Friday, January 13, 2017

On the Job Hunt, and Ethical Quandries in Research

Many of you might know that there are two projects that have been monopolizing my time recently. The first is research and writing in pursuit of my MA, and the second is the dreaded job hunt. This post will take a look at some of the issues I've encountered with both of those as of late. Mayhaps some will find my experiences similar to their own, and for those who don't, maybe my experiences will help you in future pursuits. As always, comments and questions are appreciated.

Boundaries in Historical Research- The Necessity of Scholarly Distance

At times, researchers get incredibly close to their research topics. This is unsurprising, particularly when the topic at hand is close to their own heart and they've spent long hours learning and researching the habits, quirks, and ideas of their subjects. As historians, particularly intellectual historians, our job is to crawl inside the minds of our subjects to understand their thinking and how that thinking fits into the wider world. There are hazards to doing so, namely the tendency to over identify with our subjects, and at times to flirt with the line between scholar of and devotee to. This is simpler when our subjects are easily delineated as questionable (e.g. scholars who research the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc). It becomes much harder when studying subjects thought to have promoted positive change in the world. Scandals, escapades, and other gossipy topics have proven difficult for historical institutions to tackle, as have darker interpretations of celebrated figures and periods (e.g. the Enola Gay exhibit controversy).

Recently while researching I ran across such material while working on a project. My subject, whom I have read thoroughly, researched, and enjoyed had a skeleton in the closet I had somehow missed. This person had done something I found morally abhorrent, in this case, having had multiple affairs on their spouse.

After mulling over the problem in my own mind that I have been, functionally, advocating on behalf of this person's moral and social criticism, I was left with a conundrum. Two individuals were kind enough to suggest a solution. "Refocus," insisted both my father and my committee chair, "the goal of your work is advocacy that this individual's ideas deserve greater scholarly attention, not the individual, nor are you trying to put them up on a pedestal." This was good advice. I had, unconsciously, begun to impose qualities on my subject based on my affinity for their ideas. I needed to step back and get a clear perspective, and take the monkey off my back, about letting down my committee and my research project.

On the Job Hunt- Trying to Pin Down Work as a Landlocked Historian

The market right now is not very friendly for people with backgrounds in the humanities without either a PhD or an "in." Since this time last year, I've completed right around 300 applications for various jobs throughout my area, without any luck. This turned out to be fortunate, as it provided the opportunity to tend to sick family members and to not worry about attending my brother's wedding out of state. 

For the time being, I'm taking the time to substitute teach in the local high schools and soon beginning a temporary job working for one of the professional societies I'm a member of. Also, this provided the opportunity to take on some freelance writing jobs, so I can correctly say that I'm an author now (if your definition is getting paid to research and write). 

All of this is to say that the world of academia is much more challenging than folks from the outside typically believe. Most have images of the Dr. Doolittle roaming about a campus at their leisure with a cup of coffee spouting confounding philosophies to their students. If you don't believe me, take a look at a recent piece from Chronicle Vitae by Dr. Elizabeth Rodwell on the subject of just what academia can do to a person's personal life. 

That being said, I've found substitute teaching to be a fantastic opportunity to learn about just what sort of things work and don't work in a classroom. I've also learned about how to structure a course, ways to interact with colleagues, and how to manage concerns from all of the parties involved (teachers, administrators, and students). To say that this is valuable is an understatement. I hope that I can remember these lessons one day in my own classroom (if that's what fate has in store for me). 

I've also been pushed to figure out just how to "network." Honestly, I've always found the term a bit troubling and associated it with the sorts of folks you meet once in passing who then want you to serve as a reference for a job. In fact, I've come to rely on old co-workers, classmates, teachers, and customers as a valuable source of information and guidance on the job hunt. In fact, the soon to be job is one that came about from one of these contacts. I'll be forever grateful to those who've helped along the way. Eventually, I'll get to where I'm supposed to be, its just a question of hanging on until then.

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