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.

Meritocracy, My Ass

Just in case there was any confusion on the subject, the academic job market does not reward those who work the hardest, teach well and often, or produce more and better scholarship.  Compared to the advantages of an Ivy League pedigree and its nepotistic connections, things like teaching experience, publications, and awards don’t amount to a pile of beans.  At least that’s the case with many schools — R-1s and small liberal arts colleges alike — that are easily wowed by the names on diplomas and letters of reference.  For those of us without the great good fortune to have been enrolled in courses at places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, it’s a game of luck and chance, and the hope that at least one member of the search committee will have the guts to read past the eduction section of the CV and not be star-struck when the Good Old Boys start calling in their connections.

Yeah, I lost out on a job search to an Ivy Leaguer, even though I have taught more classes, published more articles, and won more awards.  So I’m pissed.  And I’m going to use it.  I’m going to take my anger and frustration and I’m going to sink it into my work.  I’m going to get the articles out, go to the conferences, get the book published, get the job, and get elected to professional organizations.  And when the time comes on job, conference, and fellowship committees, I will have my vengeance.  So run, you cur.  And tell the other curs I’m coming, and I’m bringing hell with me.

Do Me a Favor

As a graduate student/adjunct, I ask for a lot of favors.  I ask for recommendation letters, I ask for comments on my writing, I ask that my class be scheduled at a particular time — gimme, gimme, gimme.  And when I don’t get what I ask for, I get upset.  Case in point: two months ago, I asked a colleague to write a recommendation letter for a job that I’d really like to land.  That letter has not yet arrived, which is pretty damned frustrating.  But I started thinking about this from my colleague’s perspective, and all he sees is demands: write me a letter, get me a course to teach, send me your syllabi, etc..  Same thing goes for my adviser, whom I constantly assail with requests for advice, letters, chapter critiques, and so on and so forth.  It must be exhausting.

But here’s the thing: at this point in my career, I have absolutely nothing to offer these people.  I have no influence, no power, no nothing.  I’m not smart or witty enough to keep around for interesting conversation, and I bring no ancillary benefits, like knowing how to fix plumbing problems or something.  You scratch my back, and I’ll…ask you scratch it again in a few days.  And so I constantly rely on the kindness of others, hoping two things.  First, that the people of whom I ask favors understand this situation.  Surely they’ve been in it before, and now it’s their turn to pass it forward.  Second, I hope they feel like me when someone asks me for a favor: a little bit flattered.  When an undergraduate asks me to write a letter, I usually blush a little — “Aww, shucks, you want help from li’l ol’ me?”  It not only feels good to help someone out, but there’s a certain realization of power; the request for a favor reminds me that I do have some influence, however small.  And that sensation — of power? — can go a long way, at least for me.

The Six Steps of Preparing a Job Letter

I’m applying to about a dozen jobs this year*, and so far, every job letter has gone a little like this:

Step One: After seeing the job announcement, a combination of excitement, curiosity, and anxiety rushes over me.  “What a great job!…right?  Where is this school, anyway?  Do I actually qualify for this position?”

Step Two: Terror strikes.  “I am absolutely not qualified for this job.  There are so many better candidates out there.  What are they looking for, anyway?  Surely not me.  There is no way I’m getting this job.  I should just bag this letter and go play video games.”

Step Three: Confidence builds.  “They might actually be interested in my research, if I frame it in this way.  Their course catalog has a few holes in it; I’m pretty sure I could help them on that.  This might work out.”

Step Four: Hubris appears.  “Ooo, I just thought of a great line — they’re going to eat this up!  No one in their department is doing anything like me; there are gaping holes in their curriculum and scholarship.  And I’m pretty sure I know someone in the department.  Yup, I’ll get an interview.  Or maybe they’ll just call up and offer me the job right away.  But then again: do I want this job?  Am I too good for it?”

Step Five: Doubt sinks in; constant revisions begin.  “Hmm, I don’t like that sentence.  Neither will they.  Am I pigeonholing myself?  Or does this make me look too much like a generalist — someone who knows a little about a lot, but not a lot about anything.  Maybe that’s what they want?  What do they want, anyway?  Do I fit those qualifications?  Probably not.  Maybe I’ll get an interview and can pick up the pieces then.  I should be so lucky.”

Step Six: Exhaustion, relief, and spite upon sending the damn thing.  “Nothing more I can do now.  Just wait.  And you know what?  Fuck them if they don’t like me.”

I’m pretty sure this isn’t healthy, but it’s worked this way for every letter I’ve sent in.  Currently, I’m in between steps five and six with a few letters, including one for a job I really, really, really want.  And I can’t wait for the process to be over.

* This is a very small number.  A friend of mine is applying to about fifty.  Crazy.

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).


Getting Engaged (to “the public”)

As I wrap up the first draft of my dissertation (whoo-hoo!), I’m starting to look for ways to engage in public discussions of broader themes and topics to which my dissertation is relevant, however remotely.  I’ve approached my teaching institution’s communications office to participate in a series of public talks; I’ve added a Google News section with keywords associated to my dissertation topic; and I’m saving my pennies to restart my subscription to the New York Times and maybe, if I can bear it, The Economist.  My hope is that by and through these outlets, I’ll both find ways of making broader connections within my dissertation and bring my dissertation to a group larger than my three committee members and my dog.

But I’m not entirely sure how to begin.  Initially, I thought that I should get involved in the comments sections of blogs and other websites when something relevant comes up — like a TED presentation a few weeks back about which I might have left some insightful (of course!) comment.  But maybe that’s a waste of time, or maybe I just need to pick and choose; Foreign Policy might be good, while Seeking Alpha might be the wrong audience.  And what, exactly, should I say?  While I have the advantage, compared to other historians, of working on a relatively recent and relevant topic, I’m used to talking about the past for its own sake, rather than making the direct connections to the present and future that most readers — who are busy with real jobs and lives in the real present and future — want.

Despite these concerns, I will push forward with my grand plans for public engagement, for at least two reasons.  First, it is actually important that we historians — both student and faculty — take a lead role in bringing historical interpretation to the public.  If we don’t, other people who don’t know a damned thing about the past will use it and abuse it.  Second, this sort of thing can’t hurt when trying to land a job.  Of course, you have to be smart about where, when, and and how you engage the public, but I think it can work out well if you do it right.

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.