Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy the AHA: Rough Draft for a Manifesto

I read today about a group planning to do follow in the footsteps of the Occupy movement and occupy the MLA annual conference. Why not the AHA as well? I won't be in Chicago this year, and will most likely never attend an AHA conference ever again in my life (I won't be on the academic job market, flogging a book, or giving a paper there), so the following manifesto is just a thought-exercise that might prove useful (or not) to anyone out there in cyberland who will be attending the theater of cruelty and broken dreams that is the American Historical Association's annual gathering.

The state of the historical profession is dire, and for younger scholars and contingent faculty members, it has become completely unacceptable. Graduate students do more and more teaching labor with fewer and fewer full-time jobs when they are done. Adjuncts are paid sub-poverty wages without health benefits and toil in obscurity as second-class members of their institutions, without voice, power, or job security. Those that speak out are often fired as "trouble makers." We are being told there is a problem with the "overproduction" of PhDs, yet the demand for adjunct labor grows more and more each year. Those lucky enough to get tenure-track jobs face departments that are increasing the number of students in the classroom as well as the publishing requirements for tenure, even at "teaching centered" universities. Young historians struggle to meet these requirements in an environment where university presses are downsizing and abandoning their knowledge-based missions in the pursuit of mass appeal and lucre. In the meantime, little sacrifice is being borne by older generations who get to sit in judgement on tenure cases, many times applying standards that they never could have dreamed of passing themselves.

Although the AHA has done more in the last two years to respond to these issues, it is still an institution centered around the interests of a minority of privileged historians with tenured positions at research universities. It was only when the scions of the profession's elite stopped finding good jobs that the organization bothered to pay attention. It still expects poverty-stricken graduate students and contingent faculty to pay prohibitively high travel expenses to have only one or two twenty minute job interviews at this very event, an event that symbolizes the powerlessness of junior scholars who must beg for book contracts and humiliate themselves for even the least desirable jobs. For far too long we have been pitted against each other in a vicious struggle for survival that for the majority of us is a losing game. Those days are over! Today, instead of desperately competing for jobs and book contracts, we demand that the AHA overcome its moribund inaction and do something to stop the destruction of an entire generation of historians.

Here is an impartial list of our proposals:

1. That the AHA officially repudiate the rhetoric of "overproduction" and acknowledge that the lack of good jobs is the biggest cause of the current crisis in employment for historians.
2. That the AHA create high-level positions in its organizational structure specifically intended to be filled by and to advance the interests of graduate students and contingency faculty members.
3. That the AHA encourage departments that persist in using non-tenured labor to establish permanent positions with decent pay, health benefits, and job security, and to officially censure those departments that fail to meet these standards.
4. That the AHA recognize the current crisis in academic publishing and encourage departments to make their tenure and hiring decisions accordingly.
5. That the AHA put an end to the conference job register and discourage the practice of on-site conference interviews, and encourage their replacement with preliminary interviews over the phone or via video chat.
6. That the AHA stop espousing the rhetoric that "there's little we can do to force universities and departments to change their hiring practices" and concentrate all of its power on doing that which it can do to alleviate the crisis.
7. That the AHA reduce its membership fees for graduate students and contingent faculty members.
8. That the AHA come up with clear guidelines in relation to online publications, so that junior scholars may be better rewarded for their academic accomplishments.
9. That the AHA locate future conferences on the basis of expense for conference attendees over any other factor, or failing that, subsidize attendance by adjuncts and graduate students.
10. That the AHA make alleviating the employment crisis for junior scholars its most important priority for the foreseeable future.

If that AHA refuses to respond to these demands, particularly the last, it will have proven itself to be a morally bankrupt, useless institution in the eyes of junior scholars, who will have no choice but to abandon it en masse. Remember: if we have no future, you won't have one either.

In solidarity and righteousness,
Werner Herzog's Bear


Debbie said...

May I add:
That the AHA devise a standard practice for accepting job applications that discourages compulsory inclusion of documents such as transcripts and letters of recommendation in a job application, especially as these documents have almost no bearing on who among the pile of 200 applicants will be selected for an interview.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

That's a good point. They should also set up an online clearing house where schools would have access to CVs, teaching portfolios, etc so candidates don't have to keep sending them out. Just about every other profession does something like this already.

LD said...

As a PhD student, I appreciate this list, and agree with most of it. However, I am not too keen on item #2.

I guess it's a good symbolic gesture -- the AHA can put its money where its mouth is in terms of improving the job market. But where would such jobs lead? Surely not to the tenure track, or even to the classroom. I take "historian" seriously as a professional designation and a vocation, but I think I would take perpetual adjuncthood over a desk job in the AHA bureaucracy.

However, maybe you envision something different for those AHA-sponsored positions. What do you have in mind?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I meant that not as a job creating measure, but as a way to have advocates for grads and adjuncts have more of a voice.

Jonathan Dresner said...

Tweeted:!/jondresner (Had to edit a bit for twitter; hope it's clear enough, though)

SurlyBrit said...

While I agree with the Bear on most all of this, I'd respectfully disagree with Debbie about rec letters. IMHO, they're indispensable in fairly judging the files of serious candidates for any academic position. Transcripts are necessary, I guess, as a credential check but that could come at the end of the process, once finalists have been identified. . . . but as to the central clearing house, yes absolutely. If we want to print a file, we can. We can afford it.