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More Labor Pains at the AHA

Marc Bousquet has certainly started a far-reaching discussion about the job market for historians. Besides what’s at Marc’s home blog, I’ve only gotten to the part at Historiann (which, to return her favor, is well worth your time). I’ll finish reading all the other links in Marc’s new post as soon as I finish holding down my end of this conversation. Here’s Marc:

I also take Jonathan’s point…that eliminating certain programs might do the profession good. That’s probably true in some ways in most fields–at least insofar as there are programs that might be doing a poor job of preparing future scholars–but I wonder if that’s not a different sort of conversation to have?

Closing programs doing a bad job of preparing future historians isn’t going to answer real questions (should community college faculty hold the PhD?) or seriously alter hiring patterns (who hires badly-prepared faculty anyway?).

It’s not about quality to me, but economic reality. History programs that can’t place their Ph.D.s might give them a bang-up education, but I’d contend that they aren’t doing their students any favors. While I share Marc’s institutional concerns, I can’t escape thinking about the job market on a personal level. My primary objective in a discussion like this is doing my best to prevent anyone from getting that sinking feeling that they just spent seven or eight years of their life and (depending on the school) somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000, yet the skills they just gained can barely put food on their table let alone make their health insurance affordable.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have never experienced this firsthand, but I vividly remember anticipating that feeling because it seemed very likely for a time. I got my current job from the lovely institution that eventually awarded me tenure in June! [And yes, it was advertised as a tenure track assistant professorship.] One reason that C. Vann Winchell post made me laugh (albeit nervously) is that I distinctly remember my “That’s it, I’ll go to Law School!” phase as one of the lowest points in my life.

I’ve taken some flack around here for recommending students stay as far away from graduate school in the humanities as humanly possible (except if they have some pre-existing mechanism to pay for it). I feel this way because I don’t want anything to do with training people for skills that have an incredibly limited market and will likely continue to do so for a long time to come. Despite some opposition, this attitude is not uncommon in my department. As a result, our graduate program is composed overwhelmingly of already-employed secondary school teachers who will get guaranteed raises with their (terminal) M.A. degrees.

I think Jonathan’s saying that reducing supply is more doable than addressing casualization (as Alan hints also) and would at least do no harm.

But I’m not actually sure about either prong of that observation. Including the assumption it wouldn’t be harmful.

Wouldn’t restricting supply (even if possible practically and ethically) do at minimum the harm of answering in advance certain real questions (”nope, community colleges and small schools don’t need ‘real’ historians”) and bypass others (”what should teaching and learning at those schools be like anyway?)?

Actually, my position would be let’s reduce supply AND address casualization. It’s not like I have statistics at my fingertips, but I’m pretty sure that the existing surplus of historians is big enough that if the profession cut new history Ph.D.s to zero next year [Is this starting to sound like a global warming debate?], there would still be more than enough underemployed ones left over to fill every adjunct slot in America that we could ever hope to convert to a job that pays a livable wage.

I’ve deliberately avoided the term “tenure track” in that last sentence because my criterion for success is not the tenure track; it’s whether your education will result in a position that allows you to live reasonably well and pay your mortgage. Keeping contingent labor on a contingent basis until restructuring occurs (if it ever occurs) isn’t fair to them. I think Winchell, at least, agrees with me, which is why he suggests other lines of work for rejected San Diego interviewees (just not lawyer, teacher or roustabout).

Now you’ve done it Marc! My head hurts again. Therefore, I think I’ll pass up that extra reading until the pounding stops, but maybe take it up again when I have enough Advil handy to tackle the rest of the discussion.
Read entire article at More or Less Bunk (Blog)