Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Blog CLVI (156): The Johns Hopkins Proposal

Johns Hopkins University has recently announced a program designed to reduce its graduate student enrollment by a fourth. The university plans to use the money that is saved from providing teaching assistant stipends to these students to increase the amount they pay to the other three-fourths. William Egginton, vice dean for graduate education at Johns Hopkins, explained the proposal would help make the university’s programs "financially competitive with peers so that we are assured that graduate students choosing between Johns Hopkins and peer institutions can make those decisions based solely on the appropriate academic fit, without the complicating factor of lower stipends."

Rebecca Schuman, the education columnist for Slate.com, has endorsed this move: "I’m all for it, and I’d be delighted, not dismayed, if other universities emulated this strategy." She explains why: "A major research university has finally recognized, openly and publicly, that there are very few good jobs available for recent Ph.D.s in today’s barren and pitiful market. Rather than continue to populate senior professors’ seminars with a phalanx of minions who will then graduate into a jobless hellscape, Hopkins has elected to thin the herds in its own programs."

Tenure track faculty will be required to teach more undergraduate courses. This proposal has not gone over well with grad students at Johns Hopkins who are concerned that the university will increase its use of adjuncts rather using graduate teaching assistants, diluting the quality of a JHU degree. "Bless your hearts—you know what will worsen that problem?" Schuman asked. "When you and all your friends become adjuncts in five years."

I have to admit I am more with Schuman on this one than the grad students. It seems like the university has found a good way to address a serious problem. It reduces the supply, increases the viability of the grad students that are admitted to the school, and requires that faculty--the ones with the most experience and expertise, the ones that undergraduates and their parents (who are writing the checks to pay for that private school tuition) expect their children to be interacting with, actually deliver on their reputations. The faculty expecting light teaching loads might be disappointed, but they still get to work at a great school with a lot of perks. This solution seems quite reasonable and equitable. Like Schuman, I hope other institutions follow Johns Hopkins.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Blog CLV (155): Success Stories (2)

Today's posting is the second in the "Success Stories" series.  "Success Stories" is an attempt to share what some new scholars have done to beat the odds and find steady employment in the hopes that others my profit from the experiences of others.

This posting comes from Hillary R. Gleason, an assistant professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at Laredo Community College.  She recieved her BA from Our Lady of the Lake University, a MA degree from Texas A&M UniversityCommerce, and the Ph.D. from the State University of New York Binghamton.  Her dissertation is on the tenure of Lieutenant General Walter Beddell Smith as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  She has published book reviews in Presidential Studies Quarterly, History: Reviews of New Books, H-War, Kansas History, Intelligence and National Security, and the North Carolina Historical Review.  Prior to arriving at Laredo, she taught courses for SUNYBinghamton, SUNYOneonta, the University of Phoenix, and Texas A&M UniversityCommerce.  Here is her essay:

I began looking for a job while I was still technically ABD, about a semester before I graduated. At the time, I was not sure what I wanted to do with my Ph.D. Did I want to teach? Research? Go into administration? Go into the private sector? The good news was that I had options. The bad news was that I lacked direction. To compound my problem, I began looking for a job at the height of the Great Recession. Even today, the job market has improved but the overall picture remains bleak—making finding a job harder than ever before. 
In the end, I was lucky. I managed to get a job while most of my friends were still out of work and looking. I accepted a job teaching at a community college and, because I love teaching, it turned out to be a great fit. Yet the road to employment was rocky. I made some good decisions and plenty of mistakes along the way. 
My biggest mistake in the job hunt was that I tried to limit my geographical area. I really wanted to be near my family after being away so long. As a result, I limited my search to the Dallas area. This made finding a job impossible. Jobs for Ph.D.s (academic jobs, think tank jobs, etc.) are scarce anyway and the Recession did not improve matters. My limiting myself to a particular place I was effectively sabotaging myself. After months of frustration, I realized that the only way I was going to find anything was if I was willing to go where the job was (regardless of where that might be). Once I stopped limiting myself I had far more success. 
Another reason for my success was (oddly) my lack of direction. I was not emotionally tied to anything I had to be doing. This flexibility helped me get a job. For example, a lot of my friends felt like they had to be at a research institution. They would not even bother applying to smaller schools or community colleges. The hard fact is that there are only so many top-tier jobs available—most new graduates are going to have to aim a little lower. Pride goeth before the fall—or the employment line. 
I did not have any hang ups about where I was supposed to be. As a result, I applied anywhere and everywhere. I applied at community colleges, at smaller schools, at think tanks, and (yes) even at research institutions. I applied even when I was only marginally qualified. I was told “no” more than I was told “yes.” But my philosophy was that it never hurt to try. 
I applied to Laredo Community College (LCC) in one of my fits of “why not?” Every time I applied for a job, I would add it to a list I kept. This list enumerated what jobs I applied for, when, and listed a date (usually in about a week or two) when I needed to follow up. I added LCC to the list and forgot about it. About two weeks later I had not heard back from them, so I called the history department. My goal was to ask the secretary if my application had been received, what the time table was, etc. When I called and stated my purpose the secretary (to my shock and horror) quickly transferred me to the department head. 
The department head listened as I apologized for bothering him and then I repeated my questions about the application. He asked me a few questions and had me follow up with HR. It turned out that HR did not open the email that contained my letters of recommendation—hence my file was not complete and I was therefore not even being considered for the position. This is why following up is essential! Had I not checked on this, I would never have gotten the job. 
As it turns out, that conversation with the department head swung the door open for me. He was looking for someone with exactly my qualifications and a few days later I was invited for a campus interview. A few weeks after the campus interview, I was offered the job. What then followed was a mad scramble to contact all my pending application-holders and respectfully withdraw my name (better not to burn bridges, after all), move, and write lectures like a fiend (but that’s another story…). 
My job hunt was, admittedly, unorthodox. But the economic climate was so bad (and continues to be awful) that I was going to do what it took to get a job. I was not sure I would like teaching at a community college, but I knew that this did not have to be where I was forever. Why not give it a shot? As it turns out, I love my job. While I may not be here for the rest of my career, I am planning on sticking around for the foreseeable future. So, my advice is that you be flexible, humble, and persistent—you might find employment (and happiness) in an unexpected place!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Administrative Post 29

Someone asked why there were so few post in the Summer and early Fall.  A lot of things happened that got in the way.  Furloughs and a government shutdown prevented me from going into the office, using my work computer, or even checking e-mail.  (I am an employee of the Federal government).  Those two things slowed down productivity.  Despite all this work stoppage, duties piled up and the days back were even busier than normal.  While we were gone, work changed some of the access rules and now I cannot work on the blog from my office computer at all.  I also spent part of my summer working on my next two books.  It took some time to figure out ways to work around these issues.  I think and/or hope I have figured them all out and hope we can get to blogging.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

CLIV (154): Get Out of the Archives

In the film Saving Private Ryan, there is a scene earlier in the film when the door of a landing craft opens and U.S. soldiers charge on to OMAHA Beach.  They are mowed down by German machine gunfire almost instantly.  It is a power, jarring bit of filmmaking, and it gives the viewer a quick realization that the allied landings on D-Day were no simple thing.  The problem--it is not accurate.  Theatrical films getting the facts wrong is no big surprise. 

What is disturbing is the situation on the beachhead was actually a lot worse.  The Germans were no idiots.  They knew what was coming and had designed their defenses to thwart the American, British, and Canadian armies that they knew were going to invade France.  In 1999 I was part of a study abroad program that took a group of undergraduates taking a course on World War II to France.  We stood on the DOG GREEN section of OMAHA where that scene in Saving Private Ryan was supposed to have taken place.  We were in front of a German pillbox and I must say, director Steven Spielberg, his set design people and location scouts did a good job in giving their viewers a fairly accurate representation of the real thing.  The only difference was the pillbox was designed to fire not straight off the beach into the water and approaching land crafts, but was in an angled position to the waterline so it was in a position to fire down the length of the beach.  After our class discussed some the landing, we wondered off to explore the French coast.  I walked about a quarter mile up the sand and then turned around.  The pillbox looked like it was ten yards away.  I could see the gun slots clearly and someone there could easily have cut me down quickly with any type of firearm as the Germans did to so many U.S. soldiers.  I had no where to run, no where to hide.  The true danger of this killing zone hit me right then and there and it was a lot more powerful than a few seconds in a film.

Fast forward to November, 2013.  It is the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  Filmmaker Ken Burns has made a documentary on the speech and has started a project to get people to record videos of themselves reciting the Lincoln's remarks.  They are located on the website: http://www.learntheaddress.org/.  The idea is that these videos will help convey the inspiring power of history.  They do.  A number of famous people have already recorded their versions, including a number of members of Congress, President Barack Obama, every living former President and a number of actors.  The videos are short--between a minute and a half to a little more than two--and are inspiring and--in a few cases--emotional.  It is one thing to read the speech, it is another thing to see it delivered in person.  You quickly realize that Lincoln wrote something that was an exceptional piece of oratory.   

Last month I found myself through pure accident in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on a cold, Saturday afternoon.  The place was littered with historical reenactors in Union blue and Confederate grey.  It turned out it was the annual Remembrance Day parade in honor of the speech.  I spent several hours watching what must have been between 3,000 and 5,000 people march through he town accompanied by bands playing the songs of the 1860s.  The parade gave me a better appreciation of what the Army of Northern Virginia or the Army of the Potomac probably looked like when it was on the move; what individual soldiers looked like. 

Why are these three examples important?  Writing history well is extremely difficult for any number of reasons.  These range from you know how the story ends, to it is difficult to set up quotes well, to the fact that communicating idea and thesis with clarity and precision is such a  priority that other considerations fall by the wayside.  There are many others.  One of them is that when you are sitting down to write you are simply interacting with documents and other pieces of paper.  It is easy to forget that you are dealing with the lives of other people, even if they have been dead for a long time.  Teaching about the past is also difficult.  Consulting with other representations of the past can help the historian as an author and instructor present some of the power of the past.  There are any number of ways that this might be done.  Historical newsreels, sound recordings, still photos, and visiting actual sights are all ways of appreciating the past.  That understanding will come through in your text in ways large and small.  

So, get out of the archives!