From the Professional Division

Understanding the Role of the AHA's Professional Division

Philippa Levine, September 2016

I’m often asked what it is that the Professional Division actually does. It’s a question I put to myself when I was first asked to consider running for the vice presidency of the division. As I understood it, this was the branch of the American Historical Association primarily concerned with questions of ethics and labor, and it was my own long-standing interest in such issues that persuaded me to give it a go. And although the role of the Professional Division has changed considerably over time, these issues remain its principal concerns. Inevitably, there is often considerable overlap with the other two divisions that make up the organization, the Research Division and the Teaching Division. Sometimes it can be hard to ascertain where an issue belongs, and sometimes it can truly belong in more than one place. But overall, if there is an ethical or employment/labor dimension to an issue, it will generally come to the Professional Division. In any given year, the division will receive inquiries as well as complaints from individual members on a wide range of topics. We are not an investigatory body, so we usually refer those who seek advice both to our own statements and guidelines, and to those of other scholarly societies.

The division was created in 1974 specifically to deal with employment and other ethical issues of concern to the profession. In the 1980s, it took on the gargantuan task of reviewing cases of allegedly un­professional behavior brought to its notice by members. Plagiarism was often at the core of this activity, since it is so critical an issue for all scholars, but the division also adjudicated complaints around, for example, unfair hiring, tenure, and promotion practices, and various types of discrimination. In 1987, the division presented to the AHA Council a Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, a document that, with fairly constant revision, remains the key statement of the Association’s principles, and that bolstered the basis of its adjudications. In 2003, however, and on the advice of the division, the Association decided to end review and adjudication of individual cases and to concentrate instead on the development of the many guidelines and best-practices statements that you now find on the AHA’s website, and to which we regularly add, based often on concerns raised with us by members. The guidelines undergo revision as needed, again reflecting the experiences and concerns brought to us by our membership.

Closely linked to this aspect of the division’s work is a recent innovation: the creation of “The Ethical Historian,” a column that appears from time to time in Perspectives on History and is collectively written by the four members of the division. In general, the topics we have chosen reflect inquiries that the division has received from historians around the country and that raise interesting and generally applicable ethical problems. We have, for example, written about service demands on early career faculty, on plagiarism, on aspects of the academic job search (aimed both at search committee members and candidates), and just a few months ago, on the prejudices that LGBTQ historians continue to face. In the case of this most recent article, the decision to highlight LGBTQ issues was a direct result of the division’s close association with the recently completed work of the AHA’s task force on this important topic. If there’s an issue you think we should consider for a future column, please write and let us know.

One of the main areas of concern for the division is thus the problems faced by groups of historians who, for many reasons, find themselves or their work marginalized. Alongside lesbian, gay, and transgender historians, we might note the problems faced by historians with disabilities (whether mental or physical) and by those who choose to remain in academic work but are unable to find full-time, tenure-stream positions and often move frequently between temporary positions. This list does not exhaust the groups whose concerns are part of the division’s mandate, but it does indicate the breadth of those concerns. We oversee much of the Association’s work in this area and make recommendations on policy to Council.

The division, in keeping with other arms of the Association, also responds to external policy affecting historians. For example, we have monitored and spoken out about some alarming attempts, mostly by state governments, to dilute academic freedom of expression. In a number of cases, the division has chosen to recommend to the AHA Council that we issue a statement of support outlining why these freedoms continue to matter not just within the profession but for the broader aims and ends of a democracy. The explosion of social media and the radical changes in the platforms available for the expression of opinions have together created a great deal of uncertainty that has sometimes led overly zealous administrators to constrain freedom of speech on the part of faculty members. This has been among the currently controversial arenas to which the Association pays close attention, for the most part involving itself only when historians are affected or when we are asked to become involved by groups of historians.

In a number of cases, the division has recommended issuing a statement of support outlining why academic freedoms continue to matter both within the profession and for the broader aims and ends of a democracy.

The division is also centrally involved in the AHA’s work to diversify the definition as well as the reality of what constitutes employment as a historian or as another professional who uses the skills acquired in historical training. The division’s presence at the annual meeting showcases this aspect of its work. In keeping with its mandate to deal with employment issues, it was the Professional Division that first organized, and continues to run, the jobs workshop held regularly at the annual meeting. In response to the changing employment profile of historians, the workshop has expanded considerably over the years to include consideration of and information about many employment options in and beyond the academy, and every year we welcome a diverse array of both job seekers and advice givers. The division now also sponsors many panels at the annual meeting that deal with employment, ethical, and professional issues, in much the same way that the Teaching and Research Divisions sponsor panels pertinent to their areas of responsibility. In recent years, the Professional Division has offered a popular panel at which editors from a variety of publishing houses talk about the ins and outs of the publishing trade. In 2017, we will be adding a panel devoted to publishing in academic journals as well, featuring a team of experienced journal editors.

We rely on our members to help us keep our fingers on the pulse of the profession. If there are questions, concerns, or topics that you think we should be investigating, or even that we should just be interested in following, please write to philippa@austin.utexas.edu and let us know. We welcome your input.

Philippa Levine is the AHA’s vice president, Professional Division. The other members of the division are Debjani Bhattacharyya, Catherine A. Epstein, and Valerie Paley.


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