This past summer, the American Historical Association issued a statement that set off deep debate in the academic community — so much so that it produced the rare effect of being noticed — and amplified — by the general interest press. The request: that universities that automatically publish history department doctoral dissertations online should allow young scholars to embargo those tomes for up to six years.
The reasoning was built on two related premises: that university presses are less likely to publish a book if the dissertation it is based on is widely available online and, as a result, that the availabilities of these dissertations affects the ability of young scholars to seek tenure.
The AHA says their statement came in response to two contradictory impulses in academia: the desire to engage the world with new thinking and the requirements the university’s models/logics of professionalization.
But presuming that these two must necessarily be in contradiction means believing the world will always be as it is today (or that it hasn’t changed already). After all, disruption rarely comes from within an industry but rather from changes outside it. As communication studies scholar Amanda Lotz has researched, institutions often hang on to existing logic until it becomes completely untenable, rather than proactively adjusting to acclimate to the world as it changes.
The AHA’s statement has driven a wide range of responses. Many commenters from the historian world responding directly cried out that the institution was bowing to institutional pressure rather than becoming powerful advocates for how academic institutions should change tenure review. The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen evokes the Digital Public Library of America’s Dan Cohen and historian Adam Crymble in challenging the AHA’s presumption that, because “history has been and remains a book-based discipline,” that publishing a book will always be the primary means for promotion. Trevor Owens laments that the AHA should have put their emphasis on thanking and supporting doctoral students fighting to make their dissertations publicly accessible, rather than issuing a statement based on coping strategies with the world as it is. And, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Bell asks whether the issue is a model by which an academic spends years writing a dissertation, followed by spending several more years turning that dissertation into a book — instead of moving on to new research.
The problem, of course, is not merely a theoretical one, nor is particular to historians. Newly minted Ph.D.’s come out of roughly a decade of higher education and into an over-saturated job market in almost every discipline, with the need to earn a living. Their ability to fight for changing “the way things are” is heavily shaped by their need to feed themselves and their families, and their leverage as a new professor to challenge tenure processes or the academic publishing industry is limited. Meanwhile, the institutional demands and wear and tear of the tenure process leaves many — once they find tenure — less likely to put their energy toward changing the system that exists for those coming behind them.
To be clear, as Jacqueline Jones and others told The New York Times’ Noam Cohen, the AHA is not demanding scholars not publish their work online but rather that they have the choice of whether they want their work to be shared online at the point they have completed their dissertation.
But the question is to what degree academic associations, universities, and university presses should continue to find ways to protect the logic of how they operate today in a changing climate or how deeply they should push their profession into where the world is headed.
After all, the ability for academic research to be seen more quickly and more widely than ever before is a good problem to have. The purpose of academic institutions has traditionally been to conduct this research for improving our culture’s understanding…thus, educating students, educating the public, and furthering knowledge. Somewhere along the way, it seems academia has lost sight of that goal and instead acted in favor of preserving strategies that were built in response to realities that are no longer the case.
A professional logic built in a world of information scarcity no longer makes sense, yet tenure processes at universities — and university press business models — all still operate on it. In the process, the academy is not responding to its primary charge of engaging with and helping increase the knowledge of the world outside university campuses. In particular, far too little progress has been made in helping the rest of the world, as citizens and as professionals, understand what academic research has to teach them.
The AHA is investing in protecting scholars from the world as it is. In doing so, it seems to be admitting to having very limited purview and impact. Rather, what if institutions like the AHA — and, of course, university presses and university administrators across the U.S. — put their energy toward creating systems that teach scholars how to share their research to various publics and advocating for systems that reward young scholars for such public engagement that get ideas into circulation as broadly, efficiently, and effectively as possible?
Perhaps we’d find out what the historian of the 21st century should look like, rather than how to protect the career path of the 20th-century historian for decades to come.