On "How Can We Help?"
To the Editor:
In an age of drastic cuts to history departments and the overall demeaning of our profession, many might wonder whether there is anything that associations can do to improve the situation. James Grossman’s reflection “How Can We Help?” (April 2021) and recent statements in support of the humanities give reason to believe that there is.
Too often, the people whose positions are at risk are left to make a case for the relevance of what they do. Professional associations—both large and small—can play a crucial function in such situations: they have the power to issue public statements, their leaders can craft letters to decision makers, and they can talk to the press. In a recent dispute at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, Emma Griffin, president of the Royal Historical Society, was quoted in the Guardian, and former AHA president Mary Beth Norton and Grossman co-authored an Inside Higher Ed piece, giving international resonance to the case. Studies sponsored by professional associations across borders helped counter many of the inaccurate claims used to justify unnecessary cuts. Dozens of organizations wrote in opposition to the plan. These actions combined made a difference, and the proposal to eliminate the history department was withdrawn—though other closures still went ahead.
Crucially, professional associations can help make the people whose jobs are under threat feel worthy. A unique form of gaslighting takes place when a discipline is placed at risk because of its supposed misalignment with an institution’s “new foci” or with a government’s opinion about its supposed “value.” One cannot help feeling foolish and questioning the sanity of embarking on—let alone teaching in—a program that can so easily be terminated. Tremendous financial and personal burdens, discombobulated family arrangements, and many other sacrifices I need not describe here pile up and can easily push one into despair, making anyone doubt the life choices that have made being in academia possible. To be sure, in the case of the aforementioned dispute, much reassurance came from reading the more than 6,800 names from 81 countries on a petition opposing the proposed cuts, including familiar colleagues, long-admired authors, but mostly unknown people from all walks of life who took a minute of their time to oppose something they recognized as wrong. But professional organizations provided the strongest counterpoint and an irrefutable defense of the larger structures that history and academia are meant to protect. By their very presence, they reminded everyone involved that at stake were not only livelihoods but also the intellectual, educational, civic, and personal callings that had made these sacrifices worthwhile. May this success encourage further and stronger actions everywhere they are needed.
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