“Why is it always the historians?” I muttered to myself after another little dustup on Twitter, another historian posting some jaunty, gaslighting, evasive, disaster-normalizing, “fellow-historians, give me your best advice for advisees applying to PhD programs!!” while insisting nobody say “don’t go” because OP’s students were allegedly “already well informed about the job market.”
Another historian giving me pushback when I press the issue.
Another historian finishing with a predictable “shut up, grifter.”
Ugh, historians… I muttered, clicking away.
Then I paused.
Why IS it always the historians?
It cannot be random.
After all, it was a historian who did this. And who did this. And who did this. And who used to come at me back in the early days through whisper networks from my two previous institutions of U of Oregon and U of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Now, granted, I know I have haters in plenty of other fields. But none of them pop up like whack-a-mole and shout “Yer a grifter!” at me before ducking back down underground.
(In my mind it always sounds like this:
No, that’s only historians.*
Why IS it always historians tho?
As I sat for a minute, my mind flew to a line by Anne Helen Peterson I just read last week.
It’s a line I have not been able to stop thinking about.
This is the line.
The context: Northern Idaho medical professionals are afraid to go out in their scrubs in because they’re being attacked by COVID-denialists who accuse them of killing unvaccinated patients in the service of the covid “conspiracy.”
Peterson’s line struck me, more than anything I’d ever read, as a plausible explanation for the motivations of COVID-denialists. I’ve watched as they’ve gone to their deaths screaming that COVID isn’t real, and I’ve been gob-smacked that they are willing to, literally, die on this hill. Their world view – that COVID is a vast conspiracy, and by extension, that FOX News is right, and that they are just victims of fear-mongering by bad-faith coastal elite actors (and by extension, that their version of conservative, white, gun-toting, Trump-loving rural “heartland” America is fundamentally the only proper, good and correct inheritor/inhabitor of America) – has been so devastated by the unyielding reality of the Delta variant that only a conspiracy (nurses are killing unvaxxed patients to keep the “Delta lie” alive) can make sense.
But, whoa, I thought. This is weird. Why would THIS line, about Idaho anti-vaxxers, come to mind first when I try to think about historians, job market denialism, and Karen-is-a-grifter discourse?
Well actually…. In about a minute it was pretty clear.
Historians, among all the disciplines, are apparently the least able to cognitively tolerate the collapse of their world within the larger collapse of academia. Confronted with the loss of their status as unassailably good, right and proper; their status as the inheritors of the mighty and unassailable heritage of not just a discipline, but THE discipline: Mighty History, the Queen of the humanities, source of all wisdom; confronted with all that, they freeze, and turn to conspiracies.
Everyone is confronting the same economy. But it’s History that apparently can’t cope. And so it’s History that has decided to shoot the messenger and accuse me of conspiracy. In this case, being a con (get it–con?) artist whose only motivation is dirty, self-interested, and suspect.
History, and historians, cannot be bad, or wrong. They can only be good, well-intentioned, necessary, indeed essential, and above all: innocent.
A world without History, and historians, is literally… unthinkable**
And the periodic online hysteria is, I guess, the academic social media version of anti-maskers throwing tantrums in the Krogers.
[Pause for the requisite #NotAll disclaimer. I hope it’s evident that I don’t mean all historians here. It’s not all historians who freak out at me. But (almost) all the people who freak out at me are historians. What’s the name for that again, logicians?]
Pause also for humor:
Now, if you’d asked me before, I would not have guessed it would be History to fall prey to this discontent, but rather Classics, or Philosophy or maybe English. And let me reiterate: I’m sure I have haters in those fields, as I have haters in ALL fields! But again: folks from these fields don’t run around making a spectacle of themselves like this.
“La la la I can’t heaaaaar you!” is what this all looks like to the rest of us. But just like the covid-denialists are certain that only THEY understand the “truth” about the “plandemia” and that the rest of us mask-wearing, vaccine-getting folks are gullible sheep, so this vein of historians view all of YOU – the ones who appreciate The Professor Is In and come here to the blog, or to my podcast and social media for good advice, conversation, and snarky humor- as ignorant, befuddled victims of my grift. You are my marks, as it were.
Oops! Sorry, innit! [Ted Lasso reference]
But I am just the messenger. You all know that. Many of you are trying to act in good faith. But some just… can’t, because their worldview just won’t allow it. And as in the quote above, many are suffering as a result.
Shoot at me all you want, the devastation remains.
Here is the devastation:
(deep gratitude to Ben Schmidt (@benmschmidt)
for his steady reporting here and also here)
Ben Schmidt wrote in 2020, “Out of a train-wreck curiosity about what’s been happening to the historical profession, I’ve been watching the numbers on tenure-track hiring as posted on H-Net, one of the major venues for listing history jobs…. First, the worst of the pre-great-recession years was better than the best year since it.”
[2021 data seems to be a bit unclear as yet].
Ya gotta love the AHA tho. They open their 2021 jobs report with already obsolete good news! “Over the past several years, the academic job market for historians has shown clear signs of reaching equilibrium. This stabilization was welcome news compared to the freefall of 2008–10.” Colleen Flaherty was a bit more blunt in her piece about the report in Inside Higher Ed: “That’s pre-COVID-19 and related widespread hiring freezes, however, meaning that this temporary stability in the job market is already over.”
Instead, historians (and History as a field, through the AHA) have been at the forefront of the rearranging deck chairs part of the titanic collapse of academic hiring. They have led the way in insisting that History PhD training can be maintained at its current level by simply trumpeting the “unlimited” alt-ac and public history “opportunities” a History PhD supposedly delivers. No need to reduce admissions! No need to fundamentally change what we do! Just sprinkle in a bit of alt-ac fairy dust and we’re golden! And ignore and attack anyone who implies otherwise.
[Let me add that all of this makes this Japan anthropologist quite sad because actually history is my joy, my hobby, my great love, and all I read in my free time. Right now I’m making my way through a study of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, for reasons that are obscure even to myself. But I can’t stop. I’m a history addict. I love the field as much as anyone. But… it’s dying. Like all the rest of ours with less illustrious pedigrees!]
Historians, you have yet to grasp that the “data” are both irrefutable and yet also insufficient. And this is why the claim that “I showed my students the data” in no way fulfills your professional responsibility within this catastrophe.
PhD applications are fueled by emotion and denial. Not because applicants are naive or ignorant or dumb or gullible, but because they lack sufficient context. Structurally: it’s not that they don’t get it, but that they can’t. Because academia is a truly strange niche, with rules and practices and economies all its own. And nobody understands it until they are IN it. And by the time they are IN it, it’s too late to get out without massive harm, in terms of identity, self-esteem, confidence, and indebtedness.
As a tenured friend exclaimed over coffee this past weekend, when Kel and I were regaling her about Oregon coast Darlingtonia plants –the only carnivorous plants native to North American, which consume wasps by dazzling them with pretty colors and then confusing them once inside so they get trapped and can’t escape — “Oh – just like academia, lol!”
Yes of course PhD students can get out, at some point, but it’s the damage – emotional, psychological, and above all financial – that accompanies the exit mid- or post-PhD that SHOULD MATTER TO YOU, but clearly doesn’t.
The data are irrefutable in that they are evidence that you must change what you’re doing, and stop recruiting PhD students into what is at its best a pyramid scheme. And it’s insufficient because the students themselves, while brilliant and insightful, are not driven by logic or data in their visions of the Life of the Mind that PhD programs dangle before them, and the harm cannot be stopped by sending along a link, sharing a table or graph, or even having a couple conversations about “how bad the market is.”
Historians: you are doing harm, and you are denying it.
“La la la I can’t heaaaaar you!” says History.
One Entire Decade ago – yes, in 2011 – I wrote, “For years now, many professors have used the abysmal job market as an alibi to entirely neglect career advising for their doctoral students. ‘Well, the job market’s impossible,’ my former colleagues*** would say, airily, ‘of course I always tell them that. And for too many professors, that’s where their sense of responsibility to their advisees’ career prospects seems to stop.”
And yet to return to where I began: in this Year of Our Lord 2021, an assistant professor on Twitter asked for advice for new PhD applicants that must not include the advice to “just don’t go,” because, she claimed, “she had shown them the job market data.” And gave me attitude about doing it. And had a tenured follower who chimed in, “[Your students are] so lucky! Don’t let a Karen with self-serving motives discourage you!”
Because god knows, historians, your motives aren’t self-serving!
But here’s the thing. And it’s always been the thing. Grad students for the most part enter PhD programs because they want to be professors. And they have no structural ability to grasp the job market “data” at point of entry because they lack the necessary context. By the time they get the context, it’s generally too late. They’ve invested too many years and too much of their own money (through catastrophic debt, usually) to easily or painlessly depart. And non-academic jobs are NOT best prepared for with a History PhD! Come on, this is obvious to the non-deluded: the PhD is generally a really shitty, time-consuming, and staggeringly expensive and inefficient mode of preparing for non-academic jobs.
And debt is not parenthetical to this calculation. When graduate school debt is the fastest growing debt in America, when grad students make up under 20% of students but almost 40% of loans, when 25% of graduate students take out more than $50K in additional debt, and a significant number of humanities PhDs have debt of $100-300K, debt is central, while virtually always shrouded in secrecy and disavowed in official disciplinary and departmental discussions.
NOBODY talks about the debt because then historians would have to talk money. That filthy lucre. And money is what, even in 2021, one must never acknowledge, because money-talk, donchano, is self-interested, and…
…tenure track and tenured historians work for free, drawing no salary, only do history out of altruism, and personally benefit in no way whatsoever from the continuation of graduate admissions.
So, you know, if – GOD FORBID – I’m still doing this Professor Is In gig ten years from now, in 2031 [WHEN I AM 67 YEARS OLD], I am under no illusions that some portion of the seven tenure track/tenured historians remaining in America will STILL be writing jaunty (wHaT i wIsH i KnEw wHeN i StArTeD gRaD sChOol ) advice threads for new PhD applicants, and still calling me a grifter. Because History departments and History PhD programs have to keep going, keep recruiting, and keep claiming their innocence, even when it’s all entirely fantasy.
For a surprisingly not-gaslighty [yet silent on grad school debt] collection of short essays by historians about the collapse of History, read this April 2021 compendium, The Academic Jobs Crisis: A Forum, in Passport, the publication of the Society of American Historians of Foreign Relations, edited by Bessner and Brenes, but for the love of god avoid the convo among three tenured profs, which includes lines like, “do you think it’s gotten worse since the 1990s?” and “I think it’s gotten harder to get tenure track jobs,” “my advice is make sure you have your eyes wide open!” and “we need good people in the academy” [KK: who is “we” in this formulation, perchance?] and “There are so many interesting exit ramps on the road between year one of graduate school and year one of a tenure-track job—or, more likely, year one of an adjunct professorship….I think it’s courageous to take them when they make sense. There are lots of different ways to love history and be successful” and “One of the things that’s vertiginous about all of this is that history is so present in our contemporary political and social discourse,” and “let’s keep this conversation going!”
*Check the first (of likely many!) angry (and abusive) comment from a historian in the comment thread below, which IN NO WAY proves the point of this post!
***It was a couple Historian friends I had in mind when I wrote this, ironically.