Thursday, June 19, 2014

Blog CLXVI (166): The Historian and Technology

How important is technology in our professional lives? That is one of several questions that my course here at the Naval War College considers, but I have been applying that question from the realm of military and diplomatic history to the contemporary practices of historians. And my answernot that much.

We essential do the same thing we did a century ago. We collect primary documents, preferably those that were written at the time by the historical actors we are studying, and we put them together in a narrative that becomes a book. The questions we ask about the past these days are the function of social, cultural, political, and intellectual changes in society. Technology has not driven too many of the big systemic changes between 1914 and 2014. To give but one example, African American history is a legitimate issue for investigation these days, whereas few historians of a hundred years ago would have spent much time on this topic. (Case in point, The Journal of Negro History which is now The Journal of African American History had not even been founded in 1914).

Don't get me wrong technology has helped and helped in some big ways. Word processing programs make it much easier to write; easier even then would have been the case in the 1970s when scholars would have been using typewriters or hiring people to type their handwritten manuscripts. E-mail has facilitated communication between scholarsthink about what it would take to put together a conference panel in the mid-1980s given the communication technologies of the day, and remember long distance phone calls were expensive back then. The photocopier was a huge boon to scholars. Before then research trips required careful note taking and that is a slow process. The photocopier and then later the scanner and digital camera have made it easier for us to copy more information accurately. The internet has helped a lot too. In the 20 years that it has been around (as far as the general public is concerned) a lot of content has been pumped into it. You can now do library catalog searches from the other side of the country and you do not have to methodically go through the card catalog system in the first floor of a library, but can use search terms and find stuff fast. There are now many databases where you can do similar searches and pull up journal articles, or primary sources. I have been using the ProQuest Historical Newspaper Database like crazy for a current project and it has complete runs of newspapers like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for the World War II years that I am investigating. Many archives are putting electronic scans of important collections on their websites, making it possible to do primary research in your office or home.

As important and useful as those tools are to writing and researching, they are just means to an end. We still communicate via the written word primarily in journal articles and books.  Although the publishing industry is having a difficult time in this economy, it is not going away anytime soon.

All of that might seem fairly straight forward, but last month, Emily Van Buren, a Ph.D. student in history at Northwestern University, posted a blog entry on the Gradhacker blog at Inside Higher Ed with an extremely clear title: "Should You Blog Your Dissertation Research?"  She is apparently considering doing so.

My answer: Hell, no!

There are a lot of reasons for my answer, but to be concise: you do not want to give away your findings and research in a venue that will give you little credit.  Putting all your interesting findings in a blog, will rob the dissertation (and the book that should flow from it later) of its importance and original contribution.  If all findings are available on-line, why should a publisher spend money putting into print?  In addition, the internet is a mighty perishable media format.  I have tried getting copies of articles from various media outlets in which I was mentioned (I still have the exact address) with no luckthey are gone.  Books and dissertations might be old school, but they will endure. 

Then again, I might be wronga bit.

The Winter 2013-2014 issue of Columbia Magazine has a cover story on Matthew Connelly, professor of history at Columbia University. Connelly believes that a major new tool awaiting historians in the future lies in using computers to analyze and assess massive numbers of documents. Connelly has put together a team of computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians working on a multimedia research project called the Declassification Engine to tackle the failure of the U.S. government to declassify documents in a timely manner.  To be more specific, this team is using data mining to infer what the government is not declassifying and in the process they are picking up statistical indicators of events and episodes that historians have missed up until now.

In a big way, this use of data mining could change historybut the ultimate product of this effort will probably still be books.  We might be entering a brave new world, but it looks a lot like the last one.  Technology is a means to an end and the objective has not really changed.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Blog CLXV (165): The Fall of the Roman Empire

The National Football League just announced that Super Bowl 50 will be Super Bowl 50 and not Super Bowl L.  The league began using Roman numerals to mark their championship game starting with the second one in 1967.  (There was no Super Bowl I; it was the 1966 NFL-AFL Championship Game. At the time there were two professional leagues playing American football and what became the Super Bowl pitted the champs of each league against one another.  The American Football League merged into the NFL in 1970 with the Super Bowl remaining as the championship game of this super-sized league).

It would seem that the NFL has learned the same lesson I learned; it is fun to call things Blog III or Super Bowl VI.  Everyone knows the lower numbers and the Roman numbers add a bit of flash to your undertaking, but when you starting getting into really big numbers like 160 or CLX Roman numbers become a real liability.  I figured I was in for a penny, in for a pound and kept the Roman system, but I put the more familiar Arabic numbers in parenthesis.  It will be interesting to see if the NFL stays with Arabic or goes back to Roman.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Blog CLXIV (164): History in Congress

A few days ago the National Coalition for History, which is a lobbyist organization in Washington, D.C. funded by a number of scholarly organizations, announced that its efforts to create a Congressional History Caucus had finally resulted in the creation of that organization. Two Republicans and two Democrats in the House of Representatives agreed to serve as the leadership of this organization. The purpose of the new caucus is to celebrate the past of the United States and use historical knowledge to make better legislation. The four congressmen state that a passion for history should cross partisan and ideological divides.

Sounds really good, right.?

Yes, of course, it does, but I am not sure it really matters.

A caucus is a group of members in the United States Congress that share common interests of one sort or another. Sometimes they are divided along partisan lines, sometimes they are bipartisan. Some are limited to members of only one branch of the Congress, some include members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Congressional History Caucus is currently limited to members of the House of Representatives. There is talk of creating another one in the Senate.

I do not have a problem with this new caucus. I am just not sure it will matter. There are currently 312 caucuses that members of the House can join. Some of them are serious and powerful. For examples, see the Congressional Black Caucus or the Republican Study Committee. Others make you wonder. These are the likes of Congressional Friends of Scotland Caucus or the Congressional Cut Flower Caucus. Some seem like social organizations. The Congressional Baseball Caucus and the Congressional Boating Caucus come immediately to mind. Oddball organizations are not particularly new. In 1949 House Republicans formed the Chowder and Marching Society, which was part political and part social. The two most famous members were Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. Here is the current list of caucuses in the House.

Now historians have their own caucus. Do not be surprised if it has little direct or indirect impact on your career.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Blog CLXIII (163): Is Blogging Scholarship?

Is blogging scholarship? That was the topic of a session at the recent annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. The session had a number of historians that have gotten involved in blogging activities and who have-and this point is important-established traditional records of scholarship to their name.

My response to this question: Are you serious? No! Not in anyway.

The session was impressive. The chair of the session was Jeffrey Pasley of the University of Missouri who contributed to the team blog The Common Place.  The participants run some of the more important blogs out there like Ann Little of Colorado State and the blog Historiann, John Fea of Messiah College and The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Mike O'Malley of George Mason University who has a blog called The Aporetic, Ben Alpers of the University of Oklahoma who is part of the team that writes for the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, and Kenneth Owen of the University of Illinois at Springfield and writes for The Junto blog. These blogs have large audience-on blog terms-and each is very different from the other.

Little said "no." Her reason: "Blogging is not scholarship because at least in the case of single-authored blogs, it is not peer reviewed." All the others said some version of "yes." They were wrong.

Every point Little made has merit. She noted that a newly-minted Ph.D. needs to worry about getting published in traditional venues and that blogging takes time away from that effort. She is right. Blogging is not peer-reviewed and does not count for tenure or promotion. She is right. Blogging can "advance and promote" scholarship, but it is not scholarship in and of itself. She is right. John Fea admitted that everything she said was correct: "This is the way things are."

I would have made other points. Very few historians blog and there is a reason for that. We have many outlets for getting our views out there: books, journals, anthologies, classrooms, conferences, and journalism as either a source or a guest contributor. There is not a lot of value added in this medium. Blogging is a mighty perishable medium. Traditional research and publications endure for decades. For some fields of scholarship that move slowly-like history-that is an important consideration. (Some historiographies move rapidly others see one major work every two or three decades). Will the article published in a journal be available in a library in 25 years when some grad students who is 5-years old at the moment wants to read and then cite the work. Will that be the case with a blog? No idea, but my guess is not. I want endurance, which is why I try to avoid citing websites. They change often quite frequently and I want people to look at my source material as well as my findings.

Nor are there any quality filters. Peer-review is a gate keeping mechanism to ensure quality. There are other mechanisms in place in different mediums to ensure quality. The professional reputation of journalists, editors, and literary agents keeps them from pushing forward bad ideas. With any blog, anyone with an internet connected can post anything no matter how dubious.

Media formats have changed fairly quickly over the past three or four decades. There is nothing to say that will not happen again in the next decade or two. In fact, the electronic communication media seems to be moving away from blogging. Just type "Is Blogging Dead" into Google and see the results.

The other participants said, there was value in blogging. I would not dispute that, nor did Little. Fea said many colleges are taking a broader view of scholarship, using the ideas of scholarship that Ernest Boyer advocated. I doubt that. More importantly, his position did not rebut Little's argument. O'Malley said scholarly communication is constrained to a few mediums and there are other ways to do this and the blog is one way. Maybe, but only maybe. Alpers and Owen were more enthusiastic, but not convincing. Owen noted he is trying to use his blogging for tenure purposes and that his university is using the Boyer model.

Like Little, I have invested a good deal of time and energy into blogging. I have done so with a realistic understanding of its limits. Some people believe it helps authors connect with other writers and with their audiences. Maybe, but I think that is more the exception rather than the rule. If blogging really works well, it can help build a reputation just like an article in The New Republic, but an article in The Atlantic or The Huffington Post or an op-ed is not scholarship. Bolstering your reputation is never a bad thing.

To see the entire session, go to Youtube. The question and answer session is quite interesting.

You can also read the contributions of each participant:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Blog CLXII (162): Friends Don't Let Friends MOOC

The purpose of this blog is to discuss career management issues in history. It has already discussed the danger that on-line education poses to the new faculty member in Blog CXXXIX (139): On-line Education: More of the Same. Massive On-line Open Courses are another, similar threat, but one that might be fading now.

One of the main reasons Massive On-line Open Courses were popular was that they seemed to offer a way out of the problem of rising college tuition and student loan debt loads. The idea of MOOCs also combined with a traditional American view that technological change is always a good thing.  President Barack Obama stated that MOOCs were the "tide of innovation ...that drives down costs while preserving quality." New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described MOOCs as a "revolution" and Stanford University President John Hennessy said on-line instruction was a "tsunami coming." Sebastian Thrun, who left Stanford to form Udacity, one of the first companies to implement MOOCs, claimed that in 50 years there would only be 10 universities left on the entire planet.

The hype surrounding MOOCs was not limited to the United States. David Willetts, the British cabinet officer in charge of education said MOOCs would keep Britain's place in the "global race of higher education."

There were some skeptics. Catharine Hill, President of Vassar College, noted: "I don't think we know yet about the quality implications or the cost implication." Karan Khemka of the Parthenon Group noted in the Financial Times, "MOOCs are unlikely to prove a silver bullet for students or universities."

The bloom seems to have come off the MOOC rose. Hennessy recently said MOOCs failed at Stanford on two very important counts: mass and openness. He told the Financial Times that such courses were too large and failed to either engage and motivate the majority of students. "Two words are wrong in MOOC: massive and open," he said. Most people taking online courses at his school were "not ready for the material at the same level" as Stanford students. San Jose State University bailed on the entire concept, noting that MOOCs had a high fail rate.

These problems are not unique to U.S. schools. Edge Hill University England offered a course on Vampires in English literature and of the 1000 students that enrolled, a total of 31 finished. That is a completion rate of 3 percent. And to add insult to injury, none opted to pay so they could receive credit for the course. Not a one.

Reservations about these type of courses is growing. The Babson Survey Research Group has charted the growth of online education over the past decade. In a survey conducted in 2013, asked chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education. The finding: massive open online courses are not sustainable for the schools offering them and "cause confusion about higher-education degrees."

Thrun is admitting defeat. He now works for Google and described Udacity's courses as "a lousy product." Ouch!

The best defense for MOOCs has come from Mike Cassidy, a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News: "And here's the thing: Like any technology-based disrupter, it's not so much that the new idea itself will make the world a better or worse place. It's how the new idea is deployed that makes the difference."

The best I can say in responses is maybe, but only maybe. The tide appears to have turned against MOOCs and if so, that is a good thing. That, though, maybe what I want to see. MOOCs are bad for history, bad for education, and bad for historians. They (and a lot of other on-line courses) are a way for institutions to limit the need for classroom instructors. As this essay comes to an end, I am going to repeat what I said in Blog CXXXIX: if you are every offered this type of employment, walk away.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Administrative Post 30

Sorry about the delays in new postings.  The end of the semester at the Naval War College was demanding.  (The NWC has a slightly different schedule than most universities).  Then there was a family funeral after which everyone got sick.  Funerals at Arlington National Cemetery are impressive, but demanding when it is 20 degrees and snowing.  More in a day or two.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Blog CLXI (161): Progress and the Job Crisis

It would seem that a number of scholarly organizations in the field of history are beginning to take the job crisis seriously.  It is one thing to talk about the crisis and to publish articles, bringing attention to the problem, but it is a whole different thing to actually take action.  The American Historical Association had its annual meeting a month ago and the sponsored a job fair at the conference.  Individuals representing organizations and specialties, including the National Library of Medicine, the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, National Council on Public History, St. Albans School, the RAND Corporation, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Compass Lexecon, the Naval History and Heritage Command, US Army Center of Military History, the Smithsonian Institute, the National Museum of American History, and DC Public Schools had booths and talked about employment opportunities with their institutions.  This enterprise lasted four hours and was well attended. The AHA plans on having another one at its next meeting.

The other main organization in history in the United States, the Organization of American Historians has created the OAH Career COACH®Creating Opportunities for Advancing our Community of Historians.  The COACH is an online job center that the Organization designed to help OAH members find non-academic jobs.  According to the OAH's website: “There are many good, interesting, and intellectually stimulating jobs outside the academy. Having historians in these positions ensures that the public is exposed to 'good history.’”  The website also explains, “The OAH’s Plan A is to help both students and advisers understand this market and the varied and rewarding jobs in the field of American history and extend value to its members through this Web site.”  You must be a member of the OAH to access the content.

There are also things that the smaller history organizations can do.  At its most recent annual conference this past June, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations had mock interview sessions.  Established scholarswhich is to say those that have jobs and have been part of selection committeesran practice sessions with grad students and newly minted Ph.D.s to help prepare them for going out on the job market.  They also offered critiques of their vitaes.  I also chaired a panel: "Jobs for the Ph.D. Outside Academia" at the meeting.  Each of the participants had a Ph.D. in history, but work outside of a tenure track position in a history department.  Jason H. Gart of History Associates talked about working for a public history firm.  Jim Carafano of the Heritage Foundation talked about working for a think tank.   Luke Nichter, who is now teaching at Texas A&M UniversityCentral Texas, but was formerly a producer at C-SPAN, discussed working as a journalist. Steve Luckert of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was with on the panel at the 2011 AHA meeting.  Luckert is a curator at the Museum and gave the same talk, which is what I wanted him to do.  Sarandis "Randy" Papadopoulos is a historian for the U.S. Navy and discussed working for the U.S. government. William Morgan teaches at the U.S. Marine Corps War College, but before that was a career Foreign Service Officer.  He discussed taking the Foreign Service exam and working in the State Department. Benjamin Huggins is an editor for The Papers of George Washington, and his talked focused on work in historical editing.  It was an exceptionally well attended session and there were some good exchanges in the question and answer session. 

All of these developments are good news.  It seems that the Plan B debate is having some a degree. As welcome as these developments areand they arethese initiatives are baby steps.  Mock interviews are good, but if there are only three jobs in a certain field, it only makes the competition that much more fierce.  A career fair is an important new development, but it would be even better if non-academic organizations were actually interviewing at the meeting.  More is needed. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blog CLX (160): The History Ph.D. as Businessman

Today's posting represents the return of the "History Ph.D. as..." series.  This interview with Chris McNickle, a University of Chicago  history Ph.D., was originally published on page 23 of the November-December issue of The University of Chicago Magazine with the title of "Past is Prologue."   The author of the interview was Laura Demanski.

McNickle is the global head of institutional business for Fidelity Worldwide Investment, a position he took in 2011.  Prior to this job, he worked for the consulting firm Greenwich Associates. He is also the author of two books on New York urban history: New York City: To Be Mayor of New York: Ethnic Politics in the City (1993) and The Power of the Mayor: David Dinkins, 1990–1993 (2012). Here is the interview:

How did you end up at the University of Chicago?
I developed an interest in history, New York City history in particular. I discovered a biography of Fiorello LaGuardia that had been written by Arthur Mann. I thought it was a great biography and wanted to go study with him.

What was your dissertation about?
It looks at the electoral history of NYC mayors in the late 19th and the 20th century as a series of ethnic successions where different ethnic groups play the most dominant role in the city’s politics at different times. What’s interesting about New York is that no one ethnic group has ever been able to dominate so entirely that it could win citywide office without creating coalitions. The dissertation was published as a book. I was very proud of it.

What drew you to study history?
I never really contemplated an academic career. After college I went into international banking for about five years. Then one of the periodical Latin American debt crises occurred, and it was clear it was going to be some time before there was a lot of activity again. I had discovered traveling to Latin America that those countries that had been discovered by a European power about the same time as the United States had many superficial similarities, but worked very differently than the United States, and that intrigued me. Also, when I traveled to Philadelphia from New York to attend the University of Pennsylvania—leaving one large American city for a second one—I had expected things to be more or less the same, but they turned out to be more different than similar. Those two comparative experiences caused me to want to understand these differences.

How does your history training help you in your work at Fidelity?
I think any graduate program that is demanding and helps people to solve problems in a structured manner offers a set of disciplines that ought to be helpful in making business decisions. In the case of a historian, we are trained to make connections across time and across different dimensions of human behavior. We are taught great respect for marshaling evidence to make a case. We’re taught that people have an easier time understanding complex events when they are wrapped around a story, particularly when they’re supported and the logic is clear. All of those tools are very helpful in business decision making.

Do you have advice for graduate students who want to go into business?
I would encourage them to recognize that they have a range of skills that, if they have been successful history students, any employer would want to have. It’s less about the historical knowledge itself than things like intellectual curiosity, a desire to understand how things happen, a need to know the facts and document them rigorously—all of those are qualities that employers seek.

How do you spend your spare time?
Reading history, writing history.

Does the history you read inform your work?
Yes, in some ways it’s simply a matter of intellectual interest, but in other ways it does help clarify the situation. So look at European history since World War II. The European project, as it’s often referred to, is all about the politics of trying to create enough connections and coherence across Europe that violent conflict would no longer be deemed sensible. That’s been a very keen part of why Germany and France have been such strong proponents of bringing the Euro Zone together. As a matter of pure economics one can imagine certain solutions that as a matter of political decision making simply are not acceptable to the major countries of Europe.

Are you writing something now?
I’m working on a history of Mayor Bloomberg’s term in office. I’ve just begun that.

Is it more challenging to write with less hindsight?
There isn’t as much historical distance, yet at the same time the information and research that I need are dramatically more accessible through websites now. There may be a moment where I do realize that I don’t have as much historical perspective as one will have over time. But I think that there’s a real benefit to writing the history of important events shortly after they happen, when memories are fresh.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Blog CLIX (159): Honors and Infamy to the Blog

Every once in a while, it is interesting to take time to see how people are reacting to "In the Service of Clio."  In her blog, "From PhD to Life," Jennifer Polk is treating me as a major...well, perhaps "important" is a better word...voice in calls for reform of the academic job market, or at least in regards to the history Ph.D. "I don’t know the answer to Saratakes’s question about 'how this ends.' What I do know is that a major attitude adjustment is called for, alongside serious reforms to graduate education." Since Polk is a career coach, she might know something about career management. That quote refers to Blog CXXXVII: Tell Me How This Ends?

On the other hand, Allen Ruff and Steve Horn, journalists working in Madison, Wisconsin, do not think much of grand strategy programs and sees it as part of the military-industrial complex. They have a long essay on Ruff's blog that explores the grand strategy network entitled: "Serving Empire: Grand Strategy at the Long War University." In it they state: "Currently serving the national security warfare state, a matrix of closely tied university-based strategic studies ventures, the so-called Grand Strategy Programs, have cropped up on a number of elite campuses around the country" Ruff and Horn add: "The network marks the ascent and influence of the Long War University." The post is long, but hardly says anything analytical. The 2010 “Workshop on the Teaching of Grand Strategy” that I wrote about in Blog LVIII: A Teaching Workshop is referred to as a "Long War University Homecoming." This posting on "In the Service of Clio" is cited as a source for this essay.   The two note: "The NWC retreat might best be described as an imperial war hawk’s 'how-to' teach-in." Ruff and Horn, however, do not do much other than quote the titles of our sessions. It is all very "right-wingy." 

I found the essay amusing more than anything else.  If you read my account, it was not a very exciting gathering.  We talked about teaching.  What books we use.  Issues like that.  While Ruff's blog had a neat look to it with a black background, I was disappointed that neither I nor most of my NWC colleagues were mentioned by name.  (One person from the Strategy Department made it in the post).  I guess I am not one of the "cool kids" in the network.  Bummer.

Guess, I better get back to blogging about history.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Blog CLVIII (158): Success Stories (3)

In 2012 Matthew Casey became an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi.  Before that he earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pittsburgh where he specialized in Latin American history.  He earned a BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He teaches courses on Latin American and Caribbean History. 

His research interests focus on the analysis of race, labor, and migration in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the larger Atlantic region.  He has had articles and chapter length essays appear in the following journals and anthologies: New West Indian Guide, Haiti and the Americas: Histories, Cultures, Imaginations, Labour: Journal of Canadian Labour Studies and Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State.  His article in New West Indian Guide was won the AndrĂ©s Ramos Mattei-Neville Hall Prize awarded by the Association of Caribbean Historians for the best article on Caribbean history in the previous two years.
His reviews have appeared in the Hispanic American Historical Review, Caribbean Studies, and Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal.  He has presented papers at the Haitian Studies Association, the Conference of the Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and at university organized conferences at the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Universidad de Costa Rica.

He is currently working on a book manuscript that traces the experiences of Haitians who circulated between their home country and eastern Cuba during the first four decades of the twentieth century.  Below is his contribution to the Success Stories series:

By the early and middle of the Spring 2011, it was clear that I would not be starting a tenure-track job for the following academic year. A phone interview, two planned American Historical Association (AHA) interviews and one conversation from an ad-hoc CV drop did not yield a campus visit. Meanwhile, applications for the late-posted 4-4 tenure track jobs and visiting positions were taking just enough time to throw off my dissertation-writing rhythm. Writing was even more difficult coming out of the stress of the job market and the anxieties surrounding the real possibility that I might have to find non-academic work. It bothered me so much to think about my research never seeing the light of day or my academic library becoming an albatross around my neck. My excitement about the publication of one of my dissertation chapters in a good journal was even muted. Two pieces of advice sustained me. First, a relative reminded me that “you will do something” after graduate school; just because it was difficult to imagine leaving the academy at the time, did not mean that I would cease to exist if I did. Later in the Spring, a close friend who was also writing a dissertation suggested that I take some time off in the summer. I used my sister’s out of town wedding as an opportunity to take two weeks entirely off even though I did not want to. The fact that these were the most important nuggets of wisdom should indicate how obsessive I had become. At some point in the late Spring, I received an offer from my graduate department to stay in the program for another year, teach a standalone course for a graduate student who received a research fellowship, and add one of the chapters to my dissertation that I had planned to delay in the event of an early defense.
I started the new school year more refreshed than I had ended the previous one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that extra year of graduate school was more like a productive post-doc than anything else (though I still did not have the degree or even the slightly higher pay of a post-doctoral fellow). I wrote the additional chapter within a month and it required few revisions. I spent the rest of the year finishing up the dissertation introduction and cleaning up the overall document. That fall, perhaps as a result of the article, I was asked by a prominent journal to write an article-length, multi-book, review essay; I also had the opportunity to submit a book chapter for publication in an edited volume based on research that did not go into the thesis. By the time of the next year’s AHA, I had submitted a full version of the dissertation to my advisor and had added two lines to my CV. All of this helped me get interviews but not necessarily a job.
Only in hindsight did I realize that the last year of graduate school was not limited to improving the first impression that is a curriculum vitae. I was also working on an equally important “second impression”: professional development and scholarly maturity. At the most basic level, this came from teaching an additional semester and the bundle of knowledge, professionalism, expertise and confidence that comes from creating a new course. The act of sustained revision of the dissertation forced me to reflect on the broad implications of my work—not just on the historiography but for what it said about the larger history. At conferences, I asked veteran academics to provide feedback on my presentation style. It all sharpened my skills and improved my confidence. 
The following year, I had a stronger CV and was demonstrably closer to my Ph.D. defense but received fewer initial interviews. Such is the job market. But this time, I interviewed stronger and secured two invitations for campus visits. By the middle of the Spring 2012, I had accepted a tenure-track job at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I currently teach. I am proud of my accomplishment but I know that there is always an element of luck and the unpredictable in the job market. One thing that I have learned from the experience is how many highly intelligent Ph.D. holders are underemployed in the academy or have left it entirely to find work in a different field. At the risk of sounding maudlin, I hope to offer some solidarity and sympathy to job seekers from someone who knows what it is like to leave the market empty-handed. Perhaps, my story will also provide a bit of optimism from someone who did manage to secure a good position. My advice: work on your professional development as much as your CV and do not let your position dictate your self-worth.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Blog CLVII (157): Open Access--A Bad Idea

The book is an old piece of technology. This media format has been around in its basic format despite some changes to its production for over 500 years. A lot of people think the new digital mediums are going to change the industries associated with the book. In Blog LXXVIII (78): E-books: Just Say No I argued that new scholars should not invest their careers in these new media formats for a number of reasons and to stick to traditional media formats. E-books are simply too much of a fade.

A couple of essays that have appeared of late make different arguments that only confirm what I argued back then. Clifford A. Lynch, the executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, argued in the electronic supplement to the magazine of the American Library Association that e-books have been a bad bet for these depositories. “Some major publishers severely constrain which titles and libraries have access to their e-titles; some are charging very high prices or renting books to libraries for a limited number of loans or a limited time period, or both.”

Joseph J. Esposito, a management consultant in the publishing industry has concluded that: “the ‘promise’ of e-books…has not meaningfully changed the fortunes of the university press world.” His assessment is simple and direct: “electronics are not a strategy; electronics are an enabling technology that has to be put in service to a strategy.” Put another way, there has to be more to an undertaking than a new format. The medium is not the message.

Despite these sound conclusions, the academic journal community is now considering new venues, formats and models of doing business. The open-access movement wants to shift the costs of publication from the consumer or subscriber, to the producer, which is another way of saying the author. The “gold approach” requires articles to be made available on-line free of charge when they are published in print with the author pays a processing fee, for the costs of copyediting, formatting and other publishing task. This fee is significant; as much as $2,000. Another model, the “green approach,” makes a rough copy of a published article available at some type of public repository. In fact, several universities have are pushing policies that require their faculty members to make their published research available to the public.

At the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association, this issue was debate in a session. “I really believe open access is not a passing fad,” Mary Ellen K. Davis, executive director of the Association of College and Research Libraries, said during her presentation. “I believe open access is a durable feature of the landscape of scholarly communication.”

Robert A. Schneider, a professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington and editor of the American Historical Review, disagreed. He said there was nothing wrong with the subscription process. “It does work to some degree—arguably to a great degree.” He said the author processing fee is “not only broken, it’s wrong.”

Schneider is right. I think the open access debate reflects an American fascination with technology for its own sake. My little theory is that this focus had something to do with the founding of the United States taking place at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. New technologies, the founding of the new country, and its push westward all offered hope and promise for the future to the people of the new nation.

The problem is the open access movement idea of making authors pay for the right to get published is an approach to information dissemination that is more flawed than current formats. Developing a new approach that requires scholars to pay to have their research published puts even more burdens on new scholars who already stressed enough. The salaries an academic earns are not particular high compared to what their age cohorts in other professions like advertising, or accounting make. These fees could represent a significant portion of their income, assuming they have one. There are a lot of budding scholars that are working adjunct jobs that need publications to establish their credentials to open up employment opportunities and this economic requirement could easily turn into another barrier.

Open access takes the idea that everything on the internet should be free to an unhealthy extreme. In a capatalist society if people are in the business of producing information, then they need to be able to making a living and turn a profit at that effort. The newspaper industry has learned this lesson the hard way. If it is free on the internet, why buy the content on paper? The newspapers that are thriving at the moment are the ones that require subscriptions to access their content on-line like The Wall Street Journal and The Orange County Register. We should also face the fact that the internet is not free. Plenty of people make money from it; from firms like Apple and Dell that produce the machines that we use to get on-line to service providers like Cox and AT&T that charge people monthly fees for access to the digital world.

I should also note I see a little bureaucratic self interest in the open access movement.  It also strikes me that it is a way for librarians to get their libraries out from under budget constraints. If content producers have to pay for journal articles, then they can use their limited dollars for other projects.

What is a scholar to do about these large trends? Push back. Do not contribute content to this open access movement. Fight it when and where you can, be it administrative meetings or in conversations with the people that run the libraries.

It is only your future that is at stake.