Soylent Green…it's historians!

No matter how much academics in the blogosphere bitch and moan amongst themselves, those crazy, cockeyed, optimistic kids keep signing up for graduate school in ever greater numbers!  According to this report at Inside Higher Ed, “More Historians on the Way,” based on this report by the American Historical Association, applications and enrollment in Ph.D. programs are up, but so is attrition from said programs.  Only 49 percent of graduate students have finished their degrees in under 10 years.

Historiann could have told you this was going to happen, as it has in every economic downturn over the past 20 years.  I started graduate school just before the 1990-91 recession drove up applications in my graduate department (Après moi, le deluge!), and I’m sure that the current recession is a good part of what drove applications up this year.  Twenty-two year-olds with liberal arts degrees look around and say, “whereas we used to be able to count on working at Whole Foods or Barnes and Noble with our B.A.’s while we decided what we wanted to do in life, now we can’t even count on getting a boring retail job.”  (Well, that was Historiann’s choice, anyway–while most of the rest of her generation became slacker baristas ca. 1990-94, and then became internet millionaires in 1998-99, she got a Ph.D. instead.)  Compared to unemployment, working in a library for five to ten years looks pretty good, and I’m sure most will stay long enough to get their Master’s degrees, and maybe even figure out their true calling.  And there are worse things than spending a year or two achieving a greater knowledge of history, even if you don’t become a professional historian, so long as you’re not racking up too much debt.  You’ll lower your lifetime risk of skin cancer, at the very least, and learn how to pronounce “Michel Foucault” the fancy French way.  (The only downside of graduate history education is that every U.S. Civil War buff at every party you’ll attend for the rest of your lives will find you and want to get your opinion on his pet theory on the Battle of Waxahatchmo Crick, even if you studied monastic communities in medieval Flanders.)

The author of the AHA report, Robert Townsend, will appear at the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at our opening night plenary session, “The Changing (?) Status of Women in the Historical Profession,” Thursday June 12 at 7 p.m. at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the campus of the University of Minnesota.  Along with Noralee Frankel (also from the AHA), he will provide the statistics, Paula Sanders will speak to best practices, Elizabeth Lunbeck will speak about women’s experiences in the academy over the past 40 years, and Muriel McClendon will address the experiences of faculty of color.  The session will be chaired by Mary Maples Dunn, a longtime member of the Berkshire Conference and whose professional interest in this issue over a nearly 50 year career as a faculty member and administrator is legendary.  Stop by to ask them some tough questions.  I’m not sure they’ll necessarily have all the answers–or the answers you’ll want to hear–but it should make for a lively conversation.  (See the links on the left sidebar for conference details and a PDF of the program.)

0 thoughts on “Soylent Green…it's historians!

  1. Just what we need, more enrollments in doctoral history programs when there are still a dearth of jobs. I remember when I was in grad school a few years ago and wishing I had a time machine to go back to the late 1980s and stop the publication of that famous study about an expected shortage in history Ph.D.’s. Ph.D. programs expanded significantly after that, but then universities did away with mandatory retirement age and went to the corporate model of replacing every two tenure track positions with one. Good times!
    In an unrelated note, I can’t believe you called this post “Soylent Green” As proof that psychronicity does exist, my blockbuster online account just shipped that movie to me. I’m teaching a class on the 1970s this summer and I need to see which parts I want to show when we talk about environmentalism.


  2. hh–good times, indeed! I was encouraged to go to graduate school in 1990 because of that very report about the looming retirement of millions of faculty in the 1990s.

    Regular faculty positions are hard to come by, but I’m not someone who calls for grad programs to scale back. There are lots of other careers people can follow with graduate training in history, especially in public history and school teaching. I think potential grad students should be given a realistically bleak forecast as to their chances of landing a tenure-track faculty position, but no one has a gun to their heads to go to grad school. (And, as I said in the post, it seems entirely rational from the perspective of many recent college grads with liberal arts degrees who don’t want to go to law school…)

    Mary: don’t bother with Canada. Their laws are very strict about having to hire qualified Canadian citizens first. And, it’s a very, very small country. (Population-wise, it’s I think 1/10 the size of the U.S.)


  3. Historiann, I certainly agree with you that there are plenty of options for students going to grad school beyond just becoming professors. And I certainly knew all the dire forecasts about tenure track jobs when I sauntered off to grad school in 2000. Perhaps the solution is for programs to scale back the size of the Ph.D. programs and do more development of the regular masters, MAT, and public history. After all, I’m not sure what additional options open up for students with a Ph.D. in history beyond being a professor or editor at a press/journal, whereas a Masters in history can be a good entre into a number of areas.


  4. hh–I agree that developing the MA programs better is a good idea. Public history is a field in which the MA seems to be the most versatile degree–the public historians I work with are not in favor of making a public history Ph.D. in my department.

    (There would be problems with expanding public history MA programs in many history departments, though, mostly because of some historians’ odd hostility to public history. But it would be a fight worth having, I think.)


  5. I so wish I could go to the Berkshires conference! Unfortunately my department has virtually no money to give grad students for travel expenses. I am thinking about starting up a brownbag session for this coming fall that talks about gender and academia, so I really would’ve liked to attend that panel you mentioned. Ah well.


  6. And if you’d gone to grad school in English, every poor schlub you ever meet at every cocktail party for the rest of your life will either a) express self-consciousness about his extremely poor grammar or b) run through the entire New York Times bestseller list and express surprise (=shock, horror) that you haven’t read a single title — even if your last book was on the Gawain poet. Sigh. Oh, and c) assume you were supporting Obama. 😉


  7. Just to clarify a small historical detail: universities did not “do away with [the] mandatory retirement age.” Congress amended the law to give academics the same basic civil rights with respect to job security that the iconic laws of the 1960s extended to every other occupational classification from hotel hospitality aides to nuclear engineers (save for airline pilots and a very few other groups). During the Soylent era, I was the only one of thirty program-beginners at Historiann’s later doctoral university ever to set foot on the tenure track, much less to stay there for long. (And I think I can testify that it wasn’t a function of being the best of that group, per se). Until and unless I stopped contributing to knowledge, though, I wouldn’t feel obliged to step aside to facilitate more equity hires for a later generation.

    The snows weren’t any deeper in my day, but I think Robert Townsend would document that until about the time Historiann entered, there were whole series of years when there were barely one or two advertised searches, if that many, per year in some major fields of historical inquiry. The trough after 1990 was not nearly that deep, nor did entering cohorts at most programs ever again approach thirty. (The defining obscene feature of the early 1990s recession was eighteen or so advertised searches in a given field followed by twelve or fifteen cancellations, often far along in the application or even the interview process). But, while attrition has been a major feature of academic life even when jobs were chasing graduates (way before my time!), placement ratios have been far higher for the last two decades than they were for the two before that. That’s basically what created the sphere that gradually came to be called “public history.”


  8. Thanks, Indyanna, for your longue duree analysis! I think hh’s point about the corporate model for universities still stands, and I think that’s a more compelling reason that the mass of 1990s retirements resulted only in a somewhat improved job environment. Your generation truly is the “lost generation” of historians–and you’re right, many of you were instrumental in professionalizing public history.

    Your entering class at said university was 30!?! You leave out a few critical points of information: the Vietnam War was on, there was a draft, and I assume that grad students could get deferrments? Was that one reason the ranks swelled right around 1968?


  9. History Enthusiast: the bad news is that the Berks doesn’t come around but every three years, like a slow but reliable comet. Perhaps in 2011 you’ll be in a place financially where a trip will seem more affordable. I’m sorry!

    And Roxie: how bad would someone’s grammar have to be if it’s evident at a coctail party? (Or is that just a lame conversation opener?)


  10. Historiann,

    Grad. school deferments for anything except medicine and maybe some hard sciences ended long before I went there. There was a national draft “lottery” and you pretty much knew your number and draft chances by graduation time. (I should note that one-third of my entering group were women, although nothing close to real equity pertained). Besides, Nixon was “Vietnamizing” the war and draft pools were declining pretty steadily through the early 1970s. There were actually 38 names on the list I was handed the first day, but 8 were listed as “Transfer from Oriental Studies,” so I always used 30 as the real number.

    Intergenerational equity is a hard thing to obtain, esp. in an industry as self-indulgent as academics. Robert Townshend rocketed to fame in the mid-90s with a pretty low-tech handcount analysis showing that between 1985 and 1995, tenure-track lines in history departments listed in the AHA guide actually rose by about one per department (contrary to what was even then the standing critique about downsizing and a strategic shift to contingent academic labor). Hardly robust growth, or maybe even sustainable growth, but real growth nevertheless. In retrospect it’s pretty clear that graduate programs, in competition with each other, used that modest quickening to ramp up their admissions rates. That memo perhaps irresponsibly predicting a looming wave of retirements was pretty clearly part of that initiative. In the process, some number of people from the lost gen. who had somehow remained viable by taking one-year jobs serially, or what were then called “alternative” history posts (later re-branded as “public history”) doubtless got swept aside in the institutionally-understandable preference to stock up on newly-minted majors uncontaminated by all that stuff. If an industrywide initiative had emerged to identify and re-absorb them (if still qualified), the flood of new students wouldn’t have happened and the predictive retirement memo might never have even been written.

    Nobody can be blamed for all this, but it’s not as if a comet slammed into the earth. Academia is about predicting climate change, commodity resource demand shifts, and all sorts of complex behavioral phenomena. The academy will never write the actual critical history of itself in the post-60s generation. Who would advise a student to take something like that on and hope to live to tell about it? All this said, it’s entirely too true about the corporate university part. But that model would only benefit from mandatory retirements of expensive senior staff.


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