PRESIDENT’S CORNER | EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK
THOUGHTS ON THE JOB CRISIS
Volume II, Number
President Eugene Genovese
response to the program that Paul Rahe, Miriam Levin, and Lou Ferleger
put together for our June national conference exceeded all expectations.
Members and friends showered us with accolades, and if there were dissenters,
we did not hear from them—from, that is, people not normally shy and unwilling
to howl. Certainly, those who attended the conference and expressed an
opinion, as many did, signaled their pleasure at the high quality of the
sessions. For myself, I heard fine papers at every session I attended—that
is, a session in every time slot—the best of which were superb. We are
especially grateful to our host, Boston University, and the outstanding
efforts of its conference services department.
We owe special thanks to Robert W. Fogel, who delivered our first
Christopher Lasch Lecture and turned in a vintage Fogel performance—richly
informative, provocative, and masterfully argued. At the risk of self-indulgence,
may I quote from my introduction to Professor Fogel’s lecture:
Historical Society appropriately named this series of lectures by distinguished
scholars in memory of Christopher Lasch, whose untimely death deprived
American letters of a powerful voice of reason, moral responsibility, and
intellectual integrity. In maintaining that political passion complemented,
rather than subverted, high standards of scholarship, Kit Lasch understood
what the practitioners of ideologically 0driven
history do not—that political commitment heightens scholarship only to
the extent that it responds fairly to the challenges posed by honest opponents
and submits its hypotheses to open debate and empirical verification. Kit
lived and died a fighter, who upheld the glory of Western civilization
while he ruthlessly criticized its failings. America is a better country
for his having lived. It has become a poorer place since he left us.
introduction of a Nobel Prize winner, a great scholar, and one of the finest
men it has been my privilege to know was not the easiest task ever assigned
me. After the customary recital of his many achievements and honors, I
concluded with remarks, for which I again ask your indulgence:
commitment to the search for objective truth has marked Bob Fogel’s life’s
work. Bob and I go back together some fifty years, when, as young communists,
we imbibed the totalitarian doctrine of “class 00truth,”
which today has been broadened into “situational” or “positional” truth—euphemisms
for the notion that since we cannot hope to attain absolute truth in the
study of history, we are free to abandon the quest for the limited truth
we can attain; free to reduce truth and morals to whatever serves our interests;
free, that is, to become crooks, not to say monsters. In the current war
against nihilism in and out of the academy, Bob Fogel, like Christopher
Lasch, has stood fast. I am sure that Bob knows Dante, but even if not,
he surely noticed Dante’s great dictum as quoted in the opening pages of
Marx’s Capital: “Segui il tuo corso,e lascia dir’ le genti,” which, at
the risk of sending Dante spinning in his grave, I shall render inelegantly
as, “Do what you know to be right, and leave windbags to run their mouths.”
Bob Fogel stands as testimony to Dante’s admonition. He stands as a personification
of the spirit of critical inquiry conducted in accordance with the highest
demands of scholarship and moral and intellectual integrity. If, as we
hope and expect, our Society proves worthy of his example, we may expect
a bright future.
conference once again demonstrated our intellectual and ideological breadth
as conflicting voices rose from Left, Right, and Center without a murmur
of incivility or lack of appreciation for the contributions to scholarship
made by adversaries. I suppose, however, that I should be embarrassed to
say as much,since, after all, this is what scholarly meetings are supposed
to be for. On second thought, I overcome my embarrassment by reflecting
that academia has been living under the Chinese curse—in interesting times.
have good reason to know that most of our members and not a few nonmembers
wanted to attend the conference, whose audience, as expected, numbered
in the hundreds. Most could not do so. Despite the best efforts to keep
costs low, they proved too high in an era in which fewer and fewer departments
offer assistance. Then, too, many of our members teach at small colleges,
which have never been able to offer such assistance, and others are independent
scholars who are struggling to keep their heads above water. These considerations,
as we made clear when we launched The Historical Society, led us to project
national conferences only every two years or more and to concentrate on
regional conferences and local meetings. Other considerations dictated
this decision, for we all know that large conventions are not suitable
for serious intellectual exchanges. In any case, we planned from the beginning
not to hold a national meeting next year but to concentrate on the initiation
of regional conferences that people would be able to attend in numbers
large enough to promote scholarly discussions and get to know each other.
regional organizations are developing well, with outstanding coordinators
in place, although we must confess to being behind in some sections of
the country, in which we are nonetheless recruiting well. No less fortunately,
we now have the services of Sheldon Avery to assist the coordinators. Don,
as he is known to his friends, is a fine scholar who has been chairing
his community college’s history department, and he has done a superb job
as coordinator for the Chesapeake Region. He brings to his new responsibility
a combination of experience and energy, with an integrity that inspires
confidence in all who
for regional conferences are proceeding apace. Plans, however, are no better
than the people who participate in them. To accomplish what we hope, our
members will have to contribute suggestions, contribute some time, and
stand ready to be called upon to provide papers and participate in panels.
This bulletin contains a list of regional coordinators. Please get in touch
with them and offer your services.
developments have made clear that we were right to believe that the worst
ramification of the mounting crisis in the Establishment’s historical associations
has been the growing retreat of historians into a passivity fueled by a
sense that organized professional efforts are a waste of time, that nothing
much is possible, that everyone may as well cultivate his own garden. The
answer to all such defeatism lies not in protests and polemics but in the
demonstration that our profession can in fact be revitalized through collective
are well ahead of the timetable we originally projected—and light years
ahead of the point that our critics ever dreamed we would reach. We are
poised for what economists used to call “a take-off into sustained growth.”
Led by Lou Ferleger, who is putting together a strong central office, and
armed with our new journal and our book, Reconstructing History, we have
excellent prospects. But no amount of publicity and appeals will do the
job. Recruitment, above all, depends upon one-on-one personal contacts
and upon the initiation of attractive local projects, no matter how modest.
In short, the realization of our prospects is in your hands.
Genovese is president of The Historical Society.
those of us with the most immediate responsibilities for the Journal, especially
Laura Crawley and myself, the appearance of the first issue seems little
short of miraculous, in part because we frequently doubted that we could
meet Lou Ferleger’s deadlines, in part because we were so amazed to see
it actually taking shape in the successive drafts of the cover and the
layout. We have a special debt to the authors (Darryl Hart, Victor Hanson,
Mark Smith, and Robert Wiebe) who entrusted their work to us and then met
the stringent deadlines the production schedule imposed. That schedule
kept us all hopping, but it more than justified the pain, for Marie Weisgerber
and Hy Zhitnik of Boston University’s Office of Publications Production
exceeded our highest expectations in producing a journal that is a pleasure
to look at and to read.
second issue is taking shape, and we are assembling materials for those
to follow. Thanks to the generous response of colleagues, the second issue
will inaugurate discussion of some of the questions introduced in the first.
Beginning with the second issue, we shall also inaugurate a section that
will include papers from sessions at the national or regional meetings.
And beginning with this issue or the next, we shall regularly publish a
review essay per issue. In time, we also hope to feature a column that
will review a specialized journal, published here or abroad, as a way of
alerting our readers to engaging scholarship they could easily miss. During
the first year or two, we shall, inevitably, experiment with the balance
among different historical subjects and different genres of historical
writing, including historical perspectives from other disciplines, notably
literature, sociology, politics, and religion. And of course, pace Lou,
economic history—on condition that our economists are willing to translate
their numbers and equations into English.
the outset, we have been committed to fostering different kinds of historical
work by scholars of varied historical subjects and perspectives, as well
as at different stages of their careers. Initially, we had planned to promote
these commitments through two journals, one primarily devoted to articles,
the other primarily devoted to reviews, and to publish the review journal
primarily, if not exclusively, on-line. We have discovered that we still
lack the technological capability to produce the kind of high-quality,
on-line review journal we envisioned. But what initially seemed a disappointment
seems to be metamorphosing into the proverbial blessing in disguise. The
confrontation with our inability to field a full-scale review journal at
this point brought home to us that we neither need nor want to take responsibility
for reviewing all of the books that are published each year. Indeed, by
cheerfully leaving this responsibility to the more specialized historical
journals, we free ourselves to review the books that seem of special interest
or importance to our members. We will inevitably miss some—and initially
we may miss many—books that we would have wanted to review, and for this
I apologize in advance. Here, as in every other aspect of this adventure,
we shall need to get our sea legs.
present, we plan to handle book reviews in several different ways, each
of which, we hope, will contribute to the sense of continuing conversation
that we want the Journal to foster. Within the next issue or two, we shall
publish a review essay in each regular issue of the Journal. By next year,
we shall add a fourth annual issue that will consist entirely of review
essays. In addition, within the next issue or two of Historically Speaking,
we will introduce a section, “Catching My Fancy,” in which we will publish
“reviews” of about 100 words. These pieces are not intended to provide
reviews of record or even responsible coverage of the contents of a book.
Rather, they are intended to call a book to the attention of our members
and to say briefly—compellingly, insightfully, even seductively—why it
is worth reading. Teasers rather than conventional reviews, the short entries
will offer our members a way to tell others something about a book they
consider especially thought-provoking or worthy of attention. And the books
they select may not only be general syntheses but also specialized monographs
that would escape the attention of nonspecialists.
we expected to publish a regular review journal, we assigned reviews, and
a number of our colleagues have responded promptly. These reviews, which
we have in hand or are expecting shortly, will be published in Historically
Speaking, but at least for now, we do not plan to commission others. We
warmly invite members of The Historical Society and readers of the Journal
to propose topics for review essays and specific books for mention in “Catching
My Fancy,” and we will do our best to make sure they receive copies of
the books they need in timely fashion. And if the issue of review essays
proves successful and the number of subscribers justifies the expense,
we will add a second issue of review essays each year.
goal now, as at the beginning, remains to engage the interests of our readers
and to cultivate a climate of conversation about large historical questions.
In this spirit, we welcome unsolicited responses to essays and reviews.
For the moment, we do not foresee a “letters to the editor”
although this may change. But we would welcome unsolicited contributions
to a column, “Second Thoughts, Third Thoughts, and Beyond.” The purpose
of such contributions would be to draw out the implications of some aspect
of an article or a review essay or to lodge a quarrel with it. We shall
not expect to publish ad hominem or ad feminam attacks on authors, lists
of minor errors, or personal quarrels with an author. We shall, however,
welcome interventions of 500–1,500 words that promote further thought or
Fox-Genovese is editor of the Journal of The Historical Society and the
Eleanore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory University.
THOUGHTS ON THE JOB CRISIS
William W. Freehling
believe that the historical profession faces an employment as well as an
intellectual crisis. In 1999, when I spoke at a breakfast at The Historical
Society’s national conference, I argued that older generations of historians
must no longer allow deans to foist an impossible job situation on younger
generations. I urged that, with full professors allowing administrators
a free hand to establish the hiring environment, a horrendous plight confronts
most fresh PhDs. Few aspiring teachers start with tenure track positions,
replete with the traditional benefits, salaries, and research support.
Most endure part-time employment, at least for several years. Many have
to cobble together a course at one institution, a course at another, and
more courses at others, just to earn a subsistence wage. The exhausting
work yields no medical insurance, no travel grants, and no opportunity
to write history. And the older professors, having suffered none of this,
have done little to fight the travesty.
emphasized that currently employed faculty could forge an alliance between
have and have-not professors, against irresponsible administrators. Professors
could use their moment of retirement as a weapon against deans’ preference
for part-time replacements. If every healthy professor refused to retire
until the dean agreed to spend 75 percent of the salary savings on full-time
replacements, administrators would have little choice but to give many
more of our younger colleagues the initial job conditions that furthered
our careers. I also argued that PhD-granting departments have the obligation
to establish postdoctoral three-to-five-year instructorships for the best
of their own new PhDs (with decent salaries, benefits, and research/writing
opportunities). And I suggested that every graduate department of history
must base its admissions on the number of PhDs that it could reasonably
hope to place in academic tenure track jobs.
year later I have some second thoughts about this last suggestion. My limited-admission
concept was based on a Neanderthal view: that job opportunities only exist
in the universities. The profession badly needs an expanded professional
education to seize advantage of the expanding opportunities for historians
beyond the academy.
old graduate education presumed that the jobs were in the universities
and that “publish or perish” was the condition of employment. Thus, criticizing
and producing scholarly monographs monopolized the training of historians.
PhDs became expert in writing for each other, especially for fellow specialists
who might offer them the only job on the horizon.
or not this educational situation fostered good history, it temporarily
fostered a golden age of academic employment for my generation. That is
now a world we have lost. Most Americans no longer learn their history
in the university classroom, much less from the scholars’ monographs. Our
public—and we must remake it ours—relishes history as never before, but
it is history taught in community colleges, on television, in movie houses,
inside museums, at historical sites, in magazines, and in nonmonographic
books written for popular consumption. So huge a demand—exactly the demand
lacking in the academic marketplace—has generated rich employment opportunities
for those properly trained. Training devoted exclusively to publishing
monographs can be the wrong training, except maybe to perish before you
may respond that training in how to make history popular is too antischolarly
to be part of a scholar’s highest education. But what is unscholarly about
teaching the most sophisticated history where those who want to learn happen
to be located? It is, after all, sophisticated teaching that most of our
graduate students have always considered their highest calling. Fewer than
10 percent of history PhD theses are ever published, and fewer than 10
percent of the published authors ever write a second book. Instead, the
vast majority of history PhDs have always spent a happy, highly productive
professional life bringing their insights and knowledge to students. The
only difference now is that most of the booming number of interested students
are not located in the tenure-granting universities. Easing the employment
woes of our PhDs is partly a matter of applying the traditional capitalist
remedy: go where the action is.
failing to train our students to educate beyond the university, we indirectly
consign that supposedly “lesser” education to teachers without a sophisticated
knowledge of history. Then we complain about superficial TV documentaries,
museum installations that do not indicate the material objects’ revealing
depth, placards at historical sites that indicate little about the widest
importance of the landscape seen—in short, we complain of a botched job
of education. We would better serve our culture if our PhDs were trained
to direct this popular education, using nonverbal source materials that
our graduate students have come to relish as much as the written word.
Visual and aural materials are, after all, rich historical artifacts, too—sources
that will deepen our monograph writing as well as our popular education.
is accordingly becoming more and more professionally necessary that we
incorporate such subjects as filmmaking, photography, museum connoisseurship,
historical editing, period houses, and historical sites deep into our graduate
curriculums. This hardly means the elimination of scholarly training in
analyzing texts. There will always be a need for monograph-writing professors
who stress the written word. But we must realize that this is now only
one path, maybe no longer even the widest path, and assuredly not the only
noble path. To jam all the travelers onto a shrinking path—to fail to train
all our students for widening paths—is to intensify what we have: a job
crisis at the very time historians’ jobs are increasing.
as I was coming to belated awareness of what could be done inside the graduate
schools, I made a startling discovery: one university is already doing
it. The University of South Carolina’s history department has lately enjoyed
that rarity in these scarce academic times: the opportunity to hire many
new scholars. It has added not just fine monograph writers (Daniel and
Valinda Littlefield) but also authors who reach a more general audience
(Paul E. Johnson, Dan Carter), an expert in museums and material culture
(Katherine C. Grier), and one of the nation’s leaders in public history
(Page Putnam Miller). What a varied feast these scholars will offer to
graduate students, in all the ways to practice history. With students prepared
for a variety of historical jobs, unemployment or exploited employment
will likely shrink.
enthusiastically endorsing South Carolina’s thoughts on how to shrink the
job crisis, I still think that professors’ control over retirement can
be a weapon against turning our next generation into a suffering proletariat.
I still think that departments should offer their own best students a period
of full-time post-PhD employment.
thought for now: historians face closely related job and intellectual crises.
The Historical Society includes historians of all persuasions, all races,
all genders, all ages, many of whom are convinced that the present climate
in the academy, often bearing the misleading label “political correctness,”
is damaging historians’ work. One problem with “politically correct” history,
as it is now usually written, transcends “correctness.” The monographs
are usually written in a jargonish style that makes them politically (and
economically) irrelevant. Whatever the limitations of the old history of
dead white males in politics, diplomacy, and warfare, at least its leading
practitioners were often vivid, arresting writers who aimed at and reached
a wide audience beyond the academy. We need some hard thought about how
to train graduate students to write the new cultural history in ways that
will be equally exciting beyond a tiny coterie of specialists, just as
we need hard thought about how to train our students to exploit historical
employment beyond the academy. Let us make the new cultural history—and
the old forms of history—count in our fellow citizens’awareness of their
past. And—who would have thought this conclusion viable in the year of
the Confederate flag controversy—may South Carolina lead the way!
W. Freehling is a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and
the coholder of the Singletary Endowed Chair in the Humanities.
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