Thoughts on History – 2/13/2012 – State of the Field

Two articles were delivered into my email yesterday on the state of the field of history.  So, I thought I would write about them, having gone through the dissertation process myself (without completing it) and teaching history now.  I certainly have my own opinions, and I’m sure that will come through here.

What’s Been Lost in History (As a note, I got this off of some place that allows me to read the full article.  You have to have a subscription to read it on the Chronicle’s site.)

This is a fairly common-sense recounting of the problems with the job market for people pursuing a Ph.D. in history.  He notes that the typical history department prepares students for a single profession, that of being a professor in a tenure-track job, doing research and a bit of teaching as necessary.  If you do not aspire to that, the current state of history graduate education is not designed for you.  While I did not go through the program looking for a nonacademic job, as this article focuses on, I still was an outsider, as I quickly discovered that I was much more interested in teaching than research.  In fact, I spent 5 1/2 years in a Ph.D. program trying to convince myself that I could do enough of the research side of things to get through with the Ph.D. and hopefully get a teaching job somewhere.  In the end, I left with a good amount of teaching experience, so I am thankful for that, but the emphasis on producing researchers was undoubtedly the only acceptable focus in my experience, just as this article discusses.  As he says, “I do not have solid evidence on this point, but I think the notion of academe as the only suitable outcome of doctoral education is a myth generated by the highly untypical period from the mid-1950s to about 1970. My sense is that the historical profession (and the human sciences generally) became much narrower and more academic in the decades after World War II.”  I think it is stuck in a rut, just as I’ve been talking about with other aspects of teaching in this blog so far.  Why do we get taught this way in doctoral programs, because that’s the way they were taught.  We even talked about the comprehensive exams as an archaic hazing ritual, done because that’s what our professors had to do.

His solution is to make the history degree more of a “pre-professional degree” than just one that leads to an academic research career.  Acknowledge that many people who go into history will get a law degree or a museum placement or (like me) a teaching job.  He advocates linking up history with “public affairs, business administration, international relations, social work, and journalism” as well, which would strengthen historical thinking and reasoning across the professions.  Make it into something that people have more options with.  When I left my undergraduate institution with a degree in history, I never got any real guidance on what I could do outside of going to grad school.  Nobody ever talked about other options, and I went to grad school largely because I really didn’t know what else to do.  There were no real connections to other fields, outside of one class that was only tangentially connected to the history department that looked at public history.  I also got an internship at a museum in the summer before my senior year, but it also never really led to anything.  All paths pointed to grad school, with no real alternatives given.  So, there I went.  And there was a very focused program with little ideas outside of research.

As he says, “Doctoral training in history as it developed in the 19th century included a commitment to civic life and leadership; in the first half of the 20th century, history was at the core of civic professionalism, partly because the social sciences generally were then historicist.”  I will go even further to say that it is not just doctoral history, but history at all levels.  This is something that I have been struggling with here in this blog because it has to do with the relevance of the subject that I teach directly.  Is history just the memorization of facts at the undergraduate level or the research of some minutia that somebody else hasn’t found yet at the graduate level?  I hope that it is more than that, and I like the civic aspects and the preparation for other careers that are discussed as alternatives in this article.

I guess that the more I look back on it, the more disappointed I am in my undergraduate and graduate education in preparing me for what I am actually doing now.  Perhaps that means I was not suited to do history as I did, but I love teaching it, and I’m not sure how else I could have gone through the process without getting the teaching experience ahead of time to be able to get the job I did get.  It just seems somewhat hollow when I look back on it.  One of my friends in grad school said it best — everything he wanted to do in history you could do without a Ph.D., while everything you did to get a Ph.D. in history was not anything he wanted to do.  Yet, idealistic people keep going in, with the hope that they will be the ones to buck the system.  Hopefully one of them succeeds, but for now, I will try to do my best from a lower rung in the academic ladder.

‘Tuning’ History

Coming out of the American Historical Association (I should probably join this again at some point) is apparently a new effort to define what it means to get a history degree at the “associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral” levels.  Right now, there is no definition of that at all, and each institution’s degree is fundamentally different from each other one (I might even argue that each student’s experience in each program is fundamentally different).  Of course, at my community college, you can’t even get an associate degree in history at all, so that’s a fascinating concept in and of itself.  And, most importantly, this effort will not be about what is taught (the specifics), but about the competencies that one would expect to come out of a degree in history.  In other words, this is another in the line of the assessment push now.  It will be interesting to see how this turns out.  Is it going to be a hollow change that ends up not meaning much, or will it provide some legitimacy and direction, much as was discussed in the previous article.

I don’t know that anything that I saw here will fundamentally change what I’m doing in the classroom, and it was interesting to see that the competencies here were basically the exact things that I already try to emphasize.  But some commonalities would be good, especially if you could combine what was in this article with the previous one.  I do think it would be even more valuable at the higher levels, as the graduate level is often even more amorphous.  Some structure and variety in instructional ideas and techniques could have the potential to bring about changes.  I guess I’m less optimistic there, but you would hope that things would change at some point to open up a field that is so singularly focused.

 

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

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