Yesterday, historian Karen Cox published a powerful piece on CNN: “Historians need to use their power now” In it, she urges historians to take their work to the American public, a public she says is “is hungry for both context and conversation.”
Beyond their usual haunts of classrooms, museums, and historic sites, Cox urges historians to write op-eds, speak at public forums, write more accessible books and magazine articles, engage with people on Twitter, and make their scholarship public. Correspondingly, she calls on institutions of higher ed to place value on these contributions. She also urges journalists to look beyond the usual pool of experts, which I think all historians would encourage: less of this, more of this!
Nothing in this post disputes Cox’s call to arms. Clearly we think it’s dead-on or we wouldn’t be blogging. Instead, this post is really directed at our non-academic readers, and it’s going to explain why many historians, especially young ones, might be afraid of using their power as historians because they are powerless as workers.
When Cox says colleges and universities should “value” this sort of engagement, she’s talking about getting tenure. In basic terms, having tenure means a professor has a permanent position and is protected from arbitrary dismissal. People earn tenure through service to the college, good teaching, and research, all of which is reviewed regularly over a period of time (often seven years) before a tenure decision is made. Research, measured by grants and publications, matters the most in lots of places, especially big research universities. Lots of tenure review systems don’t see the kind of work Cox is urging as “valuable” when it comes to measuring someone up for tenure, and many professors and administrators see it as a distraction or a waste of time.
Most people outside of academia think of tenure as a system that prevents professors from being fired for any reason. Even if they make all students conform to their political beliefs or sexually harass grad students, nothing will happen to them. Professors can be fired for egregious misbehaviors, though they often aren’t. But honestly, if the non-academic world is any indication, no tenure system is needed to protect serial harassers in the workplace.
You will often hear tenure defended in the public sphere on the grounds that it protects professors who do controversial research – a scientist whose work on oil pollution might anger a prominent donor to the college, for example. But there’s another important facet to tenure, and that’s its protection of professors in the classroom, allowing them to teach material and interpretations that might seem controversial or even offensive to those outside the classroom and outside the discipline.
This really matters to historians because honestly everything we teach is controversial or offensive to someone. The people who contacted Cox in response to her Confederate memorial op-eds were actively choosing to learn more about this particular topic, while students in any history classroom in the country may or may not be open to learning about a new topic or considering a new interpretation on any given day. The protections of tenure mean that you can’t be fired because your students – or their parents – didn’t like your interpretation of the American war for independence.
This matters because most historians in American classrooms don’t have tenure and never will.
Most college-level history teaching, including all of the teaching done by the people who write this blog, is done by non-tenure-track (TT) professors. They may be hired by the course (often at the last minute), by the year, or by multi-year contract. They may teach what TT professors at the institution consider a full load of courses, or they might get one course a semester. They might teach at one institution or five at the same time. They might get some benefits, but most likely not, and they often live near, at, or below the poverty line. Non-TT faculty are hired and re-hired each semester/year, unlike tenured faculty, who are permanent, and TT faculty, who are largely permanent subject to their scheduled tenure reviews.
Most of the college teaching in America is done on this system, but it’s not because these professors lack PhDs or because they don’t do research. They all have PhDs and most all of them continue to do research and write. This system exists because colleges and universities have made the choice to value short-term financial gains over long-term financial, institutional, and cultural gains.
This matters because non-TT faculty lack the protections of TT faculty. We’ve seen some prominent examples of what this can lead to lately, as with the adjunct professor fired after an appearance on Tucker Carlson. That’s something any non-TT historian has to think about when they consider public engagement of the sort Cox wrote about.
But it also matters because non-TT faculty are re-hired on the basis of their teaching. Despite lots of research that shows student evaluations are very bad at judging good teaching and significantly biased against female professors, especially women of color, colleges continue to rely on these evaluations when making the decision to re-hire. This means that, depending on the culture and reputation of the institution, non-TT professors might consciously or unconsciously feel pressure to make their students happy through lighter workloads and easier grading, though there’s evidence that at least some students respond positively to high expectations.
But what does any of this mean for considering how historians use their power?
It means that most historians in the classroom aren’t concerned that their public engagement won’t count for tenure because most of us are denied access to that path anyway.
It means that most historians in the classroom need to be concerned that their engagement in a public forum on removing monuments to white supremacy or editorial on the local legacy of slavery might get them trolled, doxxed, and fired.
It means that most historians in the classroom are aware that every interpretation they present in the classroom, no matter how firmly-grounded in evidence and well-accepted by the historical community, might result in evaluations calling them “biased” or “unfair” or accusing them of “having an agenda.”
It means that historians in the classroom who don’t conform to the Google Images stereotype of the college professor find their expertise doubted when teaching a subject coded white/male, and find their “objectivity” questioned when teaching a subject that isn’t, all of which ends up in their evaluations.
It means that honestly and rigorously teaching US history – teaching about white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, religious oppression, slavery, eugenics, unions, taxation, representation, and the shifting views of the major political parties – is dangerous.
It means doing your job can lose you your job.
Every time a non-TT history professor steps into the classroom, she’s engaging with the public. She knows that some portion of that small public, on any given day, might be really offended by what she chooses to talk about and how she chooses to talk about it. She knows it might mean that her job doesn’t get renewed months later, and she’ll never really know why.
Cox notes that quite often “humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant.” Smearing humanities scholars as irrelevant is, in many cases, just a way to undercut the arguments they make, whether you’re a political elite or an uncle participating in a Thanksgiving dinner conversation that’s making you feel uncomfortable.
But for thousands of non-TT historians across the country, making good, solid, historical arguments in the classroom might not only result in them being dismissed as irrelevant – it might result in them being dismissed.
NB: Plenty of department chairs and deans do go to bat for non-TT faculty in these situations, and understand that there’s bias in evaluations. One semester of rough evaluations probably isn’t enough to prevent renewal in most institutions, though with things the way they are right now, we might see that change. Not every situation like this ends with a parent calling the dean, but it can really erode the classroom dynamic and prevent learning. Still, the lack of security means that the fear is always there – “What if this escalates” – and even if most of us don’t let it affect our teaching, we do so knowing there might be consequences.