Publication Date

May 1, 2024

Perspectives Section

From the Editor

Every June, I go into the AHA job ads database and access the data for the last year, the first step in writing the AHA’s annual report on academic hiring. For someone who completed his PhD in 2021—in the midst of what I, having an affinity for understatement, called a “sizable dip in job postings”—the process of writing the report is a very strange and oddly personal experience.

This year, as I began to reflect on what has been recently said about academic hiring as preparatory research, I came across something unexpected: Christopher Newfield’s 2023 presidential address to the Modern Language Association. Newfield argues that, following World War II, the explicit purpose of the American academy was to maintain and propagate US technological, cultural, and capital supremacy. The humanities were a willing and active participant in this endeavor and thus were accorded cultural capital in proportion to that participation. Since the end of the Cold War, he says, the humanities no longer provide an answer to societal needs, broadly writ, and are therefore no longer seen by either the public or funding agencies as legitimate research endeavors. But, he argues, there is still a public need for the research the humanities generate, and so the salvation of the humanities depends on reversing this perception. That is, humanists must either show how their work is still relevant or make a convincing argument that it should be.

If you think Newfield’s proposed solution sounds a bit presentist—whatever you mean by that—when applied to the discipline and practice of history, I think you’re right. But it’s one that acknowledges another truth: historians have always been presentist. My own field of medieval history was certainly an active and willing participant in furthering the cause of US cultural supremacy during the Cold War, as anyone familiar with the life and career of Joseph Strayer already knows, and medieval studies is hardly unique. Presentism is a tool like any other—presentist concerns can generate rigorous scholarship just as readily as they can distort it—and not one historians can readily discard. After all, as I said in my first column, the master quality of the historian is the faculty of helping others understand what Marc Bloch called “the continuing entanglement of past and present.”

The AHA is invested in broadening the landscape and influence of historical scholarship to ensure historical knowledge is understood as critical to the functioning of our modern society. For example, in January 2023, the AHA Council issued Guidelines for Broadening the Definition of Historical Scholarship. These guidelines provide a framework by which to evaluate a wider variety of scholarly production for the purposes of promotion and academic tenure. They make clear that “remain[ing] wedded to conventional boundaries of scholarship and methods of evaluation” puts history at risk of “losing ground as a discipline in an environment with so many venues for intellectual and civic contribution.” It also risks, the guidelines state, “undervaluing important work being done within our discipline.”

I would argue that valuing among ourselves this broader range of scholarly activities is one way that we can show how our work deserves broader societal respect. It is one part of the grand rhetorical argument that I believe historians must make for the continued importance of our discipline in order to defend and secure the place of history in the face of political, cultural, and social headwinds.

Historians engage in a wide variety of activities aimed at many audiences, and there are many other ways we can show this. Perspectives is looking to publish a series of articles to make this argument to a popular audience. And so whether you’re a podcaster, museum professional, #twitterstorian, assistant professor, all of the above, or anything in between, tell us: Why is what you do scholarship?

Drafts should be no more than 650 wordsFor guidelines, visit

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Leland Grigoli
Leland Renato Grigoli

American Historical Association