All aboard for the AHA!!

Like so many of my colleagues, I’m headed to Boston in a few days for the annual meeting of the  American Historical Association. I have written about this annual history festival before, and I know some people consider my fervent attachment to it somewhat strange.

It is a HUGE event, with thousands of people attending. Other disciplines have similar events, the Modern Languages Association (MLA) and American Philosophical Association (APA) also falling in the two weeks after Christmas. The AHA program is the size of a phone directory for a small town, and a major feature of the conference is that job interviews for many positions are held there. This is part of the reason that for many people it seems a chamber of horrors (in their descriptions): expensive holiday airfares to get to humiliating interviews capped off with $10 beers in the Hilton bar.

This has not been my experience. I have never landed a job as a result of an AHA interview, but I haven’t found the job center itself a bad system. I have had far more painful interviews for jobs outside academia (to put this in perspective, I was once turned down for a job answering the phones for Pizza Hut...). But for some people I know, the fact that the AHA and their struggles on the job market are inseparably intertwined, means that they hate it, hate it, HATE IT. And once they land a tenure-track job, they vow never to go again. And this is a great shame.

I find much more to love than dislike at the AHA. Indeed, what puts some people off is actually what I love. In addition to jobseekers, the other people who seem critical of it are those who find little in the program of interest. It’s broad, not like subspecialty-focused or local conferences. People have told me they get far more intellectually from attending the conferences of their area. But for me, the breadth is its beauty. Yes, I go to specialised conferences in the field/s I research. But the AHA allows me to dip into areas of history I don’t know much about. For instance, I’m not going to attend a conference on the American Civil War, or Feudal Japan, or marine archaeology: but I’ll go to a panel on one of these things if it’s at the AHA and looks interesting. If I’m at some point going to be teaching broad survey courses, I feel it’s useful (indeed a professional obligation) to at least be vaguely aware of what’s going on OUTSIDE my own subspecialty. And more than that, I actually enjoy learning about other fields of history and what people are researching. For people who LOVE HISTORY, the AHA is FUN!!

This is the first one since Phillie (2006) where I am not presenting or interviewing*, so I look forward to going to panels and meeting people. My good friend, Helena Toth, has put together a panel on the culture of death and remembrance in Eastern Europe, so all you Europeanists should come along!

I will also be announcing the winners of the Cliopatria awards for the best in history blogging, so that should be fun. I’ll be making the announcements during a dinner for Twitterstorians on Thursday, January 6. If you are interested in coming, register here.

*If you are on a search committee, and want to hire in urban/social/world history, drop me a line.

Jacob's Golden Ladder Gets Slippery at the Top...

Stepping late here into the churning waters of the job market debate in history. Marc Bosquet has effectively critiqued the AHA’s data (and their “supply side” economic focus). One of the comments on Historiann’s blog added a pertinent point which is often overlooked in this long-running debate. Kathleen Lowrey said

“If you were 24 years old and choosing between a few years reading and writing and thinking on a self-chosen schedule vs. a 40 hour week yea until death as a cubicle critter, you might take the gamble of grad school, too. Cake now vs. no cake ever (cake being leisure time, self-direction, feeling one’s existence is meaningful, being surrounded by interesting like-minded people) — I’d probably make the same choice.”

The “cake now” vs “cake never” attraction of graduate school is, I believe, a strong factor. I certainly met PhD students who said that they only enrolled “because I got funding” and three years of salary (in the UK) was too good to turn down. Not to overgeneralise, but these were also people who seemed ambivalent (or flat out uninterested) in their academic research, and in a number of cases never finished anyway. So in a sense they got a free 3 year holiday: and when it’s offered like that (there is no punishment for not completing, for simply walking off at the end of the three years having taken the money and produced nothing), it’s hardly surprising people take it up. I also met people who – faced with (realistically) spending up to a year after their undergraduate degree looking for a job – decided to enrol for a Masters degree at the same time, so their “jobseeking” year also accrued them an additional qualification. Of course, if they were performing well in the Masters course they would be encouraged to apply for PhD places, and this is one track by which people end up in humanities PhD programs. It wasn’t their original plan, but when a funded opportunity appears, weighing that against scouring the want ads while living back with one’s parents makes a PhD sound like a pretty good option. In fact, at that post-BA stage, a funded PhD place can be the “bird in the hand” over the unknown outcomes of the general job market.

But the other element raised, that fresh graduates of 22 see their options as “wage slave” vs the intellectual world of academia, is a key one. The undercurrent in graduate school (at least as I experienced in the humanities) is that it is a noble vocation, an “independent” way of life (in the same sense of “indie” films versus blockbusters, and you can well imagine the kind of cultural snobbery that goes with it). People who left academia to pursue another job were described as “selling out”. So there is a strange contradiction, between an attitude that regards academia (in the humanities) as some kind of free, creative realm, but then turns around at the end to complain that the time spent in grad school did not provide a professional qualification that would lead directly to a job.

...and heaven’s walls too high to hear the trouble down below

Is some of the problem that (some) senior people don’t understand what the job market is like now? It seems hard to believe anyone could be unaware, but some of the advice circulating while I was a PhD student suggests that this really is the case. I knew people who simply applied for 12 hypercompetitive postdocs and were surprised not to get one, and senior profs who talked about Junior Research Fellowships and British Academy Postdocs as a natural progression, as if they were easy to come by.
I’ve also heard from people serving on search committees who were SURPRISED to get 100+ applicants for a position. How long ago was your last interaction with the job market if that’s a surprise?


San Diego to Boston and All Points Between - thoughts on the AHA

About a week ago, I received an email (from a group I had never heard of) inviting me to move my AHA panel from the Hyatt. The issues were the hotel owner’s stance on gay marriage, and some labour issues. They weren’t offering alternative venues, but suggested that some people were using their own hotel rooms (I am not expecting a huge audience for my paper, but I was hoping for a better crowd than 3 people sitting on my bed). Shortly thereafter, I received a message from the AHA saying much of the message was disinformation, there is no labour dispute at the hotel, and repeating the outcome of discussions at the last AHA meeting: the hotel was booked years ago and pulling out at this stage would be more financially damaging to the AHA than to the hotel. A series of panels on the history of marriage will be held at the Hyatt.

Tenured Radical and others have discussed this proposed boycott and why it was not going to work for the AHA financially. This series of sessions on marriage being held at the Hyatt also generated some H-NET discussion, with a couple of responders saying they expected the panels to take one side of the debate (no papers endorsing an anti-gay marriage perspective). I don’t know yet but I suspect this will be true. And that’s unfortunate. I am in support of gay marriage, but I don’t think this is the type of thing on which the AHA should have a position.

I don’t know Mr Manchester or have any particular interest in his views, but as I understand it he participated in the elections as a citizen, legally exercising his democratic right to support a particular viewpoint, and donating money to the cause he supported. After all, it’s not just Doug Manchester holding a certain opinion, evidently thousands of Californians agreed with him. The subtext I’m sensing is that the Hyatt has become the focus for a lot of anger from AHA members who were unhappy with the passing of Proposition 8. If the Proposition had not passed, I don’t think anyone would be suggesting boycotting the hotel.

The more general complaint I’ve heard about the AHA in terms of its location is the cost: I think I’m paying more for my hotel this year than I did last year (which was New York at New Years). I will be interested to see how much attendance is down due to the economic downturn (as opposed to the lower attendance which is apparently typical whenever the AHA is on the West Coast).

I have been told that the reason we go to cities like Philly or Boston is that they are much cheaper than, say, Miami in January. But the cities that have hosted the recent meetings and are on the calendar for the next few years seem to offer a fairly unimaginative shuffle, with New York and DC on high rotation. (I understand the Washington meeting of 2008 was a last-minute replacement for New Orleans, but perhaps they could have moved the 2014 meeting away from DC).

2005 - Seattle
2006 - Philadelphia
2007 - Atlanta
2008 - Washington, D.C.
2009 - New York
2010 - San Diego
2011 - Boston
2012 - Chicago
2013 - New Orleans
2014 - Washington, D.C.
2015 - New York
2016 - Atlanta

I don’t know how the AHA chooses the destinations: does it depend on local members campaigning for it, like the Olympics? Obviously it has to be a city where a local organising committee can make arrangments, so a city with a density of members does make sense (also because all the people living and working in New York or Boston can make a good base, whereas at another city a higher proportion of attendees have to come in from outside). I get all of that, but it would be good to see some other cities getting into the mix. Baltimore? Savannah? Providence? Memphis?