The Freak Show that is the AHA

Over at The Edge of the American West, Ari Kelman’s giving out a few free tips on dealing with the AHA.  For those on the job market, or headed there soon, it’s helpful.
Some advice as well from PhDinHistory here.

For those who aren’t on the market, the AHA looms ahead, scaring the poo out of weeny little grad students (like me).  Kind of like a 30th/40th/50th birthday.  And like those auspicious milestones, I expect the AHA is not quite as scary as we’ve been led to believe.  In the end it’s an interview for a job, and we grad students should get a grip and deal with it as such.  That being said, the AHA interview does seem like a freak show: hundreds/thousands of candidates corralled into a big room, filing in front of glazed-eyed interview committees, doing their best not to look like the amateurs that we grad students are.  The more I think about it, the more I understand the extent to which our profession’s institutions and traditions create the conditions for utter madness or, at least, the social ineptitude which we historians are so well known for.

So…was it good for you?

A dear friend and I were having another of our wonderful chats today–as usual, much of it had to do with her poor luck on–when we ran into the topic of faculty feedback on graduate student work. My friend has been working for months on her minor field and finally gave it to her adviser recently. In a matter of days, the essay was returned, marked all to hell with critiques: what’s missing, what’s wrong, what’s unclear, etc. And while my friend will certainly take these comments to heart, the one thing that struck her was the utter lack of positive remarks. This was disappointing to my friend, having put so much of her life into the project. This has spurred me to reflect.

1) Hooray! to the adviser for returning the paper so quickly, which can be a rarity in graduate school.
2) Hooray! also to the adviser for providing helpful commentary–something else that’s all too rare.
3) Tsk-Tsk. to the adviser for not including some positive remarks. Surely the adviser knew that my friend had put a lot of time and energy into the paper. A pat on the back can go a long way to reassuring the fragile graduate student psyche. Most of us are one more Last Straw away from bailing to get in rich in Dot-Coms (what’s that? It’s all over? Well, damn…), and a friendly “Good show, chap” helps keep us in the game.
4) Hmmm… to myself. Do I do the same thing to my students? I’m afraid so: lots of criticisms, not much on the positive side. In my defense, none of my students put much work into their essays. Okay, fine: I’ll change my ways.
5) C’mon! to my friend. Yes, she put a lot of work into it. But we grad students have got to get a grip and do a little self-affirmation. Words of congratulations, if I’ve been correctly informed, are not all that forthcoming in this profession. So we’d better learn to pat ourselves on the back, lest the it go completely un-patted.

Gosh, I hope you liked this post.


I’ll be spending most of today working on a “review essay” for a graduate seminar. For those not in the know, a review essay is an essay that reviews some of the current literature on a given topic. I say “some” because it has become all-but-impossible to actually read everything that’s been written about any topic. So, you make some selections from an enormous corpus (respect the rhyme), ideally choosing the best of what’s around. But identifying what’s important is tricky. How to decide? rating? What gets the most reviews in relevant journals? Word of mouth? Nifty looking cover? It’s all of this, of course (yes, even the cover) and one other element: what the professor thinks is important. And here’s where it gets tricky, because you know that the professor has read (or at least heard of) a lot of the material out there, but you hesitate to ask, because you don’t want to appear lazy and stupid. And so you end up guessing a little and carefully probing the prof to get some ideas on what to read. In the end, it usually works out: you read and write about most of the “important” literature, with a few “huh?” books thrown in because (a) you don’t know better or (b) that nifty cover and title belied an irrelevant book.

The silliness of the review essay reflects a more general confusion in how we as historians (and yes, I consider myself a historian-sans-Phd) decide what deserves the attention of historiography. There are all manner of mechanisms for deciding what’s important–where a person teaches, who published the book, etc.–but these mechanisms are often a mystery to beginning (okay, mid-level) graduate students. And so the Suggestion of the Day for Graduate Programs: dedicate time and energy to teaching graduate students how to identify important books. It’s as critical–if not more in the early stages of graduate school–as research and methodology, but it’s too often left to bumbling and frightened graduate students to figure out on their own.

The Joy of X-Files

This weekend, I heard the most wonderful news clip on NPR: the second X-Files movie will be released this summer. Here’s more info. This news came on the heels of my discovery of something else that brought me joy: Costco is selling the entire X-Files series, along with the first movie.

I began watching X-Files when I was in high school; the first episode I saw was to do with some scientific research team caught underground with some killer virus or bug or something. At the time, I thought: weird. And it was a weird show, and it was cliche, and its narrative arcs were sometimes ridiculous. But it was still great. The Mulder/Scully dynamic was, of course, brilliant, and sometimes the proto-libertarian bent of the storylines was interesting and, dare I say it, thought provoking. I enjoyed the darkness of the show–the lighting, the music, the character moods–especially when it was paired with sillyness (although this became excessive when the show moved production to LA). But as with all science fiction, what made The X-Files such a joy to watch was its use of the extreme to investigate human and social behavior, from what makes serial killers tick to individual struggles with the role of faith. Don’t get me wrong: The X-Files was just a TV show, and it wasn’t Shakespeare. But it was fun to watch, and I can’t wait for the next film.

Even if Xhibit is in it. Ew.

Venti-sized Venting

First: a curse on Starbucks for making Venti a synonym for “really big.” And a pox on me for using it.

Second: welcome, readers, to yet another blog on life in “the academy” (surely there must be dozens of these?). In this case, “the academy” refers to a PhD program in history through which I am ever-so-slowly progressing/regressing. One-and-a-half years in, and I’m ready to get some things off my chest: about my fellow students, about faculty, about students, about administrators, about ill-informed librarians–you know, the usual list of suspects. So allow me to repose on my cyber-couch and vent to you, my cyber-psychiatrists.