Tag Archives: altac

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.

Historians and Books

Books“History has been and remains a book-based discipline…” This phrase, that begins the third paragraph of the recent statement by the American Historical Association on dissertation embargoes, has been rattling around in my head for weeks, like that annoying song from high school you just can’t get out of your head.

If you followed the controversy that ensued after the AHA issued this statement [search on “#ahagate” for more], you know that much of the often heated discussion centered on two issues: was it a bad idea for recent PhDs to embargoe their dissertations, and what did the AHA’s position on the issue say about the Association’s position on open access more generally?

Both of those topics have now been pretty well beaten to death in the blogo- and twittersphere, so I’ve been at a loss to explain why that phrase won’t get the heck out of my head. Fortunately, I’m teaching my Clio Wired grad seminar, starting tonight, so I had to focus hard on all things digital history over the past couple of weeks and in that focusing I finally figured out what my problem was. (I know you’re relieved.)

You see, regardless of what we might think about open access, or dissertation embargoes, or any of the other issues that came up in the ahagate conversation this summer, if we accept that history has been and remains a book-based discipline, then we are accepting that the book is the standard by which historians should be judged for such things as jobs, promotion, tenure, raises, etc. For our professional association to make such a bold defense of the book as the gold standard is more than just counter productive, it’s really out of touch with the realities of the history job market our MA and PhD grads find themselves in.

Don’t get me wrong. I love books. Really love books. Don’t believe me? Come to my office and take a gander at the overflowing shelves. But my bookophilia doesn’t extend to my definition of what it means to be a historian in 2013. And, yes, I know the AHA doesn’t ignore the fact that lots of historians do lots of things that never involve publishing a book or even a peer reviewed article. But still.

“History has been and remains a book-based discipline…” Saying this so directly is to take a position that the book is the goal, the standard by which historians are to be measured. If that is so, those historians who choose to build their careers around museum curation, or website development, or public history, or any number of “altac” career paths just don’t quite measure up to the book (gold) standard promoted by our professional association.

And that just makes me sad. Sad for everyone who is a historian and never publishes a book and so is somehow not quite up to snuff, and sad for the AHA, because, well, emphasizing the bookishness of our discipline is just so 1990.