Blogs > Cliopatria > The Job Market

Aug 22, 2005 10:52 am

The Job Market

Browsing through H-net's job guide, I was particularly struck by two postings.

The first came at UCLA. As I've written previously, the department's contingent of 21 Americanists is heavily tilted toward social and cultural history. Its ranks include no historians of U.S. foreign relations, no U.S. legal historians, and no U.S. military historians, while its two faculty members who describe their interests as political history are practioners of the"new political history" whose work is indistinguishable from women's or labor history.

This year, UCLA is advertising for a tenure-track assistant professorship or tenured associate professorship in"modern American history." Any hope that the department might be eager to broaden its intellectual coverage rather than replicate itself, however, vanished when looking at the desired specialties:" cultural, environmental, labor, and urban history." Where is the UCLA administration? What possible rationale could exist for a department already top-heavy in American cultural and labor history to hire another professor in these fields when the department has no coverage at all in other vital aspects of the American experience?

The second listing that caught my eye came at Case Western, which is advertising for an open-rank 20th century US historian. The department is defining the desired interests, however, in an unusual way:"a focus on areas that examine issues of social justice." The advertisement states that"specialists in the history of race or ethnicity, labor, poverty, criminal justice, gender/sexuality, and social movements are encouraged to apply. However, applicants in all fields of 20th-century U.S. history will be considered, so long as there is a focus on social justice."

Within the desired subfields, imagine a few topics: a focus on women critics of feminism, or African-American critics of affirmative action, or a dissertation in labor history critical of Walter Reuther and the UAW. What about a specialist in American religious history whose work has examined the pro-life movement, which some quarters consider the most powerful social justice movement of the last quarter century? Would any of these candidates be considered? Unlikely, because the current majority in the academy would not consider their work as reflecting an examination of"issues of social justice."

Moreover, there's no sign that Case Western's 14-person department is lacking coverage of the themes implied in the job ad. As things now stand, atleastthree of its US historians (in a department that totals only 14 members in all fields) would fit the job description, and that's not counting a professor whose most recent book is The Female Marine and Related Works: Narratives of Cross-Dressing and Urban Vice in America's Early Republic. The Case Western and UCLA job postings do little to soothe concerns that the academic establishment is not capable on its own of addressing the lack of intellectual and pedagogical diversity currently plaguing many social science and humanities departments around the country.

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Caleb McDaniel - 8/22/2005

I'd also be interested in reading your fuller critique of social history and "new political history," since you say you are willing to make that argument. I agree with Tim Burke that such a critique does seem to be implicit in posts like these.

For example, you lament that the two UCLA professors "who describe their interests as political history are practioners of the 'new political history' whose work is indistinguishable from women's or labor history." In order for that to be a fault, you have to make at least three other claims: (a) that "new political history" is not political history proper, (b) that political history proper can be meaningfully considered apart from the history of women or labor relations, and (c) that it should be so considered. I think those are methodological claims that do need to be defended in order for your more specific criticisms--that UCLA has only "new" political historians and no "old" ones--to have purchase.

Timothy James Burke - 8/22/2005

As you know, if I had my druthers, in a similiar situation to UCLA's, I'd either open the field as wide as possible (20th Century US, for example) just to see what turns up in the pool or try to intellectually diversify in methodological terms, to get someone who does what they do differently. I think that's good intellectual and institutional practice.

However, given that there are persuasive arguments in the other direction, not the least of which being that it's awfully hard to second-guess the interior decision-making process of any given academic department at any given institution, there isn't much grounds for calling people out, even on a job advertised for "social justice", in the absence of a substantive critique of social history. You continue to rely on titles of books and names of specializations as if they communicate a critique rather than just insinuation. I think you'd benefit at this point by stepping back and working up a full-blown methodological argument about why you think historical research needs more political and diplomatic history (as you define it) and less social history (as you define it). I just think you've come to the end of what can be said by citing the titles of books with a wink and a nod and a "you know what I'm talking about, don't you?"

Robert KC Johnson - 8/22/2005

As you suspect, I'd be willing to make the argument if necessary--but don't believe it's necessary to do in either of these cases.

I agree with your point on graduate teaching and concentration. But even at a place like UCLA, the department also must take into account its responsibility to teach undergraduates. And, unlike grad. preparation, undergrads are not well served by a department that's focused solely on one aspect of the American past. (I agree completely with your comparison to poli sci and quantitive domination.) Ideally, departments should handle the issue of ideological diversity themselves--but if they don't, administrators have to step in. At the very least, they certainly shouldn't be--as is the case at UCLA--helping departments to become less intellectually diverse. If the UCLA department wants its 13th or 14th US social historian and can't come up with a request that's any more creative, then the administration should confer scarce lines on another department.

I see and agree completely with your point about, in their scholarship, subfields blurring ideological lines. But, in the end, the UCLA ad isn't for open US history, 20th century.

The Case Western issue is a little different. Defining a position in terms of the candidate's willingness to examine issues of social justice strikes me as coming too close to a de facto political litmus test. Why should labor or women's historians automatically be considered as examining issues of social justice, as the job ad states, but historians of American religion not be so considered. I can think of lots of topics in both women's and labor history that have absolutely nothing to do with social justice.

This, too, strikes me as a line that should never have gotten beyond a savvy administrator, though for a different reason than UCLA's.

Stephen Tootle - 8/22/2005

I saw those job ads and thought the same thing.

Timothy James Burke - 8/22/2005

We've discussed this issue before, but I still think you don't leave any room for a couple of important qualifiers when you make this habitual complaint.

First, that a department which aims to have a thriving graduate program might legitimately decide to concentrate all its energies on a single geographical/temporal specialization or on a major methodological approach like social history.

Second, that methodological approaches in history (and other disciplines) self-reproduce in a way that cannot simply be corrected by a single hiring decision, and in fact, that it might be folly for a single institution to try to do so. What I mean by this is that once a particular methodological approach becomes the dominant or orthodox position (for whatever reason), it becomes the safe choice that attracts the majority of superior graduate students--indeed, it may define what the discipline means to those scholars. At which point, if your major ambition is simply to hire a top student, you might be prudent to preference the orthodox methodology. When you move into a geographical/temporal/methodological area which is less dominant, the quality of the candidates simply gets much more erratic, in general. This is a self-reproducing feedback loop that doesn't require any conscious intent or malice to function.

3) So, if you want to interrupt that, you can only do it in two ways. First, by arguing that there is something fundamentally wrong with any discipline that is dominated by a single methodological orthodoxy. Ok, but if so, that's a potentially expansive position that goes beyond history. For example, is it wrong that political science is dominated now by quantitative methods? You'd have a hard time arguing for diversity in history and accepting it elsewhere unless you also made an argument that history is a special case. Also note that if you argue for methodological pluralism in history as the supreme driver of personnel decisions, you have two further issues. First, you can't privilege any single excluded specialization: there's no reason why political or diplomatic or military history should get to the front of the line ahead of a number of other excluded methodological, geographic and temporal specializations. Second, you've got no easy way for coming to grips with people who maintain that they're doing political, diplomatic, intellectual or military history, just in a style different than what you would say defines those specializations. In other words, specializations are not fixed entities with agreed-upon definitions, and many scholars do in fact practice hybrid forms of one sort or another.

The other alternative, if you really want to interrupt the feedback loop, is to make an actual argument against social history and for political history (as you define it) in methodological terms. That's how social history ferociously installed itself as the new reigning orthodoxy: it substantively attacked political and diplomatic history. This seems to me the major task that you continue to skirt when you post these kind of complaints: you want to make room for diplomatic, political and military history, but with a weak inclusionist/pluralist argument rather than a strong principled methodological one. If it's just about diversity, there's no special case to be made, just a kind of quota system logic (one from method column A, one from method column B, and voila! balance.) I strongly suspect from your writings that you are not critical of social history merely because it is the orthodoxy, but because you think it's a wrong-headed methodology. If so, MAKE THE ARGUMENT. That's the only way you really interrupt the feedback loop of intellectual reproduction within scholarship, by persuading people that what is now orthodox is substantively wrong or problematic.

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