Why the Ph.D is Killing History

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston, joins the chorus of historians lamenting the way Ph.D students are trained.  Here is a taste of his essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The Future of History.”

…Consider the tempo of life in graduate school: It moves at the same glacial pace as did life during the age of Phillip. Still governed by guildlike regulations and socio-professional traditions that our early-modern ancestors would recognize, the careers of grad students advance as languidly as trade caravans once did across North Africa.

Trudging slowly across the desert of coursework and dissertation research, grad students pass the many skeletons of peers who had, without success, launched themselves along the same route. As they pass the oases of independent cafes and bookstores, a good number of these exhausted explorers will quit their trek and join the tribe Aibeedee. Their professional lives will come to resemble what one of Braudel’s students, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, called l’histoire immobile, when history seems to idle, if not stall and stop altogether.

For those who survive the desert passage, and reach the port of a tenure-track position, time shudders back into movement. Just barely, though. The seven-year span of time during which your worth will be weighed and fate determined will move as sluggishly as a ship across the Sargasso Sea. The seaweed of service committees will cling to your hull as you wallow in the becalmed waters of academic presses. The process of revise and resubmit for articles you had already chiseled to perfection, the sending out of book proposals to editors who mix short bouts of interest with long periods of silence, the larding of dozens of obscure footnotes demanded by anonymous manuscript readers will make Philip’s Mediterranean seem like the floor of the NYSE in comparison to the static sense of tenure-line life.
The pace of life does not change dramatically for most of those who reach the El Dorado of tenure. Committee servitude deepens as post-publication lassitude descends; now that your dissertation has (finally) become a book, your life has (suddenly) lost its compass. Often, of course, another monograph will take root and slowly flower during la longue tenurée,accompanied by the annual harvest of a lone scholarly article. But academic time, at least when measured against the professional world beyond academe, continues to move with Braudelian languor.
It is hardly surprising, then, that we are unprepared for the tempo and temper of the times. We have handicapped ourselves, in addition, by a process of professional fission, fracturing into a growing number of subdisciplines. As our profession continued to sprawl, we fastened on ever smaller matters, and phrased our work in ever more arcane jargon. Mostly indifferent to the art of storytelling, we have been dying a death by a thousand monographs.