January 18, 2012
By Sarah Fenton, AHA Consulting Editor
Of the nearly 5,000 attendees at this year’s annual meeting were some ostensibly similar historians who’d come to Chicago for two quite dissimilar reasons. There were those eager to participate in one or more of the 250 panels covering an astonishing array of topics, and those—just as eager, but surely more anxious too—with their eye on only one prize: a job. Some of these aspiring applicants were newly minted PhDs arriving for their first interviews; others had earned their degrees years before and had since been bouncing around in a profession that has far more aspirants than it does steady jobs. Two related panels—one long planned, the other spontaneously assembled—sought to combine these aspects of the annual meeting, and address simultaneously the individual search for jobs and the history of the job search.
The first panel—a Presidential Session with the rather ominous title “Did We Go Wrong? The Past and Prospects of the History Profession”—opened with William and Mary professor James Axtell providing a “Long View” in the hope that knowing we’ve been here before would do more to comfort than chasten us. Prior to the Civil War, Axtell explained, “American graduate education of any sort did not exist.” What has evolved since is “an extremely decentralized non-system” in which, for reasons both admirable and not, “precious few universities are willing to take the first step toward reducing their graduate enrollments.” Taken together, these conditions “make it very difficult for our national disciplines to adjust quickly to job/candidate misalignments.” Rob Townsend of the AHA followed, contributing hard data to back up Axtell’s overview, as well as providing an idea of how many History PhDs have found work outside of academia and, with understandably less specificity, where they’ve found it.
Panelist and NYU professor Tom Bender both deepened that sense of predicament and tried his hand at solving it. “The crisis is larger than the employment of historians,” Bender suggested; “it is also about the place of history in our civic life.” And yet, as panel chair Barbara Metcalf put it, Bender’s talk was “inspiring,” as it urged historians of all stripes to haul their “mind-boggling ideas,” analytic skills, ease with “interdependent variables,” and ability to produce “synthetic and explanatory narrative[s]” into fields flung far and wide—from McKinsey and Deloitte, to Silicon Valley, to community advocacy, film-making, and journalism.
With fewer than two hours’ break for reflection (and lunch!), many of those who’d gathered for the first session reconvened, along with an even wider and more diverse audience, for the second, “Jobs for Historians: Approaching the Crisis from the Demand Side.” On one side of this panel sat Jesse Lemisch, professor emeritus of history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and, in the words of AHA President Tony Grafton, “a real Protestant; he protests against everything.” Lemisch demanded that the AHA not function as merely “a clearing house,” nor that it “submit to the marketplace” and work to primarily and “parsimoniously redistribute the ever-shrinking pie.” Instead, Lemisch looked to the “worthy goal of keeping our profession alive” by, among other things, fighting “rapidly and effectively for a new WPA.”
Occupying (ahem) the other side of the stage was UCLA professor Lynn Hunt, just as fiery, but in robust defense rather than rebuke of the organization over which she once presided. “The left,” she wryly reminded her fellow panelists, “has been more influential among AHA members than with voters.” In between Lemisch and Hunt sat Edward Balleisen of Duke University and John R. Dichtl of the National Council for Public History, who each sought from their middle seats to find (in Balleisen’s words) some “common ground.” Dichtl put the essential question this way: “Do we transform internally or rally and take political action?” His answer, coming from the panel’s center but “representing those outside the profession,” was daunting but surely true: “we can do both.”