Tag Archives: social history

History: A Troubled Field Likely to Get Worse

Here’s a sign of the times: the head of the American Historical Association says departments should integrate communication, collaboration, and three other “basic skills” into their programs. In other words. Jobs in history are dwindling, so graduate students in the field had better prepare some backup plans.

I heard the same thing in literary studies several years ago when the job market tanked after the financial crisis.  Back then, though, graduate students resented the advice.  They went into the programs because they wanted an academic job.  They sat in undergraduate classes, looked up at the professor at the podium, and thought, “I want to do that.” They idealized the life of the mind, imagined themselves writing books and essays, delivering lectures to colleagues at conferences, and spending summers in archives in Paris and Bologna and Mexico City.  To be told that they should consider something else, a curator or archivist or writer for a not-for-profit strikes most of them as a letdown.

It’s not that they regard those other jobs as unimportant.  It’s just that they don’t follow the academic schedule.  You must show up five days a week and log regular hours.  You can’t travel during the summer.  You can’t stay home on non-teaching days and read books.

You don’t set your own agenda, either.  You must report to a boss.   All an academic must do is produce respectable publications and teach moderately well, and then you’ve got security and freedom.

If you work in an office, moreover, you don’t have students looking to you for guidance and wisdom and grades.   However, much humanities professors feel disrespected by the larger culture and the administration, each semester they have a group of youths, more or less, under their control.

Yes, there is a still a romance that attaches to the academic life.  It’s nice work, if you can get it.  I enter my office each day and feel wholly grateful to have my job at Emory–and lucky, too.  I can’t tell graduate students in their 4th and 5th year to think about going somewhere else.  I’d be embarrassed to do so.

If the professional associations wish to help graduate students, alternative careers are not the first solution.  Instead, they must produce the condition that will create more jobs in the annual listings, namely, undergraduate demand.  The reason administrators don’t approve more lines for humanities departments is that enrollments don’t warrant it.  When the numbers go down, so do jobs.  If a dean sees that history courses are only half-filled, requests for new lines are met with a chuckle.  But if he has lots of undergraduates on his hands who can’t get into the courses they want, then new lines will follow.

This requires, however, a concerted effort on the part of history professors to make their courses more appealing to a broader range of undergraduates.  Intersectionality won’t do it, nor will courses on the various crimes and sins of the past, the racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, and imperialism of the Western nations.  Some students will enjoy listening to history professors recount the exploitations Western nations have wrought upon people of color.  Some students will like hearing American chided for failing its ideals.  But not enough of them to sustain the fields.  Most students who, in high school, liked reading about Civil War battles and got a kick out of tales of European royalty won’t be drawn to social history, that is, representations of people “at the bottom.” It’s a downer to them, with too much resentment mixed in with the learning.

This is the truth that so many tenured humanities professors don’t wish to admit.  American students aren’t interested in what they have to say.  The professors may attribute that reaction to careerism, complacency, “whiteness,” and ideology, but the fact remains that the undergraduates are voting with their feet.  The undergraduates are the ones on whom the health of the discipline, including the job market, rests.  Until the humanities start asking themselves seriously how they can rebuild enrollments at the low end, the situation of too many PhDs for too few opening is only going to get worse.