[Marxism] As the humanities collapse, it’s time to name and shame the culprits

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 27 06:46:19 MDT 2019

Chronicle of Higher Education, April 26, 2019  PREMIUM
A Moral Stain n on the Profession
As the humanities collapse, it’s time to name and shame the culprits
By Daniel Bessner and Michael Brenes

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.

The jobs crisis is not natural; it is a crisis caused by corporate, 
governmental, and, yes, academic elites.

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.

Given the magnitude of the discipline’s collapse, the AHA must address 
head-on the profession’s systemic inequality. Thus far it has failed. In 
its misguided emphasis on "alt-ac," the AHA reinforces a stratified and 
unequal system of academic labor and obfuscates the structural problems 
inherent in the job market. Many professional historians, especially 
those of the younger generation, are not on the tenure track (part-time 
positions account for 47 percent of university faculty overall); the 
organization and its mission must change to reflect this disturbing fact.

What makes the AHA’s inaction all the more inexcusable is that the 
employment crisis is not new. As far back as 1972, The New York Times 
reported that the AHA was "facing open discontent in its ranks as a 
result of the recession, academic budget trimming and an oversupply of 
trained historians," which engendered a "job crisis" that showed little 
sign of abating. Nevertheless, for nearly a half-century, historians 
have failed to organize to halt the disappearance of positions. This 
must now change. In short, the AHA must become an organization that 
serves the needs of the many and not the few. It must try to reverse the 
damage caused by decades of unnecessary neoliberal austerity, 
corporatization, and adjunctification; it must transform itself into an 
advocate of contingent labor, of those academics presently lost to a 
capricious and inequitable system; and it must recruit non-tenure-track 
scholars into its leadership class. To achieve those goals, we propose 
the following ideas.

‘Alt-Ac’ Is Not the Answer

The AHA’s focus on "career diversity," or "alt-ac" — a term that eludes 
definition — legitimizes inaction on behalf of the profession’s winners. 
As it stands, gestures to alt-ac careers are a form of boot-strappism 
and market-Darwinism that provide no consolation or concrete assistance 
to an embattled labor force. To alleviate the conditions of a lost 
generation of historians, the AHA does little but offer dubious 
"resources" — syllabi, workshops, publications — that in the end are 
characterized primarily by rhetorical encouragement. Historians don’t 
need assistance transitioning away from stable academic jobs; we need 
stable academic jobs. And while the AHA offers "Career Diversity 
Implementation Grants" to departments re-thinking how they teach 
graduate students, these programs amount to little more than 
job-retraining programs. There is no reason that someone needs to 
receive a Ph.D. in history to become a high-school teacher or museum 
curator, two of the most commonly cited alt-ac careers. This is not to 
disparage those jobs, but only to underline that they are careers with 
different norms, standards, and training programs. In fact, it is 
insulting to teachers and curators that the AHA assumes that scholars 
will be able to move easily into those positions.

Indeed, none of the AHA’s "career diversity" programs seem to appreciate 
the fact that much of the humanities alt-ac market is itself 
beleaguered, rattled by financial cuts and dependence on part-time, 
low-wage work. Take jobs in archives and libraries. Outside of subject 
specialists and curatorial positions, which are headquartered mostly at 
sizable academic libraries with adequate funding (of which there are 
increasingly few), there are hardly any full-time entry-level jobs in 
libraries and archives.

The AHA’s current concentration on alt-ac shifts the blame for an 
abysmal job market from the universities who have hollowed out their 
labor forces onto a generation of underemployed scholars. While the AHA 
did not cause this crisis, its focus on alt-ac diverts attention from 
the needless austerity programs responsible for the present catastrophe. 
Moreover, by legitimizing the status quo, alt-ac forces those with 
graduate degrees in history to compete against one another for scarce 
resources. Such initiatives encourage Ph.D.s to look for jobs for which 
they are not trained and which they do not want, sowing antagonism 
rather than fostering the solidarity that is necessary to overturn a 
patently unjust system.

Equitable Job Postings, Interview Practices, and Graduate-School Statistics

The AHA exerts almost no oversight in regard to the jobs offered to 
historians; universities freely post positions that they should be 
ashamed to advertise. To take an egregious example: in 2010, East 
Tennessee State University posted an advertisement for a job in which 
the winning candidate would teach six courses a year for $24,000 plus 
benefits. And East Tennessee State is hardly the only offender. In 
January 2019, the University of Arizona advertised a three-year position 
for director of a "public history collaborative." The successful 
candidate — who should "have produced historical work of recognized 
excellence and have experience in fundraising, grant writing, and 
project management," and who should also "have significant and acclaimed 
teaching experience" — would lead the program while teaching four 
courses a year and producing "scholarship of engagement" (whatever that 
means). Examples like these are legion.

Applying for temporary, low-paying positions is a time-consuming 
process. Take a 2017 advertisement posted by the University of Tennessee 
at Chattanooga for a 4/4, one-year lectureship in U.S. history. Though 
the job is a temporary teaching position, the ad requires a cover 
letter, CV, graduate transcripts, teaching philosophy, sample syllabi, 
student evaluations, writing sample, and three references. Similarly, 
Mount Holyoke College recently advertised a one-year, nonrenewable 
position in European and Jewish history, for which the college requested 
a cover letter, CV, writing sample, evidence of teaching effectiveness, 
sample syllabi, three references, and two additional documents: a 
teaching philosophy and a diversity statement. Putting all of these 
materials together requires a significant degree of unpaid labor that 
for most candidates will never be compensated. It is obscene to require 
such elaborate applications for nonpermanent positions.

Search committees must become cognizant of the ways in which such jobs 
reinforce inequality in the profession. That they haven’t yet done so 
reflects the dominance of the tenured in the workings of the job market, 
of those ensconced in a system that believes paying one’s dues — taking 
substandard, temporary work — is the sacrifice one must make to work in 
the modern university. The AHA — and tenured professors more generally — 
must reject and dispel such thinking. While the AHA cannot, of course, 
control what jobs universities advertise or how they advertise them, it 
should name and shame colleges that ask historians to work difficult (or 
impossible) jobs for peanuts. It should encourage universities to stop 
asking candidates to spend an inordinate amount of time putting together 
materials to apply for jobs that everyone knows are crummy and 
exploitative. An AHA-published "shame list" would expose the 
institutions and departments that post job ads which are clearly 
inequitable. Over time, such a list might serve to arrest such egregious 

To be a historian today is to be jobless, suffused with a near-constant 
anxiety that one has wasted years of one's life.
Some history departments are at long last recognizing that most job 
candidates have neither the time nor the money to travel to Chicago 
(where AHA 2019 was held) or a similar city to chase the prospect of a 
job that might — just might! — pay them a living wage. Skype, Zoom, or 
telephone interviews should not simply be offered as alternatives to 
in-person interviews; the AHA must mandate them. The AHA, in other 
words, must acknowledge that the conference interview is a relic of a 
bygone era and must change its policy to reflect that fact.

Finally, the AHA should urge history departments that have Ph.D. 
programs to publish comprehensive statistics on job placements that 
clearly delineate between tenure-track, non-tenure track, visiting 
professor, post-doctoral, and non-academic positions. Such statistics 
will help provide present and incoming graduate students with important 
information and will further underline to tenured historians and the 
public at large the severity of the present crisis.

Build Networks Across the Humanities and Social Sciences

The AHA should also work to institutionalize networks of solidarity 
within and outside the discipline. First, it should develop creative 
initiatives to connect tenure-track with non-tenure-track faculty 
members. We are all, for example, wary of "manels" — conference panels 
that consist only of men. The AHA should prompt historians to be 
similarly skeptical of panels that include only tenure-track faculty 
members. Furthermore, to build solidarity, the AHA should hold events 
throughout the year that bring all types of faculty members together. 
And, most important, it should pressure history departments to invite 
non-tenure-track faculty members to departmental meetings, so that they 
don’t remain invisible, as is usually the case. Tenure-track and tenured 
faculty members, in short, must recognize that they share interests with 
those who have not been lucky enough to land tenure-track positions. To 
help them do so, the AHA should publicly shame those who refuse to 
integrate non-tenure-track faculty members into professional events and 
decision-making processes. Non-tenure-track faculty members are in no 
way "lesser" than those on the tenure line, and the professoriate must 
stop treating them as such.

Second, the AHA should work with other professional associations — the 
Modern Language Association, the American Anthropological Association, 
the American Political Science Association, the International Studies 
Association, the American Library Association, the Society of American 
Archivists — to address systematically the job crisis that affects us 
all. Building inter- and transdisciplinary solidarity would be an 
effective means to pressure universities to recommit to hiring 
tenure-track faculty. Solidarity would also provide the communal basis 
for a collective strike, one that must be supported — indeed, led — by 
tenured faculty members. Can anyone imagine how universities would 
respond if members of all these associations threatened to strike? If we 
wish to reverse the decline of the academic job market, we must make use 
of our labor power. We might even consider creating an Industrial 
Workers of the World-type organization for the humanities and social 

Transforming the AHA’s Leadership Class

Currently, the overwhelming majority of the members of the AHA’s 
governing council are tenured or tenure-track professors. In the future, 
the association must make a significant effort to recruit 
non-tenure-track and independent scholars into its leadership ranks. As 
things stand, most historians will not find stable, full-time academic 
employment. For that reason, it is crucial that the interests of the 
majority be represented at the highest institutional levels. This would 
provide non-tenure-track faculty members with access to the AHA’s bully 
pulpit, which could be used to highlight the collapse of the job market 
and to advocate for an increase in tenure-track hiring. As such, the AHA 
should consider holding more open and democratic elections instead of 
relying primarily on a Nominating Committee (composed mostly of tenured 
faculty) that determines who will run for AHA offices.

We are recent Ph.D.s in history who have stable jobs. But both of us 
also spent years on the job market and appreciate the intense 
psychological effects — insomnia, depression, anxiety — that come from 
being constantly worried about finding full-time and fulfilling 
employment. The situation in which historians and other humanists and 
social scientists find themselves cannot be allowed to continue. We 
believe that the most important role members of the tenured 
professoriate can adopt in coming years is that of organizer of and 
advocate for their contingent colleagues. Those with professional power 
can no longer confine themselves to promoting the latest scholarship, 
awarding prizes, and holding conferences. The AHA must instead adopt a 
more active role that challenges the casualization of labor that has 
degraded academic work. The jobs crisis is not natural; it is a crisis 
of political economy caused by a series of decisions made by corporate, 
governmental, and, yes, academic elites over the past 50 years. It is 
fully in our power to reverse these decisions. The future of History — 
and, perhaps, of history — is at stake.

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.

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