Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blog LXXII (72): Reflections on the AHA

I had a good AHA conference. Only the second time that has happened. One of the main reasons is because I stayed away from the job center where all the interviews were taking place.

The good people at AHA central have spent some time collecting links to a number of blogs that discussed the 125th annual meeting in Boston. I spent an hour reading them and learned a lot. Most confirmed my view that the more you avoid the interviews the better. A few blogs were extremely informative, many were a waste of time. Several mentioned my session, which makes me feel we did something useful, but then a lot of the points we were trying to make do not seem to have gotten understood, which gives you pause. All four of my previous postings for this blog are listed. That development is gratifying. Someone seems to paying attention to what gets discussed on this blog.

I have been thinking long and hard about the problems facing the history profession. The biggest issue in my mind is the job market. All other issues seem fairly insignificant in comparison. Bluntly put: supply exceeds demand—it has for over a decade—and the supply seems to be increasing just as the demand is shrinking. This issue will get better before it gets worse. There are many history Ph.D.s already in the pipeline who will be finishing their degrees in the next year or two and problems in the national economy, which are the systemic cause for the decline in jobs, are not going to get fixed anytime soon.

What is a historian to do? Officials of the AHA does not seem to have a ready response. To be fair it is not a problem of their making, but the response of the leadership of the profession to this crisis seems to be lame. (I will define the “leadership of the profession” to be the elected officers of the AHA and the faculty at the leading history departments—I will leave that one a little vague on purpose.)

Many of the faculty at leading institutions actually seem to be more of the problem than the solution. It was well clear by the mid-1990s that history departments across the country had admitted too many students in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The job market was not particularly good back then—I know I was looking for a job at the time—but they continued to admit students.

Why? Why would departments do that? The short answer: it was—and still is—in the short term institutional interests of departments to have strong graduate programs even if their were no jobs for those students once they graduated. Having grad students serve as teaching assistants or as instructors was how departments managed to honor the low teaching loads they offered to their faculty and yet how they managed to meet their undergraduate teaching obligations. The surplus and the use of adjuncts also allows departmental faculty to enjoy low teaching loads. I also suspect the history faculty at prestige schools expected that their reputation would trump the numbers. (“We’re Stanford, damn it! Our students are better and will always be able to get jobs.”)

The comments of Todd A. Diacon, deputy chancellor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, have been weighing on me. Diacon, a distinguished historian in his own right, pointed out that the number of history departments with Ph.D. programs in the country is not sustainable because faculty in these programs often carry light teaching loads, with the extra classes transferred to graduate students and adjuncts.

The leadership of the AHA seems to think the organization is fairly weak and has little power beyond shinning a light on certain problems or coming up with best practice guidelines. Some of the other bloggers have made a good point that developing guidelines has little impact and simply saying things are bad is not all that helpful.

I agree, and have been thinking up a series of ideas on how to solve these problems. I have several ideas in mind and I am basically trying to figure out ways both to decrease the supply and increase the demand for the history Ph.D. I am currently thinking through the positives and negatives in each proposal and trying to think through the objections to each idea in order to make them stronger. I am going to run them by a few friends before I announce them to the rest of the world. I think they will work, but I want to be realistic; if they do work, it is still going to take time (and by “time” I mean several years) for them to kick in and have their full impact. Finally, if you do not like what I have to propose, I hope you will see these ideas as a constructive effort to offer some type of solution to problems facing the profession. If you disagree, I hope you will offer positive contributions to solve a serious problem facing the history business.

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