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The end of history (departments)


With apologies in advance to Erik for blogging in the middle of his turf, here are some interesting and sobering pieces about what’s happening to history as a viable commercial entity academic discipline:

As the Princeton history professor David A. Bell related in these pages, “Of my 10 Ph.D. students who defended their dissertations before 2016, all but one got a tenure-track job. … Of the eight who have defended since then, only one has so far gotten a tenure-track job.” Students are vanishing from the field, too — as best as the AHA can tell, undergraduate enrollments are on a “slow and steady decline.” Fifty years from now, Sweet’s keynote may be remembered as a morbid symptom of a profession in terminal decline. The ballroom and the profession it hosted had both seen better times.

As a Ph.D. candidate in history attending AHA for the first time, I was struck by the lack of attention to the void into which the profession is falling. The leadership’s strategy for how to respond to the peril seems to be to ignore it and hope it resolves itself. Tenured and tenure-track professors appear to understand the predicament of the newly minted Ph.D., but pathologically avoid addressing it.

The specific numbers are really terrible:

Beyond academic job listings, Grigoli wrote that 15 percent of new history Ph.D.s immediately took nonacademic jobs, citing the 2021 federal Survey of Earned Doctorates. These jobs were in government, business, nonprofits and K-12 and other positions.

Some 1,799 historians earned their Ph.D.s in 2019 and 2020, based on federal data. According to information from the AHA’s directory of history departments, 175 are now employed as full-time faculty members. [That’s 9% for those of you scoring at home. Data as of August 31st, 2022]

The American Historical Association’s reaction to this seems a bit . . . denialist?

“Taken together, these indicators should encourage a continuing focus on maintaining strong and diverse career options for history Ph.D.s at all U.S. institutions,” the AHA’s report says.

And it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the central administrative winds are blowing:

At institutions where the slashing of jobs was not necessary or mercy prevailed or it was temporarily avoided for some reason, administrators await the retirements of historians, sometimes nudging them toward the door. Replacements will not be sought once they leave. Some historians have been assigned to teach non-history courses, a sign of what is to come. Others are given bigger workloads, which then shrinks available research time.

Some history departments are simply folded into larger and incoherent administrative units and the identity of history faculty is lost. Support for engaging the wider scholarly community is largely gone. Conference travel budgets are now an ancient relic. The declining number of history professorships and the shriveling of their research agendas contribute to the shrinkage or elimination of history conferences and seminars and workshops and brown bag presentations and the broader infrastructure necessary to the writing of history. The historian Steven Mintz recently noted how the loss of historians is causing the evaporation of willing and able peer reviewers and contributors to journals and university presses.

The sour mood and sense of impending doom, Mintz opines, is causing a widespread abandonment of scholarly obligations and commitments to academic professions. The diminishment of our scholarly infrastructure, argues Emily Hamilton-Honey, is a direct result of professorial “precarity, desperation, and exhaustion.”

My own view is that a university without a history department is not really a university, but I more than suspect that the $500,000 per year Excel spreadsheet jockeys who rule over the business of academia — which is apparently now business — don’t see it that way.

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