A Moral Stain on the ProfessionRoundup
tags: AHA, history, higher education, academia
Daniel Bessner is an assistant professor in American foreign policy at the University of Washington. Michael Brenes is a lecturer in global affairs and a senior archivist at Yale University.
Regardless of whether they study ancient Byzantium, colonial Latin America, or the modern United States, most historians can agree on one thing: The academic job market is abysmal. To even call it a "market" is an exaggeration; it’s more like a slaughterhouse. Since the Great Recession of 2008, there have been far, far more historians than jobs. 2016-17 was the worst academic year for history positions in 30 years, and though there was a slight uptick in 2017-18, this improvement, as the recent jobs report released by the American Historical Association notes, did "not indicate any sustained progress recovering from the 2008-9 recession." To be a historian today is, for most people, to be jobless, suffused with anxiety that one has wasted years of one’s life training for a position that will never materialize.
The American Historical Association, and the tenured professoriate that mostly composes it, has done frustratingly little to ameliorate this situation. Though the AHA is the major professional organization in the discipline, it has displayed a marked unwillingness — or, perhaps, inability — to rally historians against an unjust labor system. Instead, the organization has responded to what must be seen as a social, psychological, and economic crisis with solutions that would offend even Candide’s Dr. Pangloss, who famously affirmed that "all is for the best" in "the best of all possible worlds." For instance, in the above-mentioned jobs report, the AHA proclaims that the poor job market, while lamentable, has nonetheless "forced a recognition of the tremendous range of careers historians have long pursued" outside the academy. In essence, the group has responded to the collapse of the historical profession by telling people that the best — really, only — solution to the crisis is to find non-university jobs. This is not so much a solution as a surrender.
For decades, members of the historical profession have acquiesced in the neoliberalization of the university system, which has encouraged false — and self-serving — notions of "meritocracy" to dominate thinking about those who "succeeded" and those who "failed" on the academic job market. Indeed, the majority of AHA leaders are themselves tenured academics, often from elite universities, who have been spared the market’s many indignities. If the leadership more genuinely reflected the historical profession, perhaps we would have long ago abandoned the quiescent path that endangers the fate of academic history writing in the United States — a genre that might very well disappear.
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