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How Historians Earn Tenure

December 3, 2012

One might expect historians at research universities to feel that their published work will be crucial to receiving tenure, and that historians at bachelor's institutions would expect to be judged primarily on teaching. That assumption turns out to be correct for research universities, but not bachelor's institutions, where research output has become significant in tenure decisions.

That is one of the conclusions of a survey by the American Historical Association of 2,440 associate and full professors, almost all of them at four-year colleges and universities. The survey also found that these professors feel that digital scholarship is not highly valued in tenure decisions, that it is taking longer for faculty members to land the jobs in which they win tenure, that historians are generally happy with their careers and that they are generally unhappy with the quality of academic leadership and students. (The survey results are available here to AHA members.)

One of the questions the professors were asked was about whether certain kinds of work were "highly valued" by their institutions in the tenure process. At baccalaureate colleges, 87.4 percent indicated that teaching was highly valued, while only 28.8 percent of the faculty members at research universities answered that way. When asked about the value of print monographs, 84.6 percent of those at research universities said that they were highly valued. But so did 61.1 percent of those at bachelor's institutions.

Similarly, when asked about the value of print, peer-reviewed journal articles, research universities beat bachelor's colleges, but not by much, with about 70 percent of faculty members at the former saying that they were highly valued, but just over 60 percent agreeing at bachelor's colleges.

The survey also found that senior faculty members are unlikely to believe that their institutions highly value digital journal articles, even with the question specifying that these were peer-reviewed online articles. Compared to the approximately 70 percent of history professors in the survey who said that print articles were highly valued, only about 10 percent said the same for digital articles. At bachelor's colleges, the figure is about 15 percent. (An Inside Higher Ed poll of faculty members this year found that a majority believe that work published in online-only journals can be equal in quality to work published in print, but only a small minority agreed that online scholarship receives the same respect in tenure decisions as does print scholarship.)

The figures are striking in that the discipline of history has no shortage of highly respected digital scholarship venues.

The value placed on research, even at teaching institutions, also shows up in questions about the publishing records of professors. While the survey found that those at research universities publish more than those elsewhere, the study also found that one does not reach tenure or full professor status at teaching institutions without significant publishing.

Average Research Output of Historians, by Rank and Sector

  Baccalaureate Institution Research University
Associate professor

1.0 monographs

3.8 peer-reviewed articles

1.3 monographs

7.3 articles

Full professor

2.2 monographs

10.3 articles

3.1 monographs

19.3 articles

The survey also documents a trend felt by many younger humanities scholars: the longer and longer time periods that it is taking people to land a tenure-track job. The respondents were asked their age when they obtained their first tenure-track appointment and the answers were sorted by time period hired. (And it may be worth remembering that this group, because of those surveyed, doesn't reflect those who never landed a tenure-track job.)

Average Age at Landing First Tenure-Track Appointment

When Hired Average Age
1981-1990 33.3
1991-2000 34.7
Since 2000 35.7

"The rising age threshold for entering assistant professors (and thus the increasing time on the job market) is reflected in part in the growing number of postdoctoral fellowships and adjunct positions that now serve as a temporary bridge between a degree and the tenure track," says an analysis of the survey by Robert B. Townsend, deputy director of the AHA.

Satisfied and Not

The historians in the survey were generally satisfied with their careers, with 41.2 percent reporting they were somewhat satisfied, 46.5 percent reporting they were very satisfied and only 2.2 percent reporting they were very dissatisfied.

One area of frustration -- with 55.7 percent expressing dissatisfaction -- was "effectiveness of academic leadership" at their institutions. Comments indicated that many were frustrated by responses to recent economic challenges.

The area of greatest frustration was students, with 69.2 percent of the respondents expressing dissatisfaction with their undergraduates, and 67.3 percent reporting dissatisfaction with graduate students. In comments with the survey, historians worried about the impact of poorly prepared students on their classes. One wrote that "increasingly poorly prepared students have necessitated that I spend ever greater amounts of time on preparing courses, assessment of student work, and remediation of student work in my teaching."

 

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