Monday, September 17, 2012

Blog CXXXI (131): Eight Questions: Middle Period and U.S. Civil War

The Eight Questions series now turns to the history of the Middle Period and the U.S. Civil War.  Robert Bender is a Wisconsin native who earned a BS degree at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.  He then earned a MA and Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas.  His first book was Like Grass before the Scythe: The Life and Death of Sgt. William Remmed, 121st New York Infantry, 1862-1864 (2007).  He followed that effort with Worthy of the Cause for which they Fight: The Civil War Diary of Brig. Gen. Daniel Harris Reynolds (2011). His articles and reviews have appeared in the Missouri Historical Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Journal of Illinois History. West Virginia History, Illinois Historical Journal, Michigan Historical Review and the Wisconsin Magazine of History.  He has been a member of the History Department faculty at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell since 2002.  Here is his essay:

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
The greatest strength of the history profession is the way it promotes the ability to evaluate evidence and express those assessments in a coherent fashion. The greatest strength of the Middle Period and Civil War field is the way it promotes thoughtful reflections on how much our population, government, and nation have advanced in relation to the fundamental issues that define us as multicultural population (and what areas exist for continued improvement).
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
As with all academic fields, there is a trend among politicians to assess education as a commercial product rather than as an intellectual process, and to simultaneously under-invest in educational facilities, equipment, and salaries – supposedly in the name of a balanced budget, but which demonstrate a lack of administrative understanding of pedagogy and assessment. No nation has ever maintained its position in the world through these types of short-sighted policies.
  What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
Scholarship that explores the Civil War years in a way that blends the social, political, and military events as a cohesive national experience (rather than as phenomenon to be separately investigated).
  How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Extremely important, especially given the number of schools that define themselves as student-oriented or teaching-focused. Graduate schools need to do more to prepare their graduates as teachers, not just researchers (i.e. graduate schools need to prepare their graduates more for the immediate job market needs of those graduates; programs with limited numbers of graduate assistantships need to rotate more of their graduate students through that form of teacher-training to improve their chances on the job market).
  What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Edit a manageable collection of primary materials for publication; it’s a great way to develop writing and research skills in a project with excellent potential for publication. As much as possible, organize your dissertation in a way that will allow you to initially publish it as a series of related articles.
  What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma mater, etc.?
Popularity of field and reputation of alma mater exert the greatest impact on the starting point of a career, because those factors have the most impact on entry-level job market prospects. Factors such as resources and family have greater impact on the balance between life and career, once that career is underway.
What advice would you give to an undergraduate interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Be reflective enough to understand why you want to pursue graduate studies and a career in history. Work on your writing skills as much as possible and try to determine your field of specialty as soon as possible.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Remember that the skills developed through the study of history are transferrable to many non-teaching fields and public history institutions, such as government agencies or museums and archival repositories.

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