AHA Roundtable: "It's a Small World After All"

Kenneth Pomeranz, June 2013

This is part of an online forum on a survey of historians' research interests by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt. A description of the survey can be found here. More roundtables can be found here.

The questions raised by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt in their essay “It’s a Small World After All” are critical ones, as all the participants in this forum recognize. While even the most casual observer has long known that the study of North America and Europe—probably mostly Western Europe—is over-represented (relative to population) in our history departments, some of Clossey and Guyatt’s figures are quite striking: a little further manipulation of their data shows that at the mostly elite schools in their UK sample the ratio of historians doing research on the “West”1 to its population is 27.6 times the ratio of researchers on the rest of the world to the rest of the world’s population. The figures for the US are less lopsided, and both may be somewhat overstated (as Anne Gerritsen and Mary Elizabeth Berry point out) due to the survey’s  omission of  historians in other departments. But even the least unequal figures we could squeeze out would still be quite unequal.

Moreover, unless faculties change their hiring quite a bit, expected demographic trends will make these numbers even more lopsided: that 27.6 to one ratio, for instance, would become 44.3 to one by 2050. And, as we know, tenure-track faculties change slowly, even when a conscious effort is made.2 So one need not advocate anything close to simple parity between research interest and population across regions—and no participant in this forum does suggest that—to think that we have some problems.

But what exactly are the problems? While Clossey and Guyatt categorize historians by looking at their research, most of this forum is about our obligation to provide undergraduates with the opportunity to take courses on a wide variety of societies. How wide a choice that should be depends not only on the institution—and we should remember that most post-secondary history is taught in relatively small department3—but also on how we identify the chief value of history education. To the extent that the purpose of history is the cultivation of citizens, there is a case to be made for over-weighting the history of one’s home country. There is also a case to be made for insuring that graduates have some knowledge of other societies that have considerable influence on their contemporary world, and of societies that have particular histories of entanglement with their own. (That no Ivy League history department has a historian of the Philippines—a former American colony with 95 million people—is quite striking.4 And I cannot help quoting a bumper sticker I once saw: “I love my country, but I think we should start seeing other people.”) To the extent that the main argument for history is the ways of thinking that it teaches, then the case for coverage of any particular place, whether seemingly familiar or not, is weakened: any history can help us learn how to think about change over time, and the history of almost any place, studied carefully, can help students understand the strangeness and the similarities of people across societies, and help them think more rigorously about what is necessary and what is contingent in our own world.

I suspect most historians would agree that we should make both arguments for history. And that suggests multiple responses to geographic skew—only some of which involve changing whom we hire. Many of us do teach beyond our field, and as Teofilo Ruiz points out, that can change the way we approach our main field as well; as Mary Elizabeth Berry points out, regularly reading the work of your colleagues in other fields, or simply engaging with them over lunch, can have a powerful de-provincializing effect on both our teaching and our research. Those opportunities are, of course, unevenly distributed, but we can mitigate those inequalities  through the types of seminars Ruiz envisions (which, in my own experience, benefit those who teach them as much as those who take them), through digital networking, through the panels we organize and attend, and so on. (Those interactions need to cross rank as well as field. If it’s utterly impossible for your department to hire a tenure-track Africanist at this time, they may well hire an adjunct—who does as much research as circumstances allow—to teach some African history. The department, as well as this individual, will benefit from ladder faculty including him or her in the department's intellectual and social life, not just in its teaching schedule.) Changes in how we train and select future professors are crucial, but like changes in genetic traits, they will take a long time to show up all across the species. The good thing about humans is that we can adapt by changing our behavior, without waiting for our genes to do the job.

—Kenneth Pomeranz is president of the AHA.

Notes

1.   For purposes of this research, the “West” excludes Latin America—an odd choice in cultural terms, but an understandable one if “West” means “societies most like ours” and part of what it means to be “like us” is relative prosperity.

2.   I am, of course, aware that a great many history courses are taught by non-tenure track faculty, which might change some of these numbers; but I have no data on the distribution of adjuncts and part-timers by field that would be comparable to Clossey and Guyatt’s data. And I assume that very few of us would want university administrators to decide that in order to make it easier to change their faculty composition in response to “real world” trends, they should move toward a faculty with fewer tenure-track faculty. This makes in all the more important, in my view, that those of us who do have tenure show some flexibility in what we teach.

3.   Almost half of all tenure-track faculty in the 2012 AHA Guide to History Departments were in departments with 20 or fewer such faculty, and since small departments are disproportionately absent from the Guide, the true percentage must be higher. My thanks to Liz Townsend for providing this data.

4.   I owe this observation to a talk by Daniel Immerwahr (Northwestern Univ.).