The 125th annual meeting of the American Historical Association started yesterday, January 6, 2011. The next couple of blog entries will focus on the AHA conference, it strengths and weaknesses.
The conference is being held at the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston. The AHA seems to like cold, chilly places with San Diego being a notable exception. While the weather is okay considering the season, the location is a good one. The Convention center is connected to a number of hotels and offers a number of decent eateries. There are also good places within walking distance where you can get a real meal, if you want.
My AHA started with arrival at the hotel and a quick valet of auto and the checking of my bags. I taught in the morning at the NWC and arrived worried about making the start of my session. As it was I was the first person to walk in the room. Our session started on time. The session was recorded by the AHA but C-Span was not there. We had 73 people in the room, which was the best turnout I have had in the three times I have been on the AHA conference program.
Robert Kane of Air University began his talk by discussing his work as a unit historian for the U.S. Air Force. He was the only person in our session to use power point in his presentation. The military is civilianizing its historian program. There are 220 of these positions in the Air Force. What do they do? They research and write the annual histories of the units to which they are assigned—think of this as a year end report. They also do oral histories with unit commanders, and collect and maintain unit documents. The jobs are at air bases around the country and the pay ranges from $38,000-$100,000. There is a cost of living adjustment as well (if a job in South Dakota pays $50,000, it will pay much more in Washington, D.C. where the cost of living is more). The job does not require specialization in military history—all fields are welcome and if you do not have a Ph.D., the service will pay for you to obtain one.
Kevin Allen from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation then spoke. He might be considered a public historian, but he specifically works in historic preservation. His job is to preserve historical buildings, which are abundant in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “These buildings are the primary documents,” he remarked. Historic preservation is a bit fuzzy as a field. It does not have a specific career track. It requires skills from a number of different fields including history, architecture, and the law to name just a few. It is a growing field.
The next speaker was Steven Luckert, a curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “If you are a historian, it’s a great place to be,” he remarked. As a curator he reaches a huge audience; 2 million people visit the museum a year. Like many museums, the Holocaust Memorial has an archive, which allows him to do historical research in primary sources. Museums sponsor speaker series and conferences, which leads to “fruitful discussions” with professional colleagues. Most curators are historians. “It’s an extremely creative process,” he said. He also called it the “most rewarding job I’ve every had.”
I spoke next. My presentation was sweet and sour—actually the sour part came first. I said the problems historians faced was one of simple economics. Supply vastly exceeded demand with supply being people with a history Ph.D. and demand being jobs available for them. I cited statistics from an article in December 16, 2010 issue of The Economist. Overproduction of Ph.D.s was not limited to history. American universities produced 100,000 Ph.D.s in the last five years and there were only 16,000 jobs. That is to say there are jobs for only 16 percent of these newly minted scholars. The days of thinking that having a good degree from a good school would be enough to get you a job are over. There are probably less than five schools in the country that can take that attitude, and I pointed out that there are more than five schools in the Ivy League. (That got a few laughs). I created this blog to address these issue and many others , and made references to many of the on this blog about other careers not being discussed in this session. I then discussed working in the military school system, and recommended it highly.
Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, the University Archivist at Harvard University spoke next. She said being archivists are in the history business, they build history and they, not historians, are the ones that first find new documents. Being an archivist is fuzzy it is part library science and party history and people doing that work have backgrounds in both. For a long time, she was the only historian working among archivists. “It’s the history part of the job that keeps me going,” she explained. Her job now is primarily administrative and managerial as she has 23 people working for her. Public and private archives also work differently as they have different missions and purposes. Private archives are far more scholarly in nature, while public archives often have a mission of public accountability for state, local, and federal governments.
C. James Taylor of the Papers of John Adams project at the Massachusetts Historical Society spoke last. He said the job market situation today was worse than it had been when he finished his Ph.D. in the early 1970s. He stumbled into historical editing on accident. “I have never looked back.” He also noted that the history Ph.D. was the perfect type of degree and most projects require that credential. “You have been prepared for this kind of work.” Historical editing is still fairly new. The earliest projects date back to the 1940s, but most of the growth in the field started in the 1960s. Taylor said there were pluses and minuses to this type of work. One the positive side, the salaries are competitive and in some cases better than what faculty make; competition for these jobs is “keen” but nowhere near as savage as the jobs for a tenure track appointment. Finally, a published volume of historical papers will have a much longer shelf life than any academic monograph. “They go on to have a lasting impact.” The negatives to the job include having to keep regular office hours; work on a 12 month basis with no summer vacations; no tenure; and most of the projects operate on soft money, which is to say grants from private foundations, and state and federal governments. As a result, there is a constant need to show results. Taylor also said that academic historians also are condescending to historical editing staffs even if they are unemployed. Good research and writings skills are a must and a strong candidate needs to show that they can work as part of a team.
A healthy question and answer session followed. During this discussion, a number of the following job bank web sites were recommended for people looking for jobs in these non-traditional fields:
American Association of Museums Job Headquarters Section
PreserveNet Job Board
PreservationDirectory.com Facebook Page
The Association of Documentary Editing Job Listings
The Society of American Archivisits Online Career Center
USAJobs.gov (federal government)
The Special Libraries Association Career Center
Association of Research Libraries Career Resources
The rest of the first day as the typical AHA. I ran into a few old friends and colleagues. I also spent some time at the book display talking to the editor at Kansas about my next book.
Overall, the leadership of the AHA still seems reluctant to address major problems facing the profession. The first conference in Boston proper was 1912 (there were two previous conferences in Cambridge) and the president of the AHA that year was Theodore Roosevelt. (You might have heard of him). His speech addressed discussed the marginalization of history in American society. He focused on the quality of writing of historical studies, which was a major factor in scholars not having an audience. He wanted scholars to realize that history is literature. His speech is still highly, highly relevant, because the situation has only gotten worse in the intervening 99 years. The other major issue facing the history business—as I have already stated—is the vast surplus of historians with a Ph.D. Tonight the president of the AHA, Barbara D. Metcalf of the University of California, Davis, emerita will be giving a talk entitled: “Islam and Power in Colonial India: The Making and Unmaking of a Muslim Prince(ss).” That talk is about as relevant to me as it is to you.