A Monday Rant on Plan Bs, Job Markets and #History as a Profession

Read this today and I never should have.  Why?  

First, it was a depressing look at the past and future prospects for Ph.D.s in history.  

Second, it was a depressing look at the past and future prospects for Ph.D.s in history from both the President and the Executive Director of the field’s most prestigious (read: old-white-male-cantankerous-curmudgeonly) professional organization.  

Third, it was condescending as shit.  The solution to the poor job market and the tightening of university budgets is to stop seeing that Plan B (the not-a-tenure track job) as a Plan B.  


The Plan B is a Plan B not because those seeking Ph.D.s want to be or not be tenure track faculty to the magical exclusion of other endeavors.  The Plan B is Plan B because the entire academic system is set up to privilege and reward those with the most advanced degrees.  From small things like access to J-Stor, as one commenter explained, to larger things like research funding.  Ph.D.s-as-tenure-track faculty win.  And they should, at least in the skewed and twisted system we have now, because if they don’t have those things, they won’t ever get tenure.  

(That they might not get tenure even with these rewards–especially if they aren’t old, white, male, cantankerous or curmudgeonly–is a whole other issue and points to the problems we have with the system.)

As academia is set up to privilege and reward the most advanced degrees, simply stating that graduate programs should do more to encourage their students to embrace non-tenure track career paths, as though it is a matter of explaining to a student how much fun a museum curatorship could be, does nothing to address the real issue.  What is the organization going to do, fundamentally and financially, to support the many, many, many history Ph.D.s who are entering the Plan B world?  As one commenter noted:

“Actual support” means real efforts to provide full access to JSTOR and similar databases so history graduates can continue to research and write without being handicapped by their lack of university affiliation. At a minimum, the AHA could provide full access to back issues of the AHR and other publications. The discipline would benefit as well as the graduates if people with a broader range of life experience were able to research and write history.”

At the very, very minimum.

And I believe in alternative (yes, alternative, because I am someone who very much wants to do the Plan A route and recognizes that this what MOST graduate students of my generation entered graduate school for) paths.  The Mobile Homecoming Project is one and they do amazing, amazing work and sustain themselves by being accountable to the communities they come from.  On the other side, (sort of, not really), one of my sheroes is Annette Gordon-Reed, who is a professor of law and wrote what must now be the classic work on the descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.  This book won a Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award AND the Frederick Douglass Prize (the Pulitzer Prize for Those Who Do Slavery).  #Lawd

At the same time, the balance of power and access to resources remains on the side of those who are tenure-track, who have tenure, or have university positions and the access to research funds and prestigious titles that comes with it.  And instead of making a statement about what systemic changes need to be made in order to spread these resources and rewards beyond the tiny, in comparison, pool of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the country, we ask graduate programs and graduate students at large to accept the Plan B?  What are you tenured and tenure-track folk going to do while we do that?  Twiddle your thumbs over your graded (by a T.A.) papers and your photocopied (by a R.A.) archive documents and those lower-level class descriptions (taught by graduate students so you are free to go on research leave this year)?  Train and employ the next crop to do the #grind you don’t want to do and then encourage them to not worry about getting to where you are?  Because we all know that there is no university with a functioning T.A./R.A. system that is going to stop admitting Ph.D. students.  Not while the getting is good and the work is there to be done.

You know what this feels like?  This feels like an Fortune 500 CEO telling a high schooler getting straight-As because she wants to own a business to forgo college, incorporate independent learning into her regimen, and reconsider that job opening at the DMV because the loans she’ll be left with will be too much to pay back over her lifetime.

You know what that Fortune 500 CEO ought to do instead?  Give that student a scholarship.  Endow a scholarship fund in their name at their favorite university.  Hell, with the funds Wall Street is raking in these days, build a whole new university and grant that student admission into it.  And if that student–not the CEO, the student–feels like college isn’t for them, build a state of the art DMV facility and make that student the CEO of it.  Create a fund for start-ups that does not require a bachelor’s degree and provides enough support for her to build the business of her dreams.  Find her mentors who are doing the same thing and advocate for her.  Help her do what she wants to do because she is coming into and loves the same industry you love.

In short, keep your words and use your power for good.  Your words aren’t helping me write these applications.  Or you could point me in the direction of a grant that will allow me build the Freedom School of my dreams.  MmmkayThx.

/End rant.


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