The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century Revisited

Arnita A. Jones, March 2010

Last month I promised readers of Perspectives on History further information on the American Historical Association’s efforts to address problems now being encountered by young historians trying to make their way in an increasingly hostile job market. Specifically I suggested that we take a look back at the report on graduate education produced after a multiyear study by the AHA’s Committee on Graduate Education (CGE). The study that was published in 2004 as The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century was officially launched in January 2000, a point in time when many of today’s newly minted PhDs were likely just beginning their graduate programs.

Committee chair Colin Palmer had raised the issue earlier in his term as a member of the Council and, with Tom Bender, who would subsequently serve as the committee’s secretary, had by then secured funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to undertake a major investigation of current practices in history graduate education. Not coincidentally the Carnegie Corporation had supported an earlier AHA report on doctoral training conducted by Dexter Perkins and John Snell, which was published in 1962 as The Education of Historians in the United States. Mindful now that higher education had changed dramatically, that history graduate education had not been investigated much in the intervening years, and that the number of PhDs produced had lingered in a state of chronic imbalance with available appropriate jobs, AHA leaders set out to look at the state of graduate education and make some recommendations for its improvement.

The Committee on Graduate Education did a great deal of listening and accumulated a vast amount of information gleaned from analysis of existing data, inquiries made of history department chairs, open forums at meetings of the AHA and other history societies, a detailed survey administered to all doctoral departments in the field, and site visits to nine graduate programs, carefully selected to represent a variety of types and size of programs as well as geographic location. When the report was published early in 2004 it set forth a number of recommendations—for both graduate history departments and the AHA.

The committee offered a wide-ranging set of recommendations for history departments. It urged departments to do a better job of thinking through their mission and purpose, to question, for example, whether a program’s size related to its institutional resources and goals or primarily to increasing demand for graduate student teaching assistants. The report also prescribed more and better resources for students all through their graduate careers—not only in the form of financial support but also through proper orientation, annual reviews, advice from directors of graduate study, dissertation directors and committees, and a well-informed placement officer. Better preparation for teaching was also a priority as was training in professional ethics and practices.

Cooperation with the AHA was also a mandate, for the Committee on Graduate Education wanted future graduate students to make informed decisions. They urged the AHA to establish a web page presenting detailed information provided by graduate departments, including a mission statement, list of faculty members and their current research, the number of doctoral students in the program, numbers of applicants annually and of those, how many were accepted, enrolled and financially support. Other financial information, such as the local costs of living, support for research or travel to conferences, was mandated, along with information on teaching preparation, internships and average time to degree of a department’s students as well as placement information.

For its part AHA was charged not only to host and maintain the web site, but also to do more to develop information on careers outside the academy, by means of a collaborative effort with the National Council on Public History and other public history groups. The Association was also urged to expand its data collection and analysis efforts, to develop better information about community college and other employment, to facilitate better training in professional ethics and to convene annual workshops for department chairs, and directors of graduate study.

The above recommendations are not exhaustive but they provide enough of a yardstick to frame a conversation about how the AHA and graduate departments have responded to the Committee’s challenge. How does the AHA measure up? Well, the answer has to be mixed. We certainly made a good effort to implement at the institutional level many of the report’s recommendations. We did establish the web page that the report called for, although we have not been able to keep it as up to date as we would like—that is both a problem of resources at the AHA as well as the willingness of departments to share all of the detailed information required. And some of the information that the Committee on Graduate Education would like to have seen, such as placement rates of recent PhD recipients, we are simply not able to get from departments.

Another mixed result has been our effort to respond to the Committee on Graduate Education’s advice that we provide an annual meeting or workshop for chairs of history departments and directors of graduate study. For five summers we did, taking advantage of low seasonal hotel rates in the Washington, D.C., area and emphasizing issues that departments face, such as recruitment and retention, time to degree, diversity, mentoring, and so on. For several years, attendance was respectable but never robust and ultimately we could not justify the resources required to develop a program for what had become a small group. I still believe this kind of programming could be invaluable for the historical profession, but we have not yet figured out a cost-effective way to do it.

The AHA was also charged to expand its efforts to provide members information about conditions in the profession, by increasing its own data gathering efforts, and also working with partners. We have, I think, done a very good job in this area. For several years now we have been working with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and several other scholarly societies on developing a set of indicators analyzing data on humanities fields and institutions. With a subset of this same group, also under AAAS auspices, we have participated in an effort to develop comparable departmental surveys so that data can be analyzed across fields (the first report on these departmental surveys is summarized and discussed in Robert Townsend’s essay).

The AHA has also taken seriously the CGE Report’s admonition to provide information to history graduate students about careers in fields outside higher education, appointing a public history coordinator who reports to the professional division, and providing regular columns in Perspectives offering “practical advice” on getting jobs in museums, archives, the federal government and other public history institutions. (See www.historians.org/info/public.cfm) Since 1979, we have been regularly helping to produce (first in collaboration with the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History and later with the Society for History in the Federal Government) a directory of federal history programs, activities, and historians. We expect to publish a new edition some time this year. In 2008, with the National Council on Public History and 10 other public history organizations, we also undertook a survey of employment in the field, assessing conditions of work, training, and concerns of public history professionals. The study was modeled on an earlier effort published by the AHA as Survey of the Historical Profession: Public Historians, 1980–81, and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. (www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0909/0909pub1.cfm).

The AHA was encouraged as well to set high standards for the profession. This was one of the reasons, among others, that led our Professional Division to make a major revision of the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct that was published in 2005. With an increasingly active Graduate and Early Careers Committee, the AHA has developed an impressive amount of information to help graduate students identify and negotiate the hurdles they face on the path toward an advanced degree and, ultimately, a position: applications to graduate programs, developing a professional dossier, how to succeed at interviews, how to do a cover letter, and so forth. Two of the most recent of these—From Concept to Completion: A Dissertation-Writing Guide for History Students and Getting an Academic Job in History are best sellers on the AHA publications site (www.historians.org/grads/index.cfm).

A number of departments have undertaken serious reform efforts, whether in response to the CGE recommendations or on their own proactive initiative. Anecdotally, it appears that many departments have downsized their programs, reducing the number of students enrolled; many have also begun to provide greater financial support to graduate students. I was privileged to be a guest at several convenings of the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, a multiyear effort that engaged several history departments along with a like number from other disciplines and have followed with interest the results of their work. But in the aggregate, the continued overproduction of history PhDs tells its own story and the frantic calls for AHA to do something about the lack of suitable jobs for those finishing doctorates makes it clear that the information we have made available is not being absorbed until far too late. Moreover, a fairly robust job market for historians earlier in this decade tended to mask an ugly truth: the fact that permanent, full-time, tenured and tenure-track jobs for historians in higher education—as a percentage of all history faculty—has been decreasing for the last three decades, even as higher education has continued to expand. The American Historical Association, of course, does not control what departments of history do—with their graduate programs or any other of their activities. But the AHA, its members, and leaders in history departments should redouble their efforts to reverse these unwelcome trends and to provide historians alternative—and satisfying—visions of career paths inside and outside of higher education.

Arnita Jones is the executive director of the AHA.