Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Great 2006 AHA Road Trip And Hope Shredder

I am coming up on a very important anniversary: attending my first American Historical Association annual conference in Philadelphia back in 2006.  I was there as a grad student making my first of six consecutive runs on the job market.  I came into it nervous but with great hope, I came out of it with my confidence shaken and my hope for the future shredded.  This time of year every year I thank God and the universe that I no longer have to subject myself to the horrors of the academic job market.

The trip started with high expectations.  A friend and I rented a car together, and decided to drive all the way to Philly and to share a hotel room to save money.  Being grad students we had to economize the best way that we could in the face of the ridiculousness whereby penniless grad students are expected to pony up big bucks to travel to a faraway city and get a lavish hotel room all for twenty minute interviews that could easily be conducted over the telephone.  We at least sprung for a full size sedan, and drove a beautiful Chevy Impala, much more reliable and much roomier than my '92 Mazda Protege, which was being held together by spit and bailing wire at that point.  The automatic seatbelt had stopped working and the horn had been removed because it had developed a mind of its own.

We drove that Impala over 700 miles straight on from central Illinois to Philly, listening to Johnny Cash over and over again, particularly "Sam Hall."  I remember stops at those isolated service stations on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, furtively smoking cigarettes backs against the cold January wind.  We rolled into the City of Brotherly Love on a cold night, parking at a surface lot near our downtown hotel, which was bustling with the nervous energy of hundreds of junior scholars trying to keep their shit together in the face of overwhelming fear and anxiety.

I didn't really see my friend until we left because he had something like twelve interviews, which made me curse studying Europe rather than Asia, which was hot that year.  I did have four interviews, however, a decent haul for someone without a PhD yet.  Once I got to the conference hotel, I realized that I may have made some unorthodox decisions.  I intentionally did not wear a business suit to my interviews, but dark tweed and tie with a dark shirt and black pants.  It seemed like a good idea before I left, but now I felt exposed.  That uneasy feeling stayed with me when I went to the hotel suite where my first interview was located.  Some background: this was for a job I considered ideal.  It was at a university in Chicago, at that point my favorite city in America.  It was primarily not a research position, but  those faculty in the department had research bona fides.  This was my ideal job, but I was having to interview for it without ever done an academic job interview before.

I predictably bombed.  I epically fucked it up so bad that I have only recently been able to come to terms with it.  I prepared intensely for this interview, I even took the time to look up and read the scholarship of the people on the committee.  I can still tell you to this day that one of the committee members wrote about the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome as well as the postwar communist insurrection in Malaysia.  Things were going okay, then they asked me about how I would teach a set of specific topics courses.  At that moment it hit me that the committee chair had told me in his phone call before our interview to prepare some answers for this.  But being a moron, I had forgotten about it, and had done an insane level of preparation for things that weren't nearly so important.  I came up with some answers off the top of my head, which were obviously not impressive.  They practically shooed me out of the room at the point.

I knew I had fucked up, and then I had to go to an interview with a large public university in Texas.  While this school was in a small city I had been to before and disliked, the school itself would have massive research support and a light teaching load.  My confidence was so shaken, however, that some of my answers to their questions were so quiet that I had to be asked to repeat them.  (The committee members were really nice, at least.)  Being trapped in a hotel suite with a group of people deciding your future is so stressful that I can only last 30 minutes, but the interview ended up lasting 45 minutes because the chair informed me that the person after me had moved their slot, and for some reason decided to extend my interview.  At that point I thought I was going to vomit.  I was too demoralized to sustain my "interview face" for that long. There went another job down the drain.

My third interview was with a small liberal arts college in rural Virginia.  It was in the Appalachians, my favorite landscape in America, and I'd heard good things about the collegiality of its department from someone acquainted with the school.  This is the one interview where I felt comfortable, largely thanks to the friendliness of the committee.  At the same time, I got the feeling that they had a very specific need to fill, and I was not the guy to fill that need.  Still, it was the one interview I left Philly thinking I hadn't totally fucked up.  I had even managed to overcome the awkwardness of interviewing in an actual hotel room, rather than a suite.  And yes, one of the committee members was sitting on a bed.  (Having your future decided in what feels like a "drug deal gone bad scenario" isn't comfortable.)

I definitely didn't do a great job with my last interview, which was on the last day of the conference in the morning with a private university in Los Angeles.  It was also my one and only interview in the official interview area.  Sitting with a bunch of other anxious and shell-shocked grad students in ill-fitting business attire made sitting outside of the hotel rooms waiting to be let in seem positively heavenly by comparison.  It was a place that smelled of fear, desperation, and broken dreams.

I remember the committee chair coming to get me, and walking with him past table after table after table.  This space seemed endless, and filled with the voices of young academics trying their hardest to impress while holding it together in a huge sweaty cacaphony.  I was seated in front of four people, almost like a tribunal.  I had a hard time knowing who to look at, and I still remember the committee chair being amused at one of my answers.  They were looking for something, and I wasn't it.  It didn't help that at that time in my life I was probably afflicted by undiagnosed anxiety disorders and depression, so in such situations I was incapable of acting naturally and probably came off as the kind of weirdo that you cross the street to avoid.

The time between the interviews is a little bit of a blur.  I have some strangely specific memories, though.  I walked with a friend down to the tourist sites, and I had to wait in a ridiculous security line to see the Liberty Bell.  My PhD university still had an alumni party at the AHA back then, and I quaffed the free booze and got some words of comfort from the people I knew who had been able to find in prior years.  Over the three days I ate at a lot of Irish pubs, since there were many in the area and they were the one affordable non-fast food eating option.  I ate from a huge box of mandarin oranges bought to supplement my diet of lamb stew and shepherd's pie.  I spent my spare time reading George Packer's Assassin's Gate and contemplating the war in Iraq.  Such things were actually a welcome distraction from the intense waves of fear washing over me.  If I didn't get a job, I didn't know what I was going to do with myself.

Those thoughts crossed my mind the next day as I drove with my friend on a bitter cold morning back to Illinois.  I remember the snow on the ground in the woods of central Pennsylvania, and my friend telling me stories about growing up in China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.  I was at least really happy for him.  I look back at this trip, though, and I have a hard time feeling any sentimental nostalgia.  While I know this isn't the case for most people, my time in grad school was pretty idyllic.  I had amazing friends, lived the life of the mind, and was lucky not to have any financial emergencies at a time when I was poor.  The trip to the AHA suddenly made me realize that this idyll was coming to an end, and that it was not going to have a happy ending.  In the ten years since I have lived in three different states, met my wife, started a family, and switched careers.  The ending has been happy, but only once I made the decision to leave academia.  There's so much I cared so much about back then that I don't care about anymore, especially the academic job market.  I think back to the great 2006 AHA road trip and feel longing for my friends who live so far away today, but no longing whatsoever to be part of that world anymore.


Oblio said...

Brilliant essay... many thanks, and Happy New Year!!!!

Terry said...

Yikes, this brought me back to one particularly nightmarish job interview I mucked up just before getting my M.A. It was an ideal job, in a wonderful state, and my husband and I drove a long ways and spent lots of money on gas and lodging and dining to get there. It was the first time I'd faced a tribunal - whose sadistic idea are those, anyway? Much later, I realized they had a specific person in mind and had tailored everything around their knowledge, experience and abilities. At the time I didn't know employers did that. Anyway, halfway through the interview my hands acquired a life of their own. I remember watching, horrified, as they flopped, waved, rippled and slapped the table, clenching and gesturing, all beyond my own volition. I've never experienced anything like it before or since. Obviously, I didn't get the job - and wouldn't have even if I hadn't been taken over by the Hand Demon in the middle of the interview!

I'm glad you've made it through and have found some contentment and happiness. Best of New Year to you & yours.