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.