Thoughts on “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History”

Today I stole my wife’s copy of AHA Perspectives and Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s essay “No More Plan B,” on the need to reform history graduate programs to train people for non-academic jobs. Having written about post-academic life, this is of course a subject that interests me.

I think the Grafton and Grossman essay points in the right direction, and it inspires two suggestions and a caveat.

First, for students in the early stages of the dissertation, it could be tremendously helpful for a department to bring in a literary agent for a day. There are agents who specialize in academic-to-trade crossover projects, and the business is competitive enough for there to be some younger agents who’d find the prospect of representing an entire department interesting. In an afternoon, the agent could explain how the whole selling books for money thing works, and interested students can pitch their dissertations as book proposals.

It wouldn’t be the end of the process of turning a thesis into a trade book, but just the beginning; but you have to start somewhere, and if it’s possible to craft a Ph.D. with an eye to immediately converting it into a trade press manuscript– preferably by just stripping out the footnotes and some of the academic framing in chapter 1– that would do a lot to acculturate young Ph.D.s to the idea that they don’t have to make Faustian bargains to make a living writing. (Of course you can if you want, but the academic vs. trade route is not a choice between freedom and serfdom: it’s a choice between two different sets of pressures and constraints.)

This would do several things: help demystify the world of trade publishing, give students a sense of how their projects could be crafted for a broader audience, and for at least some, get some funding for the writing. Not every dissertation is the next “Longitude,” but I’ll bet a surprising number could be crafted for the trades. My agent was phenomenally valuable in both shaping my current book, and without her I’d still be trying to get MIT Press to return my phone calls. Instead, I’m in a very different position.

This might also help deal with a second issue. The biggest thing I had to deal with after finishing my dissertation was a sense of narrowed professional horizons. The cruel irony is that newly-minted history Ph.D.s tend to have a sense that they’re LESS able to survive in the world than when they graduated from college, and often less interested in doing so. I’m not really sure there’s a whole lot anyone can do to reduce this. It can help to bring in people like me who’ve had intellectually interesting lives (interesting to me at least) outside academia, but I think graduate school requires internalizing the cultural norms in order to survive– not to mention justify the intense focus on a narrow subject, deferred income, etc..

At the same time, there’s a critical thing that must be maintained in graduate school at all costs. Spaces for contemplation are being torn up faster than rain forests: just look at the mania for collaborative spaces in library architecture, the assumption that knowledge work is all about networking and idea-sharing, the arguments among (both evangelical and liberal) Protestant ministers over bringing social media into church services (“RT Luke 3:16 LOL #atchurch”), etc. etc.

If there is one great thing I got from graduate school that has sustained me in all my professional endeavors, it’s the capacity not just to write and produce knowledge– scholarly knowledge, popular pieces, even slightly disreputable consulting “product” with what Stephen Colbert might call “knowledginess”– but an understanding that serious thinking really requires time and sustained, slightly manic, attention. There are precious few places outside universities– and fewer and fewer places within the academic “marketplace of ideas” (kill me now)– that take the vita contemplativa seriously; one of the best things you can do for students is help them learn how to live that life, and to make it portable.

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