Among the sessions I attended at the AHA in Chicago this past January was the special session designed to address the crisis in employment for newly minted history PhDs, and to do so “from the demand side.”
In other words, the point of the session, moderated by outgoing AHA President Anthony Grafton, was not to lament that academe is producing way too many history PhDs who have no chance of landing the kind of jobs for which
they we are being trained. Rather, the point was to explore whether and how the AHA as a professional organization could do anything to increase the number and kinds of jobs available to all these newly-minted PhDs.
I will not summarize the arguments presented by the panelists, Jesse Lemisch, Edward Balleisen, John R. Dichtl, and Lynn Hunt. History News Network has posted a brief but apt summary of the session, along with video remarks from each speaker on the panel.
Instead let me tell you a little bit of what it was like to be in that packed-out room, both during the panel and during the Q&A that followed. I know I wasn’t the only PhD student in there, sitting on the edge of my seat, desperate to hear something that would give me a modicum of hope as I look ahead at what appears to me and many others to be an absolutely abysmal academic job market.
Man, did I get an earful.
That panel was a Clash of the Titans, with Jesse Lemisch on one end and Lynn Hunt on the other, and no love lost between them. I mean, it was intense. Imagine being the most junior of junior scholars, just a PhD student, a mere acolyte in the great tradition of history as philosophy, as vocation, as profession — imagine sitting there, witnessing two senior historians whose work I have been reading and reading about since I started my program, go head to head in an intellectual contest that was no mere intellectual exercise.
Lemisch and Hunt are historians with a capital “H.” They don’t just produce riveting and revolutionary scholarship — they don’t just “do” history; rather, they are history. They and their fellow senior colleagues are the profession. They instantiate and exemplify and model what it means to be a historian. They weren’t just arguing about their competing views of the profession and its future; they were arguing about their identity, their values, who they are, what makes their work matter, what makes all our work matter. It was astonishing to witness.
I listened to Lemisch, and I could not help but admire his rhetorical ferocity and his uncompromising idealism. (My guess is that he would say that if more people would commit to his ideals, that idealism would become realism.) I listened to Hunt, and I was stunned by her bold brilliance — superseding even what I’ve read on the page — and her ability to sharply illuminate the context and subtext of the debate in a way that makes her vision impossible to deny or ignore. (My guess is that she would say that the insistence of some people to do just that — deny and ignore that context and subtext — is precisely what is so problematic about the historical profession.)
I don’t mean to short or shortchange the other two panelists; they were not just potted plants. (Dichtl in particular took some heat from Lemisch, and did his best to give as good as he got.) But their most crucial contribution to that panel may have been simply to put some distance — intellectual, polemical and spatial — between Lemisch and Hunt. Yeah, it was that intense.
Indeed, I think all of us in the audience were probably somewhat relieved when Anthony Grafton got up and opened up the discussion to questions from the floor.
Our relief was short-lived.
The very first question from the floor came from a historian who was also an administrator at a small regional college — the college president, if I am not mistaken, though I didn’t write it down in my notes and so I couldn’t swear to it. Anyhow, coming from a small department at a small school, this questioner had served on every search and been a part of every hiring committee for history professors at his institution since his arrival there.
Here is part of what he had to say about why history PhDs are having trouble finding jobs: “A large percentage of the graduates from your programs are not really worth looking at.” Out of scores of applications, this commenter said, “maybe the top ten percent are head and shoulders above the rest,” and the rest do not seem to be qualified for academic work period. He said that PhD programs are producing sub-par scholars. “And,” he concluded, “I haven’t heard any of you address this.”
The silence in that packed-out room was deafening. Nobody moved. Time seemed to stand still.
I don’t know what anybody else was thinking. I didn’t know what to think myself. Here I was at my first AHA meeting, at practically the first panel I attended, and I had just had the astonishing experience of listening to two senior historians engaged in an intellectual and ideological battle that left me in slack-jawed shock with my head still spinning. And now this?
What was I as a PhD student, and as someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about the idea of the university, supposed to do with this? What was anybody else in the room supposed to do with this?
I was sitting on the end of a row, about twenty rows back from the panel. I was looking all around the room trying to make eye contact with somebody — anybody — to see if I was alone in my shock and awe. The panelists all looked as astonished as everybody in the audience. There was Anthony Grafton, standing at the podium, stunned into silence. He wouldn’t know me from Adam, but he happened to look out at me just as I glanced up at him, and our eyebrows went up in unison. The effect of that commenter’s remarks on that room was something to behold.
After a moment — what seemed like an interminable moment, from where I sat — Grafton simply said, “Next question?”
I didn’t even hear the rest of the questions. I was thinking the whole time about what that commenter had stood up to say. In part, I was thinking, “Is this true?” And if it’s true, what does it mean? What does it mean for me and my colleagues? What does it say about the state of the university in America? What does it mean for the future — the future of our profession, the future of our culture?
I’m still thinking about this man’s remark — about the justice or injustice of it, the truth or the mistakenness of it. But at the time, and even more since, what I have mostly been thinking about is the extraordinary courage that it must have taken for him to stand up and say it in the first place, and then face the indignant or angry or perhaps simply bemused silence of that room. He wasn’t going to win any popularity contests with that remark. And he knew it. And he said it anyway — not because he wanted to be obnoxious or contrarian, but because he thought it was important, and he thought it was true.
What do I think about that question, and about the whole panel? I’m not sure yet. I’m still working it out.
But I can tell you this much: when the session was over, I didn’t leave the room thinking, “What is the future of the historical profession?” Instead, I walked out of there thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”