Becoming a Historian: Mormon Style

I came across this old post (March 2010–old at least by blogging standards) when I was browsing The Juvenile Instructor, an excellent blog dealing with Mormon history. The post is by Steve Fleming, a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I always enjoy reading stories about how people entered the historical profession. Steve tells about the books that influenced him to pursue a career in academia.

The post ends with a discussion of John Brooke‘s award-winning book, Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. Brooke’s book has been criticized on a variety of fronts by Mormons, but Fleming liked the book. He discusses the relationship he was able to build with Brooke through a failed attempt at getting an essay published. Brooke not only offered suggestions that improved Fleming’s scholarship, but was gracious enough to write him letters of recommendation for graduate school.

It is good to see future scholars like Fleming finding their vocations and senior historians like Brooke extending their time and energy to help young historians find their way. Great post.

Ernie Freeburg, Eugene Debs, and the Coon-Hunting–Groceryman–Politican–County Music Impresario Who is a Knoxville Legend

I love reading human interest stories about historians, especially historians who I know.

I spent six or seven years grading Advanced Placement United States History exams in San Antonio with Ernie Freeberg, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee. We did not get to know each other very well, but I always enjoyed chatting, however briefly, about his scholarly work on Laura Bridgman (which won the prestigious Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association in 2002) and Eugene Debs.

I recently discovered this article about Ernie from a Knoxville, TN newspaper. He discusses his recent biography of Debs, Democracy’s Prisoner: The Prisoner, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent. Ernie’s book has been on my “to read” list for some time now. I developed an appreciation for Debs after reading Nick Salvatore’s wonderful Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist and Ernie’s book seems to be another well-written account of the Socialist leader. Here is a snippet from the article:

Democracy’s Prisoner reads in places, like a novel, with swift pacing. History scholars aren’t known to be graceful writers, but Freeberg is an unusually good one. “It all has to do with being a journalist,” he says, crediting his background as a radio reporter in Maine. Full time for three years, part time for five, he had to file multiple news stories each week, and he learned how to tell a story. “So many people who have written about Debs are admirers who put him on a pedestal. I was determined not to do that.” Though he worked on the book for close to 10 years, he claims he never tired of his subject. Part of it was the engaging cast of characters: He mentions economist/activist Scott Nearing, American Communist John Reed and writer Max Eastman, who shaped Debs’ life and times. “And I have to admit I was seduced by Debs’ personality,” he says. He enjoyed finding each new anecdote that added to his subject’s complexity.

But another part of the article deals with the house in which Ernie and his wife now live. It apparently once belonged to a Cas Walker (there is a picture of his bust below). I have never heard of Cas Walker, but he seems to be a local Knoxville celebrity. The article describes him this way:

Groceryman and provocateur, country-music impresario, coon hunter, and longtime city politician, Walker was a reputedly millionaire, but lived in this relatively modest house in a working man’s neighborhood, with dog kennels and a small stable for a pony in the back yard.

Here’s more:

Walker died in 1998, but his house wasn’t completely cleared out, about six years ago, when Freeberg moved in. “I had read Bruce Wheeler’s history of Knoxville by the time I moved here in 2003, and knew something about Cas Walker’s mystique,” he says, smiling. Walker is a major character in Wheeler’s book, which details the grocer’s genius for spectacle. Freeberg was impressed, the first time he saw the house, by the previous owner’s security measures. “There was a ton of locks on the doors,” Freeberg says. “And floor safes.” Contrary to rumors of fortunes stashed in the house, Freeberg says the safes were empty, and he didn’t find anything of obvious value. There was a good deal of paper records, and Freeberg was going to donate it to the East Tennessee Historical Society. But when he moved in, most of it had been cleared out. A few interesting artifacts remained. One is a copy of a play called The Book of Job, by the Children’s Theatre Press, produced in Kentucky, personalized to Cas in 1960.

Take a few minutes and read this article about three very interesting guys: Ernie Freeberg, Eugene Debs, and Cas Walker.

Mobility and the Historical Profession

Historiann has an interesting post on professional mobility within the historical profession. It is really two posts in one.

First, she reflects on the way that upward mobility among academics disrupts lives and often brings an end to the everyday nature of friendship. Historiann laments the fact that she has been left behind by friends in pursuit of “new jobs and lives.”

Her post got me thinking about the priorities of academics. We are often restless and ambitious creatures, always looking for the next big gig. I realize that there are a lot of reasons why people leave one academic institution and go to another one. No institution or job is perfect. But why don’t we hear anything about staying put? Why is the idea of investing in a place or an institution such a foreign concept to academics? I appreciate Historiann’s honesty–academic mobility can be painful to those who leave and those who are left behind. Yet we are all ready to deal with the pain for a lighter teaching load, higher salaries, and more prestige.

Second, Historiann wonders about upward mobility for Associate Professors. She writes:

I’ve noticed a lot more movement at the Associate level in history hires in the past five or ten years than I was led to believe existed 15 or 20 years ago. I’ve been invited to apply for some jobs at the Associate level, too. When I was in graduate school and making my first forays onto the job market, the conventional wisdom was that all of the movement was at the Assistant Professor level, and that if you were tenured somewhere you were pretty much stuck there unless and until you turned into a “star” who was recruited somewhere else at the full Professor rank. Are any of you seeing the same thing? What about other disciplines? What’s up with this?

As usual, Historiann’s commentators offer some rich insights.

What Do You Need to Publish for Tenure?

Do several articles in peer-review journals fit the bill? Or do you need to have published a book? According to this study by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California-Berkeley, it all depends on your discipline.

Most research universities still require historians seeking tenure to require a book. Here are some of the history-specific findings:

  • Peer-reviewed articles, chapters in edited collections, edited collections, and documentary editions do not replace the monograph in tenure decisions.
  • Electronic books or e-books are gaining ground, but they have not reached the level of prestige associated with a hard copy book published by a prestigious university press.
  • Historians are still skeptical of non-peer-reviewed writing and articles that appear on websites such as History News Network.
  • Writing for public audiences is encouraged, but too much of it can work against a scholar coming up for tenure.
  • Most research universities require a book for tenure and a second or third book for promotion to full professor.
  • The success of a book and its contribution to the field is judged by reviews in major journals.
  • The “most competitive” departments are now requiring two books and “three to five articles in top journals” for tenure.
  • The “two books for tenure” requirement seems to be “trickling down” to less prestigious colleges and universities
  • History graduate students are much more “professionalized” than they were a generation ago.
  • Pre-tenure scholars are encouraged not to distract themselves with college service or teaching.
  • Disciplinary politics always play a role in tenure decisions.
  • Commercial presses are less impressive than university presses for first books written by faculty at prestigious universities

This is an amazingly thorough and valuable report. I would make chapter 6, the chapter dealing with the discipline of history, required reading in any graduate program in the field.

There is a clear elitism to this report. It assumes that the tenure process at Research One universities is representative of the tenure process for academic historians everywhere. Most historians teaching in American colleges and universities do not have these kinds of requirements placed upon them. The fact that a scholar does not need two books for tenure does not mean that he or she is somehow less of an historian than those at the big research institutions. Yet this seems precisely how a “historian” is defined in this report.

Read it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Are Graduate Programs in the Humanities Biased Against Christians?

The evangelical blogosphere is abuzz about whether or not evangelicals are discriminated against when applying to non-evangelical graduate programs in religious studies and theology. You can follow the discussion at Scott McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog and at a blog called Parchment and Pen (which now has over 500 comments on the topic).

While I am not qualified to discuss potential bias in religious studies or biblical studies Ph.D programs, I have often wondered if a similar bias exists in the humanities, and particularly in my discipline of history. I have thought about this for several reasons. Back in the early 1990s when I was applying to graduate school in history “armed” with a degree from a Christian college and an evangelical divinity school, I wondered if any program would accept me.

Today, I wonder about this on behalf of my students. If a degree from a place called “Messiah College” does not raise red flags among departmental admissions committees, it certainly must raise a few eyebrows. And, frankly, I think this is legitimate. Evangelicals have had a well-documented history of anti-intellectualism. And while many evangelicals have entered the mainstream of historical scholarship, any graduate history department should wonder whether or not a Christian student is capable of doing serious scholarship in the discipline.

Have I been discriminated against because I am a Christian? I don’t think so. While I am sure that my fellow graduate students and some of my professors knew that I was a Christian, the subject never came up in conversation. I have often wondered if I did not get accepted to some of the programs to which I applied because it was clear from my vita that I was a Christian. I will never know. I am guessing, however, that I did not get accepted to certain programs because those programs were very competitive and my GRE scores were not stellar.

I also do not know if any of my students have ever been turned down because they were Christians who attended Messiah College. This would be sad, since Messiah has a very fine history department (I will try not to sound too biased here!!) made up of published scholars who are committed to teaching in a small liberal arts environment. I would like to think that a student with good grades, good letters of recommendations, and outstanding GRE scores should be competitive at any graduate school in the country, no matter where they went to college. But I also realize that this is not always the case. Unfortunately, pedigree matters and it always will. Having said that, I have been pleased with Messiah’s track record of placing students in first-rate graduate programs. All of them do quite well.

Every now and then, however, something happens that can only be explained by bias. I remember a few years ago one of my students transferred from Messiah College to a very elite women’s liberal arts college in New England. (The very fact that such a transfer would happen should say something about the quality of students who come to Messiah). She had taken my course on “Revolutionary America” and wanted to transfer the credits, but she was told by the chair of the history department at “New England elite college” that my course was not rigorous enough to receive credit there. Needless to say, I was shocked! This course included an intense examination of primary documents and readings in the best and most recent secondary literature. When I queried the student further, I learned that the chairperson of the history department at “New England elite college” did not like the fact that my students were required to read The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, George Marsden and Nathan Hatch. This chairperson was completely unfamiliar with this work (he/she was not even an Americanist!), but its appearance on my syllabus suggested to her that I must have been advocating some sort of “Christian America” viewpoint in the class. After all, this course was taught at “Messiah College.” (Of course many of my readers know that The Search for Christian America was written explicitly to oppose the view that America was founded as a Christian nation). The class would need to be retaken.

Finally, I have often wondered if I have been passed over for jobs because I am a Christian. Again, I will never know. But I have been asked by search committees (unfairly and unprofessionally, I might add) whether or not I think my Christianity would somehow prohibit me from being a good colleague. And then there was an on-campus interview at a Ph.D granting institution when a few members of the committee grilled me about my faith and educational background during an auto tour of the community. There I was, sitting in the front seat of a Honda Accord, getting carsick from the sun reflecting off the snow, and talking about my childhood Catholicism and experiences within the evangelical subculture! In true postmodern fashion I was told that my Christian background and spiritual journey were “fascinating” and that X University “really needed someone with this perspective on their faculty.” I was offered the job, but I turned it down to come to Messiah College.

I tell my students that any kind of bias against Christians in the academy, if it indeed exists, is outside of their control. Call me naive, but I still believe that a student who does good work will be rewarded by the academy. Do I think there is bias in the humanities against Christians? I honestly don’t know. To my knowledge, I have never experienced it.

Gordon Wood on Academics and Narrative History

This week’s Washington Post series on “The Writer’s Life” features Gordon Wood. There is a podcast of Wood talking about Empire of Liberty, his new book in the Oxford History of the United States series, as well as his thoughts on the discipline and practice of history.

The series also includes a short piece by Wood on the relationship between academic monographs and narrative history. Wood defends the work of academic historians and their monographs, although he admits that few people other than fellow academics will read them. Rather than bashing the academic monograph, as many non-academic history writers are prone to do, he asserts the importance of these studies for revealing a deeper and more solid understanding of the past.

Ultimately, Wood calls some historians to bridge the gap between the discipline and popular audiences. He calls for a kind of history that goes beyond the journalistic writing of popular historians and engages more fully with the best of historical scholarship.

I really like this idea and tried to incorporate it in The Way of Improvement Leads Home (although I am probably still too analytical in my style for Wood’s taste). It does seem possible that historians can write narrative history that will appeal to the informed history buff, with footnotes that reveal their debt to the most recent and important scholarship in the particular field.

In the end, there will always be historians who will gravitate toward the specialized monograph that is written in an analytical style to his or her fellow historians. There will also always be historians who try to write compelling narratives for general readers. We need both.

Popular Historians and "Historian’s Historians"

I was recently reading a short biography of Princeton Civil War historian James McPherson in the Summer 2009 newsletter of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. (It was recently announced that McPherson has won the NJCH lifetime achievement award. I would also be remiss if I did not add that The Way of Improvement Leads Home was chosen as an NJCH “Honor Book” in 2009.).

Here is a passage from the NJCH blurb on McPherson:

“A colleague at a California university recently remarked to me that I would be forced to choose between becoming a ‘popular historian’ or a ‘historian’s historian.’ He strongly hinted that I was in danger of becoming the former,” wrote James M. McPherson in 1995. “Why couldn’t I be both?” McPherson responded. “Surely it is possible to say something of value to fellow professionals while at the same time engaging a wider audience.”

“Forced to choose?” “Danger?”

Frankly, there are far too many so-called “historian’s historians” out there who think this way. Kudos to James McPherson for a career well spent in the service of both academia and the general public.