By Dr. Erin Bartram
What is the value of the work historians do?
This one question is at the core of so many issues facing the profession at the moment: fewer history majors, declining enrollments, adjunctification, reduced government funding for universities and nonprofits, and the question of how best for historians to engage in public discourse.
But precisely because money is tight, jobs are scarce, and cultural headwinds are formidable, solidarity among historians can be hard to find, inside academe and out. Much of what historians working in academe have done, ostensibly to preserve their place in the university and in the broader culture, has been to insist that scholars can do things for less, or even for free, all the while insisting that history is valuable in abstract and concrete ways.
So we are faced with another question: If we don’t really value the work that we do—by treating it as important and compensating its practitioners accordingly—how can we expect others to? Contingent Magazine is a new, nonprofit online magazine of history aimed at a general audience that wants to value the work of doing history, the people who do it, and the people who engage with it. It has three interrelated guiding principles:
History is for everyone.
Every way of doing history is worthwhile.
Historians should be paid for their work.
This means that Contingent will value the time, money, and expertise that goes into what we publish. Everyone who does work for the magazine will be paid for their work—writers, illustrators, editors, communications specialists, web developers—and the pay rates will be public. For better or worse, one of the most important ways that our society recognizes “value” is by paying people money for their work.
As a result, the site will prioritize contributors who have completed postgraduate work in history, broadly conceived, and who are working off the tenure track. This means contingent faculty, certainly, but also those working in libraries and archives, museums, academic staff positions, and outside of academia altogether. Many of these scholars find themselves encouraged to share their work in the traditional forms of academic history—conference papers, journal articles, and monographs—without access to the financial support needed to do that work or even the institutional support that would allow them to access their own publications. The collapse of the academic job market means that so much good history isn’t getting published, and Contingent aims to provide those scholars with an outlet to publish their work that also compensates them for that work not simply in “exposure,” but in a form that is also accepted by landlords, banks, and grocery stores.
Contingent will also value—and publish—all kinds of history. It’s clear that there’s a public hunger for historical understanding, but the editorial preference for pieces that explain five ways that Trump is like Woodrow Wilson means much of the history published in mainstream outlets in the U.S. skews modern and narrowly political because that’s what’s seen as “relevant.”
Contingent aims to be a place where the public can see a fuller range of the research historians do, a place where historians don’t feel pressure to package their research as a hot take. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with showing how your work is relevant to current issues, but we want to take a broader view of what relevance can mean.
Relatedly, Contingent will value all audiences. Part of the problem with the hot take environment is that it exacerbates a belief in the broader public that history is about certain things, produced by certain people, and for certain audiences. This belief is reinforced by the trade books that get published, the books that get reviewed in mainstream outlets, and the depictions of historians in popular culture. In other words, how you define “relevance” depends on who you think your audience is.
There are lots of websites, blogs, and magazines out there carrying out one or two elements of this mission and doing them very well. Contingent believes that combining all three elements is not only possible but also necessary if we want to change public conversations about the value of history. To put it more bluntly, if we talk about how valuable and important history is, but advance that argument by expecting its practitioners to work for little if any pay, we undermine our argument at the start.
To drive this point home, everything Contingent publishes will present historical research not as a product but as a process—one carried out by actual people. Every contributor will make the story of their research process a part of the historical story they tell. It is deeply frustrating to see the work of doing history misunderstood, either out of ignorance, or worse, hostility. It’s even worse to see that misunderstanding used to destructive ends. We believe that making the doing of history more visible is the only way to help the general public understand the value of history and historical thinking.
But we also believe that doing all of that fairly means compensating historians for the work that they do. We are currently raising money to build our full website and put out our inaugural issue in March. We hope you’ll explore our website to learn more about the project and consider donating.
Erin Bartram is an independent scholar and one of the founding editors of Contingent Magazine. Her scholarship focuses on the history of women, religion, and ideas in the United States. She has written extensively on higher education, specifically the collapse of the academic job market and the transition out of academia, for the Chronicle of Higher Education.