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A Tough Sell

January 9, 2012

CHICAGO -- The history of the history profession may provide some guidance to those trying to figure out the terrible job market, said panelists Friday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.

In the last year, there have been frequent calls, including one by AHA leaders, for job candidates to develop alternative career paths, because the academic job market is not going to bounce back to pre-recession levels any time soon.

A paper presented at the session by Thomas Bender, a professor of history at New York University, suggested that even though nonacademic careers may be the obvious direction to go, a shift in thinking can only come about when the leading history departments in the country begin to actively back this kind of thinking. “Without that leadership, the changes proposed will be considered something subpar and thus not the thing for an aspiring department or student,” Bender said in his paper. He said research by the AHA Committee on Doctoral Education has shown that graduates students are afraid to tell their advisers that they are contemplating careers outside the academe.

“Such students preferred to pursue the profession of history in museums, historical societies, film making, and the park service, among other possibilities,” according to the paper. But the students fear that if and when their advisers find out their plans, they will not be supportive. That’s why a radical change is needed in the way history departments think: not only acceptance of a new normal, but also a realization that the market may even worsen in the years to come.

Bender, in his paper, said that the idea that academe is the only suitable option for Ph.D students in history took hold in the mid-1950s. “Oddly, not only was this narrowing nourished by the flush times of the so-called academic ‘Golden Age’ that ended in the early 1970s, but it even accelerated during the hard times since,” he said.

Bender called out to historians to recover the deep roots of history beyond the world of academics.  He even tackled what many would call the elephant in the room by calling for departments to produce fewer Ph.D.s. and suggesting that the AHA encourage the shutting down of subpar programs.

To expand the field of history, he suggested collaborations with professional schools, including business schools. That means developing the right courses. History of the Constitution, anyone? Or legal history for undergraduates, or a joint B.A. in history and a M.A. in public affairs. History as a discipline could play a significant part in educating those opting to take up careers in civics or business, he said. “Advanced training as it developed in the 19th century included a commitment to civic life and leadership, and I hope we recover that forgotten legacy as we go forward,” according to Bender. “Those students who seek nonacademic careers deserve as much moral and practical support as those who seek to emulate their professors. Both are important and enriching career choices.”

But will history departments take the all-important step of trying to reduce enrollments in their graduate programs like Bender suggests? James Axtell, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, who presented a paper at the session called “A Long View: Graduate Education in America” does not seem to think so. “In a competitive climate of rankings and relative prestige, precious few universities are willing to take the first step toward reducing their graduate enrollments because reduction smacks of entropy and loss of face; some governors, trustees, and state boards of higher education seem less reluctant,” he said. But change is imperative and is needed, he said. Greater costs and sky-high debts demand that hard questions be asked about entrenched processes in the academic world.

Robert B. Townsend, the author of a recent report about the job market for graduate students in history and a deputy director at the AHA, said he is beginning to notice changes in the way doctoral students think about the market.

“In the 90s, many graduate students in history seemed to be angry, and there were frequent calls for shutting down programs. I think now, they are focusing on the positive and concentrating on the jobs they can have,” he said.

 

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