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Vol. 42, No. 1, January 2013
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A Conversation with the American Historical Association's
Jim Grossman, 4 October 2012

by Scott Gerard Prinster, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In light of the changing landscape of historical research and teaching, James Grossman is using his position as the Executive Director of the American Historical Association to encourage historians and students to think more broadly about the professions we occupy within our discipline. In an October 4 visit to the University of Wisconsin campus, Grossman shared some of the steps being taken in the AHA that the History of Science Society might also consider in response to shifting opportunities.

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Article: A Conversation with the American Historical Association's Jim Grossman, 4 October 2012

Since leaving his previous position as Vice President for Research and Education at Chicago's Newberry Library, Grossman has made it one of his top priorities to remedy graduate students' unfamiliarity with the AHA's work. Quite a few students did not know, for example, that the American Historical Review is the journal of the AHA, and a surprising number had never been to AHA's Annual Meeting. Grossman encourages students to attend the Annual Meeting before we are on the job market, so that our first impressions can be of its content and opportunities, rather than of the stress and chaos of the interviewing experience. Hoping to make Annual Meeting attendance simpler and more affordable, Grossman notes that this year's gathering in New Orleans will be the last location that is not a major airport hub. Professors are now being encouraged to bring pre-ABD students to the Annual Meeting at a discounted rate. The AHA is also hoping to increase its visibility by engaging more strategically with public culture; for example, their webpage regularly features a panel of historians reflecting—not as pundits or ideologues, but as historians—on current issues such as the Presidential debates.

Another persistent problem Grossman noted has been history departments' inertia in addressing our changing discipline and how to prepare graduates to succeed in it. Grossman observes sadly that many departments, faculty, and graduate students continue to refer to non-tenure-track careers as our "failures." An important step forward was the provocative conversation begun last year by previous AHA President Anthony Grafton in The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/article/No-More-Plan-B/129293/ and http://chronicle.com/article/Time-to-Craft-a-Plan-C/129587/.

Grossman admits that one particular challenge is the difficulty in gathering accurate statistics about how history graduates actually fare in the job market. AHA leaders are brainstorming about how best to convince schools to report the percentages of their alumni in tenure-track positions and in other careers, hoping that a critical mass of influential programs will convince other departments to gather and share their statistics. Grossman and AHA President William Cronon are also beginning a conversation with a range of potential employers beyond the tenure track and asking about the particular qualities and competencies they are looking for in history PhDs. Understanding the actual state of the discipline will help us better prepare grads to succeed in a variety of relevant careers.

Rather than panicking at the shifting career landscape, Grossman and the AHA leadership are striving to think strategically about how the Association might respond. For example, it has been suggested that the nature of the dissertation must change to fit the demands of the job market. However, Grossman insists that history students develop and refine necessary skills in the preparation of their dissertation and in converting it to their first book. Others are urging that we rethink the requirements for hiring and tenure, partly in response to changes in the academic publishing industry; Grossman observes that, although it's still relatively easy to publish in American History, for example, it has become considerably more difficult to publish history about other times and places. AHA leaders are organizing a committee to consider tenure evaluation standards that include non-book-publishing options, and Grossman notes that the AHA is increasingly being asked to provide guidance in these non-traditional fields, such as digital history and public history.

In addition to these systematic changes, Grossman also suggests that we respond creatively as individuals. For example, he urges graduate students to think about the activities we love most in our work as historians—teaching, archival research, writing, speaking, collaborating, course design, etc.—and seek out career options that allow us to exercise these skills. Creative organization may also help us to make the most out of increasingly scarce resources. For example, it's not uncommon for graduate students to be part of a very small cohort; the Wisconsin History department admitted only one Modern French History grad this year, but because we are part of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) (http://www.cic.net/Home.aspx), it would be relatively simple to organize a virtual seminar for all of the Modern French History students in the Big Ten and Chicago. The AHA may make itself available to support this kind of organization for schools that do not belong to a consortium like the CIC.

Grossman notes that the challenges historians are facing today are due not only to dwindling funding and resources for the humanities; many of the most pressing changes simply reflect the interdependent nature of the profession with developments in the publishing industry, the evolving responsibilities of teaching and mentoring, and access to research materials, all influencing one another in an ecology of knowledge and communication. While research activity was previously dominated by the search for materials, for example, increasingly historians and history students have to focus on sifting through an overabundance of resources. Grossman is now creating a space on the AHA webpage called Teaching Tips, hoping to help us stay abreast of changes in educational practices, such as video resources, online courses, etc. He also hopes that this feature will include more of a social networking element, such that users can create their own collaborative groups and share resources more effectively.

History educators' attitudes toward teaching seem to be as relevant to our success as the availability of resources, however. Grossman notes how he often hears historians speaking about our teaching "load" as if it were a burden or a distraction from our real work: "I teach colonial and revolutionary American history, but my own work is in.…" He observes that historians commonly dismiss our teaching activity as an inconvenience, and he reminds us that these are the duties that the state or college is paying us to carry out. These attitudes become especially problematic when our graduates also consider community colleges as a career option; Grossman observes how poorly this mindset and the preparation for the PhD equip us for the actual teaching duties in a community college, where the typical teaching load is much more diverse. If our Plan B is going to include other educational venues such as community colleges, our approach to the teaching role of the historian may need a significant adjustment.

I found it reassuring to hear Grossman reflect on our circumstances and share a variety of concrete responses to what sometimes seems like a depressing employment future for emerging historians. I know that the leadership of the HSS is already taking these challenges seriously, and I hope that we and the AHA will continue to share insights and resources as we make the most of changing opportunities.

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