From Inside Higher Ed:
The president and executive director of the American Historical Association have just released a statement calling for their field to abandon the idea that any career path — including those paths outside of academe — be classified as “alternative.” It is time, they argue, to admit that the academic job market is not coming back anytime soon, that many new Ph.D.s who find jobs outside academe find rewarding work (both financially and intellectually), and that the doctoral experience needs to change in some ways so that new Ph.D.s have more options.
“… [G]raduate programs have proved achingly reluctant to see the world as it is. For all the innovation in the subjects and methods of history, the goal of the training remains the same: to produce more professors; the unchanged language of supervisors and students reflects this,” says the statement. “We tell students that there are ‘alternatives’ to academic careers. We warn them to develop a ‘plan B’ in case they do not find a teaching post. And the very words in which we couch this useful advice make clear how much we hope they will not have to follow it — and suggest, to many of them, that if they do have to settle for employment outside the academy, they should crawl off home and gnaw their arms off.”
The statement — “No More Plan B” — appears in the new issue of the AHA publication Perspectives and was written by Anthony Grafton, a Princeton University historian who is president of the AHA, and James Grossman, executive director of the association.
Grafton and Grossman cite data from the last year (and the last several years before that) in which more history Ph.D.s are entering the job market than there are tenure-track openings. Despite the talent of the new history Ph.D.s, “many of these students will not find tenure-track positions teaching history in colleges and universities,” they write.
Further, they say that people cannot simply wait for the economy to improve. “As many observers have noted, this is not a transient ‘crisis,’ ” write Grafton and Grossman. “It’s the situation we have lived with for two generations. And it’s not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets that lead[s] administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions rather than tenure-track jobs. AHA supports and joins in efforts to convert contingent to tenure-track jobs — but it’s unrealistic to expect these to pay off on a large scale. We owe it to our students and to our profession to think more broadly.”
In this environment, Grafton and Grossman write that the idea of working outside academe needs to be basic to all discussions with graduate students, from the time they look at programs to their dissertation defenses. But history departments also need to consider “bigger” changes than just talking about options, and those changes, the statement argues, should include adjustments in the doctoral curriculum. “If we tell new students that a history Ph,D. opens many doors, we need to broaden the curriculum to ensure that we’re telling the truth. If the policy arena offers opportunities, and we think it does, then interested students need some space (and encouragement) to take courses in statistics, economics, or public policy,” they write. “Accounting, acting, graphic design, advanced language training: students thinking at once creatively and pragmatically have all sorts of options at our research universities. And of course there’s the whole exploding realm of digital history and humanities, and the range of skills required to practice them.”
Throughout the time students are in graduate school, they need to feel that their faculty members will support their choices to work in or outside of academe, they write. “Most important is that we make clear to all students that they will enjoy their advisors’ and their departments’ unequivocal support, whether they seek to teach at college or university level, join a nonprofit agency or head off into business or government,” write Grafton and Grossman. “We teach our students to question received ideas and to criticize inherited terminologies and obsolete assumptions. It’s past time that we began applying these lessons ourselves.”
And they call on historians in academe to stop looking down on those who build careers elsewhere. Writing of the present biases in the academy, they say that “many of our students who actually do leave the historical profession, and take what they’ve learned in graduate school to the business world, are seen as having crossed the line from the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism — as if the life of scholarship were somehow exempt from impure motives and bitter competition.”
Good luck with that last one. Though it’s worth noting how, now that it’s instrumental to a long overdue self-critique, there seems to be a new willingness to acknowledge how damaging certain types of ideological bias have been to the academic profession. When the conversation is about how bias is driving out people who are not of like mind, it can’t be admitted. When the conversation is about how bias is destroying one’s own, it has to be admitted. It’s a start — genies don’t go back into bottles all that well, after all.
Every humanities discipline should look hard at the AHA’s example and take notes. And every doctoral program should likewise look at its job placement record and rethink how many students it admits each year — and whether it should exist at all.