The Last Historians?

Chris Beneke

In January of this year, Stanley Fish caused something of a stir (again) with a blog entry titled The Last Professor, in which he discussed Frank Donoghue’s sharp and gloomy book: The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. At the conclusion, Fish observes that he “timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.” Here was a nice occasion for Fish to emphasize his own humility and for humanities professors to reacquaint themselves with the sensation of excruciating professional angst. Donoghue’s argument, as you might guess from the title, is that the modern non-profit university is increasingly run on a corporate model with teachers hired for short-term contracts and institutional goals defined by explicitly professional ends (on the student side of things) and financial success (on the administrative side). The picture he paints of the humanities job market is bleak. The picture he paints of the conditions of adjunct faculty is bleaker still. Donoghue takes pains to emphasize that the tension between the corporate world and the academic study of the humanities is as old as the tenured, research-oriented humanities professoriate itself. Moreover, he denies that we’re in a “crisis.” This is a long-term trend, he contends, rather than a short-term anomaly. Still, Donoghue makes it abundantly clear that he believes the academic study of humanities subjects to be on the tail end of a long slide toward irrelevance.

What should academic historians make of such a scary report—and what can they do to alter the dismal trajectory that Donoghue charts? The Last Professors offers few concrete recommendations, aside from his wise injunction to stop defending tenure on the grounds of academic freedom because that strategy only “exacerbate[s] the divide between the dwindling number of tenured professors and the growing rank of adjuncts.” And so, with The Last Professors in mind, but with no pretensions to originality or expertise, I offer the following unsolicited recommendations:

First, we need to forthrightly and repeatedly stress the value of the humanities in general, and the work of history in particular. That means, too, that we should think hard and maybe even talk a bit more about the larger value of the humanities in general, and the work of history in particular. And please, let’s try to avoid making the process look like an extended graduate seminar.

Second, we need to make sure that what we do with our students in the classroom and on-line is as conducive to their learning and thinking as it is distinctive. If you’ve seen the lectures at Academic Earth or listened to the lectures at iTunes University, you will have already realized that much of a history professor’s traditional teaching responsibilities can now be easily replicated and widely distributed. Making sure that we bring the latest research into the classroom in an engaging way will help to justify our scholarship, as well as our teaching.

Third, we should ensure that pay, benefits, and respect are more fairly distributed to all of the professionals in our field. For a group that votes overwhelmingly Democratic , tenured and tenure-track professors (as a whole) pay inexcusably little attention to their colleagues who do quite similar work on short-term contracts and for much less pay. Equity and enlightened self-interest both demand that the most privileged among us attend seriously to the conditions of those who now teach sixty-five percent of our classes.

Fourth, we must be engaged with popular works of history that both non-historians and historians will actually read and discuss. We should even be prepared to write such books ourselves.

Fifth, we need to stop pretending that all the work in our discipline is, or should be, of intrinsic interest to the rest of the world. To this point, we could substitute more rigorous teacher training for grad school research commitments and alter tenure and PhD requirements so that a series of article-length essays may be accorded the same worth as a four-hundred page dissertation. We should also reward good public history as generously as we reward good intra-academic scholarship.

Frank Donoghue’s dismal trends may indeed have originated long ago and his dark prophecies may take years to fulfill. But if we’re to avoid being the last generation of history professors, we will need to act quickly.