Friday, November 2, 2012

Blog CXXXIII (133): Eight Questions: Latin American History

Steven Bunker is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama where he teaches classes in Mexican and Latin American history. Bunker earned a BA and a MA from the University of British Columbia, and a Ph.D. from Texas Christian University. His is the author of the book Creating Mexican Consumer Culture in the Age of Porfirio Díaz to be published in December 2012. He has also published articles in Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos and the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing in addition to several essays in works published in French, Spanish, and English. His research interests in consumption, modernity, and the influence of the French in Mexico has now shifted for his second book project to Ricardo Bell and the English clown invasion of Latin America during the half century before World War I.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
What attracted me from the first was the interdisciplinary character of Latin American history. This trait is a strength that reflects and is reinforced by the remarkable range of investigative possibilities and diversity of the societies and the people that we have chosen to study. Because the region is such an historical crossroads of empire and the exchange of goods, people, and ideas, much of our scholarship has long anticipated the vogue of transnationalism, globalism, and the questioning of the nation-state paradigm. Of course, proximity to the United States (especially Mexico) drives interest on our work, although the same can’t be said for Canada . . .

The greatest strength of our profession is that it presents the complexity and context necessary to better imagine our collective past and, by extension, to understand and embrace the complicated nature of our current world as normative rather than exceptional. Those hallmarks of thinking historically—context and complexity—are essential to a functioning democracy, inoculating citizens from the presentism and puerile ideology of much public and political discourse.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
Latin American history experienced a heyday of public interest and government support after the Cuban Revolution that continued through the Cold War as other social revolutions in the region and the threat of Soviet influence kept the region’s profile relatively high among U.S. policymakers and in the press. With the end of the Cold War, interest and support has waned with the exception of highly politicized topics such as drugs and immigration. The retention of interest among the public and university administrators along with maintaining sufficient publishing outlets for monographs are two of the biggest issues facing our field.

The history profession in general faces these issues. The lack of public support for the humanities at all levels and the belittling of a Liberal Arts education by our political elite threaten us all.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
Studies of historical memory are surging in our field. The secretive Dirty Wars waged by South American military juntas in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile (among others) from the 1960s through the 1980s against any opposition drive this scholarship. Even in putative democracies, such as Mexico, longstanding government opposition to releasing or heavily redacting documents on events such as the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and its official cover-up have pushed scholars to rely on oral sources for studies that have broad popular support. Studies of Catholicism, particularly an emphasis on competing visions of Catholicism and the interaction between church authorities and parishioners, are providing a richer understanding of the role that religion in all its forms played during both the colonial and modern period. Economic historians of Latin America employing the methodology of “New Institutional Economics” have shaken up classical approaches by including a society’s norms and cultural values in their analyses. Historians of science and technology should pay attention to the caliber and abundance of studies being produced on both the colonial and modern period of Latin America. Work on Brazil continues to increase in quantity and sophistication as the field, long subordinated and separated from that of the former Spanish American colonies, benefits from present-day Brazil’s growing geopolitical and economic importance.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
If you want employment at a college or university you had better achieve competency in the classroom by the time you are on the market. While it is true that the type of institution dictates the priority of teaching versus research, many search committees at Research 1 schools (including the University of Alabama) consider teaching experience and evaluations when deciding on an interview short list. Moreover, they may require a teaching demonstration as well as a job talk for on-campus interviews. In a job market where every opening receives an abundance of applications, strong teaching combined with excellent research and publications may help put you on the short list. Develop at least three courses (and preferably teach at least one) that demonstrate your interest in and ability to handle courses beyond the chronological, geographical, or thematic scope of your narrow research interests. In other words, demonstrate your versatility. The vast majority of search committees at teaching institutions (particularly in small departments) are searching for this characteristic in candidates. As a Latin Americanist in a department dominated by U.S. and European historians I am, by necessity, a Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to teaching and I developed and taught eight courses prior to tenure. For me, teaching and interacting with students can be frustrating at times but overall it is an invigorating and fulfilling diversion from the isolation of research and writing.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
For the type of publishing I would harp on publishing the dissertation regardless of institution. Even if you land a job at a teaching institution that does not require a book for tenure, a book expands your future employment options and ensures you are not beholden to your first job. I would also counsel publishing in a respected journal at least one article based on your dissertation. While you will be inundated with requests to review books or contribute to encyclopedias, be selective and, for the most part, learn to say no until you have the book published. In terms of direction of publishing, expand beyond the typically-narrow focus of your dissertation. Funding agencies (and publishers) want research with a broad appeal. Read widely, beyond your specialization, for ideas and approaches that you can bring to your research and field. Of course, if you have a tenure-track job, be sure to know the department requirements for tenure and focus on fulfilling them.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
If we are talking about obtaining a job, then certainly choice of field, the subject and quality of your dissertation, and the reputation and resources of your advisor and degree-granting institution are all major factors in your success. Although far from guaranteed, your odds are noticeably higher landing a job in the current market as an historian of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and (to a lesser extent) Latin America rather than the United States and Europe. Without the financial support for research provided by my institution and outside funding from the Canadian government I would never have been able to visit the variety or archives and accumulate the range of sources that supported my dissertation and gave me time to develop my ideas and hone my arguments. If you have a job, school resources and support from your department and administration move to the top of the list. I would also add that networking at various levels (graduate students, junior and senior professors, librarians and archivists) from the moment you start your degree is essential, whether for keeping up with job and publishing opportunities, new archival sources, or general information on navigating our profession. Finally, family is an important variable. Life and research trips abroad are much less complicated without a significant other or dependents. For those embracing complexity in their personal lives, having a partner who supports your chosen path with its long hours and often extended trips away from home is a necessity. Be prepared for developments that force you to refocus the life path you’ve envisioned. For example, during my Master’s I planned to avoid a serious relationship at least until I finished my Ph.D. Then I met a confident and independent woman who loved to travel. Next thing I knew I was married and raising children while writing my dissertation. What could have been a disaster was instead a source of confidence and support (well, and sleep deprivation) because we discussed realistically our needs and the demands of our respective paths before we made any big decisions. I encourage you to do the same.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Honestly, I steer most students away unless they are exceptional. I detail the requirements, particularly the need for languages and a depth and breadth of reading that most are incapable or unwilling to achieve. I explain the realities of graduate school and the job market. I hit them with dire statistics and the trends in academic hiring. If they are still interested and I think them capable (such hubris) I discuss the importance of the advisor and program, the field of study, and the dissertation topic as well the necessity of acquiring funding. I then send the student to research programs and advisors. I also come up with a list of a handful of colleagues in universities with strong programs and have the student contact them for advice on general and program-specific grad school preparation. I then wish them good luck, tell them to work on their language skills now, and counsel them to draft a Plan B.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Set a time limit on how long you are willing to pursue this career path and have a backup plan. Be persistent, get feedback if possible from any interviews you may have had, and remember that hiring decisions are often based on considerations that you have little control over. That said, have others look at your letter of application, make sure you discuss everything the job posting asks for, and be sure to tailor your letter to the type of organization to which you are applying . . . and remember, no one wants to read two pages on your dissertation.

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