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.

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