Larry Schweikart: My Advice to Conservative Graduate Students
For the conservative student entering a graduate history program there is no simple advice. Your way will be tenuous, precarious, and often downright dangerous. Can a conservative student survive? Yes. But more often than not, he or she is corrupted along the way, and often forced, through a series of "suggestions," "requirements," and less-than-obvious hints to conduct research on the appropriate topics, with acceptable methods, arriving at agreeable conclusions, or face a tough time on the job market . . . if not in front of a dissertation committee.
A typical student at Big State U enters a history graduate program starry-eyed, ready to "make a difference" by "revealing the past." Our student (let’s call him Harry) is certain there are aspects of George Washington’s administration that remain unexplored, if not ignored. He arrives at Big State U and meets with a professor who is a graduate advisor.
"So," begins Professor Snidlely, "what are you interested in?"
"American history, sir, especially George Washington."
Snidely stops writing, a troubled look crossing his brow. "We try not to pigeonhole American and European history here---it’s all global now, you know---but I understand what you’re saying. Still, what specifically is it that you think you want to do with Washington’s administration?"
"Well," Harry begins, less confident than before, "I was thinking about his formation of the cabinet. You know, as an extra-constitutional body, I thought it would be good to delve into the English Whig writing and the concepts of executives power---that sort of thing."
After remaining motionless for a moment, Snidely again starts to write. "Hmmm. Our colonial specialist is Professor LaWanda Latisha Creole. You’ll work with her. See what she thinks about your topic. Meanwhile, first-year graduate students must all TA for Professor Falik Mezuza, in his ‘Introduction to American and World Oppression’ class. You’ll have his lectures on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and have your own discussion groups on Thursdays. Here is your schedule. Good day, Mr. Carey."
After wandering lost through the catacombs of offices, Harry finally reaches Professor Creole’s office. Her door is slightly ajar, and he could barely see her name for the monster "End Racism Now" poster next to a bumper sticker of "Boycott Nike," with the "Nike" crossed out and "Wal-Mart" written in felt marker over it.
Harry knocks softly, and hears, a stern "Come in!" Professor Creole is at her computer, surfing www.DemocratUnderground.com. "Yes?" she snaps.
"I’m Harry, and Professor Snidely assigned me to work with you. You’ll be my dissertation director." He smiled, but she didn’t notice, clearing a small space on her incredibly cluttered desk for his folder.
"He did, did he? I’ve already got two graduate students already. Does he think I’m a slave?"
Before Harry could respond, Prof. Creole skimmed his folder and said, "I see you have several national paper awards here. Very good . . . ." then she paused, a concerned look coming over her.
"Something wrong, Dr. Creole?"
"I guess not," she muttered. "I mean, what do you expect? Your papers are on George Washington’s foreign policy and the Land Ordinance of 1785."
"Yes," Harry beamed. "I found new writings of early American Whig thinkers that supported the concepts of land distribution, confirming Jefferson’s ideal of spreading land out among all men."
A scowl now contorted her face. "You mean all wealthy white men."
"Uh, yes, uh, whites. But you didn’t have to be wealthy to get land under the Land Ordinance."
Her scowl turned to a look of stunned disbelief. "Um hmm. And that explains all those tenements in the inner cities."
Harry was now thoroughly confused. "Er, ma’am, I don’t think Boston or Philadelphia had many tenements in the late 1700s."
She waved her hand. "Whatever. Look, you can do this Washington thing, but we need to reshape your topic. Maybe you should look at how his foreign policy oppressed people of color, say, in the Middle East."
Puzzled, Harry protested, "But Professor Creole, Washington didn’t even have a navy to work with. We didn’t have any dealings with the Middle East, except to pay tribute to some of the Barbary Pirates."
Her eyes lit up. "There you go! The imperialization of the Barbary States . . . ."
" . . . by giving them money?" Harry was completely baffled. "I fail to see how . . . ."
"Of course," she declared, now standing as if to lecture. "It’s the same story everywhere. America either intimidates or buys off anyone who disagrees with us. It’s no different than what McDonalds or Coca Cola does."
"But they were thieves, threatening and blackmailing American merchants . . . ."
" . . . who only had goods to sell thanks to the slave trade! Yes, this has good potential as a topic. Maybe you can come up with a clever title---publishers like clever titles---something like ‘George Washington or Ali Baba? Middle Eastern Oppression in the Young Republic.’"
"But I . . . ."
"That’s enough for now. I can’t write the damn thing for you. Make sure you come by on Friday to pick up your readings for our seminar on ‘Sex, Masturbation, and the History of the Pot Holder.’"
As the door slammed in his face, Harry knew he was in for a very long semester.
The above tale may seem far-fetched, but the fact is that American leftism has ensconced itself into a near-impregnable position in universities through its dominance of liberal arts faculties, and, especially, the graduate programs. Many conservatives are rightly concerned about undergraduate education, but I submit that the undergraduate programs are the tails being wagged by the graduate dogs. By controlling who gets hired, and who studies what, radical/liberal faculty have, over the last 40 years, redefined what constitutes legitimate history. In turn, to a large degree they control what journals and academic presses publish, and even what graduate students can study.
No one has convincingly demonstrated exactly how the shift in liberal arts faculties occurred, but I’ll posit my thesis here: after the demise of McCarthyism, many universities, ashamed of their role in "outing" communists, rushed to demonstrate their tolerance. Not only did they allow leftists in, they ignored warning signs that many of these people were radical activists and lacked a genuine interest in academic research, that is research that did not serve their political agendas..
At the same time, professors whom I’ll label "old-fashioned liberals," most of whom voted solidly Democratic, staffed search committees that reviewed job and approved the applications from the new batch of leftwing radicals. It is worth noting that not all of the work by the radicals was of poor quality, and indeed, some of it, while distressingly wrong-headed, was subtle and sophisticated.
The typical response from old fashioned liberals was, "Who am I to argue with this person’s politics? His/her writing and research are interesting and possibly cutting-edge." Unwilling to be "judgmental," the old fashioned liberals assumed that, perhaps, they were the ones who were wrong, and not only hired the radicals, but tenured them. That was where the fun began.
Once the radicals who whose real interest lay in political activism became part of the "club" they immediately gravitated to the search and hiring committees and closed the doors behind them. They had no intention of being tolerant and ecumenical as the old fashioned liberals who had hired them had been. They regarded their mission as keeping reactionaries (people who disagreed them politically) out. Slowly but surely, as the old traditionalists retired or died, and the radicals came in, a clear dynamic took hold: the radicals would never consider hiring a true conservative Ph.D. After all, their topics were politically reactionary and therefore illegitimate;, more importantly, their work was not "cutting edge." Unwilling to fight over every conservative student, the older liberals and the few conservative profs found themselves pushed aside (in many cases actually barred from serving on search and tenure committees, falling steadily into an even smaller minority. All the "action" was with the younger, hipper, radicals. As a result conservatives became an increasingly scarce species on university faculties until at the present time there are no more than a handful in any liberal arts department and often none at all.
Thus conservative graduate students today are faced with the following dilemma. They can choose from among a few, aging, truly conservative professors, or the much larger majority of guilty liberals or the newly dominant radicals. Either way, the few conservatives no longer could cobble together a majority for dissertation committees, let alone departmental votes. Moreover, with new professional requirements that all convention panels be "gender" and race "balanced," the new radicals had guaranteed spots at the top professional meetings, padding their resumes even more. Papers that would never have seen the light of day in the 1960s (these developments began in earnest in the decade that followed) now were taken seriously, and even given prestigious awards. Students could read the writing on the computer screens: if you want to get a job, you have to work with the profs who "politic" and "network," and, in general, that meant the ultra-left. After all, part of conservatism is that one orders one’s life in certain priorities: God, family, work. But the radicals acted as if God didn’t exist, redefined family, and elevated work as their deity. Conservatives, on campus and in national meetings, made up even less of a presence, and, as the feedback loop closed further, saw their topics steadily de-legitimized even more.
Conservative graduate students learned that to escape a perpetual hell of a dissertation committee that demands endless "revisions," they had to either find a conservative dissertation director (becoming more difficult by the day) and risk being shunned on the job market, or play ball with the radicals and hope to appease them with small doses of "race, class, gender" in the dissertation. In the process, many conservatives became convinced that, in fact, their views lacked "sophistication" and "depth," and that, in fact, the Dr. Creoles of the university were right. Many fell in the ranks as the job market had no openings for "traditional" topics such as military history, biography, foreign policy (except for "oppressor/oppressed"), and business history; a tiny minority found jobs, often at smaller schools which remained "behind the times." But even those institutions were likely to soon feel the inevitable flow of radicals in, radicals out. For the liberal professors who are truly fair with their conservative graduate students---and who work hard for them on the job market---the odds remain stacked against conservatives in the search committees, though obtaining a job is not impossible.
Let me offer to conservative students four pieces of advice if you want to survive:
***Upon entering a graduate program, recognize that your objective is to get a job, not just to get a degree. Search out a professor---liberal or conservative---who not only can work with you and be fair and diligent, but who has the clout to help you on the job market. This is no easy task, and it will shape everything else you do.
***Resist the temptation to "include" such concepts of "race/class/gender" just to "get through." Be faithful to your principles. Fight for them. You’ll make some enemies, but you’ll also gain some respect. Trying to "sin just a little" will only make you appear weak, uncommitted to your principles, and indecisive.
***Outwork everyone. Just as minorities in the American past---the Irish, Jews, blacks, and Hispanics---always had to work harder at the same job just to be equal, so too you will have to outproduce your more liberal competitors. And they are your competitors. The other grad students may be your friends, but the job market is narrow. Many are called, few are tenured. Your task is to make sure that no one ever has legitimate "productivity" grounds for not hiring you or for denying you tenure. Then, if they bounce you because of pure ideology, you won’t blame yourself.
***Finally, be optimistic. No matter what you hear---including some of the difficult truths alluded to here---assume that you will be the one who is hired and gets tenure, even if 100 others fail. Lucille Ball was once told at an audition, "Try another profession besides acting. Any other." Elvis Presley was booed at his Grand Ol’ Opry performance. Successful writers can show you rejection slips by the hundreds. Stick with it, be confident. If you enter graduate work with a strategy, and realize that your ideology makes you a target, you will be better prepared to find the creases in the system and secure a place in what has become a depressingly politicized academy.
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Lisa Kazmier - 5/28/2005
Well, that could be, but what I gave ya was a history of my circumstances and why I left my first graduate program. If my advisor cared enough to go to conferences (he retired shortly after I left), he would have joined that group that considers the AHA too "cutting edge." His idea of good history or the last good development in historiography was stuff he got out of grad school in the 1960s.
Lawrence S. Wittner - 5/28/2005
This article has about as much connection with reality as the notion that the moon is made of green cheese. The writer considers himself an historian, but in fact he is a myth-maker.
Lisa Kazmier - 5/27/2005
That's a very good piece of advice. I, too, had great annoyance in dealing with the fear-mongering in the fictionalized part of the article.
Lisa Kazmier - 5/27/2005
Gee, well all I did as a graduate student at a conservative program was explore a topic not done to death by others. That was enough to earn me a "radical" stripe. Add to that an interest in figuring out what certain metaphorical language might signify and I'm beyond the pale. Yet I dare anyone to try finding the radicalism in my dissertation (which, no thanks to this institution was completed elsewhere).
Add one other thing: my "advisor" told me flat out why I wasn't being funded at that place. First, because his advisee student A came there with funding (a guy he protected with inflated grades). Second, because his advisee student B was "older." Chronologically, it was rubbish. What did "older" mean? Well, a number of you won't know, so I'll spell it out: he was married and had a child. THAT was why he got funding over me.
So the author of this piece should just tell some male who fears his politics endanger him in academia to go apply to that program. If you're a woman, stay away. As far as his advice goes, I would give that to ANY graduate student in ANY program, but with a proviso -- don't be so out of touch with your field that you can't teach what the market wants in your CV and be so inflexible so as to prevent you from learning all you can from any more experienced person you encounter. Having taught at an institution where the graduate students were very conservative in their willingness to question sources or use a variety of techniques/sources, I can tell you that such an inflexibility might place one out of the job market entirely. And what's the point of a degree if you cannot get hired to use it?
Trevor Russell Getz - 5/27/2005
By the way, that's the same advice I would give a self-described liberal, or for that matter anarchist, communist, federalist student.
Trevor Russell Getz - 5/27/2005
I must admit that I'm finding it hard to engage this particular piece of prose. I understand that its fictionalized, and intended as sature, but I fail to see how it will achieve its objective. Like most radical pieces - whether 'lefist' or 'rightist' - it attempts to characterize its opponents as raving, dogmatic, or conniving, and ends up making its author seem the same. Surely most of us in academia do not fit into such an extreme place... either the one Dr. Schweikart is describing or the one in which he seems to reside. My advice to conservative graduate students would be this: engage in objective discussion and debate, hold yourself above extremist diatribe, and people will respect you. If you choose instead to indulge in ridiculous, extreme, and clearly angry subjective prose, you will find that you lose the respect of those who idealogically agree with you, as well as those who do not.
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