Inside the frontlines of history
A report from the American Historical Association annual meeting
Last week, more than 2,900 historians gathered in Philadelphia for the American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting. I was fortunate to attend, and since most readers of this newsletter are not professional historians, I thought I’d offer a glimpse into the current state of the profession.
📣 But first, some news: I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be speaking at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, next weekend! I’ll be part of an intimate series of (literal) fireside conversations called the 2050 Forums, in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and with media partners Variety, Fast Company, and more. If you’ll be in Park City on Sunday, January 22nd, please join me! Details will be on my social media.
Back to the AHA conference. When I arrived at the Marriott on Market Street in downtown Philadelphia, it was immediately clear that I was in the right place; the historians were silently reading books in the lobby while everyone else was on their smart phones. When I got to registration the WiFi was down, which led the volunteer behind the desk to be quite baffled on how to check me in. It took nearly an hour to get it sorted, after which the volunteer blamed it on, “Mercury being in retrograde.”
An argument could be made that the entire history profession in the United States is in retrograde. The AHA conference used to boast more than 5,000 attendees, especially when held in New York or Philadelphia. This year’s conference drew 2,900 – 3,000 attendees, a respectable number, but well below pre-pandemic levels. Some of that can be attributed to post-Covid travel hesitancy, but the history profession itself is also slowly disappearing. History enrollments are down; history professor jobs are down; history departments are growing smaller; history budgets are shrinking; history PhDs are in decline; funders of history are drying up; historians’ salaries are not keeping up with inflation; and job precarity is high. By any number of metrics, professional history is at a crossroads for reasons that I go into in my book. My final chapter is called, “Does History Have a Future?”
This reality was evident in varying degrees at the conference, depending on which session you attended. [I admit that I could only attend a day-and-a-half of the four-day event, so mine will be an incomplete snapshot of what was discussed]. In one panel, historians at STEM institutions discussed declining enrollments. One professor described computer science as a “big threat,” not solely because the major was snatching up students, but also because, as he put it, computer scientists saw their approach to the world as the “model way of thinking.” This aligns with a sentiment I once heard on Clubhouse where an engineer said “the best brains are scientific brains.” There’s a degree of superciliousness among some STEM departments that no other disciplines are worth exploring. This is compounded by the reality that many history departments are far behind on integrating digital tools. “Most historians don’t want to touch the digital,” this historian said.
A professor from Purdue University relayed how during the 2010s, history and the humanities were hemorrhaging students. In response, Purdue designed a new “Cornerstone” program centered around transformative texts and made it a requirement for STEM and business majors. Through these courses they’ve taught more than 4,000 students and have seen Liberal Arts majors rise by 25 percent (yay books!). The National Endowment for the Humanities has now allocated funds for 37 colleges and universities to replicate the program. Still, she cautioned, challenges remained, including artificial intelligence programs such as ChatGPT. If A.I. tools can write faster and better than students, what’s to prevent kids from using them for all of their assignments?
(As a side note, the History Communication Institute will host a roundtable on ChatGPT, A.I. and their potential effects on the history profession on February, 1st @ 12 PM ET. RSVP here!)
Another panel that afternoon was less sanguine and diplomatic. In a session on “career diversity,” speakers in the room admitted to outright hostility from history faculty and graduate students towards careers beyond the Ivory Tower. One person admitted that it made her “depressed” to train her students to get PhDs and then tell them to work outside of academia. Another person confessed that at her institution, they do not have enough teaching assistants to help with the history courses they are fighting so desperately to keep. There were “so many different pain points” to keeping the discipline of history alive, she said. Another person reported that since 2006, only 46 percent of the PhDs from his department currently held tenure-track jobs. After the panel concluded, one person lamented that the same conversations had been happening at the AHA for the past 30 years. Then she confided to her colleagues that the younger faculty were “the worst”; for them, the “single author monograph is the only form of scholarship that counts,” she said. (The AHA has actually just released new guidelines on what counts as scholarship; you can view them here.)
Among the younger historians, there were a number of fascinating projects showcasing the vitality and diversity of current research. In a well-attended session on Hong Kong, one young scholar, Justin Wu, shared his research on Hong Kong student activism in the U.S. during the 1970s. Surprisingly, he uncovered, these Hong Kong activists were very pro-China. These students had come of age during the Cold War, and viewed the U.S. as a hegemonic imperialist that bullied the so-called Third World. The students had looked to Mao as a model of anti-capitalist resistance. Even after Mao’s death in 1976, Hong Kong students in America maintained their pro-China identity—the opposite of our perceptions of Hong Kong activists today who we assume are anti-China and pro-U.S.
In another session, a young historian, Rui Hua, shared his research on mining in Manchuria. Manchuria, he explained, had been a battleground between the Chinese, Japanese and Russian empires, in part because they were fighting over talc, an economically desirable mineral used in paper making and as a lubricant. Talc is abundant in the region, a byproduct of geological reactions during the Jurassic Era millions of years ago. Combining environmental and national histories, he uncovered how China, Japan, Russia and indigenous peasants battled in the courts to determine who had control over these precious underground resources.
That same session included fascinating research from a young scholar named Aniket De examining racial segregation and colonial self-government in South Africa and India. I’m planning to interview him for a future podcast, and I want his insights to be in his words not mine, so I will simply say in summary that this scholar showed how British elites in South Africa and India survived the political crisis of World War I, and the freedom demands that arose following the war, by developing new strategies of imperial rule inspired, in part, by segregationists in the American South.
A final session worth mentioning was a panel titled “The Shape of Sex.” When I arrived, a scholar was wrapping up a presentation about eunuchs in Byzantium, which I admit was a subject I had never considered before. Then, a trans scholar named Gabrielle Bychowski stepped to the podium and delivered a powerful message of scholarship and activism. Her argument, which I found convincing, was that the tools of cisgendered history—or “cistory,” as she called it—had distorted the temporalities of trans lives. In plain English, the mainstream telling of trans stories has placed inordinate weight on the single point of surgery, when one era is imagined to end and another era imagined to begin (e.g., ceasing being male and beginning to be female). That’s not how trans people live their lives, however, and it was incumbent upon scholars to imagine a third temporality that spanned identities and time periods, “nonbinary approaches to telling trans histories.” She used a historical example of the Amazonians, who according to fictional tales, were non-binary figures that existed across genders. The word Amazon itself, she argued, came from “a” (without) + mazos, a variant of mastos “breast,” i.e., without breasts, from the folklore that Amazonians would cut off their breasts in order to draw their bow-and-arrows faster. She finished by dedicating her remarks to a person named Ash, a trans individual who had committed suicide a few months earlier. “May they know their history, may they know the parts of themselves,” she said.
Such was a small sample of the work being done by historians today. The full program showed many, many more. Fascinating as it was, it was striking to see what was not in the program. There were no panels on Abraham Lincoln or George Washington—or John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for that matter. No biographies of Presidents, military generals or Supreme Court Justices. Very little on the Presidency (though there were two panels on Ronald Reagan). No panels on the U.S. Congress or European Parliament. Not much on Covid. Not much on China. Very little on Hollywood or the media. Nothing on tech. Nothing on social media. Little on democracy, civics or media literacy. Hot topics like the stock market, Tesla, Elon Musk, the Royal Family, the NFL, the World Cup, the economy, and the Speaker of the House were absent. Some of these topics came up in conversation, but comparing today’s headlines with program titles at the AHA, one could not help but notice a disconnect. There is—and has been for some time—a mismatch between what historians talk about and the popular history people consume, not to mention what is dominating broadcast and social media. Some of that is by design; the purpose of professional history is not to comment on whatever news story happens to be trending, but rather to critically examine longer and deeper phenomena. However, it does create structural challenges in communicating scholarship to the broader public—which is why I’ve advocated for History Communicators and History Communication and wrote a book on the subject. There’s no doubt that the work historians do is crucial. But how do you bridge the gap?
The purpose of professional history is not to comment on whatever news story happens to be trending, but rather to critically examine longer and deeper phenomena.
This debate has raged inside the history profession for decades—and was, in fact, the subject of this year’s keynote. Titled “The Past, the Present, and the Work of Historians,” it featured five historians ruminating on the “work we should do and work we shouldn’t do.” The bulk of the conversation centered on social justice activism, with the speakers recognizing that activists can guide the questions that historians ask, but should not dictate the answers. “Good activism can produce really bad history,” one of the panelists said. The conversation then turned to one of the core clashes that I outlined in my book, namely how to generate support for time-consuming, intrinsically valuable work in a world dominated by instantly-gratifying, extrinsic measures of valuation. The public and funders increasingly reward the quick, applied work over the “slow, perhaps useless, work,” as one of the speakers put it. The world is not waiting for history to sort out its existential crises. “We’re spending decades and they’re producing 120 characters,” the speaker lamented.
For my part, I was struck by how the panel on the present seemed to omit so much of it. The present encompasses a lot—not solely social justice and activism (two causes I firmly believe in) but also how we function as a democracy; how the U.S. collaborates and competes with the other nations; what role international institutions play in a multi-polar world; how we solve food insecurity; what we do with nuclear weapons; what types of sustainable energy we can develop; how we mitigate climate disaster; how we formulate refugee policies; how we help people secure employment and live fulfilling, meaningful lives; and how we save the planet before it becomes uninhabitable. All of these present-day questions require wisdom from the past in order to guide the future, yet they received little attention in the discussion about the “present.” “The present,” like “the past,” is a very big place; I left Philadelphia wondering if some historians’ views on both had become a bit too solipsistic to be applicable to either.
How do we bring more historical perspective into public conversations? How do we connect historians with policymakers, journalists, tech companies, NGOs, government officials, think tanks, Internet users and audiences beyond? How do we generate more funding and support for historians currently producing really good work—and future historians who will find answers to questions that we have not yet even thought to ask? That’s been my personal and professional mission throughout my career, the reason why I launched this newsletter, created a show on Clubhouse, established a cryptocurrency, wrote my book and am now building the History Communication Institute.
Particularly as technology evolves, and social media and artificial intelligence shape what we know and how we know it, finding answers to these questions becomes more urgent. There are many headwinds facing professional history in our current political, technological and communication landscapes. Yet, I’ve seen firsthand in my career how understanding the past with depth, rigor and sophistication offers theoretical and practical knowledge that truly benefits the world. We just need to evolve the ways we do it, and you—journalists, funders, tech companies, STEM professionals, government agencies and readers of this newsletter—have a role to play in helping us get there.
Will you join us in building the future of history?
Have a good week. Speak to you after Sundance. ⛰️ ⛷️ 🎥
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