Mobility and the Historical Profession

Historiann has an interesting post on professional mobility within the historical profession. It is really two posts in one.

First, she reflects on the way that upward mobility among academics disrupts lives and often brings an end to the everyday nature of friendship. Historiann laments the fact that she has been left behind by friends in pursuit of “new jobs and lives.”

Her post got me thinking about the priorities of academics. We are often restless and ambitious creatures, always looking for the next big gig. I realize that there are a lot of reasons why people leave one academic institution and go to another one. No institution or job is perfect. But why don’t we hear anything about staying put? Why is the idea of investing in a place or an institution such a foreign concept to academics? I appreciate Historiann’s honesty–academic mobility can be painful to those who leave and those who are left behind. Yet we are all ready to deal with the pain for a lighter teaching load, higher salaries, and more prestige.

Second, Historiann wonders about upward mobility for Associate Professors. She writes:

I’ve noticed a lot more movement at the Associate level in history hires in the past five or ten years than I was led to believe existed 15 or 20 years ago. I’ve been invited to apply for some jobs at the Associate level, too. When I was in graduate school and making my first forays onto the job market, the conventional wisdom was that all of the movement was at the Assistant Professor level, and that if you were tenured somewhere you were pretty much stuck there unless and until you turned into a “star” who was recruited somewhere else at the full Professor rank. Are any of you seeing the same thing? What about other disciplines? What’s up with this?

As usual, Historiann’s commentators offer some rich insights.

2 thoughts on “Mobility and the Historical Profession

  1. Ann: Right as usual. And thanks for taking the time to reply.

    I think I know who that senior scholar is. He actually interviewed at a certain Ivy league school in Philadelphia when I happened to be in residence there for a year. (Of course you know the school very well).

    I found your “hurting one's reputation” line intriguing. Why would staying put hurt one's reputation? I know that it does, but I still wonder why? Isn't scholarship in our field supposed to be based on quality rather than the kind of institution one teaches at? Based on the rules of the profession and some of the things I write about on this blog my “reputation” was “hurt” a long time ago. Frankly, I find it liberating and would not have it any other way.

    The academic profession can suck the life out of you unless you find yourself in the kind of place where you have a sense of belonging and community. Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But I am not sure I would give up a job at a place where I am personally and professionally fulfilled just to climb the academic ladder of success. (Let me add a “never say never” to that last sentence). I know this makes me a very odd duck by the standards of the profession, but so be it.

    Please forgive my minor rant here. But the older I get, the more I come to realize that the kind of mobility and ambition present in the academia has the potential to undermine what are (at least for me) the deeper and more meaningful “pursuits of happiness.”

    Thanks for the conversation.


  2. John–thanks for the link and offering your own thoughts. As someone who left a tenure-track job for another one, I can hardly complain about being the one “left behind,” since I left a number of great friends and neighbors behind when I made my move! (And I think you have an idea why I had to leave that first job.)

    The fact of the matter is that staying put–however much sense it might make for someone professionally or personally–will never be regarded as highly as mobility, because for most people it's viewed as a fate (rather than a choice). And because most of us don't teach at schools where hitting the job market in order to get a retention offer is a realistic strategy, most of us embrace this “fate.” (It's either that, or get a divorce/lose a partner/earn the enmity of your children/etc.)

    There is a historian in our field who teaches at a small (elite) lib arts college, who's earned a kind of quirky street cred as the guy no one can lure away. Prominent Ph.D. programs aggressively hunted him for several years, and in the end, he always returned to his first institution. It doesn't seem to have hurt his reputation–but I think that's a strategy that few of us will be able to replicate.


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