Historians Reflect on Forces Reshaping Their Profession

January 08, 2012

Historians have to broaden their sense of their discipline and how, where, and why they practice it. That message was broadcast clearly at the American Historical Association's annual conference, which ended here on Sunday.

About 4,700 scholars attended the meeting. Anxiety about job prospects percolated at panels and in hallway conversations. But the meeting drew energy and optimism from two dozen digital-humanities panels, which complemented more traditional fare, and from the association's recent push to expand what counts as respectable employment for historians.

The official theme, "Communities and Networks," generated sessions on topics such as the history of information and spatial history. It also described the group's current desire to appeal to historians who work outside the academic world, or within it in nontraditional ways.

Life beyond the tenure track was a big topic. In a series of columns in the journal Perspectives and in The Chronicle, the group's 2011 president, Anthony T. Grafton, and its executive director, Jim Grossman, have been urging graduate students and their departments to get over the idea that it's a tenure-track job or failure. Why not consider public history, say, or a so-called alternative-academic career based in a university library or humanities center? Why not train graduate students to take better advantage of those opportunities?

At a plenary session, "Did We Go Wrong?," panelists did what historians are trained to do: They took the long view, describing the evolution of the profession from the 19th century to the present.

James Axtell, a professor of history at the College of William and Mary, described how American higher education imported elements from the German system, notably the Ph.D., and added an emphasis on published monographs. But technology, interdisciplinarity, and economic uncertainty, he said, "all demand that we in graduate education think harder about what we do it, how we do it, and why."

Robert B. Townsend, the association's deputy director, used decades' worth of survey data to reveal that the idea of tenure track or bust is relatively new. "Historically, the Ph.D. has been used as an entree to a wide variety of jobs," he said. In 1900, 31 percent of history Ph.D. holders went into jobs not classified as academic. Post-1952 was "a relatively prosperous time for the profession," with almost 80 percent of Ph.D.'s finding work in colleges and universities. But recurrent job crises since the 1960s have brought those levels down to about 60 percent, according to Mr. Townsend.

Another presenter, Thomas Bender, a professor of history at New York University, said Mr. Townsend's statistics suggest "that there's a huge chunk of our past we don't remember very well." He said that "history was a core element in the making of professional and civic competencies" for the first half of the 20th century.

He argued that historians need to reclaim that tradition. "The prize is, I think, much larger than the employment of historians," Mr. Bender said. "It's also about the place of history in our civic life."

But Mr. Bender said that the profession must also acknowledge "a new normal" of disinvestment in higher education and a decline in humanities enrollments. Mr. Grafton and Mr. Grossman's think-beyond-academe advice won't get much traction until high-profile departments embrace it, he said. "There will be no change in the history profession until the leading departments lead."

In a discussion after the session, Mr. Grafton acknowledged that the message hasn't spread as fast as he'd like. The discussion "has not gotten started at many departments, where the attitude is still 'Feed the knowledge machine, feed the knowledge machine,'" he said.

Finding Jobs

At a special panel on job prospects, one senior scholar, Jesse Lemisch, castigated the association for its failure to do more to put historians to work. Museum and government jobs aren't the cure, in his view. "Don't tell people in academe to look for jobs outside of academe that don't exist," he said. Mr. Lemisch reiterated his call, first made on the History News Network blog, for a new Works Progress Administration-like program to employ historians.

In response, John R. Dichtl, director of the National Council for Public History, an advocacy group, argued that federal funding isn't a cure-all either. "What happened to those WPA jobs?," he asked.

The association's efforts to be more inclusive and expand the profession's definition of valuable work felt significant to some attendees. Miriam Posner, who has a Ph.D. in American studies and film studies from Yale University, had let her membership lapse. "It just didn't feel too relevant to my professional life" on a non-tenure-track path, she said in an interview. Completing a postdoc at Emory University library's Digital Scholarship Common, she's about to become the digital-humanities program coordinator at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Partly because of Mr. Grafton's and Mr. Grossman's advocacy, though, Ms. Posner renewed her membership and came to this year's conference. She's glad she did. "It seems to me the AHA is on the cusp of being able to incite some changes," she said.

Still, at a forum for graduate students and early-career scholars, Ms. Posner heard a lot of pessimism and frustration from her contemporaries. "People look to these organizations as gatekeepers of scholarly credibility," she said, but associations are limited in what they can do to change attitudes and create jobs, and scholars' real frustration is often with their departments.

Going Digital

As the what-jobs-count debate demonstrates, many historians still operate in a conservative and print-driven culture of research and reward, where success equals tenure and monographs. But the conference program played up how digital tools and grass-roots scholarly communication have opened up possibilities for researchers willing and able to use them, or to find collaborators who can. The word "collaborate" was heard over and over, a rallying cry for a profession that still tends to celebrate the lone-wolf scholar.

Two dozen panels put digital-humanities scholarship on the meeting's official radar for the first time. Sessions dug into how to text-mine and teach with digital tools, create successful crowd-sourced transcriptions,  and build ambitious archival projects such as Invisible Australians, which uses a face-recognition script to pull together photos of Australians of non-European origin who were affected by the White Australia Policy in the early 20th century. A panel on "Hardtack and Software" featured digital approaches to the American Civil War.

At a roundtable on "The Future of History Journals in the Digital Age," editors talked about how online publishing can lead to a rethinking of how to write for and edit a peer-reviewed journal. Stefan A. Tanaka, a professor of communications at the University of California at San Diego, urged historians to "use the appropriate medium for the message we're trying to get across"-a theme heard repeatedly throughout the meeting, powered in part by the presence of digital humanists who have been experimenting with different ways to create and communicate research.

Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, said in an interview that it was good to see such "a flourishing and acceptance" of such work at the meeting. Mr. Cohen served on this year's programming committee and helped put digital humanities on the agenda.

"What's changed in the last five years is it's much easier to do this kind of work," with more off-the-rack, easily deployed digital tools available, Mr. Cohen said. That's allowed "a much wider circle of historians to dabble in it."