From the Vice Presidents column of the May 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Supporting Scholars Early in Their Careers: What the AHA Can Do to Nurture New History PhDs

Teofilo F. Ruiz, May 2008

The current economic downturn provides a painful reminder that scholarship, like education in general, tends to suffer in hard times. With the exception of a few private universities with large endowments, most small colleges and public universities suffer cuts in their budgets, hiring freezes, and diminished support for research and teaching. Those are the realities that we seem to face in an almost unavoidable cyclical pattern in this profession. Even in the best of times, promoting scholarship is not a priority for this or any government, and there is little the AHA can do to address these systemic social problems.

But the Association can, and should, work to address the situation of some of the most vulnerable members of our discipline—scholars early in their careers who are just starting to make their way in the profession. One of the most critical issues facing many young scholars today is the growing expectation that they should publish a monograph to demonstrate their merit in the profession, even as the resources and opportunities to produce such work seem to be diminishing. Only a small number of new history PhDs find employment in colleges and universities that foster research scholarship through leave policies, research grants, mentoring, and the like. At many two- and four-year colleges, recent history PhDs face geographical isolation, heavy teaching loads, libraries that are not suitable for research, and only limited encouragement and support for research. These conditions seldom allow young scholars to progress beyond their dissertation research, and yet many of those same departments have raised the standards for tenure over the past 20 years—often by requiring productivity that is not concomitant with the research facilities or support available.

The presence of such conditions throughout the country presents a fundamental issue of fairness for the discipline, as well as a loss of promising scholarship and diminished preparation for the classroom. The history of our profession provides many examples of historians who sustained their scholarly pursuits and maintained productive careers despite such adverse settings, but often at a great cost to themselves and to their scholarly output. With many institutions now requiring teaching loads of four classes or more every semester, even the most exceptional members of the profession find it impossible to continue their research.

Even at institutions that place an emphasis on teaching, continued research plays a vital part in preparation for the classroom. Not all research leads to publication. It should not. But informed and successful teaching relies on continuous exposure to new historiographical trends and ways of seeing, writing, and teaching the past. These problems are even more challenging for the growing numbers of adjuncts and part-time lecturers in the profession. They find themselves part of a peripatetic teaching cadre, moving from one job to another, holding several teaching positions at the same time, with low pay, no benefits, and little time to research, publish, or make any progress in their careers.

Taken together, this presents a disturbing picture of a situation in which many historians are deprived of fundamental opportunities to participate fully in the professional life of the discipline. Conscious of the terrible loss of scholarly opportunities and the long-term negative impact on education that such conditions create, the three divisions of the AHA are proposing a series of interlocking initiatives to help ameliorate some of these problems.

Like the highly successful summer seminars for college and community college teachers that are sponsored and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the AHA would like to target its efforts to a specific population. Focusing on those who have received their PhDs in the last five years and who teach at institutions identified as having onerous teaching loads (seven to eight courses or more a year), no formal support for research (through leaves or funding), and little or no access to research facilities nearby, the AHA proposes the following initiatives:

  1. A series of summer seminars (four weeks in duration) to be held in Washington, D.C., under AHA sponsorship and led by distinguished scholars. Rather than seminars targeting a single topic (as in the NEH summer seminars and institutes), these junior faculty seminars (with 20 to 25 scholars in attendance) will consist of presentations by invited scholars. The seminars will be organized by either one or two senior faculty who will be present during the entire four weeks and monitor the daily activities of the seminar; discuss innovations in their particular areas of historical research; provide bibliographical leads; and discuss archives, resources, individual fellowship opportunities, and publication strategies. These seminars will provide a nurturing atmosphere, the ability to relate scholarly and pedagogical breakthroughs to one's own career, social and intellectual networking opportunities, and advice on research and publishing. In addition, the seminars will be designed to provide enough free time to allow for research at the Library of Congress and other venues in the Washington area.
  2. Financial support for young scholars attending the AHA annual meeting, as well as sessions targeting how to propose panels and present papers at scholarly meetings, and organize research groups and networks.
  3. Sponsorship of a list of senior scholars in a range of historical fields, who are willing to serve as mentors for historians selected to be in the program. Their counseling will not be limited to the seminars in the AHA annual meeting, but will be continued through personal contacts, phone, e-mail, and other means of communication.
  4. Development of resources on publishing, access to collections, research abroad, and other important aspects of a productive scholarly life in the discipline.
  5. Monitoring of standards for tenure in departments of history by the Research and Professional Divisions. Following the guidance in the recent report from the Modern Languages Association, we encourage a more segmented approach in tenure requirements. Institutional requirements for tenure should be closely linked to that institution's support for research, leave policy, summer support, and other encouragements to research and publication.

Such an initiative, if carried out for a period of five to ten years, will have an important impact on new scholars and on the quality of their research and teaching. It would also positively impact small colleges and community colleges throughout the nation.

As always, we have to rely on the membership's good advice and support, but more tangibly, we need money to make all this happen. Therefore, I am inviting all of you who read these pages to contact us (by e-mail to Robert Townsend) with your thoughts and ideas about how we might develop this project, and where we might turn for funding of this initiative.

—Teofilo Ruiz (UCLA) is vice president of the AHA's Research Division.