Bowen: The Historical Profession is “abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market.”

bowenThis morning’s post by Mike Bowen resonated with many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and struck a chord with folks attending the Annual Meeting of the AHA in Denver. Read it here.  In this post, Bowen offers some thoughts on the history job market.  –JF

Writing about the academic job market from the inside is very difficult. No one likes a braggart, and no one likes a complainer. If you stray too far in either direction your message can get lost amidst the visceral reactions emanating from the comment threads.

I tried writing about the job market once, back in the heady, pre-recession days of 2008. Frankly, the article is embarrassing and I wish I had never published it. It is too inflammatory and should have been more constructive and conciliatory. The response to the piece is why I spent the next nine years away from the topic.

Based on their reaction at the meeting in the graduate students/junior scholar job panel two days later, the AHA staff didn’t appreciate my contribution. There was no subsequent dialogue about any of the points I brought up. The AHA staff rediscovered a couple of those points in 2011 or 2012 on their own, and others have drilled down on the communication issue on non-academic sites, but there hasn’t been any substantive movement towards fixing the lack of communication or late notices for interviews.

More alarming to me were the grumblings among the job seeking community. You can see that a little bit of dialogue happened on the IHE comment thread, but the readership of the Chronicle forums was severely underchuffed. For the first time in my life, I was called a “special snowflake.” Someone said that I was “entitled.” God knows what would have happened if Twitter had been around back then.

The point for bringing all of this up…the profession is abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market. Everyone knows that there is a major concern that needs to be addressed, but no one will actually make even a half-hearted effort to try. That has compounded the problem.

As the organization that is most closely associated with the job market, this situation comes back to the AHA somewhat. However, in late 2014, the executive director of the AHA wrote in Perspectives that the AHA is not here to help people find jobs in academia. I am legitimately, with no sarcasm intended, glad that he admitted this and has turned the organization to career diversity initiatives. I don’t need the help (see below), but I know others do.

The remaining stakeholders generally fall in to one of four camps. One small group outside the faculty wants to put everyone on five year contracts and do away with tenure. Some proposals have been more radical than that.  Another, slightly larger, group of contingent faculty wants to unionize. That may be a viable solution in some circumstances but, given today’s political climate I can’t envision a movement becoming so widespread that it works at every institution. The third camp is composed of job seekers who hope to God that they can land on their feet next academic year and are otherwise powerless.

The larger fourth camp is generally the rest of the profession, and they tend to ignore the situation. Job seekers make faculty members uncomfortable largely because, while many want to help, they can’t do much. You can’t really blame them either. Is it worth going to battle with a college administration, risking potential blowback down the line, to try to get more lines? More often than not, in an age of disinvestment in higher education and the dominance of STEM, the answer is no. So rather than confront the problem, the faculty retreats inwards and worries about themselves.

The net result is that we continue on the same path we have been on, motivated largely by inertia. We are a profession composed of highly-educated, socially-aware people, yet we have collectively thrown our hands up at a problem that we find too difficult to solve. I wish that we could engage in an honest discussion about this without politicizing it. Our discipline is fading , and the job crisis is part of the reason why.

Postscript: I have received  e-mails from people offering to help me transition out of academia. I appreciate the contacts, but it isn’t necessary. When I received notice of my non-renewal, I connected with a local job coach and subsequently landed a very good job in the editorial department at a research and publishing firm. I now manage a great team, am surrounded by wonderful co-workers, and have a supportive boss.

More importantly, I was able to get on with my life. That distance is what is allowing me to write these blog posts. I still adjunct at JCU one night class a semester to keep a foothold in the field and to supplement my income but, barring a miracle, the new job is my first priority now. It has to be. Do I want to get back into history full-time? Absolutely. I feel that teaching history is my vocation, but my past experience tells me that that is highly unlikely that there is a place for me to do so. That is just the reality.

 

4 thoughts on “Bowen: The Historical Profession is “abjectly terrible at talking about the academic job market.”

  1. I guess it shows how much the conversation has shifted that the so-called inflammatory/embarrassing article actually seems pretty mild-mannered by 2016 standards. (Actually, if you went deep into the bowels of the Internet in 2008 in places like the history jobs wiki, you could have found more inflammatory stuff even then.)

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  2. A deciding factor was that I no longer know what to say to students and postdocs regarding how to navigate the CRAZINESS in the field…Research and other professional activities are professionally rewarded only if they are channeled in certain directions approved by a politicized academic establishment — funding, ease of getting your papers published, getting hired in prestigious positions, appointments to prestigious committees and boards, professional recognition, etc.

    How young scientists are to navigate all this is beyond me, and it often becomes a battle of scientific integrity versus career suicide (I have worked through these issues with a number of skeptical young scientists).

    This is climatologist Dr. Judith Curry explaining her resignation from Georgia Tech, but it applies to the academy at large, judging by the tenured mediocrities we see all over. Poor Dr. Bowen chose to specialize in the genuinely valuable area of the history of the Republican Party, but he could not have chosen more wrongly re race, class and gender.

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