Publication Date

February 1, 1990

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

Linda Gordon’s informative and helpful piece, “Successful Interviewing,” in the November 1989 Perspectives, inadvertently reveals one of the historical profession’s most persistent problems. It offers a wide variety of useful hints to the candidate preparing for an interview at an institution at which the successful applicant’s sole significant duty is the pursuit of historical research.

Nowhere in Gordon’s article is there any discussion of the preparations to be made by a candidate interviewing at a school at which classroom teaching is of paramount importance. Indeed, the word “students” is used only twice in the entire piece, and then only incidentally. The candidate is advised to inquire about teaching load (obviously an impediment to research rather than the principal purpose of the profession), research support, leave time, enrollments (one hopes they won’t be excessive), promotion and evaluation procedures, library facilities, the funding of the institution, community resources, and other important concerns. But nowhere is it recommended that the candidate ask about the quality and composition of the student body, the interests and concerns of the students, support services for effective classroom teaching, or anything else that might indicate an interest in the teaching aspects of the profession.

This omission is not accidental; nor is the situation which it reflects the fault of Gordon or any other individual professor. Teaching is, despite the lip-service paid to it by historians everywhere, the neglected stepchild of the academic world. One’s dissertation and plans for professional advancement are objects of respectful inquiry in any interview, but one’s hopes to become a successful classroom teacher are seldom considered worthy of exploration. This is regrettable, not the least for a practical reason: most Ph.D.s in history will find employment not in the major research institutions or the prestigious liberal arts colleges of the United States, but in schools whose large classes are filled with students of widely disparate backgrounds and states of preparation. The proper education of these pupils is a time-consuming task which will quickly disabuse the conscientious professor of the notion, nurtured in graduate school and in the interview itself, that historical research is the principal raison d’etre of the teacher of history.

This is not to allege that such research is of no account. My own publication record lists one book, two curriculum guides, one historical brochure, eight scholarly articles, and a number of book reviews. My entire nine-person department enjoys research and writing and considers such work essential to good teaching. But we take seriously our duties as educators of the young and enlighteners of the public (to paraphrase Robert R. Palmer), and we consider such duties of greater importance than the production of works of scholarly research, most of which will be read by only one or two other people outside the author’s immediate family. Unfortunately, as Gordon’s valuable article demonstrates, this attitude is not shared by most graduate schools and departments of history. That is a pity.

John W. Langdon
Professor of History
Le Moyne College