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.

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