Sunday, July 25, 2010

Theory, Historiography, and the Academic Job Market

Posted by Chris at 8/2/2006 11:08 AM ...

Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty recently wrote a three-part essay on the problems with academic history, history writing, and the state of the academic job market.  The items he addresses are sobering for those of use just really getting started in our academic careers.

The first thing Jason addresses is the relationship between theory and primary sources.  His argument here is that while theory has an important role in providing a framework of historical writing, it should play a back seat to a real understanding of a historical era or event.  The way to accomplish this is for historians to become intimately familiar with the primary sources of their historical period.  He provides a fairly insightful description of how this would work, so I urge you to read it.

I find this approach attractive for many reasons, not least my own weak preparation in the area of theory.  It is one thing that my graduate program at SHSU did not do well, and which I brought up in the "exit interview" I did with Dr. Olson after my oral comprehensive exam.  I thought we needed to spend more time formally on theory and on historiography, rather than picking it up.  As Jason describes it in his article, lack of a theoretical framework can lead to "history by the seat of the pants".  That's a tidy way of describing the flailing about that can happen without a framewoprk, although he sees the danger of falling into a trap of lazy thinking and unquestioning acceptance of the conventional wisdom.  I think he's correct in this assessment - a theoretical framework gives you a place to start asking questions from.  You just don't to get mired down in the assumptions of that framework.

In the second article of his series, Jason argues that historians should learn to address the multiple influences on decision-making, rather than looking for a single root-cause.  The reasoning here is obvious - while focusing on a single driving factor behind an argument or event makes things simpler for historians to research and present, none of us make significant decisions based on a single factor, and it is overly simplistic to expect that the people we study did so either.  In addition, evaluating the multiple factors that influence decisions leads to a richer (and more entertaining) understanding of history.  The challenge is writing well enough to ensure that this doesn't lead into a tangled mess.  This ties directly into Jason's argument in the first piece that historians need to sepnd much more time with the primary sources of their period.

A final installment provides us with a dismal outlook on the prospects of finding a permanent tenure-track position teaching history.  Why dismal?  The relatively low number of jobs available, the over-production of PhDs, a bias toward graduates of elite universities.  This makes the trek toward the PhD look particularly untenable for anyone who will not be one of the chosen few who attends an elite university (think Harvard, Chicago, Duke, Texas), or who does not have other sources of cash to live on. 

Jason's analysis of the job market is one that could cause depression and despair - it also probably spot-on for people who focus on items not compatible with the current academic vogue.  This applies to 17th Century French specialists like him, but also to the political/diplomatic/military folks like me.  I will definitely not be attending Ohio State, so unless I manage Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill, I will either change focuses or be relegated to the second or third tier of schools with a correspondingly diminshed hope of a tenure track position in History.

This is why I'm getting this pesky degree in Information Science.  Combined with the degrees in History, I can hope for a decent position in an Academic Library.  Teaching online and and writing articles may also help, but I get the feeling that everyone will be taking this path - only the blue-flame specials have a realistic hope of the tenure track.

This leads to another question: how many online teaching gigs can you realistically handle at once?  Can they be balanced with some in-class instruction?

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