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.


I need a reboot day.  After weeks of balancing precariously on the edge of total disorder in my teaching, research, and writing, I’m just about to fall off the cliff.  I even had to violate my Nature/Nurture Sunday to do some grading that I had put off for weeks. And still I’m not up to the bare minimum of where I need to be.  And that’s a problem, because I am so very, very close to being done with a lot of important things.  Top of the list: finishing and filing my dissertation so I can get hooded this June.  I’ve promised my committee the last round of edits by the middle of March, and that’s going to take some late nights.  When I start to think about that plus teaching plus an article I’m almost done with plus a conference at the end of this month and so on, I feel like I’m just about to lose it.  So I’m calling a time out.  Not a day off from work, but a day to take a step back and remind myself of which work is important and to figure out how to get that done.  The problem, of course, is that every second I take to plan is a second I take away from doing the work itself.  But right now, I need to figure out where I’m going and how to get there.  An important process, I’d argue, for every academic, and especially those just starting to learn how to balance all the fun and taxing work we do.


Nature and Nurture Sundays

Another long break since my last post…bad on me.  But that last one got a lot of hits, so I basked in that for a while, and then there’s this whole new baby thing that’s been taking up a hell of a lot of time.  Turns out that many shorties (inspiration: The Onion), including our own, don’t give a damn about when you want to sleep, and that really messes up your work-life-blogging schedule (not that I had much of one to begin with, but whatever).  Anyway, I’ve made one New Years resolution this year, and it’s this: Nature and Nurture Sundays.  I will do no proper work on Sundays: no teaching prep, no dissertation writing/revising, none of that stuff.  I’ll allow myself to read, and maybe even take notes, but that’s about it.  Otherwise, I’m getting out into nature (and I will not think about the cultural construction of “nature” — that would be work) and learn the names of trees and shrubs and such, and I’m going to do a lot of nurturing: of my relationships with friends and family and of my soul.  That means things like playing guitar (which I just did for an hour, and DAMN do I need some calluses!), brewing beer (which I started doing in November), dreaming up storylines for the novel that’s been cooking in my head, and spending lots of quality time with my spouse and daughter.  I hope that this will help bring my stress level down a bit and remind me of what’s important.  I can’t say that it’s worked so far — after the first Nature and Nurture Sunday last week, I promptly had not one, but two, breakdowns, sobbing uncontrollably and repeating “There’s too much to do and I’ll never get it done!”  But even that was a little cathartic.  Distressing, but cathartic.  Anyway, I also hope that this means more regular writing on this blog, which was intended, after all, as a de-stressing activity, not as work.  So I hope you’ll come to expect a bit more of me on Sundays, dear reader — but not too much.  After all, there are trees to identify, beer to brew, and a daughter to be fascinated by.

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


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!

How to Write Historical-ish Op-Eds for the NYT

Earlier this week, Matthew Lassiter, author of the brilliant The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times.  This got me thinking: how does a historian get her/himself published in the pages of the Old Grey Lady?  I did a quick search for “professor of history” in the opinion pages over the last thirty days,* thought about the results, and herewith offer some ideas for getting your name into a dying medium.

First, the list of the op-eds:

Matthew Lassiter, “Populism and the Silent Majority” (3 Nov 2011)
Douglas Brinkley, “The Grand Canyon and Mining” (31 Oct 2011)
James Livingston, “It’s Consumer Spending, Stupid” (26 Oct 2011)
Randall J. Stephens, “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason” (18 Oct 2011)
Jill Lepore, “Here’s the Guy Who Invented Populism” (16 Oct 2011)
Jeremi Suri, “America the Overcommitted” (14 Oct 2011)
Louis Hyman, “Wal-Mart’s Layaway Plan” (12 Oct 2011)

And now, the rules:

  1. Write within your field of expertise, making connections to present-day phenomena.  Duh.
  2. Use an innovative interpretation of the past to make sense of the present.  See Lassiter.
  3. Find interesting individuals from the past and draw (tenuous) connections to the present.  See Brinkley and Lepore.
  4. Identify something really weird and apparently unexplainable in the present, and use the past to make sense of said bizzare thing.  See Hyman, Stephens, Lassiter, Lepore, and Brinkely.
  5. Provide some sort of policy advice or corrective.  See Suri, Livingston, Brinkley.
  6. Be famous, like Brinkley or Lepore.  Note that this does not mean you have to be a serious or rigorous scholar.  Just famous.

BAM.  That’s how you do it.  Get to work.

* Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not a perfect sample.  Go read your statistics textbook, nerds.

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.

Heeding Thin Lizzy’s Call

The boys over at The Edge of the American West are back.  So is Ashley Squires.  It’s all provisional, of course, but Thin Lizzy’s prophecies, it would seem, must be realized.  I’ve been in absentia for a few different reasons:

  • My partner and I produced a baby a few weeks ago.  It turns out this is very time consuming.
  • I’ve been applying for jobs like crazy.  Also very time consuming.
  • Teaching = time consuming.
  • All things in life = time consuming.

But I do miss writing for the dozen or so people who stop by The Bench, and so I’ll get back to it.  Hell, if two tenured professors and a fellow ABD job-seeker can do it, I should certainly be able to.

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).