Historians Answer Eight Questions about the Profession and their Fields

At his blog In the Service of Clio, historian Nick Sarantakes is in the middle of a series called “Eight Questions,” in which he asks historians about the discipline, their specific field, teaching, publishing, and career management. (H/T John Fea) If you’re thinking about applying to master’s and doctoral programs in history or related fields, it’s well worth investing some time in the series.

Here are a few of the scholars who have answered questions about their fields (with some sample comments):

Diplomatic History: Jonathan Reed Winkler (PhD, Yale University)

What’s the greatest strength of your field?  “To my mind, the greatest strength in the field of U.S. foreign relations is the constant connection to contemporary affairs. Our field is vibrant, to be sure, with a tremendous amount of scholarship, a multiplicity of methodological approaches, and deepening interconnections with other historical fields. But behind it all lingers a sense—or perhaps a demand—of relevance for the field to current crises or events. How did we get here from there? Is any of this new?”

What is the biggest issue facing your field?  “…that vibrant outpouring of scholarship, the proliferation of new approaches and interpretations, has presented a different problem: one of aggregating all of the work and retaining a sense of what are the most meaningful contributions the field can make to other historical fields or to those in other scholarly disciplines. What are the core questions that the field should address? How can the field overcome the growing divide between those who work on topics after 1945 and those who do not?”

Religious History: Angela Lahr (PhD, Northern Illinois University)

Greatest strength of your field?  “A recent AHA study of history departments shows that the history of religion is one of three fields – along with diplomatic history and military history – to have increased over 6 percent in departmental representation over the last five years (Perspectives on History, September 2011)…. Because of its focus on what people believe, why they believe it, and the impact of those beliefs on individuals, cultures, societies, and institutions, historians who research religion can also be an asset in demonstrating the connections that exist between other fields (both topical and geographic).”

What advice would you give an undergrad interesting in working on a Ph.D. in history?  “Make sure that you are well aware of the state of the job market and ask yourself if you are prepared to face the worst-case scenario after earning a Ph.D. – not being able to find your ‘dream job.'”

African American History: Chad Williams (PhD, Princeton University)

Greatest strength of your field?  “…African American history has always been at the cutting edge of developments in the historical profession. The field of African American history is characterized by intellectual creativity and the unique ability of historians to craft new frameworks for understanding the black experience.”

Biggest issue facing your field?  “The dearth of tenure-track employment opportunities remains the biggest issue facing the profession. I think this challenge is especially acute for scholars of African American history. On the one hand, there is fierce competition over the small number of positions offered each year in African American history, unfortunately leaving many highly qualified candidates without employment. At the same time, job searches in United States history often do not give specialists in African American history a serious look. This is due to the continued, and quite frankly, pernicious assumption that African American history somehow falls outside the scope of American history proper.”

Women’s History: Susan Rensing (PhD, University of Minnesota)

Biggest issue facing your field?  “The biggest issue facing women’s history as a field is the extent to which it is being replaced by “gender history.” In one sense, the history of gender has always been one of the goals of women’s history and so gender history is just a natural evolution of the field. But, in other sense, the many successes of women’s history have lead to the widespread adoption of gender as a category of historical analysis in virtually every field. Obviously, this is a great development in many respects, but the downside is that this dilutes the identity of women’s history as a field of historical study and, in some cases, severs the field from its feminist foundation.”

Advice to an undergrad thinking about a Ph.D.?  “I would advise taking a year or two off before beginning graduate school to get more work experience, save up some money, and make sure that a Ph.D. is what you really want. If it is, then go for it and don’t let all the naysayers get you down!”

Chinese History: Denise Ho (PhD, Harvard University)

Greatest strength of your field?  “One of the wonderful things about studying Chinese history is that the field is so vast, the language so complex, and the contemporary interest so great that I will never be bored. In teaching a course on modern China, one always gets to add to the syllabus…. It is also an exciting time to be a scholar in modern Chinese history. One and two generations ago, our advisors would study Chinese in Taiwan, and have limited access to archival materials or the opportunity to do oral history. Today we benefit from the opportunities to study abroad in China, to conduct research even in local archives, and to learn from and learn with talented students from China.”

Biggest issue in your field?  “The issues facing my field are in many ways separate from the ones I think are facing the history profession, in part because we are so fortunate to be teaching in a field that both the general public and indeed, the government, think are critical to America’s future. As for my field, I think that one of the major drawbacks to studying contemporary China is the limits on research. These limits are both in terms of materials and in terms of the ability of our colleagues in China to publish. Firstly, access to archival materials is still limited…. Further, digitization has been both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand you can look through much material that has been scanned, but on the other hand the process of scanning the material may have resulted in ‘sensitive’ material not getting scanned.”

20th Century U.S. History: Timothy Stanley (PhD, University of Cambridge)

Biggest issue facing your field?  “Maintaining detachment from the subject is a big problem when it comes to American 20th century history. I’m at an advantage because I’m British – the evils of Bush or the saintliness of Kennedy (real or imagined) aren’t personal to me and so I can teach them with objectivity. But there’s no denying that much of the 20th century field is heavily politicized. That’s one of the reasons why it’s been relatively slow to produce research on conservatism or religious politics: many scholars are contemptuous of both.”

What is the most interesting work being done in your field?  “In the last ten years, political historians have moved away from seeing conservatives as either mad or bad. We’ve grown a greater appreciation of the intellectual tradition and emotional motivations behind the American Right. Slowly, that political perspective is broadening out into the cultural and social.”

Early Modern Europe: Isaac Land (PhD, University of Michigan)

Greatest strength of your field?  “One of the most exciting and unexpected developments of the last 10 years has been the emergence of vast, searchable databases.  This includes subscriber-only digitized books (ECCO, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online) but also court records (Tim Hitchcock’s nearly 200,000 transcripts of criminal trials, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ ) and the slave trade website, http://www.slavevoyages.org out of Emory.”

Advice to an undergrad thinking about a Ph.D.?  “One might think that following the stock market crash of 2008, students would be ultra-practical, but I am surprised at how many young people I encounter who have reached the opposite conclusion: The job market is lousy all around, so I might as well pursue my dreams…. I find that it is difficult to discourage students with horror stories about the academic job market; they imagine that they would be happy adjuncting at a community college without job security or health care benefits. I think part of what attracts them is the prestige of pursuing ‘the life of the mind.’ (People who admire laws, sausages, and doctorates should not inquire too closely about where they come from.)”

Intellectual History: Lauren Kientz Anderson (PhD, Michigan State University)

Biggest issue facing your field?  “Intellectual history was passé for many years because it was seen as the study of dead white elite men, a study which totally missed the analysis of race, class, and gender, which came to dominate history…. It is a challenge to the field to incorporate the new perspectives gained from the study of social and cultural history, which at the same time continuing to justify our particular strength of close reading of major thinkers and contextualization of ideas.”

Advice to an undergrad thinking about a Ph.D.?  “Do it because nothing else will make you happy. Take some time to figure out what project will really excite you and keep you interested for 10 years. Do your best to find out your potential advisor’s personality as well as his/her reputation. Contact them by email and see if they respond. Ask to be put in touch with his/her other students (graduated, if possible, or current). Recognize that getting a job is going to be difficult, but don’t be too careerist in your life choices… And most importantly, always remember and remind yourself about what you love about history.”

Revolutionary America: Peter Messer (PhD, Rutgers University)

Greatest strength of your field?  “…We have become very adept at expanding our sense of what history is and who is included in it so that we know more about our past and present (though some historians may still subscribed to the quaint notion that they are only writing about the past). The result is that we have a much better sense of what these supposedly transformative events in the history of the United States meant to the people who experienced them and the degree to which they were, in fact, transformative.”

Biggest issue facing your field?  “…One relatively unique problem that faces the field of Revolutionary America and the history of the Early American Republic lies in the contemporary political fascination with the period. We are constantly bombarded with politicians and social commentators who want to compare themselves to the founding generation to argue that the nation reconstitute itself along the lines envisioned by the founders.”

Other fields covered so far: Agricultural History, Canadian History, Japanese History, Medieval History, Southern History, Sports History
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