Earlier today my friend, Keith Harris, published his manifesto encouraging people in his position to “reject the academic job market.”
Here is my advice: become an independent scholar and do what you love.
Having known Keith for a number of years I am not surprised by what I read. It’s straight and to the point. Without forming much of an opinion one way or the other I re-tweeted the post. Keith thanked me and suggested that I share my thoughts on the blog. At first I resisted, but taking a break from student comment writing is just what the doctor ordered, so here it goes.
I suspect that Keith is interested in my thoughts on the matter because he considers me to be an independent historian and a fairly successful one at that. While I agree with the first part I will leave others to judge in reference to the latter. It will come as no surprise to many of you that I also agree with Keith that it is possible to find success and happiness as a historian outside the hallowed halls of academe. As I suggested back in 2010, the opportunities to do history, engage fellow historians and the general public has opened up in ways that few could have imagined just a few short years ago.
If by referring to himself as an “independent historian” Keith simply means the ability to produce scholarship and engage audiences of various kinds than there wouldn’t be much to be concerned about beyond figuring out the practical necessities such as income. I do, however, think that in his moment of passion Keith has lost sight of one of the major obstacles that others like him have faced in recent years. Please keep in mind that at this point my thoughts are pure speculation. I have never experienced the frustrations and disappointments related to the current academic job market. Back in 2003 I applied to the University of Virginia’s doctoral program in history and was rejected. Looking back it was the best thing to happen to me for some of the reason Keith mentioned.
I suspect that part of what holds people in Keith’s situation back from taking that final step is the sense of failure that looms over leaving the profession before even getting started as well as the deep commitment to living a certain lifestyle that likely took hold at the end of an undergraduate education. There is something very seductive about the scholarly lifestyle even if the facts suggest that is becoming more and more unattainable. I sometimes wonder what keeps many of my friends in the field going between having to deal with job location, teaching loads, and the quality of their students. Even those who are lucky enough to land a job tell me they have almost no time to research or take part in other aspects of intellectual life.
To whatever extent this is true I wonder if Keith ought to think more carefully about what an independent scholarly community in the field of Civil War history or any field might look like. Perhaps more thought should go into the question of what it means to be an independent historian with a PhD in the age of social media and so many other digital tools that have the power to connect with other scholars and beyond. Keith has cleared this psychological hurdle and is forging ahead. My suggestion is to more directly engage others who may already have an inkling of such a life.
OK, back to comment writing.