So You Want to be a History Professor

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From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

A historian friend once told me that when he went on the job market, he put in three applications and received five job offers. That was in the early 1960s, during the heady years of post-war economic expansion and university expansion. Ten years later, both expansions abruptly ceased, and the academic job market crashed. It recovered somewhat after the mid-1980s, although with frequent downturns. In the past few years, it has crashed again to new lows.

Jon K. Lauck, a historian and editor in chief of the academic journal Middle West Review, recently surveyed the sorry state of the field. Of the 1,799 new historians who received Ph.D.s in 2019 or 2020, only 175 had landed full-time faculty jobs in history as of last fall — and it is not clear how many of those are tenure track. The number of undergraduate majors in history has plummeted. Lauck traces departments that are being hollowed out: The University of Kansas history faculty is down from 35 members in 2017 to 24; the Ohio State University system’s history faculty has fallen from 79 members to 62 since 2008; Iowa State University’s history department has been told by administrators that its faculty must shrink from 20 members to 8. All of this has consequences, as Lauck details:

These days, some of the conferences I used to attend and greatly enjoyed have been canceled entirely. History-journal editors also whisper about what they are seeing. Article submissions used to stream in at steady clip. Now the pipeline is but a trickle. Prominent history professors, who once anchored departments and enlivened the public sphere in and around college towns, now retire with little fanfare and nary a replacement. Their “line,” if it survives at all, is moved across campus, to computer science or physical therapy.

In my area, French history, the numbers tell the same story in miniature. Since 2010 I have been tracking the number of North American tenure-track jobs my advisees can reasonably apply for each year — searching the postings for everything from “history” to “Europe” and tracking down specialized jobs in modern and early-modern France. In 2010-11, there were 43 available tenure-track positions, and after a dip throughout much of the 2010s, it returned to 42 positions in 2017-18. But the next year it crashed to 18 positions, and during the pandemic year of 2020-21, it fell further, to just 8. This year, so far, there are 9 available positions (this figure only counts full-time tenure-track jobs at U.S. and Canadian four-year colleges).

The pattern also tracks with my experience as an adviser. Of my 10 Ph.D. students who defended their dissertations before 2016, all but one got a tenure-track job (and the one who didn’t limited the job search to a single metropolitan area for personal reasons). Of the eight who have defended since then, only one has so far gotten a tenure-track job. Five of these eight have landed very competitive postdocs, so the problem is clearly not with the students. But will jobs be there when the fellowships end? Will jobs come back to their former level? We can hope, but I don’t know anyone who would bet on it at present. I know the situation in history the best, but similar, and perhaps worse, trends are playing out in most of the other humanities and soft social sciences.

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG expects a similar story could be told about literature professors as well.

Some quick and dirty research by PG revealed that college/university enrollment in the US peaked in 2010 and has been in general decline since. These statistics include two-year public schools – junior colleges – which suffered the largest decline.

However, since 2019, enrollment at all types of colleges, including nonprofit and for-profit schools have declined.

6 thoughts on “So You Want to be a History Professor”

  1. I’m afraid tracking *anything* against 2019 is of dubious use.
    COVID is a black swan event coming on top of a generational changing of the guard causing an economic reconfiguration amidst the culture wars peaking. Everything was going to change this decade, nationally and globally. COVID accelerated everything.

    We’re at the beginning of a new Epoch and exactly how it all shakes down is TBD.

    But what comes next will be as different from 2019 as 2000 was to 1970, but faster.

    Try this piece that recently dropped from CNBC:

    When the economics of something as prevalent as fast food are in upheaval, nothing is secure. And that includes academia. In fact, the non “vocational” niches are among the biggest targets for restructuring.

  2. Fast food pay will go way up with the robots. The single employee piloting a location will probably be highly skilled. Everybody else who once staffed the place will be gone.

    Just for fun, earlier this week I followed the floor mopping machine around Sams Club. Neither shoppers nor the machine had any trouble with each other. Some people stopped while it passed, and others cut in front with impunity, trusting it would halt for them. It did just fine.

    Meanwhile, all but four of the checkouts had been converted to self-checkout. And the self-checkouts were being bypassed by lots of people who were using smartphones to check each item as they shopped. They went straight to the exit without stopping.

    • My sister never queues at Sam’s. She scans with the phone as she goes along and pays when she’s done. Shows the phone code at the exit. In and out in minutes.
      Me, I prefer the “old fashioned” auto cashier. With 20 in the place I rarely have to wait.

      Automation is simply self defense these days: it’s automate, disintermediate, or die.

      The country is looking at a 100,000 unfillable jobs because of the mismatch between what the country needs and what the education system cranks out. And the bulk of the jobs can’t be filled by exploiting the “uninvited”. The system either changes or it’ll be ‘bots all the way to the horizon because productivity rules in the new era.

      Which is why the business model of the company in the CNBC piece is showing up all over, especially in farming. Specialty robots may be too pricey to buy (for now) but not too pricey to rent. Especially for seasonal or one time uses. I’m keeping an eye on contruction: clearing and prepping the construction site. Robot ‘dozers combined with factory built housing and the lack of workers will bring a new kind of Levittowns.

      The ongoing re-shoring of supply chains is going to bring back manufacturing to NorthAm, but it won’t be the same factories or jobs that left. The new factories will be based on cheap energy, cheap transport, and lots and lots of robots and “AI”. Most of the pieces are in place with one exception: Congress needs to wise up and kill the JONES ACT to help the “rust belt” so the new factories don’t all go to the south east.

      New times are here.

      • The more disturbing aspect of this all-too-correct analysis is that “what the country needs” doesn’t define over what timespan. The fitness-for-purpose of “what the education system cranks out” is vastly different if the horizon is six years away than thirty years away than half a century away. (Typical second- or third job, and most-probably the first change in job responsibilities; consideration of early retirement; membership on the Board of Directors.)

        • True but that only comes into play *after* the system let’s go of its “past the selling date” outlook. Vintage 1968 sound about right?

          For the nonce, the urgency is getting past the exit of boomers and surviving till the coming of age of the millenials’ kids (if any). Say around 2040. The boomers are the last generation with a proper continuum of skills: crafts to professionals. The shortages of truckers, sailors, builders, technicians, etc will only get worse if academia keeps cranking out culture warriors.

          As Doc Smith said 100 years ago: “Somebody has to blow air through the tuba.” Somebody has to keep the water and electricity flowing, the supply chains filled. Or else.

          The “if any” part of the demography will be a function of how bad the ’20’s get.

          • I was at a self-check in Walmart a few weeks back with am armload of birthday party decorations. No cart. No basket. Just an armload of papery, frilly stuff. When I got half of it through. the machine stopped and started to flash, “Staff approval necessary.” I was scanning a bag of champagne bottle party poppers.

            The guy came over, and entered his key. Up comes a video pf my face, and another from the camera overhead. They were very good angles. We could see everything I did.

            I asked what happened and he said, “The thing thinks you were sliding something by.”
            “What thing?”
            “The computer. You’re good. have a nice day.”

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