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A brief introduction to history as a profession

Brian W. Ogilvie

Written in August 2001; revised in September 2006 and April 2007. Please send comments or suggestions to ogilvie@history.umass.edu. Thanks to Heather Richardson and Joyce Berkman for suggestions!

As graduate students, you are making a commitment to the profession that undergraduates do not make, and it behooves you to learn about that profession. Professionalization involves both intellectual and cultural commitments. This document provides a brief guide to some of those commitments, with suggested reading. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are the most important.


History is located in the disputed borderlands between the social sciences and the humanities. Many historians pride themselves on being able to draw on the explanatory power of social science while still communicating their results clearly and effectively to a general audience. To do so, historians must think and write clearly. The following handbooks and guides will help you do so.

A graduate student’s writing library

*Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The craft of research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. ISBN 0-226-06584-7. An excellent guide to research from the perspective of rhetoric.

*Turabian, Kate. A manual for writers of term papers, theses, and dissertations. 6th ed. Revised by John Grossman and Alice Bennett. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. The nuts and bolts of formatting papers, writing footnotes, using abbreviations, etc. Your papers should follow Turabian’s guidelines.

*Williams, Joseph M. Style: Toward clarity and grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. ISBN 0-226-89915-2. The best guide to improving your writing style. Unlike Strunk and White and many other guides, Williams explains his principles carefully. The textbook edition, published by Longman, has useful exercises but omits the detailed discussion of coherence that the Chicago edition contains. The Chicago edition is also a lot cheaper. I suggest that you buy the Chicago edition but that you work through the exercises in the textbook edition, available at the DuBois Library, if you have problems applying the principles.

Rabiner, Susan, and Alfred Fortunato. Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get it Published. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003. A guide for writing and publishing, aimed at serious nonfiction writers.

The American Heritage book of English usage. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. ISBN 0-395-76785-7. This is an inexpensive, up-to-date guide to grammar, word choice, gender, pronunciation, and other difficulties. There are many other usage books out there, some hoary with age but still authoritative (e.g. H. W. Fowler, Modern English usage).

Kaye, Sanford. Writing under pressure: The quick writing process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Useful tips for those times when you need to write quickly and effectively.

Miller, Casey, and Kate Swift. The handbook of nonsexist writing. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. ISBN 0-06-096238-0. An eye-opener for anyone who still thinks that “man”=“person.”

Cognate disciplines

History has always borrowed from the methods of other disciplines. At present, the most important of those disciplines are anthropology, sociology and social theory, and literary criticism; I also think that philosophical training is immensely useful for historians. At the very least a practicing historian should be familiar with the concepts set out in the following books. These suggestions are for the beginner in these fields. For further suggestions, see the syllabus for my graduate seminar on Philosophy of History, available on my website.

Suggested reading

*Blackburn, Simon. Think: A compelling introduction to philosophy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Overview of important philosophical questions since Descartes, written for the intelligent general reader.

———. Being good: A brief introduction to ethics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Short account of the problems of ethical inquiry.

Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. Originally published 1966. ISBN 0-385-05898-5. Introduction to a branch of sociology that is particularly useful for cultural and intellectual historians.

Fish, Stanley. Is there a text in this class? The authority of interpretive communities. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1980. Collection of essays on interpretation, leaning toward postmodernism; highly readable and enjoyable.

Geertz, Clifford. The interpretation of culture: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Classic text in cultural anthropology, focusing on understanding cultures on their own terms.

*Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Revised ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. ISBN 0-19-520469-7. Brief histories of important concepts for social analysis, e.g. family, class, science.

Professional concerns

History is not just a scholarly discipline; since the nineteenth century it is also a profession, and part of the broader profession of college and university professing. Part of graduate study involves learning the expectations and norms of the profession. Though much of this knowledge is picked up tacitly in the course of study, it is also worth reflecting on; furthermore, there are certain aspects of professionalization that don’t necessarily occur to beginning graduate students. Here are a few tips in that area.

Historical journals

Books are still important means of professional communication in history (unlike most of the sciences), but journal articles are also important. Journal articles are where historians stake out new positions, present the results of their work in progress, or challenge the claims of their peers. Journals also provide important venues for reviewing books.

Most journals are published quarterly, though there are many exceptions. You should regularly read the leading journals in your area of interest and the American Historical Review (AHR), the leading general history journal in this country. Current journals are kept in the current periodicals room on the main floor of DuBois library. Many are now available online. The “Communications” section of the AHR often provides valuable insight into the values and ethics of the profession (most communications to the AHR are complaints about its book reviews).

Mailing lists and online discussion groups

Historians have entered the electronic age; you can find a mailing list for almost any conceivable historical period and approach. H-Net History and Humanities Online is an umbrella group that sponsors dozens of historical and humanities mailing lists. The H-Grad list, reserved for graduate students, is a useful source of support. I urge history graduate students to join H-Grad and to lurk on one or two other mailing lists in their area of interest.

Professional associations

Several professional associations serve the needs of historians. The American Historical Association is the largest and currently enrolls about 18,000 members in all areas of historical research. AHA members receive a subscription to the AHR and the association’s newsletter Perspectives, and discounted subscriptions to many other publications. I encourage history department graduate students in this seminar to join the AHA. Depending on your interests, you might also consider joining another association, such as the Renaissance Society of America, the Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, or the Organization of American Historians. If you are a teacher or plan a career in teaching—including college teaching—you might consider joining the Society for History Education, publisher of The History Teacher, a quarterly journal on historical pedagogy.

Conferences and meetings

Historians gather frequently to present their research and network in meetings and conferences. Some national meetings, such as the AHA Annual Meeting, attract thousands of historians; other national meetings sponsored by more focused groups, such as the History of Science Society or Society for French Historical Studies, attract several hundred. Many regional associations sponsor smaller, more intimate meetings.

The New England Historical Association (NEHA) meetings, held in the spring and fall, are good places to meet other historians in the area and, when the time comes, to present your own research. NEHA is open to any historian living or working in New England on any period or region; it is not limited to the history of New England. Meetings last one day, registration is inexpensive, and the atmosphere is supportive.

The Berkshire Conference of Women's Historians organizes a triennial meeting, the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (the "Big Berks") and annual meetings (the "Little Berks") for women historians.

In addition to national and regional meetings, conferences and symposia are regularly held on specific topics. Sometimes organized by colleges or departments, sometimes by professional societies, sometimes by libraries, these small meetings allow specialists to gather and discuss their research. You probably won’t attend these conferences unless you are an advanced Ph.D. student, but you should be aware of their existence.

Other issues and concerns

If you are a TA, you are probably a member of GEO. Keep up to date on contract negotations and other issues. The university depends on graduate teaching assistants to fulfil its teaching mission; if you are a TA, you should consider yourself an employee of the university as well as a student in the history department.

You can keep up to date on professional issues through a couple of publications: the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper on colleges and universities, and Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP developed the current guidelines on tenure, academic freedom, and other professional issues affecting faculty and graduate students; it is increasingly concerned with the rise of part-time and adjunct faculty and the corporate model of university administration. The AAUP censures institutions that violate its guidelines on academic freedom and tenure; its reports on such cases make instructive reading.

However, don’t spend so much time on professional issues and concerns that you neglect your intellectual training, which is both the gateway to the profession and its raison d’être.

Suggested reading

Boufis, Christina, and Victoria C. Olson, eds. On the market: Surviving the academic job search. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. An honest (and therefore rather depressing) look at candidates’ experiences in the current job market, tips for the job search, advice on alternate careers, and reflections on identity politics and the state of the academy.

Caplan, Paula J. Lifting a ton of feathers: A woman’s guide for surviving in the academic world. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Aimed at advanced graduate students and beginning professors, this book addresses gender bias in the academy and provides advice for dealing with it. However, many of Caplan’s specific suggestions on how to succeed in academia are useful for men as well as women.

DeNeef, A. Leigh, and Craufurd D. Goodwin, eds. The academic’s handbook. 2nd ed. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1995. This compilation includes sections on the state of academe today, the job market, teaching and advising, and research and publication.

*Gustafson, Melanie S. Becoming a historian: A survival guide. 2000 edition. Washington, D.C.: Committee on Women Historians and the American Historical Association, 2001. (No ISBN.) A succinct guide to the process of professionalization, from grad school to tenure, with tips on getting on conference programs and getting published.

Heiberger, Mary Morris, and Julia Miller Vick. The academic job search handbook. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. The best overall guide to the academic job search. Covers everything from preparation for the market to negotiating your contract. Many sample CV’s and cover letters.

Toth, Emily. Ms. Mentor’s impeccable advice for women in academia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Like Paula Caplan’s book, much of this advice is useful for men too. Ms. Mentor’s monthly column on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s web site, chronicle.com/jobs, is also worth reading.

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