The myth of the “Alt-ac” career

I honestly didn’t mean to turn into An Angry White Man on Twitter over the weekend.

It started, innocently enough, with me perusing my social media feeds first thing in the morning on Saturday, and noticing that the institute where I’ve spent the last year as a postdoc had posted an article highlighting what former internal postdoctoral fellows have gone on to do with their careers.

What got under my skin and eventually led to … I won’t say I had a full on meltdown, I was just rather unhappy … was that the headline triumphantly announced that “84% of our internal postdocs went on to get jobs!”

You see, as of right now I am in the other 16%–that is, among the ones who don’t have a post-postdoc job lined up.

I’m afraid that, particularly on Twitter, my initial unhappiness sounded like I was throwing myself a pity party for not having gotten an academic job this year.

I really wasn’t, or at least, that wasn’t my intention.

GIF: "I'm a grumpy old man!"

I made my peace with the poor academic job market some time ago — you see, while it’s true that I did not get a single interview or expression of interest from any of the academic jobs that I applied to (nor did I even get a formal rejection letter from 2/3 of them), the simple fact of the matter is that I applied to a grand total of six jobs.

Count with me here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Three of them were outside my immediate subfield (world history rather than Middle East history), and one was a one-year visiting position.

One of the two that did send a rejection letter–not the one that sent the typo-laden form letter on December 23–mentioned that over 100 people had applied for the position. You can be the best candidate on Earth and have problems making the cut with those kinds of odds.

No, as I said in my tweet above, my bigger issue with the market is that it’s been this way for some time, and while there’s a lot of lip service to this reality, there is a huge amount of structural indifference to it, and this, honestly, is where my patience wears thin.

Let me explain.

The myth of alt-ac.

First, let me be clear I’m not blaming my specific department or institution, nor am I trying to single them out for specific criticism. I started down this road because I thought this release was a bit tone deaf, especially at this particular moment when everything has ground to a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is a systematic issue that’s bigger than one specific place, and it can only be dealt with by rethinking the entire concept of postgraduate education.

In the immediate aftermath of my initial sarcastic tweet–“Gee, it’s fun to start the morning by being reminded you’re among the 16% of postdocs who didn’t get an academic job”–a number of friends, colleagues, and followers contacted me to express empathy (or a shared series of concerns). In more than one case, many of us had side discussions that basically wound up going to the same place.

Namely, that this whole “alt-ac” or “career diversity” thing is some serious bullshit.

GIF: "This is bullshit."

For the uninitiated, “alt-ac” and “career diversity” are buzzwords that essentially mean the same thing: those of us in graduate programs, especially doctoral programs, are statistically unlikely to land what used to be considered the gold standard for those with that particular academic credential, specifically the tenure-track (TT) job at a four year institution of higher learning.

I don’t mean that “alt-ac” as an idea is bullshit. Of course we should be looking at career options beyond the tenure track.

My husband reminds me constantly that my original plans had nothing to do with being an academic, at least not until I discovered I actually liked research and teaching.

(Why my plans changed is a different post in and of itself. I originally had textbook consulting in mind when I started down this road, but I don’t know if I can deal with the futility of working with anti-intellectual organizations in positions of power–ones like the Texas State Board of Education.)

The issue–the bullshit, if you will–is that most academic professional associations seem to think that repeating the phrase “alt-ac” or “career diversity” enough times does … I don’t know what.

It’s become shorthand for “jobs we don’t have to train you for and can’t–or won’t–help you find.”

This is where the disconnect comes in.

GIF: "That's not my problem."

Case in point. The American Historical Association recently released a database of everywhere that people who got Ph.D.s in history between 2003 and 2014 are working. They’ve been publicizing the hell out of it, and it is somewhat of an impressive piece of work.

That said … as a recent Ph.D, myself, I am utterly mystified as to what I am supposed to do with it.

Should I use it to find someone whose job seems neat and follow them around until they seem like they’re ready to retire? Is that it?

Practically speaking, what does this exercise in data management prove, exactly? Yes, historians are working everywhere. Good for them. How did they get there? What additional training did they need?

For example, there’s much discussion of how history Ph.D.s work in archives and museums. I have neither archival nor curatorial training. How did those people make that leap?

The other thing, in case you were wondering, is that the job board on their website almost exclusively lists academic jobs.

They give lip service to alt-ac careers, encourage their student members to consider pursuing them, they even fund graduate students to be “career diversity fellows,” which involves funding a student for two years to hold brown bag lunches and brainstorming sessions.

For the last year, these sessions were held at a seminar table outside my office where, every few weeks, students would meet and come up with perfectly excellent ideas about what they needed in order to start pursuing the alt-ac angle of their degrees.

All ideas that will never be implemented because, and I know this from my 20 years on the admin side of things, there’s not a single person in the department –staff or faculty–with the time or resources to do any of them.

But when it comes to actually helping history Ph.D.’s find any of these alt-ac jobs …

GIF: empty scene, labeled "... crickets chirping"

For the record, I point to AHA because it happens to be one of the professional organizations that I am a member of. I don’t mean to single them out as though they’re doing a worse job than anyone else, as I am not aware that any of the professional associations for any other fields–English, Anthropology, Sociology, etc.,–are doing productive things toward helping their membership adjust to the new reality in which “Ph.D. does not equal TT job.”

The problem is systemic and deep rooted in higher education itself.

More than anything else, what I’m frustrated by is the visible (audible?) disconnect between the following two things that doctoral students in the liberal arts now know to be true:

  1. We must all consider “alt-ac” our mostly likely employment option; and
  2. Your doctoral program will prepare you for a TT position, which you won’t get.

In order to fully realize an alt-ac career, we need to be trained to do things other than teach (and, in a moment of praise, I will say that one of the things that my specific program and department does do is mandate a pedagogical training seminar for graduate students).

But, where is the investment in a practicum to help us get some of the skills we need to make the alt-ac leap?

GIF: women taps microphone and asks "Is this thing on?"

See, Colleges of Arts and Sciences, or the Liberal Arts, or Humanities, or whatever they’re called … they could work collectively with professional schools to deliver such training for their graduate students.

My university has a huge Information Sciences program. An art history program. A business school. We have people on our campus who give the kind of training graduates need to purse this so called “alt-ac” career track.

This would, of course, work best if all of the departments in the liberal arts came together to offer this sort of training to their students collectively. But right now, departments compete for funding, faculty lines, and limited resources within their colleges. They don’t collaborate.

Or, rather, if they do, it’s the exception more than the rule.

Then, of course, colleges compete with each other for the attention of the provost. And so on down the line. Students only get “counted” once, in the college of their particular major. Why, then, would they waste time and (here’s the kicker) money training students from a different college?

The issue is that this problem would only be solved by rethinking postgraduate education entirely, and changing how universities operate. And that …

GIF: man sitting by the side of his road, looks at his watch, and sighs.

That, ultimately, is the basis of my unhappiness.

It’s not that I didn’t get an interview for any of the jobs I applied to that each had hundreds of applicants.

It’s not that I will be unemployed come August 31.

It’s that no one has guidance on how to do anything else.

Minding Your Manners

This installment in the Grad School Survival Guide is brought to you by the letters P and Q (and if you’re old enough to get that joke…)

It’s actually inspired by two things that happened recently: first, a friend asked me to look over a draft dissertation proposal; and, second, I got a nastygram (which had nothing to do with that post that I’m tired of talking about now).

Both of them have to do with how we treat each other in academia. I know I’m not the only person to bring this up, but I’m going to say what I have to say about it anyway.

Don’t Bash the Historiography

When I was early in my dissertation writing process, my advisor and I were having a meeting by Skype, and he made an observation that resonated with me. I don’t know why this was some sort of Transmitted From Yoda Secret that needed to be broadcast from On High; in fact, ever since he pointed it out it’s become something I’ve noticed a lot.

What he said was this: “You’re at that point we all find ourselves at while writing: the documentation isn’t giving you what you want, and you’re trying to figure out how to move forward. One of the things people do when they’re in that situation is that they start beating up the historiography; don’t do that. It tells everyone you’re not that confident in your own argument.”

There it is.

[Oh, for the record, if you find yourself in that situation, sit back, look at the documentation, and see what it’s telling you. Make it tell you where to go rather than trying to tell it where you want it to go. This may involve taking some time away from it.]

But since this conversation … I see it a lot. Cover letters. Proposals. Abstracts.

“I am the first…”

“I am the only…”

“Other scholars have failed to notice…”

“The scholarship has ignored…”

They’re all variants of the same thing: I did something no one else did.

Congratulations! That’s what academia is all about.

However, scholars of the new generation (every new generation) tend toward the enthusiastic, and want to trumpet their accomplishment, and they run afoul of the classic mistake of announcing that everyone has done it wrong, and that they have done it right.

Critiquing someone else’s scholarship for failing to come to the conclusions you have reached, or for not identifying an issue at the same level of importance that you’ve ascribed it, basically comes down to this: you’re criticizing them for not being you. They’re not you. They’re them.

Put yourself into the conversation

You can’t ignore the existing historiography, or wave it all away by wishing it had been done differently. This goes back to the issue of intellectual genealogy that I discussed in my post about reading and taking notes for qualifying examinations.

Let me use myself as an example here.

The history of the 20th century Eastern Mediterranean tends to use the nation-state as its unit of analysis. In some cases, it uses nations that didn’t yet exist as the unit of analysis–for example, you can find histories of Israel that cover the first half of the 20th century even though it only existed for the last 18 months of the first half of the 20th century.

The reason that these histories are written this way is that scholars began grappling with the national histories that were constructed from the 1920s onward, and wanted to evaluate them (the most famous example of this is the “New Historians” movement in Israel, but each country in the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt all the way around to Turkey has their own such intellectual genealogy).

So, it’s easy for me to come in three intellectual generations later and say, “but no one has done the transnational”–that is to say, work that crosses borders to look at movements, connections, and cross-currents–but the fact is that I can do the transnational now because of what those who came before me have already done.

Their work makes mine possible, because they’ve gotten the national histories to the point where we can say, “Okay, we understand what’s going on inside these nations, now let’s look outside them.”

So, as you develop a prospectus, or a cover letter, or an abstract, pay attention to how the historiographical trends have developed, and the big questions that have been asked and sought to answer. Your intervention–your work–is part of this lineage whether you want it to be or not. You’ll get much further by explaining how what you’re doing is going to add further to the conversation than by suggesting that everyone else has been having the wrong conversation.

As I was warned during my oral qualifiers… after I did exactly that… “Don’t go after them. They know more than you.”

Or as I put it more crudely: make them want to read more. Not to read you aloud at the departmental holiday party to peals of laughter.

It works both ways

Moving on to the second half of this, I got a nastygram on my academia.edu profile from a retired Ivy League professor who read a historiographical essay I wrote years ago and apparently didn’t like the way I mentioned him in a footnote (I guess?). I’m not going to name him.

The message was probably supposed to be some sort of Maggie Smith-in-Downton Abbey-type burn but it really just confused me and I had to show it to several people before we collectively decided I was being chided.

The gist of the chide, near as I can tell, is that he felt that I, a scholar who hadn’t published as many books or had as many years of experience as he did, and therefore had no right to something something I don’t even know what. I will never entirely understand the impetus of a retired scholar to spend his free time trolling the internet looking for papers that mention himself and send nasty messages to people if he doesn’t like them.

So, in all fairness, I will acknowledge that my suggestion that the new generation should not be dismissive of the previous extends in both directions. I have seen too much of this. I once had a LinkedIn troll who — regardless of what this week’s episode of my podcast was about — had written about it years before and needed me to know. I finally blocked him.

But it’s also true that I see little encouragement by senior scholars of the next generation. Many of the conferences I attend have rooms full of Emerti who offer the dreaded “comment not a question” that seems basically intended to make sure everyone in the room knows they’re still alive.

This is not to say that it doesn’t happen. A few years ago, Suraiya Faroqhi, a distinguished scholar of Ottoman history whom I will name, came to a conference on Ottoman history here at Texas and made a point of offering very constructive–and kind–feedback to all of the graduate students and untenured panelists. It was so rare that I tell people about it. Suraiya Faroqhi did that. What a class act.

After all, folks, someday we’re going to be that generation … and it would be nice if people said they were conversing with us … and we should remember to converse back.

Wading into the Duke-UNC Middle East Consortium Mess

Note: This originally appeared as a really long thread on Twitter. I had originally colored edited or new text in blue, but have now edited so much that it’s kind of lost all of its meaning and just gave up.

It’s Sunday morning, I have my first cup of coffee, and I’m about to wade into the kerfuffle over the Duke-UNC Middle East Studies consortium.

So let’s get started, shall we?

First off, let me say that I worked for over 15 years for a Title VI program. I left a few years back when writing my dissertation, and there’s been a complete turnover in administration since my day–in any event, this column isn’t about my former place of employment. Nonetheless, let me clarify that what follows here is my opinion alone based on my own observances working with the Title VI grant program writ large.

Note: upon reflection, I have things to say about this opening paragraph. First, after I posted the Twitter thread, a couple of colleagues who still work for NRCs at different institutions contacted me privately to let me know they were either reluctant to speak publicly on the issue, or had been asked not to.

That was when I realized the deeper implication of me starting my own twitter thread with a disclaimer that I no longer work for an NRC and am speaking on my own behalf.

Second, while I know people who work for the Duke-UNC consortium, I am not in a position to evaluate their programming. Nor do I know anything about the Gaza conference that was held which apparently started this whole thing; I have no way to judge whether the criticism it attracted was warranted or valid.

Note: a commenter (scroll all the way down) who was on one of the panels at the Gaza has written an account of the event at her blog.

Background

Title VI, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Act is a federal program administered through the US Department of Education (US/ED) allowing universities to apply for designation as a National Resource Center (NRC) on a four year cycle (always at the same time; the last competition was in 2018; the next should be in 2022).

Despite the emphasis in coverage on the Middle East NRCs, there are NRCs on pretty much the entire world now, including Canada and Western Europe (Title VI used to be exclusively non-Western, although Latin America was included).

Various tweaks have been made along the way, and these are important to understanding what is happening with and to Duke-UNC. Under the Bush administration, a group of neoconservative advocates were able to get language inserted requiring “presentation of multiple perspectives.”

Under the Obama administration, the emphasis placed on STEM education resulted in an absolute priority being added to the competition (meaning, do this or you aren’t eligible) to increase foreign language training among STEM majors.

The same year, a mandate to work with Minority Serving Institutions and/or junior and community colleges was also added.

Title VI doesn’t provide blanket funding. Applicants have to specify what they’re going to do with the money. It cannot be used for faculty salaries, and only up to 50% of administrative salaries, for example. The focus is on developing programming and resources, and training students (a related program that can be applied for either in conjunction with NRC status, or independently of it, is the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) funding which is used exclusively as fellowships for students pursuing advanced language study).

The Obama era additions were rather restrictive, and some institutions chose to close their programs (notably Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies) rather than accept money that was so restricted.

Title VI also requires significant investment from the institutions themselves. At one point, my institution estimated that for every dollar in Title VI funding received, they were spending three from other sources.

US/ED doesn’t seem to know its own regulations

Like any grantor of funds, US/ED absolutely has the right to request clarification to ensure that its funds are being spent appropriately–I am certainly not arguing to the contrary. That said, in my experience, in the past when US/ED has wanted such clarification, they have asked for it in private communication with grant recipients; they don’t publish public letters in the Federal Register

What is being missed in the coverage of the Duke-UNC issue is that the letter sent by Assistant Secretary King displays a startling lack of understanding of the Title VI program’s own regulations.

The media has focused on issues like the way Israel and Islam are portrayed in classes and lectures. Let’s leave those aside for a moment and start with the paragraph that suggests that the consortium has an anti-governmental bias and is discouraging students from working for the federal government.

This is a stunning allegation to be made without any sort of proof.

The letter goes on to complain that, instead of choosing to work for the government, students are going on to graduate education or working for academia.

This is an acceptable outcome according to Title VI’s own regulations.

Title VI is not just a university-to-government pipeline. It is also meant to ensure that there will be qualified instructors for the next generation.

Let’s not even discuss the fact that small programs like the Duke-UNC consortium don’t have career counselors.

It is truly shocking that the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education would look at placement data and–based solely on this data–assume not only that students were choosing not to work for the federal government because they were being coached not to do so, but to then repeat this allegation in an open letter published in the Federal Register.

The letter also bemoans the fact that foreign languages are being taught by lecturers and not tenured faculty. As mentioned above, Title VI funds cannot be used to hire permanent faculty. It can be used (partially) to hire lecturers.

Universities cannot snap their fingers and make tenure track positions appear. Believe me, I and a number of colleagues on the job market right now wish that they could. Duke-UNC is doing the best they can with the resources they have. All universities are having this issue.

The tone of the letter also suggests that languages would be better taught by tenure track faculty. I have worked with extremely talented lecturers who are just as dedicated (if not more) than any tenure track faculty member. This letter is also a slap in the face to them.

Education is not a zero-sum game

Let us move on to the most troubling passage: the one that assumes that Islam is being presented more positively than other religions in the Middle East.

Let me tell you about the data this accusation is being pulled from.

Twice a year during the grant period, NRCs have to submit data on what they’re doing with the grant money. One of these is strictly financial, the other includes narratives and comprehensive lists of all events, lectures, workshops, conferences, etc. that were supported.

These are exhausting. They take hundreds of hours of staff time to compile. And feedback is … nonexistent. In fact, I was told once in private that no one at the Department of Education really ever looked at them.

The amount of text you get to describe a single event is fairly limited, and I can’t speak for Duke-UNC, but I will say I never put in a lot of substantive effort into writing descriptions because I had dozens more events to enter into the system–and because in 15 years of submitting these reports I never got a single question, request for additional information, or feedback from anyone, so there was an existential issue of how much I should really bother being complete and creative.

I can say definitively that there is no place in the system to upload fliers, programs, supporting documentation. If it’s a multi day conference, the names of all the speakers usually don’t fit in the text box.

I bring all of this up because Secretary King makes some interesting assumptions about the event that he refers to based on the limited data he has in front of it. He assumes Islam is being portrayed positively, based on … the title of the event?

He assumes that other religious traditions in the region are not being covered, or are being covered less … actually, let’s start with not being covered. Again, I question the basis for the assumption. Does he have the program in front of him? Copies of the materials given out?

The next bit, however, is the red flag, and this one is key, guys, and I’m sorry to have buried it so far down in the thread.

It’s the assumption that if Islam is being portrayed [too?] positively, then by definition any other religion discussed must be portrayed negatively.

This right here is absolutely key, because it has been at the center of neoconservative complaints about Title VI for the past two decades.

It assumes that education does not teach people to think critically, present nuance, and that students must adopt their professors opinions in order to pass the class.

This isn’t how it works, folks.

There is absolutely no basis for the assumption that if one speaks positively about Islam, then we must be speaking negatively of Christianity or Judaism. Education isn’t a zero-sum game. University classes aren’t about which religion is “good” and which is “bad.”

This is a conservative talking point. I know this because the exact same language popped up with the Texas State Board of Ed, who cheerfully admitted who brought their attention to “this important issue.”

Update: it was pointed out on Twitter that the letter critiques Duke-UNC for offering lectures and events focused on Islam instead of other religions, not about the manner in which they are portrayed in comparison to each other–this critique of my comments is perfectly fair.

The crux of my argument here is less about the specific criticism, but rather that the letter strongly suggests that judgement about the worth and value of programming and courses has already been made based on the scant information given in the annual NRC reports and before seeking additional clarification from Duke-UNC. My reading is reinforced by the inclusion of derisive editorial comments in the letter itself ridiculing courses based on their title, and sarcastically questioning how they could possibly be relevant to the NRC mission.

A much more neutral request for information —  for instance, “We see that funds were used to support this course which, based on the title and description, seems to be somewhat esoteric in regards to the NRC mission. We’d like to see the syllabus and have you explain how the course content helps meet program objectives,” would have been more professional (for a start) and much more assuring that the inquiry into Duke-UNC is an honest attempt at administrative oversight.

How many perspectives are multiple?

More to the point is what the media and others have correctly noted is the “chilling” impact this could have on education, if the Department of Education is going to start policing what universities can and cannot include on their syllabi.

The concerns in the letter raised about “multiple perspectives,” for instance, are based on a single event. The way my university approached this was to ensure that multiple perspectives were employed over the program year, not at each individual event.

There is a single example given in the letter from Secretary King. One. “This doesn’t appear to be a balanced event.” Okay. Did Duke-UNC hold other events that provided an alternate perspective on the issue? We don’t know. That information isn’t provided.

It isn’t feasible, possible, or even desirable to turn every academic talk into a point-counterpoint debate.

Presenting one single lecture as an example of “unbalanced programming” is a cheap card trick.

What’s next?

Now, I’ve gone on far too long about this, but to wrap up.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, there are around 120 NRCs around the US, focusing on all regions of the world. The attention in the media has focused on the Middle East ones, but there are plenty of others.

Should the East Asia centers be tweaking their language curriculum so that students learning Mandarin get instruction on how to discuss trade negotiations? Should classes on Korea be required to teach that Kim Jong Un is “a nice guy”?

Should courses on contemporary politics avoid criticism of Russia because “he’s a good guy. I believe him?”

These may seem like over-the-top examples, but … why? If US/ED gets to determine what material and approaches are and are not acceptable–based entirely on course titles and 250 word descriptions–where does it end?

One of the criticisms lobbed at Title VI is that critics feel it should be upholding American interests. This means that professors might have to change out their curriculum with every new administration—even contradicting what they said four years earlier. (Imagine, if you will, the about-face professors would have to do to incorporate Trump administration priorities after spending eight years teaching those of the Obama administration, and that after eight years of the Bush administration.)

This isn’t how education works. American interests are best served by creating a cadre of experts who understand how the rest of the world works and advising the US on what should be done as a result.

That’s what Title VI is supposed to be for.

Update

UNC has responded to the Department of Education. The letter makes numerous references to documentation the government already has in its possession that would have clarified what was happening. See it here:

Writing Your First Book Review

pile of books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I wasn’t actually intending to write about this as part of the Grad School Survival Guide, but I sat in on a seminar yesterday to discuss a colleague’s new book and the idea came up. I hope the students don’t mind me using our conversation as a jumping off point (I won’t name them, at any rate), and for borrowing a couple of ideas that were circulated.

The issue that came up toward the end of the discussion is that these students, most in their first or second year, were feeling a bit intimidated about writing critical book reviews because they didn’t feel like they had enough grounding in the subject matter, and also they were afraid of offending senior colleagues in the same field.

I’m not going to dismiss these concerns, because they’re certainly understandable, and, when I offered my own advice to them I admitted point blank that I knew exactly where they were coming from.

Writing a book review for a seminar, a graduate student journal, or pretty much anything else is, first and foremost, going to require a lot of the skills I covered in my post on how to read for graduate school. However, as a graduate student it is also one of the easiest ways to start racking up publications credits early in your career.

The standard format of a book review in the humanities (and be sure to check the standards for your discipline, as well as the specific requirements of any venue through which you plan to publish) is that it should be between 1,000 and 1,200 words; that it begins with a paragraph describing the book, goes through chapter by chapter in subsequent paragraphs, and then wraps up with one or two concluding paragraphs.

What the students I met with yesterday were struggling with–and, again, I am familiar with this struggle because we all struggle with it–is how to transform this basic format from a summary into an actual review.

Critique vs. Criticism

One of the classic tactics that early graduate students often adopt to overcome this hurdle is to bludgeon the book to death with over the top criticism that questions the legitimacy of the author’s birth, educational credentials, choice of car, and worthiness as a human being consuming oxygen and food resources that, the review implies, could be better spent on, say, perpetrators of genocide serving out life sentences at The Hague.

The problem with this approach is that much of the substantive criticism of the book tends to revolve around the reviewer’s assertion that they wouldn’t have written a book on this topic the way that the author did. In short: the reviewer isn’t reviewing the book for what it is, they’re criticizing the text based on what they think it should be.

First and foremost, this is both unfair and somewhat unprofessional, and speaks much worse about the reviewer than it does about the material under review. Don’t be this person.

Also, resist personal attacks. At no point should an author’s credentials come into play unless the author is completely unqualified to write the book they’ve written–and even then … an academic book has made it through the proposal stage, blind peer review, and editing, so someone out there who knows this field has decided the book has some merit. If the book didn’t go through peer review, that changes the calculus, but still — personal attacks on the author are petty and weaken your argument. Stick to the text.

This is where the difference between critique and criticism comes in to place. Critique should be somewhat constructive (the author did this well, but their argument could have been strengthened with field work or more archival sources). Criticism, on the other hand, tends to be much more dismissive of the idea that the text has any merit (this book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on). Even if you happen to be of the opinion that the book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, you’ll get much further and be taken much more seriously by engaging with the argument presented, taking it on its own terms, and outlining the issues with it.

Where To Begin

I referenced the How to Read Post above for a reason: in that post, I offered some suggestions for thinking critically about a text, and one of the easiest places to begin is to locate that section late in the introduction of the book where the author lays out their argument and their plan for the book, and evaluate how well they did.

For example, in yesterday’s seminar, one of the students observed that the author had a tendency to drop what seemed like the beginning of an interesting story that had the potential to illustrate a point … and then abandon it and move on. This is an astute observation, and would be a good point to raise in an review.

It’s also common in first books that come out of dissertations. The author has spent so much time working with the material that they start to think some of their illustrations are common knowledge and don’t need to be fully fleshed out. (This is also a sign of a cursory editing job).

When you’re writing your dissertation you’ll probably experience this once or twice. I literally had moments of despair because I ran across a book that used some of the same sources that I did–and therefore “everyone already knows this” and “I’m not doing anything new.” (They don’t, and you are.)

Here are some other things to take into account:

  • What methodology or theoretical approach is the author using? Is it presented in a way that makes sense. (A lot of historians in particular are allergic to theory and only introduce it at the end in a “I have to do this” sort of way. Does it show?)
  • How is the author contributing to the historical literature? What conversations are they contributing to? How might someone who works on a different area find the book useful?
  • Does each chapter have an argument? Is the argument fully supported? How does the chapter contribute to your understanding of the overall argument of the book?
  • Do the chapters flow from one to the other? (In a book where each chapter is a difference case study they should still fit together somehow in the end).
  • What sources does the author use? Are there sources you might have expected to see that aren’t there? Conversely, are there sources that you didn’t expect to see that are?

Critiques don’t have to be negative

It is often easier to write a review of a book you didn’t like. That said, while “critique” has something of a slightly negative connotation, it is actually a neutral term. Remember to point out things that the author does well–a mix of positive and constructive comments helps demonstrate that you have approached the book on its own terms.

When all else fails, take a look at reviews of books (one of the students in the seminar yesterday mentioned Goodreads, which I’ll admit I haven’t looked at in years). While everyone loves to circulate the fire-and-brimstone type reviews that throw lightning bolts at texts, you really want to get a feel for more nuanced reviews.

In particular, spend time reading reviews that are mostly positive–a lot of students struggle with these because they don’t want to come off as fawning or sycophantic; learning how to write a positive review takes some practice, but you also shouldn’t scour a book for something negative to say just because being fully positive is too challenging.

The more you write reviews, the better you’ll get at it!

Transitioning from Research to Writing

It’s time for another installment of the Grad School Survival Guide.

You’re home from your research year. You’ve been all over the place, and have thousands of photocopies and scans and lots of great material!

So … uh, now what?

This column is going to be one of those ones where I tell you what I wish I had done, rather than emphasize what I did.

What I did was this: I came home, worked another month at my job, quit, went to Mexico for two weeks to visit in-laws for Christmas, came back and started prepping my first adjunct class at a university nearby (not the one where I was working on my Ph.D.). It was the following summer before I even started working with the material I’d brought home and I’ll be honest: my memory isn’t as good as I had hoped it was.

Here’s what I wish I’d done instead.

adult blur business close up
Photo by Nguyen Nguyen on Pexels.com

Don’t worry about writing yet.

We all have this fantasy that we’re going to get off the plane from research and immediately start writing our dissertations. Some of us probably set out for research with the expectation that we were going to get a bunch of stuff written while we were doing research.

In my experience, writing while doing research is minimal, and being able to compose those beautiful paragraphs right after research … let’s just say there’s a reason it takes a while.

In other words: if you’re sitting there thinking that you don’t know where to begin, you’re in the majority. Breathe.

Go through everything you collected

Unless you are an absolute superstar and heavily annotated every document you photocopies and scanned (in which case you don’t really need my advice), you probably did so-so on this.

Even if you did a decent job, you probably did what most of us do: your understanding of what you collected is based on which archive you got it from. Now, obviously you don’t want to forget this because it’s important information that you’ll need, but more than that you’ll want to know what everything you collected says.

In order to get excited about writing, you need to both simultaneously go through all of the stuff you collected in order to synthesize it, and gain a bird’s eye view in order to start seeing the linkages in the material. This sounds tedious (I won’t lie, it can be), but it can also get your brain cells firing up and ready to start composing text.

Here’s where you start.

Whether you use post-it notes, an Excel spreadsheet, the notes and keywords function in Zotero, or some other program and system (I would suggest doing it electronically rather than pen and paper as the search function is going to be a key factor in making this useful), start going through and giving your documents a closer read and collecting useful data.

I suggest that at a minimum you’ll want to track:

  • Names (sender, recipient, subject of the document, any other key personnel you think you might want to search for later)
  • Dates (the date it was authored at a minimum)
  • Places
  • Title (if the document has one)
  • Subject matter — (this doesn’t have to be super detailed: “Letter from H.C. [High Commissioner] to Interior Ministry re: sale of onions in 1917” is fine.)
  • Connections (see below)
  • What I Need (see below)

If you have multi-document PDFs (for example: if you scanned a box or file that all has the same file number and you want to keep them all together), create internal bookmarks for each sub-component so that you can easily locate a document within the larger file. I’ve lost hours scrolling up and down looking for one-page memos lost within a 90 page PDF. You’ll thank yourself for this later.

As you do this, you’ll start to notice trends and connections between documents. This is where you’ll want to go back and add items to your “connections” category — whether it’s “compare to [document reference]” or noting that the other half of the story is contained in a file you found somewhere else, or whatever you need it to do.

I also kept a running note of What I Need–I used this for two purposes. First, I used it to write notes to myself to do a little research in areas that I just didn’t know very much about. If the document referred to an incident or event or person that I didn’t recognize but seemed important, I’d make a note.

I also used it to record articles or books I knew were out there or things I wanted to review (“I know Gallagher discusses this in her book — revisit.”).

The biggest and most important piece of advice I have is this: NEVER EVER TRUST YOURSELF IF YOU FIND YOURSELF SAYING “I’LL REMEMBER THIS.”

You won’t.

Write it down.

Starting the writing process

At some point–hopefully–in all of this, you’ll find yourself with a story you want to tell. Start telling it. Open up a word document, and write it out (don’t forget to cite things!)

At this point, don’t worry about linear writing — none of the chapters in my dissertation were written straight through from beginning to end. Start writing things down as they come to you, and as they interest you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not very good and you’ll never show your adviser — at this stage in the game, what you’ll want to get over is the oppression of the blank document staring back at you from your computer screen.

In the early stages you’ll have a bunch of paragraphs that don’t link together — that’s fine. You’ll have stories that have a beginning and a middle but no end, or an end with no beginning — that’s fine too.

Potters don’t throw a lump of clay down and create beautiful vases immediately — they do a lot of molding and shaping and sometimes if it sucks they smush the clay back into a lump and start over. Writing is the same way.

What you want in this beginning stage is to get a feel for what you have in your documentation and what stories you’re excited to tell right up front. Let the structure of the document form around it. Don’t worry about whether it’s what you set out to write at the beginning–that can all come later.

Believe me, you’ll get plenty of practice in the months to come!