Our faithful correspondent, Wolfe’s Tone, will be checking in again from the floor of the American Historical Association annual meeting in Boston. Enjoy! –JF
It’s the AHA 2011 edition. As I revisited my 2010 “reporting” (scare quotes intentional) I was appalled by my own long windedness. My dissertation committee agrees. I will thus make every effort at less verbosity and increased brevity–or, something like that.
Numerically there isn’t much in the way of panels in the “early bird” sessions of an AHA meeting, but those that were on the menu did not disappoint. I heard rave reviews of a panel entitled “Pope Pius XII (1939-58) between History and Polemic.” Of particular note was a paper by Gerald Steinacher, a post-doc (so I’m told) at Harvard. His paper engaged questions of papal assistance for Nazi refugees and their families fleeing punishment from the allies through Catholic relief organizations set up to handle the social crises of the post-war period. I report this site unseen, but I must admit I wish I had been there. I have panel envy.
But not much. I attended a particularly star-filled panel entitled “The State of Abolition Studies: From the Sacred to the Secular?” Chaired by David B. Davis, the panel included insightful suggestions by Christopher Brown (who long since ceased to need the word “rising” in front of the word “star”), James Sidbury, Manisha Sinha, and John Stauffer. All the papers were excellent, but the paper by Sidbury and commentary by Davis stressed the complications that the colonization movement offered to the study of abolition. The audience seemed non-pulsed by these compelling commentaries, preferring to discuss other “new” developments such as the study of gender and bi-racial dialogue in the historiography that (to my knowledge, anyway) had been on- going for 15 years.
Manisha Sinha, whose work I greatly respect, suggested that future work on abolition should distance itself from a focus on evangelicals of the 19th century. I agreed with much of her analysis (on gender and chronology, for instance, she was particularly strong), but I was disquieted by her attempts to compare contemporary evangelicals with pro-slavery Christians of the 19th century. This seems a poor comparison, one built more on the need to sell books to modern readers than an accurate assessment of the past. There are too many edges that must be rounded for that comparison to work. Then again she teaches at the U. of Mass. at Amherst and is widely published. I’m still looking for a job.
Last year I signed off on a commentary on the job market with “we who are about to die salute you.” I was more flippant then because I was less dependent on a win. It is a year later and many young historians, including me, are wrestling with reality.
I met a young woman today with a wonderful undergrad degree, Ph.D. from one of the best of the best of the best schools, and a wonderful post-doctoral fellowship that would make any historian salivate. She had applied to many jobs. She had two interviews here. That means that only two schools had her in their top 10-15 list. All I could think was, “this person has all the qualifications, teaching experience, AND great people skills. We really are in a crisis.”
The air of crisis is the life breath of discussion in Boston right now. Everyone is trying to figure things out. The greatest compliment being bandied about (and I’ve heard it several times from different people) is “You got an interview? That is a win in this climate!” 40 is the new 30, and interviews are the new job offers.
On the other hand, job angst is endemic to the profession. I also met a gray haired, tenured professor with a job I might just do illegal things to get a chance at (yes I dangle prepositions, get over it. This is a blog). Within a few minutes he told me that he hadn’t gotten a raise in several years and was quite upset about it. He has tenure. He has books published. Heck–he has gainful employment where his Ph.D. was a requirement. He said this to three people praying daily for their first position to open. It occurred to me that we are all prone to forget what we have and why we have it. Like many of you, I pursued this degree not to be called “doctor” by 18- year-old students, but because the study of the past moves me in ways other subjects do not. I love what I do, even as I wish I got paid more to do it. We are all creatures of our passion for the field–it seems slightly disingenuous to blame “the market” for our problems. We study history for a living. Sure, its not the most lucrative living. But we’re in Boston talking about abolition and religion. You don’t get that working at Cracker Barrel or Grease Monkey (I speak from experience).
But in this environment the pain is real and the pain has a face, errr, many faces. A lot of people you know may get left behind after putting years of their lives into Ph.D. programs——- and you may be one of the people you know.
2011 ain’t no 2010. The biting cold of Boston is in stark contrast to San Diego last year, where I wore short sleeves and listened to a mariachi band. (PS- walking tours are actually enjoyable little ventures. If you are ever in London try a few from London Walks [insert www.walks.com]
The conference center is well adapted to the needs of the AHA– large, interconnected, and full of shopping in an interior mall area onto which are grafted the conference hotels. The mall is particularly helpful for all the graduate students who can hardly afford to be here, much less shop at Banana Republic on their way to give papers on the class structures of actual banana republics, but I digress. The environment really is nice.
On the other hand, at least one hotel is well below the mark. The Marriott Copley is, by my standards and several other people’s comments, a glorified Best Western. True, the men at the front wear bright red coats (which given Boston’s revolutionary history seems an ironic choice). However, the rooms are just like most other hotel rooms They are a bit dated and Internet is only provided on the lobby floors. Internet connections in the rooms run roughly $13 a day.
Not having Internet in your room is frustrating because, well, you don’t have Internet in your room. But it has also reminded me just how spoiled the Internet has made us. It is not unlike the shock of being an American in Europe and suddenly finding yourself dependent on mass transit rather than personal auto. The system may work, but not on my capitalist-right-now time frame.
A CSPAN like program called Historians TV is running in all the rooms. It consists of interviews with noted historians on the past and how contemporary issues (including historical education) can be addressed.
On that note, I have a suggestion. Perhaps a reality show on the Historians TV channel could follow all the people on the academic job market. “900 will enter, only 80 will survive.”
Those stats may not be accurate, but then again neither is the spirit of pessimism pervading things amongst historians today. Things will work out (I’m a Calvinist, I have to say that), even if they do so awkwardly and not on our preferred schedules.
But based on the conversations at tables across the way–it hasn’t stopped anyone from evaluating the historical interpretations of Chicken Little. Was the story historical materialism? Post structuralism? Have we created the crisis of fear we fear? Who knows–but here is hoping we create even more insightful panels tomorrow because we didn’t fly to Boston to shop.
The high in Boston today is 35. San Diego was 67.
With promises to be less long-winded and more upbeat tomorrow,
The Wolfe’s Tone.
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