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.
Whenever there is discussion about non-university jobs for historians, ‘public history’ is generically talked of but it always seems that the assumptions are public sector. There is also a niche for people with the research skills of historians in the private sector. We occassionally hear of historians doing consulting on land claims or research towards legal cases, as well as researching policy developments for companies in the oil-patch. The difficulty is that those are not jobs with a clear application process (the way museums do), instead being dependent on someone recognizing the historian’s skills and giving them a chance. At some point if departments are actually serious about helping find good jobs outside of universities for their graduates, they will need to help make connections in the private sector. Law schools organize many receptions and informal sessions to introduce students to firms, but that does not happen in History Departments. Most of us do not have connections in the Petroleum Club (or whatever its central Canadian equivalents are called) but would do good work if given a chance.
I’m afraid I don’t agree with the statement, “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”. When I chose to spend 5 years obtaining a PhD in history it was not so that I could become a public historian or to go into, “government, non-government organizations, journalism, and consulting”. I did so because I wanted to teach and conduct historical research in an academic setting. To say that I cannot practice my chosen profession because there are no jobs but that I should learn to accept this and be happy is mildly insulting. Would someone tell a surgeon that they should not regard it as a consolation prize if instead of practicing medicine they got to work in a health food store? What is really going to happen to so many recent graduates is that the labor surplus created by training more PhDs than there are tenure-track jobs is going to continue to be exploited by departments who hire low-waged sessional instructors to do the bulk of the teaching in their department. Why hire someone as a professor when you can get two people to do the same job for less than half the cost?
David, I think you make an excellent point about opportunities in the private sector, and I agree that university departments could/should do more to help foster connections between the private sector and those students who might be interested in its possible opportunities. Employers are often looking for exactly the skills taught in history (or many liberal arts) degrees, i.e. writing, research, analysis, ability to take a large amount of information and summarize, formulate opinions/theories.
George – I would not suggest that anyone devoted entirely to the idea of university teaching give that up to pursue other options in public history or any other field. If your chosen field is academic teaching, by all means you should continue to pursue it. What I do suggest is that students be told of all of the options/opportunities out there and that professors become knowledgable about these opportunities themselves so that they can help guide students into viable career paths that might interest them. Not everyone can afford to wait for the full-time teaching position and they might welcome jobs in other areas while the continue to teach part-time. Also, not everyone pursuing a PhD wants to be a university professor, many are excited about the other possibilities and other applications for their degree/research. I think its a good thing that professional organizations such as AHA and CHA begin to discuss these issues and the realities of the job market, not only because it might lead to solutions for those wanting to pursue academics, but also because it brings attention to other opportunities. I agree with you completely about the the problem of hiring adjuncts/sessionals instead of tenure track positions. This is a big problem, but those looking for teaching experience and cash will continue to take these positions. What is the solution here? I’m not sure. Should adjuntcs/sessionals refuse to take the positions and force full time hiring? Should they organize for better working conditions/benefits/longer contracts???