Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blog CXXX (130): Eight Questions: South Asian History

Neilesh Bose, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas is the next contributor to the “Eight Questions” series.  Bose earned a BA from the University of Pittsburgh, a MA from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. from Tufts University.  At North Texas, he teaches classes in world history, British imperial, and South Asian history.  His research within South Asian history focuses on modern Islam, decolonization, empire, diaspora studies, and theater and performance studies.  His first book, Recasting the Region, Language, Culture, and Islam in Colonial Bengal, will appear on bookshelves in 2013.  It investigates decolonization, nationalism, and political identity in South Asia as represented and discussed in the literature of critics, writers, publishers, and financiers of the late colonial period.  His articles have appeared in South Asia Research and Modern Asian Studies.  He is currently part of a three-person research team, conducting oral histories of intellectuals born in the era of late colonialism and decolonization. This project has been supported with funding from several sources including the National Endowment for the Humanities. This team is exploring the links between ideas, culture, social experience, and urban geography in the age of decolonization in South Asia.  This work focuses on Bengali-speaking individuals across the divide of India and Bangladesh.  Here is his essay:

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
Risking the revival of an old cliché, I would say that the greatest strength of South Asian history is the sheer diversity of insight contained in the texts and practices of the South Asian past. South Asia’s diversity of classical and modern languages, religions, literary traditions, artistic styles, philosophical traditions, and encounters with the outside world offer the community of historians an unending array of research topics. As a field with so much material to study and learn from, South Asian history also lends itself to intensive debates about theory and methodology. It truly has something for everyone.

The greatest strength of the history profession comprises its ethical and democratic practices. When historians encounter the seemingly distant world of the past, they must infuse their research and dissemination with an ethical concern for the politics and culture of their present-day society. Also, historians are called upon to approach the encounter with humility and honesty, as the profession allows for any reader to check sources, visit archives, and query the historical interpretations, thereby creating a democratic approach to the creation of knowledge.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
The biggest issue facing South Asian historians working in the United States is the unpredictable and unstable publishing market for specialized historical research. Though the awareness of South Asia as a pivotal region of the world with its own distinctive history is increasing in the U.S. academy, the academic publishing market has not directly followed suit. In a time of economic downturns, South Asian historians must work with grace and imagination to place their work with academic publishers in ways that differ from historians in other fields.

The most important issue facing the history profession is the continual onslaught against humanist and social science education and training in the U.S. Though not a particularly new problem, the relative over-emphasis on fields that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to the detriment of fields like history must be addressed by the community of historians.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
There are so many interesting and important works that have appeared in recent works that it is difficult to identify one or two particular titles. In general, recent intellectual history in South Asia, with an emphasis on re-assessing the relations between South Asia and the outside world, is particularly exciting. Also, scholarship that re-assesses South Asia’s place within various regional configurations outside of the national or the imperial, such as using oceanic history frameworks, is also charting new vistas in our knowledge of the South Asian past. I think these two strands of current scholarship are important because they consider seriously not only moving beyond familiar national or imperial boundaries of history, but they actually introduce new frameworks that are relevant not only for South Asia but for the discipline as a whole.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching is doubtlessly essential to the professional development of an historian. Teaching is what connects you to the field in real time through the rough and tumble world out there, outside of your own idiosyncratic desires. It is not only deeply fulfilling, but a definitive component of being an historian. It forces you to continually connect to the ever-changing audience of students. History as a form of knowledge is a living, breathing entity that is always developing into new directions – without students and the teaching component of our professions, such liveliness would be impossible.

Though the requirements and relative emphasis on teaching vary from institution to institution, each and every institution values teachers who bring to the table sincerity, passion, and commitment. If I were to advise current graduate students, I would recommend not only assisting or fully teaching as much as possible for professional advancement, but also for the personal fulfillment that emanates from working through ideas and intellectual issues and problems with students. Often research ideas and insights arise from teaching experiences. Such experiences, especially at the beginning stages of a career, are invaluable.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
The scholarly terrain changes quickly, so what is considered “cutting-edge” may change between the start and end of a Ph.D. program. Do what is in your heart but make sure to open your mind to the guidance of those more seasoned in the publishing world than you are. Regarding the dissertation, though the initial audience is small, make sure you cultivate a sensibility for as broad an audience as possible as you develop your ideas and the overall book.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
There is no magic formula, but unfortunately the profession does work like most others: the name of the alma mater, the reputation of the dissertation advisor, the timeliness and popularity of the research topic all play a crucial role in career advancement. That said, the job market is absolutely unpredictable and it is impossible to identify one factor over all others that would ensure success.

For the first few years of a Ph.D., however, it is crucial to isolate as strong and as marketable a topic as possible. This topic will define you for several very important markers in your career and in many cases will make or break job, fellowship, and publication competitions. This topic also serves as your scholarly identity that will mark your entry into the profession after the Ph.D. Handle the decision about your topic with the utmost consideration. Choose a topic you are comfortable sticking with for several years. Once you are deep into the Ph.D. it will be nearly impossible to change it.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
I recommend thinking seriously about what the path of a Ph.D. in history and then a career in history entails before taking the plunge. There will be several years of intense work with little renumeration and a serious possibility of not finding a job in the field. All this will take place while friends and colleagues in other professions outside the academy are advancing in their own lives. Jobs and fellowship opportunities are strewn across the country and the world. If one is serious about an academic career, frequent and long-term moves will surely be in your future. If after all these considerations you decide you must do it, I do have a few suggestions.

First, get started on language study immediately. South Asian history is quite exciting but the language requirements are severe and particular, regardless of topic or time period.

Second, get immersed in research experiences in South Asia as soon and as often as possible. Unlike many other fields, doing research in South Asian libraries and archives often includes numerous bureaucratic hurdles and obstacles as well as challenges of many kinds unheard of in other historical fields. There are numerous sources of funding for travel as an undergraduate and as a language student. Get immersed not only in South Asia, but in research in South Asia, as soon as possible. This is the only time you will ever have to ease your way into South Asian research and work life – when you are doing dissertation research and research after your Ph.D., you will find that time is not on your side. Do as much as you can beforehand.

Third, discuss with prospective advisors your potential dissertation and path well before you submit your applications. Ensure that your prospective advisor is committed to your project before you embark on your Ph.D. Talk to current Ph.D. students at your designated institution and at other institutions. Trust meyou will learn from everyone.

All this basically means that you need to prepare accordingly and very early for a Ph.D. in South Asian history. It will likely take a bit longer than you think at first.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
There are plenty of jobs and career paths for a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department. First, though the academic job market is extremely unpredictable, a few factors are very important for every job search: cover letters, c.v. style, and approaches to interviewing are elements that you should polish and display to both junior and senior colleagues. Make sure to find at least one junior and one senior (tenured) colleague to read all your paper work and listen to your job talk. Also, do not be shy about asking colleagues at other institutions, regardless of rank, about search committee practices and priorities.

With expertise in South Asian history, one is also suited for work in study and travel abroad organizations that specialize in study/travel/language programs in India and other parts of South Asia.

For jobs outside of the university history profession, there are opportunities in K-12 teaching, government agencies (particularly the Office of the Historian of the Department of State), museums, publishing and editing, travel writing, and library science professions. Also, working in advanced administrative professions in the university is another option.

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