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A Real-life Milestone!


Triumph
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The worst part of writing a dissertation is that martinet drone insisting your final version meets all their format standards from spacing, margins, and type face. Besides the only person that really reads your dissertation is your advisor. Thanks to word processing programs with autocorrecting for spelling and grammar you don't even need to read what you write. :)

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What was the history comp like? I'm really curious.

 

In physics, things like this vary widely. Where I studied, there was a 'preliminary' exam rather than a comprehensive. You had to pass it within the first year of your PhD studies, or get kicked out of the program. Some people thought it was terrible, because the PhD was supposed to be about research, and yet there was this hoop to jump through, about having passable knowledge of standard undergraduate stuff. I thought it was a good idea just for that. It ensured that nobody got out of the school, with a PhD in physics, while being clueless about something basic and major in the subject. Where I teach now, in Germany, there's no such exam for the doctorate, but the undergrad degrees include fairly comprehensive oral exams.

 

Physics is a mature natural science with a small and uncontroversial body of basic principles. Ask, What should every physicist know about physics? and you'll get very much the same answers from every physics professor in the world. So a preliminary exam like the one I wrote really makes sense in physics. I'm really curious what the analogous thing in history might be, though. Is it a test of factual knowledge, to make sure that every history PhD knows the gross outline of major world events for the past three millennia? I can see some point in that, but on the other hand I'm not sure it's so unambiguous to decide which events were 'major'. Or is it a test of basic historian skills? If so, what are those?

 

Dissertations should actually be fun. I don't really know zip about a history dissertation. Physics dissertations today are basically just two or three short published papers, stapled together, with intro and connecting text typed out in a last-minute rush.

 

For what it's worth, though, I think my advice would be to try to say something radical and dramatic. That's naive, undergraduate thinking, and most graduate school training is probably all about crushing down bold hypotheses into nice, smooth surfaces of subtle nuance. But my guess is that there's a subtle nuance about this itself: it's not that bold conclusions are all wrong, just that most of them are. So bread-and-butter work is pretty low key. It's still the few bold conclusions that really make the subject worthwhile, even when they do turn out to be wrong. So I think it's worth working extra hard, and enduring years of scorn from your advisor, to try to say something a little more "out there". The extra effort and embarrassment will be worth it, to be doing something that's actually interesting and significant, instead of something safe but who-even-cares.

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Yeah, just the one written preliminary. I think it lasted about six hours, though.

 

That's kind of the German model for the doctorate, which was the historical basis for the modern doctorate around the world. It assumes that you already know the past — that's what the previous degrees were about. The doctorate is all about research, on this model, so it really only consists of a dissertation. Adding any exams at all is a North American thing, I think. In Germany, doctoral students aren't officially students. Their official status is that of academic co-workers: qualified professional scientists or scholars, collaborating with a professor on research.

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Physics is fairly unique in having a small but critical body of knowledge physicists should know, and you can get a pretty good idea by listing names: Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg. Sure, the quantum list is longer, and there are big names getting left out, and there's no mention of the less flashy but important things like statistical mechanics, but you get the idea. Chemistry starts with similar basics, which happen to be physical: atoms and molecules, electrons and quantum, and all the ways the pieces go together. But then it branches wildly. A physical chemist and a biochemist's work can be very different.

 

Biology is an entirely different ballpark. The central dogma, DNA -> RNA -> Protein (which isn't always true!) is something every biologist really needs to know but is of almost zero practical significance to evolutionary biology or ecology. There's huge breadth and huge depth within each subfield, and few have any real understanding of the other fields. For this reason "comprehensives" tend to focus on one or several areas. Biology departments don't like to admit it, but they really could be broken into entirely separate academic units.

 

Humanities tend towards the biology end of the scale. English might have a canon, but a master of modern literature and a medievalist are going to have very different corpuses to work on. History is worse; what's central to European history is wholly irrelevant to pre-Columbean American history and of limited interest to a historian interested in Japan. Again, most comprehensives I've seen and heard about require breadth of knowledge, but only of a selected subset of a wide range. You're already focused, and your comprehension only covers a small subset that you're specializing in.

 

—Alorael, who is just using all these words to say congratulations to Triumph. The hard part's not over, but a hard part is. You're done with one kind of gruntwork quite possibly forever!

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Physics is a mature natural science with a small and uncontroversial body of basic principles. Ask, What should every physicist know about physics? and you'll get very much the same answers from every physics professor in the world. So a preliminary exam like the one I wrote really makes sense in physics. I'm really curious what the analogous thing in history might be, though. Is it a test of factual knowledge, to make sure that every history PhD knows the gross outline of major world events for the past three millennia? I can see some point in that, but on the other hand I'm not sure it's so unambiguous to decide which events were 'major'. Or is it a test of basic historian skills? If so, what are those?

 

I've talked to the head of the history department at my university; she's been working at convincing me to get a doctorate in history. We'll see.

 

That said, though, she described the basic process as, indeed, a test of basic historian skills. To become a doctor of history, one needs to have demonstrated through sample works that one can make sophisticated and critical reasoning skills when it comes to critiquing other historians' work, as well a mastery of document analysis and the composition of theses based on them.

 

Usually, according to this professor, a grad student picks one of the 'houses' of history - such as Marxism, feminism, postcolonial, ethnohistory, postmodernism/poststructuralism - and uses that as the basis for their future works. Thus, they must also be well versed in their particular fields foundational works. For instance, a Marxist historian would obviously have to have read Marx, but also authors like E.P. Thompson; a postmodern historian would have to read Foucault, by the same logic, and so on. Of course, a functional understanding of all the major methodologies is important.

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Wow. Yikes. You have to first pick a particular doctrinaire squint, and lock yourself into it for good? That sounds pretty pointless, frankly.

 

I'd be happier to hear that you need to specialize in methodology, or know relevant languages. Ideology first seems like a helluva a way to run an academic discipline.

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Wow. Yikes. You have to first pick a particular doctrinaire squint, and lock yourself into it for good? That sounds pretty pointless, frankly.

 

I'd be happier to hear that you need to specialize in methodology, or know relevant languages. Ideology first seems like a helluva a way to run an academic discipline.

 

The thing is that in history, ideology and methodology are inextricably linked: assumptions about what it's important to study lead to methods of study that accord with and reinforce those assumptions. This isn't a case where each school of thought has basically similar ideas about how history should be studied and just thinks there needs to be more emphasis on their own area of interest: by and large, they each have fundamentally different ideas of what history is and what the goals of the study of history should be.

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For me, as a doctoral student, one has three minor fields and one major field. These are topical, not methodological or ideological (e.g. early U.S., modern U.S., early European, modern Latin America, military, etc). I've certainly had exposure to things like marxist theory and (*gag*) Foucault, and also methodological topics like social history and microhistory, but my course of study was never locked in around a single ideological or methodological approach.

 

Theoretically, one's courses fall into these chosen fields and prepare one for exams on those fields. One is tested on the major field and two of the minor fields, and then there's an oral exam; the exams are spread out over a two week period. Each minor field exam consisted two different professors each giving me a pair of essay prompts; I'd choose one of each and type up an essay on that. The major field exam was the same except that my advisor got to give me for prompts and I had to write two essays for him, plus one more for another professor. So, I'd show up in the morning, receive a departmental laptop, and receive my questions, and start typing. After the written exams, there's an oral exam where the professors all get together and ask whatever random questions they feel like. The nature of the essay questions on the written comps varied widely; all asked for some historiography (enumerate literature on the topic to show one's mastery of it), but some were all historiography, whereas others primarily asked me to provide a narrative on the topic, showing that I knew What Happened, with the literature summary being a secondary component.

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For me, as a doctoral student, one has three minor fields and one major field. These are topical, not methodological or ideological (e.g. early U.S., modern U.S., early European, modern Latin America, military, etc). I've certainly had exposure to things like marxist theory and (*gag*) Foucault, and also methodological topics like social history and microhistory, but my course of study was never locked in around a single ideological or methodological approach. Theoretically, one's courses fall into these chosen fields and prepare one for exams on those fields. One is tested on the major field and two of the minor fields, and then there's an oral exam; the exams are spread out over a two week period. Each minor field exam consisted two different professors each giving me a pair of essay prompts; I'd choose one of each and type up an essay on that. The major field exam was the same except that my advisor got to give me for prompts and I had to write two essays for him, plus one more for another professor. So, I'd show up in the morning, receive a departmental laptop, and receive my questions, and start typing. After the written exams, there's an oral exam where the professors all get together and ask whatever random questions they feel like. The nature of the essay questions on the written comps varied widely; all asked for some historiography (enumerate literature on the topic to show one's mastery of it), but some were all historiography, whereas others primarily asked me to provide a narrative on the topic, showing that I knew What Happened, with the literature summary being a secondary component.

 

That sounds pretty reasonable.

 

This isn't a case where each school of thought has basically similar ideas about how history should be studied and just thinks there needs to be more emphasis on their own area of interest: by and large, they each have fundamentally different ideas of what history is and what the goals of the study of history should be.

 

Well, fine, but: Marxism? Seriously? One dead white male's idiosyncratic rantings from the bleary dawn of industrial capitalism, as the basis of an entire academic discipline? That's almost as bad as generative linguistics. I mean, specializing in the history of industrial development, as something that Karl Marx happened also to have taken a stab at in his day, I can totally understand. And Marxism has certainly existed as a historical phenomenon, an ideology that influenced much of the world for several generations. The history of Marxism is a perfectly legitimate topic. But being a Marxist historian just strikes me as absurd, let alone having to choose Marxism first, before studying history.

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Well, fine, but: Marxism? Seriously? One dead white male's idiosyncratic rantings from the bleary dawn of industrial capitalism, as the basis of an entire academic discipline? That's almost as bad as generative linguistics. I mean, specializing in the history of industrial development, as something that Karl Marx happened also to have taken a stab at in his day, I can totally understand. And Marxism has certainly existed as a historical phenomenon, an ideology that influenced much of the world for several generations. The history of Marxism is a perfectly legitimate topic. But being a Marxist historian just strikes me as absurd, let alone having to choose Marxism first, before studying history.

 

Marxism as a methodology is not necessarily tied to Marxism as an ideology, though the latter uses the former to formulate much of its rhetoric. A Marxist historian would be interested in such topics as the bourgeois nature of the French Revolution, class structures in pre-Columbian American societies, and the making of the English working class (coincidentally a book by the aforementioned E.P. Thompson that I'm currently reading).

 

Marxism as an ideology is certainly a historical topic that I would say is worthy of investigation, but the rationale Marx initially used to develop that ideology is closely tied to history in a different way. He proposed that material relations to the means of production are the deciding factor in society, in that they are the engine of society that propels them through history. A society begins as hunter-gathers, develops a slave-based economy in the manner of Rome or Greece, formulates feudalism, and from there becomes capitalist. Marx called this historical materialism. This historical materialism is what Marxist historians generally use; they are called Marxist historians perhaps because "historical materialist historian" doesn't really communicate very well.

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I'm reminded of Karl Popper's critique of Marxism as pseudoscience. Pseudohumanity? It strikes me as inherently flawed to pick your lens and then view history through it. You can't be wrong! Yes, perhaps it's valuable to have the same history analyzed by multiple perspectives, but wouldn't it be better to have each historian equipped with those multiple perspectives? Otherwise all you have is a hammer and all history is a sea of nails.

 

Or, basically, I'm concerned that perhaps sometimes the means of production aren't the deciding factor in society, the Marxist trajectory doesn't hold true, and a Marxist historian has no context with which to handle that.

 

—Alorael, who isn't a historian. He could be wrong. This still strikes him as a worrisome way to go about understanding the past.

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I'll just say that I've gone to school long enough to have acquired a healthy suspicion of many historical interpretive theories. Sometimes they offer a bit of insight into a specific situation, it's true. But eventually theories take over, ceasing to be an interpretive aid; instead of formulating a theory to fit the facts and , scholars start trying to make the facts fit the theory. They take a theory that might help explain one situation, and start trying to stick that theory into ALL the situations. Of course, everyone has some kind of worldview that shapes how one interprets information. I would say that often "theory" in history is rather more...rigid, or narrow, in what it claims about motivations or causes...than a person's overall worldview. I'm not strictly anti-theory, but I do generally distrust a lot of the historical theoretical approaches I've encountered.

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Marxism as a methodology is not necessarily tied to Marxism as an ideology, though the latter uses the former to formulate much of its rhetoric. A Marxist historian would be interested in such topics as the bourgeois nature of the French Revolution, class structures in pre-Columbian American societies, and the making of the English working class (coincidentally a book by the aforementioned E.P. Thompson that I'm currently reading).

 

Marxism as an ideology is certainly a historical topic that I would say is worthy of investigation, but the rationale Marx initially used to develop that ideology is closely tied to history in a different way. He proposed that material relations to the means of production are the deciding factor in society, in that they are the engine of society that propels them through history. A society begins as hunter-gathers, develops a slave-based economy in the manner of Rome or Greece, formulates feudalism, and from there becomes capitalist. Marx called this historical materialism. This historical materialism is what Marxist historians generally use; they are called Marxist historians perhaps because "historical materialist historian" doesn't really communicate very well.

 

That's an ably conducted defense, but I'm not sure I buy it. 'Marxist' is just too heavily loaded a term, it seems to me, for anyone to wear it as innocently as that.

 

Academic departments have a lot of inertia, because tenure means that people stick around for thirty years or more after being hired, and even when the guard does change, professorial democracy means that the new guard gets hired by the old. So like any academic department, a history department must often be a museum, in which the high-brow views of two generations past are pristinely preserved. And fifty years ago, half the world pledged allegiance to ideological Marxism.

 

So calling Marxism a methodology rather than an ideology sounds to me like saying the Jolly Roger is really just a flag that ships fly when the captain feels it sets the paintwork off. Maybe, but I'm not so sure. Making Marxism out to be a rigorous, neutral-minded science was always part of Marxist ideology, after all. You might want to sniff carefully at that Kool-Aid before you sip.

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Lastborn heads off to California in the summer to begin his PhD studies. It will be interesting to see how they do differ from my experience in the UK and French systems. He's studying anthripology, and it seems that the first couple of years will cover research methods as well as a language. (I hesitate to say foreign, as his will be Spanish)

 

One of the things he has already realised is that UK students are expected to read a lot more research papers as part of their undergraduate work than US students do.

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