Professional Division 2007

by Anthony Grafton

In January 2004, when I became vice president of the Association’s Professional Division, it had just withdrawn, under the leadership of William Cronon, from its central traditional task of adjudicating complaints of plagiarism and other violations of professional standards in the historical profession. In consultation with the staff and members of the division, accordingly, I looked for other appropriate tasks, and we found plenty of them. The extremely capable and vigorous staff of the AHA guided and coordinated our efforts, and much of our productivity is due to them.

In some cases, the division was already embarked on projects that will continue into the foreseeable future. For some time, the division has had as one of its core purposes the integration of public history and historians into the AHA and the larger historical profession. With expert coordination provided by Debbie Ann Doyle, the division continued to work toward this end, both by sponsoring open forums and other forms of cooperation with public historians at the AHA and by devising a series of articles, the first of which have already appeared in Perspectives, on careers in and forms of public history. The division also continued to sponsor a number of sessions and forums at the annual meeting, including the long-established opening session on the job search, a new session on “Lives in History,” where distinguished historians described their careers, and joint sessions co-sponsored with the Committee on Graduate Students.

Though the division no longer offered official verdicts on plagiarism cases, it continued to be actively involved. As vice president, I offered procedural advice to several historians, recommending readings on the nature of plagiarism and suggesting ways in which to obtain redress. Though more than one of those who consulted me was surprised and aggrieved to learn of our change of policy, a number of them also professed gratitude for the neutral information and advice that I was able to provide. The division also worked with Alan Lessoff of the Conference of Historical Journals, who produced a practical advice document on dealing with plagiarism after surveying member journals. The division sponsored a public forum on plagiarism at the 2008 AHA meeting and, in a year or two, it will sponsor a symposium on the subject for Perspectives on History.

Since the division has always been centrally concerned with the professional development and treatment of historians, it seemed natural to begin an intensive program of articles in various formats, offering information about the situation of the profession, setting out standards, and describing best practices. In the last three years, the division’s members have produced—among other documents—“Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance,” which describes the AHA’s own practices, and other documents on the nature of the job market and its changes in recent years, the proper treatment of job candidates, the proper way to make job offers, and the proper methods to be used in reappointment and promotion of historians. Further documents are in preparation. Most of these have appeared, once approved, in Perspectives, and many historians of different generations have already indicated that they have read and used them to their profit.

It seemed clear to the members and staff of the division that these activities—though useful and important—did not constitute a core task comparable to the one the division had given up. But two important meetings—a formal one with the Committee on Minority Historians, coordinated by Noralee Frankel, and a less formal open forum held with the Disability History Association—and the Association’s report on the status of women in the profession all helped us identify the core problems that the division needs to address. For the future, we believe, the Professional Division should concern itself above all with questions of diversity and access.

The historical profession has made surprisingly little progress in bringing women, members of minorities and persons with disabilities into the professoriate —less progress, in the first two categories, than most other fields in the humanities and social sciences. Though more than half of assistant professors are now women, the pipeline to senior ranks has remained extremely leaky. As of 2002, just over 9 percent of history faculty members were women with tenure, while another 6.2 percent were women on the tenure track. More than six times as many white, non-Hispanic Americans belong to the nation’s history departments as native Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans, taken together. The numbers of historians with disabilities and of gay, lesbian, and transgendered historians are harder to establish. But in these cases too the demography of the profession differs both from that of the population as a whole, and that of university students in particular.

The causes of these problems are to be found, at least in part, in the way the profession works, especially at the departmental level. As Linda Kerber noted in the February 2006 Perspectives, many female, gay, lesbian, and transgendered historians report cases “of assaults on their dignity, of sexual harassment from their own colleagues, of salary inequities, of overloaded service expectations (particularly for women of color).” Historians who belong to minorities—as the Professional Division heard in spring 2007 from the Committee on Minority Historians—also report confronting hostile institutional climates from colleagues and students within mainstream history departments. Departmental service requirements are unequal. Departmental expectations are often unclear. Evaluations of dress, conduct, and demeanor often reflect gendered or discriminatory assumptions.

Historians must, over time, identify the places on the pipeline at which gifted people find their progress into our profession blocked or hindered, and remove as many of the obstacles as we can. We must rethink the ways in which we recruit and train graduate students and in which we hire and work with junior colleagues. We must support and work with the existing committees on women and minority historians and with the new task force on historians with disabilities. To all of these ends, we will need data, which we could obtain by commissioning research on the precise nature of the problems that confront many colleagues and on the best practices by which both historians and scholars in other fields have combated them.

We have proposed, accordingly, and Council has agreed in principle, that the Professional Division, while continuing all the activities in which it has been engaged, concentrate in future on this set of issues and problems—and that future documents on the state of the profession and best practices within it be connected, so far as possible, to this larger set of issues and their resolution.

It remains only for me to thank Arnita Jones, Sharon Tune, Debbie Doyle, Robert Townsend, and Pillarisetti Sudhir of the AHA staff in Washington, and Spencer Crew, Art Gomez, Jane Hathaway, Mary Lindemann, Leisa Meyer, and Denise Youngblood, the members of the Professional Division. Their selfless, imaginative and effective work has kept the Professional Division going over the last three years.

Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) was vice president of the Professional Division of the AHA from 2005 to 2008.