Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman: No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History

Roundup: Talking About History

Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) is the president of the AHA. Jim Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.

Entering graduate students file in. They're nervous, they're eager, they don't know quite what to expect. If the director of graduate studies does the job well, the annual orientation ritual will nourish their anticipation, while allaying their anxieties. Still, out of a sense of responsibility, faculty should keep one source of reasonable trepidation on the table: the job market. It is what it is, and entering students need to enter with their eyes open to it.

But open to what? And what is the "it" that is the job market for historians? The academy alone? That is what we say when we offer statistics on placement. That is what we say when the department placement officer proffers the annual warning that ye who enter here do so at your own peril. Most orientations include a reference—in the best cases even some focus—on "alternatives." But the default, the hope, the gold ring, is the tenure-track position.

A curious irony. On the one hand, the intellectual experience that awaits our students is probably richer now than it has ever been in the past. Traditional core fields like political and diplomatic history are experiencing revivals, new fields like transnational history are expanding, and new methods are being forged and honed. The old economy of scarcity that limited research in the early years of graduate school to the stacks of one's own university library has made way for a digital Land of Cockaigne. Verbal, visual, and aural sources from dozens of cultures crowd the screen of anyone enrolled at a university. Meanwhile graduate conferences and social media enable students to tap into national and international networks long before they complete their dissertations, and give them vital experience in presenting their work to multiple audiences. Holders of new doctorates leave their graduate schools in possession of research experience and technical skills that were undreamt of 10 years ago.

On the other hand, this breadth and range, this openness to new ways of thinking and working, somehow disappear when we consider our students' careers. We don't tell them on that first day, "there are many ways to be a historian; there are many ways to apply what you've learned to a career." This matters for two reasons, not necessarily in any order. First, it ignores the facts of academic employment; second, it pushes talented scholars into narrow channels, and makes it less likely that they will take schooled historical thinking with them into a wide range of employment sectors.

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