Back in October, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an op-ed titled “The Future of History” written by Robert Zaretsky, a University of Houston professor who specializes in French history. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you’ll notice that Zaretsky’s title phrase incidentally happens to be HistoryBuff’s tagline, so we were naturally eager to read the piece.
The future, we learned, is bleak:
Trudging slowly across the desert of coursework and dissertation research, grad students pass the many skeletons of peers who had, without success, launched themselves along the same route. As they pass the oases of independent cafes and bookstores, a good number of these exhausted explorers will quit their trek and join the tribe Aibeedee. Their professional lives will come to resemble what one of [Fernand] Braudel’s students, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, called l’histoire immobile, when history seems to idle, if not stall and stop altogether.
Well. He’s not lying. Traditional tenure-track opportunities for PhDs in the humanities have been dwindling for decades, a problem that everyone with a stake in higher education should care about. But Zaretsky doesn’t quite tell the whole truth, either.
In fact, the American public is hungrier for good historical storytelling than ever. One obvious piece of evidence is the critical and popular success of television shows like The Knick, Mad Men, and The Americans. All three are serious, adult stories thoroughly saturated with deeply-researched historical detail (with the exception of Keri Russell’s glorious but decidedly non-’80s hair). The popularity and cultural cachet of these shows suggest that the American public actually sees historical nerdery as admirable: whatever your feelings about Don Draper, Matthew Weiner’s reputation as a stickler for for historical accuracy is now the stuff of entertainment legend.
To be fair, the ongoing golden age of hyper-realistic historical fiction is not necessarily evidence against Zaretsky’s pessimistic view of things, which hinges on the failure of trained historians to prove their own worth to society at large. But it’s not fair to the public or to historians to suggest that the current state of the academic job market is the direct result of popular disinterest in well-researched history.
The truth is more complicated: despite surging college enrollment and tuition costs, the feasibility of making a living teaching at the college level has plummeted. University administrations are not approving new tenure-track hires in the humanities, instead relying on cheap contingent and graduate student labor in order to cover the demanding teaching responsibilities that, back when the tenure track was a realistic expectation for new PhDs, used to be balanced by the guarantee of job security, an upper middle-class salary, and time for research.
The failure of American universities to support young academics does not, however, mean that history itself is dead. Bright young scholars pushed off the traditional career path do not just cease to exist; their smarts and training and love of history do not fall out of their heads once they “join the tribe Aibeedee” or cut their losses after a disheartening venture (or several) onto the academic job market.
Instead, members of a new generation of historians and scholars from related disciplines are forging their own paths, creating exciting new ways to indulge in and share their love of history beyond the ivory tower. Even the lucky few who do manage to gain a foothold on the tenure track now make it a point to diversify their storytelling skills, recognizing that we all benefit when historians work to connect with people outside of academe.
Immediately after reading Zaretsky’s article, I spoke with three of these pioneers—Rebecca Onion, Donna Zuckerberg, and Benjamin Breen—about their experiences with public engagement in and outside academia. Here’s the real future of history, in the words of the people shaping it.
By the time Rebecca Onion decided to pursue a PhD in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, she had spent the past five years writing professionally. While in graduate school, Onion fell in love with cultural history.
Although she had planned to follow a traditional academic career path after defending her dissertation on the role of science in America’s culture of childhood, Onion never felt that professors in her program discouraged students’ explorations outside the academy. Instead, in her experience, the historians she worked with at UT Austin were acutely aware of the sorry state of the academic job market, and encouraged graduate students to remain flexible and follow their own paths.
It wasn’t until her time as a postdoctoral fellow at the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science that Onion began to realize that she might have to choose between a traditional academic career and one that involved engagement with the public.
I hate to say it, but I do think there are pitfalls [to trying to do both]. Honestly, my engagement with the Internet during my postdoc was probably not great for my academic output. This was true because I am a generalist by nature, and it’s not like I was trying really hard to pursue a particular topic academically and then just parlaying the same material into publicly engaged history… I was just distractible; I couldn’t/can’t pass up the chance to write about a thing that intrigues me, even if it doesn’t align with my scholarly interests. All of this left me with sort of a weird profile.
Despite this realization, Onion has managed to carve out a niche for herself. She’s keeping a foot in the academic door as a visiting scholar in the department of History at Ohio University, but if you recognize her name it’s most likely because of her position running Slate’s Vault blog and more generally covering their history beat, or from the fantastic History of American Slavery podcast she co-hosts with fellow Slate writer Jamelle Bouie. When I asked her if she is optimistic about history’s future, she responded,
I am, but that’s because I don’t think there was ever a golden age of history where everybody listened to historians, loved them, and read their books (see Historiann’s post on her blog about that—she put it well). I feel like that’s sort of a regressive fantasy. I think history will happen in a distributed fashion, on a number of different levels, and probably always has, [but] I think the popularity of historical stuff on the Internet is a good sign.
Working toward her PhD in the more conservative field of Classics at Princeton University, Donna Zuckerberg had a very different graduate school experience from Onion’s. As Zuckerberg told me,
There really weren’t any opportunities to engage with the general public as a graduate student. I would be surprised to hear that there were many departments that did have such opportunities, actually. In my experience, engaging with the public is usually seen as the domain of senior scholars.
While she maintains a commitment to teaching—after receiving her doctorate in 2014, Zuckerberg moved to Silicon Valley, where she teaches for Telepaideia and Stanford Continuing Studies—Zuckerberg made it her mission to address the lack of opportunities for young Classicists to engage with public discourse that she noticed during her graduate studies.
In the spring of 2015, Zuckerberg launched Eidolon, a platform for accessible and provocative essays about the ancient world that pays its writers (something almost unheard of in the world of academic writing). As editor-in-chief, she accepts submissions from writers with all sorts of backgrounds, but notes that “most of Eidolon’s writers are recent PhDs with contingent jobs.” This in itself is proof enough for Zuckerberg that scholarship about the past, especially the distant past, is in fact flourishing despite the hard road walked by young scholars:
I think [the number of recent PhDs writing for Eidolon is] pretty exciting, because many of those people have heavy teaching loads and the stress of the job market, and they’re still making the time to write for a general audience. It makes me hopeful for the future of our discipline.
Benjamin Breen, like Onion, got his PhD at UT Austin, where he wrote his dissertation on science and globalization in the Portuguese and British empires in the early modern period. Breen developed a sense for accessibly-written history when he served as assistant editor at Not Even Past, an online publication run by the Department of History at UT Austin. In 2012, hoping to provide a place for even more experimental, narrative-focused history writing, Breen and three friends launched the Appendix. While the publication has recently shuttered because its founders have moved on to other projects, its archives—well worth a perusal if you’re unfamiliar with them—will remain available online.
Though still graduate students, the Appendix’s editorial team quickly had a hit on their hands, drawing attention from publications including the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the New Yorker after only a few months. Breen says that his department handled his diverse commitments with understanding:
The history department at UT was a great place to be a graduate student, and by and large they were indeed supportive of the Appendix. There was some resistance to the idea at first among various mentors that we worked with because it was thought that it might slow our time to completion, but most people were won over to the idea quickly.
Now an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a postdoctoral fellow in the Columbia University Society of Fellows, Breen currently has the most traditional academic career trajectory out of the people I interviewed for this piece. When I asked him whether he ever felt like he had to choose between an academic path and one that prioritized engagement with the public, he admitted that he had felt pressure to pick one or the other. “But,” he continued, “I see that [binary] increasingly breaking down.”
As he moves forward in his career, Breen feels that his time as editor-in-chief of a very non-traditional history publication has prepared him well for the future of history.
One of the most rewarding things about being involved with the Appendix has been developing contacts with people in other disciplines (not to mention non-academics, like journalists) who love history and are good at writing it. It’s a whole other dimension of the job of being a professional historian that largely wasn’t available to academics in the past, but which the internet has made possible. So in some ways I see that as a silver lining to the job market woes of the past decade and the destabilizing effects of online courses on academia.
Onion, Zuckerberg, and Breen are just three members of a diverse and growing group of people who believe that the internet is a powerful tool for the promotion of public engagement with history. I asked each who they most admire in terms of innovation in historical outreach; answers included Ta-Nehisi Coates, Yoni Appelbaum, Alex Wellerstein, Joan Neuberger, and Mallory Ortberg, as well as the staffs of the Public Domain Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, the Paris Review Daily, We’re History, Common-Place, and the forthcoming Backlist.
So what does the future of history look like? Here are my takeaways:
- it’s less male, less white, and less Ivy League. The internet can certainly be a rough place for women, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups, but it provides a more even playing field than traditional academia does, allowing talented voices to find their audiences without first running the too-often elitist, sexist, and racist gauntlet of the tenure track.
- it’s more generalist and less dogmatic about discipline. In a sense, Zaretsky is right: the old one-to-one relationship between a history PhD and a career as an academic historian has been shattered. But his facile characterization of the outcome—“I have a history PhD, therefore I am a barista”—is just plain wrong, and the belief that a PhD has no value outside the traditional academy is nothing more than a fallacy of ivory tower exceptionalism. In fact, for the kind of person who went into academia out of a pure appetite for knowledge, the new landscape can actually offer greater intellectual freedom than a tenure-track career, because it allows writers to organically follow their interests rather than sticking to a rigid, discipline-bound publish-or-perish schedule. On the flip side, it also takes seriously brilliant writers and thinkers who never sought a PhD in the first place, like Coates.
- it advocates for itself rather than isolating itself. Though still a crucial part of the tenure process, the fetishization of the closed-access peer-reviewed journal is slowly dying. Young scholars, even those who hope to end up on the tenure track, are eager for opportunities to write for online, open-access publications with large non-academic readerships.
Maybe Zaretsky simply isn’t aware of the bright new futures being invented by the young scholars and writers willing to venture beyond the old boundaries of American academia. If that’s the case, I hope I’ve managed to cheer him up some.
Featured image via Public Domain Review