Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blog LXX (70): The AHA is Here: Day 3

My apologies for the delay in posting this blog. Most of it was written on January 8, but I was not able to get it posted in a timely fashion.

Still snowing. Boston is covered in a light blanket of white. Started the morning with a work out in the fitness center of the hotel. It was full of historians.

Turned on the television and discovered HistoriansTV. Basically it is a cable network channel about the conference and it is broadcast to everyone staying in the conference hotels. I learned that there are a 150 job interviews taking place. That is not that many particularly when you consider information from the AHA study that I mentioned yesterday. There were 569 jobs advertised in the AHA newsletter this year. The fewest number of listings in the last 10 years. Jobs listings in the newsletter dropped 29.4 percent in 2009-2010 and 23.8 in 2008-2009.

It gets worse. In 2009, history departments awarded 989 degrees, a nine-year high. The year before it was 969. Now here is where it goes from bad to worse: in response to budge shortfalls departments are instituting a number of cost cutting measures: they are eliminating courses, increasing class sizes, and using even more part-timers instructors. Put another way: supply is increasing at the same time that demand is decreasing.

And it won’t get better any time soon. According to the report, "the number of faculty [in history departments] approaching retirement age in the next 10 years is reaching the lowest level in 30 years." Put another way: "even if there were no hiring freezes to factor into the equation, it is clear that over the next 10 to 15 years the discipline will not be generating as many jobs from retiring faculty as it has in the recent past."

The report did not offer an actions that departments, the AHA as an organization, or individual historians can take. It simply stated, "Most history doctoral students are being trained for an academic job market that is now beset by crises," the report says. "Departments should begin to carefully reflect on the type of training they are providing their students and the number of students they are admitting to their programs."

In a later interview, Robert B. Townsend, the primary author of this study, gave, he said he had no advice to offer to a new Ph.D. on the job market. He said these scholars should think about "how long it is reasonable to linger on in part-time and postdoc positions." The numbers suggest that after three years the odds of getting a job drop. "Typically, our advice is that after about three years, your odds of getting on to the tenure track go down significantly," he remarked. What we do not know is if attitudes about such historians will change in light of the exceptionally poor job market faced by those going on the market now.

Went to a conference on the academic job market. The participants were not offering much useful news and there were only 25 people in the room. The question and answer session was more useful. One member of the crowd was Todd A. Diacon, deputy chancellor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “We don’t wake up every day thinking, ‘How are we going to stick it to the humanities?’ ” he explained. “We have to face a very different reality.” Diacon stated that the “either/or” view of the world that pits academics against administrators is simplistic and misleading. Many administrators who are trying to measure productivity and maximize efficiency in higher education are trained scholars. “The enemy is us,” he said. Diacon added that there are too many universities with Ph.D. programs. These programs are extremely expensive due to the light teaching loads that they mandate and that he expects to see dozens shut down in the next decade, given the current economic environment. History just does not bring in the same money that the sciences do.

To me that sounds like market forces might solve the glut, but it does little for those currently on the job market.

One very frustrated grad student asked for specifics on where to find the non-traditional jobs that everyone was discussing. I stood up and made several comments. First, I told everyone about this blog and the listing of websites with jobs. Needless to say, after the conference, I was flooded with people wanting the address. Second, in response to Sarah Maza, the incoming vice president of the professional division’s request for ideas, I suggested that the AHA begin seriously making efforts to broaden its leadership. Prior to 1945, the organization had people serve as president who were political scientists, anthropologists, archeologists, and/or professional writers. Some like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt did not even have a Ph.D. The organization needs to bring in public historians, archivists, and others the way it once did. This is the first step in broadening the organization’s knowledge of other job out there in the history business. This idea went over fairly well.

Talked with a friend of mine from grad school. He is at a research university that is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. They were doing a search for a historian of Early Republic America. They had over 100 applicants. I asked how they narrowed down that list. He explained that about 60 were historians of Colonial America, but were applying for the job, thinking they could do this other period. He suspected they could, but they wanted someone who could do the Early Republic, and excluded all these colonial era specialists.


  1. Christopher ThompsonJanuary 12, 2011 at 8:01 AM

    Nicholas Evans Sarantakes is a distinguished historian and an occasional blogger. Having attended the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston and read the AHA’s study on the future of the profession, he has recently been reflecting at his blog, In the Service of Clio, on the imbalance between the supply of postgraduate historians with doctorates and the number of posts open to them in the United States of America. The prospects of this imbalance being corrected in the near future are not good because the number of faculty members reaching retirement age in the next decade and a half will be falling sharply. Robert Townsend, the principal author of this study, apparently felt unable to offer advice to those who had recently gained doctorates in history except to warn them that, after three years or so, the chances of getting a post with tenure diminished sharply.

    The AHA’s session on the academic job market was not, according to Sarantakes, too helpful. One high-ranking university official expected a sharp contraction in the number of universities offering Ph.D. programmes whilst Sarantakes himself argued for a broadening of the AHA’s professional scope to include archivists, public historian and others with knowledge of the wider job market and its possibilities for qualified historians.

    I am not sure that either approach is really helpful. Admittedly, the academic job market for historians does expand and contract with the state of the economy and this inevitably affects the number of posts open to those emerging with graduate qualifications. In the mid-1960s, for example, in the United Kingdom, the creation of new universities with history departments led to a significant number of posts being filled by people with thirty to forty-year careers ahead of them: the economic crisis that followed from 1967 onwards led to the process of growth coming to a halt and a large number of historians, some of them abler than those recently appointed, being unable to find jobs at all. This is a cycle that has occurred again and again in the 1970s and in the 1980s and, of course, once more with the economic crisis triggered in and after 2008. There must be hundreds if not several thousands of postgraduate historians whose career ambitions have been destroyed or frustrated. I happen to think that this is a human and an intellectual disaster.

    We really have to do better than thinking in terms of diminishing the opportunities for postgraduate study here or in the USA. If undergraduates can be taught via the web, why not postgraduates? An increasing body of primary sources are available on the internet and will become more readily available in the future. I can think of a range of early modern subjects on which doctorates could be written – e.g., on the early colonial history of Virginia or on early Stuart Parliaments – without requiring a postgraduate to step into the Bodleian Library or the British Library or the National Archives – and be properly supervised. It is not beyond the wit of universities and their teachers and administrators to devise virtual academies with seminars and conferences to be held online. Nor is it inconceivable that those excluded from careers as tenured historians might have their intellectual interest in their chosen historical fields similarly sustained. I think we should aim for innovative solutions rather than accepting defeat and failure.

  2. Point of clarification... that was ~150 searches working at the AHA. Of course each search interviewed multiple candidates. I'll have the final numbers on the AHA blog in the coming week.

  3. Thompson is correct. Opening up the leadership of the AHA will do little to change the job market situation in and of itself. It is, however, a first step in letting the AHA membership know that there are positions available in which they can practice history other than being a professor in a history department. Scholars who have gone straight from graduate school into the ranks of the faculty simply do not know about some other type of work that their Ph.D. students can do: historic preservation, public history, historic editing, and so forth. Few are directing their students in these directions; not out of malice, but ignorance. This idea was just a first step in trying to open up the organization and profession.