanese Fleet (2011); and The Pacific War: The Clash of Empires During World War II (2011).  In 2008 the U.S. Navy's Naval History and Heritage Command awarded him the Ernest M. Eller Prize for the best article written in naval history the previous year.  He is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
Military and diplomatic history are not only interesting, but they hold a direct relevance on current events. Despite numerous transitions that have taken place during the course of civilization, many of the basic principles regarding the conduct of warfare and diplomacy have remained unchanged. Your knowledge of the field therefore can have an impact not only on academic audiences. With your understanding of the key features which influence the business of statecraft, you have the potential to inform the discourse and debates taking place at some of the highest levels of the political and military establishment. Many of my colleagues have seen their careers prosper because their scholarship is valued by "real world" audiences. They regularly present papers at conferences attended by civil servants, as well as employees of non-governmental organizations, and carry out consultancy work for bodies such as the U.S. State Department, Department of Defense, and their counterparts in foreign countries.

What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
Despite its obvious intellectual and practical uses, graduates who hold advanced degrees in fields of military and diplomatic history often face difficulties in "selling" their expertise to prospective employers. This is mainly because universities in the U.S., and to a lesser extent, overseas higher education institutions, have become dubious about the value of offering courses that cover the history of warfare and diplomacy. In the American university system, which has been emulated by many of its overseas counterparts, there has been a tendency since the Vietnam era, to denigrate military and diplomatic history as subjects which focus on the thoughts and actions of the white middle-class male elites who most often make decisions without considering the interests of the common citizens. For this reason, history departments have scaled down their offerings in the field, and focused more on the socio-cultural dimension of history. As a result, graduates face an uphill task in finding full-time employment, and even when they manage to find jobs, they feel alienated in amidst colleagues who do not fully appreciate the value of their scholarship. An effective way to get around this problem is to target organizations which run dedicated programs in the field of military/diplomatic history. The service academies and the war colleges are an obvious starting point. A number of civilian establishments in the US and abroad also offer degree programs in the field, and run quite a lucrative enterprise, so freshly-minted Ph.Ds should not feel like they are fighting a futile cause.

What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
The most interesting pieces of scholarship being done in my field are those which address the question of how cultural factors and historical traditions influence the way in which various nations conduct the business of warfare and diplomacy in the unique manner that they do. A "strategic culture" approach to military/diplomatic history has the potential to offer an innovative explanation of the recurring patterns which have shaped the behavior of many of key world powers.

How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
It all depends on the type of organization you want to work at. If you are seeking a career at the small liberal arts college, where the focus is on education, proving your competence in the classroom is not the only thingit is everything. On the other hand, graduates seeking employment at the research-oriented universities need to take a more focused approach, and try to figure out how their scholarship can help them become an effective educator. One of the biggest challenges facing starting-level candidates is to map out their territory, and to identify the types of courses they can teach with the knowledge and understanding which they have acquired through their research. My adviceinstead of sticking to the confines of your thesis and the adjacent subject areas, aim to develop a teaching portfolio that covers a broader chronological and geographical span. For example, I started off as an expert on British intelligence on the Japanese armed forces during World War II. On my initial applications, I offered to teach courses on the Pacific War, British strategic/foreign policy, Japanese history, and the history of intelligence. Was I over-selling myself? Not at all. As a graduate student, I developed a background understanding of the key features of each subject area. As a starting academic, I was prepared to fine-tune my knowledge so that I could conduct university-level courses for students who did not have a great deal of familiarity in those areas.

What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Getting your thesis published is a key prioritythat is obvious. But one book is not going to get you very far in the job market, especially if you are aiming to work at a university which is looking for proficient scholars. This is your chance to make use of all that "extra material" which you wanted to include in your thesis, but were not able to, owing to the constraints imposed by the 100,000 word limit. Aim to publish a good handful of journal articles on topics that you addressed in your thesis, but could not do so in great detailnow is the time to display the depth and breadth of your knowledge! The more reputable the journal, the more you should aim to get published there. Some periodicals are reserved exclusively for the established scholars. But there are a number of journals with an international reputation for excellence (War in History, Journal of Military History, Journal of Strategic Studies, to name a few) which are always seeking to publish the works of young scholars who have fresh ideas to share. Getting published is an excellent way to bolster your vitae, and make yourself look more employable.

What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
While various factors such as the popularity of one’s area of expertise, and the status of their alma mater, can affect the fortunes of starting academics, the bottom line is that we all enter the profession with our own strengths and weaknesses. Nobody has any reason to think that their inherent weaknesses place them at a perennial disadvantage. In the end of the day, persistence can go a long way in overcoming any shortcomings we may think that we have, and this rule applies with special vigor to the academic profession. Once you are in the door, the quality of your home institution has a decisive impact on your career. The best ones offer generous amounts of financial support for research, they exempt starting academics from onerous teaching and administrative tasks, and provide colleagues with the mentoring needed to become an effective scholar-educator. But again, success depends on your own initiative, and there is no substitute for hard work and dedication. You are, in many ways, the deciding factor of your own fortunes!!

What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Have a careful think about why you are interested. If you simply want to stay in a university environment, you will find that the life of a grad student is quite different from the care-free life of an undergrad. If you want to study something in greater detail, that’s fineyou have chosen the right activity, but you also need to think about whether the life of a scholar/educator is something that you really want to pursue. If you indeed want to join the ranks of academia, don’t expect to simply walk into a job upon completing your simply won’t be there, but the upside is that the dedicated and resourceful ones will be able to find what they’re looking for (see answers to "What issues affect…", above).

What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Take advantage of the fact that your knowledge and skills can be valued by non-academic employers (see section on "What is the greatest strength"). Think about working for a government organization or a think-tank for a couple of years before finding a full-time job at a university. In the meantime, increase your prospects by churning out your publications. As long as you show a commitment to the academic profession, you are not going to fall off the proverbial turnip truck. Like I mentioned earlier, persistence is a large part of the game. I was at the end of my tether when I landed my first job, which was a temporary post, and was on the verge of having the plug pulled on me when I finally landed my current "tenure track" post. I had no outstanding advantages aside from the keenness and ambition of a starting academic. In the end, it turned out that it helped me get a foot on the employment ladder. There’s no reason why it should not work out for anyone else.