AHA Day 4: Gentlemen, Turn Off Your Engines!

January 7, 2008, 2:57 pm

After my panel I flew out of DCA and came to visit my niece and grandnephew in a Warm State, where I slept for ten solid hours last night. There is no amount of training that can get you through a convention as big as this one. You just have to catch up at the end. Although my Saturday night dinner with Leslie Harris, Wendy Wall and Renee Romano was delightful, it was not a late night, so I have to conclude that four straight days of non-stop talking and listening just requires recovery.

For a partial wrap-up of Day 4, you can go to Rick Shenkman’s account at HNN, complete with videos from the sessions he attended. For my part, I woke up yesterday with a profound sense that my paper was too long, so I spent part of the morning re-editing it and missed the morning session almost completely. I did — as part of the process of finding the room my session was in — walk in on the tail end of a fascinating discussion about digital publishing and journals that included Alice Kessler-Harris and Eileen Boris, with Linda Kerber raising critical points from the audience. I was sorry I missed the first part of the session, since when I got there the group had moved on to the question of how we retain access to our journals in an era of shrinking library budgets.

My session, sponsored by the Committee on Women Historians (CWH), was on promotion, retention and quality of life for women. It was the last session on the last day — and we still got a group of about twenty five. Chaired by Leo Spitzer of Dartmouth, it was your favorite Radical, on how to make a second career at the same institution; Tiya Miles on making decisions about motherhood, book writing, and the tenure track; and Nancy Hewitt’s thoughtful reflections on thirty years of women in the profession. Speaking only for myself, I think it was a great panel, and to make a pitch for traditional media for a second, should probably be in print somewhere. The room was hideous: it was very cold, and part way through the panel, I realized that we were right next door to a large garage, where trucks were backing in and out, with attendant beeps, roars, and big guys yelling. In fact, we were more or less in the garage, since there were large red curtains draped against the wall, and I took a peek — they were actually garage doors. It was a real sign that there was no diva factor on the panel that none of us complained; we just did our work and coped. Fortunately none of us became ill from carbon monoxide poisoning, but, memo to program committees booking rooms at the Washington Marriott at future conferences: take Washington Room 1 off the schedule.

All in all, I thought it was a great conference. One thing I did notice: this year, I met at least three people with books out who did not get tenure for some reason other than the actual quality of their scholarship. I find this a disturbing trend, if indeed it is a trend. It says to me that the institutional garbage that triggered the Radical’s Unfortunate Events is not isolated, and that there may be a general trend in higher education of restricting or delaying access to promotion that the Professional Division of the AHA (chaired this year by the able Tony Grafton, who put together a wonderful series of workshops and panels for those on, or trying to get on, the tenure-track) should be looking at and commenting on critically. The other thing was that I met more people (perhaps because of my new visibility as a history blogger) than I ever have who have great degrees and have been on the market for years with no luck. In one discussion, some were advocating restricting the number of new Ph.D.’s, which I disagree with — I think if you took a hard look, you would see hundreds — perhaps thousands — of unfilled tenure track lines at public universities and community colleges that have been more or less taken off the boards in the last two decades that need to be reactivated. And at places like Zenith, although we have added lines since I came there in 1991, we could do a better job if we added lines in the department to actually account for people going on sabbatical. In other words, if you have six U.S. historians, and a sabbatical cycle that runs every seven semesters, and if you have a policy that allows people to extend sabbatical to a year, and if you allow people to take grants when they can get them regardless of whether they are on cycle or not — well, then you have a situation where you have between one and three people who are on leave at any given time. So even at Zenith we need two or three more lines in American history to stabilize our curriculum properly: instead, we spend a lot of time in April and May hiring people on a per course basis, or on one-year lines, to cover the courses we need.

But the other thing we need to address is that Ph.D. programs have more or less resolutely failed to deal with the idea that historians can, and should, be doing public work, and that those people should have Ph.D.’s. It seems to me that there are not only pre-existing categories of work that need certificate programs, such as archives and public history, but that there is so much going on in digital media, I don’t know why we aren’t exploring this as an avenue of paid intellectual activity that is expanding and should be a source of new jobs, which could offer some teaching and a university affiliation as part of the package. A great many of the complaints about how a career in history is structured (or not), and what kinds of choices scholars have (or not) could be usefully addressed by training and certifying people to do the things that they often figure out how to do all by themselves. I would advocate that next year’s program committee, perhaps through the professional division (which did an outstanding job this year, as did the CWH, in promoting these discussions) set up a series of workshops to explore how to move on this.

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