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.

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