Why Anthony Grafton Is a Rock Star

Historians in the News

Claire Potter is a blogger and history professor at Wesleyan University.

Have you followed American Historical Association president Anthony Grafton’s serial meditation on how graduate schools might respond to a bad academic job market? A market that has, since the the 1970s, been either stagnant or getting worse? A market with whose effects the blogosphere is obsessed?

If you haven’t, you need to catch up.  For “No More Plan B” (October 2011) and “Plan C” (November 2011), both co-written with Jim Grossman for the AHA newsletter Perspectives, go here and here. For an article about “Plan B” by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed (October 3 2011) go here; and for a response by graduate student Dan Alloso (UMass-Amherst) go here.

This month, a few young historians will get ready for convention or Skype interviews and most of the others will check their voicemail for the call that isn’t coming.  In a well-timed conclusion to the series, Grafton ends with a solo piece on full-time employment off the academic tenure-track. In ”Historians at Work:  Public History” (December 2011), he describes the rich, publicly engaged intellectual labor of a young Ph.D. at the Museum of the City of New York, emphasizing its collaborative quality, its scope and its impact. “This is serious history,” Grafton writes in his concluding paragraph. “It’s deeply informed by scholarship. And if it’s well done, it will reach an enormous audience.”

Scholars already doing public history in its many forms might shrug and say, “This is news?”  Historians on the market will point out that Grafton is proposing another version of the old bait and switch. Lured by the fantasy of life as a teacher-scholar, they are now being offered a second-class life that they can’t afford to turn down.  Those working in the world of contingent scholarship will argue that privileged oldsters like Grafton and myself have no right to admit defeat on their behalf, denying younger folk a similar opportunity (different as Princeton and Zenith are) to have the careers they chose....

Grafton’s most vocal critics this fall have emphasized that his proposals for reform accept the market forces, and the underinvestment in education, that have left thousands of PhDs in many fields un- or under-employed.  Radical historian Jesse Lemisch, for example, sees Grafton’s approach as accomodationist. “I hesitate to use so snarky a term as C. Wright Mills’s ‘crackpot realism,’” he responded on History News Network (November 11 2011)...

This Radical’s heart is often with Lemisch, but on this issue my mind is with Grafton. And where the mind goes, the heart follows.  As I read Grafton’s concluding piece, I was struck by his focus on the beauty of scholarly collaboration, a skill that is rarely emphasized in a graduate education and is poorly rewarded in the history departments where we stand for tenure and promotion.  As Dana Polanichka implies in the same December issue, the most successful job seekers can display an egotism and lack of empathy for others that suggests things will not get better at all in a world of graduate education where individualism rules and young scholars who do land jobs see it as proof that their achievements are demonstrably superior....

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