Happy Holidays to everyone, however you observe them! I normally take this week off every year but since we had the whole of last month off and I had some things I wanted to expound on, I thought I would do a Fireside instead.
In particular, I want to talk about the current state of the field of history, particularly in the United States though frankly my sense is things are little better (and in many cases substantially worse) elsewhere. Of course this is an issue I’ve been focused on for some time, but what drew it into relief recently was finding out about a data-set of 14 Midwestern US university history departments, charting the change in their permanent faculty. It’s a messy data-set in that each school reported figures over different time frames, but they all point in the same direction:
|University of Iowa||2012||26||16||-38.5%|
|University of Missouri||2012||30||21||-30%|
|University of Kansas||2017||35||24||-31.4%|
|(The) Ohio State University||2008||79||62||-21.5%|
|University of Minnesota||2012||46||40||-13%|
|University of Illinois|
|University of Illinois|
|University of North Dakota||2017||7||4||-42.9%|
|Grand Valley State||2012||31||27||-12.9%|
|University of South Dakota||2017||10||7||-30%|
|South Dakota State||2017||10||5||-50%|
|University of Nebraska Omaha||2012||15||11||-26.7%|
|St. Cloud State State University||2016||10||6||-40%|
|St. Olaf College||2012||12||7||-41.7%|
|Central Michigan University||2015||22||15||-31.8%|
|University of Missouri||2016||17||8||-52.9%|
|Minnesota State University|
|University of Missouri|
|University of Toledo, OH||2012||12||5||-58.3%|
The figures are catastrophic. The average department declined by some 34.2%; because small departments have been hit harder, the decline to the total number of permanent faculty historians is merely 29%. That’s nearly a third of the discipline in this part of the country vanishing.
And the hit is clearly not just regional. Permanent faculty in history departments are shrinking nationwide. I used to muse in years past that if the lethargic hiring in history continued, we’d see a fairly sudden and rapid decline in the size of departments as the last sizeable hiring periods (the 90s and the aughts) began to retire. That future is now. Despite the fact that graduate admissions have begun declining (peak PhDs granted in history was 2013, for students admitted likely in 2007 or so; it has fallen every year since), placement rates – the number of PhDs in a permanent teaching position in higher education – have plummeted. For that 2013 cohort, the four-year placement rate was 54%. For the 2017 cohort, the figure is just 27%. The current placement rate for the 2019 and 2020 cohorts? 9.7%.1 Some of these lost positions have become contingent, short-term positions, some have disappeared altogether; the data is insufficient for now to tell which is which.
What happened? I think there is a story to tell here where the move away from requiring history courses as part of the general education curriculum in many universities caused a decline in enrollment and then universities responded by gutting history departments. At the same time, enrollment largely stabilized post-2017 and has remained roughly steady since then, yet universities continue to cut history (and of course more broadly, removing history GenEds was a university leadership decision, so even this story is, “university administrators create their own excuse to cut history and then do so.”) It is the case that students have moved away from the history major into disciplines they think are more financially secure, but that hasn’t actually reduced enrollment; students still want to take history classes. And while we’re here, it is worth noting that history majors actually do fine in the broader economy; the idea of history as a degree that can’t possibly pay for itself is false.
Whatever the reason, the decline is shocking, especially continuing in spite of stable enrollment in history courses and remarkably strong public interest. And that’s part of what frustrates me so much; my sense is certainly that the public broadly understands the value of history. I really wonder how many voters would have approved of cutting out the history general education requirements; I rather suspect a ballot measure saying that ‘all college graduates in [Your State/Country Here] shall have taken at least a survey course on both World History and [Your Country Here] History before graduation’ would probably pass in most places. Indeed, I’m fairly sure it would in the United States because some of that polling has been done; 84% of respondents indicated that history was at least as important as business or engineering to learn.
And I think we can dispense with the facile response that moving history out of the university may prove to be good int he end; as we’ve discussed the sort of research work that forms the foundation for all of the rest of historical education relies on university resources and will not happen in any meaningful amount without them. The public thinks they are paying for top notch history research and instruction, while the university leaders and politicians they entrusted with this job are in fact strangling the history of tomorrow in its crib.
At the same time, some of the leadership in the field have been fiddling while it burns. As this absolute catastrophe is slowly mulching the entire field, the president of the American Historical Association is over at The Atlantic complaining about ‘presentism’ and the death of the monograph (the field-to-field research-focused non-general audience book); my God! he warns, pretty soon blogs might even count as scholarship. The public believes in history, but someone needs to tell them that the field is dying and yet when the president of the AHA has a platform at The Atlantic he hasn’t a word about this problem. You may well imagine my reaction to that.
Meanwhile hiring committees continue to prioritize field-to-field research instead of the sort of full-court-press public communications focus necessary to salvage the field or the sort of teaching skill necessary to expand enrollments. But I think this issue in turn loops back around to the fecklessness of the professional associations. Hiring committees are run by professors who haven’t been on the job market in decades, so they’re naturally going to be a bit ‘old fashioned,’ even when they mean well. Getting them to change course would require some sort of unified message that the field needs to change course, which would probably need to come from the AHA, but again the AHA is asleep at the wheel.
Alternately, you have parts of the field that absolutely have a plan to save history, if only they can win the culture war first. History is often going to intersect with contemporary politics; so many of our debates about the present have roots in the past. So I don’t necessarily feat politicizing the discipline, but I do fear the partisanization of it, wherein the public broadly perceives historians as adjuncts to a specific political party. The problem is that all Americans pay the taxes that support higher education and thus our field and so we must in turn serve the whole public, not merely our half.2 More broadly as I’ve discussed before, engagement is how we build support for a field, whereas activism spends support; an ‘all activism’ strategy will just serve to squander whatever limited auctoritas the discipline still has.
A great deal of the issue is the structure of the field. The professional societies are led and hiring is done primarily by tenured academics who are insulated from the worst of the decline. Indeed, for most of them the last and only thing they will do in this story is retire and when their tenure line isn’t replaced, contribute one more negative figure in a long tally of negative figures. They have no personal incentives to change course and while in past generations we might expect concern about field and their own legacies to motivate changes, that clearly isn’t happening. I shouldn’t be sharp with the more senior members of the field (who will, after all, sit on hiring committees) but I feel I must: this is a failure of stewardship by some senior academic historians who refuse to change course because the storm won’t affect them even as the rest of the crew drowns.
I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here, there are certainly senior academic historians who recognize the problem and are trying to do something about it and I suspect others who would do something about it if they felt they could, but there’s also a lot of ‘learned helplessness’ when it comes to institutional decline. And there’s also a disconnect here between institutions: smaller privates and state schools feel a lot of this more keenly than the most prestigious schools, which is a problem because it is those latter schools that both churn out most new hires and also supply most of the leadership for the professional associations.3
To my eyes, the solutions are clear but hard to implement because they require those very senior tenured academics to either implement them or for leadership in departments and professional associations to change over. I think the basic steps to save history are:
First, we need data. We need to know what strategies work to sustain student enrollment and majors and what doesn’t and we need to understand the scale and nature of the challenge. That means we need nation-wide (and international) data on the number of faculty (tenured, tenure-track and contingent), enrollments and majors. There are some really promising efforts to produce this data locally, but the AHA should take the lead in organizing and accomplishing this on a nation-wide scale. Data collection needs to become part of our discipline’s best practices, so that every department is collecting the same data: we need to know how many jobs we have, which ones are contingent, how many students we have, the courses they take and so on. Because then we can use that data to refine our battle plan as well as to shame universities that cut functional programs.
Second, prioritize publication which communicates to the public, both sharing our historical knowledge with the public but also work that lets the public know our dire straits and aims to develop their support. As I’ve noted before, engagement is not activism; we first must save the field before we can try to use the authority of the field to argue for other social or political changes, whatever they may be. Prioritizing this work will in turn demand changes in how we make hiring and tenure decisions. The structure of academia is such that academics do what their hiring and tenure committees incentivize. Right now, that is narrow research aimed at an ever-shrinking audience of other historians. That research is important, but it will be useless if the field collapses on itself. To get historians to practice, develop skills, become effective communicators and then rally public support, we have to incentivize it in hiring and tenure. That means hiring and tenuring historians for their robust public engagement in addition to their research.
Third, a greater priority needs to be placed on teaching, especially on job candidates with proven teaching records. As a discipline, especially at the R1 level (which is a huge proportion of our total enrollments because research universities are very big) we continue to prioritize research wildly over teaching in our hiring, to the point that the latter is effectively a non-factor in many searches. The result is that teaching quality is wildly uneven; some of the most spectacularly gifted teachers I’ve had were in history departments, but so were some of the worst. Bad teachers negatively impact enrollments and majors; good teachers positively impact them. Departments under siege need good teachers more than they need prestigious researchers. Don’t misunderstand me: research matters; I am a ‘research first’ historian in my scholarly profile (although I get stellar student evaluations, if I do say so myself). But teaching excellence – actual teaching excellence, not empty words – should be what departments are hunting for, because teaching excellence buys the enrollments that buy future tenure lines. That in turn suggests they should hunt for candidates with teaching experience (typically as adjuncts) that provide the evaluations and enrollments to back up claims about teaching quality, since there’s little way for a committee to assess the teaching abilities of a candidate with little teaching experience.
Alas, I think the chances of any of this happening, beyond perhaps the first point, remain remote. Instead the more likely result is more of what we’ve had over the last decade: the effort to save history will largely be one led by grad students and adjuncts, joined by only a handful of permanently employed academic historians, while many4 of the senior professors who enjoy the lion’s share of the field’s resources and clout whistle past the graveyard, singing ‘après nous, le déluge‘ (and preferring to hire only historians who share the same attitude).
But history, as a field, is worth saving for the future and so I am determined to try; thanks to all of you I am in a position to keep trying. As historians we stand not alone but as one link in a chain stretching back to Herodotus and Thucydides on one end and forward into the future on the other; doing our best to preserve the discipline for future generations is a sacred trust, one which we hold not for the sake of other historians but for the sake of the public.
On to Recommendations!
First off, more of me! I joined Roel Konijnendijk and Steelcan909 (since he goes more often by his nom de plume) for a long and wide ranging discussion of public scholarship and outreach. It’s a great discussion of the topic, especially because though r/AskHistorians and ACOUP are structured very differently, in the end we’re aiming to achieve many of the same goals in terms of public history.
On the contemporary security issues front, I think this brief over at CSIC by June Blanchette and Gerard DiPippo on what a Taiwan crisis ‘gone hot’ from a PRC invasion on Taiwan might mean in a broader global context is quite informative, especially for those who haven’t been tracking this issue closely and so might not have a sense of the stakes. The brief frames these impacts as a series of points, each led by the assumption (in bold) that supports the impacts that follow, which is a really useful way to guide the reader through things that might happen. A war over Taiwan would be a catastrophe, which is why it hasn’t happened yet and why deterring it remains a major policy goal for the United States, but then Putin’s War in Ukraine has also been a catastrophe, not the least for Russia, and it happened anyway.
Meanwhile over at War on the Rocks, Stephen Biddle (the fellow who coined the concept of the ‘modern system’ of war I use so frequently) has written on “Ukraine and the Future of Offensive Maneuver.” It’s both a good place to get your feet wet in some of the debates about the (un)changing nature of maneuver in war and also a good antidote to some of the more breathless takes about the ‘death’ of this or that system of tactic. Also to note at War on the Rocks, if you really want to be tracking military affairs in Russia and Ukraine, Michael Kofman now has a podcast there, The Russia Contingency, though it is behind the members paywall; it was certainly worth the price of admission for me.
And for this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend S. Ogilvie’s The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis (2019). Ogilvie attempts in this book an almost comprehensive, cross-regional treatment of guilds in Europe from the High Middle Ages through the early modern period. It’s a great first step either for students looking to get a handle on guilds (and the debates about them) or for worldbuilders making medieval worlds who want their towns inhabited by realistic guilds who need a good sense of how these organizations functioned and what they were for.
While Ogilvie’s work is pretty technical in nature, the barrier to entry is substantially reduced by the opening chapter, “The Debate about Guilds” which does a good job both in setting up the questions the book will answer but also grounding a new reader unfamiliar with a lot of this debate in what guilds have generally been understood to be. From that introduction then each chapter tackles an aspect of the regulation of guilds (guilds and markets, guilds and women, guilds and barring entry for some producers, guilds interacting with governments). Ogilvie’s approach is in turn relentlessly data-driven and comparative: this isn’t a discussion of one guild, but rather a comparison of lots of data from many guilds over a wide range of time periods and countries. That means lots of charts and tables (be still my heart!) but fortunately Ogilvie’s text does a pretty good job of walking the reader through what those charts and tables are saying. At the same time, it’s easier for a reader to pick out outliers and to get a sense of not merely the norm but also the range of variation.
In terms of general readability, I think this may be a slower, more challenging read than some books, not because it is poorly written (I think it is quite well written) but because the topic is technical and data driven. Nevertheless Ogilvie does a good job of walking the reader through those dense topics and I don’t think a non-specialist will have any problem working their way through (medieval European guilds are, after all, hardly in my specialty). That said, this really is an economic study of guilds; some points are illustrated by colorful examples but this is an analysis of guilds rather than the story of them (and thus the attention is often on what guilds are generally rather than on their development and decline or on the details of individual local outliers). The result is a really useful study of a form of social and economic organization that is often only thinly described in surveys of this period but is nevertheless prominent in the public imagination of it.
Also there are so many charts!
I hope everyone has a good holiday season. Next week we’re going to have a bit of an odd post as I want to address some of the controversy around a public-facing Classics publication.
- Of course part of this stings because I am part of the great big mass left out in the cold by these numbers, still looking for a permanent academic appointment, despite having articles in global top-tier journals and a public scholarship program discussed in places like The Atlantic. At some point what you do simply stops mattering because placement rates are so low that the system becomes almost entirely random. We passed that point a while ago.
- And to be clear that doesn’t mean we just tell everyone what they want to hear. The public may choose the questions, but we have to give accurate answers, even – perhaps especially – when they are unpleasant.
- It is immediately striking to me that the smaller professional associations, like the Society for Military History (SMH), the Association of Ancient Historians (AAH) and the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) both tend to have more diverse leadership in terms of institution and career-stage and also tend to feel more worried and responsive to these changes. Unfortunately by their very nature as smaller organizations, they generally can’t move their fields the way the AHA (or in Classics, the SCS and AIA) can. Also, while I’m here military history in particular is in an odd place in all of this because hiring demand from the military itself (for teaching roles in the service academies and PME institutions) is disconnected from broader trends in academic hiring. So long as cadets must become lieutenants and majors must become colonels, Uncle Sam will need military historians to help teach them.
- But by no means all