Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: Form and Function (part two)

(the following post originally appeared in somewhat different form on Civil Warriors on January 26, 2007)

Given what I’ve said about the product being the thing, what’s the value of a Ph.D?  I think it’s best for me to respond by suggesting what in my mind the Ph.D. is intended to do and how Ph.D.s are trained institutionally and individually (and there is a difference, I can assure you). I think I can speak with some insight on this, having been rather close to the graduate students as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, having received my postgraduate professional training at the University of Wisconsin, and having trained a number of Ph.D. students at Arizona State University, as well as being a part of the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate and the Preparing Future Faculty Program. I’ve spoken on these issues at major conferences to the point that it’s now part of my professional reputation.

So let’s see what professional training does … at least good training …

First, training as a professional historian introduces the student to a great deal of historical scholarship, not all of it (and, preferably, not even the majority of it) in one’s field of research interest. The well-trained student, in fact, should be able to undertake article-length research in those fields and develop manuscripts that pull together primary and secondary sources to produce something fresh. It may come as a surprise to some people here, but I never wrote a research paper on the Civil War-Reconstruction period; in fact, in my seminars I did not even touch the nineteenth century. Instead, I wrote on political rhetoric in colonial New York City politics, demonstrating that the rhetoric and ideology of republicanism was part of the way in which people viewed political conflict before the Revolution (the Zenger trial was of some interest here), and a second paper on television, the funeral of John F. Kennedy, and the origins of the Camelot image of Kennedy in the popular American consciousness, showing that the process of memorialization was quite conscious and designed to establish a certain impression of JFK that has proven amazingly durable given the traumatic events of that November. I think I’m a much better historian for writing those papers and for doing extensive readings in social history, cultural history, economic history, and the like (aside from a course in political history and a handful of books in a readings course that covered 1789 to 1877, in fact, I did not cover the Civil War and Reconstruction at all).

The aspiring professional is tested on his/her knowledge of the historical literature in an exercise known variously as a comprehensive examination, a preliminary examination, or a qualifying exam. There is no similar test of one’s skills as a researcher, and with the decision of many department to abandon the master’s thesis, in fact, there’s precious little evidence offered that a student can prepare a manuscript that exceeds thirty pages prior to embarking on the dissertation. Most programs do not systematically train researchers (although my professor in colonial history did introduce me to all sorts of resources): for the most part, it depends on the individual professors, be they course instructors or dissertation committee members (especially the chair) to ensure that the student has proper training in those skills, and that varies widely. There is even less of a programmatic emphasis on presenting your findings in terms of good prose: once more it’s left to individuals to perform the taskmaster role (I’ve been very fortunate in that regard). What’s emphasized in preparing the dissertation is making a contribution to the conversation one should have been recognizing in one’s readings of the work of other historians, and that one’s contribution should be grounded in research through primary sources.

Note what that means. You might want to prepare a new history of the Gettysburg campaign that offers more detail than ever and integrates recent literature. There’s a place for that book, but probably not as a dissertation. A detailed battle study becomes a problematic dissertation: a regimental history must engage with broader questions in order to win some professional recognition. We’ve had a series of studies in recent years trying to find out exactly what happened on Little Round Top, an area of interest to me, but I can safely say that the resulting literature has had next to no impact on the profession at large and minimal impact on narratives about the battle and campaign aside from fleshing out a few details and nudging at some myths.

Let’s take the four dissertations produced by the Ph.D.-bearing members of Civil Warriors: each challenged prevailing understandings of their subject and offered new interpretations based on research in primary sources. That readers of this blog have heard of those books is because books on the Civil War period enjoy a wider readership. More important, that readership has certain characteristics that are worth identifying: many more readers pay attention to the first half of Let Us Have Peace than they do to the second half, which addresses Grant as general-in-chief during Reconstruction and his candidacy for the presidency in 1868. Very few readers, in fact, understood that one of the major thrusts of that book was to call into question the notion of 1865 as a dividing line, in that what happened during Reconstruction did much to define what the Civil War had (and had not) achieved. That’s because Reconstruction is not usually on the radar of readers of Civil War books. That’s too bad, by the way: I have an entirely different appreciation of John B. Gordon because of what I know about his activities during Reconstruction, and in fact I see his own writings as not only painfully self-serving but also as a way to wrestle with themes of reconciliation and lingering hope that it might have been different. You can’t understand the debate about Longstreet at Gettysburg unless you know about the postwar world, and you can’t otherwise fully understand Joshua Chamberlain, either. Simple as that.

Some history programs offer training in teaching: others supervise the teaching of graduate students, without systematic training; still others appear to assume that teachers are born, not made. Here again the issue is whether professional training prepares one to engage with a wider audience. The answer is rarely. In fact, one of the major ironies of graduate training is that while professional historians complain that they don’t enjoy a wider audience (and sometimes express envy and resentment at those who do), they do not train graduate students to engage in that broader public discussion or to make their work accessible. Simply put, it’s not a priority unless the program (and more likely the mentor) make it so.

So, what does training as a professional historian at a Ph.D.-granting institution do? It prepares one to enter the profession by acquainting the candidate with the extant literature and directing the candidate to contribute to the conversations in that literature, conversations that take place primarily among professional historians. There are exceptions to this rule, notably in areas of military and political history as well to some aspects of areas such as (for example) women’s history, African-American history, and Native American history, where a sense of history is relevant to certain discussions. Professional training is more haphazard when it comes to training people to teach, to research, and to write, and much depends on the quality and commitment of individual mentors (some of the historians viewed favorably by the general public do a good job in this regard).

Others may have different observations, but mine are not simply autobiography writ large. I can say that in the Civil War-Reconstruction field, those historians who received their degrees from the University of Wisconisn in the 1980s whom you may know (Joseph Glatthaar, David Blight, and myself) have been fortunate in the success we’ve enjoyed, shared committee members (Richard Sewell, a master with the red pen, marked up all our dissertations, and supervised David and me), and may have enjoyed more popular success than some of our peers because of the field where we work and the topics we tackle. We were (and are) fortunate.

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