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.
Big theoretical concepts can help us to see the world in new ways. Big theoretical concepts can help us see historical events in new ways. This is especially important for methods classes like the one I am teaching now, since these courses seek to bridge the gap between history as a set of stories that someone else tells, and history as a practice that students themselves can engage in. We want students to leave these classes loving history as much as when they came in, but we also want to destabilize the idea that there is one, “objective,” “true” narrative to be told about each historical event. We want them to think about how to select evidence, put that evidence in conversation with other scholars, and offer an interpretative framework for that evidence that nets something beyond arguing that a thing happened in a place and at a time. Theory helps with that framework.
Undergrad-me would not have believed that current-me would someday be singing the praises of theory. Luckily, a compatriot of undergrad-me was more prescient than I – Maria Cecire and Noorain Khan are responsible for the In Theory Podcast, which seeks to “raid academia for the the most fascinating and relevant social, cultural, and scientific theories, and use them to help make sense of this beautiful mess of a world we live in.” It is excellent. You should listen to it.
I’ve especially enjoyed using In Theory in the classroom. I’ve generally found teaching theory in history to be one of the more challenging parts of undergraduate pedagogy. This isn’t because students are incapable of understanding, or even enjoying, theory. However, I do think that it is difficult to understand the value of theory in the abstract (at least, this was true of me in my theory-adverse undergraduate days). This course features several weeks on classic theory for history, but this semester I found that pairing the In Theory podcast with a classic in historical scholarship – Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary – helped to illustrate the ways in which theory can be useful generally, and useful in historical scholarship in particular.
How it worked:
First: I assigned pairs of students different episodes of In Theory. As they listened, they were asked to identify (1) the theories engaged with in the episode (2) how the podcasters apply those theories to everyday life and (3) other things to which they might apply that theory.
Second: In class, the groups diagrammed their notes on the board, focusing on one particular theoretical concept from the assigned episodes.
Third: Each group presented on their theory of choice, and then each student went around the room and commented on how they might use one of the theoretical concepts outlined in class to further their own research.
Fifth: Armed with their knowledge of how different theories help us to understand different aspects of the world we live in, students dove into Typhoid Mary and undertook the same kind of diagramming they had done for the In Theory podcast.
Sixth: Each student once again commented on how they might use the theoretical concepts used in Typhoid Mary to further their own research.
By the end of this two class arc, students had two different examples of the application of theory in concrete ways. Next time I teach this class I am going to have a more defined section on theory, and probably build in an additional class and assignment that recapitulates the different theories the students have been exposed to. Nevertheless, I think the concrete application of theory evinced in the In Theory podcast and in Typhoid Mary really helped to clarify theory for students.
I’ve recently had conversations with several colleagues about teaching theory in history. As a discipline, we’re not as obviously theory heavy as some of our compatriots in the social sciences, and much of the theory we use is grounded, or embedded in assumptions we make about sources, voices and narrative. Given the importance, but relative invisibility of theory in history writing (and given that students – especially new majors in historical methods classes – are likely to be a little allergic to heavily theorized writing anyway) I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach students how to identify and make us of theoretical frameworks for history.
This question has been bugging me for the past year or so. It first became apparent in a class on the intertwined histories of gender and technology, and I also see it in my current undergrad historical methods and Atlantic history classes. This is not, I think, merely a consequence of mulling more on theory than I used to. By design, none of these courses clear narrative path. Gender and Technology took on several themes during the semester, often circling back to the same time, but a very different place or perception. Atlantic history is arranged roughly chronologically, but approaches the Atlantic from a series of different spaces, and via different peoples, so we are often jumping in space and time. Historical methods is loosely organized around the theme of American disasters, but we also skip around temporally, and often head down methodological or historiographical culs-de-sac before returning to the topical meat of the course. This shred lack of a singular storyline meant that theory was all the more important – it was the thing that could get the courses to hang together.
I wanted an assignment that allowed students to make connections from class to class, which emphasized theoretical framings, demonstrated the value of theories as organizing frameworks, and which wouldn’t rely on me lecturing at students.*
I’ve come up with something that I call “theory exercise.” Each class uses a different variation on the same theme:
First: students review their notes and memories and write down one or two important framing concepts from the previous class. Earlier in the semester these can be a bit vague, but I make sure that we identify important ideas in reading discussion, so that they can (hopefully) just go back to notes.
Second: some students come up to the board and write one important framing concept. The only rules are (1) no duplicates and (2) you can amend what someone else writes
Third: the remaining students come up to the board and write down one topic from earlier in the semester, or from the reading for that day’s class that connects with those big ideas. The same rules apply as in the second phase.
As a result of all of this whiteboard writing, we have a map of the main points of the previous class, and a visual representation of connections throughout the course.
This works with individual students working on their own, pairs of students, or even groups that have to consult and come up with one big idea or one connection. I’ve been experimenting recently with randomly assigning students to big idea or connection and with allowing it to be more of a free for all.
I’ve learned a few things:
In classes where I’ve been using this exercise since the beginning of the semester, weekly reading responses do a much better job making links between a given reading and themes from earlier in the semester. In making those links, students also invoke theoretical frameworks. Some of these are more explicit than others, but the very act of linking disparate examples requires a theoretical underpinning.
In classes that don’t have a clear narrative (and this is probably true of most upper level classes) this exercise also helps students to make their own meaning out of the material covered, and to remember material from earlier in the semester.
On exams that ask students to identify and demonstrate the utility of theoretical frameworks, the classes that have been doing this kind of work do better than the classes that haven’t.
Having this material written on the board is a great way to mark the start of class with activity, rather than my recap; it also models note-taking strategies for students who aren’t familiar with documenting their participation in discussion based classes.
*I developed this assignment after many talks with Caroline Weist, pedagogue extraordinaire.
The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to incoming students which has made me – for the first time – embarrassed to be affiliated with my undergraduate institution.
This letter (as Kevin Gannon has noted) seems to be equal parts pedagogical statement and public posture. It certainly needs to be understood in terms of evolving debates about college campuses, academic politics and student life.
I, however, want to address it from the perspective of both an alumna of the college and as a professor.
The call for “civility and mutual respect” in this letter is a heartening one, as is the reminder that “freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.” (This, by the way, sounds like what most academics mean when they talk about safe spaces) A space in which “members of our community [are expected] to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement” and to constructively manage ideas that “may challenge you and even cause discomfort” resonates with what I expected when I first stepped into U(C) classrooms some many years ago.
But I balk at what follows – first because the author of the letter seems not to have fully interrogated what “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” mean, in practice, in college classrooms; and second because rejecting student protests and trigger warnings works to undermine what Dean Ellison says is a priority: “building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds” and which supports students’ “freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”
In my experience, and as described by facultyfrom different institutions, trigger warnings are not about “cancel[ing] speakers because their topics might prove controversial.” Neither are they intended to allow students to “retreat form ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” In the practice I have seen, trigger warnings are a way for faculty to help students manage their reactions to material without disrupting the intellectual community of the class, and without derailing students’ own academic progress.
For example, I teach on the history of disaster. We read about terrible, heartbreaking things. It does no one in my class – neither me nor the students – any good to not anticipate the possibility that some students might react strongly to (for example) discussions of the death of orphan children during the Galveston Hurricane. Flagging scenes of infanticide (a trigger warning) in our readings likewise has no cost – it simply alerts students who may have strong reactions to a particular topic that they might want to take extra steps to prepare for class that day.* These might include drafting a discussion question in advance, finding a time to do reading that might be trauma-inducing when they will not be in public, or even simply practicing scripts to get through the class period. Rather than undercutting intellectual discourse or protecting students from uncomfortable material, trigger warnings as practiced by me and by many faculty seek to ensure that a student can fully prepare – in what ever way they need – t participate in class.
Dean Ellison similarly seems to be mistaken about the common use and history of “safe space.” While it is laudable that the U(C) “welcomes people of all backgrounds” and encourages “diversity of opinion and background,” American higher education is historically constructed, and has – historically – been friendlier and more accommodating to certain groups more than others. For one excellent example of this history, see Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy detailing the racial history of American education (while I have the utmost respect for Dean Boyer – the dean of the college when I was an undergrad – I can’t help but think that Wilder’s would certainly be a book that incoming first years would benefit from reading). This history means that, in practice, colleges and university have been – and continue to be – safer spaces for some students than for others. Those for whom the college is already safe – many of them students who are not otherwise marginalized – do not need to petition for safe spaces on campus. For them it already is one.
To reject the idea of safe spaces or to pre-empt any protest in response to a scheduled U(C) speaker is to say – again in practice – that the University of Chicago has no interest in attending to the needs of students who do not already feel safe. These might include (and this is based on my experiences both as a student and now as a faculty member) students of color, first generation college students, LGBTQA students, undocumented students, students who grew up in poverty, students with learning differences, students with illnesses, students with disabilities. Making higher education more welcoming to these students sometimes means re-imagining what campus civility looks like. It means, rather than telling students that protests are unwelcome and silencing, interrogating why those students thought that protest was the best way to speak to the administration. It involves treating protest as a tool of debate rather than as a fait accompli**. It involves listening to students who ask for a heads up about potentially traumatic material. None of this silences academic discourse. Rather, it makes academic discourse a space in which more and more diverse students can participate.
As practiced*** most frequently, trigger warnings allow for classes to be flexible enough to accommodate students whose experiences of trauma and crisis are different from our (the faculty’s) own. Discussions of how to make more safe spaces on campus are a way to expand campus culture to include people who historically were excluded from it. Neither of these models is detrimental to undergraduate education. Neither undermines the life of the mind. It shocks and saddens me that a place which prides itself on intellectual rigor for all students would take such a stance.
*They might also choose to skip class, but I have seen no evidence that talking about possibly traumatizing material makes a student any more likely to skip a class than any other of the usual reasons college students have. Incidentally, this is why I do not have an excused absence policy in my classes – students can choose to be absent from a fixed number of class meetings without penalty, and I am not put in a position of adjudicating a good reason for missing my class.
**I want to think about this a bit more about this, but discussions of student protests of speakers tend to assume that having a protest means that the speaker will not come. This has not been my experience of student protests, and is a perspective which, I think, dangerously misrepresents the institutional power that students, faculty and university deans have respectively. When we talk about student protests, I think we miss the ways in which institutions and (in the case of Rice, invited speakers) have the power to react to protest. Many times, institutions and speakers decide that a talk will go on. When I was a U(C) undergrad, Fareed Zakaria came to speak. Some students walked out in the middle of the talk. Some called for the talk to be cancelled. Both of these actions prompted robust and sustained discussion, and allowed for discussion about the place that Zakaria’s ideas had on the U(C) campus. Calling for the cancellation of the talk was part of that discussion, not an attempt to silence it.
*** I have a shirt from my time as an undergraduate which reads “that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory.” I still love that shirt, but I think that the current U(C) administration might – in this case – benefit from thinking a little more about pedagogical practice, and less about theoretical posturing.
This week I assigned Jeff McClurken’s article on Omeka and “productive discomfort.” I’ve had students read this article before, and while the resulting conversation was interesting, the article has never before resulted in the kind of robust debate about discomfort, barriers and technology that came out of the reading response blog posts for today’s class.
I wanted to work through the NYPL’s mapping tutorial, so I built this. Still working on color coding the markers for different themes, but they can be toggled via the drop-down menu in the upper right hand corner.
I’d been waiting to start this until my dissertation abstract was actually available through Proquest, but I’ve recently learned that it might take as few as 8 and as many as 20 weeks (~2-5 months) from the time NYU submitted the darned thing, which was three months after I submitted final revisions, to appear. That’s between 5 and 8 months between my final version and the world of accessible-via-Proquest. This, frankly, seems like something worth throwing into the debate about embargoing. I embargoed my dissertation – largely because of some truly horrible stories I’d heard from people who found their work used by more senior scholars, or in more cases, had found that the archival road-map laid out in their dissertation had been used by someone else to publish more or less the same argument before they’d been able to get a book contract. I know that there are many and varied reasons not to embargo, and I’m toying with the idea of asking Proquest to lift it, but as a junior, untenured scholar, the risks seem to outweigh the reward.
That being said, as an advocate for the digital humanities generally, and as someone who has benefited from open-source dissertations particularly (an aside – what I’d really like to see is for the AHA to have some mechanism for young scholars to make their dissertations widely available, and to work with acquisitions editors to create a culture where an available dissertation is almost never an impediment to a book deal. The former, because I find it frustrating that my only venue for dissertation publishing is through a for-profit company) I’d like to make some of my work generally available to a wider audience. It seems like conference papers are a good place to start. For one, this is intellectual work that’s already been put out in a public space (though attendance at conferences and particular panels obviously varies), and for another, a lot of the material I’ve presented at conferences over the years has been excised from the dissertation, or changed so much as to make it truly different work. In that spirit, I’ve created a new page here – one at which I’ll post selected delivered conference papers that aren’t a part of anything that’s currently in process or out for review.
I’d also like to say – both in this post and at that new page – that I’m happy to share my dissertation with anyone who wants to see it. Just e-mail me and ask. I know that this is far from the spirit of true open source access to academic work – but for me it’s a start.
I’m deep in the next-year’s-research planning phase of the summer, which is mostly comprised of figuring out what other donor communities I want to look at for the book manuscript. I chose sites for the dissertation largely based on news production – locales in which a lot of news was being produced, reproduced and consumed – but for the book I’ve been thinking about how to better center the experiences of non-elite donors, which means looking for places from which donations flowed, rather than places in which people were merely reading about the famine in Ireland. As part of this, and as part of a related project to collect the names of donors to a wide range of 19th century philanthropic projects, I’ve been working on a database which tracks not only individual donations, but also biographical information about donors. I’ve been using this data – and in particular donations to national famine relief funds (the American Society of Friends rather than the New York Irish relief committee, for example) to try to map places where donations came from, but that I haven’t yet explored.
So: a very few, very preliminary findings:
Most of these donations are coming from cities.
Many are on behalf of relief committees of entire cities – it’s not clear yet whether these are Quaker relief committees or ones without religious (or with another religious) affiliation, but I hope that’s something I’ll be able to check out at the Haverford Quaker archives.
Of those donations made on behalf of urban relief committees, the people doing the collecting were almost entirely merchants.
The orange circles are the places I’ve yet to explore – lots to do!
It’s been a week plus since I defended, and while I’m very excited to have passed this particular milestone, I also sometimes feel like there’s a dissertation shaped hole in my life that needs filling. One of the major themes of the defense was how to take a series of narratives about discrete geographic spaces, and make them into a cohesive scholarly monograph, so much like when I began this project five years ago, I’m going back to the secondary literature to begin thinking about relating the research I’ve done to broader themes of stitial and imperial governance, and the moral authority that giving lent to donors who might not otherwise have the means – social or economic – to voice their opinions on how their governments were taking care of them.
I’m also using the next few months to learn more about the opportunities afforded by GIS. I was at a talk yesterday at NYU’s humanities initiative on deep mapping (like deep narrative) that raised a whole host of possibilities for creating a digital component of my dissertation research. In many ways (and despite William Cronon’s dispiriting story of undergraduates who were unable to tell the difference between books and websites in the most recent AHR) textual narratives are the best ways to tell stories about the political possibilities afforded by famine philanthropy, but some kind of visual aspect is needed, I think, to really give a sense of the extent of donations. I’m sure that static images would do this just fine, but I hope to really get into dynamic visualizations as another way to tell stories about nineteenth-century donors.
In my dream world, and with infinite resources, there are two projects here. The first would map participation in Irish famine relief projects, showing both from where, and in what amounts donations came, and the ways in which news of the famine spread over time. The second is somewhat more ambitious. Having spoken with other people who work on nineteenth-century philanthropy, I think that it would be really productive to have a collaborative, searchable online database of participants in nineteenth-century philanthropic projects. In a perfect world, anyone could upload both images of donor lists and enter donors’ names in a shared database, which would link multiple contributions to different organizations made by the same donor. This would require a platform like Zooniverse, or the NYPL’s digital menu project, but might – if enough people working on enough different philanthropic projects – produce a really robust source for studying historical philanthropy.
It was a long time (more than 3 years from the first conference meetings to now) in the making, but the special issue ofEarly American Studies that I co-edited and co-wrote the introduction to is “live” on Project Muse, and paper copies are wending their way from Penn Press. Historians don’t tend to write with other people, and learning to do so was a challenge, but I think that the issue and our introduction to it are much better for both Jerusha and my contributions. It was a great learning experience, and I’m both delighted with the final product, and to have completed this particular project.