Publication Date

December 2, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

The late historian James Horton had a knack for provocative vocabulary in public history spaces. When queried about “those revisionist historians” who supposedly invented facts and changed narratives to fit ideological or political agendas, Jim looked his questioner in the eye: “Revisionism happens because new evidence is available and new questions are asked. Would you go to a heart surgeon who isn’t reading revisionist medicine?”

I thought of Professor Horton’s advice recently when I came across a popular and reputable daily history bulletin. Noting the coming anniversary of a Civil War battle, the text made reference to the Confederate and Union armies. Jim had stopped referring to the “Union” army sometime in the 1980s; from then on, it was always “the army of the United States of America” or, simply, “the US Army.” The terminology matters if a historian wants to communicate unambiguously that the Civil War was not a series of battles between two equivalent forces—Union and Confederacy—but a rebellion against the government of the United States to preserve the right of some humans to own the bodies, labor, and progeny of other humans. The terminology matters because vocabulary that suggests otherwise reinforces conventional imagery of heroic cavaliers, gracious hostesses, and the tragedy of fraternal conflict. Subtleties of historiographical disputation are not always irrelevant to public culture and policy.

At the heart of redefining success is a question of agency.

Historians need to write and speak carefully. A single word or phrase, a particularly evocative metaphor, can undermine a nuanced argument pointing in a very different direction. On a recent visit to Pearl Harbor, I noticed references to a “sneak attack”—something attributed to stereotyped Japanese combatants—rather than the “surprise attack” respected in military circles as part of a fight among equals. Though the dramatic near-destruction of the US Pacific fleet constituted a main thread in film and exhibit interpretation on site, I could not find the word “defeat.” Destruction, yes; “defeat,” no. But defeat it surely was.

Words matter. At the AHA, we’ve been thinking about the words historians use to communicate with each other. Our work in an area we now call “career diversity” began with the imperative of redefining what we mean by professional “success.” Tenure-track “placements” had long constituted the yardstick of a PhD program’s quality and stature. Only rarely did other employment even appear on a department’s annual alumni listing. A bank executive or an influential political figure was regarded as a “failed fellowship award,” a recent retiree from the world of graduate-education funding told me: neither had pursued a career “producing new knowledge.” Yet nearly one-fourth of all history PhD recipients in our initial counting were employed beyond the professoriate. Some had never aspired to the professoriate, and probably more had left that path reluctantly; we learned quickly that many had shaped successful careers in places they wanted to live, and continued to identify as historians. In the face of new evidence, we had to revise. To redefine success.

Redefinition is one thing; eliminating terms from conventional discourse is another. The AHA rejected the conventional term “alt-ac” (shorthand for “alternative academic”) early on, recognizing that the term implies that a PhD recipient must somehow be “ac” (academic) to be respectable, and that academic employment beyond the professoriate is “alternative” (marginal, a substitute). Meanwhile, conversation carried on about “overproduction” of PhDs, along with references to “placement” and assumptions that “the job market” meant—naturally—the academic market.

If we are to legitimate the work of historians as teachers, then we must not communicate to our students through the terms we use that teaching is a burden.

Our conversations about doctoral education eventually strikingly resembled historiographical developments during my formative years learning to be a historian. At the heart of redefining success is a question of agency. Since the 1970s, as historians gradually figured out that everyone had agency, we continued to strip it away from our own students via the vocabulary that said they were produced; they were placed. Like cobblers who go shoeless, we have denied our own community the lessons of our craft.

In the hope of stimulating a broader reconsideration of disciplinary and institutional culture, we at the AHA have revised our vocabulary. In this spirit, I offer a short glossary of words for you to reconsider. We no longer use the following:

Production of PhDs: We began by suggesting that the term “overproduction” be replaced with “underutilization” in order to better emphasize that the problem we face is not too many people receiving PhD degrees in history, but our own reluctance to prepare them for a wide array of career paths. A degree with a single pathway is a vocational degree; the PhD, by contrast, should open a cornucopia of opportunities. A member of our staff completing her dissertation during the course of these conversations pushed us further still, pointing out that PhDs, like all degrees, “are not produced. They are earned.” The AHA no longer refers to “PhD production.”

Placement: This is a hard one to jettison. It is pervasive, commonplace, and baked into our graduate programs by preceding still other terms, from “officers” to “data.” But changing—revising—this term is essential. Nobody is “placed” anymore; indeed, I wonder how many history PhD recipients have been “placed” in nearly two generations. “Placed” implies an outcome divorced from an individual student’s agency or desire. It makes a person’s career contingent on the influence and care of a mentor. “Placement record” reflects primarily on the program, not the student who worked to earn the degree and attain the position. Altogether, the concept flattens the diversity of historians’ values, interests, and goals, suggesting that the plethora of what historians can do and contribute can be measured by one rubric. We must find new and better terminology to describe occupational outcomes of a program; participating departments in AHA Career Diversity, for example, have begun to replace their “placement officer” with a “career development officer.” Words matter.

Teaching Load: Most historians (holding both MA and PhD degrees) working in higher education are primarily teachers. Many have a meaningful research agenda and publish important work. But the bulk of their time is devoted to teaching, and many see it as their primary disciplinary expression. If we are to legitimate the work of historians as teachers, then we must not communicate to our students through the terms we use that teaching is a burden. Like all other aspects of a job, it is a responsibility. We can write all we want about the joy of teaching. AHA presidents can proclaim, “We shall gladly teach.” But if we refer to a “teaching load,” the message is clear: teaching is a burden that we shoulder so that we can do the research that makes someone a historian: “my own work.”

A mere three terms, I know. Still, to some readers, official proclamations of appropriate vocabulary will raise the specter of “Newspeak,” a term coined by George Orwell seven decades ago. But 1984 has come and gone. And we have learned from our colleagues in literary studies how language can shape reality—for better and for worse. With new evidence comes new questions. So let’s think a bit harder about the words we use in preparing the next generation of historians. Perhaps we’ll even manage to stop “training” them.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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