A few thoughts at the start of the job season

I was cleaning up my desktop recently, and stumbled upon my ‘jobs’ folder.  Since new jobs are just beginning to appear, I thought I’d share a few things:

  • I was seriously on the market for five years.
  • The first time was in 2010.  I applied for seven jobs. I think I had two dissertation chapters written.  I had one campus visit.
  • My committee was divided about whether it was better to defend with no job (because then I would be finished) or wait.
  • My second year on the market I applied for thirty-three jobs, finishing fellowships and postdocs.  I had two campus visits.  I received a finishing fellowship.
  • I defended in February of my third job-market-year.  I remember feeling sort of empty, and I did not have an offer at the time of my defense.
  • My third year on the market I applied for forty-eight jobs, fellowships and postdocs.  I had one campus visit for a one-year VAP.  I was offered and accepted the VAP.
  • My fourth year on the market I applied for seventy-seven jobs, fellowships and postdocs.  My one-year VAP meant that as soon as I arrived at my institution, I had to start writing letters.  Post-defense letters are very different from ABD letters.  This was probably my hardest year on the market.  I had four campus visits, including for a two-year postdoc at the institution where I was VAP-ing.  I was offered and accepted the postdoc.
  • My fifth year on the market, I applied for fourteen jobs.  I had four campus visits, three offers, and accepted a TT job at the place I work now.  They let me defer for a year to finish my postdoc, which was generous, and helped me make progress on teaching and on my book.
  • Every August, I have residual job market anxiety.  Even now that I have a TT job, this time of year prompts general panic and malaise – I had five years to train my body to react this way.
  • I was well-trained, but I was also lucky.  The field I was hired in (digital humanities) was growing in my job market years three to five, and I happened to be pursuing a sideline in things DH.
  • I also have lots of structural privilege.  My partner and I do not have children, and we have the economic flexibility to support my move for a one-year gig.  We had the funds to maintain two residences when that one-year gig became a three-year gig, and the funds now to maintain households on both coasts.  It’s not easy, but it’s more feasible for me than it would be for people with children, dependent family members, or social networks that bind them to a place.
  • I also had a support network in my hometown that would have meant that had I not gotten a job, I would have had time and resources to recoup, plan, and find a new path.
  • My markers of race, gender, sexuality and class mean that it’s possible for me to safely (if not happily) live in a lot of places in this country.  Not everyone can do that.

I think that it is worth making these processes visible.  Getting a job, in this market, is hard, and largely a matter of luck and social capital.  I hope that we who are in TT jobs can remember this as we shepherd undergraduate, M.A. and PhD students through.  I also hope that stories like mine (one of the lucky ones) will do something to work against the idea that the academy is purely meritocratic.  Good work is good work, but there are a lot of people doing good work and not getting jobs; and a lot of people doing good work who are not getting jobs because they have the wrong kind of social capital.  Landing a TT job is not evidence of moral or academic superiority; not landing a TT job is not evidence of inferiority.

Open(ish) letter to the University of Chicago

This morning, I received an alumni survey from my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  At the end, there was a section for extended comment.  Since I indicated in the survey that I highly valued my education, the connections I made, and the mission of the institution, but that I had no plans to give in the future, I thought I should explain myself.  Here’s what I wrote:

I used to donate to the University of Chicago, in large part because I received an excellent education that prepared me for graduate school, and for my own career in academia.  In the past few years, four factors have kept me from giving, and will likely keep me from giving for the foreseeable future:

1) President Zimmer’s salary in comparison to other major research universities – since 2011, President Zimmer’s salary has been among the top 15 highest base salaries paid to presidents of private institutions.  While being a university president is certainly a role that requires skill and expertise, Dr. Zimmer’s salary suggests an institutional emphasis on administrative prestige, rather than on the support of students.

2) Safe spaces – earlier this year, the University published an ill-informed (with regards to the theory of safe spaces) and, from the perspective of a faculty member, misguided statement on the place of safe spaces at the University of Chicago.  There were a number of very thoughtful critiques of this statement, but for me it signaled a fundamental disregard for students who fell outside of dominant categories.  Put simply, by dint of their race, class, gender, gender presentation and sexual orientation, some students experience the world as safer (both in terms of discourse and in terms of physical safety) than others.  That the University of Chicago would ignore these disparities, and criticize some of the student-led structures that push back against it was, for me, unconscionable.

3) Rachel Fulton – I took undergraduate classes with Dr. Fulton.  She was an excellent lecturer, and fundamentally shaped the way I approach my own teaching.  She is absolutely entitled to her political opinions, but I was shocked that the language she used to describe women in some of her posts (this in particular – http://fencingbearatprayer.blogspot.com/2017/02/bully-culture.html) and even more shocked that no one in a position of power at the university thought that it would be good to disavow those ideas (I’m not, by the way, calling for Fulton to be fired).  In this case, the university seemed more interested in studied non-action than it did in reassuring students that one faculty member’s thoughts about women’s sexuality, appearances and students’ sexuality in general did not represent the institution as a whole.

4) Unionization – the arguments that are being offered against graduate student unionization this week further undermine the value of a University of Chicago education.  Lawyers for the university have argued that graduate students do not teach for the benefit of undergraduates, are not assessed on the quality of their teaching, create more work for tenure-track faculty (presumably detracting time from their own research) and are just there to learn to teach(apparently at the expense of undergraduates).  I don’t believe this to be true – it reads as classic anti-union rhetoric – but if I take the university at its word in these proceedings, then I must conclude the University of Chicago cares only for training graduate students, and not for either faculty or undergraduates. If I take the rhetoric that the university disseminates about the value it places on education and research at face value, then I  must conclude that it is more important to defeat a graduate student union than it is to be consistent in values.

In sum, the actions of the University of Chicago in the past years suggest to me a fundamental disregard for undergraduate education specifically, and higher education more broadly.  I do not recognize the institution that I attended from 2002-2006 in the institution of 2016-2017.  I see no reason to give my money or support to a University of Chicago that seems so alienated from the views it has historically espoused, which drew me in as a student, and which supported my own education.

Protest is a feature, not a bug, of American politics

Protests are inconvenient. They disrupt everyday people just trying to do their jobs. They are “dumb.” They are “arrogant.”   They take American liberties for granted. These arguments appear, as if from the ether, every time a protest (individual or widespread) makes national headlines. The people who make them – who come from across the political spectrum – seem to see protest as a modern tactic, one anathema to the genteel politics of yesteryear. Why, these arguments imply, in the aftermath of political defeat, can’t we all just come together, put differences aside, not resister displeasure?

Some excellent scholars have spent a lot of time pointing out the problems with applying this vision to the Civil Rights Era (the short answer is that Civil Rights was never just about peaceful protest, and that protests that began peacefully were often rendered violent by state actors), but I want to look farther back in time, and to sketch the history of protest in early America.

What follows is a series of historiographical vignettes about protests, riots and violence in American history. The short version of this history: protest – disruptive, sometimes violent, always inconvenient, rarely genteel – is baked into American politics. It is not a modern or millennial invention. It is not a product of rudeness and self-centeredness. It is a feature, not a bug.

In the decades before the American Revolution, protests often followed a set ritual.   Wayne Lee has documented the ways in which complainants gathered signatures for a petition, asking those in power to accede to their demands. If petitions went ignored, protesters would often turn symbolic violence on symbolic targets – hanging effigies, demanding performative gestures or trying absent officials in an invisible court of law. If symbols did not work, protestors would engage in structured, nominally legal protests, which often included bonfires, toasts, parades and public spectacle. If none of these worked, unstructured violence was seen as a feasible alternative.

The idea that protests were legitimate politics did not die with the colonial era. In the 1970s Pauline Maier pointed out that protest mobs – both those that sought to subvert the law and those which endavoured to enforce laws they though were being flouted – were central to the American Revolution. Not only were mobs important tools for revolutionary action, they were also viewed as legitimate political action by leading eighteenth-century Americans, who “could still grant such incidents an established and necessary role in free societies, one that made them an integral and even respected element of the political order.”

Neither did protest end with the Revolution. Scholars have documented the various ways in which people excluded from formal politics were able to make claims on those in power during the Early Republic. These included boycotts of non-American goods, public refusals to pay taxes to the new nation, and even the ceremonial presentation of a mammoth block of cheese. These newly minted American protestors were not inventing a new form of politics. They borrowed from colonial and revolutionary norms, rejecting what did not work, and keeping what did.

Enslaved people also engaged in similarly structured public protest. Some employed formal petitioning, others embodied protests – though (unsurprisingly) these protests were and are still today called rebellions or revolts. Eugene Genovese, and subsequently many others have put these protests, rebellions, revolts in the long genealogy of American resistance to structures of power. The idea that the way a person looks, or a set of behavioral markers, determines whether a protest is cast as legitimate or mob – riot or march – will surprise no one, but I think it is worth noting that these features also have historical roots.

In the decades that followed the era of the early republic, and leading up to the Civil War, protest remained a valuable part of Americans’ political repertoire. When faced with perceived injustice (perhaps most visibly the Civil War draft and the practice of buying out of military service) American men and women took to the streets. They embodied their political frustrations. Some of their causes were sympathetic, others are deplorable, but the mode of politics they were using to make those claims had a clear genealogy with roots in Colonial America (or, as Lee would have it, in the European polities from which colonists came).

All of this is to say that there was never a golden age of genteel and polite objections to politics. The only way to arrive at the impression that there was is if you willfully restrict your attention to what was happening in halls of power, where the rituals of politics are bound by yeas, nays, motions and seconds (though even in these spaces have been memorable instances of violent protest).

However, if we were only to study American politics from the perspective of these halls of power, we’d miss out on some of the driving engines of political change. Imagine a history of the American Revolution without the Boston Tea Party or Boston Massacre. Imagine a history of the Civil War without the draft riots. Imagine a history of the Great Depression without the Bonus army.

Histories of politics that lack what is happening outside of formal political spaces are missing a fundamental engine of change. To look to our current politics and ask that we limit ourselves to statehouses and capitol buildings is unreservedly ahistorical.


For some more reading, see

Dorsey, Bruce. Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City. Cornell University Press, 2002.

Genovese, Eugene D. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War. University Press of Florida, 2001.

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. WW Norton & Company, 1991.

Pasley, Jeffrey L., Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness : Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London ; New York, NY: Verso, 1991.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1997.

Movable maps

In trying to explain the set of feelings I have about my impending move west, I find myself frequently using the phrase “I am deeply, deeply, natally from New Jersey.”  In saying that, I am telling a little bit of a fib (I was born in New York City, but quickly thereafter transported to Montclair, NJ) but the spirit of the claim is true.  On my mother’s side of my family, people emigrated to America (usually from Ireland), come to Essex County, and stay there.  My great-great-grandfather – Edward M. Waldron – emigrated in the 1880s.  He married a woman whose own father (my great-great-great-grandfather – James Moran) had emigrated in the 1840s.  Other branches of this particular family tell similar stories.  We were from Ireland, and then we were from Essex County.

All of this has gotten me thinking recently about the work that maps do for us – in terms of memory, mythmaking, and claimsmaking.  I came across this map of Essex County in the 1850s (comprising more space than the county does now) and showing “the names of property holders from actual surveys.”  It is difficult to reconcile the suburbia that I grew up in as empty farm lands, but moving through the space of the town now, it is possible to imagine what a hotel at the corner of Bloomfield and Valley might have looked like, or that a chemical works, paper mill and cesspool once occupied the space now taken up by a discount liquor store.  With some (very) few exceptions, that past is invisible to us – but imagination can put it back in place.

It is not quite the same thing, but I’ve been doing some imaginative geographical work of my own of late.  Just over one year ago, I got my first tattoo, which was based on a 1927 street map of Montclair.  The tattoo is of the area in which I grew up – as I said at the time, leaving New Jersey makes me want to indelibly mark it on my person.  A month ago, I added to the map, this time showing the area of town where my partner and I currently live.  The two maplets are connected by the railroad – which famously collapses space and time, but which also collapses space on my body.

IMG_1529 copy tattoo


Just as I like the idea of imagining the past haunting the present through old maps, I like the idea that these New Jersey spaces will haunt my body as I travel and age.



New directions in disasters and resistance

Last week I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the American Studies Association.  We ended up running our panel as an (incredibly generative {for me, at least}) workshop, so I didn’t formally give my comment.  I like some of the ideas in it though – enough for this maybe to be the germ of an historiography article, so I thought I’d share it here.


Some more almshouse data – admittors vs. diseases

I am almost done cleaning the almshouse data – the past few days have been spent tracking down the “admittors” – those men (and they were mostly men) who were responsible for sending the destitute and sick of New York to the Bellevue Almshouse. These men were recorded in the almshouse register in the column “by whom sent” and I’ve long been interested in how the identity of the sender related to other aspects of Bellevue admittants. Was one admittor likely to flag one disease more than another? Send patients to one public health site over another? Were admittors from different wards more or less likely to send people in their districts to Bellevue?


I’ve just finished processing the “by whom sent” data, and while more work remains to be done, I thought I’d share a visualization that correlates the person responsible for dispatching inmates to the almshouse, and the reason they were sent:  The selection columns on the right and left allow filtering by disease.

Up next: mapping admissions by ward.


Demoing the Digital Almshouse

For the past few months, first at HILT and then at Davidson, I’ve been working to clean and process the Bellevue Almshouse Dataset.  The data is not quite ready to go live – I’m still writing data dictionaries and README files – but I recently got to sit in on a demo of Tableau, and thought I’d use it as an excuse to visualize some of the attributes of the data that I find most compelling – the relationship between the professed (or attributed) “disease” of almshouse inmates and the site within New York’s public health system to which they were sent.  I have an idea about the influx of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century forcing the development of a more robust public health infrastructure, but in order to get at the significance of institutional changes in the post-1848 period, I need to have a much better sense of what happened in the first half of the 1840s.

So I built a thing!  A thing that visualizes the relationship between time, site and disease:


Internationalizing the undergrad #dh discussion

For the past year or so, I’ve been kicking around the idea of getting folks involved in digital humanities for undergraduates together to talk about what we do differently, what we do that is the same, and how to build a set of best practices that will be useful to other undergrad #dh programs that are getting started.  I was excited to see some workshops of a similar theme at this year’s DHSI (#3 -Models for DH at Liberal Arts Colleges and #15 Digital Pedagogy Integration in the Curriculum) and thrilled to have a workshop that’s all about hashing out the issues that practitioners of #dh for undergrads face at DH2015 in Sydney this summer.

We’re looking for participants from across the disciplines and professions.  We also welcome students who want to weigh in on what a digital curriculum might mean for them.  We’re also hoping to internationalize this conversation and bring together #dh practitioners from different countries and different educational systems.  The full CFP is below, but we encourage anyone who is interested to reach out to us at startingfromscratchDH (at) gmail (dot) com.


Call for Participants:


Starting from Scratch?: Strategies for Building Undergraduate-Centered #DH Programs – DH2015 – Sydney, Australia – Workshop dates: June 29-30


Do you work with undergraduates in digital humanities programs? Want to share experiences and discuss best practices with other practitioners?


This Digital Humanities 2015 pre-conference, half-day workshop will use case studies of “start-up” undergraduate DH programs as a jumping off point for a broader discussion about whether undergraduate digital programs must indeed start from scratch at each new institution, and whether it is possible to craft a transnational document for DH best practices.


We aim to include participants from as wide a range of geographical locations and roles (faculty, students, librarians, archivists, instructional technologists, IT professionals, program directors, etc.) within DH initiatives as possible.


The central issues driving this workshop are:


  • The challenges of establishing DH programs at teaching and undergraduate-centered institutions
  • The ways in which the pedagogical needs of undergraduate institutions and undergraduate-centered DH programs differ from and dovetail with those of larger research universities
  • The role of and challenges to undergraduate-focused DH programs around the world
  • How the discussions about digital humanities taking place on liberal arts campuses relate to broader questions that animate the field of digital pedagogy


Workshop Structure

At the workshop, participants will present short introductions to their undergraduate DH programs and outline one main takeaway each.  Both organizers and participants will work to draw attention to commonalities and differences among presentations, before opening up the floor to design-thinking exercises and formal discussions designed to add material to the whiteboard scaffold.


The workshop itself will:

  • Invite participants to share different approaches to undergraduate-centered DH programs, incorporating global perspectives
  • Workshop some general solutions to common undergraduate-DH problems, share local challenges, and collaborate on strategies for particular problems
  • Define common principles and pedagogical reasoning, keeping in mind the variety and experimental nature of different initiatives
  • Explore the many different forms of undergraduate-focused digital programs
  • Chart recent developments in digital liberal arts pedagogy


In addition to sharing insights from different programs during an in-person session, this workshop also aims to codify some best practices for building and sustaining new digital humanities programs for undergraduates.  Drawing on the success of crowd-sourced best practices, we will compile what we’ve learned into a collaborative, public document  that speaks to the needs of undergraduates, their teachers and their institutions in the digital age.



In advance of the workshop, participants will be invited to scaffold a best-practices whitepaper identifying different pedagogies, challenges and questions they want the workshop to address.  A version of this document will be circulated in advance of the workshop.  After the conference, presenters will work together to transition the document into a more formal whitepaper and to compile an accompanying bibliography, linking the issues raised to the existing literature.


This public document will be informative, rather than prescriptive.  It is intended to highlight the practitioners’ points of view.  It will share and solicit contributions from attendees as well as those not present.  Overall, the goal of this workshop and whitepaper is to share undergraduate DH practitioners’ experiences, with an eye to how others around the world  can learn from or build upon those experiences.


Submission Guidelines


Please draft a ~500 word narrative of your experience working with undergraduates on digital humanities programs/ projects/ initiatives. Your narrative should be submitted to startingfromscratchDH (at) gmail (dot) com by March 31st.


Proposals might share issues encountered while building undergraduate-centered DH programs, identify successful strategies for undergraduate DH education, or highlight possibilities for future DH pedagogical developments.


We will notify applicants by the week of April 6th.


Workshop Program Committee

  • James Baker, The British Library
  • Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Davidson College
  • Mark Sample, Davidson College
  • Jentery Sayers, University of Victoria
  • Anelise Hanson Shrout, Davidson College
  • Sara Sikes, Massachusetts Historical Society