U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Professing History: Not for the Faint of Heart

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?”  

Good question.

34 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. It’s no surprise that a lot of crap has been produced in humanities grad programs of all stripes over the years. Just think of all the stuff you’ve read over the years where you thought “this is rubbish” and all the stuff which made you think “this is brilliant.” Category A is bigger than Category B, probably. And most of the stuff in both categories was produced by grad students in graduate history programs. Of course, a lot of them aren’t grad students now and may not have been for a long time. But they were at one time, so, yeah. I didn’t serve on any search committees, but I saw a lot of job applications and CVs, and I had the reaction more than once, “This is what my so-called peers are doing? Really?” And this includes, heck, more than includes since they’re the only types a program like the one I came out of covets and lusts after, graduates of the Ivies and the like. There are really excellent people out there, but they are awash in seas of mediocrity.

  2. You’re in Category B, Varad.

    I’m fascinated by the lack of response to the question. Was no one willing to answer? Did Grafton move on before anyone had a chance to think it through?

  3. @Anonymous(es): Why didn’t anyone answer the question? That’s something you will have to ask of Anthony Grafton and his co-panelists. As I recall, none of the subsequent commenters from the audience addressed it in any direct way. I’m still thinking about how I would answer it myself. The short answer to why it wasn’t addressed might be that it seemed to fall far afield of the panelists’ focus. Whether the panel ought to have been focused on the issue this commenter raised is another question entirely, implicit in his very asking. And, perhaps, implicit in the silent response. I just don’t know.

    I also don’t know for sure whether the commenter was the college president, the college provost, or the chair of the college history department. For a while, I thought I had it figured it out, and was updating my post here accordingly. But I am not certain. All I know is that he said he had served on every history department search committee at least since attaining his current position. (I wrote above, “since his arrival there,” but I may have gotten even that wrong.)

    I suppose my confusion over the simplest facts of this person’s identity doesn’t speak particularly well of my diligence as a historian. Had I realized just how much his question and the audience’s response would perplex me, I might have taken more thorough notes. I’ll have to rummage around in twitter and see if I can find someone who live-tweeted the session and caught the detail that I missed.

    However, there was no missing the implication of the gentleman’s remarks. They were rather damning.

  4. I think the administrator who spoke up is probably only thinking about professionalism–because he’s an administrator. So by not being prepared, the 90% of candidates he dismissed as mediocre probably didn’t present themselves well on the market. In terms of candidates being intellectually interesting, the percentages might or might not be different. But I know for a fact that plenty of hyper-professionalized newly-minted PhD’s are intellectually uninteresting. And vice versa.

  5. My first response to the question, somewhat like Varad’s, was to think that “90% of everything is crap,” so what’s the surprise? That phrase was originally used to defend genre fiction (especially sci-fi) from its detractors, on the grounds that most mainstream literary fiction had the same amount of schlock. But using this defense raises the question, whether talent in academic history is in a large degree relative, such that good history is almost by definition the top 10%, the ambitious or pathbreaking work. Whether the historian’s profession is not by nature similar to the cliched pyramidal rat races of studio art, literature, and popular music. I think Andrew’s distinction between professionalism and interesting-ness (I might also say creativity) highlights that question. To extend the analogy from the market to the work, would that mean that rigor in history serves basically the same role as technical prowess in literature or instrumental performance? And, finally, does this dilemma extend to the other disciplines? (Of course, even if the answers are all yes, they may have very little to do with the job market)

  6. “You’re in Category B, Varad.”

    If you mean that, Total, I thank you for the kind words. If you were being ironic, I am not going to disagree. And if you forgot the question mark, well, the jury’s out on which category I belong to. I certainly am not going to put myself in the best category, and not just because no man shall be judge in his own cause. I’ve hardly even made enough of a name for myself to merit the consideration of being sorted by the great History Sorting Hat (a distant relation, perhaps, of the one at Hogwarts). Probably it will stick me in a category of my own, since it is no more likely to be able to figure out what sort of history it is I do than I am.

    Andrew and John raise the important issue of the relationship between professionalism and excellence as a scholar. I agree that professionalism in the sense of “rigor in history” and associated qualities are necessary but not sufficient to being a good historian. Creativity, imagination, those are what make the difference, such that good history is by definition the top 10%, just as it is in other fields.

    And how often do we read something and dismiss it because it is poorly written? I don’t mean only something with an abundance of jargon and technobabble, but things which are written in a straightforward manner but which are unreadable because of lousy grammar, awkward phrasing, run-on sentences, excess verbiage, that sort of thing. I read plenty of things where I think, “There’s something interesting going on here, too bad the author has no idea how to tell me what it is.” A lot of the history I’ve found most compelling and powerful has had outstanding prose. Too often in historical writing the author, rather than acting as a guide, acts as an obstacle. If there’s one thing I’ll toot my horn about, it’s that I’m not a terrible writer. I might even say a decent one, when I’m having a delusion of adequacy.

    Mostly, though, I think it comes down to the 90% rule. Not that 90% of it is crap, but that only 10% is really outstanding and worth the time and effort of author and audience. As for the other 90%, it’s what makes the world go round. I mean, there are plenty of doctors, architects, journalists, engineers, chefs, professors, whatever, who do their jobs competently and professionally. They’re not winning any prizes. But keeping the world spinning on its axis isn’t a bad day’s work.

  7. The lack of jobs has been a systemic problem for a couple of generations now. Back when I was in grad school back in the ’80s there were proposals made and much hand wringing about the job market.

    Quite simply the university system makes money from the tuition charged and saves money on the other side of the equation through “administrative efficiencies” or stated simply, the increasing use of non unionized graduate students or adjuncts. Now with the federal government and President Obama looking to solve the “tuition problem” for the middle class prepare for more of the same. It certainly won’t be solved through increased public support. This problem is simply not confined to the humanities. Last spring, the third year law students at University of Virginia staged a protest on orientation day about their lack of jobs and the New York times has been highlighting the problem of the so called “law school scam.”

    As for the quality of today’s students, they are better than yesterdays. The administrator’s comments remind me of a professor who loved to rant about the same decline of quality, before turning to his graduate students to run his SPSS and DBase III because he himself couldn’t do it.

    As for the quality of published material, go back through the older issues of the AHR, William and Mary Quarterly, and the Mississippi Valley Historical Review and see if the ratio of wheat to chaff has changed over time.

  8. Varad: you’re welcome.

    To be highly impolite about it: this discussion has been crap right up through Brian’s comment. We’ve spent our time essentially parroting a “blame-the-victim” position: it’s the applicants’ fault. 90% of them are not “suitable for academic work, period.” And Varad et al buy into it, with that old pithy Ted Sturgeon revelation.

    No sense of the rapidly contracting job market (true for two generations, even more true after 2008), the adjunctivizing of that job market, the overproduction of Ph.Ds by departments that like their labor cheap and non-unionized, the disastrous way that the job application process is usually handled (shall we plow through the Academic Jobs Wiki for some juicy stories? Actually, we could just have left the session and down to the job interview waiting room, couldn’t we?), no sense of the constrictions in funding at the graduate level, etc. etc. and so on.

    Nope, it’s because the applicants are bad.

    And sadly, even the panel, chair and commenters alike, couldn’t even figure out how to challenge him? To at least push back on his narrative a bit?

    Sadly, so did we. So much for our skepticism about eyewitness reports (the anonymous questioner, not LD).

  9. When I was in my very first year of grad school, I ran into one of our department’s senior scholars at a local swimming hole. Taking advantage of this informal situation, I asked him about the search that the department was undertaking at that moment. He said something along the lines of, “You would not believe how much shit is out there.” This was some time ago, but if I recall correctly, this faculty member gave the same one out of ten ratio that the questioner mentioned.

    At the time I was relieved. Thinking that I would–of course!–be the one out of ten, I concluded that this news meant that things would be a lot easier for me than I had feared. But over the years I have come to recall that conversation with increasing horror. The reason for this reaction is that my experience on the job market over a five year period has suggested to me that, in the eyes of the search committees, I am in the ninety percent.

    Being as honest with myself as I am able to be, I don’t quite understand why I am in this category. Like most job-seekers, my background and CV has its strengths and weaknesses. Every year, I emphasize the former and try to improve upon the latter. But nothing of which I am aware suggests that I am missing an essential, minimally required characteristic for academic employment. My own experience has not left me with the impression that the academic job market is a difficult competition which must unfortunately produce some losers. Instead, it seems much more like some ancient society that admits only those few who possess a secret handshake that I just do not know.

    So I don’t know whether the questioner was right in his claim that 90% of applicants are “not really worth looking at.” Perhaps no one answered the question because the panelists disagreed with its premise. But I do think that the question reveals something important about the attitudes of many search committees.

  10. Thanks for the comments — I hope more will come, and I hope that others will join in as well. Surely someone else who reads the USIH blog was also at this session. I would love to hear another perspective on the panel and on the audience member’s remarks.

    I was at the AHA simply to see what it was like. I wasn’t presenting, and I wasn’t interviewing. In fact, I won’t be on the job market for at least another two years, I’m sure. But I had the opportunity to go, and I wanted to get a sense of what goes on at The Big Conference.

    While I was there, I met some fantastic young scholars, from programs far more prestigious than mine, who had booked their flight and reserved their hotel at the AHA hoping and perhaps expecting that they would be invited to interview. But they didn’t land an interview. So there they were, at the conference where everybody goes to get a job, with little hope of finding one.

    I don’t believe for a second that the scholars I met and chatted with are part of any “90%” of unqualified or underqualified PhDs. I don’t know why they didn’t land an interview, and they didn’t know either. And I don’t know what I could do better or differently than they have done when it’s my turn to apply for jobs.

    In fact, if Mark Bousquet and Frank Donoghue and their ilk are correct in their analysis of academic labor and the prestige economy of higher education, being part of the 90% is pretty much what I should expect. But try telling that to a brilliant grad student who has everything to recommend him and still couldn’t land an interview. To sit in that conference room and listen to someone talk about the subpar quality of new PhDs must have really stung. When it comes to the academic job market, that seems a little bit like blaming the victim.

  11. @Mike, you published your comment while I was composing mine, so I didn’t see it. But you made my point, or I made yours.

    I am willing to believe that there are people making their way through PhD programs who really aren’t the sharpest knives in the block. I would be willing to concede that someone might even reach that conclusion about me. But I don’t believe for a second that the problem of a unemployed and underemployed PhDs in the humanities has to do with the presumably subpar quality of these graduates’ scholarship or teaching experience.

    I think it has to do with the economic realities of the academic labor market, with emphasis on the word “market.” By that reckoning, cheap adjunct labor is not the side effect of overproduction of PhDs, but the goal. Producing scholars who won’t land tenure-track interviews is precisely the point.

    I try not to see academe in that light. The university as an idea and an ideal is awfully important to me for lots of reasons that go beyond my professional concerns. And I really hate to think that I am complicit in, and probably a future casualty of, a system that runs on the fuel of people’s shattered ideals.

  12. I composed this comment before Mike’s and LD’s responses to Total, so I apologize for rehashing a couple of things they said. To begin with, I don’t think this conversation (until recently) has been an attempt to respond to the proposition that the job market is bad because the applicant pool is weak. As I noted in my comment (and as LD points out above), the two things are quite possibly (even probably) unrelated. If there are more jobs, worse applicants will be hired at the margin, and the opposite if there are fewer jobs–assuming that increasing the demand won’t draw too applicants from other fields who are better than the current ones, a safe assumption in my opinion.

    What I, at least, was attempting to do was respond to the propositions that 90% of applicants at a small school department were bad, and that this says something bad about the profession. I suggested that even if the former is true, it might not say anything about history that isn’t generic to professions involving a blend of technical skill and artistic creativity. The discussion has proceeded to flip the Sturgeon quote around and suggest that it may be a question of what proportion of work is excellent, and how much the rest of it matters. That is, can qualified and skillful historians nonetheless be bad applicants for jobs because they don’t have the extra bit? This has taken us rather far afield, but I resent the suggestion that the conversation has been crap for that reason. We’ve been trying to deal with what, exactly, does a good historical profession look like in the aggregate. With respect to that question, I find Brian Graham’s suggestion for further research very helpful. Various “professionalization” theses have certainly been raised about other disciplines: for instance, Bruce Kuklick’s work on academic philosophy in the US. I’d also suggest Richard Teichgraeber’s recent MIH article “Beyond Academicization” for a contrary view about literature.

    To answer the question about the job market directly, I think there are lots of highly qualified people applying for academic jobs unsuccessfully, but as an undergraduate I can’t comment from experience about the makeup of graduate programs or the proportion of applicants that are, in fact, less than excellent or unqualified. I take the opinions of others on this thread and elsewhere, and of professors and graduate students in my department, to indicate that, basically, the 90% is not crap but in significant part highly qualified. This means that to the extent there is a 10% at all, it’s on the basis of what research projects appeal to employers and grant-givers at the moment, some form of creative excellence rather than technical proficiency, etc.

  13. Sorry, I completely missed Total’s comment above. After my comment published, I didn’t scroll up past Mike’s before writing my follow-up.

    If I had been responding to Total’s comment, I would have started by saying, “No, the discussion hasn’t been crap.”

  14. Great write-up, LD, and an excellent discussion.

    I think the panel avoided the question because, well, it was a bull$shit question. So I’m with Mike (circa 2012) in many ways. I’m also with LD in that there’s no way “90 percent” of the work being produced is crap and that 90 percent are consequently “unqualified.” Rubbish. The problems with that valuation are legion. How? The administrator:

    (a) doesn’t have a wide appreciation for the subjectivity of historical research (apropos Gee’s comment);

    (b) doesn’t like the writing of PhD students (per Varad’s later comment—andhow great should it be?–LD excepting, of course);

    (c) is, as Andrew noted, familiar only with the applicant’s presentation of her/his work (great observation, btw);

    (d) doesn’t know the trends of recent historical work;

    (e) has an overly high regard of himself (only arrogant @$$holes assume that 90 percent of “new anything” in a field is “crap,” or at least only self-regarding jerks word it that way); and

    (f) is unconscious, most likely, of how his own standards have risen over time (building on Graham’s and LD’s and Bousquet’s observations about supply). Look at what he said: “Maybe the top ten percent are head and shoulders above the rest.” It’s probably always been true that 10 percent exemplify excellence that is above the rest (that being in the nature of excellence). The problem, again, is an oversupply of regularly-qualified-but-still-smart-and-able folks. It’s turned a regular market into a skewed market. We can’t all be geniuses. But a certain number of senior faculty and deans have, to put it simply, become old farts. They don’t realize how the academy has changed, and how they now have way different standards for hiring, research, and scholarship than they did in the 1960s and 1970s.

    So I’m with Total in that it’s sad that the panel didn’t swat down the administrator immediately.

    Final comment to LD: You wrote “they are history.” I don’t like this phrasing—at all. Have you forgotten that you are, right now, just a less experienced version of one of them? You are now a Historian with a capital H—unless you quit graduate school. You’re on the same train with them. So, again, I’m with Total in that we need to critique their dumbfounded lack of response to the administrator’s ill-conceived ignorant comment. – TL

  15. @Tim, thanks for the excellent, thorough and well-organized comment. I can see the sense in points a – f.

    However, I feel uneasy about ascribing motives to this academic/administrator — (department chair? provost? president?). I’m especially uneasy about it because I only captured part of his comment word-for-word, and while I’m confident that I’ve adequately characterized both the gist of what he said and the way it was received, I don’t want to put words in his mouth or assume ideas in his head based on that one memorable but not perfectly remembered comment.

    I do know this: he hires history profs for a four-year undergrad institution that does not offer a PhD in history. So he is a “consumer” of history PhDs, and I guess he was lodging a complaint with the product vendors. And it was very much a complaint. He told a panel and a whole room full of distinguished historians (present company excluded!) that they aren’t doing their jobs right and they aren’t producing the kind of scholars that his institution needs.

    That was a pretty hefty accusation. I suppose part of the reason that no one addressed it was that it came across as indecorous and even rude, which made it fairly easy to dismiss. What is interesting to me is that no subsequent questioner stood up to criticize or challenge this man’s assessment of the caliber of history PhDs. I sure wasn’t going to stand up and say anything. I wouldn’t have known where to begin. Besides, I can get myself in more trouble in about 15 seconds of talking than most people can find in a lifetime — my Garrisonian high horse is all saddled up and ready to hit the road at full gallop in a moment’s notice. So I sat there keeping my peace like everybody else.

    As to my professional identity…

    The difference between me and someone like Lynn Hunt or Jesse Lemisch is not merely a difference in degree, but also still a difference in kind. I appreciate your encouragement to see myself as a Historian with a capital H. I am happy to own the minuscule “h,” or to describe myself as a historian in training. But I don’t think the majuscule moment has happened yet. It requires an epistemological transformation, like the flipping of a conceptual switch. (Oh, how Second Great Awakening of me.) But rather than thinking of it as a conversion, I think of it as a little bit like learning a foreign language — there’s this tipping point of fluency, where you are thinking in that second language, rather than thinking about it. I am still having to spend a fair amount of energy thinking about thinking historically. Maybe I am almost a Historian; I don’t know. It would be nice if there were some signature form my advisor could fill out and hand to me — “Congratulations; you’re now a Historian.” But I don’t think it works that way. Maybe I’m supposed to fill out a form to hand to my profs — “I am a Historian; you have been warned.”

  16. Rhett, thanks for the link. However, blaming the long tenure senior professors for the fate of the academic job market — even with the help of seemingly corroborative economic data — seems to me to be another way of actually sidestepping the underlying structural problems.

    I wrote above that I was “uncomfortable” ascribing motives to this questioner. One thing I’m uncomfortable with is veering into some kind of ageist explanation for why he would say something so presumably outlandish (e.g., Tim’s suggestion that the commenter is an “old fart,” which was doubtless meant humorously but does carry an edge to it).

    The argument that everything would be so much better if those old profs would just retire is, I think, an illusion. Senescent tenured professors are not keeping the rest of us from tenure-track jobs; the elimination of tenure lines, the reduction of funding, the increasing reliance on cheap adjunct labor will proceed apace, and perhaps even accelerate, as these professors retire. Frank Donoghue’s book _The Last Professors_ makes this argument pretty convincingly.

    Academe seems to me to be one of those wonderful cultural spaces where age is no disqualifier or barrier to full engagement with vital work. Good scholarship — especially, I think, good history — benefits greatly from both experience and wisdom. Age and wisdom don’t always track together, but they tend to do so often enough.

    Whatever the commenter’s motives for saying what he did, and whatever the malaise of the academic job market, I don’t think we can blame it on old profs hanging on to their jobs. When those old profs are gone, there won’t be anybody left standing between academic labor and the corporatized university.

  17. For a somewhat analogous – though very different — narrative of a Ph.D. student’s first AHA, and listening to a somewhat unsettling presentation from a senior member of the profession, see Lawrence Levine’s essay in L. Perry Curtis, The historian’s workshop; original essays by sixteen historians . There are many ways for a Ph.D. student to wonder about the future.

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on the session.

    Jim Grossman

  18. One thing this discussion reinforces, at least from my perspective, is the unspoken assumption that “historians,” majuscule or minuscule, are people who have a received a particular kind of training in a particular way. A historian, that is to say, is someone who has received a doctoral degree from a doctoral-granting department of history at a doctoral-granting institution of tertiary education. Almost certainly, that institution will be an RU/VH university as defined by the Carnegie Clssification of Institutions of Higher Education. A historian, in other words, is a breed of academic.

    To my mind this is a crushingly narrow conception within which to operate. We are talking about a tiny, tiny group. Even the “have nots” of the 90% are, because of their educational attainments, crumbs from the thinnest slice of the population cake. Literally, we are in the top 1% of the American population as a whole. That’s the percentage of Americans who have research doctorates, according to the last census.

    When we talk about “jobs for historians,” what we’re really talking about is jobs for people with Ph.D.s in history. That holds even for Jesse Lemisch, who has been the AHA’s chief critic about its handling of the jobs crisis, so-called. Lemisch has charged Anthony Grafton and his cohorts of caring only about the students who are cranked out of, and then go on to become faculty in, the top tier doctoral programs in history. It’s the people who don’t have that pedigree who need help, in his estimation. But those people, if you turn the magnification down enough, seem nearly indistinguishable from the others.

    The old adage holds that where you stand depends on where you sit. And it’s only because of where we sit that it seems like there is a “crisis” in history. But what’s actually in crisis? Is it history itself? Is it the historical profession? But what’s that when it’s at home? Is the “historical profession” merely the whole set of people with pieces of paper that say “Ph.D. in history”? Lora titled her thread “Professing History”? What’s that mean, though? I’ll grant that whatever it is, it is surely not for the faint of heart.

    “I do know this: he hires history profs for a four-year undergrad institution that does not offer a PhD in history. So he is a ‘consumer’ of history PhDs, and I guess he was lodging a complaint with the product vendors. And it was very much a complaint. He told a panel and a whole room full of distinguished historians (present company excluded!) that they aren’t doing their jobs right and they aren’t producing the kind of scholars that his institution needs.”

    This – perhaps – is the problem exactly, that we are talking about products and vendors. But I like the idea of the person who hurled this pointed, irreverent, audacious question, this accusation, being a consumer. So let’s look at it from his perspective. And if we do, what we might see is that the problem isn’t that the vendors are churning out defective product, it’s that they’ve done too good a job of meeting their own ever-rising standards. Or to put it another way: we’re getting too many academics, too many professors – and too few historians.

  19. L.D.,
    I would agree with you that extended tenure is not the sole cause, but I think it is one factor to consider (for better or worse). In my field of education, just a few years ago there was talk that there would be a massive shortfall of teachers across the nation as the baby boomers retire. But the “Great Recession” has taken care of that as more teachers stick around to make up the difference in lost retirement savings or state budget cuts to their defined benefit plans. In addition, there is no guarantee that a university would replace a retiring full tenure professor with another full tenure professor rather than the cheaper adjuncts. But oh, what a difference a few years make. If you look at this article from the AHA in 2007 you would think that new history Ph.D.s have it made in the shade.


  20. I’m unsympathetic with the administrator in question as presented here but I do think it’s worth considering the ways that trends in the profession have an impact on the quality of work that historians at different universities can do. I’ve been ABD for a while in history at a university that is currently facing major funding shortages. Due to recent cost-saving policy changes, newer graduate students will have less time until degree completion than I’ve had. At the same time, graduate student teaching loads are going up because the university has raised enrollment limits, and funding sources other than teaching have dried up severely, and this will fall disproportionately on newer students. Maximum class sizes have been increased twice during my time here. Newer students will likely have less funding by the time they complete their dissertations than those of us who are currently finishing and they will have had a higher non-dissertation workload while in the department.

    Several colleagues and I have talked and we all agree that our department has prepared us to think expansively, in that we have room to follow interests across multiple fields, to engage theoretical questions and methods as the work takes us. This means we have a lot of intellectual freedom formally. I am certainly grateful for this. At the same time shrinking completion times coupled with rising workloads mean that graduate students here have less time to exercise this freedom, which means they will have a harder time producing high quality scholarship.

    My department has been loathe to discuss any of this. Some faculty have responded to questions about how the department might devote resources to improving how graduates fare on the job market as further encroachment of professionalism upon intellectual integrity. For those of us struggling to find jobs, not finding academic work will of course limit our ability to be professional intellectuals with integrity. The department has also been hesitant to discuss graduate student workload. The department is committed to high quality undergraduate education, as it should be, but as presently structured in my department high quality undergraduate education comes at the partial expense of graduate students’ careers. This is because we do much of the teaching but with minimal opportunity to make the teaching useful to our dissertations or resumés. To use the language of one of the comments above, my department is both a producer of PhDs in history and a consumer of graduate students who teach classes. The rate of consumption is rising in ways that will exert a downward pressure on the quality of applicants coming out of my program. To be clear, I have no doubt that the newer graduate students are intelligent, hard working early-career scholars but they will very likely have to work harder and longer to produce similar quality writing as others of us. I don’t know if these are the sorts of things that the administrator in question had in mind, but they are structural dynamics at work in our industry which press upon on the quality of scholarship.

  21. As a writer of narrative histories (“Sacco and Vanzetti,” “Freedom Summer”) I suggest the author of this blog learn another reason why his profession is in danger — an inability to cut to the chase. There was an important question here but it was drowned by endless asides, personal comments, and the writer’s infuriating refusal to get to the point. “I will not summarize the arguments presented by the panelists,” he writes. Why not? This blog is about ideas — was the mood of the room more important than that? Sorry, but most of us just don’t have the time for this kind of rambling anymore.

  22. LD was an exceptionally perceptive commenter on this blog long before she joined as a blogger. It is Bruce Watson who misses the point of this post, not LD. Mood imminently contributes to ideas and in the case of this event, she provided links where you might find out what the panelists’ arguments were.

  23. Although I saw it mentioned once — by Tim, I think, and only in the context of reassuring LD — I think you have to look more carefully at the “they are History” idea. This is part of the problem, and I really don’t think the solution is going to come from inside the box.

  24. Dan, that’s an intriguing comment, and something of a cliffhanger. I’d be glad if you would elaborate on the ways that the “they are History” idea (hierarchy? deference to experts?) is problematic.

  25. I’ve just finished the 3rd search my department has conducted in 3 different fields (none of them American History, I should add) over the past 6 years, in a small department in a small state university. My conclusion: the questioner at this session was totally full of it (and, I would guess, full of himself as well). Even in our most recent search (East Asian), which was much more of a seller’s market than most fields in history (where candidates were dropping out before we could interview them because they had received other offers), we had a remarkable selection of folks. Were all of them ready right this instant for every single task of an academic historian at an underfunded public institution? Of course not; how could they be? It takes years of on-the-job experience to learn to juggle 63 tasks that hit you every day. And it’s the job of a department to mentor them up to that speed. Were they outstandingly smart people doing first-rate historical work in their dissertations? Yes. The session commentator needs to focus on the real problems of the profession at hand, not the imaginary ones he’s conjuring up.

  26. Paul, thanks for the helpful and encouraging perspective. (Also, thanks for linking to the post.)

    I didn’t want to be snarky about it, but this guy was coming from a small regional state college in flyover country. While I would expect that a tenure-track job anywhere would attract a superfluity of top-tier applicants, perhaps that’s not the case.

    I just have to wonder if he was there at the AHA to interview anybody. “Be grateful that I’m even talking to you” isn’t a very good way to sell a department as a great place to work. Even in an awful job market, that preview of “collegiality” would be a pretty tough sell to an applicant, whether or not s/he had other choices.

  27. On the subject of small regional colleges that may not be attractive to job applicants…

    The CHE ran a piece last summer by a job candidate who interviewed at one such place and was insufferably snarky about how she could never imagine living or working in such a backwater among such uninteresting people.

    In response, I wrote a post on my (now deceased) blog and said that I’d take a job like that in a heartbeat (and I would). That post got a lot of positive feedback, mostly from young academics and junior scholars who are working at such institutions and who truly enjoy their lives and have good relationships with their colleagues.

    The general consensus among my commenters seemed to be that snobbery can be a pre-emptive strike against the fear of not being able to fit, to be a good colleague, to be accepted.

    So maybe the hiring chair’s “We’re too good for this applicant pool” is a kind of pre-emptive strike against his own anxieties about whether his department will be seen as a good fit by applicants. Maybe a little bit of “the fox and the grapes” going on here. And maybe that kind of seemingly disproportionate snobbery is as common as dirt in academe — but it was a revelation to me. O brave new world…

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