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Three Years in the PD: A Look Back at a Lively Term in the Professional Division

Jacqueline Jones, December 2013

In 2011, when I assumed the vice presidency of the AHA and joined the Professional Division (PD), I was eager to learn about the multifaceted challenges that confront and confound historians—­as graduate students, job seekers, teachers, and employees in myriad workplaces. I soon discovered—­and the learning curve was steep—­that the purview of the Professional Division is vast, encompassing graduate education; every stage of the hiring process; new forms of technology affecting dissertations, archival resources, and pedagogy; the restructuring of history departments; and the disappearance of tenure-­track jobs, among countless other issues. Certainly some challenges are seemingly eternal—­the scourge of plagiarism, assaults on academic freedom, and the struggles of embattled humanists fighting to be heard in a society that seems to favor such so-­called “useful” or “practical” pursuits as engineering or economics. At the same time, a convergence of several forces in the academy and in the country as a whole suggests that historians today are confronting a truly new world of work.

As my three-­year term comes to a close, I want this valedictory to stress how impressed I am by the AHA’s efforts to remain forward-­looking, all the while responding to its members and forging coalitions across disciplines. Under the superb leadership of James Grossman, the organization has sought to represent the discipline in an ongoing national conversation about history as a form of civic education, to guide its members through the perilous shoals of new technologies and a restructured higher-­education landscape, and to serve as an advocate for historians in the United States and throughout the world. The dedication and high professional standards of the staff ensure that the AHA, though a large and diverse organization, does its best to remain nimble in contending with current issues. And I feel privileged to have worked with the conscientious and hard-­working members of the PD—­Sarah Maza, Laura Isabel Serna, Sara Abosch, Andrew Rotter, and Mary Louise Roberts.

Over the last three years the PD has focused on three main areas of concern—­the vagaries of the academic job market, the worsening work conditions and pay that afflict nontenured and nontenure-­track faculty, and the historians’ new digital world. These three challenges are interrelated. And so the PD has enthusiastically endorsed the malleable PhD by recognizing that not all history graduate students will be able to secure a position in the tenurable professoriate, and that not all graduate students even want to pursue such a career. As the director of graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I know that some graduate students will decide that, while they love to study history, they are not as interested in college or university teaching as they once thought they were. Many of these students have learned to do research and organize large, long-­term projects; to master foreign languages; to synthesize vast bodies of primary and secondary material; and to express themselves in a clear, concise way. These skills are highly valued by many different kinds of employers in government, the nonprofit world, and the private sector. In some cases this implies a career in public history; in others it points to work that draws upon the training of a history PhD to move in a wider variety of directions. Transforming departmental culture so that faculty can encourage their graduate students to consider careers outside the academy is a critical component of the AHA’s efforts to promote the malleable PhD.

As a graduate director, I have also been struck by the fact that some graduate students deliberately limit their postgraduation job search to one narrow geographical area. Indeed, some history PhDs take adjunct and one-­year teaching jobs because they want to stay in a certain area, or because they have family or other responsibilities that proscribe locational options. There are clear labor-­market ramifications to these collective preferences, because employers will always be able to count on a supply of willing part-­time workers. We hope that larger numbers of newly minted PhDs pursuing opportunities outside the academy will lower the supply of faculty willing to take part-­time, low-­paying jobs.

Perhaps the most insidious force affecting historians qua scholars and teachers today is the relentless drive among colleges and universities to pursue a “business model” of higher education. Many administrators, whether working in for-­profit or nonprofit colleges or universities, in public or private institutions, embrace the goal of educating the highest number of students at the lowest possible cost. Certainly the creative and judicious use of digital technologies can enhance classroom learning for all kinds of students. At the same time, instructors who teach exclusively online are likely to feel isolated from the colleagues at their own institution, to lack the resources necessary to do scholarly research or attend scholarly conferences, and to suffer from job instability and a lack of such benefits as health care and paid vacations. Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) thus threaten to depersonalize higher education while reducing the university workforce to demoralized, ill-­paid computer technicians or teaching assistants for the academic “stars” featured in online courses.

What is the AHA doing in response to an anemic academic job market, the proliferation of adjunct and part-­time teaching jobs, and the introduction of MOOCs? Certainly the AHA’s current initiative to expand the career horizons of history PhDs, funded by the Mellon Foundation and undertaken in collaboration with the Modern Language Association, is a good example of a concerted effort to shift traditional expectations about what graduate students can and should do with their degrees. And in using Perspectives on History, the annual meeting, and the AHA’s new website to bring attention to history PhDs who have pursued careers outside the academy, the AHA highlights historians who have found a high degree of satisfaction in fields other than research or teaching. The Professional Division also seeks to balance the ideal embedded in the open access movement with the reality of the tenure-­review process, which in most cases mandates a published monograph. In the recent online dissertation embargo imbroglio (as I like to call it), I was struck by the number of commentators who insisted that graduate students and newly minted PhDs should be forced to relinquish control over their own intellectual property and put their dissertations online, regardless of the possible consequences, including acquisition editors refusing to accept for publication a revised dissertation if the original has been online for any length of time, and other scholars’ attempts to mine the dissertation for data. I have been pleased to participate in what is a healthy debate over such timely issues, and I continue to believe that students ought to have a choice in how their work is disseminated digitally.

Over the last three years I have served on panels at the annual meeting, presided over PD meetings, participated in Executive Council deliberations, responded to the queries and concerns of individual members, and written and edited a number of “best practices” documents related to topics such as merged departments, the evaluation of history faculty, transparency in graduate program placement records, and flexible online dissertation embargo policies. Yet the consistent high point of my service as PD vice president has been the interview workshop held on the Friday morning of each annual meeting. Large numbers of job seekers converge to talk about the interview process with, and to learn from, senior historians. The session is always lively, informative, and, based on the responses of participants, hugely helpful to them. During the 2014 meeting, a number of nonacademics will be serving as “interviewers,” indicating once again that the AHA is eager to respond to the needs of its members, and to the discipline generally.

Regardless of the particular controversies that engulf it, and the recurring challenges related to the humanities that beset it, a quill-­pen set the AHA is not! Most significantly, the work of the organization helps remind us that the study of history remains an ennobling enterprise, and that all of us must seek to understand the great human drama that has preceded us. As historians we are responsible for imparting those insights to a wider public hungry for stories about the past. I am proud to be part of that effort, and to be a member of the AHA.

—Jacqueline Jones is the AHA’s vice president, Professional Division.