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.

No comments:

Post a Comment