History and the Politics of Scholarly Collaboration, Part I: Or, Why Anthony Grafton Is a Rock Star

December 19, 2011, 1:05 pm

Meet Anthony Grafton, the AHA's Jonathan Swift

Have you followed American Historical Association president Anthony Grafton’s serial meditation on how graduate schools might respond to a bad academic job market? A market that has, since the the 1970s, been either stagnant or getting worse? A market with whose effects the blogosphere is obsessed?

If you haven’t, you need to catch up.  For “No More Plan B” (October 2011) and “Plan C” (November 2011), both co-written with Jim Grossman for the AHA newsletter Perspectives, go here and here. For an article about “Plan B” by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed (October 3 2011) go here; and for a response by graduate student Dan Alloso (UMass-Amherst) go here.

This month, a few young historians will get ready for convention or Skype interviews and most of the others will check their voicemail for the call that isn’t coming.  In a well-timed conclusion to the series, Grafton ends with a solo piece on full-time employment off the academic tenure-track. In ”Historians at Work:  Public History” (December 2011), he describes the rich, publicly engaged intellectual labor of a young Ph.D. at the Museum of the City of New York, emphasizing its collaborative quality, its scope and its impact. “This is serious history,” Grafton writes in his concluding paragraph. “It’s deeply informed by scholarship. And if it’s well done, it will reach an enormous audience.”

Scholars already doing public history in its many forms might shrug and say, “This is news?”  Historians on the market will point out that Grafton is proposing another version of the old bait and switch. Lured by the fantasy of life as a teacher-scholar, they are now being offered a second-class life that they can’t afford to turn down.  Those working in the world of contingent scholarship will argue that privileged oldsters like Grafton and myself have no right to admit defeat on their behalf, denying younger folk a similar opportunity (different as Princeton and Zenith are) to have the careers they chose.

But here’s the news:  I won’t speak for Grafton, who received his Ph.D. in 1975 when the market was beginning to go into free-fall, but by 1991, when I started out at Zenith, job openings had bottomed out. I was among the lucky few to score a tenure-track job.  In the cohorts to which I was closest in my now high-prestige (but then middling) program, I can count fewer than ten people (about 15-20% of us) who eventually got what we used to call a “real” job, and one of them was fired in her first contract because the entire college folded. However, we had dramatically different expectations. Many of us had come to this program in the first place as journalists, public school teachers, film makers, writers, aspiring archivists and activists interested in public history.  The vast majority of us are still practicing history today; several of us established ourselves in one post-graduate career and then moved into a tenure-stream job at a much later date.

Why do I mention this? Because this was over twenty years ago, and I have seen the majority experience of my cohort become progressively more marginalized even as it has become the better career option. More importantly, graduate students themselves often perceive themselves as failures if they are employed off the tenure track.  Perhaps this is why I think the ideas floated in the Perspectives series are not modest at all, and were never intended to be. In fact, like Jonathan Swift in his anonymously published pamphlet “A Modest Proposal” (1729), which satirized English colonial policies that had impoverished the Irish peasantry, Grafton has argued that the employment problem has been partly produced by the university-based values of the historical profession itself. Although not satirical, the success of Grafton’s proposals may lie in the careful, and indirect way, they seem not to challenge the status quo.

But they do.

Notably, Tony Grafton is an inveterate reader of academic blogs, which feature critiques of and dialogue about the university, and he was head of the Professional Division during the economic collapse. This may account for the fact that he is the first AHA president to abandon the “It Gets Better” campaign that was launched over four decades ago, and which continues to valorize hard work, networking and professional accomplishments as the surest path to a tenure-track job (that may not even exist.)

Grafton’s most vocal critics this fall have emphasized that his proposals for reform accept the market forces, and the underinvestment in education, that have left thousands of PhDs in many fields un- or under-employed.  Radical historian Jesse Lemisch, for example, sees Grafton’s approach as accomodationist. “I hesitate to use so snarky a term as C. Wright Mills’s ‘crackpot realism,’” he responded on History News Network (November 11 2011),

but I find myself at odds with what Grafton and Grossman take to be realism. With the best of intentions, these AHA officers have nonetheless accepted as a given the collapse of public support for the public good, and they seek to accommodate to it. What’s lost in this is the high value that we place on history and a complex that connects history to civilization itself. History is worth fighting for, and its importance goes far beyond the current vogue for saleable skills and narrow vocational justifications for education.

Want to see the discussion continued live?  Go to a special session just added to the AHA Annual Meeting on Friday, January 6 from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the Sheraton’s Chicago Ballroom VII.  Grafton will chair, with Lemisch (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY), Edward Balleisen (Duke University), John Dichtl (National Council on Public History), and Lynn Hunt (UCLA) on the panel.  Take your views and join the talk.

This Radical’s heart is often with Lemisch, but on this issue my mind is with Grafton. And where the mind goes, the heart follows.  As I read Grafton’s concluding piece, I was struck by his focus on the beauty of scholarly collaboration, a skill that is rarely emphasized in a graduate education and is poorly rewarded in the history departments where we stand for tenure and promotion.  As Dana Polanichka implies in the same December issue, the most successful job seekers can display an egotism and lack of empathy for others that suggests things will not get better at all in a world of graduate education where individualism rules and young scholars who do land jobs see it as proof that their achievements are demonstrably superior. In one anecdote, Polanichka recalls this encounter at an Annual Meeting:

“Charles” had not been invited for a single interview at the meeting, and the rejection weighed on him heavily. “Lucy,” a fellow job applicant only barely acquainted with Charles but also in the same field, further exacerbated these feelings by openly disparaging a school with which she had interviewed. Charles, who would have been thrilled by such an interview invitation, was infuriated and hurt by the total disregard that Lucy had for the school and for his feelings. Lucy, in all fairness, did not know that Charles had not been asked to any interviews, but her ignorance did not excuse such behavior. After all, were he not an applicant, Charles could have easily been a former student at this institution. What good, then, could have come from Lucy’s negative evaluation of the school?

Polanichka, a medievalist at Wheaton College, underlines this episode as bad manners, and I agree.  But it also points to something else: although Lemisch is correct about what scholars ought to be fighting for in the public sphere, there is also an internal fight about the nature of prestige in the historical profession that we have never had.  Graduate students who, at an early stage of their careers, are crowing about having snagged a seat in a lifeboat are not bad people. But they have also unconsciously internalized, and will pass on to their own students, the anxious and unchanging values of the profession at large: that work as a historian off the tenure-track is the equivalent of being left on the Titanic.

Who is to blame for that but a profession that has fought gallantly for the continuing relevance of history, but done so by pressing a one-size-fits all employment model? A model that features little boomlets in one field or another, but no structural relief for intellectuals? A model that, despite the impact of new and old media, largely refuses to re-think what historical scholarship is and what it can do if we free it from the constraints of individualism and from history departments?

In this sense, Grafton’s proposals are not “modest” at all, and he knows it.  They are seismic.  First, if we were to recognize the fact that large numbers of historians do make a living outside the world of teaching and printed scholarship, we might have to address the fact that large numbers of historians within the academy, and who have tenure, are often poorly recognized or openly scorned by their colleagues for the very same public work. Second, graduate schools have mostly not rethought what historians might be trained for, despite the emergence of important new scholarly opportunities, as if the job market of the 1960s were just around the corner.  The vast public audience for history and the ingenious methods by which many history PhD’s have carved out good careers as intellectuals off the tenure track, has made barely a dent in a professional value system that is outdated in ways the poor job market only makes more graphic.

This is why it is so important that Grafton, one of the most privileged members of our profession (in that he holds a post at a prestigious, well-financed university, and in a department where graduate students have much less trouble getting jobs than the vast majority of new PhDs) is taking this approach.  But it also points to what Lemisch, and other critics are missing.  By demanding an expansion of the system as it currently exists, such critiques defer necessary intellectual reforms: revising what counts as historical scholarship and sustaining a range of audiences beyond the university who are eager for history.   They defer the overthrow of traditionalist gate-keepers who, by conferring or denying employment, have a disproportionate role over what history is in a technological and cultural environment where knowledge, and even what counts as writing, is changing dramatically.  An employment system that only values one kind of teacher-scholar model, the one defined by a tenure track position, is oppressive and isolating to the vast majority of scholars. Paradoxically, this model may have become uniquely oppressive for the lucky few who do get tenure-track jobs, but must then rely on the good will of traditionalist elders to retain the fragile hold they have on a career in history.

Although I think that Lemisch would agree with me on the point I make above, the implications of his argument are that expanded employment (which would enact other kinds of social justice agendas, not the least of which would be expanded opportunities for education) would be enough.  I disagree:  it is not enough, and this is why Anthony Grafton is a rock star.  Arguing that we stop pushing young scholars into a failed market where the most successful will be constrained in their opportunities and intellectual choices, Grafton wants to change the values that have been ineffective in creating jobs for historians. Public history has the potential to create a more free employment system that would support an expanded intellectual community and allow creativity collaborations to flourish.

Furthermore, in a topic that I will take up in part II of this series, Grafton is arguing that the most path-breaking and influential scholarship in the twenty-first century is likely to be collaborative and accessible to a broad public.  Breaking with the model of the exceptional individual, who works in private and competes successfully among professionally and narrowly similar peers, a paradigm that has governed access to the profession for over a century, is in its own way revolutionary.

It could even happen in university departments. And who knows?  Perhaps if there were more public historians, the public — and the legislators that represent them — might stop bashing the humanities and actually support the teaching of history in the ways we all dream it could be supported again.

To be continued.

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