So you want to teach History

by CarlD

I got an email from someone reaching out to local History professors for intel on grad study, with an eye to teaching in higher ed. Research was turning up very negative.

It’s fashionable nowadays for mindful profs to discourage young seekers from taking this path of inevitable doom. I was trying to give the questioner more credit for being able to make its own informed decisions. Here’s what I wrote – anything to add?

Hi! You’re right, the general indications for a teaching career in History at the college level are mixed at best. There are a lot of graduate programs and a lot of applicants for very few positions, and the positions that do exist tend to be low level and impermanent. At this point a doctorate is little better than a hunting license, and a Masters qualifies you only for temp work.

For reference, I have my doctorate from UC San Diego, and it took me three years of gradually working my way up the adjuncting scale, teaching sometimes at three different universities a day, before I got this permanent position at MU. In my field of specialization there were something like 15-20 full-time job openings a year, nationwide, and I have a file three inches thick of rejection letters thanking me for being one of 200 highly qualified applicants. Those are not good odds.

That said, there are jobs and some people do get them. And if it’s your passion, you might as well try to be one of them. What I would recommend is to join the AHA, start stalking the job listings, and pay careful attention to the trends in where the openings are and what sorts of fields and experiences are being sought. Part of my problem was that I was in European intellectual history, a field with lots of graduates but very little workplace demand. In my cohort, Africanists were much more scarce and in demand, and that probably remains true. In general, the market for Americanists and Europeanists is both larger and much more saturated than that for non-Westernists. It also helps a lot to work on underrepresented populations, although if your niche is small enough you could again find yourself in competition for very scarce openings.

Basically, you want your training to pop you as not just another of the usual thing. That gets you in play for the larger departments and the more forward-looking small ones. Then, you want to also be able to handle at least one and preferably several of the bread and butter fields. The big surveys that junior faculty are brought in to teach because senior faculty want no part of them; or the courses that are pretty much the whole curriculum where History is a service field. Smaller departments and community colleges need breadth and flexibilty much more than exotic specialization. Think about niches and prepare yourself strategically.

I would also tune in to H-Net and its associated blogs. There are frequent discussions of the job market there. There’s a lot of fretting, which you shouldn’t discount entirely, but just keep remembering that the job market is segmented and there are, in fact, jobs that people are getting. It’s just a matter of being smart about what’s in demand and developing your interests accordingly. Your passion does not entitle you to someone else’s paycheck, I’m afraid.

Of course, the other thing you can do is push on through with that one burning love, and hope it works out. That’s kind of what I did, and it kind of did work out, but there’s a lot of flaming wreckage along that road also.

Good luck! Carl


6 Comments to “So you want to teach History”

  1. If you can do math, you can sneak in a job teaching history as an economist. But you generally have to have taken Linear Algebra even to be considered as a grad student.

  2. Ayup. I’m actually a little suspicious of the History focus; it reads ‘history buff’ to me, and there’s a gaping chasm between the gnostic orientation of that tribe and the analytical orientation of academic History, or Economics, or any other of the human studies. So at a second or third turn of the conversation I’d want to ask, “why History exactly?” and see if the momentum might be redirected somewhere more promising.

  3. Btw you can sneak up on a job teaching economics as a historian without any math at all!

  4. I like that you took the time to reply, but more than that, I like that you took the time to give some practical suggestions and specific places to look for more information. There is a strong parallel to the library/archival field, as there are more library school graduates than jobs available (especially as many library budgets are slashed and archives are considered non-essential to users). As a recent graduate myself, but also someone who’s “made it” (turned a part time gig into a full time professional position, have job security, and really like what I do), I vividly remember the panic of feeling like I’d put 10 years into something that was not going to happen.

    The suggestions I hated when looking for my first professional job were:
    “Consider re-locating.”
    “Join ALA.”
    “Do another internship.”
    These were vague and frustrating.

    Since I’ve started taking on library school interns, I tell them:
    “‘Networking’ sounds awful, but remember that I am in your network. Networking begins with keeping in touch with the people you like and not going to some terrible event where you awkwardly foist yourself on someone after two cups of wine.”
    “Yeah, the job market’s tough in our field, but don’t be afraid to accept a part time or temp position and work to turn it into more. Also, apply for jobs a bit above your perceived qualification level.” I give them specific blogs and listservs and forward any jobs that come my way.
    “ALA is huge and impenetrable when you’re just starting out. Rather than wasting money on a huge, national organization, join a local organization like Archivists Round Table, which is cheaper, help you to meet people in the city, and learn about what people are doing in the field.”
    “If you do another internship, pick wisely. Vet them to make sure they’ll teach you skills you can add to your resume.”

    I think the approach you used, and the approach I’m trying to use, addresses the difficulties in the field, but also encourages some specific courses of action. In my case, I’ve noticed it makes the interns feel a bit more determined rather than deflated (or worse, flipping out on listservs and blogs about the injustices of not being hired and marking them as “Not to be Hired”). Also, one of my former interns just got hired by the Grolier Club, so I’m feeling like a proud mama bear.

    On the flip side, sometimes there are people who say they want to be a librarian because they “like to read” or an archivist because they “like history.” Those people get a bit more of an “it’s a long road, kid” response.

  5. This is great. I agree it’s important to get down into the weeds rather than wafting out generic cheerleading or deflation. When everyone or no one is getting jobs, the latter approaches will be appropriate of course. And yeah, if they’re just putzing around (that is, if they haven’t committed enough to do some research on their own to get past the basics and establish their bona fides), there’s no point in mustering up the detailed response.

    I wanted to pick up on your point about trying for jobs above your qualification level. It’s very important as part of a larger point about opportunity, perseverance, and process. There’s that Atlantic piece going around lately about the ‘confidence gap’ between men and women, and as usual I think that probably translates to any subaltern group or sense of being one down. One of the critical points they make is that women (etc.) tend to apply for jobs and raises and grants and honors and such only if they feel 100% qualified, whereas men will just jump in and give it a shot at a much lower match. And sometimes catch an edge and get it. There’s a very different sense of the weight and rate of failure; men seem to better understand it as a routine cost of competitive processes, whereas women (etc.) seem to take it as a final verdict on their worthiness.

    So I have a dear friend with a top Ph.D. who stopped looking for academic jobs after one application and failed interview (at a highly competitive place), whereas I plugged along for three years of no and would have gone on even longer. And I gradually qualified up in the process – although I’m sure the job I got asked for things I didn’t have, because all job posts are wish lists drafted by a committee. In fact, I had been turned down for a different job at the same place the year before. (Obviously there are important considerations of how to live in the process, but that’s also a place where risk awareness and aversion may be gendered / empowered / entitled.)

    Now of course, there’s nothing more pathetic than that clueless incompetent yarp who bounds about brimming with confidence that he’s qualified for everything that catches his attention, failing again and again to learn from his failures. But being good, not knowing it, and taking yourself out of play because you can’t (or imagine that you can’t) handle a little inevitable rejection is almost as bad.

  6. I am working on a book-blog which can be seen at [one word], then clicking on either the “sample chapter” or “blog” buttons. My Rube Goldberg contraption of a brain processes the world with an odd, well-caffeinated kind of logic. Why is there an inverse proportion between the size of the print and the importance of the message? Historty. Art. Science. Religion. I call this eccentric thinking the Theory of Irony and if your busy schedule permits, why not give a read, leave a comment or create a link?

Leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: