An Accidental Professor

CrucetI love reading stories of professors raised in working-class families.  I thus need to read Jennine Capo Crucet’s recent book My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.  The Atlantic is running a piece based on the book.  Here is a taste:

I am a first-generation college student, and the idea of becoming a professor—one of those people who seemed to emanate brilliance and poise, the people who made knowledge!—felt like too big of a leap for me, as someone who comes from a working-class family of electricians. Add to this the fact that the majority of my professors were white, and that most of them were male, and that most of the books they taught and deemed important enough to be covered in survey courses were written by straight white men, and you can see how a Cuban girl from Miami could come to think academia wasn’t the place for her.

When it came to having the privilege of choosing a career path, I did what people who’ve internalized systemic oppression sometimes do: I aimed for something different that felt more appropriate, more attainable. I decided I’d make a good high-school English teacher. I’d still get to talk about books and teach people to love and value the act of writing. And I’d have summers to work on all the novels and short stories I wanted to write.

Then something happened that very subtly set me on a different path. What happened was that I stayed up too late one night in my dorm, and I went in on pizza with some girls on my floor, and we got to talking about what we hoped to do with our lives. Of the four other women in the room, three of them had at least one parent who was a lawyer. I was searching my brain for what they would consider the right answer, which I somehow intuited was not high-school English teacher. When they asked me, I blurted out what I thought was an appropriately upgraded version of my dream: “I want to be an English professor.” And the minute I said it, I knew it could be true.

I genuinely did not think I was smart enough to be a professor. Even today, when I think of a professor, the image that comes to my mind is of a specific white man, James Adams, a scholar of Victorian literature who wore a for-real tweed jacket—with the elbow patches and everything—and who was so freaky smart and accomplished that I remember tracing my fingers over the written comments he’d add at the end of my papers, hoping his brilliance would somehow transfer to me that way. But I knew when the sentence came out of my mouth that I wanted to be someone who made knowledge, who got to live in books and in theories about books, who got to spend her life writing while teaching future generations of writers how to pick apart the books they loved and discover how they were built.

Read the entire piece here.

What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

“Critical Thinking” and the University

College classroom 3

Over at his blog Blue Book Diaries, Jonathan Wilson reminds us that the teaching of “critical thinking” skills is not the primary purpose of a college education. (Neither is job training). Here is a taste of his piece “The Most Understood Purpose of Higher Ed.”

Let’s be realistic. Most of the time, in most institutions, both the notion that the academy is a free-for-all of critical thinking and the notion that it’s a re-education camp for the politically incorrect are myths. This is not to deny that ideological abuses of power do happen, nor that many students have rational awakenings in college, but neither is a realistic description of most people’s experiences in practice. And I don’t think they’re good descriptions of the academy’s behavior in theory either.

So what kind of thinking does the academy promote when it’s doing its job especially well? (For simplicity, let’s stick close to undergraduate applications.)

The key to provisional collective best thinking practices is that knowledge means something special to scholars, including successful college students. For scholarly purposes—and I believe this is true across disciplines—professional knowledge consists not simply of true beliefs, but of true beliefs reached in a valid way. And validity is judged not by the individual, but by a community of scholars in an ongoing conversation.

Here’s where things get truly scary: For rigorous scholarly purposes, knowledge includes in its implicit definition the possibility that it might ultimately be proven false. That’s the “ongoing conversation” part. The only thing that scholars, as such, know for sure (however certain they may feel) is that their knowledge hasn’t been discredited by valid scholarship yet.

Wilson argues that colleges and universities do not teach “that certain ideas are ‘true’ in an academic sense–as far as we know, according to the best available evidence so far–because we have worked them out in a collective process of examination.”  He adds,  “We teach truths that are provisional but have been reached through the collective best thinking.”

Amen.  This is a great argument for the communal nature of higher education.  Wilson concludes: “…the mark of truly well-educated (as opposed to well-trained or well-spoken) people is their grasp of the way knowledge is collectively created….”

Two quick responses from where I sit, as a history professor at a private liberal arts college:

First, this is yet another argument for why the liberal arts classroom must not be a place of indoctrination.  Our job is not to tell students what to believe, but to teach them how knowledge is created so that they can make their own decisions about what to believe.  This is something that those on the Left and the Right must understand, but in the context of academia it is something that is more pertinent to the Left.  The classroom is not a place for preaching.

Second, Wilson seems to be making an indirect argument for the disciplines.  Each liberal arts discipline offers a different way of examining the world and the human experience.  Each discipline provides a different set of skills and thinking habits for arriving at knowledge.  This is what makes me nervous about introducing “interdisciplinary” learning to college students so early in their college and university experience.  How does one learn to think in an “interdisciplinary” fashion without first learning the thinking skills and practices associated with the individual disciplines?

*Inside Higher Ed* Covers the Erin Bartram Blog Post on Leaving Academia

AHA-Building

Headquarters of the American Historical Association, Washington D.C.

We blogged about this yesterday.  Get up to speed here.

Here is a taste of “Calling Academe’s Bluff.”

Janet Watson, an associate professor of history at UConn, worked with Bartram in graduate school and reached out to her about her essay.

That Bartram is now in such a position “is further evidence of how the academic job market is increasingly dysfunctional in ways that are harmful both to students and to the people who teach them,” Watson said Monday.

Joshua Eyler, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct associate professor of humanities at Rice University, shared Bartram’s essay on Twitter. He told Inside Higher Ed that there isn’t “a lot of space for this kind of grieving, which is why the kind of frank and open discussion of it in her essay is so important.”

Agreeing with Bartram, he said, “I think it is still true that the dominant reason people enroll in Ph.D. programs in the humanities is to one day be faculty.” That doesn’t mean everyone does so for that reason, he said, “but it is a major motivating force.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said his organization and the Modern Language Association are working on career diversity precisely because they’re confident that keeping people like Bartram “in our respective communities benefits us, the individuals and public culture.”

“If we cannot find good ways to maintain productive relationships among historians who follow diverse career paths, there is not only individual loss but also for the discipline and public culture,” he added via email.

Read the entire piece here.

AHA Dispatch: “Historians Behaving Badly”

Mike Davis is back!  See his previous AHA 2018 posts here. In this dispatch he summarizes a panel on professionalism in the discipline (or lack thereof!).  –JF

I attended two sessions on Thursday.  I wrote about a session on community colleges here. The other session I attended focused on community engagement and community building, inside of history programs. “Historians Behaving Badly”, chaired by LSU’s Suzanne Marchand and made up of UC-Riverside’s Thomas Cogswell, Chapel Hill’s Lloyd Kramer, and Northwestern’s Sarah Maza. (Princeton’s Jeremy Adelman was detained by snow), avoided the sexy scandal-mongering its title might suggest to engage with ways faculty members might build respect and collaboration with each other. Speaking anonymously through each other (the panelists exchanged papers to avoid violating confidentiality), the panelists reminded their listeners that the historical profession is under siege and that divisions inside the historical community only serve to undermine it.

More generally, the “Behaving Badly” panelists engaged with how historians have worked against each other – ranging from issues of misrepresented research, mistreated students, outright discrimination (in the speech read by Suzanne Marchand for Jeremy Adelman) to the talk read by Thomas Cogswell that dealt with issues of personal sociability ranging from falling asleep during seminars to the strategic use of electronics to avoid social engagements with other faculty. All lamented the lack of shared social space in the modern academy, and hoped for a revival of closer academic communities.

In addition to collegiality inside departments, the panelists engaged strongly with the great academic power imbalance – the job search. Though some had stories of the “divaesque” behavior of applicants, all agreed that the problem was generally not applicants (who at worst are usually not trained in the art of application) but departments that abuse their power relationship over applicants in a variety of ways, with each panelist taking turns sharing horror stories about which they’d heard or had personally experienced.

The panel closed with a discussion of electronic harassment, gender politics, and the need for faculty to avoid the “bystander effect” in interactions with each other and our students. We model good behavior as part of our role in promoting the public good – and part of that role is intervening when necessary.

During the first day of the 2018 AHA I attended an engaging set of panels, one that left me feeling energized for both the rest of the conference and the coming winter semester.

Reflections on the Academic Job Search

job-searcvhWe are very happy to have William S. Cossen writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association. William defended his dissertation, “The Protestant Image in the Catholic Mind: Interreligious Encounters in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” in October and graduated with a PhD in history from Penn State University in December. (Congratulations!). He is a faculty member of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Lawrenceville, Georgia.  Below you will find some of his reflections on Day 1 of the AHA.–JF

Greetings from sunny Denver!

Well, a little wishful thinking can’t hurt.

After a smooth flight from Atlanta and a scenic train ride from Denver International Airport to the city, I made it safely to AHA 2017.  I’ll be presenting on Saturday at the American Catholic Historical Association’s conference as part of a panel titled “Catholicism and Americanism in the 19th Century: New Perspectives on an Old Debate.”  It will be nice to have so much time before delivering my own paper to enjoy the rest of the conference.

Following a quick, efficient check-in process (thank you, AHA!), I made my way to my first panel of the conference, “Deciphering the Academic Job Search,” which was sponsored by the AHA’s Professional Division.  With the market seemingly getting tighter every year, I was eager to hear opinions on the process from a recent candidate, a search committee member, and an academic dean.

The recurring themes I picked up in all three presentations were the necessity of flexibility and the need for candidates to be able to compellingly present their research – specifically providing a clear answer to the “so what?” question, a skill which is also useful in academic publishing and grant writing – to those outside their fields.

The first presenter, Ava Purkiss of the University of Michigan, provided helpful advice for how candidates can make themselves stand out in the initial stages of the job search process.  One tip was for candidates to shop their job materials around widely before applying, not only among their advisors and committee members but also among other professors and graduate students.  A second tip was for candidates to seek out search committees’ evaluation and scoring criteria for job applications.  This might not be easy to find, but Dr. Purkiss mentioned an example of one university posting this information online publicly.  A final piece of advice, which is especially useful in an era of online applications, was to print out all components of the application before submitting them to search committees to find and fix any glaring errors.

The second presenter, Paul Deslandes of the University of Vermont, counseled prospective job candidates to be self-reflective.  He urged job seekers to answer an important question: What do you really want out of academia?  He noted importantly that if one does not see themselves enjoying teaching, then academia is probably not a good fit.  Dr. Deslandes emphasized one of the panel’s key themes, which was that job seekers need to learn how to communicate their research to departments in their entirety, or as he put it, “Speak the language of other people.”  Regarding job opportunities, he encouraged those on the job market to “be expansive.”

The final presenter, Catherine Epstein of Amherst College, offered practical advice for the all-important cover letter: the letter must make clear “why your work is interesting.”  While Dr. Epstein noted that candidates are not expected to write a brand new cover letter for each job, the letters need to be tailored to specific schools.  Responding directly to the job requirements found in a job advertisement demonstrates true interest in the position and shows search committees that a candidate has actually attempted to learn about the institution to which they are applying.

The question-and-answer session following the presentations reflected some of the larger anxieties of the current history job market, but I think that panel chair Philippa Levine’s reminder that this is very much an impersonal process is an important point for job seekers to take to heart, as difficult as that may be, if they are disappointed by the outcome of their search for employment in academia.  One essential fact is that the number of job seekers far outstrips the number of available tenure-track positions.  However, these sorts of panels do a good service for the profession by partially demystifying what is for many an often confusing, frequently disappointing process.

I’m excited for Friday’s full schedule of sessions – and, of course, also for the book exhibit.  As with other conferences of this size, I have upwards of ten panels which I would like to see simultaneously.  This is ultimately not a bad problem to have.  More to come!

Gordon Wood Is Still Relevant

History-related social media is blowing-up over Gordon Wood’s essay on historian Bernard Bailyn in the recent issue of the conservative Weekly Standard.  The fact that Wood, one of the most decorated American historians of the past century, is the center of attention today tells me that what he has to say is still important. It is thus necessary for left-leaning historians (which is most of the profession) to engage his ideas. 


Here is one of the many parts of Wood’s essay that is driving American historians crazy today:


Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.  

And another controversial statement:

But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past. 

And again:

Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being. 

One more time:

For many of them, the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.
There is a lot I agree with in Wood’s piece.  Large narratives–especially national narratives–are important to the way people understand the past.  Most academics are still favoring microscopic pieces of scholarship over bigger stories.  Wood thinks that such a trend is making history irrelevant. It is hard to argue with that point.  Specialized research, while necessary for tenure, promotion, and one’s reputation in the small world of academic historians, does not reach ordinary people.  But why can’t the new social history, which focuses a lot of attention on race, class, and gender, find its way into the national (or some larger) narrative?  Why must it be an “either-or” proposition?
But I also wonder if something else is going here.  Wood’s work has been attacked by liberal scholars for decades.  I understand honest disagreements.  I am also sympathetic to those who have criticized Wood for being insensitive to the categories of the new social history.  But this attack on Wood reflects some of the more parochial, tribal dimensions of the academic profession, a community that wins points by preaching to the choir and rarely tolerates dissent,
Does Wood write mostly about dead white males? Yes.  Is Wood insensitive to the race, class, and gender?  Probably.  But he has taught thousands and thousands of people–teachers, history buffs, general readers–to think historically.  When his academic critics, safely cloistered in academic offices isolated from the ideas and values of a good portion of the American people, start having the impact that Wood has had on our understanding of American history, I may start to take their critiques more seriously.
And by the way…The Creation of the American Republic and The Radicalism of the American Revolution are great books.  Also, The Purpose of the Past deeply informed my thinking in Why Study History?  We have also spent a lot of time at The Way of Improvement Leads Home discussing Wood’s work.

ADDENDUM:  There is a nice discussion of this post and Wood’s essay at my Facebook page.