Monday, April 27, 2015

Beyond the Academic Cage: Observations of a New Federal Government Historian

A guest post by Dr. Frank Blazich., Naval History and Heritage Command.
The views expressed in this post are his alone, not those of the NHHC, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

Thousands of men and women across the United States and overseas are engaged in the pursuit of a doctoral degree in history. Most desire an academic position upon completion of their studies (preferably a tenure-track faculty position at a research institution), a career marked by the familiar rhythm of instruction, research, writing, and intellectual development. Unfortunately, a downward trend in tenure-track positions, budget cuts, and a growing reliance on adjunct positions has sharply reduced the odds of satisfying that desire. Yet as Daniel Drezner recently argued in the Washington Post, most graduate students have “drunk the Kool-Aid”: they get so fixated on the academic track as the only track that they will prefer an adjunct slot—and the increasingly naked exploitation that goes with it (crappy pay, few or no benefits, scant job security)—to any of the other tracks available. Indeed, they may have their eyes so fixated on the academic track that they don’t even know that other tracks exist. There are, however, alternatives to consider and pursue while in graduate school.

Sure, I too drank some of that metaphorical “Kool-Aid” too (as Drezner observed was practically inevitable) but only enough, as it turns out, to have but temporary effect. Instead, I’ve found my way to gainful, fulfilling employment, and a salary comparable to that of starting tenure-track assistant professors.

I did it by following a road less frequently traveled. And therefore my task is to make suggestions that can benefit graduate students in military history who are nearing the defense of their dissertation.

Everything started for myself with the omnipotent question: “What do you really want to do with your life?” The answer: “To be a professional historian,” a goal I believed I could and would achieve within traditional academe. Just how to get there also seemed straightforward. A BA in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then an MA from North Carolina State University, and  finally a PhD from Ohio State—got me to my destination. I was indeed a professional historian. Now what? The inevitable guidance I received from a number of advisors, with minor variation, resembled a Philip Glass composition, a minimalist melody of “. . . and you can teach . . . and teach . . . and then teach . . . teach, teach, teach. . . .”

The only problem was that I didn’t particularly want to teach in the sense that they meant. I saw more self-fulfillment from researching, writing—and teaching in a different way, through public engagement. I thereafter resolved to pursue a federal or private industry position as a historian, and fairly quickly found a position in the federal government that allowed me to be a professional historian on the terms I truly desired. The famed scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, counseled his students, “Follow your bliss.” Well, I had done just that. So permit me to make a somewhat more than modest proposal, based on my personal journey, as an antidote to the Kool-Aid. I direct that proposal to graduate students, to suggest a different way by which to follow their own bliss, to provide them with fodder to reexamine the doubts they almost certainly have—doubts embedded by the mantra of “teach, teach, teach” within academe—on being a historian outside of the academy.

1. Find work outside of academe. Plenty of organizations can use a trained historian with skills in research, communication (oral and written), analysis, and interpretation. In my case, one such organization came to me—the Civil Air Patrol—and asked, based on my doctoral research on civil defense and emergency management, if I could help research their history. I joined the organization and began volunteering anywhere from five to twenty hours a week. I began as an unpaid internship, but shortly rose to become the CAP’s Chief Historian. Another possibility is to pursue contract history; that is to say, researching and writing reports or white papers for businesses, governmental bodies, or “think tanks”. During the final stages of completing my Master’s thesis, I signed a contract to write the fiftieth anniversary history for one such think tank. I will not claim that after earning my master's that I wrote a masterpiece, and certainly not one that traditional academe would recognize. But the work provided me with the equivalent of a post-doc in research, analysis, oral history, and business principles.

2. Diversify your historical skills. Many graduate programs—though far from all—equip students with valuable, albeit somewhat rudimentary, teaching skills, either through specific courses or by the osmosis inherent in repeated years of coursework. But that skill set can be deployed in places other than academe. A professional historian in the academic sense is more than capable of preparing graphic display panels, storyboarding a museum exhibit, or engaging in archival screening. Yes, these are public history skills, but a public that seeks its own version of a liberal arts education values precisely those skills. Therefore give serious thought to “following your bliss” by a different path.

Pursue the opportunities (many yielding salary and benefits as good or better that that of a career in academe) to use your teaching skills in another way. For those with knowledge of foreign languages or cultural knowledge from work overseas, apply your specialized knowledge reflected in a PhD to working within a law firm, business, government or museum. They value someone who has that kind of knowledge—and is usually more ready, willing and able than academe to place a realistic price upon their services. And the more you can demonstrate to potential employers—in ways not all that different from the conference presentations and referred articles you ought to generate, if you know what’s good for you, during your years as a PhD candidate—that you are capable of applying your education on terms other than those demanded by academe, the more you can demonstrate that you’re capable of performing an array of tasks and jobs.

3. Embrace the public. History is a popular field with the general public. Moviegoers spend billions annually to watch films “based on a true story.” Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and blogs populate the Internet with historical morsels, nourishing seemingly every intellectual palate. A cartoon making its round with historian emails carries the caption “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” This begs the question, why on earth would qualified historians choose to resign themselves to that fate?

Public historians have plenty of ways to achieve Campbell’s “bliss”. We build massive libraries, devote resources to rescue and save textual and non-textual records, and devote lifetimes to the study of the past. How much of your work is shared with the public? How much is written in a form and language accessible to the general public? Put a bit more brutally, how much are you fulfilling the social responsibility obligation demanded by a society in return for giving academe the freedom it long ago granted the earliest professions (law, medicine, and clergy): the freedom to generate expertise by making its own selection process, establishing its own criteria for the acquisition of that expertise, and providing its own mechanisms by which to assess whether an aspiring professional has in fact demonstrated that she or he has achieved professional status.

Academe replies: we “teach, teach, teach,” knowing all along that it really views teaching as secondary to the generation of a scholarship overwhelmingly directed toward specialists within academe, scholarship nearly incomprehensible to anyone other than those specialists.

Actually, fulfilling that social responsibility obligation to extend education to society at large is not all that difficult, even for those whose bliss truly lies within academe. (My reservations about academe come mostly from my observations about academic administrators rather than academic practitioners). It is easy to get angry at an inaccurate internet or media article about a historical topic. You don’t have to seethe about it, to do nothing to “speak truth to idiocy”. Do not remain silent, but tactfully respond. Offer your insight, share your knowledge, stand up as the subject matter expert and embrace the communication tools of the present day.

One obvious tool lies within the blogosphere, where you can fight blog post with blog post. Perhaps you found the misleading article via Facebook. You can fight back through Facebook. Fight dubious Twitter tweets with counter tweets. People beyond academe appreciate the appraisal of a true expert. And surprising number of them will beat a path to your door, contract in hand, and employment options will materialize.

4. Consider your perspective. Don’t just react to misguided assertions based on flawed, misguided, or outright bogus historical perspectives. Be proactive about engaging the larger public. Historiography is the ideal example of this, where historians can analyze and examine the differing perspectives allotted to a topic by multiple scholars. Now apply this outside of academe. If you are a business executive, would you not want to know what courses of action your predecessors took? Which ones succeeded and why? Why did others fail? What if an organization’s history is exclusively institutional memory that exists only within the minds of a handful of long-standing employees who could retire? Your training as a historian is ideal for bringing real expertise to bear upon these and myriad other questions, to provide the needed—and therefore valued—answers to a corporation or non-academic institution. Leveraging an organization’s heritage, creating a usable institutional memory, can easily save untold resources by avoiding past mistakes, or perhaps targeting new geographic or demographic markets.

Academe does not have a monopoly on such thinking or thought process. So why would you place your career in the hands of an institution that increasingly, and pretty remorselessly, will treat you like a commodity (in the sense, as expressed in the film Trading Places, of “gold, silver, platinum, heating oil, propane, cocoa and sugar. And, of course, frozen concentrated orange juice.”). Why would you limit your employment options only to academe if academe is frequently (though not yet always) unable to remunerate you in the way you need and deserve in order to carve out the larger life—the bliss of a family for which you can adequately provide, the bliss of traveling to faraway places other than archives, the bliss of having the ability to provide substantial funds to the charities whose commitments you value.

The wider world needs the talents and capabilities of historians, be they in the government, business, law, medicine, or public service. Furthermore, as someone trained to craft and defend a position with evidence, why not use this as an asset when speaking with a recruiter or hiring authority? Consider their perspective, and make a compelling case how hiring a historian opens up possibilities to strengthen their organization they may never have considered.

5. Know thyself. This last point is perhaps mundane or irrelevant, but has pertinence. As chiseled in stone at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, “know thyself” is worth remembering. “Historian” is not exclusive to academe but rather becomes an inner calling and integral component of your mental and intellectual processes. The job market is terrifying only if you restrict yourself to the restrictive market of academe, if you disregard the fact that the market is much larger than academe indoctrinates you to believe. As long as humanity exists, there will be a need to study and utilize past actions and accomplishments for the betterment of tomorrow. You can and will be hired because of your skills as a historian, and those skills will always remain the defining characteristics of your position.