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.