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The Concentration of Polish History PhDs

Last week Slate Magazine published this article by Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset entitled “The Academy’s Dirty Secret.” For those of us in the profession, the revelation wasn’t much of a secret: a small cluster of universities produce most of the PhDs held by those with tenure-track positions in North American universities. The article was based on a study of nearly 19,000 faculty members at 461 universities in the disciplines of computer science, business, and history (the complete data are available here). It distressed me, but didn’t surprise me, to see that a mere eight institutions produce half of all the history professors in this country.

I wondered if this pattern held true for the subfield of Polish history, but since many Polonists are officially listed as professors of “European history” or at best “East-Central European history,” it is hard to arrive at precise figures here. We can, however, see where Polish historians get their PhDs (thanks to the American Historical Association’s database of dissertations), even if it would be difficult to figure out how many of these obtained tenure-track jobs. The resulting picture confirms the aforementioned concentration: a mere 8 schools have produced 51% of all the Polish history doctorates over the past 25 years, and 42% of those written since 1910 (when the AHA’s database begins).

But perhaps we should not be distressed by these statistics after all. When looked at from the opposite direction, one could emphasize that nearly half of all those who studied Poland’s past at the doctoral level over the past 25 years did so at a diverse array of 40 different schools. That would certainly mitigate any tendency to homogenize the field. Moreover, a case could be made that a certain level of concentration is good because it allows students with similar interests to work together and learn from each other. Finally, I was pleased to see that half of the “big eight” from the past quarter century are public universities, and obviously I was happy to learn which school came in at #1. (I didn’t expect this when I began my review of these figures, so this post wasn’t supposed to be an advertisement—honestly! )

Universities_Producing_Polish_History_Doctorates


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How Big is Poland?

Russia is bigger than Poland.

Russia_Poland_Land_Mass

You’ve probably noticed that already, haven’t you?

But the comparison between the two countries changes depending on what we are measuring.  For example, if we measured population, the relationship would look like this:

Russia_Poland_Population

Or if we used Gross Domestic Income, the proportions would change to this:

Russia_Poland_Gross_Domestic_Income

A measure of Total Household Consumption would turn the relationship upside down:

Russia_Poland_Household_Consumption

Now let’s bring this back home with a comparison of the number of American university students in 2013 who studied Russian, compared to the number studying Polish:

Russia_Poland_Language_Students

There’s something wrong with this picture. Unless someone wants to argue that we should measure the relative importance of various languages in terms of the land mass on which they are spoken, then Polish is way under-enrolled. I don’t doubt that more students should study Russian, given that country’s strategic importance and rich literary tradition. But at a time when our students and our administrators are so concerned with monetizing the academy, it seems to me that there are some serious market imperfections here. The household consumption figures are particularly striking, because they give us an indication of what would happen if we factored out Russia’s oil and natural gas wealth, which is almost entirely held by a tiny sliver of the country’s population. Russia’s Gini coefficient (a common measure of inequality) is near the top of the world’s rankings at 40.1, while Poland is just a bit higher than its West European neighbors at 34.1 (falling to 30.5 if we account for taxes and transfers—a figure on par with countries like Germany or Switzerland). That explains why Poland’s household consumption level is larger than Russia’s, despite the country’s smaller size. So for a business-minded student body, the appeal of Poland should be clear. We humanists are uncomfortable with this sort of reasoning, and I’ll be the first to admit that it seems somewhat vulgar to advocate language learning by making raw appeals to economic practicality. But we now live in a world in which we must fight for resources from university administrators and compete for enrollments among students, so we need every argument we can get. Poland’s economic position will probably improve even more over the coming decades, while Russia will face enormous problems because of its overreliance on extractive industries. If this prediction is correct, then we have a compelling reason to adjust the imbalances within the Slavic Departments at American universities.


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Polish Language Enrollments

After I posted information about increasing enrollments in Polish history courses, I was contacted by Professor Halina Filipowicz of the University of Wisconsin, who pointed out that the story isn’t quite so cheerful when it comes to language courses.  It sure isn’t: since  2006 the number of students studying Polish at American universities has fallen from 1,381 to 871.  Of course, fewer students are studying foreign languages overall, but that drop is not nearly as sharp.  I would point out, however, that the current dip still leaves us above the level we were at in the 1990s.  As you can see in the chart below, Polish enjoyed a peak in the late 1970s and another in the early 2000s, followed each time by declines.  To put this in some perspective, I’ve added the figures for Czech and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.  There’s no doubt that the declining numbers studying Slavic languages is something we should worry about.


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Polish Optimism

Every December since 1991, the Polish survey firm CBOS (Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej) has been asking Poles whether they expected the coming year to be better or worse for themselves, their family, their workplace, their country, and the world. These results are fascinating to track, because they frequently reveal a curious gap between what people anticipate for themselves and for their country. In the charts below I have marked the difference between the number of people who predicting a better year to come and those expecting things to get worse. With only two brief exceptions, Poles have been more optimistic about their personal prospects than about Poland’s overall future. The most recent numbers show a sense of optimism on both accounts, but the gap remains. The anomalous spike in collective confidence in 2007 (predicting 2008) probably relates to the elections held in October of that year, a record-high turnout brought an end to the two-year government of the far-right party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, or Law and Justice). As the world plunged into the Great Recession the following year, forecasts for the country’s future plummeted even as individual optimism remained reasonably high. In December of 2011 (another election year), when people were asked for their predictions for 2012, a sense of general gloom seemed to have set in. The contrasting reactions to the elections of 2007 and 2011 is quite noteworthy, particularly considering that the results were very similar, with the centrist, vaguely liberal party Platforma Obywatelska (PO, or Civic Platform) winning on both occasions. Given that all the macroeconomic indicators continued their gradual climb upward throughout these years, these changes in the level of optimism would seem to relate more to shifts in public rhetoric. The 2011 campaign was extraordinarily negative: PiS attempted to counteract the positive economic trends with a picture of impending doom, and PO tried to frighten the electorate with the prospect of a return to the chaotic years when PiS held power. We get a clearer view of what has been going on here by comparing the predictions people have made for each year with the assessment they offered once that year was over. Since 2005, despite all the political ebbs and flows, assessments of one’s personal fate during the previous year have remained relatively steady.  At the moment, 56% of Poles consider 2014 to have been a good year, compared to only 12% who thought the year went badly (34% had no strong feelings either way).  This range of assessments has held within a narrow band for the past decade.  Meanwhile, predictions of future wellbeing spiked and collapsed, and remain gloomy today. Stepping back from the ups and downs, what strikes me most about these surveys is the degree of overall personal satisfaction they reflect, and the disconnect between measuring one’s own life and the life of the nation.  Since 1994, more Poles have assessed their personal fortunes in a positive light than in a negative light—and rarely has the gap even been close.  Evaluations of the nation’s fate, in contrast, jump up and down with little regard for what is happening in one’s personal life.


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Polish Studies in the 21st Century

To launch this new blog, I want to share some good news: Polish Studies is thriving in North America!  It doesn’t come naturally to us Polonists to be optimistic, particularly against the overall backdrop of the challenges faced by the humanities and social studies in US academic life. But interest in Poland here in the US seems by any measure to be growing. American doctoral dissertations in this field rose from 28 in the 1980s to 50 in the 2000s. So far this decade 28 dissertations in Polish history have been successfully defended, which puts us on pace to produce a record number by 2020. Even if we stopped admitting all Polish history graduate students now, there are still at least 17 in the pipeline.[1] The number of scholarly articles on Polish topics in major North American journals has also been increasing, and the biennial article prize of the Polish Studies Association had a record 55 eligible nominations during its last competition in 2013. The PSA itself has grown exponentially, tripling in size over the last decade.[2] H-Poland, our field’s international and interdisciplinary online forum, now has nearly 500 subscribers, after fewer than five years of existence. And recently that service has been joined by an exciting new European counterpart called Pol-Int.[3] Although my own experiences at the University of Michigan may not be representative of any larger trends, I have seen a striking growth in undergraduate enrollment in my modern Polish history class (48 in 2011, 72 in 2012, 87 in 2014, and 93 this semester). While I would be delighted to attribute this to my effective teaching, that conclusion is undermined by the fact that all my other classes have been shrinking. Academic jobs in Polish studies remain scarce—though no worse than in any other field. And even that dismal topic gets a little bit of sunshine by the addition over the past decade of newly-endowed chairs in Polish history at several major universities.

With all this in mind, it seems like a perfect time to launch this new blog as a way to highlight some of the exciting developments in this field.  I’ll also be commenting on events and trends in Poland itself, offering my perspective as an American who has been studying the country for nearly three decades. Welcome, and come back soon!

Polish_Dissertations

[1] Based on data from the Directory of History Dissertations from the American Historical Association, https://secure.historians.org/pubs/dissertations (accessed January 31, 2015).

[2] For more on the PSA, go to http://history.lsa.umich.edu/PSA.

[3] H-Poland is at https://networks.h-net.org/h-poland, and Pol-Int is at https://www.pol-int.org.