This week, the American Historical Association previewed a forthcoming report on the number of full-time history jobs. The post is entitled “Another Tough Year for the Academic Job Market in History”—which is a bit misleading, since it documents the continuation of a decade-long collapse. In the last hiring year (2016-2017), employers advertised only 289 tenure-track faculty positions and 212 other full-time jobs in the AHA Career Center. During that same year, to judge by the recent past, American universities probably granted more than 1,000 new doctorates in history.
Since that post appeared, I have seen many academics urge caution in interpreting it. Some history jobs, they point out, are not advertised with the AHA. Many people holding history PhDs go to work in non-academic professions, other disciplines, or alternative academic positions. And remember, you can do many things with the marketable skills you develop in a doctoral program.
Having entered graduate school just before the collapse began, I think such optimistic caveats look a lot like advice someone might have given workers in another American industry in 1969: Remember, there are always exciting job opportunities for hardworking people who know how to make steel.
The difference is that academic jobs in history aren’t actually disappearing.
Everybody knows the truth. “Career diversity” boosterism notwithstanding, the widening gap between full-time job openings and new history doctorates represents a lot of part-time and temporary jobs, and there is no sign that is going to change. Everybody knows, as well, that many people holding “part-time” jobs (making, on average, about $3,000 per course, without benefits) actually work full-time as history instructors, holding jobs at multiple institutions. I still sometimes hear people justify this situation with the fiction that adjuncts are otherwise-fully-employed professionals who moonlight as college teachers, but that claim is decades out of date.
The world does not need another long rant from an underemployed historian on this subject, so I will try to be brief. I simply want to present three ideas for consideration.
First: Most of us actually want to teach.
True, academic training programs often burden us with the idea that anything but tenure-track employment means failure. But I don’t think this is the primary issue keeping most part-time faculty members in their current positions.
Most of us probably continue teaching—for however long we can justify it—because this is what we love, this is what we have trained for, this is what we are especially good at, and this is what we think the world needs from us.
Second: A doctorate in history is a highly specialized tool.
The history PhD prepares students very well for a single career. It is an inefficient way to prepare for most other careers. It is not even a very good preparation for writing history in non-academic senses of that word. No, it prepares students to enter an academic career in history, or, if they choose other work, to develop the particular skills that would have been useful in such an academic career.
Academically trained historians certainly can flourish in non-academic or alternative academic jobs. But most of those fields already have their own systems of credentials and training, which the history PhD rarely duplicates. You can easily make the case that a history PhD makes you a better worker in many other fields, but the same could probably be said of most other training programs that take an average of seven years to complete, too.
Third: When you cheapen teaching, you devalue the entire university.
Contrary to the advice some of us got in graduate school, teaching is not a regrettable necessity that you have to undertake if you want to hold a certain kind of “real” academic position. It is the moral and political justification for the existence of the modern historical profession.
Unlike some other academic disciplines, history (at the doctoral level) does not have many direct industrial applications. And with rare exceptions, parents, donors, and taxpayers do not care about your research. From their standpoint, original historical scholarship is valuable only insofar as it contributes to the quality of your teaching.
Of course, specialized research is important to teaching. It is not even particularly difficult to explain why. But the American academy has compromised its ability to make that case. In the courses taken by most students, academe has proven itself fully satisfied with the work of poorly paid temporary workers, and it has shown no interest in whether they have the time, resources, or skills for any research at all.
At many colleges, indeed, all the history courses a non-major is likely to take are taught by adjuncts whose only required qualification is a master’s degree. Many adjuncts actually do have doctorates, and evidence of stellar teaching success, and often even major publications, but those things rarely make any significant difference to pay, status, or job security. Any attributes beyond the master’s degree are expensive gifts the contingent professors give to an institution that disregards them. In other words, by devaluing the labor of adjuncts and other contingent faculty members, the academy has devalued scholarship as well as teaching.
This means that cheap teaching ultimately jeopardizes every academic historian. And whenever established historians collaborate in the devaluation of part-time instructional labor, they are collaborating in making the entire humanities sector of higher education look expendable.
In the adjunctified college, humanities departments look precisely like what their most cynical enemies claim they are: Places of privileges for tenured faculty, funded by dollars cajoled out of suffering taxpayers and students, that bear no relation to the quality of undergraduate instruction. As the academic humanities are increasingly framed in those terms, tenure will not protect even those scholars who already have it. The tenure system is already breaking, and the cheapness of teaching labor is one of the reasons.
I have no solutions to the current crisis. However, any solution will involve established faculty members’ admitting the crisis exists and showing solidarity with the people who are currently doing so much of the work that underpins the academic historical enterprise.
 By 2009, of the 1.8 million college teachers in America, 1.3 million held contingent positions, of whom 700,000 held part-time appointments. However, almost half of the “part-time” faculty members surveyed by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (PDF) taught three or more courses in the fall 2010 term.