Monday, January 07, 2008

AHA Day 4: Gentlemen, Turn Off Your Engines!

After my panel I flew out of DCA and came to visit my niece and grandnephew in a Warm State, where I slept for ten solid hours last night. There is no amount of training that can get you through a convention as big as this one. You just have to catch up at the end. Although my Saturday night dinner with Leslie Harris, Wendy Wall and Renee Romano was delightful, it was not a late night, so I have to conclude that four straight days of non-stop talking and listening just requires recovery.

For a partial wrap-up of Day 4, you can go to Rick Shenkman's account at HNN, complete with videos from the sessions he attended. For my part, I woke up yesterday with a profound sense that my paper was too long, so I spent part of the morning re-editing it and missed the morning session almost completely. I did -- as part of the process of finding the room my session was in -- walk in on the tail end of a fascinating discussion about digital publishing and journals that included Alice Kessler-Harris and Eileen Boris, with Linda Kerber raising critical points from the audience. I was sorry I missed the first part of the session, since when I got there the group had moved on to the question of how we retain access to our journals in an era of shrinking library budgets.

My session, sponsored by the Committee on Women Historians (CWH), was on promotion, retention and quality of life for women. It was the last session on the last day -- and we still got a group of about twenty five. Chaired by Leo Spitzer of Dartmouth, it was your favorite Radical, on how to make a second career at the same institution; Tiya Miles on making decisions about motherhood, book writing, and the tenure track; and Nancy Hewitt's thoughtful reflections on thirty years of women in the profession. Speaking only for myself, I think it was a great panel, and to make a pitch for traditional media for a second, should probably be in print somewhere. The room was hideous: it was very cold, and part way through the panel, I realized that we were right next door to a large garage, where trucks were backing in and out, with attendant beeps, roars, and big guys yelling. In fact, we were more or less in the garage, since there were large red curtains draped against the wall, and I took a peek -- they were actually garage doors. It was a real sign that there was no diva factor on the panel that none of us complained; we just did our work and coped. Fortunately none of us became ill from carbon monoxide poisoning, but, memo to program committees booking rooms at the Washington Marriott at future conferences: take Washington Room 1 off the schedule.

All in all, I thought it was a great conference. One thing I did notice: this year, I met at least three people with books out who did not get tenure for some reason other than the actual quality of their scholarship. I find this a disturbing trend, if indeed it is a trend. It says to me that the institutional garbage that triggered the Radical's Unfortunate Events is not isolated, and that there may be a general trend in higher education of restricting or delaying access to promotion that the Professional Division of the AHA (chaired this year by the able Tony Grafton, who put together a wonderful series of workshops and panels for those on, or trying to get on, the tenure-track) should be looking at and commenting on critically. The other thing was that I met more people (perhaps because of my new visibility as a history blogger) than I ever have who have great degrees and have been on the market for years with no luck. In one discussion, some were advocating restricting the number of new Ph.D.'s, which I disagree with -- I think if you took a hard look, you would see hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of unfilled tenure track lines at public universities and community colleges that have been more or less taken off the boards in the last two decades that need to be reactivated. And at places like Zenith, although we have added lines since I came there in 1991, we could do a better job if we added lines in the department to actually account for people going on sabbatical. In other words, if you have six U.S. historians, and a sabbatical cycle that runs every seven semesters, and if you have a policy that allows people to extend sabbatical to a year, and if you allow people to take grants when they can get them regardless of whether they are on cycle or not -- well, then you have a situation where you have between one and three people who are on leave at any given time. So even at Zenith we need two or three more lines in American history to stabilize our curriculum properly: instead, we spend a lot of time in April and May hiring people on a per course basis, or on one-year lines, to cover the courses we need.

But the other thing we need to address is that Ph.D. programs have more or less resolutely failed to deal with the idea that historians can, and should, be doing public work, and that those people should have Ph.D.'s. It seems to me that there are not only pre-existing categories of work that need certificate programs, such as archives and public history, but that there is so much going on in digital media, I don't know why we aren't exploring this as an avenue of paid intellectual activity that is expanding and should be a source of new jobs, which could offer some teaching and a university affiliation as part of the package. A great many of the complaints about how a career in history is structured (or not), and what kinds of choices scholars have (or not) could be usefully addressed by training and certifying people to do the things that they often figure out how to do all by themselves. I would advocate that next year's program committee, perhaps through the professional division (which did an outstanding job this year, as did the CWH, in promoting these discussions) set up a series of workshops to explore how to move on this.


Bardiac said...

The garage thing is ick. I was at an SAA organized by a bunch of good old boys, and somehow, EVERY seminar with female leadership or a feminist topic ended up in the basement. Says something about where we fit, doesn't it?

The not getting tenure despite good scholarship thing is scary. What sorts of issues are coming up?

Tenured Radical said...

Well, I can't get too far into it without sharing htings I heard from people that I'm not entitled to share (and can't check out) but pace was one: in other words, the book was out, but why didn't it come out sooner (this at a SLAC, with a 3-2 load and tons of advising, office hours, etc.) This, I think can have particular implications for women, given the baby clock/tenure clock overlap. And much as we know more men who participate in child care than we did, no young fathers came to our panel to hear Tiya's thoughts on parenting decisions.


GayProf said...

For what it is worth, at my former Texas institution I witness one (of many) double standards. Junior women faculty who had children were viewed as "not serious" about their career. Junior men who had children, however, were praised for "being able to balance it all" (despite the fact that their wives did all of the childcare). Not only were women penalized, but men were even rewarded for the same behavior.

Susan said...

Many centuries ago I was denied tenure as "not a good enough teacher". Some years later I was contacted by a faculty member at the institution where I had been denied tenure who had been denied tenure for too little service (this after being told not to do it). That was when I realized that teaching, and even more service, are often soft categories that allow you to get rid of people you don't like.
Never mind a more recent occasion when a dean told a friend her service (chairing a major university committee) did not meet expectations because he did not like the recommendations of the committee.

I think that in part the problem is not only are academics not trained in the personnel end of work, but we tend to work in small communities with self-reinforcing norms. Sometimes the norms are screwed up, but there is little scrutiny to make sure these norms are useful, or the standards have any meaning.

ortho said...

It's funny, while reading about your Saturday night dinner, I thought, "Hey, TR ate with two historians who wrote books that are on my comps list."

I too know of a couple of people who have been denied tenure this past year despite having published a book with a reputable press. I also know many unemployed history PhDs. This knowledge is indeed disturbing. When I look around my department, I see more and more adjuncts and graduate students teaching "core" classes. If I were cynical, I would think that my university is not concerned with academic freedom, paying its employees a livable wage, or with the quality of education students receive. If I were cynical, I would think that my university is only concerned with receiving government grants in nanoscience, improving its athletic program, and strengthening its brand name in the hope of generating greater profits.

Thanks for writing great posts about the AHA. I enjoyed reading each one. If you don't mind, may I request a post topic. If you have time, could you write about your experience assembling conference panels?

Have a happy New Year!

Paris said...

Meant to try and track you down at the interview panel, but ended up in an interview and afterwards the last thing I wanted to do was to have someone ask me any more questions or tell me what an idiot I was to not have prepared for the question (only one!) I had to fluff through.

Re: alternate occupations for historians, my research interests would make head of an archive or rare book library as equally appropriate a career trajectory as a faculty position, so have spent a little time poking around learning about the credentials for this sort of thing. Computer failures mean I no longer have the bookmarked page, but there are some fellowship programs that have emerged recently that are specifically aimed at addressing the fact that humanities PhDs are pretty good candidates to run archives and libraries. Many of these have a digital media component as this is now a standard part of training for librarians.

Now if I was really helpful I'd go track down the links...

Clio Bluestocking said...

One thing that the library field is doing, however, is offering dual degree programs in history and archives -- both at the master's level. That still doesn't overcome the general distate for PhD historians, but might be a good move for people who know early on that they want to be archivists.

That said, I did try to make a move into the archives field several years ago, thinking that it was a natural fit for a PhD historian. I found a tremendous amount of animosity towards PhDs in the library field. The librarians/archivist seem to feel that the PhDs are somehow failed in their own field and are now encroaching upon and threatening the librarians' employment without having the actual professional creditials of a librarian. They feel that PhDs are somehow trying to leap into management positions without paying their dues in the entry-level (low-paying, part-time, without benefits, requiring a master's degree) postitions. While the National Archives tends to favor historians, the same is not necessarily true of other repositories.

That isn't to say that this should not be a viable career path for historians, because it should. I've worked in archives that did not employ historians or people with a familiarity with and their collections and access policies were a fright for that reason. The AHA should address various public career paths for historians, but they should know that they are up against this sort of prejudice.

Anonymous said...

Another perspective relevant to university hiring:

Anonymous said...

Later comment than the others...I've returned from the AHA, caught up on sleep, and read your posts. Our panel was mainly female & the topic was a gender/cultural one. We had a great time slot and a good room. No revving engines!!! The program committee included several people I know & I can't imagine that they would deliberately go after particular panels. Isn't the "when" pretty much luck of the draw? And ditto the bad rooms?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I wish I'd been able to get to some of those panels! For some reason, pretty much all of them were across from the very few panels in my field. Sorry I missed meeting you, too.

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