Friday, November 18, 2011

Blog CI (101): The Plan C Debate

The Grafton/Grossman vs. Lemisch debate was interesting, but not that instructive. Lemisch has a point that the AHA has not done enough, but his specific ideas are not feasible and vastly exceed the resources of the history profession. Grafton and Grossman have as a follow up to their Plan B article published another article in Perspectives on History entitled, "Plan C."  It is a clever title, but the main thrust of the article is to emphasize a second time the arguments they made in their “Plan B” article. The two certainly realize that the history business has some serious problems and they want to be constructive in finding solutions, like offering more sessions at the AHA annual conference on career management issues and using the AHA website to make the profession “less hierarchal.”

They also make it clear in this article that the AHA will not be taking the lead, which only underscores Lemisch’s complaints about the organization. They argue that solutions to the job crisis need to come from history departments that produce Ph.D.s. They advocated a program similar to the one I suggested in Blog XCVI, but they also make it clear that good projects like these must be the responsibility of individual institutions.

What are we to make of those positions? I understand their view and it is legitimate—the AHA is an umbrella organization and can hardly order the history department at Stanford (or at any other school) to do something—but they are arguing for their limitations. With that attitude, there is no doubt that those limits will sure enough be theirs and that of the entire organization. I also found much of the essay vague. What specifically do they want to see happen? Details are absent. Finally, I am a little disturbed with an important implication of this essay. They have basically written off those scholars that have already finished their Ph.D.s and graduated. They are talking about making changes to shape the future, but very little about helping some of the most vulnerable members of the AHA.

With those points made, there is still a lot that the Association can do even within the existing power structure of the history profession. My suggestions are listed below. Some of them are issues I have discussed before, but many are new:
1) Sponsor a Conference on What the AHA Can Do: Make this a weekend, non-academic conference. Invite roughly 30-40 historians (much more and it becomes counterproductive) who have been taking the lead on job market issues. Make the mission of this conference one of brainstorming and idea generation on concrete initiatives that the organization can take to solve the problem. Maybe the answer is very little, but some outside perspectives might also generate new ideas that no one in the leadership had considered.

2) Sponsor a Conference on What Departments Can Do: There is no anti-trust laws applying to departments talking to one another and trying to initiate similar programs that can move the profession in certain directions. This type of meeting will help a number of university officials across the country from having to reinvent the wheel over and over again Like the first proposal, kake this a weekend, non-academic conference. Invite roughly 20-30 historians from leading departments who can speak for their home institutions and are deeply involved with graduate student education. (Department chairs and directors of graduate education are probably the best type of people rather than distinguished, award-winning star of the department). Make the mission of this conference one of brainstorming and idea generation on concrete initiatives on what departments can do.

3) Subsidized Membership for Applied Historians: Grafton and Grossman made it clear they want to broaden the membership of the AHA as a way of expanding the career paths open to history Ph.D.s. The term “public history” is often used to describe these positions, but that is a misleading phrase and describes some very different activities that have little to do with the public sphere. I prefer the term “applied history.” The people that study the past other than academic historians include: archeologists, political scientists, librarians, archivists, journalists, documentary filmmakers, historical preservationists, professional writers, museum curators, and editors. There are a number of sub-divisions within those categories. Many of these people doing this type of work often hold a Ph.D. in history; many do not and do not need one. For example, a degree in architecture might be more useful for a historic preservationist than one in history. Many of these professions have their own professional associations that already attract the attention, time and money of people working in these fields. If the AHA wants to broaden its base, it needs to make membership in the American Historical Association attractive to these individuals and one way to do that is to make it very cheap for a several years until an awareness of the AHA and what it can do seeps into other fields.

4) Create Two New Divisions: The first should be for school teachers. This division can offer important advice to AHA members that want to go into this field of teaching on the requirements for getting teaching jobs that usually vary from state to state. It can also offer summer workshops that help keep school teachers well versed in history. The second should be for “applied history,” which is to say scholars in other academic fields that are often housed in different departments and colleges and usually require specialized skills (like fine art; legal; medical; and mathematical historians) and people that are doing history out in the public sphere. This division should develop programming that helps bridge the divide between history and other academic disciplines.

5) Discount Advertising: 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. At the moment, other professions have done pretty well without much interface with the AHA. It is quite easy for people to advertise on H-Net and not bother with the AHA newsletter. A discount for these institutions is a loss-leader for the organization. The AHA might lose money in the short run from this advertising, but by making more services available to members, it makes membership far more rewarding and useful and will maintain and even increase the numbers of people that join the AHA.

6) Add Other Fields to the AHA Presidency Rotation: The AHA had several presidents who came from other closely related fields like political scientists, library science, and 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. Broadening the leadership of the AHA, the flagship organization in the history business, is the first step in expanding 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.

7) Develop an AHA Alternative Career Speaker Series: Most AHA members have gone from grad school to professional employment as professors and often do not have good ideas or contacts in other fields that can help their students. Many historians have had to do a lot of trailblazing on their own that the rest of the profession does not appreciate. Why reinvent the wheel again? A speakers series that the AHA sponsors can make these experiences better known to the professorate ranks and will enhance the personal and professional reputation of these “applied” or “public” historians. It is a good way to get the conversation started that Grafton and Grossman want to see take place. These communities are not talking to one another and the AHA needs to take the lead in initiating these conversations.

8) Develop Conversion Programs: The AHA should invite a number of these “applied historians” to a series of small, weekend workshops or conferences designed to explain the skills that a new historian will need to find work in one of these fields. While a Ph.D. in history often bolsters the credentials of an applied historian, the degree often does not make one qualified to do this type of work. This was a point that a number of public historians made in Blog XLVI. Put another way, the degree is not a two way street, and the AHA needs to help their junior members find ways to use the assets the degree does bring.

So, how does a history Ph.D. trained to become a professor convert to working in another field? To answer that question some of the issues this type of program needs to address include: Will newly minted history Ph.D.s need another degree? A masters in library science is usually mandatory for most librarian positions; on the other hand, a historic preservationist might only require a certain number of courses in architecture. What other type of criteria are required? Clippings from magazines, newspapers, and websites are often crucial for people wanting to enter journalism. Articles and book reviews in academic journals are never really appropriate. Are internships important? In documentary filmmaking, this often the case. Where do you go to find these jobs? These type of jobs are rarely advertised in the AHA newsletter and there are specialized websites that list historic preservation jobs, museum positions, etc. What organizations should one join and which conferences should a budding scholar attend? Just as if you were a military historian, you would want to join the Society for Military History in addition to the AHA, there are professional museum organizations that one might want to join if you want to be a curator.

The product of these small workshops can come in several formats: a series of AHA published pamphlets that can be offered on the organization’s website: “The History Ph.D. as Documentary Filmmaker,” etc.; a series of sessions at the AHA annual meeting; template or syllabi for programs that history departments can use to convert their Ph.D.s into these career paths, or an AHA speaker series on alternative careers.

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