From the From the President column of the February 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

A Discussion Continues

Anthony Grafton, February 2011

Last month’s presidential column provoked many responses. These included both posts on the AHA web site and others on independent blogs, two of which sparked long discussions, as well as a number of emails from historians and others. I’m grateful to all for these thoughtful responses. Let’s talk.

Ann Little and Jeremy Young, the bloggers who responded at length, pointed out, in different ways, that my title was imprecise: “it is not history, but historians, who are under attack.” They’re absolutely right. Americans love history. Tens of thousands of them reenact battles, hundreds of thousands visit historical sites and exhibits, and a million a week on average watch the History Channel. Thousands of them buy the works of history that appear on best-seller lists. From Tea Partiers to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s readers debating the Civil War, they’re passionate about the past. What they don’t love, to the same extent, are professional historians.

Many believe that professional historians are no better than, or indeed worse than, amateurs (a traditional American view that often encompasses experts in other fields, from medicine to climate). Some find that professionals are too politically correct to see the past as it really was. Many, especially journalists, insist that professionals just can’t write.

The biggest problem, though, is rooted in the core of our practices. Professional historians, Little argues, “are, by nature, splitters rather than lumpers. We aren’t united by a methodology or single set of disciplinary practices, and our writing and teaching more often than not seeks not to impose order on a given topic but rather to provide nuance and complexity. This is intellectually satisfying, but it sure makes it difficult for us to explain to the general public what we do and why it’s important that professionally trained historians do it rather than Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck.”

But as Little and Young also point out, plenty of historians write very well. They could make a public case for serious, responsible history that weighs the sources and delivers qualified verdicts. The question is how to persuade more of them to reach out to the public, both in traditional media and on blogs and other digital formats. Young makes a striking suggestion: the AHA should “encourage consideration of outreach as a fourth evaluative criterion, in addition to teaching, research, and service. Outreach would be a comprehensive category that would include the production of written ephemera, appearance as a TV talking head, production of particularly readable historical manuscripts, publication of books through popular presses, service in public history, and other related endeavors.”

In recent years, the AHA has consistently encouraged professors of history to work with public historians. Young’s less modest proposal might help to fix this kind of collaboration, as well as collaboration with the media, more firmly in the structure of the profession. (For discussion: Professors often see administrators as the enemy. My own impression is that most administrators would welcome a stronger emphasis on outreach, while some departments would oppose it as unprofessional.)

A historian at Texas A & M pointed out that a member of the Texas Board of Regents, not the university, initiated the public examination of every faculty member’s productivity, the results of which were posted on the web and drew much coverage. The web site was rapidly taken down, to the accompaniment of howls of execration from some of the university’s highest-ranking administrators. Apologies to A & M. Happily, I used the site’s information, as summed up by the Wall Street Journal, only to argue that historians and other humanists actually earn money for their universities. Christopher Newfield has made this case at length, from much richer evidence, in Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (2008). So let’s cite Newfield when deans, chancellors, and outside critics assert that humanists weigh down the university budget more than others.

Several commentators and correspondents worried about historians’ low level of prestige. “My Deans,” one commentator writes, “are all scientists by training, and sometimes seem baffled by our lack of collaborative work and our “parasitic” relationship to the university. Their low regard for the Humanities in general, and historians in particular, justifies our low pay, denial of leave requests, and lack of hiring.”

Others reported—not for the first time—low salaries and heavy use of adjuncts in history, and traced the decline of history teaching in the schools. Some felt that colleagues do not respect their own fields, largely ones distant in time and space from the present. In the words of one medievalist, “Fortunately, my Dean is a historian who focuses on a Muslim country, and my Provost trained as a medievalist, although not in history. They are much more cognizant and respectful of the sorts of things I teach and research than are my US Americanist colleagues.”

When the Harvard sociologist Michele Lamont observed scholars in the humanities and social sciences as they awarded grants and fellowships, she was struck by the high degree of comity and agreement that historians—even historians in very different fields, and users of very different methods—showed. When we vote as a body—as for AHA officers—we make clear that we collectively trust and respect scholars who are literally from all over the map. So we may need to refresh one another’s memories about why our fields really matter (it’s not just candidates for beginning jobs who need to be able to explain that quickly and convincingly). We had all better hang together in these hard times, or we will assuredly lose positions and research support separately.

When I suggested that humanities professors have abandoned the classroom to pursue esoterica in distant archives, I meant to satirize a view widely held by critics of higher education. But I touched on a real problem. Our scholarship is not an indulgence, but a vital part of what we bring to our students. As a blog commentator put it, “If you tore down teaching and research remained vibrant, teaching would spring back up spontaneously like grass on the prairie after the spring rain. But dismantle research, and grass will grow in the streets of teaching.”

Still, more than one of those who posted described universities in which research productivity has become—or is treated as—the only thing that matters: “we trade time away from the classroom for higher salaries and narrower social claims of expertise, and the students accept lesser teaching in exchange for higher grades.” At too many colleges and universities, the social compact is badly strained. Undergraduates have little direct contact with the remaining faculty on the tenure track, who are encouraged to devote their time to research and writing.

Happily, comments in the discussion threads made clear that these trends are far from universal. It’s well known that small private liberal arts colleges and some prestigious research universities still offer faculty contact as one reason (or justification) for their high fees. It’s less well known—but very important—that many state institutions, from flagships to liberal arts colleges, maintain admirable teaching cultures, in which class sizes are kept down and professors appear regularly at the lectern and the seminar table. Still, it seems clear that we need to find ways to show that teaching matters to us—and, perhaps, that some of us may need to remind ourselves that it really does. Another problem that we should discuss, before uninformed regents and others in power decide on solutions on their own.

A junior historian and blogger addressed me directly in an open letter. This focused tightly on a problem also raised by some of the commentators on other blogs: the economic situation of the profession and “the plight of junior scholars”: “Of course, the current attacks on the humanities hurt all of us in the profession, but they hurt some of us much more than others. For those scholars who are tenured or more established, the current climate might mean that they have a higher number of hostile students, or more annoying and time-wasting ‘accountability’ measures foisted upon them. For junior scholars, however, the stakes are much higher: career life or death. When the budgetary axe swings down, tenured faculty will not be cut, but lines will go unfilled, and those tenure-track lines will be replaced by adjuncts, and it will be the scholars of my generation who will be filling those adjunct slots, trying to make ends meet on meager salaries without health insurance or job security.”

It’s true. The economic situation of many historians—from younger scholars in the position described here to a good many of those who are on the tenure track, teaching heavy loads for low salaries that may never rise significantly—is dreadful. And the fiscal crisis into which many states have fallen means that it will persist for at least some years to come.

The AHA has been a leader among scholarly organizations in collecting data about the condition of the profession, as readers of Robert Townsend’s articles in Perspectives on History and other AHA documents already know. Creative Council members and staff members have devised modest but useful new ways, over the last several years, to offer guidance to graduate and early career historians. We will continue to do what we can. For example, we will continue to stage AHA sessions, as we did this year, which shed light on where universities and the discipline of history are, how we found ourselves here, and where we seem to be heading. We will also do our collective best to make clear to potential graduate students exactly what the current and likely future situation of the profession is. Beyond that, I’m not sure what a professional organization, with no jurisdiction over universities and departments, can do about salaries and working conditions. Suggestions are welcome.

Former president Lynn Hunt pointed out, as did a number of correspondents, that we need to find ways to defend professional history and historians without simply being defensive. To that end, over the next year, I hope to visit a number of different institutions and describe how some of our colleagues are actually doing history, as scholars and teachers. One thing I’ve already learned from these collegial and helpful responses: just by telling the truth about what many of our colleagues do, we can kill off some of the zombie ideas and factoids that reappear endlessly in the polemics about universities.

Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA.