Bells will ring

Last week I was back in Cambridge to attend a friend's wedding. As I watched this marriage in a college chapel, I was staying in a guest room that had that Cambridge smell. The chapel was beautiful, and kneeling on that hard pillow with my back straining reminded me of so many evensongs.

I felt oddly nostalgic but reminded too of the reasons living in England again would be difficult. Cambridge remains as it ever was, a contradictory place. A short stroll will show you, by turns, elegant and trashy, beautiful and stark, crowded and still.

Seeing friends who have stayed on in academe—and those who have not—raised the usual contemplations of my career and what graduate school really does to people. But one of the things it has done for a number of my friends, including the one just married, is bring them together with their life partner.

The intellectual atmosphere and forced proximity of graduate school is the ideal venue for academic over-achievers to pair off. This is such a recent phenomenon (in terms of when many top universities got around to admitting women), it remains to be seen what effect this will have on academe long-term. Perhaps the notion of the social spaces within academia will change. We have already moved on from the—once common—acknowledgment of gratitude in book or thesis to the "wife who typed my manuscript".

Strange days indeed, to still be at the very tail end, generationally, of the bachelor dons who once filled Oxbridge colleges.

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.

More on looking like an academic....

This piece, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses the pitfalls of being seen as too attractive, by students and colleagues. But I was most interested by the first comment underneath. In response to the suggestion that professors should wear a suit and heels, the commenter says they are "there to teach", not to "look hot", and that the suggestion is "just offensive to anybody who takes the life of the mind seriously". While I agree that professors' main aim should not be to serve as a decorative object in the classroom, I don't see why wearing a suit should be a problem. Indeed, this earlier article shows how one professor found benefits to wearing a suit daily. I'm very curious where this idea that dressing smartly is incompatible with "a life of the mind" has come from - as I mentioned in my post a few days ago. It's evidently a relatively recent step: photos of professors from the first half of the twentieth century show them dressed much as bankers or lawyers of the same period (possibly with more tweed in evidence!). Does anyone seriously think Wittgenstein wasn't leading a life of the mind because he was wearing a three-piece suit?

As well as student perceptions, the impression given to the public at large is something of which some academics seem to be oblivious. We roll our eyes at the "clueless" who think we only work 6 hours a week and have summers off, but if you're going to work in an outfit most professionals would wear on their days off, you might be contributing to the problem. I never cease to be amazed at academics' willingness to undermine themselves (and academe in general) by playing into public stereotypes of professors as layabouts who don't really earn their (in the public imagination) overinflated salaries. I appreciate that avoiding a corporate lifestyle is something that drew many of us into academia, but if you're complaining about university education being undervalued, then being seen to be in your office during business hours wearing something close to professional attire might not be such a bad place to start.

If love is a red dress...

Academic dress - or rather, the Bermuda triangle of style that is most faculty lounges. The other day I was speaking to Fellow Female Academic, and she told me that when she started out, she was trying NOT to look stylish, from the idea that she could come across as too frivolous, that she should be leading a serious, ascetic, life of the mind (this is not a view that FFA still holds, mind, and she is very elegant). But it intrigued me, as I had never thought that way myself - nor for a moment considered that the shabby folks I saw were consciously operating under such a belief.

From when I started my Masters (indeed, the latter stages of my undergrad) I tended to wear jackets and skirts to class, rather than jeans and t-shirts. During my PhD, when I had no classes to attend, I'll admit I didn't make too much of an effort to look fashion-forward just to get to the library. But I dressed for conferences. Once I landed a full-time job, I started wearing make-up daily. I would never teach a class, or present a conference paper, in jeans. I had always operated from the view that attitudes are very gendered, and as a young woman there is a greater risk of undermining oneself by appearing too casual (or indeed too young, dressing like a kid in ponytail, jeans and sneakers). As far as I am aware, I have never been judged frivolous for wearing lipstick or high heels to academic events (but I can't know for sure).

The people who get away with being the worst dressed are generally both senior and male (although there are a few women who yield to nobody in their sloppy personal appearance). I'm not talking "somewhat dowdy", but the extreme of poor dressing that is achieved only by academics and the homeless. When I see someone show up at a seminar in torn clothing (!), dirty tracksuit pants, a nylon fleece...I do judge them, I admit it. I don't admire their disregard for material matters, but rather think they are pretty disrespectful to their colleagues to not dress a little better than they would to shamble down the road to Blockbuster (something tells me these people don't have much of a social life, either). FFA said that she changed her view based on the logic that you wouldn't trust a lawyer or a doctor who couldn't dress themselves, and academics should be no different. Looking shabby is not some badge of honour, it's a sign of laziness and incompetence.

Cityscapes Wrap-up (AKA "why I am still so tired")

Last Thursday and Friday, I was co-organiser of a conference, "Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience". My colleague Heléna Tóth and I hosted 29 panelists plus 4 keynote speakers at the Center for Advanced Studies here in Munich. Having first had the idea for the conference last October, it has felt like a sprint to get everything organised, from the original CFP to the timing of the coffee breaks, and I'm still recovering!

We kicked off the event with a walking tour of the city last Wednesday afternoon, which we guided ourselves, and it was fun showing people around our new home, despite the rain.

The conference went better than I could have hoped, and our plans to generate interdisciplinary conversation seem to have succeeded. I learned a lot from all the presentations I saw, including Manan Ahmed (of Chapati Mystery) who spoke about digitising maps and retaining cultural information. So much was packed into the two days, I'm still marveling that we got so many great participants to come from all over the world. We even had the famous Lucy Inglis of Georgian London showing her work on where the different ethnic groups lived in the 1700s.

Our keynote speakers were very generous, Lizabeth Cohen spoke about being a historian who wanted to use architectural and landscape studies in her own work (which was particularly relevant and informative for me); Nicholas Temple spoke about religious space in all kinds of forms (with thought-provoking resonances); Richard Dennis captured the cultural relevance of modern urban life with the "architecture of hurry"; and Philip Ethington gave us a whirlwind history of Los Angeles, from megafauna to Richard Nixon, showing that perhaps some things do stay the same ;)

We are very grateful to Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and the CAS for their funding and support. We were particularly spoiled with the catering, which included hot food for lunch and plum cake for afternoon tea!

Heléna and I will be editing a volume based on the conference, and I'll update here with how that progresses.


Where have all the bloggers gone?

Back in the mists of time when I started a blog (long since gone), I was some kind of animal in an ecosystem (what happened to that, eh?) and there was a different culture. I have commented before that the disappearance of the easy trackback system from blogger seems to have been one instrument in killing the collegiality that seemed to exist (I have yet to figure out how to do trackback - if it's even possible from posterous - and going to everyone else's site and commenting "I added a link to you!!" is a bit laborious).

Laura McKenna summed up the process well in this post.

What has struck me recently is even how many well-known academic blogs have shuttered. So I decided to have a look back at the Cliopatria award winners. How many of them are still around?

Awards were first given for 2005, announced at the AHA in January 2006 (I got to collect the certificate on behalf of Frog in a Well - we were "best group blog").

Other winners that year were Blog Them Out of the Stone Age and BibliOdyssey, Old is the New New and Easily Distracted (all still going strong), and Rhine River, which became Europe Endless, and ceased updating in 2009.

Of the winners for 2006, Participant Historian seems to have folded in December of that year. AxisofEvelKnievel was last updated in 2008, William Turkel shuttered Digital History Hacks (with an explanation and link to his new site) the Civil Warriors are still going, and Chris Bray is still contributing to Cliopatria.

From 2007, Timothy Burke won again (for Easily Distracted), Steamboats are Ruining Everything is still going, Civil War Memory moved but is still alive, Religion in American History, yep, In the Middle yes, and Errol Morris won for a series in the New York Times - which, as of this writing, is still in publication.

From 2008, Wynken de Worde - not sure, dormant since January of this year. Zunguzungu, Edge of the American West and Walking the Berkshires are still active, as are two of my most favouritest blogs, Northwest History and Tenured Radical.

It seems a little early to prognosticate of the fate of the winners announced at the last AHA, who are listed here.

Obviously, people's lives change, they move on (my theory of where all the bloggers went from 5-10 years ago was that they started having children...). In academia, people have become more conscious of what they post online, I think a few public cases have revealed that there is no real anonymity on the internet, so there are fewer no-holds-barred academic blogs than there used to be. Time was, that (some) people seemed to think of their site as somehow semi-private, and that it was immoral or snooping for, say, a Search Committee member to google a candidate or read their site. That attitude has faded away, and a recognition that you will be judged by your site I think led a number of people to just give it up all together. (In history there seems to be a digital divide, between those who see online presence as a useful asset for their careers, and those who can barely handle email).

Of all the bloggers I miss, I have lamented the absence of Invisible Adjunct. She never chose to reveal her true identity, but I hope she found success.




Tenure? The current smackdown

The New York Times, in between giving advice on shopping for a vacation home in Croatia and pet furniture, held a debate on removing academic tenure.

Which prompted immediate responses. Dean Dad, at Confessions of a Community College Dean gets right to the point.

Meanwhile, over at the Atlantic, Megan McCardle thinks tenure was a good idea at one point, but can't be defended now. (Rebuttal from Jonathan Rees)

I can see some arguments on both sides. Tenure was established by, and for, white men who in many cases were perpetuating the kind of system that women and faculty members of colour were trying to break into (and which persists, in not-so-small pockets of academia too).

But the security of a tenure system is what allowed members of those groups to gain (and maintain) their foothold in academia. To some scholars of the old guard, tenuring women would have seemed an outrageous detournement!

In university systems where tenure does not exist (or the UK, which has had a "defacto" tenure system - see the discussions on recent dismissals - attempted an otherwise - of senior faculty at KCL for some views on how that's worked out), the culture is different. Better? worse? I don't know.

EDITED: after our comment exchange below, Heinrich forwarded me a link to Brian Leiter's take on the tenure issue. With this, I find myself in total agreement. Particularly with his two points about the current weaknesses of the US system: Inadequate protection and support for the untenured, and unwillingness to dismiss the tenured even for good reason.

This is a key point - the few academics, who are a minority but who make the news for outrageous behaviour end up swaying attitudes about the concept of tenure, and the public perception that it is a guaranteed job for life for people who behave like jackasses. Here some people seem to equate tenure with free speech, too - see Churchill, Ward. I have witnessed quite active debates over what "academic freedom" means; whether simply the right to research controversial topics, or the right to teach any subject matter, in any form, and speak out on any issue under the sun. Some clarification from the AAUP would really help - academic freedom should mean freedom to pursue academic research, not freedom to do absolutely anything because you are an academic.

Historians stepping out from the Ivory Tower?

Thomas Bender has written a very instructive essay, Historians in Public. In it, he points out that academics used to be much better represented in mainstream publications, and more often wrote or presented to the general public than they do now. As he points out: "While the early graduate schools were committed to advanced research, they sought to educate civic leaders, not future academics", reminding us that both Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge held history doctorates. He also mentions something I hadn't known, that Frederick Jackson Turner first advanced his Frontier Thesis not in an academic essay but in a public address at the Chicago World's Fair. 

Bender further refers to William James' (strikingly prescient) concerns about the overspecialisation of academia. Over 100 years ago, when the degree was just starting to become common in English-speaking academia, James recognised the dangers of overvaluing the PhD, and overproducing them. Although his concern was primarily those who failed to pass the degree, a similar concern could be expressed today for many who pass but are unable to find academic employment:

We of the university faculties are responsible for deliberately creating this new class of American social failures, and heavy is the responsibility. We advertise our "schools" and send out our degree-requirements, knowing well that aspirants of all sorts will be attracted, and at the same time we set a standard which intends to pass no man who has not native intellectual distinction. We know that there is no test, however absurd, by which, if a title or decoration, a public badge or mark, were to be won by it, some weakly suggestible or hauntable persons would not feel challenged, and remain unhappy if they went without it. We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent; and we say deliberately that mere work faithfully performed, as they perform it, will not by itself save them, they must in addition put in evidence the one thing they have not got, namely this quality of intellectual distinction. Occasionally, out of sheer human pity, we ignore our high and mighty standard and pass them. Usually, however, the standard, and not the candidate, commands our fidelity. The result is caprice, majorities of one on the jury, and on the whole a confession that our pretensions about the degree cannot be lived up to consistently. Thus, partiality in the favored cases; in the unfavored, blood on our hands; and in both a bad conscience,--are the results of our administration.

- William James, "The PhD Octopus", Harvard Monthly, March 1903. Full text

But Bender's thoughts on public engagement are particularly relevant at a time when academics everywhere are having to defend themselves against funding cuts and more often demonstrate the "relevance" or "impact" of their research to the general economy. 

I can see two factors (at least) that have conspired to create the current situation. The first is a valuing of obscurantism in academic writing (which makes it unmarketable to the lay reader), and an academic reward system that does not value that type of public outreach, and indeed disdains those who write "mass market" work. The second is perhaps a reaction to the first, and that is that editors of mainstream publications will visibly shudder when offered an article "based on PhD research" - several have told me quite frankly that they don't want to look at submissions from academics because they tend to be unreadable. If we have become so rarified in our specialisations, can we be surprised if our role of communicating history to the public has been usurped by journalists? 

While I can think of a number of high-profile historians who write for mainstream publications - Jill Lepore, Simon Schama, Victor Davis Hanson, Gil Troy, among others - the vast majority don't. Have we lost sight of the public as an audience as we focus our research? It does seem to be the case that the "educated layman" is a market not always covered in the current media, but with the branching out of digital opportunities, there should be avenues for interested readers and historians to connect. I hope so. 

I heard it through the grapevine; or the semi-secret world of academic hiring

Scuttlebutt, bush telegraph, radio bemba, the rumour mill: this tends to be how we hear first that someone is leaving, or has been hired by another university. That would make sense for friends and close colleagues, but even for people at great distance, we end up getting third hand information about who is going where, and why. Unless you are close enough to someone to have seen their facebook updates, or in the department doing the hiring, you're unlikely to otherwise have a clue about who is moving departments next year.

Those of you who have braved the academic job market in recent years will be familiar with the various job wikis (many hosted at - a lot scattered elsewhere on the web).These are examples of crowdsourcing, where many participants add to the pool of information. Of course, there is sometimes disinformation broadcast on the wiki - whether malicious or mistaken.The general cloak of secrecy allows a lot of disinformation to flourish, as incorrect assertions are rarely corrected - and almost never by anyone speaking with authority (the candidate in question, or a member of the search committee).

In the UK, where the period from application deadline to hire is often something like a month (with the job offer coming within 24 hours of the interview), there is not a long time in which people are required (or try) to keep a lid on the process. Not to mention that it's common to meet the other candidates at the interview - there is no expectation that one's job search is confidential, from the other applicants or anyone else. In North America and elsewhere, where a search can lurch on for months - that's a lot of time for dust to be kicked up and gossip to swirl among it. In Germany, it is common for people to advertise not only the new job they have accepted, but offers that they declined. I'm not sure that level of transparency would take off in the English-speaking world, but it's an interesting comparator to have when examining the manic paranoia that seems to accompany the job market in some places.

While some universities make announcements about new hires (in history, ads are placed in Perspectives), most don't. Big splash announcements tend to be limited to senior hires, and even then will sometimes only show up on institutional websites months after the fact - and that's at the hiring end. The departed department often retains faculty profiles on their site for those long gone, and not just those who took jobs elsewhere. I learned never to rely on a faculty directory for up to date information after the mortifying experience of writing to a scholar and receiving a very sweet note from his widow, telling me he had passed away years before...!

For philosophy, the Leiter Report does a good job of keeping the community up to date with moves. But I'm not aware of anything like that in history or other humanities. (It depends on first having a website that a critical mass of people in the field visit, and I'm not sure we do). This also offers a service for PhD students in throwing a little daylight into the shadows of placement rates, which are typically vague and anecdotal otherwise.

Now, you may be asking why you should care. Currently, few historians have a personal web page. When I search for someone online, I am lucky if the first result is their departmental website. But frequently the departmental site that comes up is the one of their grad school, in which they are still listed as a PhD student despite graduating five years ago, or the school where they spent a year as a VAP some time in the 1990s. And of course the listed email addresses are long since out of service. We all know the departmental pages that list someone's book as "forthcoming for 1998", and faculty info is no more likely to be current. How hard should it be to find other academics - perhaps to suggest a collaboration, or invite them to participate in a symposium? If you find you are hidden under the weeds and rocks of the google pond, make your profile shiny so we can see you!

Back to the transfers - unlike the Major League draft, there is no wholesale publicity of who is going where (although I bet that would lift viewership on!). I was recently introduced to this section of Inside HigherEd which is a directory of people changing jobs. It seems to be little-used, and mostly by those being promoted within the same institution. Perhaps History News Network could start keeping track of historians on the move? They're the only site I can think of with the visitor volume that might be able to manage it.


Do you feel lucky, punk?

Luck is interesting. It’s a relevant issue in academia, where the desired elements (a job, book contract, tenure, etc) are in much shorter supply than those vying for them. It’s naturally hard for anyone who has succeeded, in an environment that so prizes the ideal of meritocracy (blind peer review! diversity in hiring!), to admit that they may have been a beneficiary of fortune, rather than simply reaping the deserved rewards of their own hard work. Of course, there are also those convinced that they just got lucky, have no merit, and will be revealed as frauds any day now. Notorious, PhD posted recently on an aspect of this “impostor syndrome” (which also seems gendered – more women are afflicted).

But luck itself: the definition often given is that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. This I do believe. But it can also be that opportunity does not arise...

I read about a study a while ago on lucky and unlucky people. Unlucky people (or rather, those that perceived themselves in that way) tended to be more habit bound, and resistant to change. The lucky group tended to be more optimistic, and see change as an opportunity. As well as demonstrating a lemons/lemonade attitude, I did wonder how much experience had shaped their outlooks. Whether you see new circumstances as a good or bad thing probably depends a lot on what has happened to you before.

Nonetheless, I often hear the phrase “you make your own luck”. While I don’t doubt the value of positive thinking (and specifically looking for ways to turn any unexpected circumstances to advantage), it seems to bleed to easily into self-satisfied smugness on the part of those who’ve done well, and an implied critique of those who have not (“If only you’d been more positive-thinking, that tornado wouldn’t have landed on your house”).

So, to academia, which is indeed a lottery at so many stages. That’s not to say that those who reach the top are not excellent at what they do, just that many with as much talent fell by the wayside. Comrade Physio Prof put it typically bluntly here. Meanwhile, Justin Bengry wrote today about feeling lucky after getting a postdoc  – and I know exactly how he feels! I vividly recall being finally offered a job, and being unable to stop smiling for days. I wouldn’t have appreciated it so much if I hadn’t gone through the (typical) job market horror, of the avalanche of rejection letters which would bruise even the strongest ego (and drove me to break down in tears a few times). But I got that job, and another – and I do feel incredibly lucky to have my current position. I am trying to work hard, and feel worthy of it.

In a Foreign Land

I am this week at the Archivo General de Indias, in Seville. Preparing for my trip, I searched articles both for index references, and discussions of the archives themselves. It’s always best to know in advance what to expect when you arrive at a new research site, especially with limited time. I knew that the archive does not allow digital cameras, but that photocopies are inexpensive (what may be expensive are the baggage fees for carrying all that paper home!). Friends who were familiar with the archive gave me various tips, and this entry from Danielle Terrazas Williams’ blog was also very helpful.

However, the advice from academic journals made me wonder about the wisdom of going at all. I was very concerned about my health, having been warned:

“Spanish food, though plentiful, is invaribly prepared in olive-oil which, beneficial in its natural state, is highly indigestible as cooked grease. Nor can too much care be exercised in drinking nothing but boiled or distilled water, as the local supplies are typhoid-laden.

And I could forget about practising my Castilian, as “the Spanish dialect spoken in Andalusia, makes it a most unsatisfactory place to acquire correct Spanish.”

I brought books as I was particularly worried about not having enough to do:

People accustomed to keep in trim by a certain amount of active, outdoor exercise, will find that all Seville affords are long walks. Even tennis is out of the question, due to the absence of tennis courts. Physical recreation being thus summarily disposed of there remains mental diversion. There are no public libraries, nor institutions resembling the Y. M. C. A. Hence, one is compelled to fall back on clubs, cafes, and theaters for amusement.

Needless to say, the lack of a YMCA is a particular disappointment. But being compelled to go to the theatre didn’t sound so awful. I had some doubts too about my research preparation:

The Archives' very rich collection in old maps makes, at least, an elementary acquaintance with cartography highly desirable. It is for the particular investigator to determine whether his subject requires training in diplomatics, heraldry, genealogy, sphragistics, or any other of the sciences auxiliary to history.

Since I don’t even know what sphragistics is, I obviously haven’t mastered it. Nonetheless, I endeavour onwards with this handicap. At least, “Competent typists can be hired in the Archives at a nominal price for the making of transcripts.”* Well, that’s a relief. For academics to have to type their own research is truly barbaric.
I have not seen any recent articles about archival sources that presume to act as a Baedeker for the town in which they are located, but perhaps they still exist?
(I am staying at a nice hotel 5 minutes walk from the archive, and the water is perfectly potable)
*Arthur S. Aiton and J. Lloyd Mecham, ‘The Archivo General de Indias’, The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Aug., 1921), pp. 553-567

Article submissions and journal response times

This is an issue I have discussed before, that of the time taken by journals to review articles. Most recently, I’ve been quite fortunate – I received my last response within four weeks (it was, alas, in the negative, but all the better to know quickly). I set up a wiki some time ago to survey the situation and form a reference,

The posted comments already suggest a pretty dire situation at some journals. And even the “quicker” journals boast turnaround times that would make a scientist blanch. However, I have been told that some scientific journals were also slow until the custom came in of printing the date submitted and date accepted on the bottom of each article. This would be a useful development in history, where even (and perhaps especially!) a journal that is quick to review may have a backlog of a couple of years’ worth of articles waiting to be published. It would also serve to publicly shame the chronically slow into reforming their practices (or at least help show scholars which journals to avoid!).

As one anonymous user commented on the wiki about waiting an inexcusable period for a response from a journal “I’m trying to build a career here”. The timing of article acceptances can be crucial for those seeking promotion and tenure: and in today’s climate, even getting a first job. Particularly as more universities seem to be moving to models of citation indices and impact factors to judge a scholar’s merit, a practice such as printing dates of submission on published articles could go some way to demonstrating the time lag faced in the humanities, as well as for applicants to demonstrate steady output – which may not be otherwise reflected by the timing of articles finally arriving in print.

Cities and Nationalisms Conference

This conference will take place in London on 17-18 June 2010, and may be of interest to urban historians who are in the area.

“Cities have been intimately connected with nationalisms of many kinds. The architecture and spatial design of cities have commonly been intended to bolster national pride. So have the nationalist ceremonies that cities have staged. Yet cities have also been places of contending nationalisms or counter nationalisms in which urban territorial divides have helped shape and maintain competing or actively hostile group loyalties. Cities have also sometimes promoted themselves as cosmopolitan and hospitable to all nations. This conference aims to explore the nature and rich variety of connections between nationalisms and cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Cities explored include Alexandria, Belfast, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Cape Town, Cork, Cracow, Hong Kong, Kinshasa, Kirkuk, London, Montreal, Paris, Prague, Shanghai, Tel Aviv and Washington.

Speakers include: Robert Bickers (Bristol), Iain Black (Cambridge), Bill Freund (Kwa-Zulu Natal), Tim Harper (Cambridge), Paul-André Linteau (Québec) and Prashant Kidambi (Leicester)”

I will be there as a panel chair, so come and say hello!

More information here

Matriculated in 1955, carried out in a box...

I started thinking about retirement after reading this piece by Tenured Radical:
She talks about the resignation (“retirement”) of Helen Thomas at 89, after some tactless comments she made became public. I’m not defending Thomas’ views at all, for which I think firing would be appropriate, but I don’t want to engage with that particular issue here. The whole case is just sad. Being finally forced out of a career for a gaffe in one's late 80s: offers far less dignity than retiring by choice, perhaps a little earlier...

But TR’s comments about retiring, particularly in the academy, brought to mind this recent piece by Peter Conn

He talks of the growing number of over-70 scholars who - as he claims - are forcing tighter the bottleneck of academic hiring by holding onto jobs. I am not suggesting that all these senior professors are incompetent due to age - some indeed are the legends of their fields who are major drawcards for students to the department. But does Professor Conn have a point?

Academia in the US seems to have been particularly affected by the removal of a mandatory retirement age. Because the job is not (physically) strenuous (no heavy lifting, etc) there's no reason for people to not feel able to continue as long as they like (and the remuneration of the job makes it for some a financial necessity). I thought compulsory retirement ages were unfair – particularly in academia when more people might only land a tenure-track or permanent job in their mid-30s (or later?), the need to work at least 30 years to build up a decent pension makes forcing people out at 65 seem particularly harsh. The AHA have previously issued statements about age discrimination in hiring, and I feel the later-in-life-PhD job candidate of 55 has a better chance in the US than they do in the UK (where they will legally be forced to retire). I’m not saying the odds are good for older candidates, anywhere, but mandatory retirement ages make entering academia in middle-age almost impossible (if one hopes to get an academic job. Doing a PhD for its own sake is something else). Meanwhile, it’s not as though all over-70 professors are superannuated superstars: some have CVs and publication records that wouldn’t make them competitive for an entry level job now, but having been awarded tenure a generation ago, they linger on.

Is it good for our discipline for thousands of young scholars to be unable to find jobs while an increasingly elderly professoriat sits on all the jobs? Economic reality of course is that, should these older professors decide to retire, rare is the university that will take that salary and create two new assistant professorships. More likely, especially in this economy, that a department would lose the line altogether. So I’m not blaming these professors for hanging onto their jobs. Meanwhile, in the UK, where professors still face mandatory retirement, older academics polish up their CVs and “retire” to the US, where they can take up an endowed chair and work until they drop. And if the EU law is changed (as there are moves towards), allowing professors to stay on, yea until death, is that going to make things worse for new PhDs coming through the pipeline?

Cityscapes in History Conference - 29-30 July 2010

I am co-organising a conference, Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience, in Munich at the end of July.
The program is here, and we have a variety of panels on urban history – registration will be free, if you would like to attend!
The Center for Advanced Studies

Who You Calling Dr?

I saw a recent episode of Criminal Minds, in which the character Spencer Reid (who has 2 PhDs – neither of them in medicine) explained to the mother of a victim, “I’m a doctor. I think in terms of rationality”. I would NEVER say “I’m a doctor” in that context, and I can’t imagine any of my colleagues doing so. It would seem both pretentious and misleading. It smacks too of hucksters selling self-help books. But in the media, look at the models we have for PhD holders: nerds suffering social arrested development (like those guys on Big Bang Theory – aren’t they professors at CalTech? Why are they still sharing an apartment?), Ross Geller (whose job was also used as a demonstration of geekiness – maybe because his dinosaurs didn’t come alive at night), and Spencer Reid – referred to always as “DR Reid”, which also makes it seem like he’s the only person in the FBI who went to graduate school. Really? Surely half the people there have PhDs in psychology, criminology, or forensics. And the mathematical savant on Numb3rs? It seems like having a PhD may enable someone to catch serial killers, but partly because he is not far from being that “Quiet, white man, of above average intelligence, who probably lives alone....” himself. And when an academic shows up on Law & Order, you just KNOW he was sleeping with an undergrad and strangled his wife. So the model we have is male and (at best) socially dysfunctional. Where are the women, and the PhDs who are not losers?

Also recently, I was thinking about the attitude to real people with doctorates in the media. Gordon Brown has a PhD (in history), and Barack Obama, while not a PhD, has a JD and taught at law school. What struck me was the difference in the way these academic credentials have been mentioned (or not) in the press. Gordon Brown is never referred to as “Dr” and his academic background was never played up much by either his supporters or detractors. On his supporters’ side, that’s less surprising – Old Labour not being overfond of “book learning”, but it wasn’t seized on as something to criticise either. Meanwhile, President Obama’s academic background is made much of by those for and against him, either to demonstrate his intelligent sophistication, or that he is a typical pointy headed intellectual.

Belated FEEGI Conference Report

Last week, I was at the FEEGI conference at Duke. The Forum For European Expansion and Global Interaction ( has had me as a member for a while, but this was the first time I had attended the biennial conference. And it was GREAT!!

What set it apart from other conferences I have been to:

  • The price (ie NOT hell expensive. Yes, AHA, I am looking at you... )
  • The included food was impressive! No cold ham & cheese sandwiches, but a Lebanese buffet the first day, and Indian the second. And that was LUNCH.
  • The fact that everyone went to everything. There were no simultaneous panels, so everyone spent all of the two days in the one room, watching the presentations together. This might sound claustrophobic, but I found the audience to be highly engaged. I got some very useful comments on my paper, despite being later in the program (around the time people are often either napping or heading to the airport).
  • Despite covering an impressive swathe of world history (European expansion across the globe from the 14th to 19th centuries!) there seemed to be commonality and focus across the program. For the first time in a long time at a conference, I actually got something out of every panel I saw.

(and what made this truly astounding? It started at 8AM each morning. And everyone showed up!!)
So, how do they do it, and what lessons can be learnt? I’m organising a conference this summer and am keen to see what works (I’ve sat through some truly dire examples of what DOESN’T). Included lunch obviously helps, as that way people stick around and talk during the break, rather than running down the street to a sandwich shop (and not bothering to come back for the afternoon panels). And having somewhere to SIT for the lunch. Too many events I’ve been to involve trying to juggle a plate, a wine glass and a bread roll while standing up. OK, so I’m food obsessed: but it does seem to make a real difference. Just try telling the academics at a conference that there is no coffee... ;)
The coordinators obviously also went to some trouble to select the papers that complemented one another, to make strong panels. But isn’t that what all conference planners try to do?

There’s obviously a mysterious something else, that gets a crowd to stick around, and stay involved. I don’t know what the FEEGI trick is (was it in the coffee?), but I would like to see it at more conferences.