Friday, June 12, 2009

Another slow news day at the NY Times

My New York Times arrived late on Thursday, and hence I was spared the opportunity of a quick response to the Times latest take on the history profession: Great Caesar’s Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing? Claire Potter and her great commenters take up the reporter Patricia Cohen's odd choice of presenting women's and gender history as the villain that swallowed up the field of diplomatic history...without apparently speaking to women historians, whether they be female diplomatic historians, historians of women's history, or in other fields. Brian Ogilvie (scroll down) makes the point that the story simply isn't news.

What strikes me is that the "upstart" fields Cohen mentions have been around for a generation now. Why this article now?...It's certainly not news. More newsworthy, perhaps, would be the growth of world or global history in the past decade--much of which involves economic, diplomatic, and political history, the fields that are supposedly disappearing....
This is actually the second history non-news story covered by Cohen of late. The same reporter brought us breaking news about an article submission to the American Historical Review. Though the piece had not yet made it to the desk of the AHR's editor, its very submission was the occasion for a front page article. When the article was rejected, that warranted more coverage. Little did I know that I should be sending out press releases with my article submissions. But then most historians get little press notice, even for groundbreaking research.

There is much actual news to cover related to history and historians. A starting point might be the way a committed cadre of graduate students and recent Ph.D.s continue to cast their lot with the academy at a time when larger enrollments on some campuses mean that students need them more than ever, but university budget cuts and hiring freezes make their futures more uncertain. Why a backward-looking article about the way the pie should be divided, when the more pressing news story is the impact of the economic crisis on the next generation of historians, regardless of field?

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Mary. I'd missed this story. Lots of things sound a little strange in it, including this: "Yet the growth has been predominantly in the newer specializations, spurring those in diplomatic, military, legal and economic history to complain they are being squeezed out." I don't know anyone in legal history who says we're being squeezed out by "new" areas of history. I think legal history is growing--and growing because it's helping to address issues of importance to "new" areas, like gender and race. (Now, I don't think it's doing as well as it ought in dealing with race and gender, but that's a story for another day. And I agree that within legal history, the areas of focus have shifted. I'm delighted with those shifts--perhaps we can talk about this at some point, what legal history looked like in 1970, 1990, and today, for instance.)

    Also--and I'd be interested in other takes on this, from people who know more about this than me--but my sense is that some of the jobs in foreign relations have shifted from history to other departments, like political science. That is, I'm not sure that foreign relations studies positions have declined as moved to new homes.

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  2. Maybe I unconsciously downplayed the parts that are driving everyone nuts, but I didn't think the article was that bad when I read it yesterday. Admittedly it's not news, but I think there's room in the newspaper for discussions of long-term trends, even those that have been underway for a while. And I think this counts as one. When I started grad school almost two decades ago, my initial area of interest was actually diplomatic history. I was warned away from it by the one professor in the department who ostensibly specialized in it; he derided traditional diplomatic history as "cable traffic." And in fact I didn't stick with it long. (And what I did write wasn't exactly traditional diplomatic history.) It's seemed to become a field that's increasingly moribund, which I have mixed feelings about.

    I also didn't get the impression from my first read through that women's history was being blamed somehow for the demise of diplomatic history. Rather, I thought the point was that the history of elite decisionmakers in general, whether that's political history, intellectual history, or diplomatic history, has declined precipitously both in relative importance and in the number of new professors studying and teaching such topics. I think that's true, I think the turn to social and cultural history is welcome, but I think it's possible that there's been a bit of an over-correction. (Naturally, it's unsurprising that long-term practitioners of traditional diplomatic history would be upset at their relative loss of status, but I didn't put a lot of weight into those quotes; perhaps non-academic readers would.)

    I also don't think Claire Potter is being entirely fair to the grad student quoted in the article. I think a more charitable interpretation of his remarks is not that he's blaming women for the state of his subdiscipline, but that he's concerned that (a) diplomatic history is widely seen as uncool (as it was by the professor I talked to 18 years ago), and (b) he's noticed that SHAFR meetings are populated by people 40 years older than he is. I'd feel lonely too.

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  3. Bruce, thanks for your comment. I think the reactions to the article are in part being driven by the way these issues have been discussed in recent years among academics. A couple of issues:

    One reason there has been such a reaction to the article is because women's and gender history is one of the areas mentioned as (arguably) edging out traditional diplomatic history, but no women historians are quoted in the article, even though many different historians are quoted. This may sound too first-wave, but many of us find this offensive. There are women among the traditionalists in diplomatic history, and many women at the borders between diplomatic history and other fields. And of course there are many women doing women's and gender history, whose insights would have enriched the article.

    I am a member of SHAFR, I've greatly benefited from my participation in SHAFR meetings, and I often recommend SHAFR to legal historians and others, as a way to bring global perspectives to their work. I completely agree that it is important to discuss trends. Diplomatic history should be at the center of the discussion, since it should be part of the move to internationalize American history and to approach history from a transnational perspective. When these issues are raised among diplomatic historians -- e.g. on H-Diplo, which I participate in -- they unfortunately disintegrate into a very narrow set of complaints about whether folks working on gender, race or cultural history have taken over the faculty lines that should have gone to diplomatic historians. The NYT article could also have been a rich discussion of the role of diplomatic history in the context of the global turn in the field as a whole. But instead it reflected this more narrow set of ideas.

    I think we will get past this moment. There is just too much good work by younger and mid-career historians who draw upon diplomatic history in the context of broader transnational narratives (Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, is just one example). The history of international relations is part of global histories, and this is where the field is going. Foreign affairs history has renewed importance, in spite of the fact that some of its practitioners, in the face of change, long for the way things used to be.

    And finally -- and this was the reason for my post -- there are the unfortunate choices of the reporter, who was also the source of the very odd article using the story of an AHR submission to air an attack on another historian. Reporting about the field is great. But this reporter needs new sources.

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  4. Mary, thanks for bringing the connection to the earlier AHR article to light, that's a revealing bit of information, I think.

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  5. As someone who does not do women's or social/cultural history as a primary field, I found the article to be depressingly accurate. Did the article need to quote from a women's historian to certify there are next to no jobs in Diplomatic, Military, or Economic history? Or to certify that quite a few job listings, even in this terrible job market, mention women's, race, GLBT, and other so-called minority group studies as desired specialties? It is certainly true that Social/Cultural history's hegemony is so old as to be unquestioned. But, is it not news, especially to the general public who have turned their purchasing dollars to those same fields we now neglect in our hires and courses as Stan Katz notes? Not to get even more personal, but the best American legal history job in the country in my view, UMD, sought, not a wide group of candidates, but to the ones who did African-American history. The rumor is UMD considered some very fine scholars, but the fact remains they limited their search as the NYT article suggested was the general trend. As a profession, we historians have become so accustomed to institutionalized racism and sexism we actually create elections in the OAH and AHA to discriminate in favor of "diversity." It is a diversity, I might add, of elite school educated and employed persons who are splendid at networking. The job market is indeed horrendous, but it is even more horrendous for those not in favored categories. The article was spot on.

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  6. wmjmsbphh offers what is the standard take in some circles. In the course of his/her comment, wmjmsbphh reiterates a common error, that is discussed most pointedly by David Silby in a post Never Mind the Facts... at Edge of the American West. Silby draws readers attention to a chart accompanying the NYT article, showing an *increase* in military history hiring. And as commenters on his blog post also note, world and transnational history, important areas of faculty hiring in recent years, are simply left out, making it more difficult to draw the conclusions many do about hiring trends. As Silby puts it:

    "The data [in the NYT chart] is courtesy of the American Historical Association, but the thing that struck me was that the number of military history positions has been flat (1975-1990) or growing (1990-2005). This is in contrast to diplomatic and economic history positions, which are declining, but similar to cultural history and gender history positions, which are increasing.

    "That surely does not fit the accepted wisdom of the declining state of military history within the academy, of the reluctance of politically-correct departments to hire “warmongers,” or of a generation of military historians retiring and not being replaced....

    "The tension between “traditional” and “cutting-edge” forms of scholarship is a powerful narrative device. Add to that the perceived tension between “right-wing” military history and “politically-correct” social and gender history, and it seems like military history should be part of the pack of traditional specialties, specialties being marginalized within left-wing history departments. That the evidence is much more ambiguous than that must then be ignored.

    "Never mind the facts, we have a narrative to write."

    Silby's commenters also point to the fact that economic history has not disappeared, but instead migrated into economics departments.

    Similarly, legal history has not been on the decline at all. wmjmsbphh suggests that the "best" legal history job during the past year was at the Univ. of Maryland. As much as I admire the UMD faculty, both in history and in law, I would say that the "best" legal history job in the past year's market was instead at Yale Law School, which hired two important legal historians laterally (Witt and Priest). Entry level hires are harder to track, but there were certainly great entry level candidates in the law school market during the past year, and I believe they did well. Again, it's not a matter of a decline in the field, but a question of where the jobs in the field are right now. In legal history, it may also reflect the fact that it is much more common than 25 years ago for entry-level scholars to have both the JD and Ph.D., making it possible for them to explore hiring in both history departments and law schools.

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  7. I would like to thank Prof. Dudziak for her link to the Silby piece. It is very informative. However, I must disagree with her dismissal of my view as the "standard" conservative view. If she had bothered to consider the argument instead of virtually instantaneously categorizing it, therefore ignoring it, she would realize her praise for all the wonderful job offerings in law schools to what I would call "the usual suspects" was entirely missing the point. If she wanted to counter the argument I did not make about how scholars who study dead white males have trouble getting jobs, she should have pointed to HLS's hiring of Tushnet, Sunstein, and Dworkin. Look, she could have trumpeted, how many wonderful jobs are out there for the taking! When she steps down from her pedestal at the mountaintop, she would realize that things look considerably different for those of us who are not employed at six figure, three course a year jobs at research universities.

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  8. I'm writing to offer just two comments. wmjmsbphh objects to what he/she sees as my characterization of his/her ideas as "the 'standard' conservative view." Instead I called his/her position the "standard take in some circles," meaning the argument often heard among traditionalists in the diplomatic history community. This group includes scholars across the political spectrum, many of whom, I believe, are quite liberal.

    I appreciate wmjmsbphh's engagement with this thread. Further comments by readers will be approved if they engage the substance of the post and other comments, but not if they involve attacks or derogatory remarks about others.

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  9. Wow. An important thread. It ties together a number of other threads pulled out of the H-Law and other sites including CHE and the OAH-AHA committee on part time and temporary instructors. (forgive the metaphor--could not help myself). Let me see if I can tie all this together. It seems to me that there are three tiers of employment in history that the Cohen piece touched on. One is elite. Whether at Law Schools or in the top flight research universities (public and private), this tier offers tenure, a relatively low teaching load (we at UGA are fighting to keep our four course load), research funding, major library access, and the prospect of working with post-graduate students. A second tier are the level 2, 3 and below public and private schools. They may offer tenure, but the teaching load is at least six and sometimes eight courses, and research is rarely regarded as more important than teaching. Finally, there is the lowest tier, in which people with their PhDs (or sometimes ABD's with JDs) teach a variety of courses at a variety of colleges and universities as temporaries. They get paid piece work per course, they rarely have any benefits, and they often are denied the amenities (office, parking privileges, a computer, etc...) of the regular faculty. Many administrations have discovered that the supply of people in this third tier is ample to fill slots on faculties, rather than holding searches for tenure track (much less senior) candidates. Thus the Maryland job was pretty unique not only in legal history, but in any field of history. Very few senior slots open these days.
    Now if I can apply this set of facts to the NYT article and the various postings on this blog: for job seekers with fine credentials, particularly those entering the market or trying to enter the market over the past decade or so, with a very good PhD in hand but a diss topic that is not particularly appealing to search committees, the frustration level must be really high. For those in the second tier who want to move up to the first tier, the frustration level must be almost unbearable. Most of us in history want to write and do research in history and have it mean something. I've been in this game for nearly forty years (got my PhD in 1970), and I still feel sympathy for applicants with a really good book and a really good project on-going who are summarily excised from our searches because their work is too traditional or too conventional. For history departments (I cannot speak at all about law school searches) to summarily ignore or select based on the personal interests of search committee members rather than the manifest merit of candidacies is heartbreaking.
    I am not a military or diplomatic or economic historian, though I have written about all three subjects. I cannot speak to the numbers. But I am pretty sure that the number of opening in military and diplomatic and political history tenure slots has gone down (has to, as the number of openings itself has gone down).
    Again, this is what the messenger with cleft stick from the Deep South sees. Somewhere on the top of the mountain in the clouds there are folks who see the world differently. I wonder, however, if they know what is going on beneath those clouds, where I and my colleagues are desperately trying to find jobs for our graduate students.
    All best to y'all.

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