A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Martin Luther and the Usable Past

lutherThe Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association ended yesterday afternoon, but reports from The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondents who covered conference continue to roll in.  We were pleased to have Zachary Cote write for us this weekend.  As a middle-school history teacher he has brought a unique perspective to this annual gathering of historians.  In his final post, Zach reports on a couple of sessions he attended on Martin Luther.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2017 posts here.–JF

One of the perks of attending the 2017 AHA annual meeting was being able to sit-in on a couple panels that were created with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in mind. As a Protestant, I have always been interested in Luther.  So I was eager to see how historians were going to commemorate the quincentenary of his 95 Theses. I attended two sessions, the first entitled “Memories of Reform: German Commemorations of the Reformation” and the second, “Luther and the ‘Second Reformation’. A common thread in both of these panels was how generations after Luther interpreted his work, impact, and theology.

In the 1617 celebration of the 95 Theses Luther was used to either remind a town of the perceived horrors of Catholicism or to promote local exceptionalism, as was the case in Ulm, Germany. The tercentennial celebration looked at the German monk as a “Luther for Everyone.” For Luther’s 400th birthday, in 1883, the new nation-state of Germany used the anniversary to promote German unity; after all, even “German Catholics were better than the others.” In 1967, on the 45oth anniversary of the Reformation, communist East Germany had to come to grips with the fact that so much of the Reformation originated in that region.  East Germany interpreted the Reformation to fit its own agenda, and therefore made it a secular event heavily attached to the Early Bourgeois Revolution of the Peasants’ War. Luther took on a new identity for each of these commemorations.  He became the Luther that the people of each specific time and place needed.

Luther’s impact on others in the “Second Reformation” revealed similar insights. For example, Luther informed John Wesley’s doctrine of sola fide. While Wesley’s theology often looked much different than Luther’s, his scant references to the German reformer point to an implicit influence on his theology of justification.  Seventeenth-century Puritans, too, found encouragement from Luther when it came to the importance of temptation in the lives of Christians. To these Puritans, Luther “was clearly recognized as a symbol of piety” despite his stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Lastly, in mid-eighteenth-century Denmark, Luther’s historical reading of the Old Testament would eventually lead Danish theologians to end their traditional evaluations of civil law in Amsterdam. This, in turn, actually led to a secularization of Amsterdam’s government.

Listening to these panels enlightened me on the role of Luther over the centuries and left me questioning what Luther will look like in this year’s festivities. But perhaps even more importantly, the research presented by the historians at each panel illuminated a larger theme within history.

Something that we emphasize in our classes is that history is the study of change (and yes, continuity) over time. But the study of Luther demonstrates that history itself changes over time. Not simply in the academic historiography of any given subject, but also in the public’s use of the past.  Luther was perceived very differently by people over time, and perhaps may not even recognize himself in those perceptions; nonetheless, it is through perceptions like those that most understand history. I am reminded of what George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.” How true that is for American society today.

With this in mind, may we, as those who study and teach the past, recognize that history itself is changing, and continue to pursue the goal to teach our students how to navigate those changes in order to paint the most accurate picture of the past available.

Catholic History at the AHA

acsI hope you have enjoyed William Cossen‘s posts from the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend.  You can read them all here.  

Below is his final post.  He reflects on two sessions on American Catholic History.–JF

On AHA’s third day, I attended a presidential roundtable hosted by the American Catholic Historical Association, of which I am a member, titled “The Future of Catholic History: What Do Graduate Students Want to Know?”

The first presenter, Boston College’s Peter Cajka, who serves as the Graduate Student Representative to the ACHA’s Executive Council, posed five timely questions dealing with the job market and with the field of Catholic history:

1) Why are there not more positions being created at Catholic schools for junior scholars who specialize in Catholic history, and if there is only one Catholic history position open this year, what else is available for job seekers?

2) How can a scholar make a case for Catholic history when applying to general history positions?

3) Can religious historians apply for theology or religious studies positions?  Furthermore, what is really meant by “Catholic studies,” and how can historians make themselves competitive for positions in this field?

4) How can historians of Catholicism demonstrate the relevance of their research for postdoctoral positions that focus on broader issues dealing with religion?

5) How can Catholic historians articulate what it means to be Catholic and connect this to their research and teaching when applying to religious schools?

The second presenter, Shannen Dee Williams of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, spoke about her important research on black Catholic sisters.  Williams described the difficulties involved in locating sources on religious sisterhoods and then gaining access to archives holding these materials.  Looking toward future trends in the field, Williams recommended investigating the transatlantic history of Catholics of color, urging scholars to “look at those who have remained on the margins of the church.”  I have been thinking since the roundtable about a provocative question Williams posed during her presentation that historians of all fields, especially those researching figures who have been traditionally left out of historical narratives, should consider seriously: how can we reconstruct histories that were never meant to be told?

The third presenter, Kyle Roberts of Loyola University Chicago, who serves as Director of Loyola’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities and Project Director of the Jesuit Libraries Project, described exciting advances and possibilities in the field of Catholic digital humanities.  Roberts explained that the main activity in Catholic digital humanities has emanated from Catholic archives, which have a done a fine job making more widely available to the public important sources in Catholic history.  My own research has benefited immensely from digitized U.S. Catholic sources, and it is important to note that such popular databases as America’s Historical Newspapers also contain Catholic periodicals.  I was left with one question that I discussed with other audience members following the roundtable.  While many digital humanities projects are freely available, many others (for example, several newspaper and academic journal databases) are not, often requiring an institutional affiliation with access to a research library to utilize the sources they contain.  What can the AHA and other historical societies do to help scholars without access to such institutional subscriptions to make use of important digitized sources and to maintain active, productive research agendas?

The final presenter, Thomas Rzeznik of Seton Hall University, who serves as editor of the journal American Catholic Studies, asked the audience to consider how we can make articles in Catholic historical journals and the journals themselves more relevant to a wider audience.  Rzeznik also encouraged scholars of Catholicism to think more about what the “Catholic” in American Catholic studies means.  Rzeznik argued that too frequently, historians of Catholicism focus only on the so-called “good” Catholics, an approach which I think not only renders Catholic identity monolithically but frankly makes it much less interesting.  Rzeznik is right to call for scholars to more seriously consider in their research those who he terms “misfit Catholics” as well as those married to Catholics and those who worked or studied in Catholic institutions but were not themselves members of the faith.  This, Rzeznik argues, will “broaden our lens of who is considered Catholic.”  As far as the wider relevance of Catholic history in the historical profession goes, Rzeznik points out correctly that the “field already reflects the diversity the job market wants” due to Catholicism’s transnational, cross-cultural dimensions.  Ultimately, Rzeznik explains, scholars of Catholicism need to remain mindful of the many audiences they serve: the academy; interested lay non-scholars; and the institutional church.

I also delivered a paper Friday afternoon titled “Isaac Hecker’s American Odyssey: Rewriting the Catholic Nation in The Church and the Age.”  I argued two main points in the paper: first, the thought of Catholic convert Isaac Hecker was representative of an emerging movement in late-nineteenth-century U.S. Catholicism that espoused Anglo-Saxon racial superiority in an effort to challenge Protestant hegemony; and second, scholars have paid little attention to Hecker’s and the larger Catholic Americanist movement’s affinity for popular racial theories of the day.  This is part of the larger effort of my dissertation to revise historical interpretations of Americanism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Catholicism.  I argued in the paper and the dissertation that the Americanists, far from being the benign democratizers of historiography, were comfortable putting a Catholic spin on American colonization of the U.S. West and the Philippines, scientific racial theories, immigration regulation, and exclusionary formulations of the national community, which lends a darker cast to the Americanists than has been previously acknowledged by scholars.  My paper was joined by Erin Bartram’s (University of Hartford) “The ‘Use and Abuse of Reading’: American Catholics and the Debate over Reading, 1860-90” (which also examined Hecker but in an earlier period) and Luke Ritter’s (Troy University) “Where Bigotry Thrives: Know-Nothingism and the Origins of an Inclusive Civil Religion.”  Following our presentation, the panelists and members of the audience had a productive conversation on Catholicism, Americanism, historiography, and the state of the field that extended well into the evening.

This has been another fantastic AHA.  Between sessions, exhibits, and the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends and to make new connections with other scholars, the AHA and its affiliate organizations certainly fulfilled their goal of exploring cutting edge scholarship and building collegiality across our profession.  Safe travels, fellow historians, and see you next year in Washington, DC!

More Trump Analogies

Who is Donald Trump most like?

Rick Shenkman of History News Network has asked a few historians at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association to weigh in:

What should we make of these historical analogies?  Here is what we have written about this approach to history and the election at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Historians on the Usefulness of Historical Analogies in This Election Cycle

On the Danger of Historical Analogies

From the Archives: Our historical narcissism indicts us”

History Does Not Provide Easy Answers

Trump and the Know-Nothing Platform of 1856

The 2016 Presidential Election and Historical Comparisons

Conservatism and the Media in Historical Perspective

 

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William F. Buckley interviewing Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1971 on Firing Line

 

The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent reports are rolling in this morning!  Here is William Cossen‘s report on a fascinating session on American conservatism.  Read all of Cosseen’s posts from the AHA in Denver here.  –JF

On Friday, I attended an excellent AHA panel, “Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right.”  This panel’s four papers shed new light on a subject of continued importance, especially given last year’s presidential campaign.

The first paper, Nicole Hemmer’s “‘Hatchets with Soft-Covered Sheaths’: Conservative Publishing and the Goldwater Campaign,” examined the birth of an early 1960s trend among conservatives toward independent publishing of paperback books.  Examples of such books include Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason.  These books and similar titles were at the center of what Hemmer (the University of Virginia’s Miller Center) described as the creation of an unmediated, conservative, grassroots publishing movement.  Conservative bookstores played an important role, Hemmer argued, in serving as “alternative distribution systems” to mainstream publishers.  Why did these independent bookstores and books – which were printed in the millions – appear when they did in 1964?  Hemmer explained that many conservatives had become impatient with a GOP establishment that they felt had become too conciliatory and complacent in the face of growing liberalism.  This provided fertile ground for the rise of alternative conservative media.  “This isn’t just populism,” Hemmer argued.  “It’s populism plus.”

The second paper, Heather Hendershot’s “Firing Line: Steering Wheel and Compass of the Modern Conservative Image,” described William F. Buckley’s important role through his long-running television show Firing Line in making conservatism not only respectable but also “stylish.”  Hendershot (MIT) did a fine job weaving film clips from the show throughout her talk, reminding audience members just how entertaining and informative Buckley’s show was at its peak.  Hendershot explained that the show’s premise was to figuratively place liberals on the firing line.  Firing Line drew a diverse political audience.  Interestingly, many liberals would tune in and then walk away from the show with a deeper resolve to promote liberalism.  However, it also played a critical role in constructing the intellectual framework of the New Right.  Buckley’s urbane, witty manner, which was also evident in his magazine National Review, served, Hendershot argued, as “walking, talking proof of the insufficiency” of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style thesis.

The third paper, courtesy of my Penn State graduate school colleague Paul Matzko (congratulations on your recent graduation, Dr. Matzko!), “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” explored an early 1960s protest against and boycott of consumer items – especially Polish ham – originating in communist Eastern Europe and being sold in the United States.  This protest was led by conservative women and facilitated by religious radio broadcasters, groups often absent from general histories of the rise of the New Right.  Matzko explained that while figures like Buckley played important role in the growth of conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, radio broadcasters may have had a far larger numerical impact in terms of audience size than Buckley’s National Review.  The rapid spread of right-wing radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s laid the organizational groundwork for the New Right alongside Buckley’s intellectual contributions to the movement, the latter of which were described in Hendershot’s paper.  This growth of conservative broadcasting, coupled with conservative women’s grassroots organizing, came together in response to President John F. Kennedy’s promotion of increased trade with communist countries.  Polish hams came under attack as almost apocalyptic symbols of an alleged communist takeover of the United States.  The ensuing boycott had a massive economic impact.  Matzko recounted a Polish embassy estimation that the protest led to a $5 million loss in trade with Poland – in just a few months in 1962 alone!  Matzko concluded that actions such as the Polish ham boycott were the “stuff” of which modern conservatism was made.  The protest, much like the independent book publishing described by Hemmer, revealed the power that hundreds of thousands of dedicated, non-establishment political figures could have in elections and in the formulation of public policy.

The panel’s final paper, Michael McVicar’s “Surveillance – Dossier – Exposé: The Infrastructure and Technique of the Anticommunist Blacklist,” provided a revealing glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts methods used by conservatives from the 1920s into the 1960s  to infiltrate, uncover, and eliminate what they perceived to be a growing communist threat in the United States, which dovetails nicely with Matzko’s paper.  McVicar (Florida State University) explained that early religious, anticommunist activists built on organizational techniques and classificatory charts pioneered by late nineteenth-century management experts to construct extensive databases that sought to connect liberal Protestants with communism and alleged communist front groups.  These archival materials have been underutilized by historians, and McVicar’s research promises to provide a more nuanced genealogy of the New Right reaching to the years immediately following the First World War.

President-elect Donald Trump’s electoral victory has clearly been on the minds of many historians attending this year’s AHA, serving as the subject of not one but two major conference sessions.  This panel on the New Right was not responding directly to the outcome of election, as it was organized much earlier than November.  Still, the speakers’ contributions to the subfield of New Right history provide many useful insights into how this political movement and its legatees have continued to thrive, and the panel itself was a model of thoughtful organization and planning that brought together four papers complementing each other exceptionally well.

“Stale Ph.Ds” and “Overqualified” Applicants

bowenThis morning Michael Bowen is back with more insight on the academic job market in history.   As you now know, Michael has been writing for us from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver.  I think this post raises some very important points about the hiring process in history departments around the country.   Read all of Michael’s posts from the 2017 AHA here. –JF

After studying the job market for well over a decade, some clear, systemic biases have become evident. It might be too strong to call them biases, but the cumulative effect is to disqualify many good applicants right from the start. These observations will come over two blog posts in the hopes that interested search committee members might at least be more cognizant of them and job seekers can be prepared and make smart decisions regarding publishing.

Some caveats are in order first. These are qualitative, not quantitative. I don’t have a spreadsheet in front of me crunching the statistics for every hire in the last decade. I am open to arguments that they may be unique to my situation, and I am sure that there are exceptions to every rule. These are also only valid for the initial screen, where committees determine their AHA/Skype lists. Since the majority of applicants for any given job never make it to the first interview, these decisions are the most crucial.

For this post, I want to focus on time from degree. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that job candidates from ABD to about four years from their defense date are hirable, while everyone beyond that is not. There are exceptions…I know of one person who went on the tenure track for the first time after ten years…but those hired after an extended time as contingent faculty are in the minority. The higher ed press refers to these individuals as “stale PhDs,” which is incredibly insulting and implies that good academic work can only be accomplished in the dissertation stage or on the tenure track. Controversy erupted a few years ago when a couple of English departments posted ads that explicitly required a degree received within the previous three years.  History has not been so brazen, but we have a similar bias.

Maybe once, long ago before postdocs were readily available and the academy shifted the burden of instruction to adjuncts and lecturers, it made sense to make a “first cut” of applicants based on time to degree. Now, with individuals stringing together years and years of contingent appointments and producing good scholarship in the meantime, it seems unwise to do so. My dissertation director always told my cohort that as long as we can add something substantive to our vita every year, we would be fine. That has been my goal, which has been met eleven out of eleven years. He never envisioned a scenario where I would need to do that for eleven years, but his advice is still good. I would argue that such a benchmark would be a better measure of a candidate’s employability, than an arbitrary line on the calendar.

However, the aforementioned measure for success runs counter to the second pattern prevalent in today’s job market; the “overqualified” applicant. With so many people finding survivable, contingent employment for extended periods of time, more and more applicants are going for assistant professor lines with books in hand and a significant number of courses under their belts. In theory, this should be a good thing…you can bring in a new faculty member who you do not have to train and needs little prep time. But it goes against the old idea that faculty lines are apprenticeships. An assistant professor must learn the ropes from their colleagues and, when deemed sufficiently qualified, be granted tenure. If someone exceeds those requirements from the start, should they be hired? In most cases, search committees say no.

Historians who are working on an extended contingent faculty track find themselves treading a fine line. Do you hold off publishing a book because it could hurt you on the job market, or do you go ahead and publish because it is ready? My first inclination is to say publish, but I have lost enough jobs (both VAPS and TT) to individuals with a single journal article or a handful of book reviews to question whether or not I should have published mine before I had a tenure track line.

If you are a search committee member, do you see a book as a sign that an applicant will produce no further research of merit? It is a valid question. We all know of professors who have an early burst of scholarly productivity, get tenure, and then coast for the next thirty years. There may not be an answer to this, but it would be nice if we would get past the traditional expectations for a hire and take into account how academia has changed. Committees should factor in both logged experience and future potential.

Should Historians Oppose Trump?

Stanley Fish, who is not a historian, came to Denver and told historians to stop engaging with politics.  Watch the video from History News Network:

I’ve written a lot about this over the last year.  Anything I write here would just be repetitive.  I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session.  Here is Fish’s essay for some context.

Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

No Empathy for Trump?

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

A Middle School History Teacher Visits “Intellectual Disneyland”

history-teacherZachary Cote teaches middle school (8th grade) history at Stella Middle Charter Academy in Los Angeles.  This weekend he will be writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home from Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver. –JF

As a middle school teacher in urban Los Angeles, I am inundated with education strategies and research and am often surrounded by the urban education culture. Now, to be clear, I chose this. However, when not specifically preparing for lessons or classroom management strategies, I find a home in the historian’s realm. Recently a colleague of mine said to me, “I could teach anything. I’m a teacher who just happens to teach history.” I responded, “Well, I am a historian who teaches.” I cannot see myself teaching anything else. I thus often miss the academic days of my college years and try to keep up with my field by reading historical journals, blogs and books. The Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, to say the least, has been sort of a homecoming.

When I sit in panels and listen to historian’s dialogue and debate I think to myself, “I am at Intellectual Disneyland.” I feel almost as if like I have left the city for the day and traveled to the rural areas of California about an hour north from Los Angeles where I am rejuvenated through a deep breath of that fresh air.  The AHA conference is that breath of fresh air. My lungs and head are clearing, and I am reminded of the joys of the discipline of history.  For those like me, historians at heart who feel called to the classroom, I want to encourage you: Do whatever you can to attend an AHA annual meeting.  It replenishes your intellectual cup, it refreshes your historical mind, and it fuels your educator’s heart to use the past to inspire our future.

The Paul Harvey Fan Club

A strange new movement has formed at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend.  It seems that something called “The Paul Harvey Fan Club” is taking the conference by storm.

No, not that Paul Harvey.

This is a fan club devoted to the noted historian of American religion and race.  Harvey is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (See our Author’s Corner interview with him here).  I know from reading his books that he is a gifted scholar. I hear that he a gifted teacher.  I also hear that he has a weak jump shot.  Oh yes, and did I mention that he founded one of the most influential blogs in the American history blogosphere?

Evidence of this movement is cropping up all over the place:

harvey-1

Harvey seems to be embracing the movement

harvey-2

Harvey mixes among the fan club’s most committed members (his grad students)

harvey-3

Even historians of American religion have embraced the movement

The AHA: An Editor’s Perspective

book-exhibit

I am sure some of you who attend the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association or some other major academic conference have witnessed a newly minted Ph.D pitching a book idea, based on her or his dissertation, to an editor in the exhibit hall. The editor listens and nods as the post-doc or assistant professor verbally walks through the proposal. This kind of conversation has become a rite of passage for any first-time academic author.

I have done this a few times and have always felt very awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps it is just me, but I always assumed that the editor was bored and really did not want to hear from yet another dissertation writer trying to land a book contract. If the editor’s eyes were flashing around the room looking at the name badges of people coming into the booth I knew I was in trouble.  I knew I was in even more trouble if the editor interrupted me (always politely) multiple times to talk to someone who he or she deemed to be more important. Who wants to try to make a book pitch in such a public setting?  I was always self-conscious of the people milling around in the booth who were no doubt listening to me explain my proposal.

After I published my first book I decided that I would not use the exhibit hall to pitch proposals to editors. (Part of this decision was based on experience. My interaction with editors at the AHA and other conferences played a very, very small role in getting that book into print).  It was too much work.  As an introvert I hate such spontaneous meetings.

Don’t get me wrong, I still meet with publishers at the AHA.  But most of my meetings are scheduled well in advance so that the editors are prepared for the conversation. I try to make sure that these meetings take place away from the booth and preferably outside the exhibit hall.

The book exhibit continues to be my favorite part of any big conference.  When I enter the exhibit hall for the time my heart (and mind) still races. When I am at the AHA I try to make two or three visits.  I usually just browse titles and try to say hello to the editors I have worked with over the years.  I take pictures of the books I want to read or write about. I run into friends, acquaintances, colleagues and blog readers.

I tend to see my discussions with editors about book ideas as something separate from the exhibit itself.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Toff’s recent post at AHA Today about what it is like to be a book editor at the conference.  Toff is vice president and executive editor at Oxford University Press.

Here is a small taste of her post:

As talent scouts, we judge work that has already been done. Editors thus spend some of their time listening to papers and scoping out new talent. The “yield” is fairly low, but it’s a good way to check out potential authors. It tells us not only whether a particular historian has a good argument, but whether s/he is a decent human being. Public behavior is telling! Does s/he get to the point? How does the scholar react to questions and criticism? I also meet with potential authors who have written to me in advance and sent me proposals or sample materials. The conference is a chance for me to hear more about the project, to ask questions about what I’ve read, and often to guide the author in a slightly different direction. I’ll ask about competing titles, about sources, and, as at sessions, I’ll get a feel for the style of the person I’m dealing with.

Unfortunately, time is always short. So when meeting with an editor, authors should get to the point. The proverbial “elevator pitch” is no joke—we need a quick overview of the subject matter, the status of the book, and the archival work you’ve done. If the book has grown out of a dissertation, who was your adviser? That information often orients us intellectually. Think of the meeting as speed dating for scholars and editors—make a good first impression. Many university press editors are also commissioning books, especially for existing series. After consulting with series editors and doing some research, I will have identified potential authors for particular titles and set up meetings to discuss the possibilities. That’s where I wear my snake-charmer hat.

Editors always make time to chat informally with potential authors to see if we can find the perfect new project based both on the scholar’s interests and our needs as publishers. It’s kismet when those two objectives align. For example, I had worked with Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee on a World War I primary source anthology; I hoped to do another book with them. When we met at the AHA’s annual meeting several years ago, they told me that they had many more diaries they’d come across but had not had space to include. The result of that conversation was Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War (2015), a collection of six rare and diverse war journals.

Read the entire post here.

Another Word on the 2016 Election Plenary Sessions at the AHA in Denver

Last night I was following the tweets from first plenary session of the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver.  The session was titled “The First Hundred Days: Priorities for a New US President.”  It featured some very fine historians of American politics, U.S. foreign relations, and global economics.  Thanks to all who tweeted.

I know that the AHA can only squeeze so many panelists on the stage in a session like this, but as I read the tweets I (along with others) could not help but react:

Let’s be fair to the American Historical Association.  I am sure that this panel was planned well in advance of the November election.  Sean Wilentz, one of the panelists, even joked about it:

Another member of the panel, Margaret O’Mara, tweeted:

On the other hand, one could argue that questions of rural life, religion, populism, conservatism, and yes, gender and immigration, were prevalent in this presidential campaign from the beginning.

And that leads us to my thoughts on Saturday night’s plenary on the election.  This one, as I understand it, was added much later.  I look forward to reading the twitter coverage.

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!

Bowen: The Historical Profession is “abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market.”

bowenThis morning’s post by Mike Bowen resonated with many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and struck a chord with folks attending the Annual Meeting of the AHA in Denver. Read it here.  In this post, Bowen offers some thoughts on the history job market.  –JF

Writing about the academic job market from the inside is very difficult. No one likes a braggart, and no one likes a complainer. If you stray too far in either direction your message can get lost amidst the visceral reactions emanating from the comment threads.

I tried writing about the job market once, back in the heady, pre-recession days of 2008. Frankly, the article is embarrassing and I wish I had never published it. It is too inflammatory and should have been more constructive and conciliatory. The response to the piece is why I spent the next nine years away from the topic.

Based on their reaction at the meeting in the graduate students/junior scholar job panel two days later, the AHA staff didn’t appreciate my contribution. There was no subsequent dialogue about any of the points I brought up. The AHA staff rediscovered a couple of those points in 2011 or 2012 on their own, and others have drilled down on the communication issue on non-academic sites, but there hasn’t been any substantive movement towards fixing the lack of communication or late notices for interviews.

More alarming to me were the grumblings among the job seeking community. You can see that a little bit of dialogue happened on the IHE comment thread, but the readership of the Chronicle forums was severely underchuffed. For the first time in my life, I was called a “special snowflake.” Someone said that I was “entitled.” God knows what would have happened if Twitter had been around back then.

The point for bringing all of this up…the profession is abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market. Everyone knows that there is a major concern that needs to be addressed, but no one will actually make even a half-hearted effort to try. That has compounded the problem.

As the organization that is most closely associated with the job market, this situation comes back to the AHA somewhat. However, in late 2014, the executive director of the AHA wrote in Perspectives that the AHA is not here to help people find jobs in academia. I am legitimately, with no sarcasm intended, glad that he admitted this and has turned the organization to career diversity initiatives. I don’t need the help (see below), but I know others do.

The remaining stakeholders generally fall in to one of four camps. One small group outside the faculty wants to put everyone on five year contracts and do away with tenure. Some proposals have been more radical than that.  Another, slightly larger, group of contingent faculty wants to unionize. That may be a viable solution in some circumstances but, given today’s political climate I can’t envision a movement becoming so widespread that it works at every institution. The third camp is composed of job seekers who hope to God that they can land on their feet next academic year and are otherwise powerless.

The larger fourth camp is generally the rest of the profession, and they tend to ignore the situation. Job seekers make faculty members uncomfortable largely because, while many want to help, they can’t do much. You can’t really blame them either. Is it worth going to battle with a college administration, risking potential blowback down the line, to try to get more lines? More often than not, in an age of disinvestment in higher education and the dominance of STEM, the answer is no. So rather than confront the problem, the faculty retreats inwards and worries about themselves.

The net result is that we continue on the same path we have been on, motivated largely by inertia. We are a profession composed of highly-educated, socially-aware people, yet we have collectively thrown our hands up at a problem that we find too difficult to solve. I wish that we could engage in an honest discussion about this without politicizing it. Our discipline is fading , and the job crisis is part of the reason why.

Postscript: I have received  e-mails from people offering to help me transition out of academia. I appreciate the contacts, but it isn’t necessary. When I received notice of my non-renewal, I connected with a local job coach and subsequently landed a very good job in the editorial department at a research and publishing firm. I now manage a great team, am surrounded by wonderful co-workers, and have a supportive boss.

More importantly, I was able to get on with my life. That distance is what is allowing me to write these blog posts. I still adjunct at JCU one night class a semester to keep a foothold in the field and to supplement my income but, barring a miracle, the new job is my first priority now. It has to be. Do I want to get back into history full-time? Absolutely. I feel that teaching history is my vocation, but my past experience tells me that that is highly unlikely that there is a place for me to do so. That is just the reality.

 

Tweeting the AHA: Some Early Favorites

The festivities at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association are just getting underway, but the #aha17 hashtag is already on fire.  Here are some of my favorites so far: