Dear Commons Community,
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article this morning entitled, “A Moral Stain on the Profession: As the Humanities Collapse, It’s Time to Name and Shame the Culprits.” It is written by Daniel Bessner, an assistant professor in American foreign policy at the University of Washington, and Michael Brenes, a lecturer in global affairs and a senior archivist at Yale University. It describes the dismal job market for PhDs in the humanities especially for historians. They blame professional societies such as The American Historical Association, and the tenured professoriate that mostly composes it, for doing frustratingly little to ameliorate this situation. Here is an excerpt:
“Regardless of whether they study ancient Byzantium, colonial Latin America, or the modern United States, most historians can agree on one thing: The academic job market is abysmal. To even call it a “market” is an exaggeration; it’s more like a slaughterhouse. Since the Great Recession of 2008, there have been far, far more historians than jobs. 2016-17 was the worst academic year for history positions in 30 years, and though there was a slight uptick in 2017-18, this improvement, as the recent jobs report released by the American Historical Association notes, did “not indicate any sustained progress recovering from the 2008-9 recession.” To be a historian today is, for most people, to be jobless, suffused with anxiety that one has wasted years of one’s life training for a position that will never materialize.
The American Historical Association, and the tenured professoriate that mostly composes it, has done frustratingly little to ameliorate this situation. Though the AHA is the major professional organization in the discipline, it has displayed a marked unwillingness — or, perhaps, inability — to rally historians against an unjust labor system. Instead, the organization has responded to what must be seen as a social, psychological, and economic crisis with solutions that would offend even Candide’s Dr. Pangloss, who famously affirmed that “all is for the best” in “the best of all possible worlds.” For instance, in the above-mentioned jobs report, the AHA proclaims that the poor job market, while lamentable, has nonetheless “forced a recognition of the tremendous range of careers historians have long pursued” outside the academy. In essence, the group has responded to the collapse of the historical profession by telling people that the best — really, only — solution to the crisis is to find non-university jobs. This is not so much a solution as a surrender.
The jobs crisis is not natural; it is a crisis caused by corporate, governmental, and, yes, academic elites.
For decades, members of the historical profession have acquiesced in the neoliberalization of the university system, which has encouraged false — and self-serving — notions of “meritocracy” to dominate thinking about those who “succeeded” and those who “failed” on the academic job market. Indeed, the majority of AHA leaders are themselves tenured academics, often from elite universities, who have been spared the market’s many indignities. If the leadership more genuinely reflected the historical profession, perhaps we would have long ago abandoned the quiescent path that endangers the fate of academic history writing in the United States — a genre that might very well disappear.
Given the magnitude of the discipline’s collapse, the AHA must address head-on the profession’s systemic inequality. Thus far it has failed. In its misguided emphasis on “alt-ac,” the AHA reinforces a stratified and unequal system of academic labor and obfuscates the structural problems inherent in the job market. Many professional historians, especially those of the younger generation, are not on the tenure track (part-time positions account for 47 percent of university faculty overall); the organization and its mission must change to reflect this disturbing fact.
What makes the AHA’s inaction all the more inexcusable is that the employment crisis is not new. As far back as 1972, The New York Times reported that the AHA was “facing open discontent in its ranks as a result of the recession, academic budget trimming and an oversupply of trained historians,” which engendered a “job crisis” that showed little sign of abating. Nevertheless, for nearly a half-century, historians have failed to organize to halt the disappearance of positions. This must now change. In short, the AHA must become an organization that serves the needs of the many and not the few. It must try to reverse the damage caused by decades of unnecessary neoliberal austerity, corporatization, and adjunctification; it must transform itself into an advocate of contingent labor, of those academics presently lost to a capricious and inequitable system; and it must recruit non-tenure-track scholars into its leadership class.”
The article goes on to propose possible courses of action but the fact remains that there are too many humanities PhDs, college students are enrolling in majors that lead to jobs, and the colleges and universities particularly the publicly-funded and private, tuition driven non-profit sectors are in serious financial straits. The authors also strongly comment that “gestures to alt-ac careers (positions outside full-time university teaching) are a form of boot-strappism and market-Darwinism that provide no consolation or concrete assistance to an embattled labor force.”