The strange decline of history

I’ve written before about the long, slow decline of history as a profession, and what historians might do to reverse the trend. I graduate from Yale University with a degree in history in 1995. At that time, graduates perceived that we were launching into a difficult job market. We also believed that history was a foundational discipline in the humanities, and that the job market should get better. We had no idea what was coming.

My conversations with my colleagues in the humanities are often tinged with bitterness, as colleagues wonder: “how did the humanities become so utterly devalued.” These colleagues share a sense that the world has changed and things that mattered in another era –being well-read, the value of a liberal education, and research skills– have been tossed aside. These conversations often end with my colleagues condemning the neoliberal model in education, the reliance on student credit hours (SCH) in university budgeting, and the lack of respect that others have for the profession. But there are few innovative solutions offered. The conversations seem to end with people wondering how historians can help the provost to see the value of the humanities.

The shared theme in these discussions is that the problem is not caused by us; we just need to make others understand why the field is important. This is a dispiriting approach. Even the title of some of AHA’s data reports have a whiff of despair: “History Is Not a Useless Major: Fighting Myths with Data.” If you need convincing, please take a look at the titles of these reports highlighted by the American Historical Association.

I’ve not only become tired of this conversation, but also convinced that many of our fields’ failings are self-inflicted wounds. I’m not the only one to think this. I want to recommend Hal Brand and Francis Gavin’s article, “The historical profession is committing slow motion suicide.” In the United States, we need to ensure that our foreign affairs are shaped by a knowledge of diplomatic and military history, as well as grand strategy, which ties the field to key global issues. Yet as Brand and Gavin note these aren’t areas that most departments prioritize, even though these classes often still draw students well.

The field isn’t rushing to embrace online curriculum, and its aversion to technology is a long-standing problem. Historians perhaps even were slower than other fields to adopt email. An April 2006 report by Robert Townsend in Perspectives found that while “many faculty in the field report that e-mail is a mixed blessing as a means of staying in contact with students, the vast majority in the discipline now do so, as 82.4 percent said they use e-mail to stay in touch with their students.” Again, that was in 2006.

When I look at syllabi in Brazilian history shared online, most of them could have been written in the 1980s, in terms of their format, assignments, and content. How could so much time have passed, and so little have changed in the field pedagogically? Sometimes I feel that the focus on how others perceive history has left the entire field paralyzed. I don’t see historians leading the move to Universal Design in their courses, or the Negotiated Syllabus. But to be clear I also don’t feel that any of these weaknesses themselves account for the decline of history.

Yes, we as historians can do better. But that’s not the base issue. And the examples above omit the amazing work and trends that I see being done in the field, particularly by some of my junior colleagues. There is a larger trend apart from these failings.

History is fundamental. One only has to look at the political discourse in the United States over the last several years -issues of race, colonialism and imperialism- to understand why. Even in the world of finance, if you don’t understand Argentina’s financial history over the last few decades, will you make good assumptions when investing there or buying financial instruments? And how can one make informed decisions about foreign policy as a citizen without some understanding of history?

I recently received an email asking me to enroll in the American Historical Association. My membership has lapsed. The opening line had words to the effect “I know that our historical profession now is not what it was ten years ago. . .” What struck me in that sentence was the phrase “the last ten years.” It assumed that we all had a common understanding of what had happened in the last ten years, and that the change had been dramatic. Or even catastrophic.

I’ve spent a quarter century in an International and Global Studies department, and am more of a social scientist now. So I feel that I’ve escaped much of this sad saga, apart from hallway conversations. But when I read this email I wondered- what has happened with the discipline in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom? Is the decline of history a uniquely U.S. phenomenon, or part of a global trend? Would anyone in other countries start such an email with the words (as best as I can recall), “the history profession is not what it was ten years ago?” And if this trend is mainly in the United States, why is that? For all of our field’s failings, this has been a long and dangerous decline, which leaves me heartsick.

Shawn Smallman

Crazy Book Prices

As authors, the prices that Amazon and other e-stores charge for our books can be mystifying. Today I received an email from a graduate student interested in accessing a book (Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and Legend) that I had written on an evil-spirit being in Algonquian religion. They said that they couldn’t afford over $700 for the book, and asked if I could help them. I was confused and went online to look on Amazon. Sure enough, what I saw was the prices that you can view on the screenshot below. This left me rather mystified. The Kindle version of the book is under nine dollars (U.S. funds), while on Apple books the e-book is selling for just under ten dollars. Why would anyone pay $1,187.50 for the physical book? And why didn’t I save a couple of copies myself to sell on Amazon?

I know that the windigo is a common subject in pop culture, such as young adult novels, television and video games. I also know that a movie on the windigo called Antlers (set in Oregon) is coming out shortly. But these prices are unbelievable. Just to be clear: I certainly receive no share of these inflated prices, and my profits on the book have been quite modest. That’s typically the way it is for academic authors. I spent eleven years researching and writing my first book, and my first (and by far the largest) royalty check was about $220 U.S. dollars. My wife and I used it to go out for dinner to celebrate. You can imagine what the hourly rate for writing that book must have been, especially after spending a year researching amongst dusty papers in Brazil’s military archives. I try not to think about it.

So when you see such elevated prices for a book, please don’t think that this has anything to do with the authors, or that we are somehow receiving a large share of these funds. For anyone who is interested, you can obtain a paperback copy of the book for $19.95 Canadian from my publisher, Heritage House press. If you can afford to buy it from the publisher (and are in Canada), your purchase supports a small, independent house that’s an important venue for books on history.

Want to learn more about the windigo? You can watch a video by PBS’s Monstrum on YouTube here.

Shawn Smallman

Dangerous Spirits on Amazon

Change and the Liberal Arts


The seven liberal arts from Hortus Deliciarum, Die Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten of Herrad of Landsberg. Date circa 1180. Wikipedia Commons.

Michael Lind has a book review in the National Interest that is relevant far beyond the field of International Relations. In this well-written essay Lind discusses Michael Desch’s recent book Cult of the Irrelevant. When I was in graduate school, thinkers such as Paul Kennedy would travel to Washington, DC to talk to members of Congress. Those days are long gone, and in general academics’ influence over policy making in International Relations has declined steadily. In the current era of populism and nationalism it would be easy to depict this state of affairs as being a symptom of the anti-intellectualism of American society. But the reality is that this trend extends beyond the United States. …

International Students

As faculty, we often focus on what takes place in the classroom, but it’s useful to remember how much learning takes place throughout our students’ entire college experience. International students are a particularly important part of that process, as Stephanie Argy discusses in “Sharing the World,” which was just published in Portland State Magazine.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

The Campus Politics of Online Teaching

A few years ago I moved my teaching entirely online. One of the joys of online teaching is that it allows faculty to better know our students. In a conventional classroom, I would come to know the four or five students who spoke the most. In my online class every student must do two detailed discussion posts a week. There is always someone in the class who finishes their first lengthy post by saying, “I don’t normally talk in class, so this is unusual for me to say so much . . . ” Teaching online also allows for greater creativity, and has enabled me to rethink my pedagogy. Over the last two years I have become inspired by the principles of the negotiated syllabus, in which students choose their content in the course. In my classes students take increasing responsibility for the content as the course progresses. For example, in my Global Drug Trade course this quarter every student creates a 12-15 page research paper, which they share with their peers in the final week of the class. This is the only content in the course for this week. At the same time that my course is based upon a negotiated syllabus, the entire content of the class is shaped around the principle of Universal Design, which fosters the learning of diverse groups, such as people for whom English is a second language, and those with different learning needs. I teach at a public university that has historically has an access mission, and I believe that teaching online enables me to continue to serve those students who would otherwise have difficulty completing their degree. As such, online education reflects our core institutional values. …

10 interview tips you’ll need for academic jobs

I have served on many search committees in International and Global Studies over two decades, and I want to give some tips for academics applying for faculty positions. Some of these points are obvious, but they are easy to forget during the pressure of a job interview:


  1. Do your research, and know all the faculty members’ work before you arrive. This is a sign of respect, and will be very helpful during the dinner meetings.
  2. Before you come to the campus, you should also look at the department’s courses online, and have a good understanding of how the curriculum works. This step will enable you to better explain how you can contribute to the department’s offerings.
  3. When you are giving a talk based on your research, make sure that you convey the relevance of your work for nonspecialists. Many applicants don’t do this, and no matter how theoretically relevant or innovative, you can lose your audience otherwise, even when they are in the same field.
  4. Maintain your energy throughout the interview process. Yes, the search process is exhausting, but the person having coffee with you on the second afternoon should still see you as someone who will be dynamic in the classroom.
  5. Think about how you would teach online. Increasingly departments expect faculty to be willing to do some online teaching, and they often just assume that younger faculty will know how to do this. While you may not have had a chance to work with a class in an online format, spend a little time talking with someone who has, and convey enthusiasm about the opportunity to do so. This may set you apart from the other applicants.
  6. Be flexible in what courses you would be willing to offer. Do not be too modest, and say that it would take you a lot of work to develop a course, or that you’re not sure if you have the expertise. That is not how you wish to present yourself during an interview.
  7. Often candidates will have a lunch meeting with students. Search committees take student input seriously, so treat their questions with respect, and make an effort to engage with everyone. Try to learn student names, and to address students by them, even during a brief meeting. If a student has a question, get their email, and send them some follow-up information.
  8. After you have a campus interview, always send a thank you email to the head of the search committee, as well as the committee members. This conveys enthusiasm for the job, and people will remember it.
  9. Don’t bring up spousal hires, moving expenses, and related issues until you’ve been offered the job. All those questions should be addressed during the negotiations after you’ve been offered the position. Remember, once you have been offered the job the power shifts to you, because departments are very reluctant to move to their second choice.
  10. Never, ever complain about your adviser or your graduate program. You were invited to campus in part based on the strength of that program or that adviser’s reputation, so such complaints undermine you as a candidate. They also may paint you as a difficult person. You’ll have lots of time for this after you get the job.

Charles King, “The Decline of International Studies”

Charles King has an outstanding article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Decline of International Studies.” The core of his argument is that cuts to federal funding programs (especially “Title 6” funds for regional studies) have saved the U.S. government little money, but have cost much expertise in International Affairs. He also argues that the government is increasingly supporting only research tied to security issues. He also provides evidence that college students are taking fewer language classes than in the recent past. Perhaps equally significant, he also points out that many scholars of “International Relations” do not themselves have a good command of a foreign language. …

International Studies versus Global Studies

NASA image: NASA Identifier: sts040-73-037
NASA image: NASA Identifier: sts040-73-037

I’ve just done a peer review of an outstanding article on the field of International Studies, which again raised the question of the difference between International and Global Studies. Although I’ve touched on this topic before it is worth revisiting this issue, because the differences are significant. International Studies is a field that emerged within the parent discipline of International Relations within Political Science. The field developed because scholars were dissatisfied with the heavy focus on inter-state relations, as well as a stress on quantitative methodology. It’s important to note that the positivist approach that was so powerful in the United States (especially in the fifties and sixties) was never as influential in Canada and Europe. Still, within the United States, the field of International Studies still bears signs of its birth from Political Science. Those scholars who visit the International Studies Association conference for the first time are likely to be struck not only by its sheer size, but also by the dominance of traditional social science methodology. If you read the two major journals in the field –International Studies Review and International Studies Quarterly– they are dominated by International Relations scholarship from classical Political Science. Many articles focus on Realism, Constructivism and Liberalism in IR. …

Free MOOCs on World War One

Although I teach both hybrid and online classes, I haven’t yet taken a MOOC, which is a free online class made available to a large number of people. Now the BBC has worked with four British universities to make available four MOOCs on World War One, and I’m thinking about joining. Curious too? You can sign up here.

Professor Smallman, Portland State University

Resources for Internationalization

"3d Earth In Blue" by chrisroll
“3d Earth In Blue” by chrisroll

One of the challenges when working with internationalization is to learn what resources already exist and where you can look for models. I’ve created a list of key websites that provide links to awards, resources, and white papers. In particular I recommend the outstanding work being done by ACE.

American Council on Education, Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement

 This probably represents the single best, sustained effort to think about internationalization in a comprehensive manner.


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