Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Blog Round Up: Professional issues for the Historian

"Size Matters?" from the Historical Society blog Here ponders the question of why history dissertationsThe Defiant Devil is a little over 200 pages of text.
are so large? In fact, history dissertations are, on average, longer than any other field in the humanities or social sciences.  My sense is that if the anecdotal evidence of declining attention spans is true, then, yes, it is a problem, and might further widen the divide between professional academic historians and the wider, non-specialized reading public. The comments to the blog posting are interesting as well. Some made the case that historians do suffer from an inability to boil down lengthy arguments to shorter, pithier examples. I know I have suffered from this. There is always one more fact, that I feel needs to be included, analyzed, and contextualized. Are other academic professions better at this? I cannot really answer this question because I have not read any dissertations outside of history. Some comments focused on setting some expectations for the graduate student writing their dissertation, such as limiting the page count. I tend not to favor such Stalinesque techniques. One comment noted that the dissertation author sometimes has to write for the lowest common denominator. In other words, that one committee member who wants a detailed discussion of the kitchen sink, or, who gives you multiple titles of books that you feel obligated to include in your analysis, even though they are not really essential to your work. Although the article focused on dissertations, I feel the same argument applies to many books as well. It is always a little frustrating to get through a good chunk of the book when you start to feel that it should have been a journal article, not a full length monograph. Some books are terribly too long. I am happy to say that

"Long Odds of the Tenure-Track Job Search" from the Chronicle of Higher Education here examined the intense competition for academic jobs. Sometimes the odds of securing the position you applied for are 600 to 1. In a way that made me feel better for not having one of these jobs because it helps me to explain this to those who perennially wonder why I am not employed as a full-time history professor. Those outside of academe have a hard time grasping the academic job market. I usually begin my explanation with a question, "when was the last time you saw a new college constructed?" Sure, there are some intensely for profit colleges going up, but the history is only a small part of their otherwise moneymaking ventures, such as nursing, paralegal, etc. Second, I explain that when one gets a job in a college or university, they keep it for life. This means that that position will not come up for hire for at least 20 years, and more likely 30 or 35. I then have to use a Supreme Court analogy to make this clear. Finally, I tell them that I have applied for positions, but have ultimately received a letter stating there were "75" or "210" applicants. Now, I will cut to the chase and respond that a recent study of the respected Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the odds of getting a job are as high as 600 to 1.

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