Nice Work, If You Can Get It

Becoming a historian has left me nearly faithless. Nearly: I still believe people, when aggrieved and motivated, can collectively act on a shared cause and create change. (How long that takes, or how far it goes, or whether it’s any good is another matter.) Where I’ve lost hope, whatever shreds I came in with, is in the idea that those institutions with concentrated power ever have genuine motivation to share that power. Without direct, collective, concerted pressure—people power, if we want to be cheesy—the elite often feel little incentive to expand access to resources.

As shown by the American Historical Association’s release of its annual job figures, this concentration of power also occurs within my own discipline. For the 2016-2017 academic year, colleges and universities listed just over 500 full-time positions in history in the AHA. Less than 300 of these positions were tenure-track positions. Meanwhile, the latest available data for awarded PhDs indicates that over 1,100 graduate students received a doctorate in history during the 2014-2015 academic year. Even if we were to play fair and line up the number of PhDs awarded for 2014-2015 with every AHA job listing for that year (postdocs, non-tenure positions, and all), there would still be roughly twice as many newly-minted members of the guild as there were available job listings. The ratio has presumably become worse in the past two years.

Yet this abysmal trend—two historians for every job—is nothing new. In fact, the chasm between available full-time positions and awarded PhDs has been disgustingly vast for about a decade. (It also mirrors a similar disciplinary crisis in the 1970s and a smaller, though no less depressing, job drought throughout the 1990s; it’s been this way more often than not.) This means that those new historians who apply for one of the few full-time jobs are also likely competing against a massive amount of historians who missed out in previous cycles but still want a chance at the disciplinary ideal: a full-time tenure-track professorship.

Further complicating this job drought is the way prestige influences who gets jobs. Quite simply, the more prestigious one’s graduate school, the more likely one can find a tenure-track position in history. Because history is a particularly prestige-concentrated discipline—that is, historians rarely land a job more prestigious than where they were trained—people who earn PhDs at non-prestigious institutions frequently have a narrower band of academic job options than, say, those trained in Ivy League and other elite institutions. (Keep in mind that prestige is relative, so an R1 school may carry prestige in several other fields and have little currency in historical circles.)

The lack of jobs in my field, then, is not just the product of higher ed’s corporate mimicry or residual effects from last decades’ recession, but also disciplinary practices and norms that keep the professoriate from changing too quickly at any given time.

Again, none of this is anything new. Mark Bousquet’s point that graduate students are the byproduct of the contemporary American university system stands strong a decade later. In 2011, Robert Townsend observed that only 31% of the history graduate students who began their studies in 1997 had transitioned to tenure-track jobs by 2007; this ten-year period wasn’t a magical golden age, but it still had relatively more jobs for available graduates.

I don’t know if I can feel betrayed by a partner who clearly never had my back.

Yet, it seemed that many historians with full-time tenure-track jobs were publicly nonplussed over the past week by this data: “How could it be so bad?” “I’m glad it wasn’t this way when I was on the market.” “I feel even more lucky that I got my position.”

For all this outward confusion and dismay, which I do believe is sincere, I’m not sure I’ve seen much effort from graduate history programs to genuinely reckon with what the ethics are in training thousands of people for jobs they will never receive, without any clear aim to prevent more PhDs from becoming perpetual adjuncts, and without a sense of creating historians who can continue to do social good outside of classrooms. The AHA asserted “No More Plan B” six years ago—the year before I foolishly entered my doctoral program—but I suspect history PhDs haven’t had a considerably easier time forging flexible, adaptable paths of study or finding fulfilling nontraditional lines of work in the time since. What I’ve seen instead are head-scratching articles from tenured professors telling adjuncts that the “truly radical” move is to quit, and historians-turned-presidents of Ivy League colleges opposing graduate employee unions.

If the job market has always been a problem, why have history graduate programs been so damn slow and ineffective at figuring out how to train historians to operate outside of the seminar room––or simply in redefining success outside of the professoriate?

While my discipline very slowly comes to terms with creating historians of all stripes, a far more immediate political threat is on the horizon. The House GOP tax bill will bankrupt tens of thousands of graduate workers by making tuitions waivers—a type of creative accounting that universities primarily use to assert why they cannot pay graduate employees any more than what they do—taxable income. Taxing tuition waivers will suddenly make graduate workers responsible for thousands more in taxes than their actual wages warrant. For graduate employees at public universities, this would stretch meager paychecks to the breaking point; imagine being told you’re responsible for taxes on $26,000 of income when you only take home $15,000 (not even factoring the $2,000 you have to pay back to the university as non-waived “fees.”) For graduate employees at private universities—where tuitions are often several times higher—this move would eliminate everyone except the elite; imagine making a relatively more comfortable $30,000 but suddenly being expected to pony up taxes for $75,000 of income.

The idea that graduate employees are some untapped source of wealth that will save this country a tremendous amount of money is, at best, a moronic delusion and at worst, ideological warfare. People who support this measure either have absolutely no idea how much graduate assistant make—the same ignorant fantasies the fuel the idea that adjuncts and public school teacher roll in cash—or truly detest the types of thinking and ideas that comes from colleges and universities. The only conclusion I can draw is that Paul Ryan and the House GOP regard academic researchers of all disciplines as petit leftist demagogues who instill dangerous social justice values in precious young adult minds and who must be corralled: why not start by cutting off the supply?

I tend to believe multiple things can be true at once. It isn’t difficult to believe that the proposed graduate tax would ruin graduate education as we know it—leaving only the very wealthy the ability to become historians, or chemists, or mathematicians, or whatever—and, all the same, that graduate training for historians is insufficient and should be throughly reconsidered.

This is a matter of deciding quite clearly who belongs in the guild. If tenure-track professors believe that the purpose of doctoral-level training in history is to simply replicate their own kind, then the guild of historians is rather small and not worth saving. But if history departments believe that their mission is to create historians who engage with and operate in the world around them—academic, nonprofit, governmental, corporate, wherever—then we must not only fight like hell to ensure people from various backgrounds have equitable access to graduate training, but also consider how graduate programs can better nurture students into becoming historians who fit into multiple spaces.

Even if we want to believe that the best PhDs will eventually find quality jobs, there is something particularly gross about a guild of professionals willingly creating far too many historians than there are professorial spaces and then normalizing the additional hurdles one often needs to jump before landing a tenure-track job—and by extension, the sense of being fully welcomed into the guild. It feels as though one is not taken as a genuine historian upon receiving the PhD; one must have the tenure-track job. If that takes years of adjuncting at several schools and stringing along visiting positions—while trying to publish and secure a book contract and pay bills, all with scant time and money—so be it.

What I suspect, however, is that history graduate programs and universities’ treatment of graduate employees will not change unless absolutely compelled. A dizzying combination of disciplinary inertia and institutional profit-motives got us to this point already. If the Senate approves a tax plan that does eliminate tuition waiver tax exemptions, universities may develop some scheme in which graduate students still receive funding at a rate that bankrupt them. But these plans would likely only showcase institutional generosity, because universities already use “it’s as if” logic when bargaining when graduate students. (“No, we will not give you a raise; when you factor in the tuition waiver and insurance, and then extrapolate your 20-hour, 9-month position to a year-round full-time position, it’s as if we pay you $55,000 annually. How ungrateful are you to act as if we don’t give you that!”)

We need to save this laggard, dopey system in order to make it better, because there’s no way in hell we can fix it if a tax plan that eliminates tuition waiver tax exemptions passes. We must call our congresspeople, again and again, and make clear that the graduate tax will immediately ruin higher education and research. We must be relentless. Send countless faxes. Picket in the streets. Demand that they explain on the record why they would support a measure that would bankrupt all but the very wealthiest students. Demand that they explain on the record why they support a measure that would prevent people paying back their student loans to deduct interest from their taxes. Demand that they explain the math, because it seems like they can barely add or subtract unless it’s to fuck teachers over. Ruin their holiday weekend. Ruin their holiday season. Be unavoidable.

But we also need to do the same to university leaders, too. Where are the statements condemning—not watching, not brow-furrowing, not appealing to greater angels—the tax plan? Has your university issued one? If not, have you put pressure on your university administration? Have you written letters to your paper? To your University president and Board of Trustees? Have you booked space to demonstrate on campus? Have you interrupted undergraduates? Surely there’s some around. Surely you know where they congregate. Surely there will be plenty around in the week before finals. Surely you can be a nuisance in a way that doesn’t violate your contract. Surely you can be loud.

And, somehow, if we survive this abysmal tax plan, then history programs need to seriously consider the components of their degree programs. This doesn’t mean embracing the sterile hyper capitalist techbro mantra of “jobs training”––though, what is the old model but a misguided effort at job training?––but instead figuring out the types of courses, skill sets, liaisons, and qualifications a school could provide in order to allow a graduate student multiple paths to becoming a historian. The AHA has done longitudinal work illustrating that, indeed, historians work in many places—so how can departments make that the starting point for graduate training and not the revelation that comes after the despair of dozens of rejection letters?

History departments can’t control the marketplace, of course. Nor can they set the pay scale for piecemeal teaching. But they can look at the state of the field and consider how they’re going to respond to an environment where half of their students won’t be like them. What could “success” become if it isn’t bound to replicating an insular community of professors with little structural incentive to turn outward? What could doing history be outside of that?

I defended my dissertation this August, and I formally graduate with my PhD in a few weeks. My work is good. I have a solid resume, one that balances a few small grants with a lot of teaching experience, plenty of panels and service, and genuinely useful non-historical employment. None of this really matters: my odds of finding a full-time job as a historian at a college or university are truly small. This isn’t a pity party. Rather, my case is unremarkable. And, in some ways, reminding myself that there’s nothing particularly surprising that I can’t line up a full-time gig in higher ed beats a more familiar line of thought, in which I didn’t land a job because I am simply not and never will be good enough.

So, I’m going to be a nuisance to my congresspeople and (soon to be former) university administration over the next couple weeks. I’ve also been sending my resume to dozens of nonprofit and governmental positions, and have considered turning my editing gigs into a full-fledged side-hustle. But I don’t expect that the GOP’s death threat against American graduate education will inspire history programs to make profound changes they should’ve considered all along.

That would require more faith.

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