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Who’s a Historian to the AHA?

My piece questioning the supply-side bent to the American Historical Association’s 2010 job report has gotten thoughtful replies by historiann, Alan Baumler, Jonathan Rees, Ellen Schrecker, Sandy Thatcher and others, both at my home blog and here at Brainstorm.

I really appreciate these thoughts, and want to emphasize how much I respect Townsend’s work for AHA over the years, including his parsing of the data on many fronts-especially “privilege,” which I believe informs his diss as well — or I’d probably have come on a bit stronger on the supply-side orientation.

It seems one part of the problem is the relationship of history faculty at smaller schools and community colleges to the discipline, and to the AHA as a disciplinary organization. As Alan wrote in response to my discussion of the many faculty literally off the AHA’s chart: 

Ph.D programs don’t want that. They judge themselves by the number of dissertations completed and the number of good jobs their grads get. If a grad student finishes and gets a job at a no-name school, leaves with an A.B.D and gets a job with the State Department or gets eaten by wolves it’s all the same to most programs; they don’t count.

Isn’t that a fairly unhealthy (not to mention undemocratic, elitist, etc.) basis for reproducing one’s profession? 

Perhaps fixing this attitude — if it really is as widespread as Alan suggests — is far more urgent, and would do more to improve the working lives of historians, than ill-fated adventures in supply-side pseudoeconomics.

I also take Jonathan’s point (track back to his home blog), 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 Ph.D.?) or seriously alter hiring patterns (who hires badlyprepared faculty anyway?).

The Supply-Reduction Fantasy

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?”)?

So for starters I’d like to see AHA giving good, tough activist answers to those sorts of questions, not knuckling under to the managerial dominant of the status quo by naturalizing “demand” (which is just an abstraction of a struggle between real persons and groups, a struggle being won by administrations and the interests they represent).

Regarding the effectiveness of supply-side interventions: Well, just imagine the shrinkage of grad programs.

Who would do the work that grad students were doing? On what terms? Would they be more qualified or less? At some institutions, administrations will want to replace grad-student discussion leaders with undergrads. What would be a proper replacement for the grad student discussion leader? A teaching-intensive faculty member? In that context are teaching-intensive faculty “historians” to the AHA? Ditto small colleges and community colleges?

In the end, any actual shrinkage of doctoral programs leads you right back to the tough questions that “job market theory” initially bypasses — because those doctoral programs are that size for a reason: The students are working!

And supply-side shrinkage would have at best modest effects on other, simultaneous managerial initiatives — increasing class size, teaching by nonfaculty, deprofessionalization and permatemping, automation of instruction, standardization and managerial control of curricula, etc.

As I document at length in HTUW, contemporary campus management doesn’t “want” persons holding the Ph.D. to teach; they need a very modest number of persons with the Ph.D. to legitimate the presence of a boatload of cheap teachers. During the whole period that supply-side analysis dominated the discourse of the professon with claims about “Ph.D. overproduction,” the percentage of folks teaching with the Ph.D. has steadily dropped.

Supply-side analysis falsely simplifies a complex historical struggle between real persons and groups, and — fancifully, unsupportably — imagines that the holder of a Ph.D. is selling a commodity highly desired in an employment marketplace. (And further simplistically assumes that price can always be affected by supply, confuses price and value, etc. etc.).

What actually affects historians’ lives is their working conditions — how much teaching they do, at what salaries, with what recognition by colleagues, etc. etc.

The “market for Ph.D.’s” is not the main shaper of those things: they can and should be struggled for directly.

Imagining that all of those issues are explained by, and can be addressed within, a “job market” is intellectually lazy and an indefensible position for a professional association. (See pp. 15-27 here for more analysis in this vein.).

IMHO, the real struggle for the AHA is to inclusively shape the working conditions of “all historians,” not play speculator in an imaginary “job market.”

Micro-analysis vs job-market Theory

Ellen Schrecker very kindly weighs in with comradely concerns (we’re on the AAUP council and Academe advisory boards together), and points out the utility of Townsend’s data gathering on trends regarding specializations (a point also made by Alan on my home blog). 

I agree with both Alan and Ellen that this data gathering and micro-analysis is extremely valuable; my concern is with scaling this up to big-picture analysis of historical transformation (by way of analogizing workplace struggle to “markets”).

Demand-side solutions to the publishing glut?

In the most original response, Sandy Thatcher at Penn State UP and former prez of “the other” AAUP (Association of American University Presses), asks me kinda rhetorically, but still usefully and interestingly, whether I support a “demand-side” solution to the “crisis in scholarly communication”:

demand-side solution for faculty publishing, too, by expanding the number of publishing outlets or increasing the output of those already existing. Of course, that would only exacerbate the chief problem that university presses have faced in the last couple of decades, viz., decreasing demand for their output by libraries. The whole history of university press publishing has been one of market failure, i.e., inadequate demand for the supply of academic writings. Increasing the number of tenure-track jobs will pose greater burdens on the already stressed system so long as P&T committees continue to insist on publication of the monograph as the “gold standard” — and not just one monograph now for tenure, but at some universities two. The analysis needs to go beyond expanding jobs for tenure-track faculty; it needs to deal with the crisis in scholarly communication that such an increase would exacerbate.

This deserves a post or 10 of its own. I’ll just make a few points and think about coming back to this later. Like Townsend, I think a lot about digital publication of academic writing, and have taught it to students almost annually for almost 15 years. From that perspective I’ll indulge in some futurology.

My belief is that historians in particular will move to a standard of digital academic publication — in the form of hypertext. What other form of writing allows historians to present archival material and other forms of data at virtually any length and medium the scholar feels appropriate, while navigating and presenting the existing secondary literature, while presenting their own scholarship in both linear and nonlinear forms? Some historians will write well natively to this medium; others will require specialist assistants; and there will be plenty of digitally published books, chapters, and articles.

Closer to contemporary reality, and the concerns of presses: The printed book is still a fetish object for the academic gerontocracy, but the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony reader and the plastic-paper people are changing that ground under our feet. A peer-reviewed digitally published print-on-demandable monograph is just fine. Sandy’s question probably needs to be re-framed as “What role will presses play in digital publication?” After all, peer review and digital publication doesn’t require the press at all — and others have already long noted the outsourcing of high-stakes tenure decisions to university-press acquisitions editors (a practice to which many faculty will cheerfully say, “good riddance!”)

And while questions of business models and who reviews the digital academic monograph are being sorted out, we can guess at some of what might happen by looking at the world of digital journal publication, where there’s plenty of restructuring. Some of the good solutions are in fact demand side: Lots of good new all-digital journals, started up outside of traditional distribution networks, do vastly better work than many of the lumbering paper-slaughterers out there.

I completely agree with Sandy that the question of speed-up — too much publishing, unnecessary publishing — is very important.

We need to address that, but not necessarily from the point of view of the special problems of university presses trying to figure out their business models.

We need to address that question from the point of view of students and faculty — above all, to revalue shared governance and teaching, and remember that tenure is not a merit badge for research faculty, but a guarantee of the professional rights and responsibilities of teaching-intensive faculty.

To bring this back to where we started — I think the professional circumstances and needs of teaching-intensive history faculty — on and off the tenure track — is a question that the discipline of history can look at a bit more carefully than heretofore.

Part 1 At the AHA: Huh?
Part 2 Who’s a ‘Historian’ to the AHA?
Part 3 History ‘Job Czar’ Shuts Down PhD Production
(Oversupply Continues for Two Decades)

x-posted: howtheuniversityworks.com

 

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