One for the History Books
The Historical Discipline Will Prevail over Current Challenges
Here, at the beginning of 2021, we are all conscious of living through a time that might be called “one for the history books.” Surely this pandemic is historic. But how has it affected the study and teaching of history? The effects have been uneven, to be sure, but the watchword for administrators and supervisors must be flexibility, as they remain sensitive to the multiple challenges faced by historians during this crisis. We can only hope that what we are enduring is a temporary state of affairs, and that the innovation, forbearance, and perseverance that will see us through this crisis will make the AHA, and the whole historical discipline, stronger in the process.
Some historians, particularly those in non-tenure-track and temporary positions, have borne the brunt of the pandemic more than others. Faced with diminishing resources, universities, colleges, community colleges, museums, libraries, and other nonprofit educational institutions have looked for ways to slash expenses—in some cases firing staff and untenured instructors, curtailing hiring, and eliminating departments and programs. The livelihoods of many historians are at stake.
Specific groups of graduate students have also had to contend with drastic obstacles to completing their work. Last spring, as usual, external funding agencies such as Fulbright and the Social Science Research Council, as well as departmental graduate programs, were supporting graduate students conducting historical research abroad. When the pandemic struck, some graduate students doing research abroad were ordered back to the United States. This order entailed considerable financial sacrifice on the part of students who had to break their apartment leases and then return home, only to find themselves without health insurance or a place to live. At the same time, some foreign students studying in the US returned to their home countries, many bearing the added expenses of lost security deposits and last-minute plane reservations. Meanwhile, advanced graduate students faced the great unknown—the shape of the job markets (both academic and nonacademic alike) for this coming year and for the foreseeable future. But who can foresee the future?
The shuttering of libraries, museums, historical societies, and other kinds of archival repositories in the United States and around the world forced virtually all historians, regardless of their career stage or vocation, to place their research on hold, putting jobs, promotions, and publications at risk. Here, too, the effects were felt unevenly because one’s research focus played a large part in determining the impact of these closures. As a historian of the 19th-century US, I have had the advantage of tapping into multiple online resources while I wait for the archives to reopen. However, of course, not all historians can count on finding relevant resources online.
Historians in the GLAM sector (those working in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) must contend with budgetary constraints imposed by the loss of patrons and customers. At the same time, these professionals have shown enormous resourcefulness and creativity as they continue to serve their (remote) publics by tailoring online presentations to reflect current issues, providing scan-on-demand and interlibrary loan services, and using other methods to make at least part of their collections and exhibits accessible to their constituents.
The livelihoods of many historians are at stake.
Teachers at all levels have had to adapt to online teaching programs that upend the dynamics of face-to-face learning and discussion. For many history instructors, last summer was a “lost summer” rather than a time, as usual, devoted to recharging one’s batteries, doing research, or following other pursuits. Just getting up to speed on the technicalities of managing breakout sessions, online exams and quizzes, and oral and visual presentations proved labor intensive and time consuming. The remote classroom remains fraught, and the problems go beyond frozen screens, unreliable internet connections, and the occasional “Zoom bomb.” Many faculty members and students alike are caring for ill family members, monitoring their children’s schooling, and dealing with the consequences of a struggling economy.
In the meantime, the venues we count on for mutual support are less predictable, to say the least. For AHA members who look forward not only to hearing panels and attending workshops but also socializing and exchanging ideas informally with each other, the cancellation of the 2021 annual meeting came as one more blow to cherished annual rituals and routines. Virtual AHA replaces at least some of these opportunities, and I, for one, am grateful not to miss them completely this year.
Even in well-resourced university departments and public history sites, administrators have had to expend a tremendous amount of energy managing course enrollments, facilitating technical expertise among their colleagues, pushing back against higher-ups who insist upon a certain mode of teaching for all, and facilitating the transition between in-person and remote learning, making the process as smooth as possible for faculty, staff, and students. Managing the logistics of the situation can be frustrating and exhausting; this is the stuff of sleepless nights and early-morning headaches—a far cry from the more high-minded pursuits of, say, arranging intellectual exchanges in the form of guest lectures and so forth. Budgetary considerations loom large—for example, whether to extend the fellowships of current graduate students rather than admitting a new cohort. At the same time, some chairs are in a position to extend the timelines for promotion, alter the requirements for travel funds and graduate fellowships, defer undergraduate scholarships, and consider student-generated teaching evaluations with an eye toward the realities of the remote classroom. As the AHA noted in its Statement on Historical Research during COVID-19, that flexibility is critical in this ongoing crisis.
Empathy, borne of humanistic inquiry generally, is essential in dealing with a whole host of contemporary challenges.
In her last column as AHA president, my predecessor, Mary Lindemann, outlined the many ways that the AHA is seeking to advocate for all historians, providing the information and support they need to continue to do their work and do it well. For example, the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative is more critical than ever, guiding graduate students and others who might want to pursue careers outside of teaching or the academy. The AHA is also sponsoring webinars, compiling bibliographies, and curating resources to help historians teach remotely. The Association also provides talking points on the value of the study of history, points to be deployed in discussions with money-conscious deans and provosts.
There is a terrible irony in cutting back on the resources available to historians and students of history at a time when people are clamoring to learn about the past, about how we came to the point where we are today. Indeed, one of our discipline’s great strengths is that it develops the quality of empathy in those who study it—an understanding of people who lived before us in other places and under different conditions. That empathy, borne of humanistic inquiry generally, is essential in dealing with a whole host of contemporary challenges. For these reasons and others, we must continue to make the case that an understanding of history is essential if we are going to withstand the tests posed by the present and devise strategies that can shape the future.
If we understand and confront the tremendous challenges facing practitioners of the discipline in their roles as researchers, teachers, writers, administrators, and students, we can better help historians meet those challenges. We all hope that future history books will record the fact that the historical profession sought to take the measure of the great pandemic of 2020–21 and ultimately prevailed over it.
Jacqueline Jones is president of AHA.
Tags: From the President
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