Head of the (middle) class?

September, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

The Guardian reported today on the fear that the humanities were becoming increasingly gentrified. Reports in Britain show students from lower-income backgrounds avoiding programs like history and philosophy in favour of career-oriented studies. Why?

The study shows a fascinating, and terrifying, situation. Not only are low-income students systemically barred from higher education and advanced degrees on account of their economic resources. But we are simultaneously creating a culture around the humanities where the lowest income students are unable to take same the risk as their more affluent colleagues to pursue degrees in history and other humanities disciplines.

The study upon which the article was based spoke to enrollments and class issues in the UK, but it felt familiar even to me despite having been raised and educated to MA level in Canada and then to the PhD in the United States. The article’s discussion of working-class students’ fear of studies that might not lead in any obvious direction spoke to my own educational history.

I loved the humanities, and excelled in them throughout secondary school. But what could I do with an English degree or a History degree? With that in mind I found a compromise: I would study languages (German) and business for an international management degree. This worked for a time. I enjoyed studying German, and learning to communicate in another language opened up conceptual worlds to me I hadn’t imagined. But it was a still a compromise. The enjoyment I derived from studying German balanced against the loathing I felt for most of my business courses.

In the end I dropped out of business school to undertake studies in History. But even then, after two further years of study, I still feared I’d never find employment with the material I enjoyed, and so I left the humanities and returned to business. After many more flip flops and combined degrees I ended up completing degree requirements in all three areas: German, History, and Management. But History won as I soon went on to an MA. But some of the same concerns and struggles followed me there, as they have with other working-class colleagues who went on to graduate studies in History.

In Britain, the Guardian reports, the question of class and education is particularly significant because tuition rates are widely expected to be increased dramatically over the next few years. Increased tuition rates will, naturally, be felt strongest by those least able to pay them. And even if student funding sources are expanded, this does little to overcome what appears to be a mental obstacle preventing non-elite students from seeing the humanities as a viable option.

But what about North America where tuition rates are already on the rise? What about my former institution, the University of California, where tuition rates are growing astronomically to help offset the system-wide financial disaster? Under these kinds of circumstances, how do we maintain access for all to humanities studies?

But it’s not really about access. Grants, scholarships, and loans can be expanded for the lowest income students, after all. How do we actually convince them that the humanities are in fact a viable option, that they offer career paths, that they contribute more than ideals. And then, how do we create an academy where we can mean it, and believe it ourselves?

This post originally appeared at History Compass Exchanges on
27 September 2010.


The Strange Case of Postdocs in Canada

May, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Are they students? Are they staff? Universities in Canada can’t quite seem to decide just what exactly a postdoc is. To be fair a postdoc is in a strange in-between place; s/he is no longer a student, but not yet a professor (even though he or she may conduct original research and teach undergraduate and even graduate students). This might not seem such an important issue at first glance. But there are enormous work-related, benefits, and tax implications that hinge on the definition of a postdoc. And as a postdoctoral fellowships becomes an almost mandatory step toward tenure-track positions, the implications loom large for many of us.

After 10 or 15 years of post secondary education, for many PhDs the next step will be a postdoctoral fellowship. Not only do these fellowships potentially afford  time to revise dissertation manuscripts for publication, design  courses, and solidify professional networks, they act as another step forward toward tenure-track positions. Ideally they come without teaching requirements, but might include teaching responsibilities from one or two courses per year or more depending on the fellowship. But as faculty hires plummet, and PhD numbers expand, this step is becoming increasingly necessary in order to remain competitive.

So far this doesn’t seem so bad. We all know that academia is becoming ever more competitive and positions ever fewer. Nothing shocking there. The issue, however, is that for many postdocs the issue of defining their position is critical. Many postocs while not enjoying the tax benefits of students also miss out on employment benefits offered faculty and staff.

The issue came to a head last year when after Le Devoir reported that Quebec universities, which had offered postdocs the tax exemptions given to students, had been instructed by the Canadian Revenue Agency to stop doing so. Now disallowed from the benefits of students and without access to those of staff, postdocs got the worst of both worlds, along with a substantial, unplanned, and significant loss of income owing to increased taxes.

Many fear that in order to gain any tax exemptions, postdocs might be defined as some kind of student or trainee. The Ryerson Free Press suggests that a new category of trainee might institutionalize and formalize yet another time-consuming step to professional stability that does little to help postdocs, but everything to maintain universities’ access to qualified but low-payed labour. And both statuses might come with new fees and costs for debit-ridden individuals already strapped for cash in the years before achieving tenure-track appointments. Both the Ryerson Free Press and the Protect Canadian Postdocs site, in fact, are already reporting postdoc “trainee” fees being levied at the University of Toronto.

This issue has become so fraught that two scholars at Canadian institutions have created the Protect Canadian Postdocs website to follow developments and highlight the situation faced by postdocs at their own and other universities. Untenured, they choose to remain anonymous to avoid aggravating their university administrations and threatening their own careers. With less to lose, Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen last month likened some postdocs to “indentured servants, with lots of degrees.” Now many fear that in addition they may become cash cows for cash-strapped universities.

No doubt great benefits come with postdoctoral work that gives recent PhDs a foothold on the academic ladder. But postdocs’ relationship to universities needs to be explicitly determined to avoid even further creating an underclass of high-skilled, low-payed teacher-researchers in the Canadian academy.

A number of sites and online petitions have sprung up in protest:

Canadian Postdoc Tax Petitions

Petition to Maintain the Competitiveness of a Postdoctoral Researcher in Canada

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
6 May 2010.

History Matters: The High Stakes (and Higher Value) of History

March, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

The Texas State Board of Education’s changes to the state’s social studies curriculum have highlighted the political motivations behind the histories that are taught in schools. In response to the board’s conservatism, the left wrings its hands in dismay, the right smiles with vindication, and centrists ask to restore some kind of balance. But we should be concerned about more than political allegiances. There is more at stake than “correct” or “balanced” or “fair” histories. We need to question not only the power of political factions to promote particular visions of history, but also the profit motives that have made some histories more saleable and therefore more powerful than others.

Many are decrying the board’s revisions for putting a “conservative stamp” on the state’s curricula. According to the New York Times, they endorse the superiority of American capitalism, question the history of secular government, and promote Republican political philosophies. Even just a cursory look over other recent commentary on the subject shows how high the stakes are and how strong the divide remains, even outside Texas. Famously conservative Phyllis Schlafly welcomes a turn away from the imposition of liberal “revisionist histories,” while on the other side Diane Ravitch accuses Texas of promoting ignorance. Other commentators worry about wider effects on education. If textbooks modeled on the Texas state curriculum are successful, they could enter classrooms throughout the country. Such is the power of a large state to influence how history is taught across the country.

Ok, how surprised should we be that history is a fraught and disputed subject? Of course it is. It’s invested with diverse meanings that inform personal beliefs and collective identities. We are heavily invested in history, and that shows up in the Texas textbook debates. Nor should we be surprised that groups on either side of the political divide are deeply concerned about what appears in textbooks, each accusing the other of promoting a particular agenda. Both sides, of course, are correct to question what appears in textbooks. We should constantly re-evaluate received knowledge, question “obvious” wisdom, and be prepared to refashion textbook histories. The point that critics and commentators alike miss in this debate, however, is the sale of history. Money over content.

I would like to be able to blame extremists for the bastardization of history. But I can’t, at least I can’t completely. Even those with whom I disagree, whose positions I abhor, are using an existing opportunity to put forward their values and beliefs. That isn’t the fundamental problem here. The content of textbooks is up for debate not because zealots have undermined history, but because publishers want or need to make a profit off of it, and worse still may be less concerned about content than contracts.

Textbooks will be rewritten because Texas represents an enormous market. And books that meet that market’s “needs” stand to gain enormous readerships, and perhaps lucrative ongoing contracts. Their potential influence and authority in schools and among pupils will not necessarily be based on their historical and intellectual rigor, but on their ability to sell to the Texas market. So, the problem might not be so much that history is politicized. That is, after all, why history is important. The problem is that politicized history is up for sale.

Further Reading:

For an overview to this issue see the History News Network roundup of coverage.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
26 March 2010.