U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (10-6-2011)

[Update: Obviously I wrote this post before the news of Steve Jobs’ passing hit. – TL]

1. Stanley Fish asks: Who is your Stanley Fish?

Here’s my favorite passage from the piece:

Why? Because were I ever to meet him [i.e. your “Stanley Fish”], the odds are that I would like him (the public record suggests that he is an admirable fellow) and if I liked him it would be hard for me to continue beating up on him. (Despite the proverb, familiarity does not breed contempt.) In fact I would immediately regret, and want to take back, all the nasty things I had said with such zest.

You might be surprised to know that my bugbears are not usually hard-working intellectuals. For the most part, I try to avoid bashing people who actually attempt to think through things—even when I disagree with their conclusions. I’ve found that my “long-time personal pinatas” are usually of the pseudo-intellectual variety: politicians, pundits (some left and right-leaning), popular culture figures (e.g the (former) cult of Oprah), or some mix of the three (e.g. Newt Gingrich). I dislike the passive and active anti-intellectualism of posers and poseurs.

2. Classroom Styles, Colorfully Described

Here’s the piece (which was inspired by this). I think I’ve seen all but “the corporate style” at work, and I’m not eager to experience that one.

3. More on the Consensus of the 1970s Being Really Important

My title sounds mocking, but I’m on board. I agree with Andrew Hartman’s spring 2011 USIH post on the subject, which built on one he wrote last fall. A common thread in those posts was Judith Stein’s relatively new book, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies (Yale, April 2010). I now have news that Stein’s book is going to get “the treatment” in the November 2011 issue of The Historical Society’s journal, Historically Speaking

4. Dissertations or…Peer-reviewed Journal Articles?

Michael Ruse proposes, contra Anthony Grafton, that history doctoral programs should socialize their graduates to write peer-reviewed journal articles and not dissertations (i.e. bad books). I see the point—of both. I think I’d prefer to keep the dissertation, but cap its length and require all dissertation writers to submit one chapter for publication in a journal. Perhaps a condition for graduation could be successful acceptance? I agree with Ruse that acquiring experience in article writing, submission, and publication would be highly valuable to most doctoral students in relation to the changing demands of the field (i.e. fewer t-t positions).

5. Smart Set Aside: Michael Lewis is Hot

It’s not what you think. It’s that things written by Michael Lewis are hot. Or, as New York magazine puts it: “It’s Good to be Michael Lewis.” After reading The Blind Side last year, and seeing the on-screen version of his book Moneyball this past weekend, I’m on the bandwagon. It’s a great film with a thoughtful message—i.e. a message about thinking.

6. The Political Economy of History Instruction

I think this might be the best framework, or paradigm, for looking at the academic job market in history. [Full disclosure: I’m on the job market this year, so this topic is constantly in the back of my mind.] Let me connect the post explicitly to our chosen field:

When we change the frame of reference like that, we see the context for the (post-PhD) job market includes post-BA labor of graduate assistants (either as TAs in charge of sections, or in charge of discussion groups, or as graders of essays) as well as part-time and full-time instructors with BA, MA, or PhD, and post-docs with teaching duties. To put it in a formula: the real job market for [history] teachers begins post-BA, so that PhDs are not just competing against other PhDs but also against anyone else who teaches [history], holders of the BA and MA included.

When our frame of reference is the “political economy of [history] instruction” we can explicitly talk about several factors that are only implicit in the discussion of the (post-PhD) “job market.”

First, we can see the role of university administrators, who are, after all, responsible for the shifts in employment patterns in [history] instruction. …To an administrator, [sections of US, European, and world surveys, or Western civilization] … taught by a BA or MA is a section taught, and taught at low cost. This focus on administrators enables us to connect “job market” discourse with the analyses of the “corporate university,” the “privatization of the university,” and like matters.

Second, we can see the connection to other issues in political economy, such as long-term employment trends toward precarious labor in other industries. We can also see the connection to constantly increasing health care costs in the US system in which employment has been a traditional avenue to health care insurance; precarious labor does not require the long-term commitment to offering health insurance that (current?) TT jobs do. And we also see the connection of the current (post-PhD) job market to “austerity” programs in response to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

7. The History of Philosophy for 10-Year Olds

Scott McLemee reviews a new book by Nigel Warburton titled A Little History of Philosohy (Yale Press, 2011). Yes, the book is aimed at a target audience of ten-year olds. In other words, it might work for a first-year college class on the history of philosophy. 🙂 – TL

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. So long as tenure and promotion in history departments is based on books, not journal articles, encouraging graduate students to produce the latter instead of (first drafts of) the former seems the height of foolishness to me.

  2. Ben: My current employer doesn’t require a book for tenure. And I think a great many small liberal arts colleges don’t (and maybe even some R2s). I say this though, as I said above, I still think the dissertation prepares you well for both routes. – TL

  3. I don’t doubt that there are history departments that will accept journal articles in lieu of a book. But R1s certainly won’t. And neither will the first tier of small colleges. As you say, if you write a dissertation, you can also be encouraged to publish journal articles (indeed, a diss can be both the basis for a book and the source for a couple articles). But there’s something screwy about producing PhDs who are essentially unqualified to take positions at whole categories of institutions (especially categories at the top tier of the profession). We’re already producing too many PhDs today. Making some of them second-class citizens in the profession from the start would be even worse.

    On the other hand, my graduate department put no value whatsoever on journal articles. They did nothing to encourage us to produce them and gave us no guidance in shopping them around (one very senior scholar, when I asked him about about how one goes about shopping a journal article, sheepishly told me that he had never published an unsolicited ms!). This attitude seems equally nuts to me, if ultimately just a little less damaging to the future careers of the grad students.

  4. The advice I’m getting from my advisor, historianus historianorum, is traditional: focus on the dissertation. I know why he is giving that advice, and I know why he is giving me that advice. And I am following it, but choosing to ignore the fact that by “focus,” he means “pay attention to this to the exclusion of other projects.” I’m banking on my ability to always be doing at least two things at once — “dissertation AND” rather than “dissertation OR.”

    My expectation is that in order to get a TT job, the hurdle is going to be both/and. I’m competing for jobs not only against everyone else from my own cohort who is emerging from much much much more prestigious programs than mine, but also against everyone else from the three or five cohorts previous to mine who didn’t get a job offer but who is still trying to land one. My sense is that if I hit the job market with no publishing credits, I won’t even get an interview. The only way I can compete is to have both a dissertation and some publishing credits on my CV.

    The worry, of course, is that if I’m not careful — if I spread myself too thin — what I will end up with in the end is not both/and but neither/nor. And nobody worries about that more than I do, though I’m pretty sure my advisor comes in a close second.

  5. I like LD’s sensible, practical, if extremely difficult, approach to the book/dissertation or article(s) question.

    Ideally, if the demands of the job (non-)market weren’t the overriding concern, history PhD students would continue to focus on the dissertation as a way to learn how to write a good book. I might be old fashioned, but I maintain that the book is the gold standard for a good reason. The problem, of course, is time and money, both of which are in short supply for most historians these days.

  6. It’s only sensible if it’s working, and only practical if it works. It might eventually work, but at the moment doesn’t seem like it’s working.

    However, if I conclude that no matter how many publishing credits are on my CV, I probably won’t get a job interview anyhow, then I can focus on writing an outstanding dissertation without feeling like I’m falling behind my cohort.

    So maybe the first step to getting my work done without simply disintegrating from the pull of competing demands is to arrive at a kind of despair that any of it will matter.

    Fantastic.

  7. LD: Good point about if nobody’s getting jobs, then it’s easier to just focus on the work—on putting together an outstanding pre-book. Your sarcastic point about despair being the starting point is spot on. It’s like in Band of Brothers, episode 2 or 3 (Carentan), where the office says (to Sgt. Bly) that the starting point of being a good soldier is understanding that you’re already dead. – TL

  8. Sadly, I was not being sarcastic. It really seems like the only answer here is radical despair — a decisive conviction that there is no point in trying to do anything more than simply a good dissertation, because there’s no chance of employment anyhow.

    The problem with that is twofold: 1) it’s pretty difficult, as an existential matter, to stop hoping entirely, and 2) if there’s really no point in hoping for a job, there’s not much point in completing the dissertation either.

    I don’t know what the mental calculus will have to be for me to be able to do what I need to do. But I know this much: I am no good at calculus.

  9. FWIW–therapeutic conversation: It’s a kind of temporary Satreian existential professionalism. You do the work ~as if~ it matters for its own sake, for its own beauty and worth. The angst helps contribute to your dissertation’s beauty. Then you deal with the reality of work, money, and status later. You can’t know how the job market will look in 3-4 years (I say that with some sense of the positive). No one can predict it with 100 percent certainty. – TL

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