Monday, May 09, 2005

I'm Caught in the 'Dustbin of History’?

This story offers a very brief summary of a recent AHA report (PDF) on the Master's Degree in History. In reading the report, I came to realize that I was pursuing a useless degree and then that I actually wasn't. Quite a roller coaster ride!

The reason I decided to pursue a degree in a field other than my profession (I'm an engineer by trade) was due to nothing more than pure intellectual gratification and the fun I have "doing history." And while the AHA report is worthwhile in pointing out the value of the MA in History, I still think that it would be more worthwhile if some institutions offered an "easier" way for professionals with backgrounds in fields other than history to work toward and attain a History PhD without having to give up their professional lives (read:incomes).

I believe that all History PhD programs are intimately tied to teaching whereby PhD candidates are required to instruct and work at institutions as part of their program. This is fine for young students, but what about "older" students like myself? Are we out of luck because we came too late to the realization that we loved history and wanted to take our hobby more seriously and pursue it more "professionally"? I'm not crying "not fair" because of any sense of entitlement. If I feel strongly enough, I can take the chances, get accepted into a PhD program sell the house, work for peanuts, send my wife to work and relocate the kids, get a degree and work for half of what I make now. However, I do have to ask: is all that necessary to pursue and earn a History PhD? Is that all part of "paying my dues" because everyone else had to do it? If so, isn't that attitude a bit, well, infantile?

My point is that there should be at least a few respectable programs that offer an alternative PhD track for non-traditional students (ie: older people who are somewhat removed from their undergraduate education) who have lived life a bit and can offer an outside-of-the-academy perspective before pursuing and attaining a History PhD. My guess is that most of us non-traditional wannabe historians enjoy research and writing more than the prospect of teaching. (I suspect most traditional PhD's feel this way, too, and I don't think this is anything that is really surprising). As such, why should we be required to teach if that is not what we want to do? It used to be that one pursued a PhD and became tied to teaching at an institution because the latter vocation provided a means of support while the Historian pursued his research and wrote on scholarly topics. But what if teaching as a vocation is not needed to support a PhD who is otherwise employed? Is my ability to support myself outside of the academy cause for suspicion? Or is it resentment? Is there a belief that, because I won't be academically affiliated, I will somehow be intellectually or scholastically compromised?

Some of these questions have been asked before, but usually within the context of questioning why there are relatively few conservative historians represented on campus. I ask them because I wonder why the presumption is that "respectable" historians have to be represented primarily on campus at all. I see a lot of lip-service paid to the independent historian, but my sense is that these folks are regarded somewhat as mavericks or, to use a less complimentary term, loose-cannons. I hear and read a lot about the ideals of open dialogue, opportunity and scholarship, but the History field I see does little to promote, encourage or facilitate alternative paths. Nonetheless, perhaps there are PhD programs that are accomodating of non-traditional, "professionals" like myself. If there are, they should do a better job of advertising such. If not, I think there is a void that can be filled by doing so. I'll be one of the first to sign up (especially if they're located in Southern New England)!


Anonymous said...

I'd gathered that teaching is for many American PhD students a necessary part of the deal - the way you get funding is by being a TA. But I didn't know that teaching is compulsory, even if you could pay your way? That surprises me.

In Britain, flexibility is becoming the name of the game (though support structures for non-traditional arrangements are not always as good as they might be). It's very common for people with jobs to sign up to do PhDs part-time, either at a local university or by distance learning (eg through the Open University), simply for their own satisfaction in getting to do serious research. In fact, I think there may well be more p/t than f/t PhD students over here nowadays...

Marc said...

Yes, the AHA report indicated that things were changing in Europe. I hope the U.S. follows. For instance, many universities in the U.S. have residency requirements. Brandeis University in Boston is typical. It requires PhD candidates to be enrolled in the program full time and they also require them to teach as "teaching fellows." Some programs are more flexible. For instance, Boston University says this: "The department admits students for part-time and full-time work, and although full-time students are preferred, the department makes every effort to accommodate those who may be returning to graduate study or who for other reasons wish to pursue the degree at a slower pace. Students should note that once their courses have been completed, they must register and pay the Continuing Student Fee each semester until the award of their degree." So, while more flexible, one will have to pay a bit more while honing that dissertation! Again, I hope that more schools in the U.S. will follow Europe in this.