The flagship publication of the American Historical Association has a new look. Read all about it here.
Tell them what you think on Twitter at #AHAPerspectives
Here it is:
The American Historical Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Confederate monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.
President Donald Trump was correct in his tweet of August 16: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”
Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.
Understanding the specific historical context of Confederate monuments in America is imperative to informed public debate. Historians who specialize in this period have done careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th. Commemorating not just the Confederacy but also the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, this enterprise was part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South. Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life. A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol. Events in Charlottesville and elsewhere indicate that these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.
To remove such monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. The AHA encourages such discussions in publications, in other venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence. Indeed, any governmental unit, at any level, may request from the AHA a historian to provide consultation. We expect to be able to fill any such request.
We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record. Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.
Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.
Nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, African Americans had no voice and no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of the Confederate States of America. The American Historical Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.
This is a very useful statement. I endorse it. Thanks to the folks at the AHA for writing it.
Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, has a vision. In his recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, he imagines what an orientation for new doctoral students might look like in 2022.
Here is a taste:
As academe moves (slowly but surely) to rethink doctoral training, I’ve been mulling the direction and implications of change.
Today, a new vocabulary has emerged in Ph.D. humanities education. Doctoral degrees are “malleable.” Their recipients are “versatile.” A discourse of “career diversity” will enable new cultures of “connected academics.”
Most graduate students today encounter that wider perspective of doctoral training as they near the finish line, yet they also inhabit an academic culture steeped in traditional norms of success and failure. Even graduate-program directors committed to a broad view of Ph.D. career options might include in their welcome messages the 40-year-old jeremiad about the narrowed academic job market — implying therein a standard of success. In a well-meaning attempt at transparency, they might include a reference to “placement rates” — underscoring the tenure track as the normative pathway even amid the rhetoric of “alternative” careers.
With resources from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation, new projects aimed at changing graduate-school training and culture are emerging — some initiated by scholarly societies like the American Historical Association (the organization I direct) and the Modern Language Association, and others led by humanities centers, graduate deans, and even individual departments.
With these expanded visions gaining traction, I am ready to indulge in fantasy: What might a graduate orientation for entering students in my discipline — history — look like in five years? Let’s pick up where we left off with our hypothetical director of graduate students in 2022 …
Read the entire piece here.
Jim Grossman of the American Historian Association talks with Lonnie Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Enjoy:
There are a lot of good history blogs out there and many of them are collaborative efforts. Think Nursing Clio, Black Perspectives, U.S. Intellectual History, and The Junto. I am glad to see that the American Historical Association has taken notice of these blogs.
Here is a taste of Sadie Bergen’s piece at AHA Today, “From Personal to Professional: Collaborative History Blogs Go Mainstream.”
In 2012, when Jacqueline Antonovich, then a first-year graduate student at the University of Michigan, founded the blog Nursing Clio, maintaining it was as simple as “throwing stuff up online.” Five years later, Antonovich is finishing up her dissertation and overseeing an editorial team of seven as Nursing Clio’s executive editor. As she puts it, the blog, which connects historical scholarship on gender and medicine to current events, has become a “fine-tuned machine.”
This process of professionalization—the shift from blogging as a hobby to a line on your CV—is not unique to Nursing Clio. Over the past several years, collaboratively produced history blogs have blossomed into popular venues that give current historical scholarship an accessible public face. They have grown rapidly, formalized their editorial procedures into those of small publications, and recruited new historians to join their ranks of writers and editors.
Written and edited almost entirely by graduate students and early career historians without tenure-track positions, collaborative blogs have emerged as platforms to share and engage with scholarship in a discipline with high bars for professional advancement. No longer mostly within the realm of the personal, blogging now provides valuable writing and editing opportunities that enable early career historians to cultivate a wide range of skills, promote their work, and make valuable connections, all on the front lines of an emerging form of public history writing.
Read the entire article here.
I envy these collaborative blogs. With multiple authors it alleviates a lot of the work of posting regularly. There have been times throughout the eight-year run of The Way of Improvement Leads Home that I have thought about bringing-on other regular bloggers. This piece has made me think about it again.
But perhaps unlike the blogs mentioned in Bergen’s piece, The Way of Improvement Leads Home has really developed around my own interests, personality, and quirks. I am not sure what a collaborative blog would look like here.
Recently my former student Drew Dyrli Hermeling (you may know him as the producer and co-host of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast) pushed me to have bigger dreams about the future of this blog. He suggested a larger online presence that would include other writers and podcasters. I am open to this idea and would love to hear what you, our faithful readers, think about it. How would you feel if The Way of Improvement Leads Home became more collaborative?
Here’s the skinny:
The AHA is seeking two aspiring graduate-student bloggers, each to write a series of posts on historical documents from their research projects. If you are looking to hone your blogging skills and share the process of doing history with a wide audience, consider applying to be a summer blogger on AHA Today, and show readers how historians’ habits of mind shape the way they see the world.
This year, we’re challenging our summer bloggers to select a historical document and write about its significance to their research. (Think of “document” expansively—it could be a letter, a memo, an article in a community newsletter, a photograph, a map, an oral-history interview, a sound recording, or a nontraditional primary source.) We especially want to hear about how engaging with this particular document led you ask different questions and how it took your research in exciting new directions. You might also consider these questions:
Read the entire call at AHA Today.
In the 1617 celebration of the 95 Theses Luther was used to either remind a town of the perceived horrors of Catholicism or to promote local exceptionalism, as was the case in Ulm, Germany. The tercentennial celebration looked at the German monk as a “Luther for Everyone.” For Luther’s 400th birthday, in 1883, the new nation-state of Germany used the anniversary to promote German unity; after all, even “German Catholics were better than the others.” In 1967, on the 45oth anniversary of the Reformation, communist East Germany had to come to grips with the fact that so much of the Reformation originated in that region. East Germany interpreted the Reformation to fit its own agenda, and therefore made it a secular event heavily attached to the Early Bourgeois Revolution of the Peasants’ War. Luther took on a new identity for each of these commemorations. He became the Luther that the people of each specific time and place needed.
Luther’s impact on others in the “Second Reformation” revealed similar insights. For example, Luther informed John Wesley’s doctrine of sola fide. While Wesley’s theology often looked much different than Luther’s, his scant references to the German reformer point to an implicit influence on his theology of justification. Seventeenth-century Puritans, too, found encouragement from Luther when it came to the importance of temptation in the lives of Christians. To these Puritans, Luther “was clearly recognized as a symbol of piety” despite his stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Lastly, in mid-eighteenth-century Denmark, Luther’s historical reading of the Old Testament would eventually lead Danish theologians to end their traditional evaluations of civil law in Amsterdam. This, in turn, actually led to a secularization of Amsterdam’s government.
Listening to these panels enlightened me on the role of Luther over the centuries and left me questioning what Luther will look like in this year’s festivities. But perhaps even more importantly, the research presented by the historians at each panel illuminated a larger theme within history.
Something that we emphasize in our classes is that history is the study of change (and yes, continuity) over time. But the study of Luther demonstrates that history itself changes over time. Not simply in the academic historiography of any given subject, but also in the public’s use of the past. Luther was perceived very differently by people over time, and perhaps may not even recognize himself in those perceptions; nonetheless, it is through perceptions like those that most understand history. I am reminded of what George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.” How true that is for American society today.
With this in mind, may we, as those who study and teach the past, recognize that history itself is changing, and continue to pursue the goal to teach our students how to navigate those changes in order to paint the most accurate picture of the past available.
I hope you have enjoyed William Cossen‘s posts from the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend. You can read them all here.
Below is his final post. He reflects on two sessions on American Catholic History.–JF
On AHA’s third day, I attended a presidential roundtable hosted by the American Catholic Historical Association, of which I am a member, titled “The Future of Catholic History: What Do Graduate Students Want to Know?”
The first presenter, Boston College’s Peter Cajka, who serves as the Graduate Student Representative to the ACHA’s Executive Council, posed five timely questions dealing with the job market and with the field of Catholic history:
1) Why are there not more positions being created at Catholic schools for junior scholars who specialize in Catholic history, and if there is only one Catholic history position open this year, what else is available for job seekers?
2) How can a scholar make a case for Catholic history when applying to general history positions?
3) Can religious historians apply for theology or religious studies positions? Furthermore, what is really meant by “Catholic studies,” and how can historians make themselves competitive for positions in this field?
4) How can historians of Catholicism demonstrate the relevance of their research for postdoctoral positions that focus on broader issues dealing with religion?
5) How can Catholic historians articulate what it means to be Catholic and connect this to their research and teaching when applying to religious schools?
The second presenter, Shannen Dee Williams of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, spoke about her important research on black Catholic sisters. Williams described the difficulties involved in locating sources on religious sisterhoods and then gaining access to archives holding these materials. Looking toward future trends in the field, Williams recommended investigating the transatlantic history of Catholics of color, urging scholars to “look at those who have remained on the margins of the church.” I have been thinking since the roundtable about a provocative question Williams posed during her presentation that historians of all fields, especially those researching figures who have been traditionally left out of historical narratives, should consider seriously: how can we reconstruct histories that were never meant to be told?
The third presenter, Kyle Roberts of Loyola University Chicago, who serves as Director of Loyola’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities and Project Director of the Jesuit Libraries Project, described exciting advances and possibilities in the field of Catholic digital humanities. Roberts explained that the main activity in Catholic digital humanities has emanated from Catholic archives, which have a done a fine job making more widely available to the public important sources in Catholic history. My own research has benefited immensely from digitized U.S. Catholic sources, and it is important to note that such popular databases as America’s Historical Newspapers also contain Catholic periodicals. I was left with one question that I discussed with other audience members following the roundtable. While many digital humanities projects are freely available, many others (for example, several newspaper and academic journal databases) are not, often requiring an institutional affiliation with access to a research library to utilize the sources they contain. What can the AHA and other historical societies do to help scholars without access to such institutional subscriptions to make use of important digitized sources and to maintain active, productive research agendas?
The final presenter, Thomas Rzeznik of Seton Hall University, who serves as editor of the journal American Catholic Studies, asked the audience to consider how we can make articles in Catholic historical journals and the journals themselves more relevant to a wider audience. Rzeznik also encouraged scholars of Catholicism to think more about what the “Catholic” in American Catholic studies means. Rzeznik argued that too frequently, historians of Catholicism focus only on the so-called “good” Catholics, an approach which I think not only renders Catholic identity monolithically but frankly makes it much less interesting. Rzeznik is right to call for scholars to more seriously consider in their research those who he terms “misfit Catholics” as well as those married to Catholics and those who worked or studied in Catholic institutions but were not themselves members of the faith. This, Rzeznik argues, will “broaden our lens of who is considered Catholic.” As far as the wider relevance of Catholic history in the historical profession goes, Rzeznik points out correctly that the “field already reflects the diversity the job market wants” due to Catholicism’s transnational, cross-cultural dimensions. Ultimately, Rzeznik explains, scholars of Catholicism need to remain mindful of the many audiences they serve: the academy; interested lay non-scholars; and the institutional church.
I also delivered a paper Friday afternoon titled “Isaac Hecker’s American Odyssey: Rewriting the Catholic Nation in The Church and the Age.” I argued two main points in the paper: first, the thought of Catholic convert Isaac Hecker was representative of an emerging movement in late-nineteenth-century U.S. Catholicism that espoused Anglo-Saxon racial superiority in an effort to challenge Protestant hegemony; and second, scholars have paid little attention to Hecker’s and the larger Catholic Americanist movement’s affinity for popular racial theories of the day. This is part of the larger effort of my dissertation to revise historical interpretations of Americanism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Catholicism. I argued in the paper and the dissertation that the Americanists, far from being the benign democratizers of historiography, were comfortable putting a Catholic spin on American colonization of the U.S. West and the Philippines, scientific racial theories, immigration regulation, and exclusionary formulations of the national community, which lends a darker cast to the Americanists than has been previously acknowledged by scholars. My paper was joined by Erin Bartram’s (University of Hartford) “The ‘Use and Abuse of Reading’: American Catholics and the Debate over Reading, 1860-90” (which also examined Hecker but in an earlier period) and Luke Ritter’s (Troy University) “Where Bigotry Thrives: Know-Nothingism and the Origins of an Inclusive Civil Religion.” Following our presentation, the panelists and members of the audience had a productive conversation on Catholicism, Americanism, historiography, and the state of the field that extended well into the evening.
This has been another fantastic AHA. Between sessions, exhibits, and the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends and to make new connections with other scholars, the AHA and its affiliate organizations certainly fulfilled their goal of exploring cutting edge scholarship and building collegiality across our profession. Safe travels, fellow historians, and see you next year in Washington, DC!
Who is Donald Trump most like?
What should we make of these historical analogies? Here is what we have written about this approach to history and the election at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:
I’ve written a lot about this over the last year. Anything I write here would just be repetitive. I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session. Here is Fish’s essay for some context.
Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:
Zachary Cote teaches middle school (8th grade) history at Stella Middle Charter Academy in Los Angeles. This weekend he will be writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home from Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver. –JF
As a middle school teacher in urban Los Angeles, I am inundated with education strategies and research and am often surrounded by the urban education culture. Now, to be clear, I chose this. However, when not specifically preparing for lessons or classroom management strategies, I find a home in the historian’s realm. Recently a colleague of mine said to me, “I could teach anything. I’m a teacher who just happens to teach history.” I responded, “Well, I am a historian who teaches.” I cannot see myself teaching anything else. I thus often miss the academic days of my college years and try to keep up with my field by reading historical journals, blogs and books. The Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, to say the least, has been sort of a homecoming.
When I sit in panels and listen to historian’s dialogue and debate I think to myself, “I am at Intellectual Disneyland.” I feel almost as if like I have left the city for the day and traveled to the rural areas of California about an hour north from Los Angeles where I am rejuvenated through a deep breath of that fresh air. The AHA conference is that breath of fresh air. My lungs and head are clearing, and I am reminded of the joys of the discipline of history. For those like me, historians at heart who feel called to the classroom, I want to encourage you: Do whatever you can to attend an AHA annual meeting. It replenishes your intellectual cup, it refreshes your historical mind, and it fuels your educator’s heart to use the past to inspire our future.
A strange new movement has formed at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend. It seems that something called “The Paul Harvey Fan Club” is taking the conference by storm.
No, not that Paul Harvey.
This is a fan club devoted to the noted historian of American religion and race. Harvey is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (See our Author’s Corner interview with him here). I know from reading his books that he is a gifted scholar. I hear that he a gifted teacher. I also hear that he has a weak jump shot. Oh yes, and did I mention that he founded one of the most influential blogs in the American history blogosphere?
Evidence of this movement is cropping up all over the place:
I am sure some of you who attend the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association or some other major academic conference have witnessed a newly minted Ph.D pitching a book idea, based on her or his dissertation, to an editor in the exhibit hall. The editor listens and nods as the post-doc or assistant professor verbally walks through the proposal. This kind of conversation has become a rite of passage for any first-time academic author.
I have done this a few times and have always felt very awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps it is just me, but I always assumed that the editor was bored and really did not want to hear from yet another dissertation writer trying to land a book contract. If the editor’s eyes were flashing around the room looking at the name badges of people coming into the booth I knew I was in trouble. I knew I was in even more trouble if the editor interrupted me (always politely) multiple times to talk to someone who he or she deemed to be more important. Who wants to try to make a book pitch in such a public setting? I was always self-conscious of the people milling around in the booth who were no doubt listening to me explain my proposal.
After I published my first book I decided that I would not use the exhibit hall to pitch proposals to editors. (Part of this decision was based on experience. My interaction with editors at the AHA and other conferences played a very, very small role in getting that book into print). It was too much work. As an introvert I hate such spontaneous meetings.
Don’t get me wrong, I still meet with publishers at the AHA. But most of my meetings are scheduled well in advance so that the editors are prepared for the conversation. I try to make sure that these meetings take place away from the booth and preferably outside the exhibit hall.
The book exhibit continues to be my favorite part of any big conference. When I enter the exhibit hall for the time my heart (and mind) still races. When I am at the AHA I try to make two or three visits. I usually just browse titles and try to say hello to the editors I have worked with over the years. I take pictures of the books I want to read or write about. I run into friends, acquaintances, colleagues and blog readers.
I tend to see my discussions with editors about book ideas as something separate from the exhibit itself.
With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Toff’s recent post at AHA Today about what it is like to be a book editor at the conference. Toff is vice president and executive editor at Oxford University Press.
Here is a small taste of her post:
As talent scouts, we judge work that has already been done. Editors thus spend some of their time listening to papers and scoping out new talent. The “yield” is fairly low, but it’s a good way to check out potential authors. It tells us not only whether a particular historian has a good argument, but whether s/he is a decent human being. Public behavior is telling! Does s/he get to the point? How does the scholar react to questions and criticism? I also meet with potential authors who have written to me in advance and sent me proposals or sample materials. The conference is a chance for me to hear more about the project, to ask questions about what I’ve read, and often to guide the author in a slightly different direction. I’ll ask about competing titles, about sources, and, as at sessions, I’ll get a feel for the style of the person I’m dealing with.
Unfortunately, time is always short. So when meeting with an editor, authors should get to the point. The proverbial “elevator pitch” is no joke—we need a quick overview of the subject matter, the status of the book, and the archival work you’ve done. If the book has grown out of a dissertation, who was your adviser? That information often orients us intellectually. Think of the meeting as speed dating for scholars and editors—make a good first impression. Many university press editors are also commissioning books, especially for existing series. After consulting with series editors and doing some research, I will have identified potential authors for particular titles and set up meetings to discuss the possibilities. That’s where I wear my snake-charmer hat.
Editors always make time to chat informally with potential authors to see if we can find the perfect new project based both on the scholar’s interests and our needs as publishers. It’s kismet when those two objectives align. For example, I had worked with Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee on a World War I primary source anthology; I hoped to do another book with them. When we met at the AHA’s annual meeting several years ago, they told me that they had many more diaries they’d come across but had not had space to include. The result of that conversation was Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War (2015), a collection of six rare and diverse war journals.
Read the entire post here.
Last night I was following the tweets from first plenary session of the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver. The session was titled “The First Hundred Days: Priorities for a New US President.” It featured some very fine historians of American politics, U.S. foreign relations, and global economics. Thanks to all who tweeted.
I know that the AHA can only squeeze so many panelists on the stage in a session like this, but as I read the tweets I (along with others) could not help but react:
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) January 6, 2017
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) January 6, 2017
@JohnFea1 no, they’re not. As a progressive who grew up evangelical but has run away from that, I agree that this is a dire oversight.
— cfryar (@jamaicandale) January 6, 2017
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) January 6, 2017
Seems strange to have plenaries on 2016 election at #aha17 with no historian of rural America, religion, populism or conservatism.
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) January 6, 2017
This. This. This. And this again. https://t.co/TLjTlpE0Bi
— RebeccaS-S (@AlmostDrStoil) January 6, 2017
Let’s be fair to the American Historical Association. I am sure that this panel was planned well in advance of the November election. Sean Wilentz, one of the panelists, even joked about it:
— Caleb McDaniel (@wcaleb) January 6, 2017
Another member of the panel, Margaret O’Mara, tweeted:
— Margaret O’Mara (@margaretomara) January 6, 2017
On the other hand, one could argue that questions of rural life, religion, populism, conservatism, and yes, gender and immigration, were prevalent in this presidential campaign from the beginning.
And that leads us to my thoughts on Saturday night’s plenary on the election. This one, as I understand it, was added much later. I look forward to reading the twitter coverage.
We are very happy to have William S. Cossen writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association. William defended his dissertation, “The Protestant Image in the Catholic Mind: Interreligious Encounters in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” in October and graduated with a PhD in history from Penn State University in December. (Congratulations!). He is a faculty member of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Below you will find some of his reflections on Day 1 of the AHA.–JF
Greetings from sunny Denver!
Well, a little wishful thinking can’t hurt.
After a smooth flight from Atlanta and a scenic train ride from Denver International Airport to the city, I made it safely to AHA 2017. I’ll be presenting on Saturday at the American Catholic Historical Association’s conference as part of a panel titled “Catholicism and Americanism in the 19th Century: New Perspectives on an Old Debate.” It will be nice to have so much time before delivering my own paper to enjoy the rest of the conference.
Following a quick, efficient check-in process (thank you, AHA!), I made my way to my first panel of the conference, “Deciphering the Academic Job Search,” which was sponsored by the AHA’s Professional Division. With the market seemingly getting tighter every year, I was eager to hear opinions on the process from a recent candidate, a search committee member, and an academic dean.
The recurring themes I picked up in all three presentations were the necessity of flexibility and the need for candidates to be able to compellingly present their research – specifically providing a clear answer to the “so what?” question, a skill which is also useful in academic publishing and grant writing – to those outside their fields.
The first presenter, Ava Purkiss of the University of Michigan, provided helpful advice for how candidates can make themselves stand out in the initial stages of the job search process. One tip was for candidates to shop their job materials around widely before applying, not only among their advisors and committee members but also among other professors and graduate students. A second tip was for candidates to seek out search committees’ evaluation and scoring criteria for job applications. This might not be easy to find, but Dr. Purkiss mentioned an example of one university posting this information online publicly. A final piece of advice, which is especially useful in an era of online applications, was to print out all components of the application before submitting them to search committees to find and fix any glaring errors.
The second presenter, Paul Deslandes of the University of Vermont, counseled prospective job candidates to be self-reflective. He urged job seekers to answer an important question: What do you really want out of academia? He noted importantly that if one does not see themselves enjoying teaching, then academia is probably not a good fit. Dr. Deslandes emphasized one of the panel’s key themes, which was that job seekers need to learn how to communicate their research to departments in their entirety, or as he put it, “Speak the language of other people.” Regarding job opportunities, he encouraged those on the job market to “be expansive.”
The final presenter, Catherine Epstein of Amherst College, offered practical advice for the all-important cover letter: the letter must make clear “why your work is interesting.” While Dr. Epstein noted that candidates are not expected to write a brand new cover letter for each job, the letters need to be tailored to specific schools. Responding directly to the job requirements found in a job advertisement demonstrates true interest in the position and shows search committees that a candidate has actually attempted to learn about the institution to which they are applying.
The question-and-answer session following the presentations reflected some of the larger anxieties of the current history job market, but I think that panel chair Philippa Levine’s reminder that this is very much an impersonal process is an important point for job seekers to take to heart, as difficult as that may be, if they are disappointed by the outcome of their search for employment in academia. One essential fact is that the number of job seekers far outstrips the number of available tenure-track positions. However, these sorts of panels do a good service for the profession by partially demystifying what is for many an often confusing, frequently disappointing process.
I’m excited for Friday’s full schedule of sessions – and, of course, also for the book exhibit. As with other conferences of this size, I have upwards of ten panels which I would like to see simultaneously. This is ultimately not a bad problem to have. More to come!
This 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.