One For The History Books: The Historical Discipline Will Prevail Over Current ChallengesHistorians in the News
tags: American Historical Association, 2020
Jacqueline Jones is president of AHA.
Here, at the beginning of 2021, we are all conscious of living through a time that might be called “one for the history books.” Surely this pandemic is historic. But how has it affected the study and teaching of history? The effects have been uneven, to be sure, but the watchword for administrators and supervisors must be flexibility, as they remain sensitive to the multiple challenges faced by historians during this crisis. We can only hope that what we are enduring is a temporary state of affairs, and that the innovation, forbearance, and perseverance that will see us through this crisis will make the AHA, and the whole historical discipline, stronger in the process.
Some historians, particularly those in non-tenure-track and temporary positions, have borne the brunt of the pandemic more than others. Faced with diminishing resources, universities, colleges, community colleges, museums, libraries, and other nonprofit educational institutions have looked for ways to slash expenses—in some cases firing staff and untenured instructors, curtailing hiring, and eliminating departments and programs. The livelihoods of many historians are at stake.
Specific groups of graduate students have also had to contend with drastic obstacles to completing their work. Last spring, as usual, external funding agencies such as Fulbright and the Social Science Research Council, as well as departmental graduate programs, were supporting graduate students conducting historical research abroad. When the pandemic struck, some graduate students doing research abroad were ordered back to the United States. This order entailed considerable financial sacrifice on the part of students who had to break their apartment leases and then return home, only to find themselves without health insurance or a place to live. At the same time, some foreign students studying in the US returned to their home countries, many bearing the added expenses of lost security deposits and last-minute plane reservations. Meanwhile, advanced graduate students faced the great unknown—the shape of the job markets (both academic and nonacademic alike) for this coming year and for the foreseeable future. But who can foresee the future?
The shuttering of libraries, museums, historical societies, and other kinds of archival repositories in the United States and around the world forced virtually all historians, regardless of their career stage or vocation, to place their research on hold, putting jobs, promotions, and publications at risk. Here, too, the effects were felt unevenly because one’s research focus played a large part in determining the impact of these closures. As a historian of the 19th-century US, I have had the advantage of tapping into multiple online resources while I wait for the archives to reopen. However, of course, not all historians can count on finding relevant resources online.
Historians in the GLAM sector (those working in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) must contend with budgetary constraints imposed by the loss of patrons and customers. At the same time, these professionals have shown enormous resourcefulness and creativity as they continue to serve their (remote) publics by tailoring online presentations to reflect current issues, providing scan-on-demand and interlibrary loan services, and using other methods to make at least part of their collections and exhibits accessible to their constituents.