Recently, the American Historical Association (AHA) wrapped up its annual meeting in Chicago. While I did not attend the conference, I followed a number of the posted videos, blogs and websites covering the annual event. Among the usual fare offered, this year’s conference also focused many of the discussions on the future of the history profession. A number of talks revealed the anxieties and concerns plaguing the newest crop of graduates, along with some of the profession’s old guard. Among the chief concerns were those centering on prospects for employment and the impact of the digital age on the practice of history.
Overall, what stood out from these talks was the need for recent graduates to expand their scope of what it means to be an historian. As most are well aware, tenure track positions are no longer as viable, but what must be made even clearer are that the opportunities that do exist should not be conceived as some sort of consolation prize. It was said that historians need to begin to think about where they fit in outside of the university and know that it is not simply enough to say that field is “public history,” if the expectation is that “public history” means a position in a museum. Budget cuts and a glut of applicants may mean that these opportunities are limited as well. Instead, historians need to begin to conceive as to how their skills and knowledge may fit into any other number of areas, including (but certainly not limited to) government, non-government organizations, journalism, and consulting.
While the AHA may have focused on the lack of opportunities in traditional areas of employment, the AHA also spent a significant portion of this year’s proceedings devoted to the opportunities available in the field of digital history.
As an emerging field, digital history remains hard to define, and many willingly admit to knowing little about the subfield. Writing of his experience at the AHA THATcamp on digital humanities, Jonathan Rees wrote in his blog More or Less Bunk:
The folks in Digital Humanities aren’t exactly sure what precisely it is that their subfield does and willingly admit it. My quick intro suggests to me that there are interesting DH [digital humanities] projects that involve putting stuff up on the web (sometimes to do new things with it that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise and sometimes so that more people can do the same kind of things with the same data); new digital tools being developed to do new things; and new digital tools to do the same thing everyone else already does, but better.
Rees wrote his comments not as a critique, but as an honest observation of the evolving nature of the field. He goes on to describe that as a professor it is these new tools, used in conjunction with the traditional tools and teaching the traditional skills of the humanities, that excite him as a teacher.
While the AHA certainly did not solve the problem of underemployment, it is at least refreshing to see the organization’s members voice their concerns and begin to discuss solutions, both for the issue of employment, but also in how this may alter teaching and career advice provided to students in the field. In addition, it is also hopeful to see the embrace of new technologies that will surely come to define the field. Again, the issue of digital humanities focused not only the tools themselves, but how best to use these tools in the classroom and how to teach the students who will be the architects of these tools in the future.