A Pleasant Chat About A Less-Than-Pleasant Problem: An Interview With Patty Limerick About the Academic Job Market

Patty Limerick earned her PhD from Yale in 1980. She was an Assistant Professor of American History at Harvard University and is now a Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 1986, Limerick helped co-found the Center of the American West here at CU. Best described as a think tank focused on fostering respectful conversations around contentious public issues, the Center has produced publications on topics ranging from cleaning up abandoned hard-rock mines to coping with hydraulic fracturing. Dr. Limerick has won several notable awards and was President of the Organization of American Historians in academic year 2014-2015. With her work straddling the public and academic worlds in this way, Dr. Limerick is uniquely positioned to dispense sage advice to graduate students with her particular blend of insight and merriment. Patty agreed to join Erstwhile for a pleasant chat about less-than-pleasant problems in the academic job market in October, 2015.

Erstwhile Blog: What is your assessment of the academic job market? Did you see any encouraging signs during your year as President of the Organization of American Historians?

Patty Limerick: I’m a cheerful person, but I would be hard put to make a list of really encouraging signs and trends I saw in the academic job market. The rise of adjuncts seems like a force that everyone can lament. Everyone can lament it and say it shouldn’t be this way, but it seems to be that way. So I don’t know what could happen. We all can see the drop in history majors and history enrollment, and we know the folklore (which is very universal) that history majors are going to have a hard time finding a job to do something with that history major.  Well, if we don’t make some changes, that may continue to be true!

Now, are we chained? Are we forced by a coercive dictatorial power to continue doing what we’ve always been doing? Fortunately, no. We may experience life as if we are forced to continue doing these same things, but if we said “well you know this doesn’t work,” and if we could make some changes in our practices, then I just think it’s a kind of unlimited world of possibility!

EB: So what advice do you have for current History graduate students facing this conundrum?

PL: If we stick with the status quo of how we train people in graduate school, we are producing a workforce for which there is very little in the way of available employment. Obviously the graduate students are going to have trouble leading from below. That’s really hard and that’s unlikely to work, and it’s going to require something way beyond modifications in the training program.

Now I do want to say that in working in the applied world, not a day goes by when I don’t benefit from something that I had to study or a book I had to read in graduate school. These exercises just stocked the cupboard. In fact, a lot of that cupboard is now well-stocked with information because of conventional training. So it’s about keeping the structure where you’re reading a lot and taking a lot in, but then we need to rethink the delivery system. There’s nothing criminal or sinful about writing for an academic journal – quite the contrary – but that can’t in any way be the exclusive form of sharing what we’ve got in the cupboard.

EB: There’s a whole crop of graduate students with newly-minted MAs and PhDs facing the challenge of telling people outside of the academy why a graduate degree in History has significant value. How can we practice translating our skills for these folks?

PL: For quite a spell, people who got into the business with better timing and who do have a tenured job were kind of inclined to say to legislators and public officials, “well, we are doing very important research and we deserve society’s support.” But that really didn’t work over time. So I think we just need a lot of practice and rehearsal in improvisational theater and how to say to somebody, “if you don’t include historians in your enterprise you are really missing something of value.”

People who are in graduate school in history, people who are full professors in history, pretty often have kinfolk who are not historians. And a whole bunch of those historians are just forced out into the world when they go to see their family members. It’s possible to speak to those family members in complete, unadulterated academic jargon, but that’s probably not going to go well as a conversation. Alternatively, you can think “what am I doing that would be of interest to a normal person?” And then, if you have an anecdote about an interesting person in the past, you can get someone to say “well I didn’t know you were doing anything that interesting.” It just seems like we have a training program going on all of the time. At a certain point you’re at Thanksgiving dinner and someone asks you what you are doing, and that is a time to get in trim and in training for reaching a wider audience.

EB: Our students are fleeing the History major. Public funding for liberal arts education seems to be drying up at an ever increasing rate. How should the next generation of historians respond to this situation?

PL: I think the door is just wide-open for entrepreneurial young historians creating businesses that do private historical consulting and offering historical understanding for all sorts of uses. And I know that’s very impure, but when you’re wanting to buy a house and eat and keep warm, I think being impure is an acceptable thing. The fact is that nothing I can see is really going to work out to keep what were once familiar sources of money flowing to individually chosen, completely self-determined research. I don’t know where the signed contract is where society just agrees to support people in this line of work. It’s just nothing to take for granted that the taxpayers’ dollars are going to come in this direction. So I don’t think there’s any place to hide.

But, the good news is that people do know that amnesia is a terrible affliction for an individual. So why would it be better for a society? Why would a society be in a better operating order with amnesia? And in fact, that’s what the societal affliction is, so we are really in need of historical perspective.

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