In early January, nearly a thousand historians gathered on a Friday night in the grand ballroom of the downtown Philadelphia Marriott, quiet but restless. The occasion was James Sweet’s presidential address at the 136th annual American Historical Association. Sweet’s address, a history of one Liverpool family’s corporate conspiracy to obscure the violent origins of its wealth in the African slave trade, ended with reflections on the “presentism” debate he kicked into high gear in 2022. “Is History History?
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If professional history is history, it isn’t due to academic politics — it’s because of the sharp contraction and possible collapse of the job market. Of the 1,799 historians who earned their Ph.D. in 2019 and 2020, the AHA could definitively locate only 175 now employed in full-time faculty positions in the field. “Though this data offers a lower bound,” their report noted, “there are few compelling reasons to think that more than 15 percent of history Ph.D.s secured TT jobs immediately following graduation during these two years.” The historian Jon K. Lauck recently reported on grim developments in the field in the Midwest:
The University of Iowa’s full time history faculty has declined from 26 to 16 in about ten years. University of Missouri: 30 down to 21 (over the past decade); University of Kansas: 35 down to 24 (since 2017); The Ohio State University (system): 79 down to 62 (since 2008); University of Minnesota: 46 down to 40 (in ten years); University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: 46 down to 36 (since 2012); University of Illinois Chicago: 32 down to 20 (from 2005–2020).
As the Princeton history professor David A. Bell related in these pages, “Of my 10 Ph.D. students who defended their dissertations before 2016, all but one got a tenure-track job. … Of the eight who have defended since then, only one has so far gotten a tenure-track job.” Students are vanishing from the field, too — as best as the AHA can tell, undergraduate enrollments are on a “slow and steady decline.” Fifty years from now, Sweet’s keynote may be remembered as a morbid symptom of a profession in terminal decline. The ballroom and the profession it hosted had both seen better times.
As a Ph.D. candidate in history attending AHA for the first time, I was struck by the lack of attention to the void into which the profession is falling. The leadership’s strategy for how to respond to the peril seems to be to ignore it and hope it resolves itself. Tenured and tenure-track professors appear to understand the predicament of the newly minted Ph.D., but pathologically avoid addressing it.
The hundreds of papers, panels, and roundtables at the AHA conference span the range of human experience historians study. They touch on the role of rumor in the Spanish empire, the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS crisis, and the role of the occult in British colonial India. The job crisis received scant attention. Johann N. Neem chaired a panel on “Labor and Compensation in the Historical Profession.” There was a roundtable on “Unions in Higher Education — Historical and Contemporary Realities.” There were also sessions on “Curricular Change and Career Diversity” and “How to Identify and Leverage the Transferable Skills of a History Ph.D.,” and, to be fair, an “Open Forum” on careers invited questions and concerns from graduate students. Still, no broad vision from the profession’s leaders emerged.
As a Ph.D. candidate in history attending AHA for the first time, I was struck by the lack of attention to the void into which the profession is falling.
Contrast this with the Modern Language Association’s treatment of its own, parallel problem at its annual conference. Several panels addressed the job market explicitly, including some on the potentially painful but necessary topic of academic exit, like “Beyond the Professoriate: Pathways for Job Seekers in Languages,” and a preconvention session on “Career Pathways for Ph.D.s in English.” At least one panel explored job prospects at community colleges. Reflections on the shifting university environment were also woven in throughout the MLA’s agenda in ways that went beyond discussion of the job market. Attendees could pop into “Workers and Working Conditions in the Nineteenth-Century Press,” or catch a variety of panels on contemporary working conditions in fields ranging from the Australian publishing industry to the modern university.
Indeed, Christopher Newfield‘s MLA presidential theme was, itself, “working conditions.” The MLA, through panels like “Working in Slow Collapse: Production in the Posthistorical University,” is doing a much better job at historicizing its professions than the American Historical Association. The MLA is rife with its own pathologies, but it is at least carving out space for conversations about a shared professional future. The AHA is not.
Following Sweet’s address, attendees shuffled into a reception for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. As the crowd formed lines for fortifying beverages and the usual conference-buffet fare, I noticed a timeless ritual: Senior scholars would survey the room, identify a scrappy group of junior attendees, and donate their drink tickets to their chosen motley crew of graduate students. The graduate students, myself included, welcomed this intergenerational camaraderie. But as the tickets changed hands, our senior colleagues wished us a curious adieu — “good luck” — and so transposed a free-drink ticket into a warning. I couldn’t help but feel like I was unwittingly cast into a tragicomedy. The annual conference, once the site of great disciplinary vigor, now merely rehashes a grander academic past and rehearses the Ph.D. candidates’ tales of looming professional woe.
Once the site of great disciplinary vigor, the annual conference now merely rehashes a grander academic past and rehearses the Ph.D. candidates’ tales of looming professional woe.
What the AHA did offer, in lieu of hard conversations about the job crisis, were buzzy sessions on the digital humanities and journalism. Panels proliferated on storytelling, accessibility, archives, and tools within the growing field of digital history. Drop-in sessions and digital-project showcases added a collaborative flair to the offerings.
History’s complicated relationship with journalism also featured prominently. One panel of well-regarded academics and journalists from prestigious publications promised to bridge the divide between the professions. Another, titled “Which Side Are You On? Advocacy Journalism and the Myth of Objectivity,” took up a debate that swept up Sweet in the summer of 2022. Sessions like “Emergent Thinking: Creating Digital Stories for the Public,” or “Media and the Cultural Politics of Coalition Building,” brought the profession’s present fascination with the digital and journalistic into joint focus. What united these tools and methods was a vague sense of transformative possibility.
On some level, these panels make sense. As state legislatures bring history education under their partisan microscopes, digital projects and public writing become more vital channels for honest, inconvenient truths about our history. They offer us new audiences and new ways to amplify our distinct political, ethical, or professional views. In short, they help historians be heard.
And yet graduate students and early-career scholars already push themselves to appear in every forum imaginable via contributions to digital-humanities projects, Washington Post think pieces, and, of course, Twitter. As the pool of stable post-Ph.D. employment opportunities shrinks, we race faster and faster to produce content that might land with a splash and get the attention of hiring committees. At its best, this work extends rich research programs. At its worst, it descends into squabbling with trolls on Twitter.
But what good are these powerful, public-facing tools in an evaporating discipline? Yes, digital historians produce path-breaking and captivating work. And yes, works of popular history and commentary can soar in incisive and moving ways. But my inner cynic wonders: Do these fields offer paths for professional-disciplinary revival, or are they merely the last tickets off a sinking ship?
What would a real response to the challenges facing the next generation look like? For starters, the AHA needs to use its imprimatur to host more difficult conversations, and to include more graduate students and contingent faculty members in them. Some in the discipline will object: “We are already having these conversations!” But it’s hard for me to believe that the issue currently gets much more than the occasional line item on a departmental-meeting agenda. It’s even harder to believe that graduate students and contingent colleagues get to have a meaningful say. Absent a renewed sense of radical solidarity across the arbitrary and frequently capricious distinctions our discipline covets, morale will continue to sink. Worse still, siloed conversations about the profession’s future will produce capricious or paternalistic proposals that ignore the preferences of those training to enter it.