Yesterday Active History published a Canadian Historical Association document that takes note of the perceived unsuitability of history degrees in the job market and proposes a number of solutions.
As instructors of History who benefit materially and intellectually from the thousands of students who attend and participate in our courses every year, it is incumbent upon us to make the link between a History degree and history-related jobs more obvious for students, employers and the wider community.It is good to see academic historians responding to the challenges of declining enrolment and declining prestige for History departments. There surely is no quick or simple solution, but the purposes of historical education need always to be interrogated and justified, and no doubt this new stimulus will encourage that process.
(Good also to see Active History, an initiative launched by a self-starting group of bright young historians, become the default venue for circulating this kind of critical self-examination within the profession.)
But critical self-examination does not go very far in the CHA committee's proposals. Instead of a deep examination of a historical education and its links to the wider culture, they open with proposals for better marketing:
a communications plan or promotional campaign to encourage greater awareness among students, parents, professors, the media and employers about the skills developed through a history degree and how these skills can be applied in the job market.... plus renaming courses to look more attractive, plus working with career development centres, and so on.
Later sections of the report, on what professors could do, and what students could do, are thin: professors could urge students to get career advice, students could create "media analysis reports" or business case studies.
Well, yes. Marketing has its place. But what's missing here is any call for a serious, critical self-examination by history departments of what they do and how they teach, particularly how they teach undergraduates. (Surely if they want history students to create media analysis reports, they might have recommended that departments become innovative in the kinds of assignments they provide, not put the expectation on students themselves)
When I visit history departments, I meet lots of smart, dedicated hardworking faculty, and lots of smart motivated students too. But I find that departments are still largely oriented around the doctoral mindset. For history departments, the real history student is one who is moving toward that kind of long term, intensely specialized primary research project. And the real history professor is one who then gets to research and teach his or her special subject, more or less forever. History departments still look like places mostly oriented around the convenience of individual faculty members, who are enabled to do what interests them.
Doctoral work is important, and justifiable, at least for that small cohort of students who will go on to be the professors for the next generation. Beyond that, do history departments really have goals and objectives at all? Do they really have identifiable plans for what services they hope to provide to their students and to society? Or serious, measurable programs by which to evaluate how they are delivering on those plans?
Update: March 20: An academic friend who wishes not to be identified asks what I mean by "measurable results in terms of history departments’ services to students and society," referring me to projects in other countries that put academic knowledge under political control.
Well, I'm not convinced that public institutions like universities should be immune to political accountability. But in this case I was not advocating for more outside control of how history departments teach history.
Having worked outside large organizations all my life, I'm hardly up on the literature. It's just that writing several substantial institutional histories has gradually persuaded me that managed institutions tend to be more successful than unmanaged or poorly managed institutions.
Frankly, I take it for granted that most undergraduate education in the humanities in Canada is terribly inadequate to what students need and deserve. And it strikes me that academic departments lack the management tools to address that problem meaningfully. A departmental campaign to identify and implement ways to better teach undergraduates might well make unwelcome demands on individual faculty members, but that need not imply outside control. If faculty managed academic departments more, they might be less susceptible, not more, to being managed from outside.