From the President's column in the January 2000 Perspectives

To Eric Foner: Bon Voyage!

Robert Darnton, January 2000

Eric Foner is taking over an organization in good shape. We have a small but healthy surplus in our budget; a promising portfolio on Wall Street; refurbished headquarters at 400 A Street, S.E., Washington, D.C.; an excellent new executive director; a staff that handles business-as-usual with unusual dedication, and crises with perfect professionalism; an expanding network of affiliated societies (105 of them, linked by listserv and looked after at Council level by a special committee); a growing body of individual and institutional members (over 17,500 and still spiraling upward); an Argus-eyed reporter-lobbyist to protect historians from the evil spirits on Capitol Hill (those attempting to snarl copyright laws, keep classified documents from researchers, and destroy the NEH); a hard-working Council that pursues grants and supervises programs while extracting more hard work from the volunteer labor force scattered through the AHA's divisions and committees; a web site that beams information about those activities around the world; a wide-ranging publishing program that churns out dozens of books and pamphlets, both in print and online; a newsletter that reads better than most scholarly journals; and a journal that sets the pace in editorship as well as scholarship and now is poised to conquer cyberspace.

In short, the ducks lined up happily and the machinery spinning effectively in the best of all possible worlds? Hardly.

When I think back to the beginning of my term at the AHA, the scene that stands out most vividly in my memory took place at the annual meeting held in Seattle in January 1998. A hundred or more unhappy members crowded into a session devoted to the lot of part-time and adjunct teachers and to independent historians, many of them unemployed. One after another they told stories about the struggle to survive at the margins of the profession. Some worked for wages that did not cover child care. Others took jobs merely to gain access to a library or a line on their c.v. Several said that when they reported for work they discovered that they had no office or mailbox or recognition from the regular members of the department. Yet they all did the department's heavy work—survey courses, exam grading, pinch-hitting and hole-plugging throughout the curriculum, whatever their own specialties might be.

Like most of us, I knew in the abstract that university administrations are being taken over by professional managers and that the managers are cutting costs. But never had I heard such testimony about the costs of the cuts—the human costs, which are producing a population of down-and-out PhDs. Some of the adjuncts at the meeting told of pay at $1,500 a course, without benefits, and of long stretches of unemployment interrupted by desperate stints of overwork—teaching loads so heavy that they had no time for anything except preparing classes and filling out applications for another job next year. That job could take them anywhere from Gainesville to Seattle. So they live much of their lives on the road, their laptops and wardrobes piled onto the back seats of their cars. The downsizing of faculty and the overproduction of PhDs is creating the intellectual equivalent of the Okies and Arkies from the Dust Bowl years.

What can the AHA do about this? Little, I'm afraid. We are not a trade union. We have no power to expand universities or contract PhD programs. But we can supply some help around the margins. Four examples:

  1. Last May the Council adopted guidelines for the treatment of part-time and adjunct faculty. They call for equity in pay, work loads, fringe benefits, access to institutional facilities, and representation on governing bodies. Anyone denied those rights can protest to the AHA, which will investigate through its Professional Division. Although the AHA cannot apply legal sanctions, a letter from it to the president of a college can have some effect.
  2. Our well-known, much-thumbed Directory of History Departments has long served as the main reference work for locating people in the profession, but it excludes virtually all independent, adjunct, and part-time historians because it lists people by department, and they have none. Last summer we created a new, individual membership directory, which now can be consulted online and soon should appear in print. By listing all our members from A to Z, it recognizes the under- or unemployed as full-fledged members of the profession.
  3. In the Gutenberg-e competition for prize dissertations, we have made special provision for the publication of work by historians without full-time teaching positions. By giving them an outlet for their scholarship, we hope to create an inroad to a career.
  4. Finally, although this program is still being developed, we expect to open up new opportunities for independent and part-time historians to pursue their scholarship. At present, many of them have no access to an adequate library or interlibrary loans. They must travel long distances and pay large sums of money in order to consult the material necessary for their research. Of course, some institutions, like the New York Public Library, the Newberry, and the Huntington, charge nothing to their readers, but most university libraries charge a great deal: Harvard, $750 per year; Stanford, $500; Michigan, $250. They have their reasons for putting up a financial barrier to protect their resources, but we hope to persuade them to open it for serious scholars. And with foundation support, we plan to provide research grants for such scholars who lack university affiliation and need funds for travel and lodging.

You might object, of course, that library cards and membership directories will only improve things slightly at the periphery of the problem. But what are the problem's dimensions? Where is its core? We do not have answers to those questions. When we polled our members recently, fewer than two-thirds of the respondents said that they worked in colleges and universities. And this number included 1,212 student and doctoral candidates (out of 7,240 who reported employment in higher education)—that is, student workers, whose positions are not permanent. In a 1995 survey, the National Research Council put the number of history doctorates who are not employed fulltime in institutions of higher education at 10,720. Many of them live quite happily as "independents" in government agencies and museums or simply in private life. But many more may live from hand-to-mouth and job-to-job in the backseats of their cars.

Before we can get a grip on the problem, we need to take its measure. Eric Foner is now chairing a task force that intends to do just that—with questionnaires, correlation coefficients, and all the rest. If he and his colleagues can see how part-time employment shades off into full-scale joblessness, they may be able to locate sectors in the spectrum where we can provide some relief. I know from the glint in his eye that this issue tops the list of his priorities. He has the talent and the commitment to get the job done. As I step out of office, I wish him full speed ahead in the direction that he has defined for the AHA.

—Robert Darnton (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA. He will be transferring the presidential gavel to President-elect Eric Foner at the AHA Business Meeting to be held on January 8, 2000, in Chicago.