How Much Have We Decentered the Historical Profession?

Barbara Weinstein, March 2007

Back in the early 1970s, while an undergraduate at an unmistakably "elite" university, I announced to a group of fellow history majors that I had decided to make Latin America my area of concentration. You would have thought I had announced to a group of aspiring brain surgeons that I had resolved to become a nurse. There was no mistaking their surprise and disdain. I knew some of them had precociously absorbed the prejudices of a historical profession that, in those days, had a firm geographical status hierarchy, with European intellectual history the reigning area in terms of prestige. Even so, I was taken aback when one of my classmates derisively responded to my enthusiasm for gaining fluency in Spanish and Portuguese by insisting that I first needed to improve my French if I intended to become a "serious" scholar.

A similar scene is unimaginable these days; if nothing else, most history students have learned not to be openly disdainful of "other" historical fields. But I would also argue that there has been a genuine shift in the way the profession regards scholarship on areas outside Europe and North America. In recent decades historians and historical anthropologists working on Asia, Africa and Latin America have made interpretive, theoretical, and methodological contributions that scholars throughout the profession have embraced, and any department of history that aspires to be taken seriously must have a roster of historians that includes at least a few people working on each of the "other" regions. Best of all, jobs in several of these fields are plentiful, sometimes outstripping the number of qualified applicants—to the horror of search committees accustomed to picking and choosing from a bumper crop of over-qualified PhDs.1 Thus, those of us who work in these less represented areas apparently have much reason to be pleased and less reason to complain than we did back in the 1970s.

Yet this continues to be a case of the glass being half full—an image that inevitably evokes its empty other half. Despite all the talk about decentering history, and the undeniable signs of change in the historical profession with regard to "other" fields, there are ways in which historians of less represented areas still feel, and still are, less central to the discipline. At the risk of crossing the thin, wavy line between justified complaint and unwarranted whining, I can testify that, even now, historians of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East often feel like outliers in their own profession.

To understand why this might be the case, we need to take a look at the current composition of the historical profession. I suspect that most historians, if asked about trends in the field with regard to area of concentration, would answer that European history is in sharp decline, U.S. history is holding its own, and that the "other" fields are booming. But for some questions nothing beats numbers, and the statistical evidence reveals a far different pattern. In his article in the January 2007 issue of Perspectives, Robert B. Townsend explored changes over three decades both in topical specialization (cultural, diplomatic, social, and so on) and in area of concentration (United States, Europe, Africa, and so on). Whereas topical shifts were, in some cases, quite dramatic, "among the geographic field specializations the most notable trend seems to be continuity," according to Townsend. To the extent that there has been any change at all, the pace has been positively glacial. Indeed, there has been a decline in the percentage (not the total number) of historians who work on Europe, but even that decline—from 39 to 33.7 percent—has been relatively modest, and may reflect the smaller number of adjuncts employed in European history compared to other fields. U.S. history, after a dip in the mid-1980s, has seen a slight increase in its percentage of the field over the last 20 years. World history, statistically insignificant until about 15 years ago, has seen a sharp rise in the last 5 years, though it is still only 3.6 percent of the total. But what really caught my attention in these statistics are the very small changes that have occurred in fields most academics would likely describe as booming. Latin America, far from expanding its share, has actually declined since 1975 (though, again, only in relative, not absolute, numbers), going from 7.6 percent (in 1975) to 6.4 percent (in 2005)—the sharpest proportional decline of any field. And the numbers would have been even grimmer (5.8 percent in 1990) if it were not for the slight upward trend in the last 15 years. Asian history and Middle Eastern history are flatliners—their respective percentages are virtually unchanged over a thirty-year period. The one piece of good news for the "other" areas is African history, which has increased from 3.3 percent to 4.1 percent of listed faculty, proportionally a big leap, but one that also reflects the field's very small share at the outset of the period under discussion.2

It bears repeating that these statistics are percentages, not absolute numbers, which helps explain why there can be loads of jobs in "other" fields of history even as their relative share of the historical profession remains virtually unaltered. Given the preponderance of positions in U.S. and European history, it would require a very large shift in jobs over a number of years for these percentages to change significantly. In other words, at least for the foreseeable future, most historians in "other" fields will remain in the customary position of being either their department's sole representative of that region's history, or one of a small cluster of faculty who study that particular area. While their colleagues in American history complain that there's hardly anyone to cover 19th-century United States, they will be left to wonder how they can cover 20 centuries of Asian history. Indeed, I was once serving on a world history committee when the Asianist in the group wistfully asked us to contemplate what a history curriculum would look like if we distributed geographic attention according to a particular region's percentage of the world's population. By that logic, Asian historians would be a majority of our profession. Or if we based it on a region's percentage of the earth's land mass, Asian and African history would zoom to the top of the charts. And I personally would relish the idea of a department that took the broader definition of "America" seriously and apportioned half of its "American history" positions to historians of Latin America and the Caribbean. But none of these fantasy scenarios are likely to materialize anytime soon. Therefore, it is still relevant to ask what issues historians in the less represented fields face as a result of working on areas and cultures outside of the numerical mainstream of the profession, what the consequences are for the discipline of history, and what more can be done (absent the fanciful scenarios mentioned above) to widen that mainstream so that being in a numerical minority does not imply being on the margins.

As the recent document produced by the AHA Professional Division on "Hiring in Non-Western and Non-Traditional History," indicates, the potential problems commence with the search process itself.3 Often the candidate in a less-represented area meets with a search committee that includes no one in his/her field, and then delivers a job talk to a room full of people none of whom share his/her research interests. Thus, when my graduate students are preparing to go on the job market, one of my first bits of advice to them is to figure out a way to make their work accessible and interesting to non-specialists. This is certainly not, in itself, a bad thing; on the contrary, the ability to make one's scholarship comprehensible to a wider audience can be seen as a very desirable quality. The problem is that for many historians in "non-Western and non-Traditional" fields there will never be a time when they have colleagues within their own department who are deeply familiar with the historiography of their area; in a sense, the job interview is a rehearsal for the way they must perform for the rest of their academic lives.

One way departments have begun to address the potential "isolation" of a faculty member who is the sole specialist in a particular region is to forge thematic connections. Thus a colleague who works on gender in southern Africa can participate in a graduate concentration in gender and sexuality, and share some methodological and theoretical concerns with colleagues in other geographic areas. This solution, however, raises yet another problem: will it tend to orient research in "other" fields of history toward those themes that are readily valued and appreciated by those who are nonspecialists? Furthermore, it may reinforce the tendency to treat major works in mainstream fields as required reading for all historians. As Dipesh Chakrabarty trenchantly observed, "Third-world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate."4

Scholars in less-represented fields also find themselves subject to expectations for tenure and promotion constructed with the "mainstream" fields in mind, and that often do not take into account their more complicated and precarious research conditions, or the limited number of outlets for book and article publication for certain areas of concentration. Should the same six-year deadline to publish a monograph be allotted to a historian who can get much of the source material online, or in a minutely catalogued archival collection, and to one who must travel abroad, perhaps labor under politically unstable circumstances, and consult sources in an archive where the indexing system consists of placing bundles of documents in a box?

It is not surprising, given their relative isolation in their home departments and "minority" status within the profession, that many historians of less-represented fields eagerly look forward to the conferences of interdisciplinary societies focused on their particular area—the Latin American Studies Association, the Middle Eastern Studies Association, etc.—rather than the AHA meetings. I can personally attest to the pleasure of participating in a conference where certain things go without saying, and where issues that your departmental colleagues may dismiss as exotic or trivial loom large. But to the extent that affiliation to interdisciplinary societies diminishes or replaces interest in the AHA, it is a loss for the AHA as an organization and for historians as a scholarly community. To be sure, I am not arguing for allegiance to the AHA meetings instead of, say, the LASA meetings—which I regularly attend and enjoy. But I am well aware of the many scholarly and pedagogical issues that are raised at AHA meetings that are relevant to me as a historian and that are unlikely to appear on the program at LASA, or to be approached in the same way. And should substantial numbers of "other" historians shy away from AHA meetings, those in the mainstream will have less inducement to consider how scholarship in these "other" areas might enrich and transform their own work.5

The good news is that changes are afoot that make the AHA more welcoming to scholars in less-represented areas. Having served on the program committee for the 2001 meetings, and then again as co-chair for the 2005 meetings, I was able to observe a dramatic increase in just four years in the number of panels that were comparative and/or transnational, often mixing historians of Asia or Africa or Latin America with historians of the US or Europe. Whereas such panels were welcome exceptions in the 2001 program, by 2005 they constituted the second largest category of submissions, after twentieth-century U.S. history. These very stimulating and creative panels are only conceivable at a convention that brings together historians with diverse geographic specializations.

Other changes are more symbolic in nature, but perhaps no less significant. One is the more deliberate effort to rotate the AHA presidency among the many different historical fields. Starting in the late 1970s, historians of "other" areas began to appear more regularly on the list of AHA presidents, and if current practice continues, as many as a third of future presidents will be from "non-Western" fields. The sharply uneven distribution of book prizes by region has also recently become a matter of concern. The majority of existing prizes are for some aspect of European history; there is only one annual prize specifically for Latin American/Iberian history, one for Asian history (after 1800), and none for African history. Europeanists need not be alarmed: I am not suggesting that funds be shifted from one prize to another (a transfer precluded in any case by the conditions attached to many prize endowments). On the contrary, the goal should be to raise funds for new book prizes that allow scholars in all areas of concentration to be recognized. There is presently a concerted campaign by historians of Africa, for example, to raise sufficient funds to endow a prize in that field (please related article for more information).

While most of the donations are expected to come from Africanists, I would argue that all of us have a stake in an AHA that attracts scholars and acknowledges scholarship from every field of history.
Townsend's 30-year run of statistics on field distribution depicts a discipline that is surprisingly stable and cautious in this respect, so it seems a bit foolhardy to predict significant change. Nevertheless, there are signs that longstanding practices of field identification may destabilize over the next few decades. True, we are unlikely to witness massive transfers of positions from, say, the United States to Latin America and Africa, but it is possible that the very lines of demarcation will start to blur—indeed, some already have. Two of the newer book prizes awarded by the AHA, the James A. Rawley Prize in Atlantic History and the Wesley-Logan Prize for the study of the African Diaspora, recognize scholarship in areas that cannot be contained by a single geographic field as conventionally defined. It is very possible that in the future erstwhile Europeanists will become scholars of colonialism whose geographic concentration spans several areas, or borderlands historians will become as indistinctly U.S. Americanist and Mexicanist as the region they study. These transformations may produce a whole new set of intellectual issues and professional grievances; for example, would a borderlands historian be as attentive to the Mexican archives and Mexican scholarship as a historian trained as a Latin Americanist? Will the historiography of Africa be disproportionately dedicated to the history of colonialism? But for now re-orienting the "mainstream" may well be the surest way to widen it.

—Barbara Weinstein (NYU) is president of the AHA.

Notes

1. On the ratio between new PhDs and jobs in Asian, African and Latin American history, see Robert B. Townsend, "History PhD Numbers Lowest in Almost a Decade as Job Listings Continue to Rise," Perspectives 45:1 (January 2007), 12.

2. Robert B. Townsend, "What's In a Label? Changing Patterns of Faculty Specialization since 1975," Perspectives 45:1 (January 2007), 7–10.

3. Jane Hathaway, "The Pitfalls and Opportunities of Hiring in Non-Western History," Perspectives 45:3 (February 2007). This very useful and highly readable practical advice document commissioned by the AHA's Professional Division Perspectives Online web site at http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2007/0702/0702pro1.cfm. The electronic copy can also be consulted under "Additional Resources."

4. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 28.

5. My emphasis here on regional specialization should not be read as implying that it is the sole issue with regard to inclusion. There is also concern about chronological bias; many ancient and medieval historians feel that the premodern era typically gets short shrift in the AHA program, and express a preference for their own field-specific conferences.