Notes for a Young Historian: Part 3 of 3

Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to look beyond academia.

August has crept up on us, and I find myself up and running in Berlin. I’m here in the capital of Germany for the month thanks to the benevolence of a travel grant from Corpus Christi, working primarily at the unwieldy-named BStU (Bundesbeauftragter für die Unterlagen des ehemaligen Staatssischerheitsdienstes der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, the Federal Commissioner for the Documents of the Former State Security Service of the German Democratic Republic), the archive that contains the documents of the notorious Stasi, the secret police apparatus of the DDR, also known as East Germany. I’m here researching cooperation between the socialist world and Afghanistan in the 1980s on the topic of secret police and intelligence sharing; during the 1980s, the Communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan sought to build up a 40,000 man-strong secret police force, the KhAD, and they did it with the help primarily of the USSR, but also other socialist countries. One natural partner was East Germany, which had a huge surveillance bureaucracy, with 68,000 employees for a population of only around 16 million people, or about 1 officer for every 230 people.

Unlike most of the other Eastern European countries, however, the Stasi was dismantled as an institution, and a united Germany, increasingly sensitive towards its historical legacy of 20th century dictatorship created a commission, the BStU, to help people who had been spied on learn who had informed on them. It’s a tragic story that Timothy Garton Ash, who lived in East Berlin for periods in the 1970s and himself had a file, has told adeptly. But the breakdown of the Stasi into the BStU also gives historians the opportunities to dissect the workings of a Communist security service in a way that we can’t quite for, say, the KGB, which morphed into the FSB after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Poland, I think, may be different, but no other former Communist country matches the Germans for the thoroughness and professionalism of what they call Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung (working through the past) or Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past). Which leads me here, piecing together a complex story of suspected Afghan terrorists in West Berlin, the true story of an East German woman who escaped across the Hindu Kush with the help of mujahideen to Pakistan in order to make her way to West Germany, and the Stasi picking up on a little-known Saudi Arabian citizen claiming to be an “Emir of Afghanistan” named … Osama bin Laden. There’s plenty of material in other Berlin archives, too. Hopefully, next week, I’ll be visiting the Bundesarchiv to see the dissertations that Afghan Communist women receiving higher education at Trade Union Institutes in East Berlin wrote on the liberation of Muslim women and deveiling, as well as the files of the Freie Deutsche Jugend, the East German Communist Youth Group, on their work in Afghanistan during the 1980s, too.

My life isn't just about dictatorship and espionage ... I'm also a fan of films that feature pomegranates prominently, like Sayat Nova, too

Not only that, but this being Berlin, if my eyeballs weren’t already about to fall out from copying archival documents seven hours a day, there’s plenty more on the agenda, too: a trip to the Arsenal Film Center to check out an Armenian film, Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates) that I’ve long wanted to see, as well as plenty of drinking Apfelschorle and German beer in parks like Hasenheide as the usual crowd of hipsters, hippies, and beautiful German couples pushing their babies around in strollers; it’s less posh here than in Prenzlauerberg, but gentrification is definitely coming to my neighborhood. It’s like some parts of Brooklyn, only with (I suspect) fewer trust funds and more babies.

In any event, I wanted in today’s post to close a three-part series that I’ve been working on for the last week: what does the history professor I met in London two weeks ago tell his students who are thinking of majoring in history? Similar concerns might be raised for other humanities disciplines, too. I remember, whilst looking up information on the wonderful Leah Price, a Professor of English at Harvard who organized a conference on the future of books recently, stumbling across a tragic page on the Harvard English Department’s website. The English Department tells prospective students (reasonably in my mind) that its graduates “regularly move into rewarding careers in law, advertising, marketing, consulting, finance, real estate, journalism, and many others. The record is impressive.” Fair enough. But the site goes on: “Need help convincing your parents?”, it says, and provides a ready-made letter to justify to parents their sons’ and daughters’ tragic decision. Ironically, however, the PDF of the letter is a dead link.

Catherine Rampell, a Princeton grad, does a great job reporting on the US economy

Episodes like this one at the Harvard corral conjure up the recurring question for liberal arts graduates in the United States today: “so what are you going to do with that?” It’s a reasonable question, albeit one that’s become especially stressful given what I see as fundamental shifts in the job market in the USA since 2008. As Catherine Rampell (who does a great job) and others have noted, increasingly, employers refuse to consider any applicants who are not presently employed. I can report anecdotally that employers at recruiting events and, fretfully, many students at institutions like Oxford and Princeton, basically regard graduate student as tantamount to unemployment, and that the thing that really successful people do is move into the workforce immediately – then only later sacking credentials from (ideally) Harvard Law or Business to move up the social ladder. It’s a different topic, but in any event, I have seen that many graduate students or would-be scholars make the situation even more difficult for themselves by adopting what is, in my mind, a bizarre attitude: that they can only think of themselves as future professors and that other paths are someone sealed off from them. Trying to break down how that happened, and what one might do on an individual or institutional level to change that.

So how did it happen? A thought I’ve been returning to again and again recently is how formative, or how excellent of a schooling, the US Army, OSS, and OCS provided for the generation of scholars who came of age during the 1920s and 1930s. Today, for example, I was listening to Marshall Poe’s “New Books in History” podcast on which he was interviewing Walter Moss, a professor emeritus at Eastern Michigan University, located in Ypsilanti, MI, right between Ann Arbor (home of the University of Michigan) and Detroit. Moss was born into, as he described it, a blue-collar Catholic family in Southern Ohio during the Depression. He went through a number of Catholic schools before enlisting as an officer in the US Army during World War II. He was sent to France for several months in the mid to late 1940s, and traveled around the country extensively while in an atmosphere of shared sacrifice. Afterwards, he came back to the US to get his PhD at Georgetown, where he studied Russian history, and entered into the academy from there.

Moe Berg: paramilitary dude, scholar, Boston Red Sox, model for 21st century scholars?

While I still hold some resentment towards stories like Moss’ and that of Tom Gleason’s when he was interviewed on Poe’s show – both men entered the American academy at a time when jobs were über-plentiful and tend as a result to have unrealistic, even chipper ideas about the nature of job markets today – it’s important to remember that a significant chunk of American professors after the Second World War had serious experience in the Army or Intelligence branches of the US government. They had, like Walt Rostow, been exposed to alternative forms of analysis, and while engaged in a struggle with the Nazis and Japanese, they imbibed in a sense of purpose or vision greater than just getting the next grant application. Consider someone like Moe Berg, a graduate of Princeton. Berg, the product of a New York Jewish family with modest resources, combined the qualities of a rabbi with those of Micky Mantle: he knew seven languages, had an encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs, and was an outstanding player for Princeton’s baseball team. During the war, Berg worked on the OSS’ Balkan Desk, and participated in a paramilitary parachuting operation into Yugoslavia, where he investigated the resources of Tito and royalist Yugoslav partisans, ultimately leading to US support for Tito during the war. True, afterwards, Berg never quite lived up to his potential: he became better known as a dominant player on quiz shows rather than a great baseball player, and many suggested that he had wasted his intellectual talent. Berg’s response: “I’d rather be a ballplayer than a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Berg’s story is bizarre, but it emphasizes the polymorphism of Ivy League graduates, and of what we might call intellectuals more broadly from this period. True, the 1930s-1950s were of course a more racist, more anti-Semitic, and more misogynistic period, and I certainly wouldn’t defend those elements of the period. But when I look at what happened afterwards in the academic intellectual scene, I wonder what went wrong.

Product of the Military-Academic Complex?

Compare the story of someone like Berg, or fellow OSS alum Carl Schorske, who worked in the OSS before becoming a distinguished professor of European history with works like the dazzling Fin-de-Siècle Vienna with the development and outlook of many graduate students as I have seen them in the last five years. One major difference, compared to what I have just written, is the absence of military or other service experience. Not that this is entirely their fault, in my mind. The abolition of the draft profoundly changed the culture of the US Military, with subsequent consequences for fields where veterans lent a practical mindset in the post-WWII period. My experience speaking with US military personnel in Tajikistan as well as with those familiar with the different institutional cultures in Washington, DC, have spoken of an increased “Southernization” of the military at the same time that the Army became more Latino and African-American than it had before. Fewer people from élite backgrounds were coming into the military, and as such, fewer were leaving the military back for the academy. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the military was delegitimized, and at the same time, as academic employment markets collapsed, non-academic experience was increasingly derided as irrelevant, undesirable, or signs that someone wasn’t serious. Under President Bush, the intelligence sector was militarized and came to devalue language skills or knowledge of foreign cultures. The result was that what had been a sometimes-problematic military-academic complex, or intelligence-academic complex, became decoupled in America in the latter half of the 20th century – without a vision for a peaceful coexistence between the two worlds as of 2011.

More than that, the increased job pressure – and the perception that only an academic job is suitable – leads to strange consequences for how people relate to literature both scholarly and otherwise. People begin to feel like professionalization at an early age is the only way to get the job at the end of the road. They begin to emulate the mannerisms of professors in graduate seminars, but I have witnessed a strange phenomenon where people can seem to command an utter mastery of scholarly literatures, demonstrating a deep ability to synthesize and relate different books and arguments to one another, at the same time that they seem to read less widely in contemporary literature, film, or theater. This professionalization process isn’t entirely bad – it can lead to academics who are remarkably adept about commenting about developments in scholarly fields, the kind of in-depth relating books to another that other academics crave. Whether this kind of reading and relationship with literature more broadly is, however, a good thing for creating a historical culture that speaks to non-academic historians, or the broader reading public, is another question.

So what’s a boy, or girl, to do? I can think of at least two things to say. For one, I think it’s really, really important that people ask themselves what the questions were that led them to become interested in their areas of graduate study in the first place. I suspect that in few cases it will be purely reducible to careerism or the desire to be a college professor per se. And if the life stories I have heard of other scholars on various podcasts is any clue, it appears that following questions rather than designated career tracks is what works out the best. In this interview, for example, Yale historian Timothy Snyder talks about the early forces that pulled him in different directions. He felt, he says in the interview, pulled towards becoming a diplomat, probably focusing on Eastern Europe, throughout much of his young life. So he became more and more engaged with the region, its peoples, and its languages. Only along the way to trying to become a great diplomat, did a mentor and friend tell him that, actually, he was much better at writing about these places than he would be negotiating over them, and the skills were already in place for a would-be diplomat to become more of an academic. The fundamental questions and interests – Eastern Europe, the peoples, their history, the process of national formation and independence and how that affects the present – were there, he just had to find a career that fit all of these issues.

Turkey on my mind ... how to fit it into a career is another question

You can’t always invent jobs to fit your interests, of course. But I’ve tried to adopt this approach more in the last several months, and found it refreshing. Laying down jobs or careers as events that have to happen ignores the fact that people and loved ones can come in between you and those dreams. Are there still specific jobs or careers that I think might interest me? Yes, certainly. But I try to stay anchored in a realm of cultures and problems that interest me (Germany, Russia, Persia, maybe Turkey), a timespan where the problems interest me (20th-21st century), and try to find ways to make it as rigorous and as interesting to others who aren’t specialists as possible. The possible directions – academia, potentially business, government work – suggest themselves. I don’t pretend that fundamental decisions have to me made, perhaps at some point, but for now I try to remind myself why these things interest me, and find the best opportunities at the time to work around them.

Segundo, looking back, and having dispensed advice to Princeton freshmen in the vantage point of the hypothetical freshmen, it’s also important to work hard to create your own education, your own projects, and your own scope for accomplishment. What do I mean by this? At present, I know or know of several Princeton alumni who majored, most often, in English or Comparative Literature and struggle at present with finding satisfying trajectories for themselves. This is of course a similar story nationwide – everybody loves to make fun of aimless English majors.

But I’d submit that part of the problem with literary educations isn’t so much a problem with a discipline of English per se, as ways in which literature departments were (on the whole, destructively) reconstituted in the 1970s and 1980s. To my knowledge, no book has given a really rigorous scholarly or historic breakdown of some of the problems here that a work like The Closing of the American Mind only hints at. Harold Bloom has hinted at some of the developments in his work. Essentially, the problem was that sometime around the late 1970s, literature departments stopped teaching literature the way they had before. Prior to that point, you were either trained in a very, very detailed way of criticizing literature, of looking into literature as an insight into the human condition, a school maybe best exemplified by Bloom himself. Starting around the early 1980s, this approach was destroyed by a wave of what Bloom calls “Schools of Resentment” – African-American studies, Women’s studies, or New Historicism. Instead of addressing genius as manifested in works of literature, these new schools sought to challenge the canon, or place literature as a subfield of history. The point as concerns our discussion is that by the 1990s and 2000s, no consensus had emerged in many literature departments on what the correct approach was. Departments lost focus, students often no longer had mastery of any canon of texts, and the excesses of the “Schools of Resentment” discredited literary studies in the eyes of the broader public. These problems of disciplinary fragmentation aren’t necessarily unique to English – History was less fractured by these kinds of debates. But they could happen to any field.

Legitimate or just a "School of Resentment?"

The thing to do in this event, I think, is not to take the academic structure you’re given for granted. Many of the most successful people I know got a lot out of their academic education, be it in engineering, international affairs, or English, but they didn’t assume from this that the way to do things was to perpetuate the field as it existed and/or to become a clone of their own professors. They recognized the shortcoming of the educational system that they were extracting knowledge and resources from. They appreciated the opportunities they got from fields, but they recognized that they would have to integrate what they learned in, say, the Woodrow Wilson School (international affairs) with what they might learn in the world of business if they really wanted to understand how the world worked. They didn’t mistake learning a field for learning the world. Others I know, like Avner Offer mentioned in his recent interview, were so frustrated by the reflexive conservatism of the departments they were affiliated with that they felt even more compelled to develop their own projects and approaches to, say, History or English, sometimes even if this meant taking their project outside of the academy.

The point is that in very few cases was becoming the King of any one field – be it History, Law, Politics (in the sense of being a politician) – the vision from Day One for some of the people I most admired. Maintaining a strong sense of curiosity and openness, but also serious and devotion to the problem you’re working on at the moment, is crucial. Insisting that you’ve “chosen your profession,” or that you’re irrevocably on the path towards becoming a doctor, lawyer, or academic, reflects to me a strange lack of openness, and a desire to find anchors or security in one’s life at an early age, when – if most of the biographies I’ve read and interviews I’ve heard are true – things are often much more complicated than that. Some graduate students may be just as bad as some acquaintances who insist on how they “have become” bankers, doctors, or financiers, as if there were no room for anxiety, switching, and multiplicity in the future. But I think that by taking some distance from the institutional cultures that they get their qualifications in, as well as by focusing on problems that interest them rather discrete accomplishments, they might be on the route towards a saner future.

How I feel some days after working in archives typing

In sum, what did we suggest for the 19-year-old who wants to do something in the liberal arts? The professor and I talked about the importance of going international – that the days of mononational studies are, it seems over. Few enough people want to hear about my Afghan-East German stuff — but I know that even fewer are going to be interested in a history of the Stasi itself if my observations are correct. Finding ways to internationalize your work, without completely killing yourself with languages while also remaining tethered to interesting problems (as opposed to books on Malagasy-Canadian-Vanuatu relations) is important. We talked about the importance of going digital, and making use of tools from podcasts to “spatial humanities” to online classes that can supplant and eventually disrupt the “lecture industry.” And we talked about the meta-importance of career goals, of how to think about one’s future, as I discussed in this post.

Managing it all at the same time is, I can attest, confusing and at times frustrating. At times like now, when I spend hours in office buildings making copies of obscure historical documents that will likely have to be merged with other files in other languages collected in other parts of the world, and I come out into the sunlight of Alexanderplatz, I feel like I have gone from the world of the dead to the living. When I make the subway ride down to Hasenheide, one of the Berlin parks, and see hipsters, or young couples, frolicking out in the sun, I feel tremendously glad to be out there, immersed in reality rather than in document world. A part of me wishes I were one of the yoga instructors – contorting himself all day out on the lawns rather than sitting in the archives typing and copying.

OK, this is a little crowded, but I'll take a day in Berlin's Görltzer Park over what seems like data entry sometimes

But at other times, as Professor Offer discussed in our recent conservation, even as I ponder these tradeoffs, in the back of my mind I’m weaving together what I’ve read that day into a broader macronarrative. One feels like, without the sense of being facetious, an artist. Figuring out the tradeoffs – between days spend in the sun frolicking in Hasenheide, and the mix of grim drudgery and artistic inspiration – is likely to be a perpetual struggle, but one which I hope this series of essays helps others answer themselves.


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