Thursday, September 8, 2011

Re-post: Open Letter to the AHA

My first week at my new job is kicking my ass, so I figured that I should reach back into the vaults for a new post. This one is apropos my angst over attending a conference in two weeks, my first after leaving academia. The conference in question is the most important in my field, and I have attended several times. This year the program is bigger than ever, despite the apparent dearth of tenure-track jobs for the young scholars in all the many multifarious panels to take.

To be honest, I don't really want to go, and I wish that I had backed out. Although I will continue to write scholarship, I do not want to endure the "independent scholar" stigma at conferences, or to be subjected to their usual environment of glad-handing with the right hand while the left conceals a dagger. In sum, I am sick at heart with the academic historical profession and need a break from it. I wrote the following two years ago while I was still in the thick of it, and this letter reflects the AHA's mentality before Anthony Grafton and others started to actually care about getting junior scholars jobs.

A while back, I got a message from the president of the American Historical Association, and it read in part:

"We are writing to ask you to contribute to the AHA 125th Anniversary Fund. This new endowment fund has been established to support an expansion of the public programs and outreach efforts of the Association. Any amount is welcome, but $125 or more will significantly help us to increase our efforts. Strengthening the work of the organization will help us to serve you, your interests, and your profession better. By contributing to the Anniversary Fund, you will help to assure that these activities can continue and develop for the next generation of historians, thus supporting the work and mission of the AHA for another 125 years."

I greatly admire the historical work of AHA president Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and so I will generously assume that she has just attached her name to the usual fund raising letter and so will address my reaction to the leadership of the AHA as a whole.

During these hard times I do not have $125 to spare on an institution to which I already pay an exhorbitant membership fee. Furthermore, I just paid you a king's ransom to attend your conference a couple of months ago so I could walk away with bubkus. I currently have a tenure track job after three years of trying with a school that did not interview me at your annual conference. Most schools had me interview at the AHA, and in my three year quest this meant three road and plane trips and several nights in overpriced hotel rooms for the privilege of engaging in rushed half-hour interviews with fatigued committee members in the pit of Hell known as the job annex. I've spent three thousand dollars over the years to attend your conference in return for nothing, which is just what you will get in return.

There's a lot of boilerplate in your letter about the "next generation of historians." As a junior scholar myself, I've been long aware that the AHA is an exquisite purveyor of platitudes, but a poor advocate for my interests. The reports you publish in the Perspectives about the job market are as laughably optimistic and mendacious as an issue of Pravda. The already wretched market became a bloodbath this year in the wake of the economic downturn, yet in the midst of the shitstorm that is causing untold stress and suffering, you buried this truth in statistics purporting to show improvement.

What members of the "next generation" like me need are steady jobs, not community outreach. That's for the lucky chosen ones at the top, the rest of us subsist in adjunct and "visitor" positions with low pay, no security, and no respect. That you are not treating the current job crisis, which has been festering for years, as a dire emergency in need of attention is bad enough. To not use your resources to protest the degrading work conditions that so many of your paying members languish in is abomnidable. I'm all for protesting the reactionary political beliefs of hotel owners in San Diego, but before pointing out the faults of others you might address the unjust, hierarchical, and downright exploitative nature of your own profession. Until that day comes, you won't get a single thin dime from me.

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