From the Profession column of the May 2002 Perspectives
An Intellectual Adventure
Amir Alexander, May 2002
I am very much in agreement with your overall sentiments. Studying history should be an intellectual adventure, and should be "fun." If it isn't, what's the point of pursuing it? There are other more financially rewarding and far less risky pursuits open to smart and ambitious students looking to build a successful career. If one makes this choice, then it must be for the love of historical studies and the sense that this is an inherently worthwhile thing to do.
This was always my feeling, and indeed I had enormous fun in graduate school. Like you, I had some wonderful teachers who left a lasting impression. Some of my friends went the "professionalization" route and worked to make themselves more marketable in various ways, but I did not. It always seemed to me that history was first and foremost an exciting intellectual pursuit. I wrote a dissertation (very soon to be a book) that I thought was an interesting and original contribution to the field. I got some very positive responses to it, but also some highly critical ones from those who did not believe in my methodology or approach. This, I thought, was as it should be—there can be no intellectual adventure without impassioned debate. Getting strong reactions on both sides of the issue seemed to me much better than having everyone nodding assent and moving on.
Six years on the job market caused me to reevaluate this position—to an extent. While I agree that there is no "magic bullet" that guarantees employment, I have also found that in a suffocating job market, graduate students must show their professional competence. Talks, publications, and, most of all, teaching experience are the currency of the job market, and candidates ignore them at their own peril. When every position can have hundreds of applicants, these measures allow search committees to narrow down the field and make it more manageable. Candidates who neglect this aspect of their training may never even get serious consideration, no matter how interesting their dissertation. I agree with you that this is unfortunate, but under current conditions it is a fact of life.
Apart from distracting students from the pursuit of history for its own sake, I think the harsh job market has had an even more sinister effect on the process of hiring itself. The current process not only rewards professionalization, but also penalizes those who approach their studies as an intellectual adventure. In particular, it has been my experience that more innovative work, with its concomitant controversies, is shunned.
Like overprofessionalization, this is not anyone's fault in particular, but is part of the dynamics of the current job market. When a department advertises for a position, it is often the only opening it will have in a long time. At the same time it is faced with a plethora of qualified applicants, representing different topics and approaches. Under these conditions the stakes are high, and the senior members of the department weigh in with their own strongly held opinions on the preferred approach. The more controversial approaches, which are often the more innovative ones as well, are at a serious disadvantage here. For although they may get strong support from some members of a department, they are also likely to be opposed by others. Ultimately, the candidate with the more controversial approach is unlikely to be the choice of a department that needs to keep its different members satisfied. A compromise candidate who is acceptable (or at least palatable) to all-one who is well qualified and not overly controversial—has a distinct edge in these circumstances. All of which is to say that in the current job market, the stakes in any given search are too high for committees and departments to make risky choices.
I do not have a solution to these problems. Their ultimate cause is the tight job market itself, over which none of us has any control. But like you, I very much hope that these conditions will not deter graduate students from approaching history as an exciting and fun intellectual journey. It might not be the best and safest way to secure a job, but I still think it is what makes the study of history worthwhile.