No, You Don't Have to Teach History After You Get Your Ph.D.

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Mr. Durr holds a Ph.D. from the American University in Washington, D.C., and is a Senior Historian and Director of the History Division at History Associates Incorporated, Rockville, Maryland.

Practicing the historian's art and craft in a commercial setting involves no more compromise-and sometimes less-than in the academy. That's a lesson I've learned working at History Associates Incorporated (HAI) in Rockville, Maryland. Currently a firm with forty-five employees, HAI has been in the history business for more than twenty years. It began after the founders succeeded in writing a history of the Three Mile Island incident even before the incident had faded from the newspapers-a possibility rejected by conventional historians. Over the years the company has branched out, providing historical research for litigation and archives and records management services as well as works of history.

As the Director of the History Division and author of several of HAI's books, I am always aware that I work for a client and need to produce a work that meets that client's needs. While our histories draw upon the best insights of social, cultural, political, and economic history, none of us follows the fads or is consumed by creating the "cutting edge" theoretical constructs favored by a profession that supports novelty of a particular kind. My books, like most of our histories, are narratives. They create an authoritative record while telling stories that offer enlightening, but not heavy-handed, lessons about people and their institutions. Old fashioned? Perhaps, but what's wrong with that?

Up from the Academy

Once academic historians lamented "the public's" lack of interest in history. Enter the History Channel and Ken Burns. Then it was not that the public doesn't like history-it doesn't appreciate the kind academics write. Small wonder. The best history describes the world as it is, not as the author would like it. But in history as in politics, it is too often the fringe that sets the agenda. It is refreshing, therefore, when an aspiring historian resists the pressure to find big potential in small groups and novel methodologies.

To some acquaintances in the academy my association with HAI was always a disappointment. From the first day in class to the bestowing of the sash, my graduate program was geared toward creating professors. Early on I drank deeply of this atmosphere. Although I had begun out of a desire to write the kinds of history books that I enjoyed, at some point I convinced myself that I would teach and that my writing would serve to further my standing and contribute to the body of work accrued by the noble profession.

But with a new family I also needed a job, and that led me to HAI. I greatly enjoyed the work, primarily archival research for environmental litigation, and I learned a lot. I soon knew more about the ins and outs of the National Archives and the Library of Congress than most of my professors. When I got the chance to co-author a corporate history (even though I was training in labor history and had been taught not to think well of corporations), I welcomed it. But my "other" life in history was not a welcomed topic in grad school. On a rare occasion when I brought up my latest HAI project with my dissertation advisor, he cut me off with "Let's talk about your real book."

I finally made the decision on a career at HAI for two related reasons: disillusionment with academia and understanding of the realities of the academic job market. Although it felt good to be part of the academic (and, where I attended, substantially New Left) cause, I became increasingly aware that this was more a stifling new orthodoxy than enlightenment. To his credit my advisor urged me to question it all and think independently, but too many other grad students-often with no real-world experience-enthusiastically acquired the New Left pieties that their professors had obtained in the sixties. Labor history was peculiarly tough. I had hoped to study the kinds of working-class people I had grown up with. Instead I found myself devoting much of my attention to communists and other militant minorities (all of whom turned out to be remarkably influential) and dwelling on what should have been rather than on what was.

I persevered, networking, presenting papers, publishing, and doing job interviews, but by the time the Ph.D. was in hand I had begun not to believe the things I felt compelled to say in interviews, and just walking into a conference hotel triggered an anxiety attack. My expectations were never high, but it was also apparent that with a Ph.D. from a second-tier school and a dissertation on an unpopular subject, I might eventually land a job at a small school but only after years of itinerant adjuncting. With a wife with her own professional career and a daughter in school, that was hardly an option.

Historians, Accountability, and Compromise

In the meantime, two key realizations suggested that HAI could be more than a sojourn. First, I realized that despite the talk of scholarly detachment, the imperatives of the profession put academics under pressure to compromise that was perhaps even stronger than that exerted by the for-profit sector. Second, and most important, I discovered that history for hire need not be glorified public relations and that the market helps ensure the quality of the work.

The demand for historical works by paying clients is, of course, a small one. But that works in our favor. Those who come to us almost always value history and know that somehow their organization can benefit from it. Still, few know exactly why this is, and our first job is to help them reach that understanding. Preliminary discussions usually reveal two concrete client desires. On one hand they want to get beyond the same old boilerplate histories that their public relations people have been recycling for decades or more. On the other they want to understand and convey how their story is bigger than themselves: how they fit into, and perhaps even helped influence, broader social, cultural, and economic changes.

In most cases, then, our clients do not want public relations work-they've usually got people to do that. Their requirements call for skills that PR specialists do not have but that define the historical profession. In helping our clients get beyond the timeworn (and often inaccurate) old stories, we practice the craft of history, doing painstaking research in archives, manuscripts, and internal records and conducting oral histories. To help our clients understand how their story is bigger than themselves, we apply the historian's art, combining mastery of political, cultural, social, and economic contexts with a deep understanding of the particulars to craft broad historical interpretations.

HAI historians must be generalists, not only because they must be prepared to handle a variety of topics from book to book but also because clients, understandably, want general rather than specialized histories. It can be argued that we don't pay as close attention to the negatives in an organization's history as journalists or academics might. But that is a luxury we do not have. We do not cover up the blemishes (most of our clients, in fact, insist that we do not) but we do paint with a broad brush, and from that perspective nearly every story we've told is a generally positive one. Our clients have all provided society with valued services, products, and expertise.

Do I miss the academy? I remember fondly the gratification that comes from teaching. But I also recall the game: the pursuit of respect-or flattery-from peers and professors by helping to further ideas and interpretations that the profession has deemed important. Overall I have found that there are more rewards working in a "for hire" setting and many fewer compromises. HAI may be short on respect from academia and our books do not make bestseller lists, but for hundreds and even thousands of readers it does not matter. Our work has made a difference. For most of the people I have interviewed or corresponded with over the years, an HAI book is a welcomed encapsulation of a lifetime's work. Through our work they recall, relive, rethink, and more deeply appreciate their own careers. And it is not merely the "old-timers" for whom we write but for current leaders and employees who, on better learning where they have been, gain a better understanding of where they might go.

HAI is committed to being not only a challenging but also a secure employer. But as a professional historian I'm doing much more than a workaday job-you can't leave your ideas on the desk at 5 p.m. But whenever the day does end, I know I've created a piece of a truly useable past. I respond to the market, but it usually brings out the best in me and my professional training. Can those aspiring academics who feel compelled by academic pressures to venture ever farther into the irrelevant and absurd say the same?

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More Comments:

AJ Plotke, PhD - 12/24/2003

Yes, History Associates is a fine organisation - as I thought when I spent some time on the telephone explaining the mechanics of electronic archiving within an historical context, without ever receiving any kind of compensation, or even mild thanks. That, however, is the nature of corporate America, and as an information manager for American Express, I can't say I was awfully surprised.

Is there life for history PhDs other than as academics? Of course. After that unfortunate period where there were an awful lot of doctorate-holding cabbies, many of us went into tech of some kind or another. What there isn't very much of is work as historians outside of academia - and organisations like HA don't really provide much of an alternative.

Good outsourcing location tho.

Barbara Corrales - 1/5/2003

How can I learn more about History Associates or similar organizations, if there are any? I applaud Dr. Durr's decision and agree whole-heartedly with his comments.

Roger D. Launius - 11/7/2002

I very much appreciated Dr. Durr's comments. I have spent more than twenty years as a public historian and have found it an immensely rewarding experience. I agree with Dr. Durr that there is a stigma that has existed for many years among some academic historians against sponsored historical projects. Those who criticize such work invariably invoke the characterization "court historian" to damn the effort. There are, of course, some instances of censorship that have been perpetrated, but in my experience this type of problem is uncommon.

I also tend to point out to my academic colleagues what I consider a great naiveté: that they might somehow be impartial and can "tell the truth" (whatever that is, and if it really does exist) in their historical discourses. After all, academic historians writing without a contract on virtually any topic imaginable are still serving a clientele--their peers, an identity group of some type, a publisher and its review board, etc.--that has certain perspectives on the past.

My point is that consciously or unconsciously, historians--even if they have not been formally hired to prepare histories for the group--shape their discourses to provide understanding about the past in relationship to ideas already present among those with an interest in the subject. If one strays too far afield from the major streams of understanding the historian may be unable to find an outlet for publication, may be censured in reviews, may have their livelihood destroyed by not receiving tenure, may lose whatever reputation they had, etc. All of that, without serving some paying client.

I would appreciate hearing what other people have to say about this topic.


Roger D. Launius

Chris Welch - 10/24/2002

I agree wholeheartedly with both Ken Durr (my good friend) and Prof. Goldschmidt. The article painted the profession of teaching history with too broad a brush; in my experience (largely as an adjunct), most professors are rather workaday types who either love to teach or ideologues who quickly become frustrated bores.
That said, my experience has largely been in third-tier schools. Not breaking new theoretical ground can kill a career aimed at first- and second-tier schools. Noting that this need leads to the absurdity evident in many of today's journals is not a facile generalization but an accurate conclusion, in my opinion.

Morton J. Merowitz - 10/24/2002

Bravo! When I attended the American Historical Association annual meeting in Chicago,one young lady said that she has to teach as an 'adjunct professor' at five colleges/universities in the area!

James Scarry - 10/24/2002

Given my experience the question isn't as you suggest "Is there life for a Ph.D. historian who doesn't teach?" but is there life for a Ph.D. historian who does teach?

Martha Taysom - 10/24/2002

Dear Leland,

Thanks for the article. Can you tell me where one should look for the kind of jobs you describe?

Dr. Martha Taysom

Arthur Goldschmidt - 10/24/2002

As a retired academic who taught for 35 years and helped rear two sons who earned Ph.D.s but who no longer work in the fields of their doctorates, I welcome Durr's article on one level. We really must advise Ph.D. candidates about the severely competitive job market in academe and the need to look for alternative careers after the doctorate. We should not, however, make facile generalizations from our own experiences in academe. I taught Middle East history. Like U.S. labor history, my field has a few bigoted ideologues, but not all academics write boring books or condemn writers of corporate histories. An experienced writer and historian should know better.

Leland C. Barrows - 10/24/2002

I would like to have the full mailing address, fax and telephone numbers, and e-mail address of History Associates Incorporated of rockville, Maryland, along with the names of contact persons.


Leland C. Barrows