Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Re-Run: Reasons to Be Glad I Am Not Attending the American Historical Association's Annual Conference
This weekend the American Historical Association's annual conference takes place in New Orleans. My experience at the conference came mostly from being a job applicant for six awful years. It took me three cracks to get a tenure-track job, and then three increasingly futile stabs at finding an escape from that nightmare of a job. I spent about six months of each year in a six year period wracked with anxiety and self-doubt and an extra layer of stress on top of an already stressful existence. In 2010 I went to the conference in San Diego without an interview because I was flogging a book manuscript. Later on in the hunt some phone interviews and an on campus interview at least materialized. For the 2010-11 search, I did not get a single interview for a university position, AHA or not, despite having better qualifications than ever (more on that below.) I had yet another article in print and a book contract, but apparently that didn't mean anything.
Not being on the market feels liberating, but strange. Last year, like some kind of sick junky, I watched the job ads and looked closely at the ones I could apply to. This year I looked maybe once, mostly because I have made peace with the fact that I am never going back to a university position. This year I thought of going, partly to reenergize my scholarship, but mostly to see old friends and a city (New Orleans) I never visited before. I soon came to my senses, and remembered that caring for my daughters and avoiding the pit of bullshit and despair that I knew awaited me in the Big Easy were more important.
Below you'll find what I wrote about the annual AHA conference this time two years ago, without the knowledge that I would find a wonderful teaching position at an independent high school in New York City. Although I rue my exit from the profession I spent my adult life a member of, my feelings about the AHA conference are pretty much the same today as when I wrote this post.
This coming January will be the first since 2005 that I will not be attending the American Historical Association's annual conference. Because none of the schools where I applied invited me to dance, and because my book manuscript is now under contract (eliminating the need to kiss the asses of publishers), the expense didn't seem justifiable. I am little bummed that I am passing up a chance to see Boston (a place I've never been), and certainly wish I could see many old friends who will be attendance. However, I have plenty of good reasons to be happy about not going.
First and foremost, I will not miss the job annex, a place emanating a most powerful musk of fear and desperation. It represents much that has gone wrong with my profession: young scholars must humiliate themselves in an academic meat-market where they compete in a Darwinian struggle for a dwindling number of tenure track jobs. It's especially great if you have to deal with committee members who are out to lunch, senile, or just plain hostile.
Largely because of my rural, lower-middle class upbringing, I have a strong distaste for brown-nosing, status mongering, social climbing, pretentiousness, intellectual dick-waving, and institutionalized elitism. All of these are on display to rather disgusting extremes at the AHA. I loathe watching people check out the name tags of others, to see if they're worth talking to. My stomach turns when I overhear smug children of privilege brag about their number of job interviews. And I positively gag when I attend panels where someone who attended the same Ivy League institution where they now teach prattles on about some obscure tradition at that place like the rest of us should fucking care about it. The next person who tells me that academia is a meritocracy is going to get a neck-punching.
Last but not least, I can no longer simply stomach the sound of a violin playing in the midst of a great fire. Never has the metaphor of emperor Nero been more apt, despite recent efforts by the organization to address the jobs crisis. Last year the book display had an ominous number of empty spaces, and the job annex looked less like a bustling hive of anxiety and more like a lonely nave of dead dreams. As I have said many times before, the university-based historical profession is dying before our eyes, but the vast majority who have managed to get tenure-track jobs have preferred to relish their place in the lifeboat rather than to do anything for their peers who are drowning to death all around them. The lifeboarters will survive and get to live the great academic dream; my only solace is, to paraphrase Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, do nothing.