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.

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.


Historians: What Do We Do Well?

I bought tea and cookies for a “senior” faculty person from another department yesterday, using the treats to lure him into a conversation about my career.  We had a lovely conversation, and though he did not offer to create a new tenure-track line for me (darn!), he offered some good suggestions, including ideas for finding work in places I hadn’t really considered.  More on that another time.  He also asked an important and challenging question:

“What is that you, as a historian, do well that you can offer to people who aren’t historians?”

It’s important for obvious reasons: (a) history teaching gigs are as rare as good beer in Utah*, so it’d be smart to focus on a more broadly useful skill set rather than labeling myself as a historian, (b) disciplines are stupid; if we’re interested in the pursuit of truth, we should use whatever methods lead us there, and (c) disciplines are anachronistic, a relic of the late-19/early 20th century.

It’s also a challenging question: what, exactly, do we do well?**  That is: what skills should historians possess that others might not have developed?  For graduate students locked inside their discipline for six years, this is a particularly difficult question; we’ve been trained/trained ourselves to speak with an ever-smaller circle of people with similar interests.  We get so far along that when asked what we do, we mumble something stupid about our dissertations and then roll our eyes when the honest listener expresses confusion with our gibberish.  And when we’re done, we head out on to the job market, where exactly no one gives two shits about our dissertations.

And so: some reflection on what historians should do well.  I ask, beg, and implore you ideas and reading suggestions.

  • Tell good stories.  Interesting, informative, engaging, comprehensive, relevant stories.  That’s what history is, after all: stories about the past.  My friends in chemistry may know their way around the lab and the path to giant piles of grant money, but we historians should be able to tell stories that keep butts on the edges of seats.  And that’s important, because stories are how we understand and make sense of the world.  Which is another thing we do…
  • Make sense of the past.  The past is weird, man.  People wore funny clothes and said crazy things and did all sorts of nutty stuff.  Historians should be able to get into the heads of those people and explain their world views and motivations.  At the same time, we can get out of those heads, and look at all of the other things driving people to do what they did.***
  • Make sense of the present.  We are here now because of where those weird people took us back then.  Want to understand race relations today?  Figure out the last two hundred years of American history.  Same thing goes with everything–look back to figure out where you are now.  Go ahead, call me a presentist.  I’ll call you totally irrelevant.  And then we’ll spit on each other.
  • Offer suggestions for the future.  Yeah, I said it: we should provide some prescriptions for what ails us.  We’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t in different contexts.  We have an obligation to make sure that understanding is part of relevant debates and discussions today.  People get smarter with age because they pay attention to and learn lessons from their experience.  My Gramps knows not to overdo it on the wine because he’s made a fool of himself in the past; I have yet to learn such a lesson.  Why shouldn’t we historians help others from making asses of themselves and the world?
  • Find stuff.  I think we often take this for granted, but historians are awfully good and tracking down obscure shit.  Fuel consumption between 1960 and 1977?  Here you go.  Songs sung by migrant workers during the Dust Bowl?  No problem.  Hopes and dreams of a Native American woman married to a French fur trapper?  Well…that might take me some time, but if I can’t find her words, I can help reconstruct her world and make some pretty good guesses on her life.  This is more than just go-for work; this is thinking about different points and methods of access to the past.  And the present, for that matter.

That’s a start, anyway.  I look forward to your suggestions, and I’ll keep working on it myself.


*I could be wrong about this, never having been to Utah.  But I lack folksy sayings, so I’m making them up as I go.

** I like the ring of this.  Sounds like a 50s song : “DO-wee-DO-well, DO-wee-DO-well…”

*** I’m talking about false consciousness, y’all.  It’s REAL.