Friday, October 28, 2011

Blog XCVI (96): The Plan B Debate

The president of the American Historical Association, Anthony T. Grafton, and the executive director of the organization, Jim Grossman, published an article in the October 2011 issue of the AHA newsletter, Perspectives on History that has generated a lot of discussion. Before providing my views, I will try to hit the main highlights and have provided links to all the essays so individuals can read them in full, if they wish.

The article in question is entitled: “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History." It was the feature of the front page of Perspectives. Grafton and Grossman have made an effort to address one of the biggest issues facing the history profession—the vast underemployment or unemployment of history Ph.D.s. In an interview after its publication, Grossman explained, “We're trying to say, 'Wake up. Times have changed. There are more opportunities and that's a good thing.’” He continued, "This is not about the negativity of wringing our hands and saying that there are no more jobs."

In short, the two are tired of non-academic careers for the history Ph.D. being seen as a lesser alternative to a tenure track position. The core of their argument is:

If we tell new students that a history PhD opens many doors, we need to broaden the curriculum to ensure that we're telling the truth. If the policy arena offers opportunities, and we think it does, then interested students need some space (and encouragement) to take courses in statistics, economics, or public policy. Accounting, acting, graphic design, advanced language training: students thinking at once creatively and pragmatically have all sorts of options at our research universities. And of course there's the whole exploding realm of digital history and humanities, and the range of skills required to practice them.
They add a bit later:

Instead of cutting down the dissertation, departments need to find ways of keeping dissertation writers attuned to the full range of opportunities that their work opens. Why not incorporate preparation for the future into the later years of doctoral training? This might be the time for an additional course or two, adventures into new realms of knowledge that build skills for diverse careers. That such diversification offers an antidote to melancholy and writer's block is merely a bonus, even more so if these explorations can also add texture or new insights to a dissertation. Departments might also consider workshops that explore the world of work, bring in speakers from government and other areas where many historians find jobs, and mobilize their networks of contacts as advisers for their students. Internships could provide even deeper experience, although care would have to be taken to integrate them into dissertation writing calendars.
A lot of discussion, some good, some not has followed. The essay was the subject of a news story in Inside Higher Ed, and it was reprinted in The Chronicle of Higher Education. On the AHA website, Margaret E. DeLacy, made the astute observation that the proof is in actions not words:

If the AHA wants history graduates to feel good about moving into other livelihoods and to go on using the skills they honed in graduate school, it should help them continue to think about history after they have done so. As a long-time member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars ( and editor of H-Scholar, I have found the AHA to be much less supportive than other learned organizations such as the MLA and the ACLS. For example, the AHA used to have a prize for independent scholars, the Feis award, but it was pulled and re-defined as an award for public history. "Unequivocal support" means actual support, not just rhetoric.
In response, Dan Allosso posted the essay “No More Plan B”—Apocalypse or Opportunity?” on The Historical Society blog. His response was more philosophical than practical. Robin Maitzen responded on her blog. In “More Ph.D. Puzzlement.” She stated that the purpose of a history Ph.D. program is to train people to become historians. The students enrolling in those programs want to be historians. “In the 20+ years I have now been involved in graduate education, the strongest trend I’ve seen is towards academic ‘professionalization,’ with workshops on everything from conference proposals to fellowship applications to academic job interviews, and ever-rising pressure to publish, attend conferences, and participate in professional groups and activities.” If they wanted something else, they would be taking courses in another field. She also made an astute point. “When I read the AHA statement, I felt, no doubt cynically, that there is an elided step in the logic, a step where they say ‘we want to keep Ph.D. enrolments up.’"

Michael Ruse, who directs the program in history and philosophy of science at Florida State University, wrote in his blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education that historians need to start rethinking the requirements for the Ph.D. degree. He said a dissertation should no longer be an unpublished book. “A massive, traditional, history-style dissertation is the last thing they need. Get them used to writing shorter pieces that are going to be criticized and revised again and again."

Okay, that is the debate. What is my response to all of this? Well, to their credit, I think Grafton and Grossman have addressed the most important issue affecting the history profession today. That is an important start, and to be honest it is an issue that the leadership of the profession (AHA officers and the faculty at “leading” departments) have basically ignored. I hope they will build on what they have started. There is a lot more that can be done. The Grafton/Grossman article was short on specifics. It read a lot like: “buy low, sell high.” We need more and I would like to see the AHA take concrete steps in helping its newer members prepare for a careers doing something other than teaching in a history department.

That is easy to say, but much more difficult to do mainly because most of the leadership of the profession has had little experience using their degrees in anything other than an academic setting. They have gone from grad school to the faculty. Very few have had any other type of career.

So, what can the AHA do? I have a few ideas. First, the AHA needs to make efforts to broaden its leadership. The simple fact is that more people study the past professionally than those that reside in history departments. Sometimes they are economic or business historians with appointments in a department of economics or a college of business administration; others are anthropologists or archeologists. Prior to 1945 the AHA had several presidents who came from other closely related fields like political science, library science, archeology. Some like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt did not even have Ph.D.s. Since the end of World War II, the AHA has been dominated by Ph.D.s in history departments. It is time for the AHA to begin making efforts to bring others into the organization, such as anthropologists, public historians, archeologists, documentary filmmakers, archivists, historical editors, museum curators, K-12 school teachers and professional writers.

The AHA should reach out to these other fields in two ways. First, it should create a new division for school teachers, and another for other fields. This division can offer important advice to AHA members that want to go into this field of teaching on the various requirements for getting teaching jobs in the various states. It can also offer summer workshops that help keep school teachers well versed in history. Second, the organization should add a non-historian to the rotation for presidency of the AHA.

I foresee several objections to these suggestions. One is that although the individuals in these other fields might use or contribute to history, they do not alter or shape in fundamental fashion our understanding of history the way academically trained historians do. Another and far more significant reservation is that bureaucratic reform does nothing to alter the job market and help reduce the surplus of unemployed historians.

Effective rebuttal to both of these criticisms is easy to make. The first point is simply not true. Individuals working in other fields often have a much bigger impact on history than the historian in a history department. Consider the audience of a documentary filmmaker or the number of people that museums enjoy. These are easily in the millions. Academic books never even get close to having that same readership. The editors working on The Papers of Thomas Jefferson are going to have a far more enduring impact on historical understanding than the author of a monograph no matter how insightful or innovative. To the second point about these proposals doing little to the job market, my response is short: you are absolutely correct—in the short term. The long-term is a different matter. Broadening the leadership of the AHA, the flagship organization in the history business, is the first step in broadening the organization’s knowledge of other professional career paths where the history Ph.D. can find gainful employment and make a contribution to our understanding of the past.

My second proposal is that the AHA run a summer workshop for newly minted history Ph.D.s designed to help them find alternative careers. To be effective, this type of program would be a multi-week, residential program that combines a mini-MBA course with some training in writing résumés and preparing for interviews. This summer institute should also help with networking and bring in corporate and not-for-profit recruiters to meet with the participants. History Ph.D.s are not normally what head-hunters are looking for but they often have very useful skills: language, writing, research, analysis that can used productively in any number of fields.

The objections to this type of program are understandable. Individuals went to graduate school because they wanted an academic career, not one in business. The AHA is also a scholarly organization, and job placement is outside of its mission. These issues represent some of the internal resistance to alternative careers that Grafton and Grossman were fighting. Responding to these objections is easy. For most people currently in graduate programs right now, a meaningful academic career is not realistic. The jobs simply do not exist. The statistics make that clear. The real option is between a non-academic career (or perhaps it is better describe as an alternative career) or none at all. Second, only the AHA is in a position to create such a program. Most colleges and universities have placement offices, which bring in recruiters, but those individuals are usually looking for a specific type of person and it is not a history Ph.D. These placement offices are not really going to do much to help the newly-minted Ph.D. There is an ethical impulse to helping other less fortunate Ph.D.s, but it is also in the institutional interest of those in the profession. As long as you have a mass of unemployed or underemployed individuals, they act as a weight keeping salaries down.

A third idea is that the AHA should offer steep discounts to organizations other than history departments wanting to put job announcements in Perspectives. These organizations would be institutions like archeology departments, public history firms, state agencies that do historic preservation, etc. By steep discount, I mean $1 for a certain word length, and $2 for a larger size. The idea behind this suggestion is that the AHA has to make itself an asset for organizations other than history departments, if it is truly going to be an inclusive to all career types studying the past, and so far, other professions have done pretty well without much interface with the AHA. As an institution, the Association needs to make it clear to other professions that it is a useful asset to them.

An obvious complaint is that this proposal discriminates against AHA member institutions. History departments have to pay more than other organizations because they are history departments. While this is true, the idea of increasing the job options that is put before individual AHA members is of greater importance to the profession as a whole and those history departments. The fact is, it looks bad for a history department to produced unemployed Ph.D.s. So, it is in a department’s interest to increase the employment opportunities for their graduates. Also, the AHA could make this a loss leader; offer low cost ads to non-history departments for a year or two and then charge them the regular cost.

Finally, leading departments need to begin…well…taking the lead in expanding or changing the curriculum. For the most part, I would suspect the best way to do this is to create “public history” or the-Ph.D.-as-“something”-programs; for example, journalists. I would bet that there will be a lot of resistance in these departments. (See Blog XLVI for a longer discussion on public history.) The history faculty at prestigious schools—I know that phrase is vague, so visit Blog LXXIX for a specific list—probably expect that their reputations will always trump the numbers. (“We’re Princeton, damn it! Our students are better and will always be able to get jobs.”) The problem is the numbers are the numbers and there is no getting around that fact. What will happen if more than one Princeton Ph.D. applies for the same job? (I was on a search committee and this very thing happened.) If the profession is going to change its attitude about non-academic employment, then schools like Princeton need to take the lead. It really is not that radical an attitude shift; there are plenty of non-academic jobs for economics Ph.D.s and those in political science. (I don’t mean to pick on Princeton—as a good USC Trojan I was using Stanford in the early drafts of this essay—but Grafton is from Princeton, and I figured it was fair to hold his school up for close examination.)

Okay, these are my ideas. I am offering them in an honest effort to follow up on the Grafton/Grossman article. If you have better suggestions on how to deal with the vast surplus of Ph.D.s I would love to hear them, and I suspect so would the AHA.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blog XCV (95): Another View of the AHA

Jason Knoll, teaches social studies at Verona Area High School in Verona, Wisconsin.  I met him earlier this year when he asked me to speak to some of his students attending the American Historical Association meeting in Boston.  No problem,  A month later Knoll published "A High School Teacher at the Annual Meeting" in the February 2010 issue of Perspectives on History.  I stumbled upon because he mentioned me in the article, but it is more interesting because of his take on the AHA annual meeting.  I reproduce it for your information:  
I’ve been a member of the AHA since my years as an undergraduate student, but I never went to an annual meeting until this year. What made my first trip to this massive gathering of historians even more memorable was the fact that I brought five of my AP European History students with me. The trip was an overall success: we sat in on five sessions, saw some of Boston, and walked away with a handful of books.  I picked my students by holding an essay contest in my AP European History class. I estimated the cost of airfare and the hotel and had them talk to their parents before writing the essay. Once their parents gave their approval, 17 students wrote an essay arguing why I should take them with me. The only information that I gave them was the theme of the meeting and the web address of the AHA. I did not give them my rubric beforehand so that they would not merely write to the rubric. I scored them on three criteria—their passion for history, what interest they have for the theme, and why they would benefit from the trip. The five best essays were written by young women.

Once I gained approval from my school board, I had to determine which sessions we would attend. I had two objectives—they had to fit into our curriculum and they had to hold the interest of high school students for two hours (after all, what we as historians might find interesting may not necessarily be so for others). I narrowed the list of sessions to around 15, told them which ones I thought would be most beneficial to them, and then let them as a group decide on the specific choices.

Since my students’ typical view of a historian was that of professor, we attended the session on Thursday about the various other careers in history—archivist, preservationist, curator, instructor or historian for the military, and documentary editor. They walked away with a newfound interest in what they could do with a degree in history.

The highlight of our trip came on Friday morning when we attended the session about Carlos Eire’s latest work, A Very Brief History of Eternity. My students and I all read and discussed the book so that we could attend the session, understand the panelists, and even perhaps ask questions. Prior to our departure for Boston, I e-mailed Professor Eire about our plan and asked if he would do us the honor of having lunch with us after the session. Much to my surprise, he replied that he would be delighted to do so. My students were able to follow along with the first two panelists’ comments, although they (and I) struggled with the third panelist’s arguments dealing with space and time (I think). We lunched at Au Bon Pain (since we don’t have those here in Wisconsin), and proceeded to have a very pleasant conversation with Professor Eire. He was extremely personable and answered all of my students’ questions with humility and understanding.

We spent Friday afternoon walking the Freedom Trail and then returned to our hotel to get ready for the receptions. We first attended the reception hosted by the National History Center. It was fairly obvious that we were not the usual attendees for the annual meeting, but the historians at the reception were actually quite welcoming to my students. Two people in particular (that I saw, although there could have been others) were very interested in what my students thought about the meeting—James Banner of the NHC and Marian Barber (Univ. of Texas). Since all of my students were young women, I thought it would also be appropriate to attend the reception hosted by the Coordinating Council for Women in History. Sandra Dawson (NIU), the executive director, took some time to speak to my students about the role of the Council and the two co-sponsors, the Peace History Society and the Committee on LGBTQ History. We ended the night by moving to the reception hosted by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. One of the panelists from the session on careers in history, Nick Sarantakes (Naval War College), spent a considerable amount of time talking to my students about majoring in history and the uses of a history degree. He even gave them his card and told them that if they ever had any questions about history to e-mail him; this had a tremendous impact on my students.

Saturday was our busiest day, with three sessions and the screening of the film, The Conspirator. Our first session was about the public uses of history and the global war on terror. It was interesting to hear the various arguments made by the panelists. More importantly, however, I felt it was important for my students to hear the calls for historians to be more involved in public discourse and to understand how policymakers and government officials have misused history. The midday session covered the various issues and topics in teaching genocide. As a teacher, I found it useful, but again, I thought it was a good opportunity for my students to learn about the issues that teachers deal with when teaching. Finally, we attended the lecture on military history by Gerhard Weinberg about myths of the Second World War. Although the students were a bit exhausted mentally, they were still enthused about listening to one of the world’s eminent historians. We parted ways after the lecture, with the students going to the film screening, while I went to the reception hosted by the Conference Group for Central European History. The students thoroughly enjoyed the film. Additionally, at one point during the night they rode in the elevator with Florencia Mallon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison). She was extremely pleasant towards them and took an interest in their experiences at the meeting. My time at the reception proved to be a great time for networking, although as a high school teacher I felt a bit out of place. I ended up, however, having pleasant conversations with Francis Raška (Charles University, Czech Republic), Eric Weitz (Univ. of Minnesota), and Marion Berghahn (Berghahn Books).

On Sunday, we decided to skip the sessions and walk through the exhibit hall one last time. The vendors were nice to us, although I was surprised at how expensive some of the books were. I was, however, able to pick up some exam copies of books for a new course, The History of American Foreign Policy, as well as my AP European History class. Afterwards, we took a trip out to Harvard and rubbed the foot of John Harvard. I wanted to see the history department, but unfortunately, the doors to Robinson Hall were locked.

I definitely count the trip as an overwhelming success. But I did leave with an uneasy sense of a disconnect between secondary school teachers and “professional” historians. Some people seemed to be surprised that I was at the AHA. Is it that shocking for a high school teacher to be at an annual meeting of historians? Such perceptions will perhaps disappear if the AHA can do more to promote high school teachers as historians and encourage their participation in the annual meeting. Of course, this cannot be accomplished by the AHA alone. Colleges, universities, and even secondary school teachers themselves have to play significant and important—and collaborative—roles in such a movement.

However, a sign that such desirable changes are possible lies perhaps the fact that many historians treated my students and me with kindness and respect during our stay in Boston. I specially thank them. I plan on attending the annual meeting next year and hope to rekindle some of the conversations I began this year.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Administrative Note 16

This post is to apologize for the long absence from the blog.  I took a family vacation and have been on several research trips--I am actually on the road at the moment.  I also in the last stages of turning in the manuscript for what will become my fifth book.  Several new postings will follow this Fall, including a new entry in the "History Ph.D. as..." and some ideas on how the profession can deal with the surplus of Ph.D.s.