Publication Date

September 1, 1999

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

Last summer the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a study completed by National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) official James Herbert that called for the endowment to take a much more active role in gathering, analyzing, and disseminating reliable data on the state of the humanities. The Chronicle story included comments by scholars and foundation officials critical of the agency’s lack of investment in humanities policy research, as well as a response by NEH Chair William Ferris, who agreed that collecting basic information on the humanities is important but quite correctly pointed out that data gathering is only one of many areas at the endowment that are seriously underfunded.

Does it matter to historians if there is little investment in the collection and analysis of data about humanities teaching, scholarship, and institutions? The answer has to be an emphatic "yes." In fact, having reliable information matters more now than ever. During the 1990s the institutions that comprise the infrastructure for historical work—colleges and universities as well as historical societies, museums, and independent research centers—have suffered from increasing economic pressures to downsize staffing and to become more productive with fewer people, thereby eroding the working conditions of many historians and diminishing the quality of education and programming they can provide. These trends have serious and long-term implications for the historical profession that must be carefully monitored and understood if they are to be resisted.

Part-time teaching provides a good case in point. We know, for example, that at many colleges and universities retiring historians have been replaced by part-time teachers and we know also that this is part of a national trend in higher education, where scarcely one-fourth of faculty are now permanent, full-time, and tenured. There may be good reasons for part-time employment—at some times and in some departments—but some historians are working for as little as $1,000 for a three semester-hour course. If the next generation of historians cannot anticipate reasonable conditions of work and support for the pursuit of scholarship and the development of new teaching material, then the future of the historical profession itself will be seriously compromised.

Closely connected with the issue of part-time employment is that of graduate education. In the late 1980s predictions of a substantially increased demand for college faculty in the mid- to late 1990s led graduate departments in many humanities disciplines to expand enrollments. The expected need for new historians has yet to materialize, though some fields of history are faring better than others. History graduate students have a right to expect reliable information about likely supply and demand in their fields—including public history as well as higher education careers—as they invest years of study toward a doctorate. But since 1995 cutbacks at the NEH have resulted in a withdrawal of funding for the one national study that provides ongoing, longitudinal data on the humanities work force—the biennial Survey of Doctorate Recipients. Without this effort, we simply will not know how many historians are working part-time, how many are employed or unemployed, how many are clustered in contract as opposed to permanent positions, how many are proceeding through academic ranks to senior positions, or how many are retiring. And we will know little of how minorities and women are faring in higher education careers.

The U.S. Congress has mandated that the National Endowment for the Humanities "develop and implement a practical system of national information and data collection and public dissemination on the humanities, scholars, educational and cultural groups and the audiences." NEH officials with whom I've worked over the years have expressed concern that data-gathering efforts will go unnoticed and unused by the humanities community.

Twenty years ago that no doubt was the case, but no longer. In recent years both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians have dramatically increased their reporting of basic data and trends that impinge upon the field of history. This issue of Perspectives, for example, carries a story on salaries of history professors gleaned from studies conducted by the College and University Personnel Association and by the American Association of University Professors, an annual review of history salaries that has been published by the AHA since 1988. (See article on page 3.) Most humanities associations, usually through their individual and departmental member surveys, have also been building up their own information databases (See the report on the AHA’s most recent survey on page 7). The NEH could play a useful and appropriate national role here in analyzing such data from a transdisciplinary humanities perspective.

The truth is, we all need to do more. For its part the American Historical Association is gearing up to make a concerted effort to address more forcefully the twin problems of part-time teaching and graduate education. At its spring meeting the AHA Council approved a design committee for a major task force that would undertake a comprehensive review of the nature of graduate training in history and make appropriate recommendations regarding the future direction of such training. President Robert Darnton has appointed Council member Colin Palmer of the Graduate School of the City University of New York to chair the committee.

Since 1996 the AHA has played a major leadership role in convening other academic associations to consider issues relating to part-time and adjunct faculty. One result of this effort was a national conference in Washington in 1997, which brought together representatives of the Modern Language Association, the Organization of American Historians, the American Political Science Association, the American Association of University Professors, and several other groups. The conference produced a statement that identified trends and consequences and offered guidelines for good practice in institutions that employ part-time and adjunct faculty. Most of the groups involved in the 1997 conference continue to meet in the Coalition on the Academic Workforce and are currently focused on directing the attention of regional accrediting associations to these issues.

We also hope to join the Modern Language Association and other associations in fall 1999 to conduct a survey measuring the extent of part-time teaching. To coordinate these and other efforts the AHA Council has authorized the appointment of an ad hoc committee, which is being chaired by President-Elect Eric Foner of Columbia University.

In advocating NEH support for more informed planning and decision making based on carefully collected data, I have more than once been asked if I were really prepared to trade off fellowships for scholars or seminars for teachers to accomplish this end. It is difficult to respond affirmatively, as I have, to such a question, but it is also a mistake to pose this query in an either/or framework. One thing is clear: ignorance of the conditions under which the members of this profession strive to do their work has its own high costs.

Will several years of severely diminished job opportunities discourage our most promising students from pursuing advanced degrees in history and other humanities disciplines? Could not short-term savings in personnel costs secured by the use of part-time instructional faculty ultimately have a negative impact on the quality of teaching and, as a result, on student learning and interest as well? And perhaps, if we had better data to make the case for the use and value of humanities programs, might we not be able to advocate more effectively for support from both public and private sector sources?

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