Has Professionalization Gone Too Far?
Lynn Hunt, February 2002
From the President's column in the February 2002 Perspectives
My teachers inspired me to become a professional historian. They taught me that history could be thrilling, intriguing, significant for understanding the present, and shot through by moral dilemmas. I believe that we have allowed our graduate students to buy into the illusion that somehow the right training, years of experience as a teaching assistant, the presentation of many conference papers, workshops on interviewing, practice job talks, and early publication–rather than love of learning–will get you a job. The now 30-year long crisis in the job market has clouded our vision; it has made getting a job seem more important than knowing why you want one. We faculty have not done much to prevent or slow down this drive toward professionalization, which seems to have a logic of its own driven by the shortage of academic positions. It sometimes seems that we have forgotten why history attracted us in the first place. Have we become so frightened of charges of political correctness or ideological bias that we are embarrassed to admit that historical study has moral meaning?
My own teachers never preached moral sermons; they made history compelling in every sense of the word. I can still remember, some 35 years later, the lecture on the fall of Robespierre given by Carl Weiner, my French history teacher at Carleton College. He restlessly paced the front of the room, filled with some 30 students, and painted a vivid picture of Robespierre frantically trying to raise last minute support in Paris after he had been outlawed by the National Convention. Without slides, music, or Powerpoint presentations (all of which I use myself), with just his voice and charismatic presence, he made us feel the rain falling that July day, the atmosphere of desperation and uncertainty in the streets, and the stakes of that historical turning point. The French Revolution wasn't even his research focus, and though he seemed positively magisterial to us, he could not have been much older than we were since he has not yet reached retirement age. It is hardly surprising that he has sent a long line of students on to graduate study in history.
My teachers at Stanford proved less spellbinding at the lectern, but they had other qualities just as significant. Known for riding his bike to campus "no hands," Phil Dawson kept the door to his office open most days of the week and most of the day at that. As my adviser, he was available for discussion of my research papers in progress, the philosophy of history, or the morning news. The point is that he was accessible and interested, even in the rather chaotic thoughts of a 22- year old graduate student. If he was "mentoring" me, I didn't know it; we discussed history, philosophy, and politics, not how to get ahead professionally. Margot Drekmeier, not unlike many women academics in the late 1960s, was a lecturer without a regular appointment, even though she had a Harvard degree and had written a brilliant dissertation. She taught the single most rewarding course I ever took as a student, a seminar on Rousseau. For the most part, we just read Rousseau. We did read some of the secondary literature on Rousseau, but much of it was written by political scientists, philosophers, or literary scholars, not historians. She made us see, without ever saying it, that we needed to be reading in a very wide arc, that we wouldn't understand Rousseau except by reading him intensively and then placing him in a long tradition of political theory, philosophy, and literature, all of which were relevant to historical scholarship. Reading Rousseau could open up the whole world of intellectual life, I learned, but only if I read deeply and broadly at the same time.
My own graduate students now are mildly shocked when I ask them, rather insistently, whether they are having fun. I don't mean going to the beach or hanging out in pizza parlors that serve pitchers of beer–our definition of fun during my graduate student days. What I mean when I pose the question is, does graduate work feel like an irresistible intellectual adventure? Do they believe they are getting an education for life and not just training for a job? Are they pursuing historical questions that speak to their deepest moral concerns? Is this something they love to do? I ask because I am impressed by how hard graduate students work and alarmed to see how intently focused they are on professional goals. I don't think graduate students are having much fun, in this broader intellectual and moral sense; they are too busy working as teaching assistants, research assistants, or graders; they are too worried about making ends meet; and they are too focused on jobs. Through no fault of their own, they're too often missing out on the most essential component of graduate education: the intense passion of intellectual inquiry.
The profession is much more interested in the condition of graduate students than ever before, but are the students more satisfied as a result? I doubt it. Graduate students are probably as discontented now as they were when professors failed to learn their names, assumed that many would disappear, and in general, treated them as a lesser form of life. The discontent cannot be attributed to lack of interest, lack of structure, failure to prepare students for a broad array of job opportunities, and the like. It can be attributed to a job market that has never fully recovered from the catastrophic collapse in job openings that began in the early 1970s. When graduate students got jobs, as they did in the heyday of expansion in the 1960s, without job talks, without publications, without finished PhDs, indeed sometimes without even a face-to-face interview, they put up with indifference, lack of teacher training, excessively narrow preparation, and inadequate information about other employment possibilities because these defects did not prevent them from being hired. I do not mean to imply that we should not improve graduate education or that we should return to treating graduate students with indifference. But we must recognize that remedying all the defects in our current graduate programs will not provide jobs where none exist.
I am one of the members of the AHA Committee on Graduate Education (CGE), which you have been reading about in the columns of Perspectives for some months now. I do not write to express the views of that committee, though I would be happy to share any reactions you might have to this column with the committee when it next meets. Under the leadership of Colin Palmer, the CGE is engaged in an important and systematic study of graduate training in history. In general, the trend seems to be that graduate programs are worrying more and more about informing students of job possibilities outside of college and university teaching (public history positions), about providing mentoring during the years of graduate study, and about offering the best training for an ever-changing employment environment (more world history, more emphasis on teaching skills, and so on). These are all worthy concerns. In other fields, more radical proposals are bubbling up; some have advocated shorter PhD programs (three years at most), and some are recommending two-tiered systems in which a two- to three-year postdoctoral period would culminate in a further degree beyond the PhD. Further information can be found at the web site for "Re-envisioning the PhD" at http://www.grad.washington.edu/envision/. I find these proposals troubling but a fuller discussion of them would require much more space than I have here. It is not obvious to me that radical restructuring of PhD programs will provide the answers to our problems.
In addition to fostering salutary reconsiderations of the nature of graduate training, the continuing shortage of academic positions has relentlessly upped the ante for the students themselves (just as it has for tenure and promotion to full professor). UCLA, for example, has no less than 30 graduate student-run journals. Some departments now organize their own graduate student conferences for the presentation of research papers, and many students believe that they need to present papers at regional and national conferences as early as their first year of graduate study. In the endless search for the tiniest advantage on the market, students even consider turning down offers of year-long dissertation writing fellowships in order to accept teaching positions instead; "my résumé will look better if I can show that I have taught my own seminar," is a refrain I sometimes hear. I believe that this kind of professionalization, though no one's fault in particular, has become counter-productive. These professional activities take time away from writing dissertations, encourage students to believe that there is a magic bullet out there to protect them against the vicissitudes of the job market, and most important, distract them from thinking about their lives and the place of history in them.
—Lynn Hunt (UCLA) is president of the AHA. She welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.