The American Historical Association's annual conference is approaching, and this year it will be held in Washington, DC. Although I will not be attending, this does bring back some strong memories of the last time it was in DC, in 2008. That year I landed a tenure-track job (though not from an AHA interview), and had a major haul of six, that's right SIX, interviews at the conference. I thought I was on top of the world. In a way I was, because when I tried to escape my unsatisfactory tenure track job in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, I got a grand total of two AHA interviews over the next three years combined.
That particular conference in 2008 is a particular reminder to me of how many sacrifices the academic job market demands. In the first place, I had to get to DC and pay the big $$$ to stay at the conference hotel. At the time I was a visiting professor, so at least, unlike when I was a grad student, I wasn't having to sacrifice food or run up the credit card too much go on the trip. However, I wanted to avoid paying money for plane tickets, so a visitor colleague and I drove from Michigan to DC. This is where it gets tricky. The day before I left Nebraska, where I was visiting my family for the holidays, and hit a nasty winter storm from the time I crossed the border from Iowa to Illinois. By the time I got to Gary, Indiana, the roads were covered with snow and ice, and I was driving in the ruts made by the cars in front of me. After about Benton Harbor, Michigan, I could barely see, and saw multiple cars go into the ditch. I kept driving, against all better counsel and sanity, so I could leave for DC the next day. When I finally arrived at my apartment in Grand Rapids sometime after midnight, I collapsed out of sheer relief of having survived about six hours of stressful driving.
Needless to say, when I finally made it to the conference, I wasn't exactly well rested. I almost fell asleep during one interview, partly due to my fatigue, partly due to the rote, uninterested tack taken by the interviewers. Something that has always struck me about many conference interviews (though not all), is how much of their limited funds and excess energy the candidates put into them, and how little those conducting the interviews seem to care sometimes.
Here's a scorecard of my different AHA experiences. Feel free to compare to your own.
Transportation: I drove out to Philly from Illinois with a grad school friend. Despite the fact that I come from Nebraska, and he from China, we shared our mutual love of Johnny Cash all the way across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The drive there and back was maybe the best part of the trip.
Number of Interviews: Four. One at an R1 in Texas, two at urban Catholic colleges in desirable locations, one at a SLAC in the South. Three were in hotel rooms, one was at the job center.
Best Moments: I loved going to my school's reception, it felt like I was on the cusp of finally being a member of The Club, a club I had always felt was out of my reach. As an ABD on the cusp of defending, seeing my former colleagues who had gone on to get jobs gave me hope. Downtown Philly also has a large number of quality Irish pubs, so it was great to eat lamb stew and down some pints with my friends in a different town for a change.
Worst Moments: Pretty much everything else. I failed horribly in my interviews, due to paralyzing anxiety and poor preparation. I was scared and it showed. Who would want to hire some bumbling weirdo who was practically whispering because his vocal cords were so tight? I have had a total of fourteen AHA interviews, not a single one resulted in a campus invite. Quite a record, huh?
Transportation and Lodging: I was in my first year as a visitor, and flew from Michigan. I did not have a roomie at the hotel, and was consequently lonely and depressed. I have since learned that Atlanta is an amazing city, but could not discover such joys during the AHA, which was headquartered in the blandest, most corporate section of downtown Atlanta. Looking back on it, these were some of the most depressing days of my life. As a first year professor, I was putting in eighty hour weeks to be repaid by tenured colleagues who would not even acknowledge my presence. I had then come to an awful, overpriced location to have my hopes crushed. Not fun.
Number of Interviews: Two. One at a rural Southern SLAC to replace a friend who had left it (danger! danger!) and another at an R1 in Texas whose job ad I didn't really fit, and whose standards I did not meet at that point in time. All in all, a big, expensive waste of time to make myself feel miserable. One hotel room interview, one job center interview.
Best Moments: None, really.
Worst Moments: Getting yelled at by Atlanta cops, paying insanely high prices for everything, lack of inexpensive dining, interviewing for one job I didn't want and another that I knew I wasn't going to get. If there is a hell and I am sent there, it will be reliving this conference over and over again for eternity.
2008: Washington, DC
Transportation and Lodging: I mentioned the transport above. Lodging was at one of the conference hotels with my friend Justin and an old mutual friend of ours from my Chicago days. That cut down on the expense, and instead of going out, we ordered pizza and made ourselves Cokes spiked with a contraband bottle of Evan Williams. It was pretty cool.
Number of Interviews: Six. King of the world, baby! Or maybe not. As I mentioned, I was at this time a terrible interviewer, so frightened of screwing up that I just withdrew into a semi-catatonic state. Two were at directional state unis in Illinois, one at a directional state uni in Connecticut, one at a Southern flagship, one at a commuter school in Indiana, and one at a state uni in North Carolina. Three were in the job center, three in hotel rooms.
Best Moments: Six! SIX! It was a huge stroke to my ego. I also had some awesome Moroccan food with some friends in DuPont Circle, and the gathering of my buddies in our hotel room on the last night fueled by pizza, cola, and cheap bourbon was one of those laid-back good times I wish I could have back again.
Worst Moments: Fucking up most of those interviews. As I said, I had a hard time staying awake in one. In another, I sat awkwardly while my interviewers talked amongst themselves in heated tones about the fractious politics of their department. In another interview, one of the members of committee was shooting me daggers of hate the entire time, and one of the others asked extremely ridiculous questions based on three-decades old historiography.
2009: New York City
Transportation and Lodging: I had acquired a tenure track job in Texas the year before, but was back on the market, trying to get a job closer to my fiance (now spouse) and to escape what was fast becoming an untenable job. I flew out to Jersey for the holidays, and stayed with my fiance in Newark. It was by far the best lodging situation at any AHA I'd been to.
Number of Interviews: Two. Both were SLACs in eastern Pennsylvania, in Dunder Mifflin country. One was in a hotel room, the other at the job center.
Best Moments: Before the conference my good friend Brian stayed with us in Newark, and we took some trips into the city that I thoroughly enjoyed. Having spent some time in NYC, I had a good time being the local expert for my friends, many of whom were present at this AHA. I also got to see another friend present a kickass paper, and I was really happy for and proud of her. Best of all? I spent minimal time at the conference itself.
Worst Moments: In one of my interviews I faced an extremely hostile interviewer who made snide, snarky comments about what I had to say. In the other, one of my friends was interviewing me, which made things rather awkward, although he did his best to mitigate it. This was by far my least painful AHA, mostly because I already had a t-t job, and because I barely had any contact with it.
2010: San Diego
Transportation and Lodging: I flew in from Newark (where I was visiting Lori) and stayed at a cheap non-conference hotel that was surprisingly ritzy. I roomed with my friend Brian, and we were within walking distance of much of the nightlife.
Number of Interviews: Zero. I had two articles in print, and another accepted at this point. I soon learned the goalposts had been moved, and hastily acquired a book contract. That led to zero interviews the next year as well, although I got a couple of late phone interviews with R1 schools after the AHA that turned into nothing.
Best Moments: Getting together with my friends and meeting some of their cool friends who worked in the publishing side. Getting interest from potential publishers. Having a hilarious conversation on the rooftop of some bar where we joked about how out of touch the tenured faculty were with our struggles. We envisioned a junior scholar revolt, and the elites grabbing jet packs to send them back to their leafy campuses. For some reason the term "jetpack" kept us in stitches for days. At the airport on the way home I came up with a schema for a long gestating book project that will now probably never see the light of day.
Worst Moments: Feeling like a complete loser every time someone asked how many interviews I had. I decided to go anyway because 1. I was forced to because interview requests often come right before the conference and 2. I wanted to get a book contract. The whole time I felt a sense of impending doom, especially when I strolled by the job center and it looked barren. The book area was also strangely empty. It was at this point that I began to wonder if it was worth trying to maintain a foothold in a dying profession.
The next year I did not plan ahead and go the AHA. I got zero interviews, and pretty much decided that it was time to leave academia. I did, and I am all the happier for it, not least because I do not have to spend my first weekend of the year blowing money on overpriced hotel room and airplane tickets, just so I can have my guts kicked in.