History Departments and the AHA
Sandria B. Freitag, April 1997
This year, once again, we have solicited information from history departments on "doing history" now and into the 21st century. During campus visits, at the department chairs' lunch at the annual meeting, and aided by surveys focused on hiring and graduate student training, we have asked faculty to advise us—from their perspectives—on the future: where do they see the profession going, and what can the AHA do to help them deal successfully with the challenges being presented?
Some of the messages continue themes identified in conversations last year. Perhaps most prominent among these is the overuse of adjuncts, a strategy becoming increasingly universal, whatever the type of institution. (This reaction, expressed anecdotally in our discussions with departments, is also borne out by the survey data; see article by Robert Townsend, "AHA Surveys Indicate Bleak Outlook in History Job Market" in the April Perspectives.) For instance, while the discussion ranged broadly at the annual meeting session on downsizing, it was striking how much of the focus rested on adjuncts. The concerns encompassed both the two-tier job market being created by this campus fiscal strategy and the threats to quality education when full-time faculty can no longer be responsible for the oversight of curriculum content, student contact, and other aspects of the curriculum.
The AHA is trying to address this problem. It has called together a broad roster of higher education organizations, including other scholarly associations (from English and area studies to math and science) and national organizations (for example, the American Association of University Professors and the Council of Graduate Schools). At an invitational conference scheduled for late this September, representatives of these organizations will explore the possibility of developing guidelines or other measures that can be used by departments in their negotiations with campus administrators to ensure the protection of quality and the creation of equitable work situations for adjuncts. We also hope to identify potential experiments to be taken on by willing campuses that would address the largest issues posed by the overuse of adjuncts.
We also continue to be asked for help in defending the need for research support. The AHA has a number of initiatives and approaches it is using for this purpose. First is the creation of projects that demonstrate the fundamental connections between teaching and research (for instance, an American Association of Higher Education teaching evaluation project underway in several departments that uses portfolios focused on the teaching-research nexus; or a proposed National Endowment for the Humanities project on the survey course that will underscore this connection).
Second is a shared activity undertaken by each AHA committee and division; the Council has seen the subject of evaluation of scholarship as a shared topic to be assigned to each division, which will bring its particular perspective to the subject and report back to the Council its recommendations for future action.
Third is coverage in Perspectives, especially of curricular experiments emerging from research interests (see the Teaching Innovations articles, pages 1 and 29, in this issue).
Fourth is to exercise leadership in national arenas where we can make the case-the report on research in area studies in last month's newsletter is a case in point.
Interest in the preparation of graduate students is another concern that spans a broad range of institutions, either because they have degree-granting programs, or because they will be hiring the products of those programs. This topic, too, emerged in last year's discussions, but it seems to have taken on greater urgency in the intervening months. Some of the concerns emerged from our survey of department chairs (see article on page 7), including the need to reduce admissions to graduate programs to fit the demand in the job market, and efforts being made to help applicants be more competitive for the jobs they seek.
In discussions with faculty at degree-granting institutions, we have also heard serious frustrations expressed by those departments trying to be "responsible" by reducing graduate admissions. Their frustration is directed at other departments that have held steady or expanded their graduate enrollments. Responding to the requests that the AHA "do something" is a bit more problematic, but we are trying to highlight the data about the job market to inform all departmental decisions regarding their programs and graduate admissions. We will also be looking for ways to facilitate more discussions across the traditional dividing lines based on types of institutions.
Facilitating communication may be the strongest of the new requests coming to us from departments. Our first response to this will be setting up a listserv this spring and summer for members of our Institutional Services Program (ISP), which incorporates almost 600 departments. At the department chairs' lunch, participants insisted that what they needed most was a way to seek advice and information from their fellows; we hope this electronic service will directly address this need.
On a larger level, we are beginning to shape a number of our special projects so that they rest on the building of "clusters" of nearby departments. These clusters, which we hope to distribute across the country, may focus on different goals (for example, improving survey courses or shifting the content of graduate training) but all will involve collaboration among differing kinds of institutions and will foster faculty and graduate student discussions based on shared intellectual concerns. We hope stronger ties among institutions and between departments and the AHA will enable all of us to work together to address the issues posed by "doing history in the 21st century." For similar reasons, we are also working to strengthen both the services and the ties embedded in the ISP program itself, so that that infrastructure can begin to convey more information and serve a broader range of needs as departments identify those for us.
Another new need expressed in our discussions with departments is support from the Association in articulating measures of quality that must be protected from erosion in this period of change. Historians have asked the AHA for help in a variety of possible strategies, many of which we are now exploring. The Professional Division, for instance, has proposed a joint project with the other divisions to put together discussions of quality components in a departmental program, ranging from undergraduate education (both major programs and general education courses) through curricular coverage to graduate training, and including evaluations of scholarship beyond those now embedded in publication. We are also investigating the efficacy of working with regional accrediting bodies to urge appropriate measures for such things as use of adjuncts and distance learning.
What else should the AHA be doing for historians and departments? As usual, we invite you to write to us. We are also creating a variety of other venues in which members can delineate issues or, even more helpfully, describe promising solutions. The pages of this newsletter are ideal for this purpose. And the Association's committees and divisions have been hard at work planning special sessions for the annual meeting, covering topics such as tenure, the evaluation of scholarship, declassification of federal source materials, and the like. These sessions, as well as the annual department chairs' luncheon, will offer focused opportunities to expand the discussions. We hope to hear from you. In this way, the Association can improve the way it serves the field and, especially, its members.