Don’t Know Much About History

crisis in the humanities, part one: a response to anthony t. grafton and jim grossman on graduate history programs.

Frederick Jackson Turner.

The October 2011 issue of the American Historical Association’s newsletter, Perspectives on History, has a column by the president of the AHA and the organizations executive director. It’s a noble piece that once again notes the extreme oversupply of PhD’s in history compared to actual history jobs in the academy. It makes the usual points: that departments need to rethink the privileging of academic jobs over other professional opportunities for historians, that history is relevant to a wide range of fields, and other “modest proposals” (is that title supposed to be a Swiftian joke? Or is it an unintended one about their recommendations?).

In a way, this is a very sad column. It’s a kind of giving up and giving in. Rather than think of graduate historical education as a way to study the past in order to improve the present and future, or at least try to do so, Grafton and Grossman simply call on departments to acquiesce to the world as it is. They write of the declining tenure-track job market:

As many observers have noted, this is not a transient “crisis.” It’s the situation we have lived with for two generations. And it’s not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets that lead administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions rather than tenure-track jobs. AHA supports and joins in efforts to convert contingent to tenure-track jobs—but it’s unrealistic to expect these to pay off on a large scale. We owe it to our students and to our profession to think more broadly.

“How to work magic.” “It’s unrealistic to expect these to pay off on a large scale.” There is a lack of engagement here with the deeper inequities and inequalities both in our society as a whole and within the university. Yes, we need to think more broadly about history’s applicability, but the first place that the AHA might apply historical skills is to the university itself: what are the ideals of this institution? If universities are no longer meeting those ideals, why is this so? How did this happen? What kinds of alternatives might we imagine to a world in which only “magic” solves the actual problem? Grafton and Grossman offer a band-aid for a gaping wound. The bandage might be decorated with historical figures and pictures of famous events, but it doesn’t even cover, nevermind cure, the deeper political and economic malady.

Perhaps the answer is not only for departments to level the playing field between work within and beyond the academy in graduate training (an important goal to be sure), but also to recognize the very real desires that I suspect push many students toward doctoral work in the first place. Grafton and Grossman seem to want to make the university more like the rest of the world; what about rethinking how the rest of the world might draw upon the best aspects of the university while jettisoning the worst parts? Which is to say that their column largely misses the point. My hunch is that graduate students do not only aspire to tenure-line positions at universities because they “internalize” the attitudes of advisers and departments and seek the approval of their mentors and institutions. Sure, that’s part of it. But graduate students also long for careers that produce the kind of life that tenure-line positions make possible. They hunger, in short, for a taste, just a taste, of unalienated labor.

Yes, I know this is an ideal. But Grafton and Grossman’s column refuses to engage—indeed they seem almost cruelly to want to crush—the desire that I think many graduate students possess, which is to do what a professor ideally does: to have a modicum of autonomy over her or his labor (yes, again, I know this is an ideal); to have an opportunity to help others acquire knowledge; to have the chance to explore new, specialized kinds of knowledge and produce new ideas as an expert in a particular topic; to be able to work in institutional settings that have, at some level, a democratic component of debate, deliberation, and collective agreement rather than the hierarchical and solely-profit-oriented rule of the corporation (and yes, once again, I know this is an ideal).

Graduate students may not know much about history, fools that they are according to Grafton and Grossman’s piece, but I think they do long to love their work and be loved back by it. That’s the wonderful world they seek: impractical and idealistic, yes; driven as much by desire and utopianism as by pseudo-realist approaches to the profession, yes; a bit of a pipe dream to change the world rather than acquiesce to its profound imperfections, yes. But for many graduate students, I suspect, this dream of a more beloved future world is at the core of their interest in studying past failures to achieve it.

As history departments aspire to train students for a broader range of careers, they must not lose sight of why it is so many students long to become tenure-line historians. The AHA should be working to make those other professions more like the best parts of the tenure-track position, not giving up on those kind of working conditions. Without seeking to make good on the hopes among graduate students to become fully-fledged faculty members, why not simply dismantle PhD programs entirely? Just have students earn their MBA’s and JD’s, hone their “soft skills” and “hard skills,” professionalize for the world as it is, become happy team members, and work in their cubicles without all the effort.

If, at some basic level, we don’t maintain the ideal of seeking out historical knowledge as academics do, in the way they do, is there anything left to graduate historical training at all?

Next—Crisis in the Humanities, Part Two: a Response to Cathy Davidson’s “Strangers on a Train: A chance encounter provides a lesson in complicity and the never-ending crisis in the humanities.”


8 thoughts on “Don’t Know Much About History

  1. Grafton and Grossman disingenuously argue that graduate students need “adventures into new realms of knowledge that build skills for diverse careers” and “workshops that explore the world of work.” The hypothetical student imagined in this portrayal is a fresh faced undergraduate apparently lacking any sort of work or internship experience. Many graduate students follow a long line of historians in the American tradition who are inspired in part by their disenchantment with the banalities of adventures into unsatisfying profit-driven labor. A perusal of the academic blogs prove that if graduate students enter their programs with little real work experience, they quickly learn as academic “wage slaves” how flexible, temporary, and efficient laborers optimize an organization’s human resource needs.

    Departments need not expend precious resources to attract “speakers from government and other areas where many historians find jobs.” PhD candidates could explore internship options within the university itself by developing service sector skills in the elaborate gymnasiums, eateries, and luxurious hotels springing up to meet the market driven demand for undergraduate “student experience”(See Hotson, LRB 19 May). Why do the authors ignore this benefit of the bureaucratization of the academy?

  2. Jeff,

    I take your last paragraph to be playfully sardonic, yes? I like it.

    One thing your post made me think about is this. Everything that Grafton and Grossman recommend has been going on for a long time now at most state universities and second-tier private universities with MA or PhD programs in history. Lots of thinking beyond the academy, in terms of workshops, building relationships outside the academy (ok maybe not with the gyms, eateries, and hotels of the new neoliberal university, but with lots of other places), lots of civic outreach through historical education, and so on. Maybe their column simply bespeaks the ways in which the long-running academic job crisis has finally breached the gates of Princeton and similar institutions? That’s probably a bit unfair as an accusation…or maybe not?

  3. Looking back at this response to Grafton and Grossman, I would only add an obvious point: that there is nothing wrong or shameful in graduate students desiring the kinds of economic security, status, and opportunities that a tenure-track position at a university might provide alongside the obligations and commitments that it demands. It’s the turning away from that desire that bothered me about their column. Listening more to Jim Grossman recently, I can hear that he and the AHA are engaging with this desire in more subtle ways than the No More Plan B essay first suggested. For instance, when Grossman spoke at Northwestern recently, he contended that it was not overproduction of PhD’s that was the problem, but rather underconsumption (bringing him a bit closer to Jesse Lemisch’s position). Perhaps overproduction and underconsumption are two sides of the same coin (though perhaps not!). The point is that No More Plan B is a noble undertaking at heart—an effort to make non-tenure-line, non-academic employment as legitimate as anything else for satisfying the desire that draws many people to studying history at advanced levels in the first place. The danger is that it threatens to dissolve the very values it seeks to broaden: when there is no more distinction between a privileged plan A and the alternative anymore, do the good, powerful, and worthy aspects of the Plan A—the opportunities and obligations, the standards and expectations, the securities and intellectual adventurousness embodied in the elusive tenure-track academic job at its most ideal—cease to exist themselves? In other words, does No More Plan B mean the expansion of “precariat” labor and a devaluing of the pursuit of knowledge or does it mean a long march through the institutions of the broader society while flying the flag of all that the tenure-track position (again, at its most ideal) symbolizes for many PhD students?

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