Month: January 2019

Donahue’s Advice regarding Law School

Every so often, One Thing after Another runs into Joe Donahue ’13—whether it be at Market Basket in Bedford, Alumni Weekend, or some other venue. Joe is in the middle of law school right now, and this blog thought it might be useful if he shared some well-considered advice that he extracted from his experiences.

Q: What is your current job (title and duties), and what led to your working there?

A: I have been working as a Legal Executive Assistant at Ropes & Gray LLP for the past year and a half. Before that, I worked at Boston College in an administrative role.

Q: Did you pursue a law job straight out of school, or did you think doing something else for a bit was a good idea? How did that work out?

A: After graduating from Saint A’s, I had two careers that I considered pursuing: one in higher education, the other in law. To help me decide which career I was best suited for, I applied to jobs in both of these fields. I worked in higher education for my first few years after graduation but eventually decided that my interests lay elsewhere, so I applied to the Suffolk University Law School’s Evening Program and was accepted. During my first semester at Suffolk, I was hired by Ropes & Gray where I have been able to get first-hand experience in corporate legal practice.

Q: How did the history department, history study, or specific SAC experiences prepare you for life after college? 

Written and oral communication skills, as well critical thinking and the ability to analyze, are essential tools used every day by law students. Some students develop these skills before law school while others develop them in their first year. Luckily, I was able to acquire all of these skills during my time at Saint A’s. My course of study as a history major required extensive critical thinking and analysis which I employ when I approach cases and hypotheticals in the classroom; I will continue to use them in my career as a lawyer.

Q: What are the two things students thinking about law school should know?

A: First, it’s not as scary as it sounds. One thing that I constantly heard while I was going through the application process was how difficult law school can be. The coursework is challenging, and mastering it imposes demands on your time and energy. However, like any course of study, it is manageable. Just as you found your routine in college, you will find it in law school. You learn how to approach exams and form study groups where, in my experience, you learn as much as you do in class.

Second, you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do with your law degree before you go to school. You will be exposed to many different areas of law while in law school, and your interests will likely evolve as you progress. Keep an open mind and be willing to explore areas that you hadn’t previously considered. If you think you want to be a lawyer, but aren’t sure, take a couple of years off from school to work. Many law students spend a few years in the workforce prior to applying to law school. Don’t think you have to apply right away.

Q: What are two things students thinking about law school should do to prepare themselves?

A: Work at a firm or in-house legal counsel’s office. Making a decision to go to law school is a serious financial commitment, so you ought to make sure that you want to be a lawyer before you go to school. Internships are a great way to experience legal work while you are at Saint A’s, and they can help shape your course of study. If you don’t think that you are ready to apply right out of school, taking a few years to work at a law firm or an in-house counsel’s office is a great way to help you decide if this is the career path for you. This time can also serve as a great way to get a better idea of the type of law that you will one day want to practice.

Also, study/take a LSAT prep course. The LSAT is as important a measuring stick, if not more, for law school admissions as your undergraduate grades. It is a challenging exam that shouldn’t be taken lightly, even by those who consider themselves to be good test-takers. Buy a practice book and take a prep course. They can be a bit pricey but both are worth the investment. Your performance on your LSAT impacts your acceptances and even potential scholarship offers, so it is worth your while to take test prep seriously.

Q: Do you still think about history (books, professors, lectures, experiences)?  Do you keep up with history in any way?

A: I stay current in the field of history by following the History Department’s blog and by reading biographies during school breaks. I recently completed William Manchester’s three-volume biography of Winston Churchill (The Last Lion) and have begun Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. I enjoy finding time to indulge myself in the areas of history that I do not apply regularly in my coursework and career.

Why We Write: SAC History Department Faculty on Their Books

In early January, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a short article by Rachel Toor entitled “How Academics Measure the Value of Their Books.”

https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Academics-Measure-the/245365

In this essay, Toor stresses that the standard academic authors use to judge their books tends to be very different from that employed by non-academics. Not only that, she argues, but professors who write books see the value of their works in varying ways. Toor’s piece got One Thing after Another thinking. What do the authors of books in the History Department at Saint Anselm College think about their works? Why did they write their books, and what value do they attribute to their labors in this particular area?

Professor Beth Salerno: I wrote my first book because it was my dissertation topic, and I needed to get research out in order to get tenure. I liked the topic and thought it would help shape a conversation in my field about women’s antislavery activities. But mostly I really wanted to stay at Saint Anselm College, and for that I needed 3 articles or a book, so I valued the book as a doorway or key. It also gave me experiences I would not otherwise have had—being interviewed on NHPR as an author, giving talks around New England, being asked to review other books in my field, and serving as a field expert to a museum exhibit.

I am writing my second book because I started it before my dissertation, and at this point (almost 30 years later!) I owe its subject, Mary Clark, my colleagues, and my family (some of them deceased), the book I promised. I will measure its success by the number of people who enjoy it, by compliments from colleagues happy to see it finished, by tweets from student researchers who have helped with it, and by the vast expanse of time I can enjoy being “post-book”. I’ll also head over to where I think Mary might be buried, and let her know it’s done.

Professor Sean Perrone: Originally, I wasn’t planning to revise my dissertation into a book. I had moved onto a new research topic (Spanish consuls in the early American Republic), and I thought that the Assembly of the Clergy was behind me. Then, Professor Holder in the Theology Department gave me a push to contact his editor at Brill. Next thing I knew, I had a book contract. Well, after cursing Professor Holder for getting me into this predicament, I set to work.  Fortunately, I had a sabbatical and was able to devote several months to revising and expanding the dissertation into a book. The process was actually very rewarding. Going back to the material nearly a decade after having written the dissertation allowed me to look at the documents with fresh eyes and make a stronger argument about the nature of politics in early modern Castile. I also incorporated maps into the book—my first attempt at spatial analysis. The book came out in 2008, and its publication opened the door to many professional opportunities for me. Needless to say, I’m forever grateful to Professor Holder for giving me a nudge all those years ago.

Professor Hugh Dubrulle: Most people I know who are not academics express enthusiasm when they find out that I’ve written a book. What does surprise me, though, is the frequency with which they ask how many copies I’ve sold and how much money I’ll make. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want my book to remain unsold and unread, but I never thought of the book as a money-making venture. To a great degree, it was a matter of self-respect. My simple syllogistic reasoning went something like this: I’m a professor; professors should publish books; therefore, I should publish a book. A number of different sentiments were bound up with this idea. I wanted to show myself capable of the sustained intellectual effort associated with writing a book. While this kind of effort can by trying and difficult at times, I enjoy the challenge of writing. Writing history is creative work, and I was greatly enamored with the thought of creating something. I knew I could write well, and I thought I had something original to say about British attitudes toward the United States during the Civil War. So darn it, I was going to write a book because that’s what professors do. I must concede that material considerations also figured in my decision; it was always part of my plan to use publication of the book to get promotion to full professor (although I could have attained the same rank by publishing a number of articles).

My book has been published too recently (June 2018) to have unlocked all the opportunities to which my colleagues have referred with regard to their books (although some have come my way already). Nonetheless, when I had completed it, I found new reasons to value the book, the most important being that I learned much about many things. I learned from other scholars in my field, but I learned mainly by reading a great deal on a wide variety of topics. That experience brought home to me in a clear and memorable way something that I had more or less already grasped: before one can teach either a reader or a student, one must learn much and learn it thoroughly.

Professor Andy Moore: For most academics who write books like mine, the short answer to the question, “why did you write this,” is, “in order to get tenure.” Academic historians look for work in a competitive atmosphere, and having a book published by a university press is supposed to make you stand out. But ultimately that’s not how I determine the value of my book. Doing the research that led to the book brought me into a world that was very different than my personal experience. My book is about Catholics in the post-World War II American South.  I am a southerner by birth, but I’m not a Catholic. When I began my research, one of my academic mentors said to me, “Andy, you need to learn the language.” He meant that I had to remove myself from the Protestant evangelical world I had grown up in and learn the extent to which Catholics viewed the world differently than my own people did. He was right. I wrote my book at a time when not many people had written on southern Catholics. As a result, my book created opportunities for me to engage with other historians working after me. I have read manuscripts for publishers, and I have shared my knowledge and research materials with other historians who contacted me because of that book. I did get tenure, but, for me, the real value of my book is that it introduced me to a new way of viewing the world, and it has created opportunities to shape other people’s scholarship that I would not have had otherwise.

Professor Matt Masur: I have co-edited a book and edited another one. The first thing I should note is that editing (or co-editing) a book is not the same as writing one. It is a different process, and it is viewed differently by academics.

I had two motives for working on these books. The first was to create a useful resource for other people like me: faculty who want suggestions from skilled and talented teachers at other institutions. I have always relied on advice from other people who take their historical knowledge and translate it into the classroom. These books are meant to collect those sorts of suggestions in a single resource. My second motive was more self-interested: completing these books would satisfy the incentive system in place at Saint Anselm College and help my applications for promotion. That may sound a bit calculating, but I don’t view it that way. The incentive system for promotion and tenure is in place because it reflects the goals we have for our faculty members. By “playing the game” I was fulfilling my end of the bargain. We want faculty members to be active in their field in a way that is demonstrated through publications (among other things), and these books were a way for me to fulfill that criterion.

I don’t know that these books gave me the same satisfaction as writing a monograph. They were not products of a long and agonizing intellectual journey, which is how some people describe a work of original research. Nevertheless, I am very happy with both books. Editing the books gave me a chance to collaborate with a large group of wonderful colleagues—my co-editors on the first book and numerous authors, including Professor Pajakowski. I also think that the books do give useful tips to other teachers. And realistically, these books are likely to reach a wider audience than a monograph that I might have written. I think they have sold relatively well, and I hope that the ideas in the books are being incorporated into classes in a way that helps students understand the past.

The Decline of the History BA and What to Do about It

“The History BA Since the Great Recession: The 2018 AHA Majors Report” which was published by the American Historical Association in late November 2018 has set off alarm bells across the profession.

https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2018/the-history-ba-since-the-great-recession-the-2018-aha-majors-report

The report found that since 2008, of all major disciplines, history has seen the steepest declines in the number of bachelors’ degrees awarded. In fact, history’s share of BA degrees has reached an all-time low since records have been kept on this subject since 1950. Benjamin M. Schmidt, the report’s author, is convinced that the recession of 2008 is largely (but not exclusively) to blame. As he puts it, shifts in attitudes toward history “are not just a temporary response to a missing job market; there seems to have been a longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students.” Since students and their families appear to have become more skeptical of the usefulness of the major, history departments need to develop persuasive arguments that counter this tendency. Schmidt is careful to point out, however, that since decline of the major has been uneven among different groups, institutions, and regions, “each department is facing its own constellation of factors that may make the decline more or less severe.”

Whatever the case, the report makes for sober reading, and it has inspired a series of articles that seek to determine the source of history’s decline so as to chart a path to recovery. One response has come from advocates of “applied history,” that is, those who believe historians ought to develop lessons from the past with an eye toward shaping policies that could resolve contemporary problems (see Robert Crowcraft on this score). Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin, for example, have argued that the History BA has suffered because “the academic historical profession has become steadily less accessible to students and the general public—and steadily less relevant to addressing critical matters of politics, diplomacy, and war and peace.” Historians, they claim, are no longer engaged in public life, no longer addressing the critical issues of the day and no longer interested in “constructive engagement with policymakers” (see another example of this argument here). It is for this reason, Brands and Gavin assert, that “students are fleeing history,” for the discipline “has long been fleeing its responsibilities.” The solution consists of offering more political, diplomatic, and military history; fostering greater public engagement among historians in these fields; and restoring cooperation between the academy and government.

These assertions, however, are not altogether convincing. For one thing, Brands and Gavin’s claims about what historians are or are not doing are debatable. While historians might not be advising, say, presidents, they do engage with the public in a multitude of ways. For another, it’s not clear to what extent engagement with policymakers is good for the country or for the profession as a whole. This blog has already criticized applied history as articulated by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson for its reductionism and problematic use of analogies. And Brands and Gavin’s example of Woodrow Wilson engaging the country’s leading diplomatic historians to help him prepare for the Versailles Peace conference is perhaps an unfortunate one.

So far as resurrecting the major is concerned, though, there are two overlapping problems with the kind of argument that Brands and Gavin make. First, they present a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t recognize the varying circumstances of different institutions. Second, they make assertions about what should be supplied without having presented any evidence that they have studied demand. Brands and Gavin assert that it “hardly seems a coincidence that undergraduate interest in history has plummeted” just as the discipline has ceased teaching subjects central to understanding national and international politics, but this argument by correlation is vitiated by the admission that “direct causation is difficult to prove.”

Interestingly enough, Brands and Gavin have pointed to Yale University as an institution that is actually gaining majors because it has stuck with the time-tested subjects of political, diplomatic, and military history. They are correct that the number of history majors at Yale and several other Ivy League schools is rising. But history might not be thriving at the Ivies because of the subjects that are taught there. Jason Steinhauer points out that when Yale noticed the number of history majors declining, it asked students what they wanted. The history department found out that students asked for

a logical path and a cohort. In other words, they sought direction and community. They wanted to know what it would look like to move toward a history degree, and on from there. This was not a repudiation of the discipline, its job prospects, or its utility. The history degree was not broken; it simply needed to be tweaked to meet students where they were.

Steinhauer goes on to write that direction and community make sense for a post-millenial generation that has come of age in a networked world bound by social media. The point here is not that direction and community are appropriate for everyone; rather the point is that Yale asked students what they wanted. That seems like the best path toward rescuing the BA in history.

As we think about winning back majors, we probably ought to remember another important point that appears in an essay by Elizabeth Lehfeldt in Inside Higher Ed. Lehfeldt writes

Ask someone why they majored in history, and many of the answers will circle back to a strong emotional connection to the subject. It might have been a professor who told captivating stories about the past. Or an instructor with so much enthusiasm for the subject that they couldn’t help but get pulled in. In short, behind every history major is invariably a great teacher who connected them in some way or another to the power of narratives about the past.

This point jibes very well with One Thing after Another’s experiences. Students who enter Saint Anselm College as history majors often do so because they had an inspiring history teacher in high school (sometimes even a Saint Anselm College alum). And those who major in history after arriving at the college make the commitment because they have forged a connection with one of the faculty here. Lehfeldt continues by pointing out that history departments need to reinforce this enthusiasm by giving students assignments (especially research assignments) that provide them with meaning and purpose. History departments, she argues, should be more mindful about creating such assignments, especially ones that allow students to “change something beyond the walls of the classroom.” At the very least, instructors should link small tasks in class to the big picture as a means of motivating students. In some cases, the big picture might be related to diplomacy and high politics. And in many other cases not. “Applied history” is not just about statesmanship; as Lehfeldt suggests, history can be applied in many, many different ways to attract students.