With barbed tongues and references to the Occupy Wall Street movement, worried historians debated what to do about the jobs crisis in their field at the American Historical Association’s conference in Chicago this past weekend.A panel discussion titled “Jobs for Historians: Approaching the Crisis from the Demand Side” grew out of a strongly-worded online exchange between Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman, the president and executive director of the AHA, respectively, and Jesse Lemisch, a professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. An October article by Grafton and Grossman, “No More Plan B,” challenged the profession to abandon the idea that tenure-track professorships are the only real measure of success for doctoral students. History PhD graduates have greatly outnumbered tenure-track openings for decades, sometimes by as much as two to one. “Our only choice,” they say, “…is to train fewer historians or to find a more diverse array of employment opportunities.”Lemisch countered in “History is Worth Fighting For,” an essay that accused the AHA of “a failure of vision, and an unwillingness to embark on a battle” for more higher education funding to create more jobs for historians. Referring to Occupy Wall Street, he continued: “It appears that those druggies, drummers, sex addicts and student debtors down there in Zuccotti Square are doing more for civilization, History and education than is the AHA.”
In a conference room at the Sheraton in downtown Chicago, Grafton and Lemisch were joined by Edward Belleisen of Duke University, John Dictl of the Council for Public History and Lynn Hunt of the University of California, Los Angeles, and an audience of over a hundred other academics.None of the panelists disputed the dire circumstances many graduates find themselves in when they reach the academic job market, with Belleisen going so far as to call it a “depression.” But with the exception of Lemisch, most emphasized the need for change within the profession. “The real challenge is an internal cultural shift” that validates success beyond professorships, said Dictl. “Public history and other career trajectories outside academia should not be considered ‘Plan B.’ ”“This is just moving around deck chairs,” replied Lemisch, pointing out that the jobs at museums and in government that his colleagues championed as alternatives were in short supply themselves. “It’s hard to imagine states hiring archivists as state budgets collapse. Wisconsin, California—are you kidding?”Instead, he restated his case for a lobbying campaign to enact a new Federal Writers’ Project (WPA), modeled on a New Deal program that funded, among other things, the recording of slave narratives, and which employed about 7,000 people. The modern-day equivalent would focus on digitizing records so they could be used for research from anywhere in the world, he said. How to pay for it? “Tax the one percent.”While no one came out against such a program, the other speakers did not put much faith in its passage. “It is not the case for 99% of voters” that they will join an academic crusade for a WPA, said UCLA’s Hunt. “That fifty percent of the voters that sometimes says it would support higher taxes for education, when presented with a specific initiative to raise taxes, as we know, usually votes it down.”She added dryly: “The Left has been more influential among AHA members than voters as a whole.”Dictl also pointed to the inadequacy of previous efforts by historians to advance their field through politics. “The National Coalition for History ended up…in the political realm of advocacy, and where has that left us? …The glorious fight can’t suddenly begin, because it’s never let up.”Lemisch remained unconvinced at the end of the hour-long discussion, despite being outnumbered on the panel. Asked to give a final comment, he decried his colleagues’ focus on pragmatism: “This is evasion!”
Daniel Hertz is a senior fellow at City Observatory, an urban public policy think tank.