As an undergraduate, I didn’t take many large survey classes, and apart from one class, even the surveys that I took were taught by one faculty member. Larger U.S. universities do have more survey classes (I know, because I was a TA for several of them), but most that I taught on were also taught by one person. That model seems to be less usual in the United Kingdom, so I thought I’d talk about monster team-taught classes, the role of convener in bringing (and then holding) these classes together, and what you need to know about them if you’re considering the British job market. Continue reading
Today’s guest post is by Lindsay M. Chervinsky. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis and is completing her manuscript, “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”
As the new school year starts, many departments are offering seminars for their graduate students on skills and approaches to find a job in this difficult market. Editorials on ChronicleVitae and the American Historical Association mission to document where historians work demonstrate that the history community is beginning to welcome “non-traditional” employment opportunities. While these efforts represent a great first step to introducing students to jobs in editing, public history, and teaching, I would argue that there should be a broader conversation about learning to create a public voice and building a web presence.
Today’s guest poster, Emily Yankowitz, recently received her B.A. in History from Yale University. She is currently pursuing an M.Phil in American History at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include the intersection of politics, culture, and memory in early American republic. Here she writes about the impact of her experiences doing research as an undergraduate.
As a recent graduate preparing to pursue a career as a historian, I have been spending a fair amount of time considering how I came to this decision. While I am sure I will continue to grapple with this question for a long time, particularly considering the uncertain job market, I can say that my experience conducting historical research as an undergraduate played a central role in informing this choice. In this post, therefore, I would like to use my own experience to reflect on the importance of providing opportunities for undergraduate research.
The summer before my junior year in high school, I got my first taste of intense primary source research as a research intern at St. Paul’s Church, National Historic Site, Mt. Vernon, NY. This experience catalyzed my interest in early America and gave me a different perspective on the past than I had previously encountered. Still in high school, I also volunteered as a research assistant for a professor who needed a student to gather articles from microfilm of my town’s newspapers.
As an undergraduate, my experience ballooned through coursework for history seminars, independent research for a senior essay, and work as a research assistant for five professors (three from the university I attended, two from other universities) and one independent scholar. I completed tasks ranging from spending a summer in an archive collecting material covering the 300-year history of an institution and city to analyzing newspaper coverage of slave rebellions in the United States and West Indies. The majority of these projects were not on topics in early American history, which gave me the chance to work with different types of sources and broaden my knowledge of the longer trajectory of American history. Through undergraduate research seminars and writing a senior essay requirement, I gained experience conducting research on topics in early American history.
In the process, I received guidance from professors with a variety of research styles, worked with a range of databases, archives, and libraries, and gained vital tools and necessary confidence to pursue my own projects. Along the way, I honed my paleography skills and became quite adept at using microfilm. But above all, these research experiences provided me with profound insight into the work historians do and attracted me to the profession.
I also saw the less glamorous side of “doing history.” I came to understand the amount of labor involved to acquire the information necessary to write a single sentence and that doing research is not always straightforward or enjoyable—transcribing records isn’t the most intellectually stimulating task, documents burn in fires, and directions that appeared to be enlightening may be dead ends.
Yet, I quickly became captivated by the act of finding, combing through, and analyzing sources and the adrenaline rush that comes when you find patterns in material or locate just the right letter. The impact of these earlier research experiences became most apparent when I began to work on my senior essay. I knew how to locate the primary sources I needed, to operate the microfilm machine I would use to gather most of my source materials, and to organize the sources I gathered. While this process has the potential to be quite daunting, because of my prior experience, I felt well prepared for the task.
In general, the senior essay or honors thesis, coursework that includes research assignments, and departmental seminars tend to be the most common chance for undergraduate history majors to pursue history research. However, the number of opportunities to acquire such research experiences varies from university to university. Some offer structured programs with research elements, while others, for a variety of reasons, take a more hands-off approach. Particularly in the latter case, student organizations that function as research networks and the history department itself can also play an important role in involving undergraduates in research, including encouraging students to look into positions volunteering or working at places such as archives, libraries, museums, and historical sites.
While acknowledging the prohibitive role of cost in such programs, another avenue might be giving students the chance to present their research at undergraduate research symposiums. I personally benefited from the chance to present my senior essay research on a history department panel and a presentation series hosted by my residential college. Funding and whether a student can do research for credit are two other variables in this equation. While summer funding for research projects varies greatly, jobs working as a research assistant or at a university archive may be able to fulfill work-study requirements.
Regardless of what career undergraduates go on to pursue, they can benefit from the experience of conducting research. For one, it has a powerful role in challenging misconceptions that history is merely memorizing names, dates, and places in the kind of hands-on way that a lecture course or non-research seminar does not. Moreover, it enables students to learn that there are still many gaps in our knowledge, view events in the past from different perspectives, and engage in the work of historians.
I can only offer the perspective of an undergraduate at the university I attended, so I would be interested to hear more about this topic from individuals at a range of institutions. What kind of undergraduate research opportunities are available in your department and what are other potential methods of encouraging students to pursue undergraduate research?
This is the final installment of the How NOT TO Write Your Second Book roundtable. Catherine E. Kelly is a Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the Journal of the Early Republic. Her books include In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century (Cornell UP) and Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (UPenn Press).
Let me begin with a cautionary tale:
I had just returned to the University of Oklahoma after an extended research trip for the project that would eventually become my second book, Republic of Taste. I was a very recent hire; I’d only been on campus for a semester before leaving to spend six months back east, including a four-month fellowship at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. My Chair invited me to his office to tell him how the trip had gone and what I had to show for it. Continue reading
We are pleased to have yet another excellent contribution to our “How NOT To Write Your Second Book” Roundtable. Tamara Plakins Thornton is professor of history at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and the author of Cultivating Gentlemen: The Meaning of Country Life among the Boston Elite, 1785-1860 (1989), Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (1996), and Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life (2016).
And Now for Something Completely Different
Remember this old chestnut? “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” It applies to historians too, and you’ll probably find out which one you are when you turn to your second book project. Building on your first book, making a new contribution to that historiographical conversation? Hedgehog. Or are you drawn to a topic pretty much unrelated to your earlier work? Fox. Make no mistake. Neither is smarter, more original or creative, or produces more important scholarship. But their experiences do differ. Let me share a fox’s perspective on the risks and rewards to your scholarship, intellectual development, and professional standing if you follow your nose into brand-new territory.
Continuing our roundtable “How NOT To Write Your Second Book,” Timothy Mennel, an executive editor of University of Chicago Press, looks at how the second book differs from the first.
Tell me if this sounds familiar, either for yourself or for scholars you know: “So my plan is to complete my dissertation by next May. After that, I’ll be on the market. I’ll take whatever job I can, but my focus is going to be on getting a book contract from a university press, speeding through the peer review process, and getting the leverage I need to move to an R1. And then I can start my real work. The second book is where I’ll do what I really want to. And it will be trade. I’m tired of writing just for SHEAR.”
Now, what happens, of course, is that the dissertation takes three years to finish, the job market is worse than anyone could have imagined, the peer-review process is brutal, but the book does finally come out. And no matter what else has happened—that dream of doing what you really want to, which often is framed as writing that second book as a trade book, lives on. Continue reading
Continuing our roundtable on “How NOT To Write Your Second Book,” we are pleased to have Paul Erickson, the Program Director for The Humanities, Arts, and Culture; and American Institutions, Society, and the Public Good at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, talk about Fellowship Applications.
When I was asked to participate in a roundtable on how not to write your second book, I felt like a bit of an outlier, since my CV makes it clear that the best way to not write a second book is to never have written a first book. So instead of giving advice on how to write (or how not to write) a second book, I will share some thoughts on how to ask (or how not to ask) for fellowship support to write a second book, based on 9 years I spent as Director of Academic Programs at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. I hope that these suggestions will be useful to anybody thinking about applying for fellowships, but will be directed at Junto readers who are contemplating how (and when) to apply for fellowship support for second book projects. Continue reading