Three Ideas to Make the AHA More Fun

I just returned from the AHA in New Orleans, where I was asked by a very nice, considerate, and genuinely curious historian: “So, what can we do to make this more fun?”  I grumbled something about eliminating the job interviews, but quickly took it back, not wanting to seem to ungrateful for the single interview I had lined up (and believe me, I am grateful!).  I’ve been thinking about her question, and I offer here three ideas:

  1. Eliminate job interviews.  It adds too much stress, too many distractions, and too much name-badge reading and ass-kissing. Yeah, the conference would lose money.  But I can’t be arsed with that.  I see no real reason not to convert to telephone interviews for the first round.  Or, if you really want to judge a person by his/her looks, I suppose webcam interviews will work.  But enough already with this antiquated interview-in-person bullshit.
  2. Help graduate students and non-TT faculty network.  I have a hell of a time meeting and getting to know new people.  I’m the person standing in the corner at the Oxford University Press reception, clinging to my tiny plate of food and pretending that I’m interested in the ceiling tiles.  I know that I should go out and introduce myself and shake hands, but everyone else seems to already be in the middle of a conversation, and it’s incredibly awkward.  Senior faculty and advisers can help by acting as wing-people and leading with introductions, but far too few do this.  I wonder if there could be some program that would make this easier.  Maybe something like speed dating, where the senior faculty sit at tables and the grad students get five minutes of time with each person.  I dunno.
  3. STOP READING YOUR PAPERS.  Seriously, this has to stop.  Do more roundtables centered around common questions, or show us your evidence and talk about your preliminary conclusions, or use notecards to prompt you through your prepared talk.  But for shit’s sake, enough with the junior high-level presentations.

Chancellor Katehi’s Silver Tongued Bullshit

You may have heard that some bad shit went down at UC Davis yesterday.  Peaceful protestors + police = pepper spray — this is becoming an all-too familiar equation in today’s post-procedural liberalism America.  And while I agree with ZZ and Historiann that the power-hungry UC Davis guard dogs were way out-of-control, I put most of the blame on the person holding the leash: Chancellor Linda Katehi.  She’s the one who released the hounds, and now she’s trying to weasel her way out (apologies for the mixed-species metaphor).  Check out the e-mail she sent to the “UC Davis Campus Community” last night (see below).   Katehi claims that “we [note that she spreads the blame by using the first-person plural, rather than “I”] appreciated the peaceful and respectful tone of the demonstrations”; she also “appreciates and strongly defend the rights of all our students, faculty and staff to robust and respectful dialogue.”  But because of “serious health and safety concerns,” she had to “ask the police to assist” in the removal of the protestors, at which point “10 protestors were arrested and pepper spray was used” [again, watch the blame shifting through use of the passive voice!].  This “saddened” Katehi, who evidently had no idea that the cops might, you know, do what cops do and use pepper spray.  Thus did Pontius Pilate wash her hands of these “sad” events.

To point out the obvious:

  • Katehi, you were the one who called in the dogs.  Not “we.”  You.
  • Katehi, you knew damned well what would happen when you called in the cops.  Don’t act so naive.
  • Katehi, what do you mean by “serious health and safety concerns”?  Be a bit more specific — these are the sorts of generalized claims that get my students C-minuses on their essays.
  • Katehi, you may not want to admit this, but you had some choices.  You could have just let the protestors be.  Or, if you were so concerned about “health and safety,” how about using the rent-a-cop money to help the protestors take care of their own health and safety, instead of imperiling their health and safety?  Riddle me this: how does pepper spray improve a person’s health and safety?  Unless I’m wrong, pepper spray is actually bad for someone’s health.  I think that’s the whole point of pepper spray — to hurt someone.
  • Katehi, you should probably quit.  Really — just go.  And while you’re at it, take as much of the bloated UC administrative system with you as possible.  We don’t need it.

See and smell Katehi’s bullshit below:

November 18, 2011

To UC Davis Campus Community,

I am writing to tell you about events that occurred Friday afternoon at UC Davis relating to a group of protestors who chose to set up an encampment on the quad Thursday as part of a week of peaceful demonstrations on our campus that coincided with many other occupy movements at universities throughout the country.

The group did not respond to requests from administration and campus police to comply with campus rules that exist to protect the health and safety of our campus community.  The group was informed in writing this morning that the encampment violated regulations designed to protect the health and safety of students, staff and faculty.  The group was further informed that if they did not dismantle the encampment, it would have to be removed.

Following our requests, several of the group chose to dismantle their tents this afternoon and we are grateful for their actions.  However a number of protestors refused our warning, offering us no option but to ask the police to assist in their removal.  We are saddened to report that during this activity, 10 protestors were arrested and pepper spray was used.  We will be reviewing the details of the incident.

We appreciate and strongly defend the rights of all our students, faculty and staff to robust and respectful dialogue as a fundamental tenet of our great academic institution.  At the same time, we have a responsibility to our entire campus community, including the parents who have entrusted their students to us, to ensure that all can live, learn and work in a safe and secure environment.  We were aware that some of those involved in the recent demonstrations on campus were not members of the UC Davis community and this required us to be even more vigilant about the safety of our students, faculty and staff. We take this responsibility very seriously.

While we have appreciated the peaceful and respectful tone of the demonstrations during the week, the encampment raised serious health and safety concerns, and the resources required to supervise this encampment could not be sustained, especially in these very tight economic times when our resources must support our core academic mission.

We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested.  We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal.

We appreciate the substantive dialogue the students have begun here on campus as part of this week.s activities, and we want to offer appropriate opportunities to express opinions, advance the discussion and suggest solutions as part of the time-honored university tradition.  We invite our entire campus community to consider the topics related to the occupy movement you would like to discuss and we pledge to work with you to develop a series of discussion forums throughout our campus.

I ask all members of the campus community for their support in ensuring a safe environment for all members of our campus community.  We hope you will actively support us in accomplishing this objective.

Linda P.B. Katehi
Chancellor

 

My Ambivalent Relationship to College Sports

As the PSU tragedy continues to unfold, a number of thoughtful people have noted all the bad things about college sports, or, more specifically, college football and basketball.  These programs drain university budgets, they provide a free farm system for professional leagues, they risk the health and safety of young adults, and they create a climate of anti-academic hyper-masculinity.   I agree with these arguments; hell, I’ve seen it first-hand.  While a graduate student at the University of Oregon, I worked as a TA for a class in which then-junior basketball phenom Aaron Brooks had enrolled.  Brooks would regularly — as in, every class — show up late and loud, and leave early in the same manner.  It was extremely disruptive, and the lead instructor finally got so fed up with it that he called Brooks out: “Hey, Aaron, where you going?  What’s so important?”  Brooks just kept walking…right on to the NBA, where he now plays for the Phoenix Suns.  So good for him; annoying for the instructor, us TAs, the students in the class, and everyone else who had to put up with Brooks’s arrogant awareness that because of his ability on the court, he basically got a free pass on campus.

But here’s the thing: I really like college football and basketball.  If it weren’t for our new shorty, I’d probably spend most autumn Saturdays on the couch watching football, and all of March obsessing over the NCAA tournament.  And while I’m often amazed by the quality of play, I’m more attracted to college sports because of the enthusiasm of both the players and the student-fans.  For many players, especially those from small schools, this is it — these college games are the last time they’re going to play, and they lay it all on the line.  That’s what I love about March Madness; in the early rounds especially, you’re watching college kids who will never have this chance again, and they know it, and so they play with an energy and passion that is unmatched in the pros.  Same goes with the fans.  The difference between a college basketball game and a pro basketball game is night and day.  The combination of youth, pent-up energy from studying, and probably alcohol creates an absolute frenzy in the student section, which often infects the alumni/public sections and makes these games something more than entertainment.  It’s a community event.  Again, I’ve seen this first-hand; even as I spat at the name of Aaron Brooks the student, I loved standing in the student section at Mac Court, yelling my head off when that kid drove the lane.  I’ll also make an academic case for college sports, because some of the athletes (I won’t hazard a percentage) get a real sense of focus and determination from their extracurricular activities that also informs their classroom work.  I think of another Oregon basketball player, whose name I can’t remember (because he was a third-stringer, probably), who worked his ass off in class and kept a detailed schedule to make sure he was on top of his work; not the brightest guy, but one of the most determined students I’ve ever worked with.

What’s the solution?  It probably involves the creation of real semi-pro leagues for the top football and basketball players, kids who are more interested in playing ball that in studying and who probably have more ability in the former than the latter.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that universities have to give up their football and basketball programs; they would instead transform into something like college baseball, which still exists, but isn’t the only route to the majors (as I understand the system).  We fans would have to accept a lower level of talent, but I’m okay with that.  This “solution” probably has a lot of problems and is certainly a long ways off.  And so I have to figure out what I’m going to do, personally.  Not sure about that.  I’ll probably continue to rail against college sports even as I tune in for my favorite teams.  Oh, the hypocrisy!

Delusions of Other Opportunities

Some thoughts on the recent article by the AHA’s president and executive director (reported by Inside Higher Ed here):

Things Grafton and Grossman get right:

  • The dearth of tenure-track jobs can not be blamed on the current economy.  Instead, there are two villains: state legislators who defund higher education, and deans and administrators who hire cheap temporary workers (aka adjuncts like me) instead of tenure track workers.
  • Graduate programs don’t consistently train students for careers outside of academia. The best you’ll get is a couple of brown-bag lunch meetings on the subject.

Things Grafton and Grossman get wrong:

  • They try to let administrators off the hook for hiring cheap temps because “university budgets…lead administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions,” and there’s some truth to that.  But it doesn’t account for the decisions that lead to ballooning administrative budgets at the expense of faculty budgets.  In other words: stop hiring managers and building fancy computer labs, and you’ll have more money for teachers.  It’s about priorities.
  • The problem with getting a job outside the academy isn’t that there is some sort of negative stigma attached to such positions.  It’s that these jobs do not exist in the quantity that Grafton and Grossman would lead us to believe.  They mention “Chief of Staff of the Army, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international business consultants, high school teachers, community college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks.”  Two sub-thoughts about that list.  First: investment bankers and international business consultants?  Yeah, I’m sure some of these types have history PhDs, but they probably have MBAs, too; the history PhD is incidental.  Which brings me to sub-thought number two: you don’t need a history PhD for any of these other jobs.  They say a “doctorate is a vital asset” — asset, yes, vital, no. For most of those positions, you’d probably be better served with some other degree: politics, for instance, or archival studies.  If you have a history PhD, it’s not just you and your mentor who expect you to get a teaching job; it’s pretty much every other potential employer.
  • If graduate programs are going to train students for non-teaching jobs, they also need to push for those other jobs to appear.  It’s all well and good to train me how “conceptualizing relationships between structure, agency, and culture” will get me a job as an investment banker (ha!), but if investment banks aren’t looking for people to do such things and aren’t thinking of history PhDs as top candidates for these jobs, all that extra training won’t help.
  • They cop out on one of the things departments can do right away: stop admitting so many damn graduate students.  Or, more specifically, don’t admit any graduate students that you can’t pay for.  This is one of the greatest crimes in the academy, and it must stop.  Plenty of schools do it; I, for instance, was admitted to USC without any funding.  The lovely acceptance letter proposed that I pay more than $20,000 a year for the privilege of working my ass off for a few years, after which I would have found few job opportunities and massive debt.  This is so transparently greedy — sure, kid, come on in; we’d love your tuition dollars! — that it would be hilarious if it weren’t so dangerous to these students (burdened with debt) and to the job market (now a massive pool of reserve labor, including some souls desperate to do anything — like take a series of adjunct positions for which there should actually be a tenure track job — to pay back their debt).

 

Burned Out = Not Cut Out

A couple of weeks ago, Inside Higher Ed ran a report called “Why Academics Suffer Burnout,” which concluded that many academics experience emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and work-related dissatisfaction.  To which I say: if you can’t take the heat, get your ass out of the kitchen.  Sub-arguments in support of thesis:

1) Yes, we academics do a lot of things: we read a shit-ton of books, we write hundreds of words even if our brains don’t want to cooperate, we teach students who would rather be sleeping/screwing/eating/playing video games, we serve on committees with other crazy, narcissistic whack-jobs like ourselves, blah, blah, blah.  It’s still not digging for coal, driving a truck, running a farm on the edge of bankruptcy, or, hell, living in the Third World trying to find a path out of poverty instead of a path toward tenure.  Cowboy/girl up, nerds.

2) Let’s move beyond relative comparisons to other jobs — I’m aware of the pitfalls of that way of thinking (“just be grateful for what you have, peon!”).  I’ve long believed that every person has a particular level of maximum stress, which s/he will fulfill no matter what the conditions.  So the professors freaking out about having too many theses to advise are the same ones who pissed themselves for sixth grade spelling tests.  I’m not sure when this particular neurosis develops — nature? nurture? alien abduction? — but I notice it in myself and everyone else I see.  So I would speculate that the people suffering burnout in the academy would also suffer burnout if they were flipping burgers at McDonald’s.  The only difference is the consequence: stressy-professy ruins part of a student’s education, while freaked-out-Mc-D’d-out gives Comic Book Guy salmonella.  I think society should be willing to accept the latter over the former.

3) Make way for those who can hack it.  From the outside looking in, your 4/4 load with research support, health care, retirement, and awesome-sauce job security looks mighty nice.  I — an many of the other graduate students out there — would be happy to take that off your hands.  And we’ll do a damned good job.

Not Cool, Job Committees: Am I In or Out?

I’ll start the new year of blogging off with a complaint: job committees need to get off their asses and let applicants know where they stand in the process.  The AHA is this weekend, and I have yet to hear from any of the jobs for which I applied.  I assume, of course, that I didn’t get interviews, but I’ve heard from experienced applicants that job committees will sometimes wait until the last minute to let you know that they want to talk to you.  Not Cool, Job Committees.  Such short notice doesn’t give us time to prepare: we have suits to take to the cleaners, mock interviews to schedule, anxiety to build up.  Oh, and then there’s that whole 3,163 mile trip between where I live and the frigid ice-hole where the conference and interviews is taking place.  I have my ticket in hand, but there ain’t no way I’m making that intercontinental journey unless I have an interview scheduled.  And I would change that flight to warmer climes right now, except that I’m waiting for a definitive “NO!”  I appreciate your sensitivity, Job Committees, but I can take it.  Just tell me to piss off, and I’ll head down ol’ Mexico way.

Not Recommended

Sorry to be away so long, but I’ve been busy getting pissed off.  As many of you know, it’s job application season, which is unpleasant in oh-so-many ways: crafting letters for jobs you know you aren’t going to get; dealing with registrars to get grad transcripts; finding enough stamps to send stuff to non-digital departments; etc.  And I can now add lining up recommendation letters to that list, thanks to Interfolio, cheap university policies, and the shirking of faculty responsibilities and commitments.

In case you don’t know, Interfolio — to which I will not give the satisfaction of a link — is a dossier “service” to which you have your recommenders send their letters.  Interfolio inserts the addresses of the jobs for which you are applying, and then sends off the letter.  All of this for just $20 a year, plus $6 for each package of  letters — or $12 for Priority Mail, $16 for 2-day, or $28 for overnight!  Isn’t that a great deal, job applicants?!  Applying for ten jobs will cost you only $80!  Unless, of course, you want to send things more quickly, or if you can’t send all your letters at the same time, in which case you have to pay for each letter separately.  The short of it is this: job applicants get to pay for the satisfaction of getting rejected.  Nice.

It’s my understanding that universities used to provide this kind of “service,” but that sort of perk has gone the way of the dodo.  Instead of working on behalf of their fee-paying students, universities have abdicated that responsibility through partnerships with Interfolio.  All the school has to do is send Interfolio a digital letterhead, and the for-profit does the rest.  As long as you pay them to do it.

Some faculty love this sort of thing.  Interfolio saves them time; all they have to do is write one letter, and the for-profit does all the rest.  And I understand this, to some degree; I’ve been told that some faculty write “hundreds” of recommendation letters, and simply changing the address takes up precious research and teaching time.  I get that.  I really do.  Except:

  1. It’s your damn job, faculty.  Did you not know that you’d have to write recommendation letters when you signed up for this gig?  It’s part of the program.  And it’s not as though the recommendation letter season is a surprise.  It happens every year at the same time.  Plan for it.
  2. Letters spit out by the Interfolio machine are obviously not tailored for each job.  The recommender may say nice things about the candidate and her/his work in general, but nothing about how the applicant is exactly the right person for this particular job.  Tailored recommendation letters, like tailored job letters, get the attention of search committees.  General letters don’t.  They may, in fact, hurt — general letters signal that the writer doesn’t feel that the candidate is worth the extra time to tweak the letter for the job.  Why would such an unremarkable candidate be worth an interview?

I have been assured that everyone is doing this, so search committees expect it.  I’ve also been patted on the head and told that I’ll understand this better when I’m older and have to write hundreds of recommendation letters of my own.

Maybe.  But from where I’m sitting, this is a racket, plain and simple.  Interfolio, the schools, and the professors are all getting something: money, lower budgets, and more time, respectively.  And job applicants are the ones who pay.

The bigger problem (for me, anyway), is that I can’t help but interpret the use of Interfolio as a signal from some faculty that they just don’t think I should be on the job market.  There might be something to this; I won’t finish my dissertation until this summer, and I know that’s a problem for some search committees.  But I fear that it might mean something more: that they just don’t think I’m worth the time.  My work isn’t interesting enough; my effort hasn’t been sufficient.  If I don’t deserve a proper recommendation letter, how I can I deserve a job?

It’s not all bad.  There’s actually just one recommender insisting on Interfolio, and I’ve been learning not to take these sorts of things too personally from said recommender.  The rest of my committee is willing to write individual letters, although I fear that it’s quite the slog for them.  And I’ve learned some important lessons that I’ll try to apply to make this better.  First, get my requests in a hell of a lot earlier; I usually shoot for two weeks, but I think a month might be more like it.  Second, be a bit more selective about the jobs and fellowships to which I apply.  If I can convince my letter writers that I (a) have a decent shot at a job and (b) really, really want the job, they might be more willing to write tailored letters for me.  The moon shots might not be worth it.  Anyway, I’ll try that next year.  For now: back to grating my teeth and wishing I knew some hackers who could destroy Interfolio.  Bastards.