Publication Date

September 2, 2014

Perspectives Section

Career Paths


Was I a good history student as an undergraduate? Yes. Did I major in history? No, English. Was I a good history student in graduate school? No; I stumbled into the long defunct Committee on the History of Culture at Chicago from the English department after we discovered an abiding mutual dislike, and stumbled even more to a PhD from the committee. Would I have constructed a different graduate curriculum and written a different dissertation if I had to do it again? Definitely! Did I become an academic historian—or a college-based academic anything else? No, though I did start that way (teaching humanities to engineering students and “open enrollment English” at CCNY, and the political uses of language in Yale’s Collegiate Seminar Program). Did I become a better historian-practitioner in time? Oh, yes. Could I have gotten through a career that included (beyond that early teaching) academic administration, then academic research and writing, without history? No way!

The origins of this trajectory were undergraduate coincidences, those intersections that late adolescents easily fail to acknowledge as light streaming through windows. At Brown, somehow I became entranced by economic history, and fell into coaching by Forrest “Mac” McDonald. Although his personal politics were far distant from mine, his insistence on getting your hands dirty with primary sources and putting them together in works of art became part of a belatedly realized DNA. I didn’t know then where my work was leading, or why this English major was emerging from library stacks covered in the dust of Commercial and Financial Quarterly editions from the late 19th century, carrying legal pads filled with penciled block notes, and constructing diagrams of the New Haven Railroad bankruptcy case of 1908 that embraced an entire kitchen table. Nor did I recognize the all-nighters—plowing through tables of 1930–35 soybean futures to prepare for the class on New Deal agricultural policy Mac assigned me to lecture (as a sophomore and to distinctly disapproving seniors)—as anything more than an academic Olympic tryout in a sport other than my default.

The occasion of this essay forced reflection on how I arrived even at that point. Having slipped into boredom as an associate dean at state-college-USA, I came to Washington on a one-year fellowship to the research arm of what was about to become the US Department of Education that turned into a 27-year run. There must have been a sub-rosa theme at work: a realization of the compelling value of unobtrusive information—letters, notebooks, diaries, documents, and, finally, data. History renders unobtrusive information “compelling”: not too many other disciplines do. So one learns to determine how to triangulate it, and how to make meaning out of it so that narrative and persuasion are possible. You learn when to step back, to connect, to bring multiple prisms to bear on multiple types of the unobtrusive. Other disciplines take pieces of the triangulation, the narrative, the multiple prisms; history does all of it.

What was sub-rosa became a way of life when I discovered something called “data”—numbers representing realities of lives, behaviors, contexts—at the US Department of Education. It was the early 1980s, and while my work was focused on higher education, I unearthed two national archives of secondary school transcripts that could provide accurate accounts in a field where pundits simply practiced shrill voices. I contracted to have others (at Johns Hopkins and Ohio State) put the quantitative material together, and wrote a study that became the grounds for high-school curriculum recommendations in A Nation at Risk. Within a couple of years this work convinced the National Center for Education Statistics to gather higher education transcripts out of which data sets of what college students do and study would be built and analyzed. The building and analysis, however, required fluency in algorithms, code writing, and fairly sophisticated software. I took all this on, sensing that in these unobtrusive records lay national archives that didn’t lie (well, let’s say they lie a lot less than do people responding to surveys).

So I went to computer school at NIH, learned code writing and software, and by 2000 had built three national longitudinal study archives, with codes and programs that were passed down from one to the other, and that are now used in the generation of subsequent longitudinal archives. I wrote a dozen monographs based on these data sets, with enough citations to justify tenure somewhere.

A weighty part of career stories is that one can’t see around corners. With the sweat of Washington summer days in barely air-conditioned buildings supplanting the dust of library stacks, could I have imagined creating and analyzing massive data sets based on high-school and college student transcripts for the US Department of Education? Could I have imagined analogues to such historical archive work—e.g., building databases from debarkation lists of the ports of Philadelphia and Baltimore in the 1820s and ’30s and both database construction for and multivariate analyses of the first women’s Who’s Who (1916)? These activities, in fact, were at the core of my visiting course in quantitative history, offered twice by three departments at the George Washington University. The course never “made” and probably because it scared student wits, but the point lies in my belatedly recognized origins of its design. Yes, we read the annalistes in graduate school, and it’s obvious that what Forrest McDonald had us do on a small scale, Braudel did on a multi-continental stage, and in probably eight languages. And there is a textbook on quantitative history, and all of this wound up in that prospectus for that failed course offering.

A “quantoid” at midlife! Who would have thought . . . ? And with enough public recognition that people still call me to crunch numbers. But only under the most dire of circumstances will I do it, as new applications of history have now supplanted that drive.

These were “the spaces between numbers,” as the mathematician-heroine of Smilla’s Sense of Snow calls them. In my case, the spaces were international work and fiction. I had been part of the European Association for Institutional Research for some years, and smelled enough change on the continent that the minute I left the Department of Education in 2006, I was off on the first major US study of Europe’s Bologna Process, plowing through hundreds of documents, going online to play with interactive ministry databanks and to dig out course materials in four languages from European universities, interviewing hundreds of academic and ministry personnel in nine countries, exchanging 750 e-mails across many borders. Producing The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence (2009) taught me again what the study of history teaches: how to put it together and make meaning. You don’t do it this way in literary studies unless you are playing with concordances (and few people do). Literary material is usually handed down: rarely does one find it, shape it, clarify it, and preserve it. That’s what history does.

The first novel proceeded the same way. The Russian Embassy Party (2013) was an item high on my bucket list, and it is not a spy story, either. As a nonfiction writer, I always wondered if I could create a story from historical materials, develop characters, sustain dialogue, and arch it all over a 30-year trajectory and 400 pages. What I discovered, as I am sure you know, is how much historical research such an undertaking demands. Digging out microfiche DC real estate records and bus route maps from the early 1960s, hauling out all the New York Times Magazines from the late 1970s that were living in my basement for their fashion ads to match one character’s story line, reading multiple accounts of the fall of the Berlin Wall just so that I could place characters in credible physical positions, obtaining St. Petersburg maps from the 1980s so that I would have accurate markers prior to all the street renaming of the Yeltsin years (my Russian is pre-primitive, but I could get through those maps), creating coherent and accurate sets from dozens of photographs from places called Vyborg and Vologda, and on and on. That’s not what William Irwin Thompson meant by the “edge of history,” which we pondered in graduate school, but it does involve a lot of Thompson’s “recoding.”

I am 71 now. It’s the backside of a career curve. Yes, there are undertakings, but their lifelines are short. The stream of external projects for self-employed “research consultants” is thinning. On barren, ground-frozen February days, I have little motivation to generate another major professional inquiry. It’s hard to let go, but ever more soon, it’s time. But oh!, there is a box in the basement filled with family memorabilia, photos, letters in five languages, recorded interviews, legal tablets of notes—all colored by the Spanish Civil War, its forerunning, and its aftermath. The box in the basement is waiting for the novelist’s treatment, its contents to be stitched by what history has taught. The discipline is the Red Violin, careening over centuries and though languages, with every division of the back lot in high voltage operation, all weaving a magic tapestry. I should have majored in it.

is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, DC. He is a coauthor of The Degree Qualifications Profile (Lumina Foundation for Education, 2011, 2014), and, most recently, of “Use and Problems in the Language of Discipline-Based Qualification Statements: Learning from Tuning and Its Analogues” in the June 2014 issue of the Tuning Journal for Higher Education.

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