Whenever, whatever: or, SWF seeks History Dept for LTR.

So, I'm on the job market (again). Although I never really left, I've been applying since the year I finished my PhD, I've just been lucky enough to have a job this time around that allowed me to stay in one place for two years. And since I apply for jobs all over the world, I haven't had an "off season" since 2007.

But the ads for North American jobs have begun (and in a promising turn for historians, it looks like there might be more available than in the last couple of years). For this reason, a few other historians have recently written with advice, such as Chad Black on writing job letters, and Tanya Roth on her experiences on the job market. (I wrote a few months ago for the Chronicle on international job seeking).

Right now, I'm writing to my mentors and asking them to put updated letters for me on Interfolio. Meanwhile, I'm also wondering if my apps would be stronger with personal, specific letters written for each one - although I cringe at the thought of asking anyone to do that much work for me, and know that I would then be in a state of panic for each application over whether all the letters had arrived on time (having been burned before, when an absent LoR cost me consideration for a position, I've tended to rely on Interfolio ever since. It's been suggested to me that this puts me at a disadvantage. I don't know). 

I'm also waiting to hear back on article submissions, wanting to have them to add to my cv, and anticipating plenty of job market chat on the wiki. Mostly, I'm intrigued to see what happens. I'm finishing my second book, and I'm curious about how I'll look to Search Committees this year.

If your dept is hiring, in world or urban history, call me.

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 http://academicjobs.wikia.com/ - 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 historians.tv!). 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.

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

I started thinking about retirement after reading this piece by Tenured Radical: http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/2010/06/gonna-walk-before-they-make-me-run-on.html
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 http://chronicle.com/article/We-Need-to-Acknowledge-the/64885/

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?

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?


jobs and travel...

I'm still on the academic job market. I feel like I have done well to be considered for some excellent posts this year, and the economy has made things a bit more difficult for everyone. The timeline of the job cycle can be somewhat frustrating, in that it seems like I don't get to focus enough time on the job I have when I'm having to worry (and draft endless applications) for posts to follow!

Nonetheless, I am off to Amsterdam soon to do some research as a visiting scholar at the International Institute of Asian Studies. I'm very excited actually. I will be looking at VOC archives and various other things. I have visited Amsterdam a couple of times before and an extended stay should be fun.

For anyone interested in reading 17th century Dutch texts, check out this fabulous site: