Month: March 2013

History as a Career, ca. 1960

In 1961 the American Historical Association published a short guide for undergraduates, History as a Career. To Undergraduates Choosing A Profession. The pamphlet opens:

TO UNDERGRADUATES CHOOSING A PROFESSION
In former centuries parents chose spouses and professions for their children. Today’s men and women can select their own. Chances are that another person will make at least half the decision for you when you select a spouse. In deciding upon a profession, as at few times in your life, you can stand alone.
This brochure is designed to help you decide whether you want to make college history teaching a career. Do you have “what it takes”? Is this the “route you want to go”? What follows will help you answer these questions. It will also call your attention to financial aid that is available for graduate study, and make suggestions about selecting a university for graduate study.
The decision is your own.

The AHA pamphlet encouraging undergraduates to study history.
The AHA pamphlet encouraging undergraduates to study history.

Apparently, what it took to get into graduate school ca. 1960 was a “strong interest in history” and “at least a ‘B’ record in history classes (with average or better grades in other college courses),” the ability “read two modern foreign languages” and “to write effective and lucid English prose.”

In 1959 “about 330 doctorates in history were awarded” (a few years later there were nearly 600 PhDs awarded, according to Figure 1 in this post) from about 85 universities in the U.S. Half studied U.S. history, a quarter modern European.

History graduate students were a smart lot: “A study in 1958 showed that 70% of them—a small notch higher than graduate students in general—had ranked in the upper fifth of their high school classes.” These budding young historians were destined for the upper socio-economic echelons: in 1960 new faculty could expect to make $5,200-6,400. And the sky was the limit: “In 1960-61 salaries of $13,000 for senior professors of history in major universities were not unusual and higher ones were sometimes paid.”

Those 1960-61 salaries turn out to be $39,900 to 49,100 for new hires and $99,800 for full professors. According to a survey of Average Salaries of Tenured & Tenure Track Faculty in The Chronicle, today’s new assistant faculty earn marginally more at $55,000. Salaries for full professors at research universities, by contrast, have remained flat at $99,800.

History salaries do not seem to have kept pace with the national average, which in 1961 was $4007 and in 2011 was 42,979—a 10.72 fold increase. Assistant professors have enjoyed an increase between 8.6 and 10.57 fold. Full professors have suffered worse at only a 7.7 fold increase. I am confident the numbers would look even worse if compared to people with some form of graduate degree (but I don’t have the energy to go find those numbers).

As today, the rhetoric in the profession guided graduate students to teaching careers. After six pages singing the praises of teaching, the pamphlet offers one short paragraph and tepid endorsement of alternative careers: “A large majority of persons who obtain training as professional historians become teachers of history. Some, however, pursue other activities such as politics or journalism.”

It is a bit unsettling to see how little history as a profession has changed over the last 50 years.

A Dozen Medieval Plague Victims?

The Crossrail project in London is attracting attention lately for having unearthed numerous graves. Today reports claim the project has run into the tip of a plague cemetery. The Guardian states unambiguously:

Seven centuries after their demise, the skeletons of 12 plague victims have been unearthed in the City of London, a find which archaeologists believe to be just the tip of a long-lost Black Death mass burial ground.

Sky News was more cautious:

Archaeologists say 12 skeletons found beneath a building site in London could provide evidence of a Black Death burial ground.

Workers uncover skeletons in Crossrail shaft.
Workers uncover skeletons in Crossrail shaft.

Experts claim that the evidence suggests this was a 14th-century “emergency burial ground,” but other tests—e.g., DNA and carbon dating—are needed to confirm or disconfirm that these 12 skeletons were victims of the Black Death. Whether or not it was a plague cemetery may remain an open question along with how many bodies were buried there. What we have right now is 12 (CNN reports 13) skeletons. There may be another 49,988, as Nasser Saidi recklessly claims (he is not alone in making that claim), but we will probably never know—according to The Guardian, the Crossrail project does not intend to excavate beyond the shaft where the remains were found.

As interesting as the articles are the comments from readers. Many readers share an unalloyed faith in a science that has cured the plague. Some combine that optimism with a historically problematic condemnation of the church. One comment:

Science has now come up with a cure for this. These poor people relied on prayer to save them as science was being held back by the church. Next time you see a story on Sky where some celebrity is thanking god for saving them as they leave a hospital remember this photo. Science is ready to sure cancer and will one say be able to grow you a brand new heart.

Or another:

At the time — due to ignorance, and belief in mumbo-jumbo — victims of the plague were considered to be objects of God’s Wrath (for sin, or whatever).
Today, we know better.

Equally common is the apparently real fear that uncovering these skeletons risks unleashing a plauge on London. Put most simply: “Is there any chance of the bacteria being able to regenerate now that bodies have been exhumed?”

It’s worth reading the comments to get a sense of contemporary fears, beliefs, and bugbears.

Why Novak Lost to Inman

Matt Novak from Paleofuture took Matthew Inman and his comic about Telsa to task in his “Edison vs. Tesla & the Myth of the Lone Inventor” at SxSW. Novak adopted a two-pronged approach: he attacked the comfortable idea that there was a lone inventor and, along the way, refuted many of the specific claims for Tesla having invented something (at least according to one report). Unfortunately, this approach is doomed to fail.

Inman dismissed Novak’s concerns with a nonchalant “The goal with my comic wasn’t to write nonfiction, it was more to paint a portrait of Tesla’s character and why I admire that and why I admire geeks in general.” Inman can ignore the facts because they get in the way of the story he wants to tell—or, in this case, the character he wants to celebrate.

Inman’s cavalier attitude to the historical record recalls Ben Affleck’s in “Argo.” In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Affleck rejected the “Bookkeeper’s reality” for the “poet’s:”

It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and what happened.

Neither Terry Gross on NPR nor Matt Novak had a good response. Both lost themselves in the details of this or that distortion. Such an approach is as ineffective as historians’ efforts to rebut distortions about Galileo.

Both Affleck and Inman want to invest their stories with the authority of historical reality but don’t want to be constrained by that reality. In this way they disguise their opinions and values as fact.

Historians need to articulate why fidelity to the historical record and standards of evidence and argument matter (see, for example, Carlo Ginzburg’s recent effort in “Just One Witness: The Extermination of the Jews and the Principle of Reality” in his Threads and Traces).

Time is as always Political

As usual, the switch to DST this past weekend in the U.S. has brought out strong opinions for and against. The time of day and the day of the year have been contested for centuries, whether we are worried about a leap second or moving the date of Easter. In honor of all the people who get worked up over this issue, I offer these two early-modern efforts to deal with the various time-telling conventions used in the Holy Roman Empire.

Each horoscopion was created by Johannes Stabius, imperial historian and court mathematician at the Holy Roman Court, in the early 1510s. He made this first one for Emperor Maximilian I:

A universal horoscopion created for Emperor Maximilian.
A universal horoscopion created for Emperor Maximilian.

Stabius made this second for another imperial bureaucrat, Jacob Bannisius:

Another universal horoscopion used to tell time in different cities in the Holy Roman Empire.
Another universal horoscopion used to tell time in different cities in the Holy Roman Empire.

Our smartphones and powerful computers aren’t going to solve the problem of time because the problem isn’t a technical one. To the extent that there’s a problem, it is and always has been a disagreement over politics, economics, and convention (see, for example, debates in Indiana or the story in Arizona).

Forensic Pathology and History

Philippe Charlier is all over the place right now. He recently examined Richard the Lionheart’s heart and found evidence for embalming practices. He also studied a thirteenth-century head that seems to have been embalmed and studied (read that Scientific American with a generous grain of salt).

Charlier’s work shows contemporary scientific analyses can offer interesting and often unique information about the past. Although we have known that dissections occurred during the Middle Ages—see Katharine Park’s “Myth 5. That the Medieval Church Prohibited Human Dissection” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion—analyses like Charlier’s fills in the picture. We learn the types of substances they used to embalm and preserve organs. Such information can help raise questions about knowledge, medical practice, trade, availability of different substances across Europe.