Publication Date

April 1, 2017

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

This interview is the second in a two-part series featuring AHA Equity Award winners Albert Camarillo (Stanford Univ.) and the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The questions were e-mailed to the two winners. Their responses were edited for length.

Since its inception in 1987, UTEP’s history PhD program has led the nation in training and graduating students of color. The program grew out of a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to provide doctoral training for communities along the US-Mexico border. The history department’s commitment to recruitment, mentorship, professional development, and job placement has resulted in 20 minority PhDs since 1999 who now teach and publish at colleges and universities across the globe. The department’s award-winning faculty members are internationally recognized scholars of the history of the border region and Latin America, Mexican American and Chicana/o history, and immigration, as well as race, class, and gender.

What are the most important goals historians should work toward in the next few years to advance equity (for example, getting more undergraduates into the PhD pipeline or diversifying course offerings)?

UTEP: The professoriate should reflect the demographic makeup of our country, our students, and the communities in which we work. Students often prefer courses, departments, and disciplines with faculty who look like them and who are, in some respects, attuned to their cultural experiences and expectations.

We should also strive for a profession that is open and relevant to women and communities of color. Our coursework and training should speak to the concerns and aspirations of all students. We need to place equity at the forefront of recruitment and admissions, the content of our coursework, and the framework of our pedagogy, as well as our hiring decisions. Departments must become sympathetic to the diverse challenges facing our students and colleagues, especially those with first-generation college status, strong family ties and obligations, and concerns about “belonging” in the professoriate. Indeed, departments, and the historical profession more broadly, should recognize the daily instances of racism and discrimination that characterize the experiences of students and tenure-track faculty from historically underrepresented groups.

How can individuals and institutions model leadership around issues of equity? What are some concrete steps anyone can take?

UTEP: History departments might benefit from reaching out to smaller schools or to Minority- and/or Hispanic-Serving Institutions. The University of Pennsylvania and the Mellon Foundation, for instance, have an initiative called “Pathways to the Professoriate” designed to increase representation of Hispanic students in the professoriate. Our department participates in that program and sends students to doctoral programs at top-tier institutions. At the same time, we recruit doctoral students from across the country.

Departments might also evaluate their admissions processes and expectations. Emphasizing standardized graduate exams can disadvantage students from underrepresented communities. Our department values exceptional student statements, writing samples, and letters of recommendation more than exam scores. When assessing applications, we try to make the process clear and simple. We talk with applicants about the program and bring promising candidates to campus.

We are cognizant of the unique goals and obligations of many of our Hispanic/Latino and first-generation students. As a result, we provide hands-on assistance with writing and mentoring, offer numerous independent studies courses, and invest a lot of time trying to place students in tenure-track positions. We also initiated the Borderlands History Conference, a small international conference that our PhD students play a central role in organizing.

Approximately a decade ago, we replaced the departmental qualifying exams with a doctoral portfolio which includes revised papers from courses and professional materials such as grant applications, teaching statements, syllabi, conference papers, evidence of service, and a professional philosophy. This process, we believe, more accurately mirrors the holistic thinking of academic historians as teachers, researchers, and community members.

Departments might also reconsider their course offerings and make them more interdisciplinary. They might consider reaching out to other programs or departments in the humanities as well as the sciences. Measures as “simple” as cross-listing some graduate courses or giving students a minor or certificate in a non-humanities field might better prepare them for shifting professional expectations, thereby making students of color more competitive in a wide range of institutional contexts.

History departments can also support faculty working to promote equity and diversity in the profession. If faculty are on committees and boards associated with national organizations promoting diversity, departments could cover the costs of attending conferences. Departments can also credit these faculty on annual evaluations. Incentivizing service of this kind would benefit the entire profession.

What best practices need to evolve within the historical community to promote equity, the interests of minority historians, and/or histories of underrepresented groups?

UTEP: Hiring is a crucial element. We have worked hard to recruit a relatively (though not sufficiently) diverse faculty. Potential students frequently comment on the number of nonwhite faculty on campus. Observing faculty diversity in the department and on campus helps them understand that their goals are attainable. Departments should have robust mentoring systems to clarify promotion and tenure expectations for new faculty, and should create a supportive environment that helps new faculty of color succeed in their professional objectives.

The profession also needs to avoid the tendency to expect faculty from underrepresented communities to represent “their group” on committees dedicated to equity. Although it is important to have diverse voices on university and professional committees, such participation simultaneously draws faculty away from research and departmental obligations. It also absolves nonminority faculty from addressing these issues. This is not a new concern, but it is a persistent problem that everyone can help solve.

Other best practices ideas includecreating job searches that foreground the goal of equity and the historical content field secondarily, and/or hiring a faculty member who is specifically tasked with advocating for and training graduate students in issues of equity in a manner that is unique to the historical profession. All faculty can be more approachable and reach out to students of color, serving as mentors, helping with grant writing and time management, and training them to enter the ranks of the professoriate. Regardless of our ethnic, racial, or gender background, we can all be supportive advocates. Moreover, equity and diversity initiatives need to become embedded in the institutional and professional culture. We must make them as important as other university and departmental priorities.

What are the biggest obstacles individuals and institutions face around equity?

UTEP: Institutions and departments face inherent limitations to advancing the cause of equity. It is true that by hiring someone from an underrepresented community, a department can become more diverse and equitable, but it is a slow process. Universities are slow to approve new hires, especially when they are tied to student enrollment numbers that seem to be declining in history departments across the country.

Is there anything about history as a discipline that either promotes or inhibits equity?

UTEP: Our profession suffers from perceptions about its use and utility in the United States: it is antiquated, irrelevant, leads only to employment as a high school teacher, and is dominated by white men in tweed suits with elbow patches. Many undergraduates want higher paying jobs or careers that enable them to change the world and address social problems in their communities.

We also have inadequate recruitment systems that lack significant outreach to high schools, and to undergraduates enrolled in introductory-level and survey courses.

We can, however, make the historical profession attractive to young people and to marginalized communities. This requires efforts much earlier on—in middle school and high school, for instance. The National History Day endeavor is a good platform for broadcasting the value of the profession, and it serves as a nice model that can be expanded. Faculty can also speak to public school classrooms, offer to teach a class on some aspect of history, and invite history classes to visit campus. The National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Teaching programs are another excellent model to follow.

When promoting history as a career, we can also look beyond teaching at the high school or college levels: museums, archives, and other public history endeavors can be attractive to students, and these fields need to embrace equity and diversity as much as traditional academia. Our department, for instance, has supported the efforts of Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva and our students in the ongoing community-­engagement project Museo Urbano. Dr. Leyva has seamlessly blended academic history with community engagement and cultural and historic preservation.

Like Dr. Levya, historians should claim more prominent roles on the national political stage and directly engage with the social issues of the day. This would make our profession more attractive to marginalized communities. We must become more involved with community-based public policy issues ranging, for example, from local urban history, local historical commissions, and debates about immigration policy to environmental issues. If we do so, the public will come to realize that historians are not only good storytellers; they are researchers, problem-solvers, and advocates for the importance of the past for the present.

Melissa Stuckey is chair of the AHA Committee on Minority Historians. Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives.

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