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Monday, April 04, 2011

Careers and academic navel gazing

In addition to being on sabbatical this year, I'm pulling together my promotion file for next year (in History, we are tenured and promoted to associate professor, and then go up for promotion to full professor sometime later, usually when we publish a second book and some additional articles).  At Florida, we have a standardized form (form doesn't do it justice, it is a document that can range over 20 pages) that we need to fill out. And one thing we have to do in the form is provide a statement outlining the large themes in our scholarship and teaching careers.

And that got me thinking more generally about what an ideal career trajectory looks like. You occasionally see some debate about this on history blogs, because there are two basic models and they are in some tension with one another.

The first might be called the focused model: in this approach your research and teaching centers around a very clearly defined core. How narrow depends a bit on your field in history: In US History, there are lots of subfields, and so a focused scholar might do work that pinpoints a narrow range within a specific subfield (History of the Urban US in the 20th century, for example); in some other national fields a person might range more broadly, though my sense is that more and more historians of non-US History do research in specialized subfields, as well).  But here, your scholarship and, to some extent your teaching, will circle around a range of very specific issues throughout your career. Essentially the goal is to become the expert on your bit of the terrain.

The second approach is diffuse and comes in several forms. You might focus on a particular country or region (the US West; France) but study different periods (the West in the late 19th century, the West post-WWII) or topics (Women in Western History, Immigration in Western History, the environmental history of the Western US).  Or you might focus on a particular historical theme (Gender history) and study it across several regions or nations or transnationally (Women in Italian History, Gender and Transnational Networks of Italian Immigration, 1890-1945). The justifications of this approach are also varied, you might argue that you are a generalist in your regional or national field (I do all areas of Western US History) or an expert in your thematic field (I teach and research in global environmental history).

I fall (or place myself) in the last category--I'm interested in issues of constitutional order and while I do much of my teaching (and a sizable amount of my research) in US history, but I do not consider myself just a historian of the US. Mostly that is reflected in my research interests, but I try to mix some transnational and comparative work into my teaching (I offer courses on comparative constitutional history and I'm prepping a course in the global history of human rights).

That's all by way of background to the larger question, which has two parts. First, I wonder when, if ever, we think a person's career trajectory has gone off the track.  I'd imagine, for example, that if one of my colleagues were to announce that he no longer wished to teach the history of the country he was hired to teach, but wanted, instead, to teach violin master classes, that my department (and university) would not be amused. I'm less clear how either would respond if that same colleague said he would continue to teach national history, but was no longer going to do research in that area, because he wanted to devote himself to the violin.

But there we have a person who has literally taken himself out of his discipline. What of a person who makes a slightly smaller shift, the legal historian who becomes a historian of science? The tax law professor who wants to teach and write about negotiations?  Is this always okay, sometimes okay, never okay? How do we decide?

That leads to the second part of the question: What is the criteria for making that judgment? Should it be intellectual and based on the coherence of the path (she started as a legal historian looking at questions of proof, and became fascinated by scientific method, and that led her to want to write a biography of Newton)?  Or is it (and should it be) bureaucratic (we hired you to be a professor of intellectual tax law, you cannot stay here if you only want to teach negotiations, because we already have someone who teaches negotiations and we don't need two people in that field).

In effect, that's a question about what faculty members are. Are we, after we are tenured, position players who can make modest shifts in our assignment as long as we do the teaching and research we were hired to do? Or are we scholars who can, and should, be encouraged to take whatever path our research and interests point us in?

I'd imagine that for most universities, the answer is the first and that that will be increasingly true as time goes on and budgets get tighter. I'm less sure how faculty feel about that. Is it a question of personal inclination: Some of us are hedgehogs and some of us are foxes and that's just the way things are? Or is it a more fundamental question of scholarship and professional identity.

And finally, how do we need to think about this? Is this about how we define ourselves (or are defined), or is it about the role of universities and scholarship more generally? I'm inclined to think it's the latter and that it goes to the very essence of what higher education does and should continue to do. But maybe not.   


Posted by Elizabeth Dale on April 4, 2011 at 10:02 AM | Permalink


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I agree with Orin--however, in my experience, departments are much more concerned that a faculty members teach the courses that he or she was hired to teach, rather than that he or she conduct research in certain areas. A faculty member is typically hired to fill a teaching slot, but his or her research only has to meet certain standards of quality and/or quantity, regardless of topic (or even field).

Posted by: Mark D. White | Apr 5, 2011 6:57:28 AM

I think it depends in significant part on the expectations and norms of the program in which you are employed.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 4, 2011 8:45:59 PM

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