At the AHA: Huh?

A funny thing happened on the way to the AHA this year — American Historical Association staffer Robert B. Townsend issued his annual report on tenure-track employment in the field. Unsurprisingly, he concluded that holders of freshly minted doctorates face grim prospects. What raised my eyebrows — and those of many others doing scholarship in academic labor — was his insistence that the labor market for faculty in history is a matter of an “oversupply” of persons holding doctorates, and that the profession needs to control “the supply side of the market,” i.e., “cut the number of students” in doctoral programs. 

This is the sort of thing that used to get said all the time by disciplinary-association staffers — as what I call part of a “second wave” of thinking about academic labor, emerging out of discredited supply-side thought dating back to the Reagan administration. Thanks to the third wave of thought arising from graduate students and contingent faculty in the academic labor movement, you just don’t hear so much of this sort of thing anymore. In most fields, it’s pretty well understood that the real issue is an undersupply of tenure-track jobs, i.e., that the issue needs to be addressed from the “demand side.” There’s no real oversupply of folks holding the Ph.D. because what’s happened is an aggressive, intentional restructuring of demand by administrators — in many fields, work that used to be done by persons holding the Ph.D. and on the tenure track is now done by persons without the terminal degree and contingently. Increasingly, even undergraduates are playing a role in this restructured “demand” for faculty work, participating in the instruction of other undergraduates.

In this context, it was a bit unsettling to read Townsend’s 2010 analysis:

The near perpetual sense of crisis in history employment over the past 20 years had very little to do with a diminishing number of jobs, or even the growing use of part-time and contingent faculty. … The primary problem today, as it was a decade ago, seems to lie on the supply side of the market — in the number of doctoral students being trained, and in the skills and expectations those students develop in the course of their training.

Red flag, bull, etc.

Now, before I unpack this I want to say several nice things about Townsend. As a long-term staffer at the AHA, over the last couple of decades he’s produced over a hundred useful articles, reports, and analyses on the employment prospects of persons holding the Ph.D. in history. He is also himself the holder of a newly-minted Ph.D. in history from George Mason (2009), where they do fantastic work in the digital humanities (another topic on which Townsend has also written prolifically and well), thanks to Townsend’s late thesis advisor, the brilliant Roy Rosenzweig. The thesis (not yet listed in DAI or the GMU library) is on the early professionalization of history, and apparently overlaps a bit with his staff work. He’s especially to be congratulated for his continuing presentation of disquieting data on the low proportion of women and ethnic minorities amongst historians and history majors, and on the role of privileged backgrounds in shaping interest in history, including careers in the field. Many of the concerns that Rob has expressed in print as a staffer are the same concerns that have shaped my own career, and if he’s job-hunting with that new Ph.D., I’d be thrilled to see him land a job and raise the same questions from a faculty position.

I also want to offer some caveats: Circumstances differ from field to field, and I willingly acknowledge that my own perspective on academic labor is shaped by my more intimate understanding of working conditions in English. I sometimes make erroneous assumptions on the basis of that more intimate understanding. History is different, perhaps very different, and I’ve made no special study of it — and really would like a chance to see Townsend’s dissertation (hint). History is a smallish field, hence more volatile, and has recently seen growth in the undergraduate major and hiring.

Caveats and compliments out of the way, I want to say, though:

I’m confused. I wish some really smart folks  in history — who I happen to know think about these issues — would help me out. Historiann? Jonathan Rees? (Both folks I’d love to see added to Ye Olde Brainstorm’s lineup, btw.)

I think I get what Townsend is driving at. Is it something like this? “In our particular discipline, history, we’ve had a bunch of relatively good years in recent memory, and whatever’s going on out there with casualization in other disciplines, our issue is more straightforward: We wouldn’t have all this stress if we shrunk our doctoral programs.” That would be the “obvious solution,” as Townsend puts it.

As I look at Townsend’s good work for AHA over the years, I believe I see the data driving his conclusion that what history needs is a good supply-side fix.

Looking at his graph of job ads vs new doctorates, 1970-present, a couple of things stand out: 1) in two periods of about a half-decade each, there were more job ads than doctorates awarded, and 2) the raw number of job ads, flirting with 700 annually in the 1970s, were more like 1,000 a year between 2000 and 2010. So one first-pass reading might be that there’s a market in jobs that has boom periods and bust periods, and — with rising interest in the history major, there has been growth in hiring for faculty. This leads Townsend to relative peace of mind about contingency, at least within history, and to further represent nontenurable appointments as “threshold” positions, way-stations to eventual stable employment (though he does note that some folks stay in the threshold, give up, drop out before running this gauntlet, etc.). 

But it does seem there’s still a bunch of dots needing to be connected.

For starters, most disciplines have added raw numbers of tenure track lines in the past 15 years, English and sociology being notable exceptions. The percentage of faculty teaching nontenurably, however has soared. Rising raw numbers of job ads isn’t particularly meaningful.

So I’d like to know: What percentage of the history job ads were for nontenurable and senior positions in 1970 versus 2010? What percentage of the faculty in history were teaching nontenurably in 1970 versus today? What percentage of undergraduate sections are taught by graduate students and nontenurable faculty today vs. then? How many folks with doctorates pass through “threshold” positions into stable employment — after how long? How do those considerations relate to the disproportionate whiteness, masculinity, and privilege in tenure-track employment, interest in the field, etc? For that matter, how does AHA account for the labor of graduate students? They too are contingent faculty, when responsible for direct instruction, and also in leveraging the labor of tenure-stream faculty, when serving as teaching “assistants,” permitting larger and larger lecture enrollments, etc. (Related question: Is a lecture course ever too big? If the only function of the tenured is to deliver lectures and supervise subordinates who conduct discussions, why can’t we “scale up,” as our school-reform friends urge us, and have half of the lectures delivered by video? Why not 80 percent delivered by video?)

Which gets me to my second question: Why is the number of jobs “just enough” in this analysis, and the number of historians too many?

One major risk of supply-side analysis is the naturalization of demand — what the market wants is what the market wants.

But is that how professions, and professional associations like the AHA ought to be thinking about professional work? A traditional characteristic of professions is regulating who is qualified to do the work of the profession. And in this case, the word “market” is a heavily loaded abstraction for an actual group: administrators. The “market” is what administrators permit faculty to hire. But what administrators want (or allow) isn’t neutral, or connected to student needs, preferences, etc. in any natural or obvious way; it’s enormously activist, and intentional movement, with the overt intention of changing the faculty workplace. Perhaps a more useful analytical frame is one that captures the struggle between faculty and administrators.

In the end, even if all the history grad programs affiliated with AHA made someone on the AHA staff into a jobs czar — Stalin of the profession! — and allowed her to say how many each could graduate, would that  fix the problem? 

If AHA shrunk graduate-student assistantships, what would keep administrations from hiring talented undergraduates or volunteer history enthusiasts lead the discussion sections? Don’t you still have to answer the tough questions: Who should teach, on what terms?

It’s well understood by most folks doing serious work on academic labor that regardless of how one analyzes the problem, most “supply-side” solutions are doomed to fail so long as administrators have so much control over the contours of demand that they can put staff, permatemps, and students — including undergraduates — to work at activities that were formerly done by persons holding doctorates.

Also, overall the AHA data seem gappy. The AHA 2004-05 analysis couldn’t account for the employment of two-thirds of persons with history Ph.D.’s over the preceding 15 years!

Wow. When I went looking at the method, which involved searching history departments in the AHA directory, though, I didn’t see any discussion of community colleges. Which led me to look at the directory, which doesn’t seem to list too many community colleges (unless I was using it wrong). And a lot of other departments don’t seem to maintain membership.

So, again, hard question kinda passed by: If AHA is truly “the professional association for all historians,” as the slogan has it, why aren’t you counting all the folks working in community colleges with their Ph.D.’s? Are they “historians”? Could community colleges use more folks with Ph.D.’s teaching? (Perhaps with some rethinking of the doctoral training?) If the answer is yes, then why talk about shrinking “production” of doctorates when you could be talking about the community college as a center for public history?

Even if Townsend is right that history is different from some other disciplines, I’d like to know just how different, and to have a lot more information before I could get on board with this analysis. This is just a blog post, trying to get some thought started, without a detailed review of Townsend’s overall work (again, which I’d be happy to do), but it strikes me that this report is running some risks — of minimizing the constructedness and gappiness of the data, naturalizing the “market” as force in history as opposed to seeing it as actual relations between persons in organized groups (faculty associations, administrative bureaucracies and college associations, etc.); simplifying a complex labor system by selectively looking at some sectors (tenure-track jobs) and ignoring others…

Hoo boy. Much more to say, but playcare calls!

See Townsend’s latest report and the 2004-05 analysis, as well as my introduction (pdf) to How the University Works (NYU, 2008), which analyzes the failings of “job-market theory.” (The final chapter of the book addresses how job-market theory shaped the professional-association discourse over at the Modern Language Association.)

Part 1 At the AHA: Huh?
Part 2 Who’s a ‘Historian’ to the AHA?
Part 3 History ‘Job Czar’ Shuts Down PhD Production
(Oversupply Continues for Two Decades)



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