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Rearranging Deck Chairs at AHA?

In early January, hundreds of historians gathered on a Friday evening in the grand ballroom of the downtown Philadelphia Marriott, quiet but restless. The occasion was James H. Sweet’s presidential address at the 136th annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Sweet’s talk, a history of one Liverpool family’s corporate conspiracy to obscure the violent origins of its wealth in the African slave trade, ended with reflections on the “presentism” debate he kicked into high gear in 2022. “Is History History?” his essay in Perspectives on History had asked. Surveying the bedraggled crowd and the brown water stains on the ceiling panels above Sweet’s podium, I suspected the answer was a clear yes — and for reasons that have little to do with debates about politics and social justice within the profession.

If professional history is history, it isn’t due to academic politics — it’s because of the sharp contraction and possible collapse of the job market. Of the 1,799 historians who earned their Ph.D. in 2019 and 2020, the AHA could definitively locate only 175 now employed in full-time faculty positions in the field. “Though this data offers a lower bound,” their report noted, “there are few compelling reasons to think that more than 15 percent of history Ph.D.s secured TT jobs immediately following graduation during these two years.” The historian Jon K. Lauck recently reported on grim developments in the field in the Midwest:

The University of Iowa’s full time history faculty has declined from 26 to 16 in about ten years. University of Missouri: 30 down to 21 (over the past decade); University of Kansas: 35 down to 24 (since 2017); The Ohio State University (system): 79 down to 62 (since 2008); University of Minnesota: 46 down to 40 (in ten years); University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: 46 down to 36 (since 2012); University of Illinois Chicago: 32 down to 20 (from 2005–2020).

 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 hundreds of papers, panels, and roundtables at the AHA conference span the range of human experience historians study. They touch on the role of rumor in the Spanish empire, the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS crisis, and the role of the occult in British colonial India. The job crisis received scant attention. Johann N. Neem chaired a panel on “Labor and Compensation in the Historical Profession.” There was a roundtable on “Unions in Higher Education — Historical and Contemporary Realities.” There were also sessions on “Curricular Change and Career Diversity” and “How to Identify and Leverage the Transferable Skills of a History Ph.D.,” and, to be fair, an “Open Forum” on careers invited questions and concerns from graduate students. Still, no broad vision from the profession’s leaders emerged.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education