The Shrinking History Job Market



Shortly after we concluded our slack chat on the Thursday before Thanksgiving about funding in graduate school, the American Historical Association posted a short blog post about the state of the 2016-2017 academic job market for historians. The conclusions were dire. Using job postings from the AHA Career Center, the AHA revealed that job postings have declined for the fifth straight year (matching a similar decline in English and foreign languages announced by the Modern Language Association). Job postings are now at their lowest levels since the mid-1980s.

In total, the AHA Career Center listed a total 501 full-time positions. This figure of 501, however, obscures some of the realities of the job market. The vast majority of people applying for academic jobs in history are looking for tenure track positions. Of those 501 advertisements, only 289 or approximately 58% were for tenure track postings. The remaining job advertisements were for visiting professorships or permanent non-tenure positions (94 in total or 19% of all advertised jobs), post-docs (60 or 12%), with the rest consisting of non-academic appointments or administrative or staff positions.

Additionally, the AHA posted the following graph tracking the annual number of job postings compared to the annual number of PhDs awarded.


Credit: the AHA

The graph tells a frightful story. As universities award near record numbers of PhDs, the number of available tenure track jobs is nearing record lows.

The horrific story told by the line graph, however, actually undersells the difficulties of the job market for new PhDs. The AHA’s data does not distinguish between job listings for new assistant professor positions—the ones that new PhDs apply for—and advertisements for endowed chairs, full professorships, or department chairs—positions only available to older scholars. I reached out on Twitter to the AHA, asking if they had parsed out that data. They responded saying that their broader report, due out in March, would include such distinctions.

In what is becoming a habit of mine, let’s do a little back of the envelope math to get a sense of just how bad the job market is for new PhDs seeking permanent employment. Using the information provided on the chart, US universities awarded approximately, 1,150 PhDs between June 2015 and June 2016. Let’s start by assuming that all of the positions listed above (excluding the non-academic, staffing, and administrative positions) were designated for new PhDs. This is an unrealistic assumption, but this is a thought experiment. Then we’ll calculate the ratio of new PhDs to academic jobs. Then we’ll recalculate that ratio if only 75%, 50%, and 25% of new academic jobs are for new PhDs.

New PhDs and Academic Jobs


% of Academic Jobs for New Faculty Ratio of New PhDs/Academic Job % of New PhDs with Academic Employment
100% 2.6 38.5%
75% 3.46 28.8%
50% 5.2 19.2%
25% 10.36 9.65%

So if 100% of all these jobs go to newly minted PhDs, it still means that 61.5% of new PhDs won’t find permanent academic employment in their first year after graduating. These figures would represent an absolute best-case scenario.

Now let’s look at what happens if we limit our focus to just the tenure track positions.

New PhDs and Tenure Track Jobs


% of TT Jobs for New Faculty Ratio of New PhDs/TT Job % of New PhDs with TT Jobs
100% 3.979 25%
75% 5.3 19%
50% 8 12.5%
25% 16 6.26%

The best-case scenario here leaves three out of every four new history PhDs without permanent academic employment immediately after graduating.

This simple analysis does not take into account a number of factors that make it even more difficult for newly minted PhDs to land tenure track jobs. First, the 1,150 new PhDs are not the only ones applying for the new tenure track positions. There are also PhDs from previous years who took visiting assistant professor positions, post-docs, and adjuncting positions and still hope to win the tenure track lottery. That could easily double (a conservative estimate) the number of PhDs on the market.

Additionally, not every new PhD is suitable for every job on the market. People with PhDs in American history aren’t going to get jobs in European history and vice versa. Even within those broader fields, universities and colleges look for specialists that fit certain criteria.  For example, someone with a specialization in Colonial Virginia isn’t going to get a job teaching 20th century business history. Nor are the 1,150 new PhDs evenly distributed across fields of interest. So colleges  advertising for a position in 19th century history are going to have many, many more applicants than for one in Vietnamese history for instance.

At first glance, the AHA’s report on the job market looks bad. When you dig deeper, the reality is even worse than it seems.


Slack Chat: Funding



Editor’s Note. We eschewed a typical framing question and jumped right into the topic so enjoy our in medias res slack chat. 

Erin Bartram: I mean, I think a lot of this, and a lot of what we’re talking about with graduate student funding

It all comes down to one central issue – demanding “expertise” but not wanting to pay people for it

Or rather, that the labor of some people has value but the value accrues to someone other than the laborer

Chris Bouton: And that is a problem that is further exacerbated in the extreme buyers market that is the academic job market


That’s the PhD crisis in one chart

Erin: Do the orange lines include non-TT positions?

Chris: Not sure, this is also in the sciences

But it’s emblematic of the larger funding problems that we’ve discussed.

David Mislin: One thing I wonder, based on my piece yesterday, is whether the solution is to accept fewer Ph.D. students? And for lower-tier institutions to perhaps get rid of grad programs? I’m really torn about this. On the one hand, it seems like the best solution: it’s unfair to accept so many students with no employment prospects. On the other hand, is it fair to deny people the opportunity? I didn’t go to a tier-one institution, I’d been a mediocre undergrad, and I wasn’t accepted with full funding (though that was partly my fault for missing the deadline). But in the grand scheme of things, I’m happy where I’ve ended up. But I’d probably be one of the people who didn’t get to go to grad school if there were fewer spots.

Erin: I think part of the problem with the intersecting arguments is that people say “there aren’t jobs” as though there’s not enough teaching work to go around. There’s clearly plenty, institutions just refuse to bundle it into permanent, full time positions. To me, that reveals that we can’t just say there are too many PhD candidates.

Chris: I don’t think admitting fewer PhD students is the answer because there’s still a demand for labor that grad students are filling. Administrations will find other ways to fill it, either through adjuncting or increasing the teaching burden on current faculty/adjuncts/grad students.

David: I agree, to a point. I think there could be more FT jobs, but I’m still not sure there are enough.

That’s data I haven’t seen and would like to. How many jobs *could* there be?

Erin: If we took the number of classes taught by adjuncts each year at an institution, and divided it by the number of courses that count as a full load for a TT professor, we could easily see how many jobs there could be. I don’t know why no one has done such a thing.

David: I’d do it but I’m terrible at math

Chris: There’s also the decades long trend in decreasing public support for higher education

Erin: Because let’s set aside “flexibility” arguments. If you have someone who’s been VAPing for 6 years teaching the same courses, you just don’t want to pay for a TT.

oh absolutely

Chris: Which is exacerbating this problem. As universities rely more and more on tuition and fees to pay their bills, they want to control costs.

One way to do that is to admit lots of PhD and MA candidates and shift the teaching burden onto them.

The good thing about grad students is there’s a never ending supply of them.

And as long as there are people wanting to go to grad school and fill those spots, there’s a cheap supply of labor.

Erin: Though there are clearly fewer of them now that the economy has improved

Chris: I guess the point I’m getting at is, graduate admissions and the academic job market are markets in the traditional sense and we should treat them as such

Erin: That is true

But they aren’t, as so many academics pretend, markets that exist outside of anyone’s control.

Much like the “pressure to publish more and more” that gets bemoaned at conferences, it’s not a thing that just exists, it’s a thing that people can shape

Chris: Right, like any market, it’s shaped by the people who participate in it

David: Right. We were told in grad school that the job market all came down to luck. Which I guess makes sense given that our own internal rewards often seemed to come down to luck as well.

Erin: Your piece on internal funding competition was Truth. And it echoed so many things we said to those in charge of the system.

Chris: And therein lies the problem in the system. Academia presents itself as a meritocracy, but it’s mostly random

Or at least out of our individual control

Erin: And when it doesn’t function as a meritocracy, those in control reframe it as out of their hands

Chris: I had a throwaway line in my piece about the funding at UDel and how those of us who had to TA all the time wondered what some students did to get scholarships that exempted them from TAing

Since some of those students dropped out, that was our first clue that the people in charge had no idea what they were talking about

David: I think I see things a little differently. I actually think academia is a meritocracy much of the time, but those in charge are uncomfortable admitting that so they try to frame it as something else. I think that speaks to your point, Erin.

Erin: As a former professor would say: “draw that out a little bit”

David: As a former professor of mine would say, “you’re being elliptical.” Do you want me to elaborate?

Chris: Yes

David: What I mean is, I think academia does function as a meritocracy. Not necessarily on objective merit, but on the system of merit that’s existed for the better part of a century. At least with funding in my program, it went to students who seemed to check the most boxes for merit. But because most academics are by their nature uncomfortable with meritocracy, they came up with excuses for why the department wasn’t a meritocracy. The end result was just confusion.

I think that happens a lot in job searches too. Really hiring committees just want the recent grad from Harvard, Princeton, etc. But they don’t want to admit that. So they obfuscate and come up with all sorts of explanations that just leave people confused.

Erin: That makes a lot of sense.

David, I think your explanation of the meritocracy as “checking the boxes we’ve decided show merit” is pretty key

And pretty damning

Chris: So David, you see the system of funding as a meritocracy in the sense that it has institutional rules or principles that have existed for decades and people try to follow them?

David: Right. Just to be completely clear, I don’t think it’s an objective system of merit. It’s just an agreed-upon set of rules.

Chris: Gotcha, and I agree with that

Should we call it merit in that case?

(As I get really pedantic)

Erin: I mean, what would we call it in the “real world” – social capital? privilege? power?

David: I mean, it’s really no different from “merit” in most other contexts.

Chris: In true seminar fashion, I don’t know that I have answer to that question, but I wanted to raise the issue. I suppose as you point out David that this definition of merit isn’t any different from it in other contexts

But it’s also not an accurate descriptor of the process that it represents.

Erin: I have often heard faculty say that they’re clearly not good at picking who’ll be successful

I wonder how many take the serious next step and consider what they (incorrectly) see as signs of future success and what they might be missing that would be better indicators

Chris: And that’s not a problem unique to academia, human beings suck at prediction in general

David: It’s hard to do though. Even in my own teaching, I often find that the students I expect will be the all stars at the beginning of the semester turn out not to be, and people I didn’t expect turn out to be some of the best.

Chris: It would take some rigorous testing

Erin: But we don’t assign the grades at the start of the semester

We can adjust

David: Fair point.

Erin: But so much of the assessment of your quality in grad school is front loaded

Meaning that if you’re a surprise star or a surprise dud, your CV still reflects what they assumed you’d be before you started

Chris: Yes, to think of this from a Bayesian perspective (sorry I just read a book on Bayes), much of our future outcome relies on the prior

Those priors rarely get updated as we go along

Or it’s harder to readjust those priors

David: I also think that there’s a problem in grad programs of advisors not being comfortable talking to their students candidly about where they are and what they could do better.

Chris: Absolutely

David: One thing that I think could help would be a larger role for outside evaluators at various points of grad school — either internal or external. It’s hard when you are friendly with your advisees to give them tough counsel.

Chris: We had a review at the end of two years from the grad director, but it was nominal at best

David: That’s more than we did.

Erin: I think that would be really beneficial in lots of ways. Often someone external can see merit that the adviser/committee can’t or can’t make the case for to the wider department

Chris: It was, I think, a way of giving the dept the option of kicking someone who was clearly floundering out

I also wanted to further Erin’s point about front loaded academic careers, those first prestige markers–an Ivy League education for example–beget further prestige markers

Who gets the NEH grants? Fellowships at the big research institutions? etc. Those who have the right markers in their CVs, and one you get one, it’s easier to get more.

David: That is certainly true

Chris: So I think that reality reinforces Erin’s point about the priors being especially deterministic.

Erin: Much of this intersects with the unspoken class divisions within the academy, which often correspond with “generational” lines.

When many of the faculty members had parents who had PhDs and many of the grad students have parents without anything higher than a high school diploma or associate’s, there are going to be problems.

Chris: I found that whole 1st generation PhD thing that went around a few months ago fascinating.

I hadn’t really thought about academia in those terms.

Are we all first gen PhDs?

David: Yup

Erin: Yes indeed

David: Though my mom has a masters and did PhD coursework, so I’m not sure I totally count as one.

Chris: I think you’d still count

My parents both have bachelor’s degrees and my mom has a masters, my uncle has a doctorate in divinity, but I don’t think any of my grandparents had college degrees

Erin: My father has a BA and my mother has an associate’s

Sorry, a BS – they don’t give BAs in meteorology

Chris: My wife on the other hand, her grandfather on her dad’s side was an engineer who worked on the Saturn V rocket, and her father and sister have PhDs, her mother and brother have masters degrees.

And she’s almost done with her PhD

Erin: I think all of this contributes to the learning curve that shapes the first few years of grad school.

It’s not that you can’t do all of these things, it’s just that you don’t even realize how important they are, especially when your advisers are saying “don’t do too much, don’t get ahead of yourself”

David: Right. I felt like a fish out of water my first year. Fortunately I was in a smallish department, and by the time I figured stuff out I was able to make a second impression on faculty.

But in larger departments I imagine people don’t have that luxury

Chris: Right it’s more about how easily you can acclimate to the culture

Much of what we’re talking about here is not wholly deterministic. Academic fates aren’t predestined. Rather we’re talking about the factors, some in our control and some out of our control, that shape and narrow our paths.

And many of those issues, like funding, are often out of our hands and beyond our realm of understanding.

And much of that isn’t presented up front.

Between Collegiality and Competition: The Problem of Grad School Funding

In our first weeks in grad school, faculty members constantly urged members of my cohort to form collegial relationships. They reminded us that we’d be in the program together for years and that hopefully we’d be connected professionally for decades beyond. We heeded that advice. We went out for beer after evening seminars, got together on weekends, and for the most part built lasting, deep friendships.

This was well intended advice. But it didn’t reflect the reality of grad school, especially around the time of year when funding decisions were announced.

As Erin noted yesterday:

Yes, there are grants and fellowships, both external and internal, and yes, it’s important to apply for them and get them. But they are often very competitive, and don’t cover the full costs. And yes, graduate students do get funding for their research, but they’re often competing against their peers for a pot of money that hasn’t been enlarged since the mid-90s. Whether you get enough money at the right moment in your grad career – which is mostly out of your control – can make or break your dissertation.

Like many graduate programs, mine was not able to provide full funding to all admitted Ph.D. students. Thus, every spring we endured the same ritual of finding out who among us would receive full funding, partial funding, or no funding at all.

Beyond year-long fellowships, my department also offered numerous smaller funding opportunities for travel as well as competitive prizes rewarding outstanding research and teaching (these tend to be very competitive even at institutions that fully fund all Ph.D. students). All funding decisions were made by faculty committees that did not have student representatives. Nor were there clear selection criteria or, often, even an application process.

I’m happy to report that all of my grad school friendships survived these annual ordeals. But not without some work. The repeated experience of watching some folks benefiting while others got nothing certainly frayed relationships. The experience also made clear that for all the talk of camaraderie and collegiality, grad school was at its core a competition for limited resources.


I recognize that this is life; some people will get more than others. I also recognize the reality of Higher Ed today that there isn’t enough money to go around, especially in the humanities (a reality likely to be made all the worse, as Chris demonstrated, by the GOP tax plan).

Still, there was a particularly disturbing quality to the competition for funding in grad school. On the one hand, students received the repeated message that we had entered a noble calling and should view each other not as rivals but as colleagues. And yet, at least once a year, we endured what felt like a Hunger Games-esque competition for the limited resources that, as Erin observed, could make or break our career.

There are a few things my department might have done to make this process less unpleasant. Providing clear, transparent selection criteria would have removed the aura of mystery surrounding funding decisions. With so much at stake, it’s crucial that departments not allow such decisions to be shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Encouraging students to discuss their competitiveness for funding with their advisor might also have prevented unpleasant surprises. Perhaps having a student representative on the award committee, or at least involved in the process in some way, might have made things more transparent (of course, it might also have merely just shifted resentment to a new target).

Fundamentally, though, the problem is that there are too many graduate students and too little available funding to cultivate the kind of learning environments most faculty aspire to have. That problem is not going away.

Graduate programs need to make a decision. If they’re truly interested in fostering collegiality they must think seriously about only accepting as many grad students as they can fund. A Ph.D. is a full-time job and students expected to do that kind of work should be paid for it.

If, on the other hand, faculty and administrators are primarily interested in maintaining large programs with unfunded and under-funded students, my experience will become all the more common as resources for humanities departments become all the scarcer.

The tension between collegiality and competition is not easily sustained. Nor, ultimately, is it a tension that any of us in academia should want early career graduate students to experience.

The real “living expenses” of graduate education


, , ,

Yesterday, Chris discussed why the GOP tax bill moving through both houses of Congress threatens the future of graduate education in the United States, and provided us with real numbers to show how devastating this would be.

Using myself as an example, I’m going to do some back of the envelope calculations to highlight the potential damage that this GOP bill could do. I made about $16,000 a year as a teaching assistant at the University of Delaware. I also received a tuition waiver worth about $26,550. Since I only earned $16,000 that’s what I was taxed on, amounting to about $1,768. Under the GOP plan, I would be taxed on my income and the tuition waiver, totaling $42,550. As a result, my tax bill would rise to $7,581. I would go from paying about 11% of my income in taxes to paying 47%. Leaving me approximately $8,400 (not counting the hundreds or even thousands of dollars that gets paid back to the university in the form of fees) to pay for housing, food, health insurance, and other household expenses.

My own graduate education at a different state university would have produced a tax bill that looked much the same. Grad students already pinch pennies and take out loans and work second/third jobs to get by, even though programs often state that work outside the terms of one’s assistantship is not allowed. Under this proposed configuration, many would simply drop out, throwing away years of work, while most potential students would not attend at all.

Why not just take out loans and push through, though? Chris noted that he would be left with $8,400 for “housing, food, health insurance, and other household expenses.” But there’s more to be paid for out of that paltry sum, and it’s these costs, often obscured from public view, that need to be recognized. They’re important not only for their implications for graduate students in this situation but also in responding to the general public perception that scholars don’t actually work very much.

One major cost that is shared by all scholars – graduate students, non-tenure track professors, tenure track professors, and scholars working outside the academy – is that of attending conferences. These professional gatherings are vital for presenting and workshopping new research, and show committee members and deans that you are “progressing” in your work even if you haven’t published it yet.

This year, I’ve gone to three conferences, which is a bit more than I usually do, but as I’m in that space between finishing my dissertation and publishing my book, they’re extra-important to show I’m doing things. Between the cost of transportation to and from (two flights, one five hour drive), ground transportation and related issues (airport parking, public transit, and cab fares), accommodations (two hotels, one college dorm stay), meals (one can only eat so many granola bars), and conference membership and registration fees ($100-$200 for each one), I’ve probably spent $4,000.

As a grad student I was eligible for some department funding, but not enough to cover even one of the conferences that involved flying. As a tenure track faculty member I’d be eligible for more, hopefully, though I’d also be making more money than as a grad student. Non tenure track faculty are not necessarily eligible for any reimbursement, and even if departments can scrape together some money for these faculty members – the ones who are often doing the lion’s share of the teaching in addition to their own research – they’re not being allocated those funds. Yet the only way these non tenure track faculty members can ever hope to find tenure track employment (so the argument goes) is to keep presenting and publishing.

For many scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences, the more insidious cost is that of the research itself, without which there is no presenting or publishing. For historians, this specifically means the cost of traveling to and staying at archives, both domestic and international, and the cost of the technology necessary to do that work, both hardware and software.

Yes, there are grants and fellowships, both external and internal, and yes, it’s important to apply for them and get them. But they are often very competitive, and don’t cover the full costs. And yes, graduate students do get funding for their research, but they’re often competing against their peers for a pot of money that hasn’t been enlarged since the mid-90s. Whether you get enough money at the right moment in your grad career – which is mostly out of your control – can make or break your dissertation. As a result, grad students (and non tenure track faculty, who are generally ineligible for research money) pay out of pocket to do their research.

What this means is that the $16,000 stipend Chris talked about is framed as money for living but is always expected to be more than that. Essentially, many grad students get paid to teach and are expected to use that money both to live and to do research. If their research requires traveling, they have to squeeze it into the parts of the year that they’re not teaching – the parts of the year when they’re also not getting paid.

This is why grad students argue for advanced money rather than reimbursement, and why they can’t just shrug off a payroll snafu that delays the first paychecks of the semester into October. It’s why the last week of August is the most terrifying time of the year for a grad student, the point where you find out if all your careful budgeting is going to be undone by a delayed reimbursement or first paycheck or literally any unexpected expense. There were late Augusts where I had less than $100 to my name, and I know many friends who were regularly in far more dire straits.

As Ralph Wiggum would say: it’s funny, but not ha-ha funny.

Academia already demands graduate students perform their devotion to their education by making deep financial sacrifices, yet when those students finish their PhDs, they encounter an academic job market unwilling to recognize the value of that education by paying them a living wage. 

This is why the proposed taxation of graduate tuition – which grad students “receive” even when they’re completely finished with their coursework and are only working on the dissertation – would end graduate education as we know it. Were the proposed GOP tax bill to go through, it would so undercut the already-tenuous system of graduate education as to destroy it completely. Even if students could still “live” on the salary they earned (which is highly unlikely), they’d never be able to do what was required of them to earn their degree.

GOP Tax Plan and the Destruction of Graduate Education


, ,

The new tax plan from the Republican Party threatens to seriously damage or even destroy graduate education in the United States. Recognizing that individuals take on a financial burden by pursuing higher education rather than enter the job market, universities grant tuition waivers to graduate students who work as research or teaching assistants or have some other type of university funding. The tuition waivers are essentially money that the university pays to itself. The policy stems from the idea of graduate education as an apprenticeship. Students accept low pay in exchange for learning the valuable skills. Universities recognize the students’ sacrifice by easing the financial burden as much as possible. Since graduate students do not actually receive any of that tuition money, they do not pay taxes on it. Under the GOP tax plan, however, those tuition waivers would count as income and be subject to taxation. This week, I wanted to lay out why this plan would be so devastating to higher education and how funding in grad school works.

Using myself as an example, I’m going to do some back of the envelope calculations to highlight the potential damage that this GOP bill could do. I made about $16,000 a year as a teaching assistant at the University of Delaware. I also received a tuition waiver worth about $26,550. Since I only earned $16,000 that’s what I was taxed on, amounting to about $1,768. Under the GOP plan, I would be taxed on my income and the tuition waiver, totaling $42,550. As a result, my tax bill would rise to $7,581. I would go from paying about 11% of my income in taxes to paying 47%. Leaving me approximately $8,400 (not counting the hundreds or even thousands of dollars that gets paid back to the university in the form of fees) to pay for housing, food, health insurance, and other household expenses.

The GOP tax plan would make grad school unaffordable for any grad student who wasn’t independently wealthy or willing to take out thousands of dollars in loans (undoubtedly on the top of the student loans from their undergraduate education). Those lucky enough to finish their PhDs would be entering a job market where unstable adjunct labor has largely replaced tenure. By making graduate education prohibitively expensive, this plan would also disproportionately harm students from poorer backgrounds and place a greater financial burden on groups who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy (LGBTQI+, women, African-Americans, and other racial minorities). The GOP tax plan, in its current form, would require universities to find different ways to fund their grad students or see graduate education in this country irrevocably damaged.


So let’s now turn to the question of how graduate students in this country earn their money. There are different types of funding including research assistantships, teaching assistantships, graduate instructing, and scholarships. RAs assist their advisers or other university personnel in conducting on-going research projects. This type of funding is especially common in the STEM fields where professors have research laboratories that further their own interests as well as those of their students. RA-ships can also run the full year, partially explaining why graduate students in the sciences earn more than their counterparts in the humanities whose contracts often only run for nine months. These laboratories also derive a significant amount of their funding from outside sources like grants from private corporations and the Federal government. These grants provide a stable source of funding that allow for the development of multi-year projects.

Teaching assistantships, especially in the humanities, are the other major source of funding for graduate students. During each semester, students serve as teaching assistants working under the supervision of a professor—generally a tenured one, but occasionally under adjunct professors as well. There are two types of TAs, those in lecture based classes and those in discussion based ones. Lecture based TAs have the easier time of the two. They generally only have to attend class, hold a few office hours a week, and grade the majority of assignments that students submit (a couple of exams and a paper). TAs who work in discussion based classes have a much heavier workload. They attend lectures, hold office hours, grade assignments, and meet with the professor each week to learn what the professor would like for the students to get out of each week’s readings. Then they design lesson plans and lead four discussion sections of approximately twenty students each.

A few lucky students may be awarded scholarships that award them the pay equivalent to a TA-ship or RA-ship, but without any work requirements. These scholarships are supposedly awarded based on merit and future potential. Like most of the inner workings of academia, who knows how it actually works. The final way that graduate students earn an income is through teaching their own courses. Once graduate students are sufficiently along in their careers, they can teach courses of their own. They can either be paid equivalent to their TA pay or based on an adjunct rate per course. Teaching well requires an enormous investment in time and effort that would otherwise go to the work necessary to completing the PhD.

Rather than destroy graduate education in this country, the GOP should just follow the lessons of the Simpsons and leave grad students alone.


The VA Governor Race: A Welcome Aberration from a History of Successful Bigoted Campaigns?


, , ,

Ralph Northam’s larger-than-expected victory in yesterday’s election for Virginia governor represented more than a needed morale boost for Democrats.

It also signaled a repudiation of Gillespie’s campaign tactics. In recent weeks, Gillespie, who once seemed the embodiment of the bland, establishment Republican, turned to a fear-mongering campaign. His ads stoked fears of Sanctuary Cities providing refuge for the the MS-13 gang (this despite the fact that Virginia already bans Sanctuary Cities).


Supporters and opponents alike suggested that this strategy reflected Gillespie’s embrace of Trumpism. That’s true, to a point. Trump has certainly sown seeds of discord along racial and ethnic lines since the early days of his campaign.

But playing to existing bigotry to win an election long predates Donald Trump. Observers of Gillespie’s campaign drew parallels to George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” commercial. That ad, which Bush used against his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, in 1988, played on fears of crime committed by African Americans. As Gillespie did, the Bush campaign linked racist assumptions with the implication that a Democrat would prove to be soft on crime.


Though Dukakis had been competitive, even in the lead, for much of the campaign, his poll numbers collapsed in the fall. The Willie Horton ad drew much of the blame when Dukakis lost in a landslide to Bush.

More recently, Republicans played to racist assumptions in an ad in the competitive Senate race in Tennessee in 2006. Democrat Harold Ford, Jr., was running a close race with now (and soon to be retired) Senator Bob Corker. In the GOP’s ad, a white woman claimed she had met Ford, an African American, at a “Playboy party”. She implored “Harold” to “call me.” Though this ad didn’t raise fears of crime, but observers quickly noted its attempt to appeal to voters who objected to interracial relationships.


Though the race between Ford and Corker had tightened to a near tie, Corker opened up a lead after the release of this ad. Tennessee proved to be the one close Senate election that Democrats did not win in what was otherwise a wave year form them.

The point, which is somewhat obscured by Northam’s larger-than-expected victory, is that this incendiary style of campaigning has a long history in American politics. Even more troublingly, it has a record of success. Indeed, far from being a product of Trump’s presidency, it reflects a larger phenomenon in U.S. politics that helped give rise to Trump.

Those of us who hope for a higher level of political discourse can be glad that, in this case, a campaign based on bigotry failed. But Ed Gillespie will certainly not be the candidate who attempts to win by such means. Especially in the age of Trump, with dozens of contentious races on the horizon in 2018, those of us who reject such tactics have little reason to rest easy.

Circulating the same old claptrap



In his review of Ron Chernow’s new biography of Grant, George Will tossed out a bold, fresh take on academic historians and why we are terrible.

Chernow’s large readership (and the successes of such non-academic historians as Rick Atkinson, Richard Brookhiser, David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Jon Meacham, Erik Larson and others) raises a question: Why are so many academic historians comparatively little read? Here is a hint from the menu of presentations at the 2017 meeting of the Organization of American Historians: The titles of 30 included some permutation of the word “circulation” (e.g., “Circulating/Constructing Heterosexuality,” “Circulating Suicide as Social Criticism,” “Circulating Tourism Imaginaries From Below”). Obscurantism enveloped in opacity is the academics’ way of assigning themselves status as members of a closed clerisy indulging in linguistic fads. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who is impatient with academics who are vain about being unintelligible, confesses himself mystified by the “circulating” jargon. This speaks well of him.

To quote Seth Meyers, there are about 54 things wrong with that statement, but let’s just do three:

  1. As many historians have pointed out, the theme of the conference was “Circulation.” Conferences – regardless of discipline – are professional meetings of experts in a field. The papers given there are different from books. Do you think paper titles at STEM conferences use non-specialized language? “Cancer: Let’s Fix It!” “Sewage Treatment Systems I Have Known.”
  2. None of the historians of merit or historical subjects of merit he can name are women or people of color. That should be a big red flag.
  3. He seems unconcerned with the cost of accessing most academic work, and the profits reaped not by the scholars who produce it but by sprawling corporations who charge everyone to read it.

Turns out, George Will isn’t concerned at all about whether academics are writing for the public or whether that work is accessible and affordable or whether marginalized academic voices are being heard by the general public. If he were concerned with those things, he’d have written a different article. Or, as we might write in the margins of a paper: “Your evidence here seems to be supporting an argument that’s different from what you stated in your introduction. Which is it?”

One suspects that George Will just doesn’t like most of the historical work being done by scholars. Every writer of history he mentions is a white man, every historical figure he mentions is an extremely famous white man. His column suggests he thinks academic historians deserve to remain unread since they’re not writing it the way he wants: biographies of great (white) men, the only ones who can really tell us about the past.


George Will is recycling the same old garbage he’s fed us before but under a different name, and in doing so, participating in a tradition only available to the sorts of historians he respects. The rest of us will be here researching new things and making new arguments and adding to our knowledge of our complicated past. If he wants to have a conversation about how to make that work more accessible to the public, he’s welcome to talk to actual academic historians about it. We’re really frustrated and have lots of ideas. Maybe Sean Wilentz can give him some names.

NB: Want to read great history that’s not by this small Will-approved cadre? Try these or these.






John Kelly Isn’t Here to Save Us


, , , ,

When President Donald Trump appointed retired general John Kelly as his chief of staff on July 28, 2017, the press portrayed Kelly as bringing order to a chaotic White House. The New York Times declared that “John Kelly, New Chief of Staff, Is Seen as Beacon of Discipline.”  Mike Allen of Axios relayed a quote from an outside Trump advisor who claimed that “Kelly, being a mature general, may finally be able to get Donald to pivot into a presidential dynamic.” This type coverage stressed how Kelly’s disciplined approach would curb Trump’s impulsive tweeting and act as a moderating influence on the easily triggered president. Kelly, this argument further implied, would smooth over the rough edges of the Trump White House and align its behavior with American political standards. Kelly’s recent behavior reveals, however, that Kelly isn’t some moderating influence on Trump. He’s a MAGA true believer.

During his time as commander of U.S. Southern Command overseeing US military activities in Central and South America, Kelly spread misinformation about the threat of international terrorism. He falsely told a congressional panel in 2015 that “You know, since 9/11, there’s half a million people have died from narco-terrorism, as we call it, in, down where I live. Very few have died from, you know, traditional terrorism, if you will, since 9/11.” He has made unsubstantiated claims that Lebanese communities in Central America have laundered money for Hezbollah and are trying to build up the terror group’s presence in Central America so that they can launch attacks against the United States. He’s also shown a Trump-level of ignorance regarding the motives of terror groups.  Kelly told a Memorial Day gathering in 2013 that America’s enemies, “I don’t know why they hate us, and I frankly don’t care, but they do hate us and are driven irrationally to our destruction.” That speech plays well to the jingoist, war-mongers among us, but lacks nuance you’d want in someone tasked with protecting this country from external threats.


Chief of Staff John F. Kelly

Kelly unconditionally supports Trump’s border wall and regressive immigration policies. In February, he expressed his hope that the US would begin construction on Trump’s border wall within months and complete it within two years. During his six month tenure as secretary of Homeland Security, as Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker wrote:

Kelly eliminated guidelines that governed federal immigration agents’ work; vastly expanded the categories of immigrants being targeted for deportation; threatened to abandon the Obama-era program that grants legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children; and has even broached the idea of splitting up mothers and children at the border to “deter” people from coming to the U.S. Under Kelly, immigration arrests in the U.S. increased by forty per cent and D.H.S became one of the few branches of the federal government that has been both willing and able to execute Trump’s policy priorities.

Kelly also supported and oversaw the implementation of the Trump administration’s various travel bans.

In the last month or so, Kelly’s joined Trump in launching attacks on women and supporting Lost Cause ideology. First, he condemned Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson for accurately relaying President Trump’s grossly insensitive comments given to the widow of a fallen soldier. Kelly then criticized a speech that Wilson had given in 2015 claiming that “A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building.” A review of Wilson’s speech, however, revealed that Kelly lied about the nature of her comments.

As Erin detailed last week, Kelly also recently praised Robert E. Lee as a man of good character and blamed the Civil War on a lack of compromise between the North and the South. Erin wrote that “Either John Kelly believes black Americans were better off and happy in slavery, and therefore ‘compromise’ would not have harmed them, or he just thinks they didn’t (and don’t) deserve equality, and therefore ‘compromise’ would not have harmed them more than they deserved.”

Kelly’s comments about Congresswoman Wilson highlight Kelly’s Trump-like affinity for demonizing and denigrating his critics. Kelly called criticism of the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay “foolishness.” In a speech to Department of Homeland Security employees, Kelly stated that “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce—then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade.” He further whined about the criticism that ICE and other customs officials have received. Kelly complained that “Similar to the treatment suffered by law enforcement over the last few years, they are often ridiculed and insulted by public officials, and frequently convicted in the court of public opinion.” In June 2017, he cited Trump’s “wisdom” in implementing his travel ban and chided members of Congress for debating its merits.

Between Kelly’s attacks on his opponents, arrogance, and eager willingness to enact the policies of the Trump administration, one thing is clear. John Kelly isn’t some moderating influence, bringing the Trump administration in line with historical norms. He’s a willing partner and enabler in Trump’s racist, misogynist, and abusive administration. The quicker we recognize that, the better off we’ll all be.

Slack Chat: Contextualizing the Mueller Investigation


, , ,

Chris Bouton: The indictments on Monday of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates and the revelation of a plea deal for former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, marked the first charges stemming from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election led by special counsel Robert Mueller. This growing political scandal naturally cries out for some contextualization, especially in terms of other major political scandals in American history. The ur-political scandal–against which all others are judged–is Watergate. Yet, we need to ask the question, how applicable is this Watergate comparison? Is it appropriate? Should we be making historical comparisons in the midst of what seem to be major historical events?

And if so, what kinds of comparisons should we be making?

Erin Bartram: I’ve become increasingly uneasy with the Watergate comparison of late

Just as I’ve become uneasy with the comparisons to “corrupt” administrations of the past – Harding, and especially Grant

Because I think those comparisons are now being used by pundits to consciously or unconsciously frame what’s happening now as within the bounds of normal, if awful, American political behavior

Chris: And many of the comparisons and efforts at contextualization are at the most basic level.

There’s corruption, therefore Watergate or Teapot Dome

With no effort to compare and contrast the depth and scope of these scandals.

Your comment also raises the issue of how do we contextualize something that has no historical prior?

Erin: That’s sort of where I’m bothered by these comparisons: I think people don’t want to confront that this is uncharted ground in the US, to a great extent.

And Americans believe their system to be so exceptional they won’t accept comparisons with other countries

Especially countries they consider “lesser”

Chris: And we often refer to the Mueller investigation as a form of shorthand, but that obscures what he’s tasked with investigating.

He’s tasked (amongst other things) with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether the Trump campaign sought contact or aid from the Russians in order to help elect Donald Trump as president.

The implications of that are much grander in scope than Teapot Dome or Watergate.

And thanks to the Papadopoulos plea we know that the Trump campaign did communicate with representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry about “thousands of emails” related to Hillary Clinton.

Erin: I saw one political commentator this morning say we should stop saying “potential collusion”

“Collusion” as a broad term is not a crime, so we don’t need to cover ourselves saying “alleged” anymore

Chris: The Papadopoulos plea makes one thing clear. The Mueller investigation has Papadopoulos’s emails detailing these contacts. That’s real proof.

Let’s turn back to something you pointed out a few minutes ago, the inability to confront this unique historical moment.

What do you see as the cause of that? Some form of American exceptionalism?

Erin: I mean, some warped kind

A belief that our system is the greatest in the world, and the most flexible, and therefore nothing could ever break it.

I had a student recently who took issue with my framing of the A of C and the Constitution as documents that reflected the concerns of their respective moments but were also deeply flawed.

In particular, that there was any merit to the A of C and any problems with the Constitution because, as his politics class had told him recently, one failed to hold the country together and the other succeeded.

I pointed out to him that when the A of C “failed,” people wrote a new constitution and there was a moderately peaceful transition. But when the Constitution failed, we had a Civil War.

Like most people, he doesn’t think of the Civil War as a failure of the Constitution, but I think we need to frame it that way more often.

Chris: I agree there. And that was what was infuriating about Kelly’s idiotic compromise comment early this week.

There were compromises on slavery written into the constitution, there were a host of compromises that followed (1820, 1850) etc. They all failed to solve the issue.

Erin: If you asked most Americans, they could name at least one thing explicitly called a compromise that led to the war

That he felt there should have been more compromise borne by black Americans was pretty disgusting.

Chris: Right and that, as you pointed out, is the really appalling part of his comments.

Compromises over what? Whether it should be permissible to own other people as property.

When some people say yes it’s okay and others say no it’s not. Then there’s not a lot of bridging the gap there.

And this is where I get fed up with the Democrats have abandoned the white working class and need to reach out to them more line of thinking.

Yes, the Democrats should promote policies that benefit the white working class. But they should not do it by selling out values like racial, gender, and sexual equality. Because that the logic that often undergirds those comments.

It reminds of me of Arlie Hochschild’s conversations with Tea Party members, if they don’t believe in equality, then what’s there to compromise on?

Erin: Yep.

I think addressing America’s racial past realistically would help us be more realistic about the flawed nature of the system

Lots of people seem to think the situation we’re in will be “fixed” in the normal course of events. It’ll be a bad time, and we’ll be stuck with tons of horrific judges forever, but it’ll be okay.

When confronted with the fact that one party consistently wins more votes but remains the minority power, people just seem to think it’ll work itself out.

It won’t, and to be okay with that is to be okay with a failed system.

Chris: If there’s a benefit to the Trump era, then it’s laying bare the largely unchallenged assumptions about our republican form of government.

The question is will recognize those challenges or rationalize them away?

Erin: I fear that we are seeing historical comparisons stretched beyond the point of credibility in order to rationalize away what is happening

Chris: Right and I think it reveals the weaknesses in one of our biggest institutions: the media

Erin: There are some supremely stupid people in positions of power in the media. People who don’t know enough to know that Uzbekistan isn’t in the Middle East, or are incapable of thinking critically about that narrative before repeating it.

Chris: This is a media whose flaws are glaringly apparent: the need to fill a 24 hour news cycle, the treating every news story in terms of winners/losers, and most importantly an unwillingness to think critically about what they’re being asked to cover

Reporters are not stenographers.

Yet much of the news media acts that way. “Well it’s not our job to interpret” Yes, it is. If I say the Earth is flat and you say it’s round. The headline is not “People disagree over the shape of the earth” It’s “Chris is wrong about the shape of the Earth”

Erin: The overarching narrative is that America is a constitutional democracy and that our system has the capacity to deal with anything

They can’t break out of much smaller narratives, so it’s not surprising they can’t break out of that one

Chris: And, as you’ve pointed out, that narrative doesn’t hold up under scrutiny

Erin: They called the firing of Comey the Saturday Night Massacre

And now they’re saying the firing of Mueller, and whoever else has to be fired to get to someone who’ll fire Mueller, will be the Saturday Night Massacre

Chris: At least Mueller would be closer to that reality than Comey

Erin: The shocking nature of the Comey firing has been normalized, because if it really had been the horrible thing they compared it to, surely Republicans would have stepped up

We’re seeing history used to suggest that in America, when things get really bad, the system – guided by good people – gets things back on the rails

Anyone in the system is, at heart, a good American

Even Robert E. Lee, taking up arms against his country to fight for the preservation of slavery, is a good American!

That’s how senators preface criticism of their peers and of nominees “My colleague is a patriot, but also wrong in almost every way”

What if he’s not a patriot, though? What if he doesn’t actually like American freedoms and would be happy to erode them? Because news flash: he isn’t, he doesn’t, and he is trying to do just that.

Chris: Is there anything about Jeff Sessions’ political career that screams support for American freedoms?

Erin: Seriously.

Chris: Or, the point we could make, is that people like Sessions do support a version of American freedoms, they just don’t apply to everyone.

Erin: But the narrative that ours is a great system of freedom helps bolster those claims, and paper over the fact that our system was based on and mandated political inequality for most of its history.

Chris: They apply to me and people like me, but not others.

Erin: I think it’s no mistake that Andrew Jackson hangs in the Oval Office.

I mean, this is the problem with the contagion of liberty

The idea itself, I mean

We eradicated smallpox, after all.

Chris: I mean go back to the Founders and well before that into Antiquity, notions of freedom rest on ideas of slavery. How can we know what freedom is without its counterpart to compare it to?

Same with ideas of equality.

Erin: Yep.

I’m struck by how much our national narrative that we are the freest country in the world has enabled us to rationalize eroding freedoms as the status quo

Chris: There’s the great Samuel Johnson quote: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

One of the struggles of American history has been the establishment of these ideals of freedom and liberty and our constant and utter failure to live up to them

One thing that’s always struck me about American exceptionalism is just how contingent on geography it is.

Of course Americans think they have the greatest country in the world.

Erin: I asked my students to draw the shape of the US in 1787, and we talked about how they couldn’t do it without drawing the whole continent.

Chris: So do the Russians, English, French, South Africans, Egyptians etc.

Erin: Shoutout to Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British here

Chris: It’s like rooting for sports teams. I root for the Red Sox not because the Red Sox are inherently better than any other baseball team, but because I grew up 20 minutes from Boston.

Erin: Yep.

Chris: There’s nothing inherently greater about Boston’s team than any other team, nothing innate in their character or anything else. I like them because it’s where I grew up. Other people grew up in different places and have different favorite teams.

How is this different from our national affiliations?

This is also explains why sports radio and political radio are so intolerably bad.

Erin: I think that is an indisputable point.

Rather than use history to convince ourselves that we can get through this, full stop, we should look at our national past to see how “getting through this” has often meant “sacrificing the political and human rights of some people.”

And how we actually didn’t get through everything okay. The nation had a civil war. The state put people in camps. White Americans tolerated widespread lynching. Women haven’t had the vote for most of our history.

Chris: Historical contextualization is really difficult and as I said earlier, I don’t think that our media, who are driving many of these narratives about the Mueller investigation, are particularly good at it.

Erin: Not at all.

I think the presence of people who “lived through Watergate” as uncritical experts is not helpful. The actual Watergate insiders I’ve seen have been really useful in qualifying differences between then and now.

Chris: The Mueller investigation is unprecedented. We have the campaign chairman of a major political party charged with laundering $75 million from a pro-Russian Ukrainian government.

No matter what else follows, you can’t whitewash that away.

Erin: Nope. And I think perhaps the most compelling comparison is Nixon in the 1968 election – interference that was so destructive to our ideas of political norms that it was hidden, basically.

Chris: And something that gets overshadowed by the Democratic Convention.

Erin: So are we basically asking the media to stop using history as a coping mechanism?

Chris: Or if they’re going to do it, they need to do a much better job at it.

Erin: These are the same people who say Sessions did the “honorable” thing by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Bad people get punished in our system, so if someone hasn’t been punished, they can’t have done anything that bad.

There’s your real slippery slope!

Chris: Meanwhile his DOJ has argued that trans-Americans don’t deserve legal protection



Professional Historians: Thoughts on the Battle for Public Perception


, , , ,

Last Saturday afternoon, I arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in a great mood. I’d spent two days at the annual conference of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. It’s perhaps my favorite academic gathering: the people are friendly, the papers always prove fascinating, and the plenary sessions highlight promising new ideas in the field.

I left the conference feeling optimistic about the future of the historical profession.

Then, passing an airport bookstore, I saw a large display featuring this book:


In the interest of full disclosure, let me note that I haven’t read any of Kilmeade’s books, nor do I plan to do so. But plenty of folks are picking up the latest history book by the Fox & Friends host. Today, Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans is the #19 book on Amazon.

Kilmeade’s former Fox News colleague, Bill O’Reilly, has staked his professional identity on his status as “America’s Bestselling Historian” since he was fired from that network earlier this year.

Ordinarily, thoughts of these folks writing history would inspire only mild annoyance. But the stature enjoyed by non-professional historians took on a new urgency on Monday. White House Chief-of-Staff John Kelly praised Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and he blamed the civil war on “the lack of an ability to compromise.”

Kelly’s interpretation has been sufficiently discredited elsewhere that I need not belabor the point.

But what bears repeating is the fact that the popularity of history books written by non-historians — and the corresponding lack of popularity of professional scholarship — contributes to the existence of a culture where large numbers of people accept Kelly’s proposition.

So what is to be done?

While it’s perhaps unfair to make historians responsible for a larger cultural problem by which many Americans have a tough time dealing with facts, it strikes me that there’s more we can do. Some of these observations are not especially new, but they carry a new urgency this week.

Write About Engaging People
Professional historians are often urged to tell more stories; in other words, to spend less time explaining and analyzing, and instead to write compelling narratives. That’s good advice, and by and large I think we’ve gotten better about heeding it.

But I think there’s a second piece of the puzzle: historians also need to spend more time writing about people. Audiences appreciate history that tells stories of people’s lives.

I’ve given Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club as a gift to several non-historians. Although it’s a work of intellectual history and not a tale of battles and conquests, people I’ve given it to have really enjoyed it. The reason is that Menand does a brilliant job centering his study on actual people living real lives. Far too often, it seems, historians use drop individuals in and out of our narratives at breakneck speed only to prove a point.


Avoid Nuance for Nuance’s Sake
“What caused the Civil War?” “Slavery.”

If there’s one good thing that’s happened this week, it’s that professional historians have been pushed to refute Kelly with a clear, concise answer. But this is something that historians all too often fail to do. By virtue of our professional training, we’re often quick to temper clear-cut claims in favor of nuanced arguments. Sometimes nuance is necessary. Other times, though, it needlessly muddles our arguments and proves off-putting to lay audiences.

In some excellent advice to historians seeking to write op-eds, Nicole Hemmer of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, noted the importance of scaling back on “hedging” and avoiding getting “too in the weeds.”

One wonders what our books and articles might read like if we adopted this advice more generally?

Start Caring About Readership Metrics
I suspect this point will prove the most controversial with academic historians. All too often, readership has been a secondary consideration in academic publishing. Sure, it’s great to have a lot of people read one’s books and articles. But the primary purpose of publishing hasn’t been to get readers. It’s been to check boxes on the CV for job searches, tenure, and promotion.

One of the speakers at the U.S. Intellectual History conference offered the provocative suggestion that historians should pay more attention to — and talk about — their sales numbers.

I think this is right. In our current political and cultural climate, we don’t have the luxury to enjoy scholarship for scholarship’s sake (nor do as many professional historians care about things like tenure given the state of the academic profession). Not everything should come down to sales metrics, of course. But it’s time for professional historians to start caring whether we’re reaching an audience or not.

Until we do, we’ll have ceded the popular conception of history to the likes of Brian Kilmeade and Bill O’Reilly.