Friday, December 23, 2016

Blog CCXXIII (223): The Quit Litters

Apparently there is a whole new genre called "academic quit lit."  Basically these are essays from college professors--usually younger ones--who have decided to leave the profession in which they explain their reasons why.  Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed wrote an article on the genre: "Public Good-byes: Recent Dear John Letters from Academics Leaving Higher Education Signal a Resurgence in 'Quit Lit.'" They were not the only media outlet interested in the topic.  The Atlantic published several essays on this topic.  Ian Bogost's article makes his position clear with his title: "No One Cares That You Quit Your Job."  It is a short, but strong easy and well worth the read.  Megan Garber wrote another article on the topic: "The Rise of 'Quit Lit.'"  She notes that there is a strong theme in this literature: "'I quit,' goes the text. 'And you should, too,' goes the subtext."

All of these articles referenced an article that Oliver Lee, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, wrote the Vox news and opinion website: "I Have One of the Best Jobs in Academia. Here's Why I'm Walking Away."

I spent six and a half years living in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex; I have been to UT Arlington; I even spent some time looking up Lee's background, and I would never agree with his title.  But it is probably a bit unfair to pick on one professor, even if his essay got a lot of attention.  The Flaherty article makes it clear that a lot of others are quitting academia, and writing about it.  My read of the article is that the people who are going public often have very good options.  Lee, for example, has a law degree, and is apparently starting a legal career.  Others are going into the corporate world where they make much more than a college professor, even one at a very good school. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Blog CCXXII (222): The Logevall and Osgood Debate

 of Harvard University and "Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?"  Neither of these guys is a slouch, complaining about how the profession has passed them and their field by.  Logevall won the Pulitzer Prize for his book on the French war in Vietnam, and Osgood's book on Eisenhower's propaganda campaigns won the Herbert Hoover Book Award, which is less well-known but still quite difficult to receive.  They noted that at one time political history had real influence and pull with those that ran for office.  That has changed in the years since.  The two also argued:
Perceived “traditional” types of history that examined the doings of governing elites fell into disfavor, and political history suffered the effects (as did its cousins, diplomatic and military history). The ramifications extend well beyond higher education. The drying up of scholarly expertise affects universities’ ability to educate teachers—as well as aspiring lawyers, politicians, journalists and business leaders—who will enter their professions having learned too little about the nation’s political history. Not least, in this age of extreme partisanship, they’ll be insufficiently aware of the importance that compromise has played in America’s past, of the vital role of mutual give-and-take in the democratic process.
One measure of the decline in political history is the decline in the number of jobs advertised as political history. 

Although Logevall and Osgood are historians, neither teaches in a history department.  (I should clarify a bit; Logevall has a joint appointment with the Kennedy School; how much time he devotes to each probably varies from semester to semester).  They did not publish in The New York Times for its prestige.  Their recommendations for reform make that clear:
Change will not be easy, and will not come from history departments facing tight budgets and competing demands. What is needed, to begin with, is for university administrators to identify political history as a priority, for students and families to lobby their schools, for benefactors to endow professorships and graduate fellowships and for lawmakers and school boards to enact policies that bolster its teaching—and without politicizing the enterprise.
Since many universities in the United States are public institutions—think of schools like the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, or Florida State University—and receive their funding from states run by politicians and you might start to realize what a powerful call to action Logevall and Osgood are making.

Days later—actually two—Julian Zelizer of Princeton University fired back with an essay on the blog of the Organization of American Historians: "Political History is Doing AOK."  He argues: "Over the past twenty years the field has experienced nothing short of a renaissance."  It is a very diverse field with many new approaches.  He also adds: "While there was a period in the 1970s when we did move away from 'elections, elected officials, policy and policymaking, parties and party politics,' this is not the case today."  He also disputes many of the arguments made by Logevall and Osgood: "In terms of the lack of jobs, that is a different story. The meager number of jobs in political history is not unique to the field. Everyone in the history profession currently faces a job market that isn’t there."

The OAH then sponsored a forum staring four relatively junior political historians: "What is the State of American Political History" and asked them their thoughts about the Logevall and Osgood article.  From my perspective, if they want to call themselves political historians, fine.  But I am not sure a lot of others would describe them that way.  Their description of what they wanted the field to study would also be difficult to characterize as political history.  With those two points in mind, it is no surprise that they are skeptical about Logevall and Osgood's positions.

They were not the only ones.  Mark Graber of the University of Maryland Law School responded on the Balinization blog with a post entitled: "Rumors of Our Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated."  He argued, "There may be a lot to be said about what happens when political history is done by political scientists rather than historians (we call it "political development"), but calling the field dead is confusing what may be happening in one discipline with what is not happening in the academy at large."

There was also a lot of push back on Twitter.  I am not sure how much deep thinking you can do on Twitter, but the legal historian Mary L. Dudziak does a good job of summarizing the various reactions in a post: "Political History is Alive and Well, and Matters More than Ever" that also appeared on the Balkinization blog.  In summary, she states "the op-ed’s argument fell flat."  I am not sure that is true.  I get that most digitally minded historians pushed back on it—even those that consider themselves political historians—but I think Logevall and Osgood were playing for the long haul.

Roy Rogers, a Ph.D. candidate in American History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a writing fellow at the New York City College of Technology, and a contributor to The Junto group blog that focuses on early American history, wrote an essay that while negative towards Logevall and Osgood's arguments, did more to confirm them than deny them.  In "The Strange Death (?) of Political History," he stated that the two were addressing the field from their perspective as historians working on Twentieth Century topics.  "Perhaps political history is dead, but it died a strange death. It is certainly true that, from a certain point of view, political history has declined over the last several decades. But that perspective is partially a matter of definitions. Logevall and Osgood have a very constrained definition of what constitutes political history."  Developments in the historical profession "forced a fundamental change in what it means to be political. The search for politics moved out of the state house and into the streets, the fields, the parlor, and even the bedroom."  My take: that is something, but it ain't political history.

Gabriel Rosenberg of Duke University and Ariel Ron of Southern Methodist University wrote a post for the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money with a title that makes their thesis pretty clear: "Chill Out. Political History has Never Been Better."  Their essay is similar to Rogers' in that it basically does more to confirm rather than deny Logevall and Osgood arguments even though its purpose was the exact opposite.  They make the same basic argument as well: Logevall and Osgood have to narrow a definition.  They offer up a number of titles that they claim are political history—but really aren't—to refute Logevall and Osgood.  Rosenberg and Ron  also make the mistake of conflating policy history with political history, citing the relatively healthy Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations which has well-attended conferences and a thick journal.  SHAFR is the main organization in diplomatic history, and their arguments are basically correct about the organization.  But I would argue that diplomatic history is very different from political history.  (Logevall and Osgood make this point explicitly in their essay).

Logevall and Osgood were hardly dissuaded by these type of arguments.  They appeared on the podcast of The American Interest roughly a month after their essay appeared in the Times.  Logevall did clarify that they did not pick the title, and that it was a bit misleading, but other than that they held firm.  They discussed how many historians were uncomfortable discussing "high politics," When asked about Zelizer's arguments about diversity, Logevall explained,  "I don't think he is wrong, but what I said to him is that something has been lost."

So, what are we to make of all this bleeding of digital ink?  I am not sure anyone is totally right in this debate.  First, I do not think historians are every going to be turned to as policy makers or advisors just because they are historians.  Some will find positions of influence in government, but that will be because of their personal efforts and connections. 

Next, I actually think political history has been strong, even if not popular.  There is a clear public audience for this type of historical literature.  But even within the profession historians have done well producing this type of history.  Stephen Ambrose, Robert Dallek, and H. W. Brands come to mind immediately, but there are others: Alonzo Hamby, William Leuchtenberg, and Sean Wilentz.  As the history book review editor for the academic journal Presidential Studies Quarterly, I am swamped with titles.  Even those on the presidents we do not care that much about like Millard Fillmore or Chester A. Arthur.  Writing on presidents consistently seems a great way to get a lot of attention within the profession. 

But there is the rub and that gets to my third point: political history seems to be focused on the executive branch.  The legislative and judicial branches get far less attention, so there is some real merit to what Logevall and Osgood argue.  This executive branch bias also appears to be the case when historians look at state level politics.  There are a number of reasons for this emphasis.  There are fewer presidents and governors and it is easier to focus on them.  Presidents of the United States—at least those in the Twentieth Century—have presidential libraries, which makes research easy compared to trying to track down the personal papers of the 10 or 15 Senators that sat on the Armed Services Committee.  They might be at institutions on opposite sides of the country, making travel and research expensive.  (The best case scenario is that they are at the Library of Congress, which happens a lot, but not enough).  Then there is the question of quality of organization.  I have looked at the papers of some senators that were still sitting in the boxes in which they were mailed to the archives three decades before.  Then again I have found others that were organized beautifully.  There is also the question of how important is any one senator.  There are a hundred of them; more than 1,100 since 1789.  All of them "matter," but some of them a lot more than others—the Henry Clays, John C. Calhouns, Daniel Websters, Henry Cabot Lodges and Lyndon Johnsons of the world are better known than those they served with in the Senate, or those that held their seats in the years since for a reason. 

Moving on to point four: policy history is a new development, but even if it incorporates new subjects and perspectives, it is not political history and it still tends to be executive branch centric.  How much influence did the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have in the development of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War?  "Don't know" is the short answer, because no one has written on the committee as a institution.  There are biographies of individual senators, but that is a bit of a narrow focus, much like trying to watch a film by looking through a straw.  How influential are the Speakers of the House?  How much influence do they have on legislation, policy, and the political direction of Washington?  Are they the equal of presidents, or in a relatively junior position?  Political scientists have spent a lot of time answering these questions, but their answers have to be tentative given the imbalance in coverage.  Case in point, how many books are there on Sam Rayburn?  (Some of you are probably wondering who is Sam Rayburn? Answer: he set the record for longest tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives.)  There are four books on Rayburn.  Now, think of how many biographies—and just biographies—are out there for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy—the presidents he interacted with as Speaker.

Here comes point number five: there is still a lot of good work to be done.  Elections—which are purely political—are topics that have seen less attention than the deserve.  What do they tell us about the American people?  Actually a lot if we pay attention.  Polling data is quite informative, but there is still a lot of information that we can utilize from elections before this practice became widespread and dependable.  Again, political scientists do a lot on this topic, but the focus seems to be on the second half of the Twentieth Century, and on the presidential elections. 

This is the last point: Logevall and Osgood might not be getting much agreement from their peers, but that is not the audience they were really addressing.  I would not be surprised if this article has some long-term reverberations in the historiography of American history, but also on other higher education related activities like appropriations and fund raising.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Blog CCXXI (221): The History P.h.D./Major After Graduation

This blog started as a forum on which a dude in mid-career could give advice to junior scholars about some of the things I have learned on the job; that was not part of my formal grad school training.  Over the years, I think I have maintained that focus fairly well.

One of the things that I have been trying to do with the blog is to discuss options for Ph.D.s outside of a history department, because the numbers make it clear that is the fate waiting for half of those that finish.  John Fea's blog has probably offered better information on that venue than I have.  In a post on his blog "The History Majors We Celebrate" he asks: "What would happen if we celebrated our graduates who get jobs in the corporate or nonprofit world in the same way we celebrate those who have been accepted to graduate schools at Ivy League universities?"

That is a pretty good question/point.  Non historian types are the type of people that are going to make lots of money and be willing to donate it to their alma matters in years to come.  Fea's series "So What CAN You Do With A History Major?" does a good job of exploring this issue.  Blog CCV has a series of links to the individual essays in this series.  One particularly interesting post in the series was a pie chart that the History Department at Dartmouth put together on the post graduation careers of their graduates.  While it is an Ivy League school, Dartmouth has no Ph.D. program, so it is a study of what undergraduates did with their degrees.  Long story made short: a lot of different things.  The biggest single group was law, but that was only 23 percent.

People finishing their Ph.D.s should really look at this chart to get some ideas on what to do after graduation, if there is no job offer pending.  (You can only do adjunct work for so long.)  Rebecca Schuman has an interesting article on this topic in Slate: "Alt-Ac” to the Rescue? Humanities Ph.D.s are Daring to Enjoy their 'Regular' Jobs, and the Definition of Academic Success is Changing. Sort Of."

I am not sure if that "Sort Of" part is true for historians, but it should.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Blog CCXX (220): An Open Letter

In 2011 Larry Cebula of Eastern Washington University became something of an internet sensation when he wrote a hilarious post on his blog: "Northwest History."  The original essay turned into a three part series:
The original post basically makes the same points I have been making on this blog, but in a much more entertaining way.  The second essay is exactly what the title suggests it is, but it failed to capture all the reactions to the essay.  Holger Syme, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto responded with his own posting: "Yes, You Can Be a Professor."   Leslie Rogne Schumacher wrote another essay, "The Problem with Plan B: Thoughts on the Jobs Crisis in History" to which Cebula responded (see the comment section at the end).  Edward J. Woell in a blog posting, discusses] how he has assigned the essay to his grad students and finds that most of them refuse to accept the facts of the job market.  Doug Rocks-Macqueen, a British archeologist, has also disputed Cebula's position.  Roger Whitson, an assistant professor of English at Washington State University posted an essay on his blog in which he stated: "I’m making a plea for Professor Cebula and the rest of his colleagues to stop writing posts like this."

The third essay on Cebula's blog is from one of his students about how he defied the odds. 

These posts are well worth reading, because Cebula is right.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Blog CCXIX (219): "The History Ph.D. as..." Series Revisited

"The History Ph.D. as...." series never died officially.  (In fact, you might see two new entries fairly soon.)  I just ran out of contacts and good ideas on how to structure some of the articles.  Other historians that blog, though, have been doing the same thing as me, and a couple of these essays are quite good.

The most commented on post in the eight year history of this blog was Blog XXXI: "The History Ph.D. as a Librarian."  Mark Danley, then of the University of Memphis and now at the U.S. Military Academy, wrote about the challenges and rewards of work in a library.  The blog of the American Historical Association has an article "A Historian in the Stacks: Finding a Professional Home in the Library" from Annie Johnson on much the same topic.  I like Danley's essay a lot, but Johnson, who works at Temple University, has written a pretty good essay as well.  Probably because she got her Ph.D. from USC. 

Two weeks before Danley wrote his post, Sarandis "Randy" Papadopoulos added to the same series with Blog XXIX (29): The History Ph.D. as a Government Historian: Still the “Improbable Success Story”?  Over at The Ohio State University, Mark Grimsley turned his blog over to a guest blogger, Frank Blazich, a colleague of Papadopoulos at the Naval History and Heritage Command.  Blazich's post "Beyond the Academic Cage: Observations of a New Federal Government Historian" discusses his experiences finding work outside of academia.

Geoffrey P. Megargee, a historian working at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, contributed to the series with "Blog XXXV (35): The History Ph.D. in the Museum."  Rachel Feinmark discusses her path to museum work and the role the Public Fellows Program of the American Council of Learned Societies played in that process with her article "Who’s Afraid of Being a Generalist? On Being a Historian outside the Academy," which appeared on the AHA's blog earlier this year.

Individuals interested in these topics should read the two "twined" essays.  I am both proud and grateful for the essays from Danley, Papadopoulos, and Megargee, but the postings from Johnson, Blazich, and Feinmark add to our understanding of how to make a career outside of a history department.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Blog CCXVIII (218): What to Do with the "Systematic Inequality" Findings

This essay is from the better-late-never department.  This essay was intended as a follow up to Blog CLXXIX, where I basically endorsed the findings of the article "Systematic Inequality."  I am going to explain a bit more on why in this essay, and offer some advice on who various groups should react to the study.  I should note, though, I have some reservations about the findings of the article, and in this essay, I am going to develop more on those misgivings.

I should first explain that I think that this study was an inventive way to measure something that is very difficult to measure: prestige.  Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore--to use the words of Arbesome--"developed a new ranking methodology based on a simple idea: a school’s prestige (and rank) is determined by where its graduates go. If a school is good, then lots of other schools will want to hire its graduates."  They have hit on something very important here: the major coin of the realm in academia is reputation.  Where a school places its graduates is exceptionally important.  In my Ph.D. program, getting students through their qualifying exams and on the job market was something the faculty stressed and stressed and stressed.

Some of the findings were a bit surprising.  That there is a hierarchy in academia is not news.  That it is so damn steep is another thing altogether.  These findings, though, simply repeat for the profession a general conclusion that was made in a cover story in the January 24, 2015 issue of The Economist on American education.  The basic thrust of the news magazine was that the United States was developing an aristocracy based on education.  The quality of education of is the key to wealth and power in the nation, and if you have wealth, you can begin investing in your children's schooling at a very early age.  They, as a result, get into the best schools, not because they are the children of the wealthy and powerful, but because they are better qualified than their peers because of the educational preparation, which their parents paid for. As I said in Blog II, the rich get richer and the poor don't get so much.  

Some of the rankings of various departments were surprising.  That Brandeis was part of the "Magic Eight" was a bit of a shock.  I was also surprised to see UC, Davis and UC, San Diego finish in the top twenty.  Davis is not exactly considered one of the better locals in the state of California, but a quick visit to the web page of the UC, Davis history department reveals that their faculty have two Pulitzer Prizes, a Bancroft Prize and an AHA president among their numbers.

There are problems with this study, though.  The first big one is that it is focused on Ph.D. placement at other Ph.D. granting institutions.  As a result, some pretty prestigious schools that lack Ph.D. programs will not be found in this ranking: Dartmouth, BYU, West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, and Villanova.  More importantly, placement at these schools does not count.  Some Ph.D. granting institutions are also absent: Baylor, Oregon State, and SMU.  Another problem, is that the study fails to account for the rise and fall of a department.  It is altogether possible that USC might have had a bad decade in the 1980s when it came to placing their grads.  On the other hand, a school like the University of Rochesther might have had a strong program in the 1980s and 1990s that it could not sustain in the 2000s and the 2010s.  Departments rise and fall and the study fails to capture that dynamic.

Another bigger problem is that subfields are a key part of a department's strength.  If you want to study U.S. diplomatic history, then Yale is a great place to study.  If you want to write a dissertation about Scandinavian history, then it really is the wrong place to be.

With all these points in mind, this study is important to some groups more than others.  To be more specific:
  • Undergraduate History Majors: ignore the study. It is all about Ph.D. program placement. If you are majoring in history at a good school a bit down the rankings, like TCU or Alabama, do not worry. The quality of teaching and instruction is quite good across the boards. In fact, both of those schools had history professors listed in the compilation The 300 Best Professors In The Country that the Princeton Review put together. 
  • Students Shopping About for a Ph.D. Program: you are the ones that need to take heed most of this study. This next statement has some important qualifications, but here goes—you need to get yourself into the highest ranked program on this list as is possible.  The reason is simple--you want to give yourself as much of an edge as possible in a hyper competitive job market. The key qualification is the subfield you want to study. If you can get into Stanford, good for you, but if you want to study maritime history and they have no one that covers that topic, it is the wrong school for you, end of story. When you find a school that has specialists in the topic you want to study, you need to make sure that the individual professors are willing to take on grad students. 
  • Grad Students at the “Magic Eight”: Congratulations. You have a real advantage of your peers at some really good schools. It will help you. But be warned—it does not make you bullet proof. Clauset and his team noted that many graduates of these schools end up at lower tier schools. I should also note that many graduates from these schools and their faculty have a sense of entitlement; that the name of their school will be enough to get them a job. I have seen this more than once and from more than one of these schools. You might be the front runner for a job before you even apply, but you still need to work at the interview process. History is littered with front runners that ended up not winning. Do you really want to be the person that loses out to a graduate from one of the universities ranked in the twenties?
  • Grad Students at Institutions other than the “Magic Eight: Do not lose faith, but also be realistic. Subfields make a difference. If you are specializing in Latin American history at the University of Texas—which has one of the best programs in the world—you are going to be competitive for jobs in this field.  For that field UT is just as good as Harvard or Yale.  Another thing to consider is that this study only examined schools granting a Ph.D., some people might be very content to teach at an institution like BYU or the Air Force Academy that has a terminal BA or MA program. On the other hand, this study makes it clear that if you are attending a lower tier Ivy League school, a Pac-12 school outside of the San Francisco Bay area, an institution in the Big 10, Big XII, or the Southeastern Conference, then the grads of the “Magic Eight” have an enormous, enormous advantage over you. The AHA study The Many Careers of History PhDs also makes it clear that half of all history Ph.D.s have to find jobs outside of teaching. If you already in a program, you probably want to finish and earn the degree. You should, though, begin asking your faculty about your options. Don’t be surprised if they are not able to give you immediate guidance—many of them might be grads of the “Magic Eight” and were fortunate enough to go from grad student to professor. But you need to ask what options have previous graduates turned to in the past. Start this conversation in your department as soon as possible, it is only your future that is at stake.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Blog CCXVII (217): What is Your Purpose?

Several of the recent posts have focused on writing and publishing--the two are different things.  One issue that has not been discussed much is the purpose of the historical writing.  Another way of putting it is: who is your audience?

There are two interesting essays on this topic that I am recommending.  The first is Adam Hochschild's "Do You Need a License to Practice History," which was published in the March/April issue of Historically Speaking.  Hochschild teaches writing in the graduate journalism program at the University of California, Berkeley.  He makes it clear that if you want to write to a larger audience there is basically only way to do it:
If you want a lot of readers to pay attention, you usually have to write narrative history, and to do that you have to bring characters alive. But there is always the temptation to go overboard and imply that Abraham Lincoln single-handedly freed America’s slaves, that Eisenhower alone won World War II, or that it was the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson that created the American nation and has guided us beneficently to the present day.  
As any look back at your high school year book will reveal, there is a downside in chasing popular fads:
The greatest danger in writing history for the general public is a more hidden one: letting popular taste, or publishers’ ideas of popular taste, determine your subject matter. This can bar the door to good writing even more firmly than the conventional image of what a Ph.D. thesis should be. Big publishers can be very small-minded. And writers are dependent on them, because earning a living by writing history outside the academy is extremely difficult.
Hochschild avoids the mistake of arguing that those do not publish large are writing poor books.  In fact, he knows better:
The craft of history inside the academy is immeasurably more rigorous, more accurate, and more thoughtful and wide-ranging than it was a century ago. It is no longer a history merely of presidents and kings, but of ordinary people, of women, of the dispossessed. It makes use of the tools of statistics, sociology, anthropology, and more. Refereed scholarly journals and university presses following the same model have produced an enormous wealth of sophisticated and reliable material that had few equivalents in 1870 or 1880.
With that said, he sees no reason why a historian cannot both be rigorous, analytical and engaging:
There is no reason why most history can’t be written in a way that offers thought-provoking analysis and, at the same time, reaches well beyond an audience of fellow scholars. Plenty of people span both worlds.
The editors of the journal then arranged for responses from 17 scholars, including H. W. Brands, John Demos, Joseph J. Ellis, John Ferling, John Lukacs, and Jay Winik. Since Historically Speaking has gone out of business, it is a bit tricky in getting electronic copies of this entire exchange, and I will recommend that if any of your are interested in looking at the full record, you obtain a copy through your library.

Two years later, Gordon Wood, the Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University, wrote "In Defense of Academic History Writing," which was published in the April 2010 issue of Perspectives on History.  Wood, who won both a Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize, knows something about writing but his essay is exactly what its title suggests.  He first begins by dismissing certain critiques:
Academic historians have not forgotten how to tell a story. Instead, most of them have purposefully chosen not to tell stories; that is, they have chosen not to write narrative history. Narrative history is a particular kind of history-writing whose popularity comes from the fact that it resembles a story.
He also notes that many of these scholars are not trying to tell stories that will have wide appeal:
So advising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science. 
Both Hochschild and Wood have important points that are worth considering.  Hochschild is right in that many more historians could probably go popular without hurting their scholarship.  But Wood is correct when he says that much scholarship does not lend itself to a three-part story arc no matter how dramatic.  In the end, it is up to the author to know the reason they are investing all the time and effort into the project.   

Friday, December 9, 2016

Blog CCXVI (216): More Writing Roundtables

The roundtable listed in Blog CCXV was not the first one to discuss  the importance of writing well in history in recent years.  There was a session at the 2014 American Historical Association Annual Meeting on this topic: "Writing History for the Public."  Elizabeth Covart reported on this for John Fea's blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  There are, again, very interesting insights offered up in her summary.  Covart expands on her reporting of this session with a posting on her own blog.

Covart also has a question and answer series on her blog about Megan Marshall's views on writing.  Marshall won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for her biography of Margaret Fuller, and was a participant in the 2014 AHA meeting...sort of.  (Plane delays kept her from attending in person; her comments were read by another participant).  The first post is on the importance of narrative over argument.  The second is on art of writing biography.  The third is on the origins of Marshall's writing style.

Covart also has an extended assessment of the writing advice that journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff offers on how to write for your readers.  Ann Little in her Historiann blog offers her own assessment: "This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two."  Despite this difference of opinion, Little, who has real talent as a writer, agrees with most of Covart's post about the importance of writing.  Covart's response is basically one in which she agrees that platforms are important.

It is hard to argue with either one.  As Brandon Proia point out in his article quoted in Blog CCXV, any number of things can go wrong when trying to write for a larger audience, and Little is right: it is easier for people with a public platform to get those big contracts.  The rich get richer, although Proria argues can work to change that factor.  Covart is also correct to emphasize working on making your writing better.  It is a skill set that does not get developed much in graduate programs.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Blog CCXV (215): The Mechanics of Trade Book Publishing Revisited

In the early days of this blog, I wrote several essays on the publishing process.  Three focused on what it took to get a book into print:
What does it take to write for the general public?  While I have five academic books to my name and five writing awards, I might not be the best person to answer that question.  I think the observations offered in Blog XXIV are pretty sound, but I have never published a trade book. 

Even if I had, that question is difficult to answer, and the experiences of editors, authors, and literary agents tend to be very different.  The American Historian, a publication of the Organization of American Historians, published an article on this topic: "Writing History for a Popular Audience: A Round Table Discussion."  What makes this article so valuable is it is a roundtable of three individuals involved in the trade book world: Danielle McGuire, an award winning historian who teaches at Wayne State University; Andrew Miller, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf; and T. J. Stiles, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer.   It is a very insightful exchange on publishing, offering a number of perspectives, but one point Stiles made stands out: "Trade publishing exists in the commercial economy. Here, you try to expand your audience, rather than more deeply penetrate a closed market, as in academic publishing. You do that not by dumbing down, but by maximizing the reading experience. The ultimate goal of the trade book is not to advance the state of the field, though it certainly may do that, but to succeed as a book—as an organically complete and satisfying work."

In another article from The American Historian on this topic, Brandon Proia, the history editor at the University of North Carolina Press who previously worked at Basic Books and PublicAffairs, tries to explain what works and does not work in the trade book industry: "The Art of the Serious: Writing History for an Elusive Mass Readership."  As he admits, "There is much mythmaking surrounding the jump from publishing revised dissertations and monographs to writing history for the masses. What makes a trade book 'trade' is the fact that it targets the broadest possible book-buying audience. Yet how to accomplish this is less settled." 

Proia explains that any number of things can go wrong: the editor that acquired the project leaves the press, the manuscript is rushed into production without enough editing, there is not enough marketing support, and so on.  These facts can be a bit demoralizing, but it is hardly surprising.  Books--trade books in particular--are part of the entertainment industry and the whims of what are popular do not always go hand in hand with what is good.  There are too many examples of good television series or films failing to find an audience despite their artistic merit. 

There are a number of differences between television, film and books, but one that works to the advantage of authors and publishers is that books often get the time to become successful.  "What few publishers will admit out loud is that it takes time for a readership to find an author, and vice versa."  Overnight successes are often years in the making.  "It may take multiple books, a multitude of lectures and interviews and reviews before an argument begins to sink in and audiences begin to arise around one’s book."  Basically, he argues that historians make their audiences book after book.  "The serious historian and publisher must cross over to larger and larger audiences—and keep pushing even when the initial attempt doesn’t take. They must do so, not out of a faith that readers must be out there, but precisely because they know that they’re not—not yet. Readers spring up only where we sow."

Anyone interested in going the trade route should read these two essays.  They have much to offer.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Blog CCIV (214): Writing in History Some More

What does it take to be a good writer in the profession of history?  That is an issue that does not get discussed much in graduate programs—at least not at the schools I attended.  Despite that fact it is an important skill set, and I am not the only that thinks so.  "The Junto" is a group blog on early American history.  The contributors tend to be ABD grad students and junior scholars.  The site addresses many issues, not all of them limited to the period before 1815.  There are a couple of interesting interviews with historians about a number of topics.  The ones that focus on the writing process are listed below:
  • Edward E. Andrews: "As a teacher, I find that my students understand course material best when it is communicated through stories, anecdotes, and little vignettes, and I think that holds true for our scholarly endeavors, as well."
  • Ann Little: "I’m not so much a planner as a noodler. I just noodle along in a pile of sources—or with a few sources and get interested in one detail, which leads me to another detail, which might lead eventually to a story."
  • Zachary Hutchins: "For those interested in editing a collection of essays, I have three pieces of advice. First, before circulating a [call for papers], have a preliminary discussion with editors at one or more press... Second, try to select and shape proposals in a way that emphasizes the unity of your collection and the continuities between individual essays... Third, pay more attention to the proposals of your contributors than their CVs."
The New York Times also has a series called "By the Book."  It is a series of Questions and Answers with authors of new books, both fiction and non-fiction about their literary lifestyles.  As a result, many of these entries discuss things other than the craft of writing; what writers would you invite to dinner party, and so on.  Some of the "authors" are not even writers, but the celebrities who have "written" a book with a co-author.  As a result, this series is less useful than the one that The Chronicle of Higher Education published.  Nonetheless, there are several useful comments and the historians, journalists writing history, and even a historian turned novelist featured in this series are listed below:
  • H.W. Brands: "To a writer...tone and voice conquer all. Dickens knew it. Tom Wolfe has dined out on it forever."
  • Jeffrey Toobin: "I love mastery and confidence in a writer — the feeling that she knows exactly where she’s taking you and why."
  • Joseph J. Ellis: He likes writers that "know how to tell a story with a style as distinctive as their fingerprint." 
  • David McCullough: "The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I read it first nearly 50 years ago and still turn to it as an ever reliable aid-to-navigation, and particularly White’s last chapter, with its reminders to 'Revise and Rewrite' and 'Be Clear.'"
  • James M. McPherson: "Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, a novel about the battle of Gettysburg that, to my mind, provides the most incisive insights into the various meanings of the war for the men who fought it."
  • Erik Larson: "Hemingway may not have been the nicest person in the world, but his work gave me a new way of thinking about writing — the value of weeding out adjectives and adverbs. He was, above all, a master at the art of not saying."
  • Sara Paretsky: "Believable characters first, a good story, an understanding of how to pace dramatic action. I like commitment by a writer, to the form, to the story."
  • Rick Perlstein: "I look to historians for their power to illuminate not just the invisible lineaments of the present, but also that which is not present. What are the roads that were not taken that most shape our own time?"
  • Lynne Cheney: "Some of the best history today is being written by people who aren’t professional historians. Several have journalistic backgrounds — David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Jon Meacham — and they know how to create a gripping narrative, which is pretty important when you are telling a story the ending of which is known."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Blog CCXIII (213): Life in Hell Again

The best parody has an element of truth in it. Here is another cartoon from Matt Groening's Life in Hell comic strip.  I never dropped out of grad school, but everything else has the ring of truth to it.

  Image result for types of college professors life in hell