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Bound by borders

This semester I’m taking a course called “America and the World since 1865,” which looks at the U.S. from a transnational perspective, its influence on the rest of the globe, and vice versa.  For our first meeting, the professor asked us for a very brief reflection on whether our own historical thinking has been contained within national borders, or if we’re used to thinking of history in broader, more international terms.

For the most part, my historical thinking has been confined within national boundaries. As an aspiring early Americanist, my reading and research has generally focused on the U.S. itself. My undergraduate advisor was interested in Peter Kolchin’s comparative work on American slavery and Russian serfdom, and it struck me at that time as a very novel way to approach historical questions, but the U.S. as a sort of discrete unit of study is something I’ve generally taken for granted. The only real exception has been the work I’ve read by colonial American specialists operating from an Atlantic perspective and colonial historians writing about the borderlands between the different European colonial societies. I haven’t really incorporated these insights into thinking about my own research interests, which involve the American Revolution on the frontier. I’m certainly not hostile to a more international approach; I simply haven’t thought much about it.

This neglect has carried over into my teaching. As an adjunct, I’ve tried to incorporate some insights from world history into my U.S. survey courses, but this has been limited to the predictable topics—nineteenth-century imperialism, for example, or America’s role in the World Wars. Of course, American survey courses generally concentrate more on the impact of such overseas involvement on the U.S. itself rather than the results of American foreign involvement on the receiving end, and the survey courses I taught were no exception. This “U.S.-centric” approach to teaching about America’s engagement with the world isn’t really true international history, but at least it helped internationalize my thinking a little; teaching the U.S. and world surveys at the same time prompted me to consider how American imperialism of the late 1800s and early 1900s was similar to the European imperialism of the same period.

The upshot of all this is that borders have bound most of my historical activity up to this point, and I suspect this is true of many Americanists. This course will probably be an eye-opener for me, and I hope it will spur me to think a little more broadly about the forces that have shaped human activity.

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Light at the end of the grad school tunnel

Dimitri Rotov directs our attention to a series of items on the hazards of a graduate education in the humanities.  The specific problem is the scarcity of lucrative positions relative to the number of people who want them.  It’s definitely something to consider.

As someone who’s currently holding two part-time teaching positions instead of a single, higher-salaried full-time one, I know as well as anyone how hard it can be to try to start an academic career.  At the same time, though, I think history grads who convince themselves that they’ll never land a decent job are missing an important point.

The next time somebody tells you that there aren’t enough jobs, find out what they mean.  If their point is that there aren’t that many tenure-track openings at research universities that confer terminal degrees…well, what else is new?  Such a job isn’t the only possible outcome for someone with a history degree.

I know, I know—nobody wants to pull 40+ hours (at minimum) at a museum or documentary project when they can teach four classes a semester and have the summers off, with the balance of their time devoted to whatever research they darn well please.  But I think one of the reasons history grads are so desperate about the job market is because they limit themselves.

My career in history has been short, but I’ve sampled quite a bit of what the discipline offers.  Let me take this opportunity to assure any students who might be reading this that historical work outside the academy is not only fulfilling, but a genuine privilege and an occasional blast. 

Don’t get me wrong; being a college instructor has its perks.  But it’s also a trade-off.  I miss the days when I could step into the vault and do my research in the original documents, instead of chasing down edited transcripts.  I miss holding in my (properly gloved!) hands the cane Lincoln carried to Ford’s Theater, the captain’s speaking trumpet from the Monitor, Mary Todd’s china, Lee’s personal correspondence, Sherman’s handwritten report from Bull Run, an order jotted down by Grant at Appomattox.

Rather than complaining that departments don’t explain how poor the job market is, I would complain that they don’t make students aware of the range of possibilities open to them.  By assuming that every successful student should aspire to an academic career, they limit graduates’ prospects and therefore do them a disservice.

Departments should encourage students who are interested in a career outside of higher ed.  They should provide them with information about job openings and access to people in their field who can provide advice.  They should direct them to internships where they can try different types of historical work for themselves.  (An annual panel discussion on historical careers, with representatives from museums, secondary ed, and so on might be worth trying, too.) 

Furthermore, and not least importantly, professors should watch what they say around students.  Casual remarks about non-academic history careers can stifle any interest in these valuable and important jobs that a student might have had, and will rightly offend those students who entered the program to pursue these paths.

Students, meanwhile, should broaden their vision of the profession—and should examine their reasons for entering a graduate program in the first place.  If you’re attracted by the notion of intellectual respectability, three months of freedom, and a nice diploma, then by all means bail out now.  If, on the other hand, you passionately love history and can’t imagine doing anything else, then be aware that historians aren’t found only in university classrooms.  There are far easier ways to secure wealth and renown than the long, tortuous process of a graduate education in history.

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