Month: February 2018

The Trouble(s) with Dissertations


It seems like most of the chatter among American historians has focused on two debates about the dissertation: should graduate students approach dissertation writing with the intention of having it ready for publication upon completion or is dissertation writing somehow different from book writing? AND should universities automatically embargo dissertations – that is prevent digital copies of them from being made available to scholars – or allow access to them immediately upon completion? I have largely remained on the sidelines for both debates for several reasons. I am in the early stages of my dissertation research and do not have much valuable wisdom to provide on either topic. I am not particularly interested in these kinds of debates and would rather argue about historical content instead of the politics of the history profession. But more than anything else, I have stood aside because I think the answer to both questions seems clear: allow the individual graduate student their own approach to writing their dissertation and choice whether – and for how long – they would like to have their university embargo it.

I am approaching my dissertation as a dissertation and not as a book. My dissertation is on the history of American China Studies and how it shaped and was shaped by mid-20th century American politics. While I feel it has the potential to have mainstream appeal, I am not sure that writing a book for a wide audience is the best way to present the significance of my argument or my skills as a historian to my peers. Fundamentally, I see the dissertation as a certification as to one’s qualifications as a historian. Demonstrating these qualifications – ability to use archives, work in foreign languages, articulate a novel and significant argument – does not always make for the most compelling reading even for one’s scholarly peers. Yet, I believe that it is important for my project and for my potential employers to demonstrate these skills, although doing so may mean substantial revisions (including cutting, adding, and rewriting chapters) when the dissertation is transformed into a book. The process make take more time, but I am confident in my dissertation prospectus and believe the final product will be well worth the wait.

Though I am not approaching my dissertation as a book, that does not mean every graduate student should avoid writing their dissertation as a book. At the Society of U.S. History blog, Rachel Shelden has given a litany of reasons why writing her dissertation as a book worked for her. Ultimately, each graduate student and their advisors and mentors must choose their own path. There is no “right” answer.

I feel similarly about embargoing dissertations; each student should be allowed to choose whether or not her dissertation will be embargoed by her university and for how long. Debate over embargoing dissertations was brought to the fore by an American Historical Association statement in June urging universities to embargo all student dissertations. This attracted criticisms from many historians who saw the announcement as a foolhardy commitment to the dying medium of print monographs and doing a disservice to young scholars and the profession as a whole by keeping the innovative work of young scholars out of the hands of their peers. Further arguments for the embargo have been forwarded since the AHA’s initial announcement, most eloquently by former AHA President Bill Cronin. I understand this puts a lot of stress on university administrators and library personnel who have to process these requests. I understand that it is easier to approach embargoing with an all or nothing mentality. But in the end, the dissertation is the intellectual property of the graduate student who researched and wrote it and they should be allowed to restrict or provide access to it as they see fit.

There are some obvious pitfalls to this case-by-case approach. What if a graduate student forgoes embargoing her dissertation and it is never published as a result? What if a young author’s work is preempted while her dissertation is embargoed? Shouldn’t the university have some control over the dissertation seeing as they provided at least some of the financial and material support necessary for its completion? Though these issues may seem significant – and indeed many are – the fundamental point remains that neither the AHA nor the university should be compelling graduate students to either embargo or not embargo their dissertations. The choice should remain their’s and their’s alone. Historians differ in how they want their work to reach their target audience. Some may want their dissertation to be published as a book, others may not want an academic career and therefore do not see the need to revise their dissertation and make it a book. All of these approaches are valid and the university should be compelled to respect all of them, even if they’re inconvenient.

To me, both of these controversies point to the continued employment crisis facing young historians. With their traditional means of ideological dissemination (the print book) and their workspace (the university) contracting, even as the number of graduate students continues to grow, the uncertainty facing young scholars adds urgency to debates that to outsiders may seem like small potatoes. After all, writing dissertations as books and embargoing dissertations are only relevant issues if there continues to be a publishing industry looking to publish those books and universities looking to hire their writers. Despite their seeming insignificance, both debates highlight the one thing the graduate student does control in this unstable professional climate – their own work and ideas. If control over those ideas and their form is taken out of the young scholar’s hands, be it by the university or the AHA, then there is nothing left for the young historian or the future of the profession.

The Arc-Hive Mind?


I have spent this past week conducting preliminary research for my dissertation prospectus at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. While there I had an epiphany (of sorts) about the problems academic historians have reaching a broader public. Unlike, other critics that point to the difficulties presented by academic writing or stress that the nuance of academic histories are too much for the “average” reader (whoever that is), I think the problem is the archive or rather, the relationship between academic standards of evidence and narrative.

Two interrelated events led to my epiphany. Working at a massive research facility like Archives II, I was confronted by a dizzying array of brilliant historians and archivists. Everyone had a thoughtful research project. The reading room resembled a historian hive with researchers buzzing between carts, computers, and copy machines. The collection of source material divided into its binders, folders, boxes, and carts was overwhelming. But one thing was missing: narratives. There was no box labeled “Narratives” and you couldn’t find it searching through the online database (believe me, I tried).

After a long day at the archive, I was killing time in Dupont Circle before meeting friends for drinks. I wondered into Kramerbooks and Afterwords – a charming independent bookstore – and began browsing their history new releases section. Being a poor graduate student and an AmazonPrime Member, I rarely peruse the new history releases and was shocked by how few names I recognized despite being a professional (in training) historian. Flipping through books by Mark Kurlansky and other popular historians, I – again – noticed something was missing: the archive. Most of the evidence in the popular histories was from primary and secondary sources; unsurprisingly many journalists were partial to newspapers. These histories were overwhelmingly story-driven. The few histories I had read were from old or deceased academics like Hofstadter, Lasch, Schlesinger Jr., Zinn, and Woodward. It seemed as though the history academy had lost the popular support it once had during the 1960s and 1970s. But was their work really so different? Feeling confused, I walked out empty-handed.

I thought about all the hustle and bustle in the archives earlier in the day and wondered: where is the output from all this research going? Who is reading all the brilliant work produced by researchers at Archives II? How did popular historians come to fill the void left by academic historians of earlier eras?

Then I began to think of the archive. Hofstadter was notoriously archive-resistant. Lasch seems to have drifted from archival work as he became more of a public intellectual after the publication of The Culture of Narcissism in 1979. Schlesinger’s The Vital Center is almost entirely supported by secondary sources. I thought of all the little archive boxes filled to the brim with folders and wondered: are archives limiting our horizons as historians? This problem seems particularly acute with young historians who are trying to evince academic rigor to their senior colleagues. I remember writing my master’s thesis and building chapters around novel archival evidence instead of published material because I thought it would showcase my research ability. Narrative was often the last of my concerns or something I simply hoped would happen if I added enough biographical anecdotes.

Beyond limiting research, it also seems to exacerbate a bifurcation between academic historical research and politics. It seems to me that the archive creates another separate community – along with the academy and scholarly associations – that isolate academic historians from the public. Academic isolation has intensified the professorial argot, but more importantly it has led to group-think about what is important and how to communicate themes that academics believe are significant to a broader audience. I was shocked how few histories of race, sexuality, and gender were carried at a well-stocked independence bookstore (the ones that were carried being published by non-academic historians like Isabel Wilkerson). Military histories still predominate in bookstores and on television, despite its declining significance in the academy. As the Supreme Court debate over DOMA continues, the value of historical context to politics is readily apparent. Histories of gender and sexuality composed by articulate academics, if widely read, could help Americans understand why gay marriage is an important issue in the same way C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow made legible the origins of the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously, I think academic historians need to look beyond the archive and focus on storytelling to broaden our audience. Outgoing American Historical Association president William Cronon has already made this point in his annual address, so there is no point to belabor it here, but the question remains: how can professional historians be encouraged to publish books for public consumption while retaining high research standards? Though it will undoubtedly be a long and difficult process, I am confident an accommodation can be reached. It will mean, however, that historians will have to enter the scrum of politics where the rules of reasoned debate rarely hold. But getting a little dirty is a small price to pay for the transformative potential of academic historians acting as popular social critics.

Researchers at Archives II and other reading rooms across the globe have a tremendous wealth of information to share. It is time we began to focus on communicating that information to the widest popular audience. To accomplish this, researchers will need to leave the arc-hive and venture out with their knowledge to pollinate the world.