A Historian and His Place

For somebody not from New Orleans, that city sure is a part of me. From my first visit as a 17 year-old loose in the world for the first time, to my most recent visit in January 2013, I just slip so easily into place. And I can’t escape the feeling that somehow, some way, I’m where I’m supposed to be.

Which is why I think I know, at least a little, how my friend and colleague Michael Mizell-Nelson must have felt about his home town.

Michael died this past week from a rare form of cancer at the age of 49.

It’s funny all the things you don’t know that you thought you knew. Among the thousands of things I was so sure of that have turned out to be wrong was that Michael was from an old New Orleans family.

How could he not have been? If there was something to know about that city, Michael knew it. Streetcars? He was the expert. Po-boys? He was the expert on those too. Ghost stories? He knew them all. Food? Don’t even get me started.


Streetcar, Garden District. Mills Kelly (1977)

I’d known Michael via email for close to a year before I spoke to him on the phone for the first time. I came late to our Hurricane Digital Memory Bank project that Michael, Sheila Brennan, and Tom Scheinfeldt had gotten up and running right after that biblical storm season of 2005. One of the first things I learned from Tom and Sheila was how none of it could have happened without Michael.

I like to think it would please him to know that I had so convinced myself that he was from one of those old, old New Orleans families. The kinds that go back forever. Instead, he and his sister were first generation New Orleans, born of parents who migrated south from Chicago.

Over three decades in higher education I’ve gotten to know an awful lot of smart, talented people. But I can count on one hand the ones who fall into a category best labeled “selfless connector”: Roy Rosenzweig, Stan Katz, and Michael Mizell-Nelson. Like Roy and Stan, Michael was one of those people who seemed to live to connect people with one another. Lord knows he connected me with plenty of folks along the Gulf Coast and around the country. I try hard to be one of those connectors too. But for me it’s an effort. For Michael, it was just who he was.

So many students, first at Delgado Community College, where Michael taught English, then at the University of New Orleans, where he taught history, got to see up close the Michael I had to imagine — what he was like as a teacher. I had big plans to sit in on one of his classes one day. He’d invited me to speak at UNO this fall, and at first I thought that’s when I could sneak up on him and watch him doing what he loved.

But when we spoke about my trip he told me about his cancer and that he wasn’t teaching. That’s okay, I told myself. He’s going to get better and I’ll come back and sneak up on him some other time. Now I’m just going to have to imagine how his gentleness, his love of history at the street level, and his passion for his students came together in the classroom. I’m sure he was a natural. But I also know, because he told me, how hard he worked at it.

When I was helping finish up the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank I had the great good fortune to interview a very talented young photographer whose pictures of a wrecked New Orleans were some of the best I’d seen.

Over the course of a couple hours in a bar she told me her tale, so much like ten thousand others from that summer. How just before Katrina crashed ashore she’d had a dream that convinced her to leave and to take her laptop with with all her pictures. How her apartment had been destroyed by the storm, and how since returning to the city she’d struggled to keep her life from falling completely apart.

I asked her why she’d come back to the city after so much calamity. She smiled and in her very best New Orleans accent, said, “Darlin, my family has been in New Orleans since 1723. This is my place.”

Michael Mizell-Nelson was the first generation in his family in New Orleans. But it was no less his place.

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History’s Smaller and Smaller Pond

Last spring I wrote a post called “History’s Future” in which I pointed out the unsettling trends in history enrollments from the 2011-12 IPEDS data. Today, I was reminded of that post, and an earlier on on the gender (enrollment) problem in our field, because the most recent projections from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) called “Projection of Education Statistics to 2021” further reinforce why we should be worried about enrollment data in post-secondary history education.

Just a reminder — history at the undergraduate level in the United States is an overwhelmingly white and male discipline at a time when college and university enrollments, with the exception of a few disciplines like engineering, are overwhelmingly female and increasingly non-white. If historians can’t find a way to expand the appeal of our discipline among females and the non-white population on our campuses, the pond we’ll be swimming in is just going to get smaller and smaller.

The NCES is projecting a 15% increase in post-secondary enrollments in the United States between 2010 and 2021, with a 12% growth in full time students and an 18% growth in part time students. Here’s where the problems arise for history — unless we find a way to change, that is. The NCES is projecting an 18% increase in female enrollments, but only a 10% increase in male enrollments. Among racial and ethnic groups, the NCES projects only a 4% increase among white students, but a 25% increase in African-American enrollments, a 42% increase in Hispanic enrollments, and a 20% increase in Asian enrollments. In other words, almost all the enrollment growth projected for American higher education is going to be among student groups who seem to find our discipline less appealing.

And, by the way, on the racial and ethnic front, the news just gets worse, because between 2009-2021 the NCES is projecting a 9% decline in white high school graduates, as compared to a 6% increase in African-American graduates, a 63% increase in Hispanic graduates, and a 35% increase in Asian graduates.

In short, there is nothing in the data, either from IPEDS or from the NCES, that should give us hope for the future of our discipline. Are we going to go out of business? Hardly. Will history departments begin to get smaller and smaller as enrollment pressures combined with constrained budgets begin to force deans and provosts to make difficult decisions about where to allocate scarce faculty lines? You bet.

Fortunately, the solution lies with us. As a radical first step, I’d suggest going to the source and asking the students themselves why they didn’t major in history, as compared to something else? The results of such a survey, probably best conducted or funded by the AHA, could then provide the basis for a productive conversation among historians from all institutional types — community colleges (where more and more of our majors begin their post-secondary careers every year), liberal arts colleges, and universities of all types, shapes, and sizes. And that conversation could result in productive changes in how our discipline is delivered at the undergraduate level.

There is no quick and easy solution to this problem — if there were, magic wands would have been waved some time ago. But there is a solution. If we decide we’re interested.

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What Keeps You Up At Night?

Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a private meeting chaired by Jeff Selingo, the purpose of which was to provide him (and his colleagues at Georgetown and Arizona State) with feedback on a (soon to be) new executive education program designed to prepare the next generation of higher ed leaders. The meeting, that followed a very interesting panel discussion, included a mix of university presidents, deans and other senior leaders, foundation executives, search consultants, and others working in and around senior leadership in higher ed.

The facilitator for the session was a former member of George Mason‘s Board of Visitors, Kathleen deLaski, who started us off with the following question: “What keeps you up at night when you think about the future of higher education?”

As you might expect from such a large (30 or so participants) and diverse group, there were many answers to this question, but at the top of the list were concerns about access and the growing inequality that restricted access to higher education is causing. Other big concerns included finding sustainable financial models, issues around teaching and learning, a perception that the pool of potential senior leaders has gotten too shallow, and worries that the internal systems in higher ed are not up to making the changes that will be needed in the coming decade. But only a few of the participants didn’t mention access in some way, shape, or form.

Not convinced that access to higher education is a problem? As Selingo points out in his recent book, College Unbound, a young person’s odds of obtaining a bachelors degree are closely tied to his/her family income. Children coming from homes with a family income above $90,000 per year have a 1:2 chance of obtaining a BA/BS degree by age 24. If the family income is between $60,000 – $90,000, those odds drop to 1:4, and if the family income is below $35,000, the odds fall all the way down to 1:17. Not surprisingly, the odds of someone from a lower income family getting into a highly selective institution are also terrible compared to students from upper income families. (168)

That’s an access problem that should be keeping us all up at night, especially when you realize that 21 percent of children aged 5-17 in the United States are living in poverty, which is a 24% increase over 1990. In other words, the likelihood that any American high school senior is going to graduate with a bachelors degree is just going to keep falling until (a) we figure out a way to get more kids out of poverty and (b) we figure out how to provide greater access to those kids. Otherwise, frankly, we’re in serious trouble as an industry, not to mention as a country.

The solutions to getting kids out of poverty are well above my pay grade, but solutions to access are something I know a little bit about. And what I know is that it is not enough to throw money at the problem — greater funding opportunities for students help, and help a lot, but scholarships and other forms of financial aid are not the only answer. Just as important is creating the circumstances in which students who do enroll can graduate in a reasonable amount of time, i.e., four to six years.

Many colleges and universities devote an incredible amount of energy to student retention programs, and proactive administrative efforts do help. But what also helps, and this is where historians have a role to play, is faculty members who think carefully about student success and design courses and curricula that will facilitate success and learning simultaneously.

This is a complicated problem for history, because when it comes to our majors, too often we don’t see them at all until they are sophomores, because future history majors very often have taken an AP history course in high school and so have placed out of our freshman courses. And those freshman courses all too often exist just to serve the demands of a general education curriculum, not the history major.

Given this reality on so many college campuses, it seems to me that history departments can play their own small role in the larger access/retention problem by rethinking the sequence of courses from the first semester of a freshman’s college experience right through to graduation. And, we need to reach out to our campus retention specialists and ask — what is it that makes it more difficult for our students to graduate? And what can we do to help change that, especially for the students who are at most risk?

Changing the reality of student access and success in higher education is a big issue — far too big for any one discipline to fix. But as historians, we also know that grassroots efforts across a broad population often aggregate into something bigger than one has any reason to expect. In the historical literature we often call those “popular movements” or “change from below.”

It’s high time we started our own popular movement or joined someone else’s.


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Why I’m Proud of the AHA

Regular readers of this blog will know already that over the years I’ve leveled more than my fair share of criticism at the American Historical Association on a whole variety of issues, some big, some small. And, along the way, I’ve had some nice things to say as well. The latest news from AHA central, about a $1.6 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand on the Association’s “career diversity initiative,” is both great news, but also a good reason to step back and take stock of all that the Association has accomplished in the past two years to help historians think about career trajectories other than the standard “tenure track job at a research university” track.

First there are a couple of facts worth remembering. At the top of my list is the fact that the vast majority of PhD trained historians with full time jobs work either as faculty at non-tenure granting institutions or in various “altac“positions ranging from museum professionals to academic administrative positions to archive management to work in the corporate sector. The second fact is that the number of tenure track jobs in history is almost surely going to remain stable (or decline) in the coming decade or so for the simple reason that the share of faculty jobs that are tenure track jobs is declining. On top of this reality is the fact that all across the country we are being told (especially by legislators) that funding should shift from non-STEM to STEM disciplines.

Labor market issues for those with advanced training, especially in the humanities, are acute and not to be minimized. Institutions of higher education all across the United States, but especially public institutions, are under tremendous financial pressure and far too many have chosen to (at least partially) try solve their financial problems by shifting to the use of more and more contingent faculty labor. This shift is bad both because it is bad for the people who are forced to labor in a kind of never never land of constant uncertainty and it is bad for the institutions because it makes it increasingly difficult for them to build consistent strength in their academic departments. I know that never never land because I spent three years there, one of which included teaching one class while waiting tables full time while my wife mucked stalls at a pony farm. It can be a very difficult place to live.

I spend a fair amount of time doing various and sundry jobs for our senior administration, so I’m privy to discussions at that level about finances and I read the academic press pretty carefully. There just isn’t much evidence that colleges and universities are going to break their addiction to contingent faculty labor in the short term.

These facts I’ve just cited are why I’m so proud of the work that AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman has done to partly pivot an organization that for its entire life has been, in my view, overly focused on the needs and desires of the most prestigious history departments, to a more capacious view of who “historians” are and what their career trajectories can look like. In my 20-plus years as an AHA member, I can’t remember a time when the Association put this much effort into work that will reach well beyond the confines of those most prestigious departments (if the work done under the grant takes hold, which is no sure thing).

This grant is not going to solve the labor market issues I’ve just mentioned. Not at all. But I’m hopeful that it will help graduate students in history find their way to fulfilling careers that are not predicated on contingency.

Anyone who has spent any significant time writing large grants like this Mellon grant knows just how much work they are. Months of effort and countless hours of staff time are required to bring off a success like this one. Shifting academic cultures is like trying to turn a battleship, but $1.6 million is the kind of figure that gets almost anyone’s attention. We won’t know for five to ten years whether this particular effort has borne fruit or not, but in the meantime, my hat is off to the AHA for getting serious about an initiative that is well outside the historical comfort zone of the Association.

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