Publication Date

May 1, 2013

Perspectives Section

From the Professional Division

The AHA Professional Division (PD) boasts a broad mission: to promote integrity, fairness, and civility in the practice of history; to articulate ethical standards and best practices in the profession; and to collect and distribute information related to the employment of historians. In practical terms, this mission means that the PD deals with a wide variety of issues confronting historians in the workplace as well as in the profession more generally.

The great challenge faced by the PD is how we might encourage or implement some needed changes in the profession. Over the last two years or so we have been active in promoting a “malleable PhD,” a major initiative of the AHA. Not every history PhD will be able to find, or wants to find, a tenure-track academic job. At the same time, most graduate programs feature curricula and kinds of faculty advising that prepare students exclusively for careers in the academy. At the 2013 annual meeting in New Orleans, the PD sponsored panels intended to facilitate conversations among university administrators, directors of graduate programs, current students, and history PhDs who have found jobs in a variety of nonacademic fields. Our goal is to transform a prevalent departmental culture that currently neglects both the realities of the job market and the fact that a substantial proportion of graduate students want to explore a range of employment options that do not involve teaching or research. Impressionistic evidence suggests that our efforts, and the efforts of the AHA more broadly, have indeed helped to spur meaningful discussions-at the individual, departmental, and institutional levels-about the malleable PhD and its implications for graduate education and placement policies.

As the division seeks to respond to individual members' complaints and queries, however, we find that our reach is by necessity limited. Soon after I joined the PD, we received an e-mail from a distressed, newly minted history PhD.1 He had recently interviewed for a university teaching position, and shortly thereafter the chair of the department called to offer him the job. At that point our correspondent asked the chair about the possibility of at some point obtaining a leave from teaching to do research, and securing travel funds from the department to visit archival collections and attend scholarly conferences. On the surface, this sort of negotiation seemed routine for someone contemplating an offer of employment. However, he was taken aback when, a few days later, the chair called him again, this time to revoke the offer. Apparently the dean had decided that the candidate was too interested in pursuing a serious research and publishing agenda, and was, therefore, not a “good fit” for the job, since the chief mission of this particular institution was undergraduate teaching.

The job seeker wrote to the PD seeking advice about any recourse he might have; he believed that his good-faith queries hardly constituted grounds for denying him the job. Though surprised-even shocked-by his story, my colleagues on the PD and I were not in a position to address his complaint in any formal way. As a matter of policy, the PD does not investigate cases, nor do we adjudicate them. Between the time the division was created, in 1974, and 2003, its members did conduct extensive investigations related to specific allegations of misconduct or unethical behavior within the profession. However, because of the complexity of the process, as well as confidentiality issues, the PD's findings were invariably toothless; the division could not publicize the specifics of any case, and it had no authority to enforce its judgment on either or both of the parties involved. Moreover, such investigations placed the AHA in general and the PD specifically in a vulnerable position, given the increasingly litigious nature of these disputes. Because of the tremendous commitment of time and energy on the part of both staff and division members to these cases, the PD in 2003 abandoned the practice of conducting formal inquiries into complaints such as (but not limited to) plagiarism, denial of tenure or promotion, unethical interviewing practices, and other workplace-related issues.2

In the case of the disappointed job applicant, we could only remind him that job offers are not official until they are conveyed to the candidate in writing; verbal offers are tentative. We noted too that it is always a good idea for applicants to familiarize themselves with the mission of all institutions to which they apply; the main webpage of any college or university will provide that kind of helpful information. This query, coming soon after the start of my tenure as the vice president of the division, alerted me both to the perils faced by job seekers in this buyer's market, and to the limits of the PD's reach.

Nevertheless, the PD continues to receive a wide range of complaints from AHA members about their working conditions, as well as questions concerning professional ethics and university governance. For example, members have come to us with complaints about the forced merger of their history department with other departments; difficulties securing appropriate visas for scholars who want either to leave or enter a certain country; the legitimacy of laying off tenured faculty on the basis (pretext?) of budgetary considerations; and other matters related to academic freedom, plagiarism, and faulty tenure and promotion procedures.

These conflicts seem to be perennial ones within the profession. Other cases reflect the peril and promise of the new digital age in which we live and labor. One member complained about the unethical behavior of a colleague who persisted in posting on a Facebook page excerpts from students' papers and exams with the sole purpose of holding those students up to public ridicule. Another member wrote to say that one of her colleagues had gone online and appropriated her course syllabi, claiming that they were the product of his own work and even submitting them to a prospective employer as part of a teaching dossier. We have discussed the problem of precisely defining uncivil speech among historian-bloggers; the nature of blogging favors quick and in some cases rash communication over a more deliberative, respectful exchange of ideas. The PD has also considered the increasing tendency of governmental entities, nonacademic organizations, and nonhistorians generally to attempt to override the prerogatives of members of our profession in setting standards related to the peer evaluation of scholarship and the design of courses.

Although the PD does not adjudicate cases, it can and does attempt to respond to members' concerns. Members of the division discuss seriously, and often at length, each and every communication we receive from an historian-and these communications come from students and scholars all over the world. The AHA Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct provides a useful set of guidelines for members seeking advice about various workplace and professional-ethical issues. Depending on the nature of the case, we might suggest that the complainant consult a local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, university counsel, or a private attorney. In response to members' queries, and in anticipation of similar queries to come, the PD has written and published best-practices documents related to a number of issues-proper job-interviewing techniques, fair ways to evaluate historians' scholarship and other kinds of productivity, the need for transparency in graduate programs' placement records, and ways that history departments might merge with other academic units and allow historians to retain their integrity in hiring and promotion decisions.

The PD also seeks to address the poor working conditions endured by adjuncts and part-time and contract workers, as the numbers of these nontenured and non-tenure-track faculty members continue to grow. However, we are keenly aware of the fact that public statements of concern about the exploitation of these workers-no matter how well-intentioned or compelling those statements-are unlikely to change in any meaningful way the low pay and long hours, job insecurity, and isolation experienced by these members of the historical profession. At the same time, the PD remains committed to promoting a more just and humane workplace for all historians, regardless of the nature of their job or the place of their employment.

Jacqueline Jones, the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and the Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin, is AHA vice president, Professional Division. Her publications include Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War and the forthcoming A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America.


1. Some of the details of this and other cases have been altered to protect the privacy of the complainant.

2. William Cronon explains this further in an article in Perspectives, “A Watershed for the Professional Division” (September 2003).

Standards and Best Practices from the Professional Division

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