5th 2011
“History Under Attack:” Tony Grafton is spoiling for a fight.

Posted under: American history, class, European history, jobs, students

Anthony Grafton

Incoming 2011 American Historical Association President Anthony Grafton, the distinguished early modern European intellectual historian at Princeton University, has published a stemwinder of an article in the January 2011 issue of Perspectives, called “History Under Attack” (sorry–subscription required!  I’ll do my best to capture its essence here:)

It’s not easy to think straight—not easy to think at all—when you are under attack. And we historians—like many other humanists—have been receiving more flak than flowers over the last few decades. . . .

For all their disagreements on detail, almost all of these critics agree, not only on the symptoms but also on their causes. They have met the enemy, and he is us. We professors have shed our basic responsibility, teaching, in favor of research. Instead of grounding eager young people in the liberal arts, nine or twelve or fifteen hours a week, we barely enter the classroom. Instead we are off-campus, secluded at home or in a library or archive, pursuing specialized research. Every year we write more and more about less and less, filling libraries with unread books and articles and babbling at pointless conferences. And every year we are rewarded for this dereliction with higher salaries and more privileges.

(Oh, if only!)  As I have argued here before, premier dailies like Kaplan Testing’s house organ and the New York Times write as though all universities are run like the Ivies or top-ten flagship state unis.  They only publish op-eds from people who are affiliated with those top institutions, and those are the disciplinary experts they like to quote in their stories.  But of course, that’s not the life of most U.S. American faculty.  A lot of you readers are in fact in classrooms nine or twelve or fifteen hours a week, and you’re sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks not enjoying “higher salaries and more privileges” for your troubles!  Grafton continues:

Most serious, from the standpoint of the American Historical Association, this barrage is aimed at us and our immediate neighbors in the humanities and the social sciences. Most critics don’t seriously maintain that the life sciences or engineering have become too technical. Like everyone else, they hope to benefit from the new medicines and technologies that are incubated in specialized labs and departments.Many of them clearly take an interest in the findings of economists and psychologists, demographers and political scientists—all those highly specialized articles without which there would be no readable books and articles by David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell.

The real targets of the invective are the disciplines that create and teach qualitative ways of interpreting the past and the present, art and literature, religion and society. We’re the parasites, who don’t bring in large outside grants that help to cross-fund other departments and disciplines. We’re the pedants, who don’t produce anything that can help society solve its pressing problems. We’re the superfluous men and women, whom hard-pressed university administrators have to support even though our politicized scholarship and teaching has led to a calamitous loss of student enrollments, and neither they nor their trustees nor anyone else can quite see why they need to do so. . . .[Ed. note:  this is not true everywhere.  Baa Ram U., although founded as the state Aggie school, is struggling to fill Education, Engineering, and Agricultural Science classes--whereas the College of Liberal Arts is second-largest in numbers of majors across the university, and the History department has 600+ majors now although we have only about 20 tenure-track faculty!]

Grafton is of course most immediately concerned with the effects of these poisonous conversations on history:

For history has its own special place in these indictments. Critics rebuke historians for drawing politicized conclusions from their research—and even, in some notorious cases, for deliberately distorting or inventing the evidence to support their own left-wing views.They criticize authors of textbooks and public historians for subverting patriotism, claiming that they emphasize violence, inequality, and oppression in European and American life at the expense of more positive qualities, and by arguing that America has waged war not only to defend itself, but also to gain territory possessed by others—and that it has waged war with special ferocity against opponents who were not white. A set of canonical incidents, endlessly and inaccurately retold—the controversies over the National History Standards, the Enola Gay, and Arming America—are wielded as weapons. Meanwhile political actors of many stripes retell history to support their programs—and denounce the professionals for doing their best to obscure or conceal what they identify, sometimes wildly, as the truth.

.   .   .   .   .  

[T]he indictment is hydra-headed. . . . It’s here that the real difficulty arises.  The real nub of the criticism is not financial but scholarly and ethical: it’s that our research and teaching are nothing more than sterile pursuits of mind-numbing factoids, tedious and predictable exercises in group think, or politicized exercises in deploying the evidence to prove predetermined conclusions. If we can’t answer those criticisms convincingly, we will lose on all fronts: history positions will disappear, and so will neighboring departments in foreign languages and other fields, without which we can’t function.

I think this is right–Grafton knocks down some of the arguments about humanities departments being “too expensive” or unpopular purveyors merely of Gen Ed courses, but as I see it, the ressentiment aimed at us is driven by two fears, one real and one imaginary.  The real fear is that university faculty have power–even those of us who teach at community colleges, “directional” universities (you know, those with “Northern,” “Southern,” “Eastern,” or “Western” in the university’s name), and large state unis, because we are the people who can either hand out tickets to the middle class (in the form of degrees) or withhold them.  Faculty in universities have always been and continue to be decisive in this process–and we’re living in an era in which college graduates face a 5% unemployment rate whereas those without bachelor’s degrees face twice the rate of unemployment.  And so far, because of the protections of tenure, we’ve remained largely unaffected by attempts to hobble K-12 teachers and teacher’s unions, although we get tarred rhetorically by the broad-brush attacks on all teachers.

Well I ain't got it, anyhows.

U.S. Americans are scared, so it’s easy to resent university faculty–who, if you read most American newspapers or watch American news programs–all teach at elite institutions, when we can be bothered to teach at all, and make somewhere in the low- to mid-six figures for our troubles.  (Again–if only!)  This is the second (and imaginary) fear driving these conversations:  that professors are somehow members of an economic “elite.”  Most people don’t understand that while being a professor is a decent middle-class job (on the tenure-track, anyway), it’s hardly a ticket to a lavish lifestyle.  Most people don’t realize that only about half of us are eligible for tenure, and are laboring as adjunct faculty or lecturers for $30,000-$40,000 a year.  Friends, that means that some of my colleagues will be eligible to send their children to Baa Ram U. at half-price under the new tuition plan for middle- and lower-income families.  Yes, Baa Ram U. faculty are paid so little that many of us would qualify for this program–and it’s not just non-tenure track lecturers.  There are tenure-track faculty in my college who are making less than $57,000 a year–and I myself escape qualifying for the tuition break by only $3,000.

What’s to be done about this?  The current recession has encouraged some of our foes to dust off some of the old kulturkampfen arguments from the 1980s and 1990s and marry them to real concerns about the price of higher education to students and their families.  In my next post, I’ll write about why I think historians are rather poorly positioned to take on the larger scholarly and ethical questions Grafton wants us to engage.  I agree with Grafton that we must fight back instead of retreat or fold–but it’s going to be a real challenge for historians as individuals and for the profession at large because of our training and our intellectual style.  Short preview:  can splitters be polemicists?


52 Responses to ““History Under Attack:” Tony Grafton is spoiling for a fight.”

  1. tony grafton on 05 Jan 2011 at 9:26 am #

    Great post. I will say more when I’m not writing on a phone. Short version: of course you’re right about how most historians are paid and the conditions in which they work. Can’t wait to see the next installment and how others respond, so I can learn more.

  2. GayProf on 05 Jan 2011 at 9:30 am #

    It seems to me that historians have been slow to fight back (probably because most are teaching huge numbers of classes, providing tons of service, and barely trying to keep their research agendas afloat). But there is the real problem that we will face that many people simply don’t want a complicated view of the past. Rather, they want the past to be a comfortable progressive narrative that ends in a triumphal present.

  3. Historiann on 05 Jan 2011 at 9:39 am #

    GayProf: I think that’s true, especially in the case of U.S. Americans. Most national histories are nationalistic–surprise!!–but I think U.S. Americans are especially insistent that their history be happy-happy-look-everyone’s-getting-freer-and-freer-approaching-perfection! I don’t think Germans, for example, or Russians or Australians or Brazilians expect their history to be uplifting in the way that Americans do.

    (Maybe those of you who work in other national histories will correct me on this–since I’m obviously not a German, Brazilian, Australian, or Russian historian!)

    Thanks, Tony, for your comment!

  4. Indyanna on 05 Jan 2011 at 10:24 am #

    This piece, and the post, could be annotated at sufficient length to wrap around the planet, and probably and hopefully will be. I’ll just open and close on the demonization of research and glorification of teaching by paraphrasing William Jennings Bryan. If you tore down teaching and research remained vibrant, teaching would spring back up spontaneously like grass on the prairie after the spring rain. But dismantle research, and grass will grow in the streets of teaching (as it regrettably often enough seems to do in the hands of the self-designated “master-teacher” class). But this is probably to invite internal conflict when what we really need to be doing is figuring out how to embed a constitutional literacy requirement (think written and oral comprensive exams, heavy on history) to be eligible to run for legislative offices at the local, state, or federal levels.

  5. Jonathan Rees on 05 Jan 2011 at 10:29 am #


    I agree with everything you (and Tony) say, but I know for a fact that your compensation numbers are way, way off for most history faculty at all levels around the country. In other words, you have significantly underestimated the extent of the problem.

    1. Adjuncts: I’m ashamed to write what my school pays adjuncts, but let’s go ridiculously high and say it averages $4,000/course around the country. $4,000/course x 3 courses per semester x 2 semesters would be $24,000/year. Adding two summer courses would get into the bottom of your range, but I still think $4,000/course is ridiculously high. I’m pretty sure our adjuncts don’t make half that figure.

    And don’t forget: No health benefits!

    2. Lecturers: We pay our lecturers $27,500/year. I know that because they complain about it annually. I’m not sure about the health benefits, but I’d say none if forced to guess.

    3. Tenure Track Faculty: $57,000/year is well above the average salary of Associate (let alone Assistant) Professors of History in this country. I know this because I have been engaged in a salary equity dispute (contractual, not legal)* with my administration for two years now and have poured over all the available data many times.

    If you think I’m wrong, go look up the AAUP data (which is free, unlike a lot of the other stuff out there) and get a lesson in the cold hard realities of economic austerity. College professors sacrifice pay for job security (unless you teach French, German or Classics, but that’s a subject for a different rant on a different post).

    * By the way, I won my case and was awarded a significant raise by Faculty Compensation Committee. Unfortunately, the Provost pleaded poverty and I haven’t seen a cent of it. Unlike at Bah Ram U., there are raises currently on the table for our next budget cycle. Therefore, I have hope for my next contract, but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Historiann on 05 Jan 2011 at 10:54 am #

    Jonathan–thanks for the additional (and even more depressing) intel. I’m just going from some numbers I know of among lecturers at Baa Ram U. and at another Rocky Mountain institution. BRU lecturers in my department are paid $30,000 for 8 classes a year, and at another institution in a neighboring state it’s $40K for 6 classes a year. (Not everyone gets a lecturership, though, so adjuncts in my college are making between $3K and $4K a course. Our adjuncts are benefits-eligible if they teach a 50% load–2 classes per term–so at least there’s that at BRU.)

    I looked up the data at AAUP you suggested. I couldn’t find breakdowns by discipline in this 2009-2010 report, but it looks to me on this chart (for example) that my salary of $60K is well below average–89.9% of faculty at my rank make at least that much, and only 11.1% make less than that. (My salary is even way below average for Assistant Proffies.) The median salary for Associate Profs at doctoral-granting institutions is closer to $78K–but of course, that includes all disciplines.

  7. squadratomagico on 05 Jan 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Sadly, I think we already lost this battle. I very much doubt the anti-intellectualism of American culture can be overturned. Indeed, this anti-intellectual stance is not uncommon among many faculty as well. I can look at my own department, for instance, and see that well over half my colleagues study the twentieth century; very few have any curiosity or interest in earlier time periods. I have often read and heard snarky comments directed at the “irrelevancy” of the earlier fields; heard suggestions that “everyone” needs to know modern or US history, but that other fields are of secondary importance; and seen my own field of medieval history used as an embodiment of a negative stereotype of “antiquarian” history that delights in trifles. If these are the kinds of attitudes that I routinely hear faculty express, in person, on blogs, and in other writing fora, then why should we expect non-faculty to be any more broad-minded? I suspect that much of the anti-intellectualism of American culture derives from people outside the university picking up on the petty backbiting and infighting we engage in ourselves.

  8. Historiann on 05 Jan 2011 at 11:34 am #

    I’ve heard contemporary U.S. historians make just the points you make about your field. It struck me as delusional, and I’ve said so when I’ve heard it. You’re right that people outside our department really don’t see what we do as all that different from one another. Thirteenth century/twentieth century, it’s all “ancient history,” right?

    I know a lot of people rank on medievalists, but it’s always the ancient historians I really worry about. After all, their very field–”ancient history”–has become a term by which all of historical studies are dismissed!

    The one thing I’d disagree with you on is the origins of this kind of anti-intellectualism. I think we “intellekshuls” get it from the culture at large and internalize it. We use it in order to create imaginary pecking orders amongst ourselves. The rest of the culture neither knows nor cares about how we talk amongst ourselves, but we’re prisoners of history and culture as much as anyone else is. I see it as working the other way around than the way you describe.

  9. squadratomagico on 05 Jan 2011 at 11:34 am #

    [Sorry for the rant: re-reading it, the above comment is a little obnoxious. I guess I'm feeling cranky today.]

  10. Historiann on 05 Jan 2011 at 11:35 am #

    No apologies needed. It’s good to hear from you, Squadrato! (I’ve considered e-mailing you but figured you were off on a writing jag I shouldn’t interrupt. . . )

  11. Lance on 05 Jan 2011 at 11:46 am #

    Yes! for Anthony Grafton.

    The bargain here is just as he describes it: we trade time away from the classroom for higher salaries and narrower social claims of expertise, and the students accept lesser teaching in exchange for higher grades. A nasty deal. But truer, I submit, at the big state schools than at the Ivys or the SLA. Everyone I know at a school like Middlebury or Reed or Yale is constantly under pressure to teach and teach very, very well.

    I look forward to the next installment here. Because I don’t think splitters can make the kinds of arguments we need. During the build up to the current war, I remember asking my students to read and re-read MLK, Jr’s “Declaration of Independence From the War in Vietnam,” and we were repeatedly struck not merely by its eloquence and power, but also but its conviction and broad moral claims. Few in our profession are comfortable speaking with the same kind of breadth of certainty. Fewer still can do it with parsing their convictions. And even fewer are willing to make a moral argument about, well, anything. Ethics is the language of eggheads. Says the egghead.

  12. Lance on 05 Jan 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Sorry. And morals are for the right wing.

  13. rustonite on 05 Jan 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    I actually think ancient historians are better off than medievalists. There’s a certain amount of automatic respect for the classics that doesn’t apply to the “dark ages.” That is why I lie and tell people I do Greek history- they don’t need to know I’m a Byzantinist.

    As for nationalist views of history, Greeks are fanatically nationalistic, but don’t need the same progressive take that Americans seem to. For the Greeks, history is about all the ways they’ve been wronged, and about 85% of those are the fault of the Turks, and most of the rest of the Crusaders. It’s actually funny when modern Greeks try to latch onto Byzantine history, considering that the Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans, and reacted to being called Greek with something between derision and horror, but there you have it.

  14. Widgeon on 05 Jan 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    I think a good place to start addressing these issues is within our institutions, by educating administrators more thoroughly about what we do and its value. My Deans are all scientists by training, and sometimes seem baffled by our lack of collaborative work and our “parasitic” relationship to the university. Their low regard for the Humanities in general, and historians in particular, justifies our low pay, denial of leave requests, and lack of hiring. A study of just how much teaching we do (especially compared to the STEM folks in their labs) and how productive we are would be a useful intervention. Being under attack has been one factor that has lead to the 29% decline in job listings this year. The profession is in a rapid decline, and I appreciate Grafton’s sense of urgency and call to arms (and you too Historian!).

  15. Matt L on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    I’ll piggyback on Rustonite’s observation. The popular history/social memory of Central and Eastern Europe is primarily one that focuses on injustices. Most peoples’ understanding of their own history revolves around the way they have been wronged by: a) the Ottoman Turks before 1683; b) the Germans after 1683 & c) the Russians/Communists after 1945.

    Of course, the academic historians of ruritania or any other Central European country are much more cosmopolitan in their sources, methods and interests. This is reflected in the last twenty years of scholarship. But the worst historical obfuscators are the politicians. They use what ever is at hand and seems to further their agenda… I think that is the same problem faced by American Historians. You can’t have a discussion when the other side is hell bent on lying.

  16. JackDanielsBlack on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    There is a wonderful editorial in this week’s Nature journal titled “Save university arts from the bean counters” in which Gregory Petsko, who is a professor of biochemistry and chemistry at Brandeis, exhorts his fellow scientists to support the arts and humanities. A few excerpts:
    “If arts and humanities are to survive, we who work in the sciences need to stand up for them and alongside them…I learned to think critically, analyse deeply and write clearly in my university humanities courses, not in my science courses. I found humanities the most valuable subjects in school.”
    Nature, Vol 468, p. 1003

    He goes on to oppose the prevalent trends of running the university as a business and allowing students (as customers) to choose what they want: “Students have neither the wisdom nor the experience to know what they need to know.”

    Would that more science and engineering professors felt like Dr. Petsko! Paraphrasing Donne, “No discipline is an island…”

  17. Matt L on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Oh, and no professor Grafton, I haven’t had the choice to retreat into the private sphere of research. I teach a 4/4. An old mentor from Grad school once said, “So, they are, ah, keeping you pretty busy down there at Woebegone State…?” The subtext was, so you’ve been teaching full time and haven’t published much.

    I’d like to write and publish. It just seems impossible with my teaching schedule and service obligations. Thats a sore point with me when people write editorials about how history professors do too much research. Its that some people do too much research and others don’t get the chance to do any at all.

  18. rustonite on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    RE: Widgeon

    The parasitic relationship of the humanities to the STEM disciplines is one of the great lies of our time.


  19. Historiann on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Lance wrote, “The bargain here is just as he describes it: we trade time away from the classroom for higher salaries and narrower social claims of expertise, and the students accept lesser teaching in exchange for higher grades. A nasty deal. But truer, I submit, at the big state schools than at the Ivys or the SLA. Everyone I know at a school like Middlebury or Reed or Yale is constantly under pressure to teach and teach very, very well.”

    I’ve never seen that trade in my career, and I didn’t read it quite the same way in Tony’s article. It seems to me like he was mocking the useful (and false) stereotype of the professor who’s always on leave and never in the classroom. Every department I’ve been a part of has cared deeply about teaching, and the folks I know who are the dogged researchers are the best teachers, because they’re always learning new stuff and wanting to share it with their students. I’ve only seen (and experienced) research and publication as feeding and reinforcing good teachng, never as competing with it (aside from the fact that there are only so many hours of the day.) It seems like this is a case worth making–aside from pointing out that tenure-track faculty are *required* by our contracts to engage in research and publish their work.

    And on grade inflation: also, I think this is largely a myth, certainly outside of highly selective institutions. I assign a lot of Cs, Ds, and Fs, and the department chairs I know keep an eye on the grades we assign so that when the occasional faculty member assigns only As and Bs, there is definitely a conversation in my department. Inside highly selective institutions, I’d be hard-pressed to identify grade “inflation” anyway, since A students are the only ones admitted there for the most part.

    Grade inflation might be a real temptation among non-tenure track faculty, who are highly dependent on good reviews from their students. I believe that students review a professor more or less favorably in course evals according to the grade they expect to receive at the end of the term, so it’s not an irrational choice on the part of adjunct faculty and lecturers, especially. That’s perhaps the one place I’d look for grade inflation, given my experience and observations (admittedly a small sample!)

  20. Another Damned Medievalist on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Hmph. I’m an associate professor and make almost $54k after my last raise. Yup. 4-4 load with one course release for research.

    Fortunately, my Dean is a historian who focuses on a Muslim country, and my Provost trained as a medievalist, although not in history. They are much more cognizant and respectful of the sorts of things I teach and research than are my US Americanist colleagues. I think that, at least on the web, medievalists have been doing a lot of outreach and trying to show relevance in what we do, perhaps because we have felt under attack for a long time.

    I have to say that I am often amused, when not horrified, to see my modernist colleagues start to ‘get’ what the pre-modernists have been dealing with for a long time. My campus no longer has a history requirement. History is split over two of our Gen Ed domains: students satisfy the domain my Gen Ed classes are in with the freshman seminar, so my classes are usually an extra elective; US history is in the same group as all the social sciences, so students can take any of those to satisfy the requirement.

    And yet, I’m not seeing as much worry, on my campus or in many other places, other than about jobs. And I think this is largely down to the attitude of many of my modernist colleagues — by not defending pre-modern history because it is not relevant to them, they have put themselves in positions where they have to justify the teaching of *any* history. And sadly, those of us who do work in the premodern era are often more able to demonstrate that we can keep political and social agendas out of the classroom, and show how it may only be a lack of temporal distance that makes modernists seem more politically biased.

  21. Historiann on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    I should add that I agree with Indyanna, way upthread, who wrote about the intimate and vital connection between research and teaching: “If you tore down teaching and research remained vibrant, teaching would spring back up spontaneously like grass on the prairie after the spring rain. But dismantle research . . .” and make way for the tumbleweeds.

  22. squadratomagico on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Historiann, in terms of lesser teaching v. research, I think Lance was pointed to a larger systemic problem that afflicts the big state university systems, rather than to a lack of commitment to teaching on the part of faculty. I agree that most faculty and departmental cultures do value teaching, but when the pedagogical model is based upon enormous lectures, then even the most dedicated teachers are not going to be able to provide the kind of education that a small, brainstorm-oriented seminar would enable. Differences in teaching standards are due more to institutional structures that favor or disfavor effective pedagogy, rather than to the commitment of faculty to research or not.

  23. squadratomagico on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    And @ADM: I wholeheartedly agree! Your comment states more incisively, a point I was trying to make above.

  24. Historiann on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Oh–I see what you’re saying, Squadrato. I’m completely down with that–as anyone who searches this blog for the term “clicker” will find!

    But even given our institutional constraints, the historians at Baa Ram U. put in a lot of time and have a lot of student contact hours compared to many other departments. (And truth be told–the same institutional constraints are there at wealthy, highly-selective institutions. I more than once TA’d for a course with 360 students in it at an Ivy. I was one of six TA’s, and the faculty were there just to design the course and lecture, for the most part.)

  25. Tony Grafton on 05 Jan 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    Dear all,

    Thanks so much for all of these posts, which will take time to digest. One clarification: all of that stuff about historians being pampered, overpaid, underworked and the rest was my effort to summarize the attacks I read everywhere, not in any way a statement about how historians live and work: especially historians who teach in the real world public institutions and the real world positions that most hold. My three years on the professional division of AHA made clear that the realities are as Jonathan Rees, Historiann and others here describe them (and have described them in other posts).

    As to whether it makes any sense to argue back: that’s a tough one, and in the current climate of attacks on those vicious teachers and other public workers (thanks for the posts on that issue, by the way) it may well be foolish, but I want to do what little I can to convince all of us to hang together and everybody else that we aren’t vicious charlatans but ordinary people who love what we do and work hard at it.

  26. Lance on 05 Jan 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    Squadratomagico did a better job of formulating the bargain. Here, at Big State University, when we recruit new faculty, our emphasis is invariably on time away from the classroom. As a perk for service, everyone wants a course release. We tell our untenured folks that they must be “satisfactory” in teaching, but “excellent” in research. And we train them to “smart teach” to save time for writing. Every reward is time away from teaching. Every return to the classroom is imagined as a “back to the grind” moment. People will look at you strangely if you ask to be DUS, or if you call for a meeting to talk about the undergraduate curriculum, or if you volunteer to lead a study abroad trip. But everyone slaps you on the back if you get an ACLS or a Ford Postdoc. The presumption is that we all love to write, but suffer our students so that we can draw a check. That presumption isn’t just a myth cooked up by critics of higher education. It is a standard feature of life here at BSU.

    And, as I said earlier, I absolutely and positively do not think this is true everywhere, and certainly not at SLAs. It may even be local. But it is as real as it gets.

  27. Historiann on 05 Jan 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    Ah–now I get it. Thanks for the clarification, Lance. Knowing specifically where you teach, I take your point. As I see it, you are expected to publish like you’re at a wealthy uni with plenty of leave time and access to research support, but you’re also responsible for moving the meat, so to speak, in much larger quantities than people at highly selective colleges and unis.

    I’m not under the same pressures you are, but even in my M.A.-only department, an article per year plus progress on a book ms. is pretty standard.

  28. Lance on 05 Jan 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    Yes! I mean, sigh.

  29. Janice on 05 Jan 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    Within my own institution, it’s clear that the powerbrokers believe that history is irrelevant, therefore it isn’t in demand and classes have low enrolments. Because they must, mustn’t they? Why bother looking at actual statistics when you know what you know? (Reminds me of my home state’s “hero” who famously said “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Way to go, Earl Landgrebe!)


    I’ve had to start capping my classes as my institution’s enrolment has grown. 135 was untenable (I might have one M.A. teaching assistant who’s not a specialist in the subjects I’m teaching, so there’s no other help). 80 (my current 1st year and survey-level cap number) is barely manageable.

    I turn students away by the boatload in the last few years, reluctantly but firmly, because I can’t manage to give decent feedback to any more and I’m not the only one. Not here. Not elsewhere.

    But if those realities and numbers are so blithely ignored by our own people, how can we expect our critics outside the academy to see what we do and what it’s worth?

    Thanks to Historiann and Tony Grafton for opening the debate both within the AHA (I should re-up, shouldn’t I?) and within the blogosphere. I eagerly await the next chapters!

  30. bigbosslady on 05 Jan 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    One of the surprising things about the summary you give is that history is considered too political when in my experience (Ivy and flagship state uni) history departments are frustratingly apolitical, with the possible exception of some twentieth century americanists. Also, the rejoinder to the “we are too political” attack is to give some sort of great books argument that I think is rapidly reaching an expiration date as history departments start to actually hire and tenure people who study the disempowered in great numbers. I think, though, it’s true that history departments can’t argue that they add value to undergrads on the basis of learning methodology. How many undergrad courses actually train students to write a real history paper, with primary sources?

  31. thefrogprincess on 05 Jan 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    I may add a more substantive comment later but to bigbosslady, I got my BA in history at a school that was admittedly elite but is considered to either be anti-intellectual or too radical, depending on who you talk to, and we certainly were trained to write research papers. In fact, it’s the one skill that has kept me going through the nightmare that’s been grad school: what I lacked in “historiography,” I had in spades when it came to research skills. It’s certainly possible (and I’d say necessary) to impart meaningful skills in history courses.

  32. Historiann on 06 Jan 2011 at 8:15 am #

    How many undergrad courses actually train students to write a real history paper, with primary sources?

    Our majors are required to do this at least once before they graduate, in senior seminars, but I also have several colleagues who assign research papers in our “lecture” classes (which are now capped at 42). I don’t assign research papers in those classes, but rather analytical essays that must include both primary and secondary sources we’ve read in class.

    bigbosslady’s comment gets at a larger point, which is that because historians have no commonly understood methodologies that govern our work, we frequently have a difficult time explaining to people what it is that we do and why it’s important. (I disagree with hir that we “can’t argue that [we] add value” to undergrad education, of course.) But, when one’s subject is all of human experience up to the present moment, it’s difficult to break it down and restrict ourselves to only a few kinds of evidence, a few modes of inquiry, etc.

  33. good enough cook on 06 Jan 2011 at 11:02 am #

    I see a different larger point than Historiann points to in bigbosslady’s comment: “history departments can’t argue that they add value to undergrads on the basis of learning methodology.” I would say this is true of many departments (I teach literature) in large state systems, perhaps the humanities in general.

    Regardless of the commitment of tenure-stream faculty to teaching and the hours they devote to it, the fact is that many undergraduates at many institutions have their only contact with the humanities through courses taught by adjuncts or graduate students. Even if the large lecture course has a tenure-stream professor standing at the podium, chances are the students’ papers are graded by someone else and any conversations they have about the material will take place with TAs. Though the academic culture described by Lance is not typical (though it certainly characterizes my institution, where I’m an adjunct), the fact remains that much of the work of teaching humanities falls to people in whom institutions make a minimal investment.

    So why are we so surprised when those who pay the bills question the value of what we do?

    The ways in which the humanities can be vital and life-changing are not easily absorbed in a large lecture hall or from an instructor who gets a salary but no other institutional support or connection. Through this kind of staffing of general education courses, colleges and universities unwittingly teach the broader public to dismiss the humanities.

    This problem seems to me a much more pressing one than the preservation of an unsustainable model of research in the humanities. I would love to see a scholar of Anthony Grafton’s caliber using his position to rally faculty at all levels to think hard about how to inculcate in the mind of, say, a pharmacy major, the critical thought and reflection that the encounter with history could produce. I’d like to see such a scholar encourage departments to look for ways to support and communicate professionally with the part-timers and adjuncts who are, for many students, the “face” of the department. I’d like to someone of position in the academy open up a dialogue on ways that humanities research could be reimagined to shape not just the teaching of majors by the dwindling proportion of tenure-stream faculty, but all of the humanities teaching that an institution of higher learning delivers.

  34. Jeremy C. Young on 06 Jan 2011 at 11:19 am #

    Thanks very much for bringing this to my attention — I look forward to your discussion of “splitters” and “polemicists” (though I think I know where you’re going with that, and it’s fascinating and true). My own response was too big to fit in your comment box without breaking the margins, so I put it here. (/shameless plug)

  35. bigbosslady on 06 Jan 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Yes, good enough cook, that’s what I was trying to get at with my comment. I acted as a graduate student assistant for an undergrad class where a research paper was assigned, but the prof couldn’t be bothered to give any guidelines to the students on how to write one (this is fairly common). This meant that I had to guide 75 students through writing a proposal, finding sources, reading drafts, etc. I did my best, but there’s only so much you can do when you aren’t teaching the class yourself and you have so many students. With science classes, it is expected that you have lab work and problem sets. History classes do not have the same expectations.

  36. thefrogprincess on 06 Jan 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    bigbosslady, I see what you mean. Again, it’s important to stress that I went to an elite school (i.e. more resources and smaller student-faculty ratio), but I did have at least three or four classes in which research papers were broken into stages like you mention. We were led through the process. This happened in classes taught by tenured faculty members as well as by classes taught by graduate students. It clearly was a department-wide emphasis.

    Historiann has talked about this issue of class size before, back when the business exam plagiarism case was in the news and here I firmly agree. I don’t believe in large classes; for me, history classes that are larger than 40 people are suspect. Now of course, that’s a luxury, not a reality, for most institutions, but I do think it’s a small piece of what Grafton’s talking about. We can more easily explain the benefits we bring to undergraduate education if our classes are small enough to walk students through the basic tools of the discipline. And even though large class sizes aren’t going to change any time soon, maybe at the very least, we can say, “here’s what we could be doing if…”

    Just a thought.

  37. FrauTech on 06 Jan 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    I think good enough cook has a strong point…the history classes I took to fulfill GEs were always huge and graded by TAs. I ended up taking more history classes out of personal interest and they were taught by tenured professors and small and allowed for discussion. But the topics they covered seemed pretty narrow to me (looking at one culture in time from anywhere from 100 years to maybe 500 years) so I can see how it would be tough to get these out to the masses so to speak.

    As for stereotypes about professors not teaching and getting paid a lot of money…I can’t help but think that it was a lot more like that say 20 years ago. And that’s the problem. Because at my institution there are a lot of deadwood professors rolling around doing no research, lecturing one or two classes that are mostly TA graded, and getting paid six figures. But even the new engineering professors here make about what figures have been discussed (in the 30s or 40s before what they might make up with in grants) which is far less than an engineer with just a BS could earn. Seems like there’s been a fundamental shift in all fields, and the stereotypes and paranoia stem from a kind of professor that might still be around but isn’t being created anymore.

  38. Historiann on 06 Jan 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Thanks, thefrogprincess. I have in fact written regularly on the problem of class size over the past three years. And I agree that in many (most?) departments, faculty are spread too thin. Adjuncts are problematic not because they’re inferior to regular faculty, but because their teaching load is typically twice that of regular faculty. Of course, one must approach teaching differently when one is teaching 4 or 5 classes per term, versus just 2. (And bigbosslady–I was once that grad student with 60 “research” papers to advise and grade! Ridiculous–and that was at an Ivy-league school, not at a state Aggie school or directional university.)

    But, of course, overly large class sizes and the use of overburdened grad student and adjunct labor is a problem that will require more, and not less money. And the critics Grafton writes about are not interested in spending more money–they’re merely interested in devaluing if not demonizing all of our work.

    And, thanks Jeremy for linking to your post on this subject. Everyone should click and read–but here’s the part that really grabbed me:

    What this suggests, I think, is that we need to shift our focus from defending historical inquiry as a worthwhile endeavor – a position, after all, with which the vast majority of Americans already agree – toward defending why we do it better than Glenn Beck or the popular press. Part of this task involves simply making lay readers aware of the advantages of academic scholarship. We need to explain, to an audience obsessed with knowing “the facts,” that peer-reviewed books are vastly more accurate and trustworthy than popular ones. We need to point out that new breakthroughs in historical knowledge and understanding are almost always made by academics, and that popularizers can’t disseminate this knowledge unless the professors discover it for them first. We need to indicate the importance of argument and analysis, and how they transform a collection of data points into a coherent picture of an era or a phenomenon (or even of an individual). We need to suggest that professional historians have a unique method that is teachable and applicable to other areas of life. Whatever arguments we make, the key is that we need to make a case for historians as a profession, rather than history as a discipline. Otherwise, we’re left with the intolerable state of affairs we’re in today, in which people come to believe that popularizers are the only true historians and that academics are the ones preaching politics rather than practicing rigorous scholarship.

    As I suggested, more on this when I get a chance this weekend, but today and tomorrow I’m immersed in my pointless, narrow, comically trivial, and ideologically-driven scholarship and writing of articles and books that no one will ever read.

  39. Jeremy C. Young on 06 Jan 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    Thanks for the link, Historiann. I was doing some of that narrow, comically trivial work myself earlier today. Isn’t it fun?

  40. nemo on 07 Jan 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    This sounds awful. Is it even worth continuing in the PhD program I am in now? I go to Buffalo U down the road from you. I love history and the writing of it, but so many years in school to dream of $30k a year if I am lucky? Is this sane?

    I want to get married very badly but I do not have the money to do so. I live off a ridiculous stipend and the charity of my parents as it is! My fiancee was a primary school teacher but got laid off and has to work for $12.00 an hour at a daycare center. It just seems so hopeless. I want this very badly, but can I justify more time and effort when I wont even be able to maintain the standard of living my parents have?

    What I have amounts to an educational record and not a work record. This bothers me too. Any advice would be good. I am a second year candidate. I have peer-reviewed articles from top journals in my field, university writing prizes. I am seriously thinking about applying to a more prestigious program where I might have a chance at a decent job. I am sorry if this seems rudderless, but I am rudderless.

  41. Historiann on 07 Jan 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    I personally do not feel comfortable urging students to get Ph.D.s in history unless they are in it for the intellectual challenge and achievement, and unless they also understand that they are not very likely to find paid employment as a professional historian in a four-year college or university.

    I don’t think transfering to a “more prestigious program” is the answer. That is, I don’t think that there is a program so prestigious that it will guarantee any of its graduates a job.

    What I think is more practical and more immediately do-able is exploring careers in history outside of 4-year institutions: community colleges, high-school and prep school teaching, public history, etc. Chances are you’ve never explored these fields, because Ph.D. programs don’t do a good job in suggesting alternative career paths.

    Failing that, maybe it’s time for you to come on down to the anxious bench and have a talk with your family and your fiancee about your future.

  42. KC on 08 Jan 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    Good article, and post. It’s late and I haven’t read all the comments, but what resonated for me from the original article was the fact that historical research has become increasingly specialized and targeted towards a rather circular academic audience. IMO, on the whole, academia does not do a good job, structurally, in maintaining relevance for the general public. This may be owing to failures on both sides–i.e. anti-intellectualism in the public sphere and hyper-specialization in academia.

    As someone who has done popular historical writing and also academic writing, I feel continually frustrated by this barrier that separates popular history from academic history (of course there are a few works which bridge the gap but they are few and far between.) I love to do research, but I’m honestly not that interested in writing just for a group of 15-20 people who share my research interests and thus are obligated, in some sense, to read what I write. I love the teaching part of academia precisely because it gives me the opportunity to take what I do know and to try to make it relevant for people who are going to do other things with their lives and who are not likely to become academics. I think in many ways I’m more of a writer at heart, but it is hard for me to get enthused sometimes about my academic writing, and I find myself often daydreaming about research projects that would command a larger audience but that would probably not pass muster as truly groundbreaking original research, at least not how that often seems to be defined in academic circles. When I think of my academic path, I often see a lot of obstacles, pedantic posturing, and general bullshit that has to be put up with in order to gain job security. Academia has many guard-houses, it seems, so many that you would almost think tenured faculty must make in the middle six figures, because why else would people willingly subject themselves to such ordeals? But then I’m reminded by discussions like this one that, no, most of us make garden-variety middle class salaries, and I start to wonder why I do put up with all the hoops and hurdles, when I could probably land a gig outside academia that would pay as many bills without demanding the same level of (almost absurd) preparation and training.

    I feel like the current era, where we have a glut of Ph.D.s in the humanities, is going to come to an end sooner or later. All the people that universities have taken advantage of for years–all the untenured adjuncts and lecturers who are getting paid a few thousand dollars per course and not being given health benefits, all those people–are going to disappear again at some point when they realize that they have, in some sense, been had.

  43. Historiann on 09 Jan 2011 at 6:43 am #

    KC, I disagree with you on a number of points. First, to the issue of specialization: yes, there are a number of small research projects, and anyone can cherry-pick a conference program to say, “gee, what a dumb, pointless, and narrow topic!” But, 1) there has to be room for trying out new ideas and getting feedback on smaller projects, which after all might grow into larger and more ambitious projects. After all, conference papers are 10 pages long, whereas books are 200-300 pages long. People in the natural sciences and STEM fields do this too–and no one is staking out their national meetings or complaining about the narrow, technical nature of their research. We actually publish books that the general public can get their hands on for free in their local libraries via ILL–not just narrow, technical journal articles. I wonder if in some ways the problem is more that our work is just a little too accessible to the public.

    In short, there is an unreasonable expectation that anything in History or English be immediately transparent to lay readers that I think is mistaken. We are not hobbyists building backyard rockets–we are professionals, and we need to have professional conversations with other professionals whose meaning and importance is not always transparent.

    But, all that aside, I think we’re rather in a golden age of academic transparency/involvement in the “real world.” Leaving aside the blogging that many academics are doing, The New Yorker also regularly publishes book review essays by Jill Lepore and Anthony Grafton, and Sean Wilentz has since the Clinton impeachment written regularly for The New Republic. But, the fact is that we live in a much more complex (or even messier) media-rich world, in which those essays in general interest magazines compete with infinite other essays and articles for our attention. What kind of audience do you think a general interest historical essay would attract these days, given that fact? (IOW, hyperspecialization is hardly a problem only in the humanities, but it seems like we’re the only ones called to answer for it.)

    I also wonder about this: I feel like the current era, where we have a glut of Ph.D.s in the humanities, is going to come to an end sooner or later. The “job crisis” began in 1970, so it’s been this way for 40+ years, and it’s only gotten worse. At first it was because of the hiring spree of the 1960s and the expansion of American universities in the Cold War, which halted pretty quickly in 1970 or so. Then 20 years later, it was the decision of administrators to replace tenure lines with adjuncts and lecturers. So while of course things will change, unless the profession unionizes or organizes somehow, I don’t see it changing dramatically. We’re 40 years into a problem and are just now starting to grapple with the reality of our situation.

  44. Sadly, no surprises: young, mentally ill man murders 6 and injures 14 : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 09 Jan 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    [...] been working and playing hard offline this weekend.  I will return next week to post more on Tony Grafton’s call to arms, as [...]

  45. Northern Barbarian on 10 Jan 2011 at 8:01 am #

    My experience has been either at an elite SLAC or BIG 10 U (grad school), and I’m afraid that I’ve seen a good deal of truth in the stereotype that Prof. Grafton is rightly trying to combat. Many of my grad school professors openly regarded teaching with contempt, and even here at a college that boasts endlessly about its teaching ethic I have not a few colleagues with a “back to the grind” attitude. Sure we all have days when we want to drown the students, but I have actually felt a certain embarrassment in admitting that I’m looking forward to returning to the classroom after a semester on leave. I know that most historians are dedicated teachers, but I think that we do need to address this problem directly instead of denying it.

    I look forward to the next installment. Let me add here, as a Russian/Soviet specialist, that two years ago a Russian historian was *arrested* for investigating the conditions of German prisoners of war in the far north Gulag during WWII. Allegedly he was “violating the privacy” of the POWs. Nationalist blindness is not limited to Americans!

  46. Historiann on the attack on liberal arts « Skeptical Humanities on 11 Jan 2011 at 11:45 am #

    [...] “History Under Attack”: Tony Grafton is spoiling for a fight [...]

  47. History Under Attack, part II: Can splitters be polemicists? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 13 Jan 2011 at 9:44 am #

    [...] week, we had a conversation here inspired by incoming American Historical Association President Tony Graf… in this month’s Perspectives, the AHA’s monthly magazine.  I’ll republish here [...]

  48. Eli Rabett on 16 Jan 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    Where were the historians when the physics and chemistry departments were getting wiped out?

  49. Just Do It: Academic Historians and the General Public | Crossroads on 31 Jan 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    [...] Several responses are more readily available: I direct you here and here (which follows here, so you can get some idea of the content of the original [...]

  50. Sunday roundup: unicorns, meritocracies, and humanities grants edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 06 Feb 2011 at 10:19 am #

    [...] Young reports that Tony Grafton is back with another column in Perspectives this month in which he cites in particular the discussions here and at Jeremy’s blog last month about his January American Historical [...]

  51. American Historical Association Meeting 2011: End Of Conference Notes - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education on 25 Jun 2011 at 9:43 am #

    [...] to Historiann for liberal quotation from and commentary on Grafton’s opening presidential salvo in this [...]

  52. Diane Ravitch: the only honest reformer, or an opportunitistic, grudge-bearing polemicist? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 28 Nov 2011 at 9:14 am #

    [...] thing to change one’s mind in the course of a long career.  Because of my conviction that historians are bad polemicists because we tend to be splitters devoted to nuance rather than lumpers devoted to political [...]

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