Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Valuable Partners

Originally published in Blog Them Out of the Stone Age on September 8, 2005

The Ohio State University is still on the quarter system, which means, among other things, that Autumn classes do not begin until late September. So around here the students are just now beginning to return. But four of my five graduate advisees are in town now, so this morning we're going to meet as a group.

Within the history department I have a foot in two fields: American History to 1877 and, of course, Military History. My career has largely been a matter of shifting my weight back and forth between them, sometimes laying stress on the one, sometimes on the other. That is not uncommon. Indeed, I think it is pretty much the norm for professors in thematic fields. Two of my advisees are early Americanists; three are military historians. In other years the balance has actually been the other way. And indeed, two of the three dissertations that I have signed as principal adviser were in early American history.

But the dividing line is artificial. As Clausewitz says, "War has its own grammar but not its own logic." The logic is driven by the policy of governments and the passions of people, among many other things. So a good military historian has to be a broadly grounded historian. And since the United States is a country that was literally made by war, a good American historian must know some military history.

Still, the brute fact of the job market is that positions in American history far, far, far exceed positions in military history. Which is why I insist that my military history advisees, when it comes to their PhD general exams, should be as strong in their second field--which is usually early American history--as their first. I'm not trying to be a jerk about it; I'm trying to maximize their chances on the job market.

I will give an example. The day I gave my job talk here at Ohio State, the first question I received had nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of my presentation. Instead I was asked what I thought of the debate between Eugene Genovese and James Oakes as to whether the antebellum South was a pre-capitalist society or whether it was as capitalist as the North, albeit in different ways. The whole point of the question was to show me up, to demonstrate that I knew nothing beyond pure military history, whatever that is. Guns and battles, I guess.

You might think I resented the question, but that's like thinking a a baseball player at bat resents the pitcher on the mound. It gave me precisely the opportunity I needed to destroy the stereotype about "narrow military historians." I launched into a discussion of the main works of Genovese and Oakes, explained the reasons for their disagreements, and concluded that it was too early to tell which one was right. My questioner later told me he wasn't really satisfied with my answer and I'm sure it wasn't as good a response as he could have given. But so what? Most of the people in the room were non-Americanists who didn't know a damn thing about the Genovese/Oakes debate. To them it sure sounded as if I knew what I was talking about.

Contrast that with the impression I would have made if I had said, "I don't know about that." Or worse, tried to stumble through an answer on the basis of dim memories of a debate on which my grasp had been tenuous to begin with. I would not have recovered. Worse--because to tell you the truth I didn't really believe this department would actually hire one of its own no matter what I did--I would have let down the military history program. I always thought of my real objective as making the program look as good as possible in the eyes of the department. If I got the job, that was gravy.

And pretty good gravy it has turned out to be.

So my military history advisees need to see my early American advisees as valuable partners. But what do the American advisees get out of it? Well, they almost invariably choose me because military history informs their research or because they want to be historians of the Civil War era, and any historian of that era ought to know a good deal about military history. They need my military history advisees as pards, too.

Beyond these remarks I don't actually know what I'll tell them when we meet. In a way my main job is just to bring the coffee and croissants and let them renew acquaintances or get to know each other if they haven't met already. I would tell them about the fact that I have bipolar disorder if they didn't all know it already. It is one of the first things I tell potential advisees. I want them to see that I am not ashamed about it and I think of it, and manage it, as an illness. I explain the symptoms and tell them what to do and/or who to contact if they become concerned about me. I think it is their business to know, because they are placing a good deal of their future prospects in my hands. And if they can't handle the knowledge it is better for both parties if this is recognized at the outset.

But thus far my graduate students have been comfortable with my frankness on this subject and even somewhat reassured, because it implies that they can come to me with their own concerns when necessary. It is, to be sure, a matter that has to be handled in a sure-footed manner, because it is important to maintain a professional demeanor and to preserve, in a healthy way, the distinction between my status as a faculty member and theirs as a student. But they are also adults--actually remarkably accomplished adults--and they deserve to be treated as such.

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