Publication Date

April 1, 1997

Perspectives Section

From the Professional Division

According to the constitution of the AHA, the Professional Division is charged primarily with monitoring the job market and ensuring "equal opportunities" for all historians, whether or not they are members of the Association. In practice, the Professional Division has been charged with a much wider range of responsibilities within the AHA's organizational structure. The most sensitive and important of those responsibilities is to interpret the AHA Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct and to adjudicate complaints of alleged violations of those standards. In the past, the division considered every complaint brought before it. Under the leadership of Drew Gilpin Faust, my predecessor as vice president, the division developed a set of criteria for deciding whether or not to hear a complaint. The rationale for those criteria and their possible implications for the division’s caseload are discussed at length in Professor Faust’s report in the February 1996 issue of Perspectives. The criteria themselves are included in the addendum to the Statement on Standards, available upon request from the AHA or from the Association’s World Wide Web home page at

In 1996 the division reached findings in six cases, two of which were accepted automatically under the old rules. The other four were accepted for consideration after determining that they met the criteria established by the new rules. Two of the six cases involved charges of plagiarism, one alleged unfair hiring practices, and the remaining three alleged unprofessional conduct of various kinds. Another six formal complaints are under consideration at various stages in the process, and an additional five informal inquiries may or may not result in formal complaints. The caseload has not diminished under the revised rules, but the criteria for accepting and considering cases have been greatly clarified.

When the division accepts a complaint, policies and procedures set a timetable for responses and documentation to be sent to the AHA. To clarify that timetable, the division drafted language that was approved by the AHA Council in January 1997. In the language approved, "A complainant has 90 days in which to submit documentation after being notified that a complaint has been accepted. If this period expires without the submission of supporting documents, the complainant must re-file the complaint for consideration." The Council also approved language to the effect that the complainant(s) and the parties responding to the complaint each have two opportunities to state their case and provide documentation to support it. The full text of the additions to the division's policies and procedures is now incorporated into the AHA's Standards pamphlet, which will be available later this month.

The division considers the written documentation for cases at meetings held each spring and fall. Only in the most extraordinary circumstances will the division request further evidence, besides the materials provided by complainants and respondents. In all, the process can take a year or more to complete. If members of the division agree that a finding can be reached on the basis of the available documentation, the AHA notifies the parties to the case, but findings are not normally made public.

Plagiarism continues to be one of the most important issues considered by the division. Sometimes the matter concerns writers who have not been properly trained to avoid plagiarism or the misuse of someone else's work without proper attribution. In such cases, a complaint to the AHA can serve to educate those who are honestly unaware of the standards for citation in historical works. In other cases, the plagiarism or misuse involves authors who were trained as historians and are presumably aware of how the work of others should and should not be used. Those cases are much more serious, potentially undermining the ethical standards of the profession as a whole.

Cases involving improper hiring practices are also very important. The AHA's guidelines regarding job advertisements, search procedures, and interviewing techniques are readily available and provide norms that guarantee the integrity of a process that is often stressful for all concerned. Simply by following those guidelines, employers can conduct a rigorous and fair search for the candidate who best suits their needs.

And job applicants can be assured of being treated with civility and dignity in a process that is bound to leave most of them disappointed. An example of well-run faculty search procedures appears in the article about Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the November 1996 issue of Perspectives. Unfortunately, history departments and members of search committees sometimes neglect their professional and legal obligations.

Year after year, the AHA receives complaints about the most egregious violations of hiring guidelines: prearranged interviews that are canceled during the annual meeting, searches in which one of the candidates is verbally promised the job before the process even begins, and interviews in which improper questions are asked and in which candidates are treated with astonishing rudeness. The crude commercial analogy of a "job market" should not make us forget that professional historians are not commodities.

Given the risks involved in filing a formal complaint, few job candidates are willing to come forward with their grievances, but their perception that the profession has betrayed them harms us all. Complaints from potential employers rarely advance beyond the anecdotal stage, but they are also damaging to our sense of shared identity. Applicants who misrepresent their qualifications, who fail to meet deadlines, or who behave boorishly, bring discredit on the profession as well as on themselves. For everyone involved in the hiring process, adherence to the AHA's guidelines reinforces our collective commitment to the highest standards of professional conduct and avoids the occasion for complaint.

As part of its ongoing interests, the Professional Division is struggling with a number of issues that concern every historian associated with the academic world. The most salient issues are the downsizing of history departments and its implications for the job market; the future of tenure, as teachers at all levels are called to higher standards of accountability; the role of part-time and adjunct faculty members; and the training of graduate students as professional historians for the 21st century. The division sponsored a series of panels on these issues at upcoming annual meetings to be followed up by articles in Perspectives and the facilitation of ongoing discussion by the membership. The downsizing session at the 1997 AHA meeting provided a forum for lively and productive discussion. Gail Savage of the Professional Division will be following up that issue. At the 1998 AHA Annual Meeting, the division will sponsor panels on “The Future of Tenure” and “The Role of Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty.” In concert with other scholarly organizations, the AHA is also sponsoring a major conference on the latter topic. Barbara Ramusack, the Council member assigned to the Professional Division, is helping to organize that effort.

The above issues concern graduate students as well as those already in the profession, and I have invited Emily Hill, the newly elected graduate student representative on the AHA Council, to attend those parts of the Professional Division meetings dealing with general professional matters. (Complaints brought to the AHA will, of course, continue to be heard separately and confidentially.)

To aid job candidates, the division's "mock interview" session has been a regular feature of recent AHA meetings, and we will continue to sponsor it. At the session in New York, job candidates filled a large ballroom. To advise the applicants and conduct mock interviews, the division had invited nearly 70 professional historians who were already on the program and therefore sure to be at the meeting. They represented a wide variety of academic institutions, plus a scattering in publishing and public history. Disappointingly, only 15 or so agreed to participate, so that our groups of willing job applicants were too large to conduct real mock interviews. Ideally, there should have been nearly as many volunteer interviewers as job applicants, in order to provide an approximation of what a real interview might be like. We hope to do better in Seattle in 1998. This year's participants were asked to fill out a brief questionnaire, and we will use their suggestions to improve the experience in the future.

The profession is facing a number of problems that have no easy solutions, and the Professional Division of the AHA can play an important role in focusing discussion of those problems and helping to shape our collective response. In that effort, it has been a real pleasure this past year to work with the members of the division and the staff of the AHA. Sharon Tune, Robert Townsend, and their colleagues at the AHA provide institutional memory for the division, so that the elected members can accomplish as much as possible in their three-year terms. Three out of our five elected members were new to the division this year. Fortunately, Reid Andrews and William Cronon provided continuity and helped bring the rest of us up to speed, for which I am very grateful. Reid's term ended in January, and I would like to thank him for his dedicated service and sound advice. Leila Fawaz has been elected in his place, and I welcome her warmly to the Professional Division.

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