Monday, November 07, 2011

Come to Africa (A Response to Tony Grafton): Part I

Something very unusual has happened. I have been tagged by Historiann to write a piece on the failures of higher education. In particular in response to the recent article written by Tony Grafton. Almost everything written on this subject deals with either the US or to a lesser extent the UK. These are two countries I have never taught in. Although I do have my PhD from the UK which is one of the reasons I am for all practical purposes banned from ever teaching at a US university.  Instead all of my teaching experience has been in Asia and Africa.

I do not like writing long blog posts. That is what writing books is about. So I am going to do my contribution as a series of shorter posts. This will give me time to think about what I am writing and more importantly give my few readers time to absorb my random thoughts.

For a long time African PhDs left the continent to go work in the US, Canada, the UK, or Europe. Now that brain drain is starting to reverse. While history departments are shrinking in much of the English speaking world, one place it has been growing is at the University of Ghana. This year the department has hired six new people. Of these six I am the only one with a PhD not from the US. Other departments such as philosophy have also recently hired scholars from North America as well. So now there exists the first trickles of a brain drain of people with doctorates in the humanities from the US to Africa.

When I first got my PhD from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) and returned to the US, I applied to over 300 universities in the US and did not get a single interview despite having two books and a number of peer reviewed journal articles published. What I learned is that publications do not count for anything in the hiring process. The only things that count are personal connections and ideological viewpoints. If you believe like I do for instance that racial discrimination was an official policy of the Stalin regime towards groups such as the Russian-Koreans and Russian-Germans you will find it nearly impossible to find a job at a US university. There are ideological gatekeepers. If I had been smart I would not have bothered to apply to any US institutions. It was merely a waste of time, effort, and postage. I should have been applying to schools in Africa.

So while I was the first to arrive here in January 2011, I am not the last.  I suspect that a lot of other qualified historians and others will find Africa an attractive place to work. Here I do not have to worry about ideological litmus tests. Here my publications actually count for something. Here I only have to teach two preps and four sections a semester. But, I get paid extra for the two sections I teach at City Campus. I know the University of Ghana does not yet have the international prestige of most large US universities. However, unlike many US universities, the University of Ghana like Ghana as a whole is on the way up. In contrast it looks like higher education as a whole in the US is in decline.

2 comments:

profacero said...

It sounds attractive.

Unknown said...

Otto,

For the past seven years I have been reading your blog and the many posts you have written about your attempts to find a job at a US institution after graduating from SOAS. The bitterness does not seem to have diminished with time. I have always had great respect for your dedication to research and teaching, but have to disagree with some of the points in your post.

It is clear that you feel your degree from SOAS and admittedly impressive publication record should have entitled you to a tenure track professorship at a US university immediately after graduation. I am not qualified to judge whether your PhD, which you completed in two years, is equivalent to a PhD from a US institution that normally takes six to ten years or more. However, it is not hard to see why a US academic who spent many years obtaining such a PhD and probably an additional half decade in post-doctoral research to get their position might not be enthusiastic about hiring someone whose graduate qualifications consisted of 2-3 years at SOAS.

You say you are blacklisted from all US universities for life because your degree is from a UK institution and you are an anti-stalinist. Aren't you being a little hyperbolic there? There are many people working at US universities who have UK degrees and/or are not friends of Uncle Joe.

You have no idea what the future will hold or whether it will be possible for you to find a teaching position in the US someday. You have admitted in the past that your failure to TA or obtain any teaching experience in graduate school was a huge impediment to your getting a professorship, probably much more so than anything political, an observation which you decline to mention here. If anything your chances of getting a job in the US would presumably be increased now that you have taught at AUCA and in Africa. It is by no means beyond the realm of possibility that you could be hired by a US institution after a few more years in your current position, assuming that you still even want a job in the US.

You know as well as anyone how competitive academic positions are these days. I personally decided not to go to grad school because I saw so many people with impressive publication records, degrees and research experience competing for so few jobs. The simple fact is that there are a lot of PhDs on the market and only a very few will find tenure track positions.

I am sure that politics comes into it but there are other factors as well. You have many publications, but your research area is esoteric and outside the mainstream of most US history departments. Don't you think the fact that you study minority groups in central Asia when most US history departments want people that specialize in American or European history is probably more of an impediment to your getting a position than the fact that you aren't down with the General Secretary?

Please don't misinterperet this post to mean that I disparage the quality of your scholarship or consider your qualifications inferior to those of US academics. I just felt compelled to point out that your post neglects some possible key reasons why you have not (yet) been able to obtain a US professorship and focuses more or less exclusively on the idea that you've been blacklisted by a shadowy conspiracy of anti-UK pro-communist academics. Speaking as a friend, I'd say you owe it to yourself to try and let go of some of the bitterness at not finding a job 7 years ago and admit that the future is not written in stone.

Ben