“Na, na, na, I can’t hear you.”: History job market edition.

14 02 2012

On the one hand, every historian should be pleased that the author of this article is asking hard questions about the academic job market in their discipline and printing the answers she’s gotten in the Chronicle. On the other hand, you might not like some of the lame answers that these questions have produced.

Consider this sentiment, for example:

Departments across the humanities are facing new pressures to document their worth. With shrinking budgets and a tight job market, programs are being pressed to do more to collect, assess, and publish data about how their graduates fare.

If the difficulty of recent Ph.D.s finding tenure track jobs is a reflection of a deliberate restructuring of demand, then the placement of those Ph.D.s has nothing to do with the worth of that education. The unemployed are just as educated as the employed. The problem is not with graduate history programs per se, but with the context in which those programs operate.

However, this does not absolve those departments from their obligations as educational institutions and the members of those departments from their obligations as human beings to inform incoming grad students what their employment prospects are. If you were doing it all again, wouldn’t you want to know? Yet apparently this prospect scares people:

A number of historians worry that the overall decline in entry-level, tenure-track positions for new Ph.D.’s in all subfields signals not only economic hard times but structural changes, some of which may be permanent, in the university labor force. As a result, universities may scale back doctoral programs in humanities disciplines such as history, which some faculty fear might become more like a “boutique discipline” offered only at elite institutions.

Giving poor graduate students an opportunity to go into tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt with no financial reward in the end is no favor to them. It will just make them much more poor in the end. They should try that “boutique discipline” argument on the Republican state legislators strangling higher education funding nationwide and see how well that works. At this rate we’ll be lucky to have any discipline left at all.

I realize that there’s no generally accepted process for informing prospective graduate students what their employment prospects are at the end of their educations, but figures like the ones in that article are about as useful as sending the buyer beware message via hieroglyphs. Every idealistic soul who’s determined to be a professor is still going to go to graduate school because nobody expects to be left out in the cold when it’s all over.

You say the truth hurts? So cut out the middleman. Just reduce the number of graduate students you admit into your departments before the marginal ones bet their lives on the roll of the dice. Do the right thing before someone else gets hurt. Anything else is the functional equivalent of covering your ears and saying “Na, na, na, I can’t hear you,” which might explain why so many top departments don’t stay in touch with their old Ph.D.s. They don’t want to hear the message of the market even when the Chronicle is rude enough to bring that message to them in about as clear a manner as possible.


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