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Archive for the ‘acamademia’ Category

I’ve been kind of down on academia the past couple of months. In large measure this is a function of having absolutely zero success on the job markket — I’ve failed to generate any response from a single search committee other than the standard form letters and rejection notices, much less a measly interview. It’s easy to get down on academia when it feels like academia is down on you.

At the same time, I think I’ve finally started to believe my own words of wisdom to myself about how my non-success to date in landing a job is largely a reflection of the changed reality of the humanities job market, in which a severe overpopulation of soon-to-be and newly minted Ph.D.’s is coupled with across-the-board budget cuts. This combination of too much supply and too little demand translates to a shortage of advertised job vacancies, but also to scenarios where upwards of two hundred people are applying for a single job with a teaching load from hell at Directional State University in the state of Miserable Place to Live. It must be a grand old time to be one of the departments with the wherewithal to make a new hire. But it’s not exactly a recipe for professional success if, like me, you’re looking for a job.

Anyway, even though I’ve known for a while that this is the current reality of the academic job market, I found it difficult until recently not to interpret my complete lack of success as a reflection of some failing on my part. It’s just hard not to take it personally.

Striking out repeatedly on the job market and feeling down about my prospects in my chosen field led me to check out mentally from academia. As I began to doubt whether I’d ever find a job, I found it harder and harder to put any effort into anything academic. Grading, teaching, applying for jobs, even revising my dissertation — my performance across the board probably suffered, since I just didn’t believe in it with the same conviction that I had just a few short months ago.

I feel like my attitude has softened, and perhaps even improved these past few days. Part of it may be a function of not interpreting my disappointment with the job market as an indictment of my own abilities. Part of it may even be a case of me making my peace with the increasingly likely prospect of never landing that coveted tenure-track job at a good university.

But I think a lot of it is attributable to a kind of happenstance, almost an accident.

A few months ago, I applied to teach a class for my department this summer. I figured I could use the summer income regardless of what happens with the job market, and I got assigned to teach the same one-month European survey I taught last summer. That was a real blessing, in my eyes, since it meant minimal preparation would be required on my part, and, needless to say, I’ve found it hard to summon a lot of motivation and enthusiasm these days for teaching.

But then a few weeks ago, I got an e-mail asking if I’d be willing to teach a second course, a junior seminar, to round out the department’s summer offerings. I mulled it over for a couple of weeks, since it’d be sticking around an extra month this summer, though it would also double my income. Plus, being a seminar, I’d only have to teach one day a week, and I wouldn’t need to write lectures. Ultimately, I decided that whatever happened with the job market, it was probably a minimal gamble, and it certainly stood to be a relatively lucrative one on my end.

So, I accepted the offer last week, then pitched a few topics. I mostly stuck to familiar topics, things I had already taught or that were firmly grounded in my field (unlike survey courses, which require me to stretch my knowledge). After some consultation, I settled on a topic — the fall of the Iron Curtain — and after wrapping up the revisions to my dissertation last week, I set to work this past weekend on putting together my syllabus.

The funny thing was, what began as largely a chore of designing a new course from scratch turned out to be pretty enjoyable. This seminar is, arguably, the first class I’ve taught that’s entirely within my expertise (my history of communism class from last year largely tread on familiar ground, but I’m still far from an expert on Asian or Latin American communism). Instead of hunting around online and in the library catalog, trying to find syllabi from similar classes to poach, I already had a few books in mind and mostly pulled a bunch of them off my bookshelf.

As I flipped through my books, it was likely visiting with a familiar old friend. I remembered how much I love my topic, how passionate I am about the history of East-Central Europe, and it reminded me why, so many years ago, I thought I wanted to make this my career.

To make a long story short, I chose my topic well, since I’m not wanting for motivation or enthusiasm. It’s going to be an easy class for me to teach, not only in terms of not having to teach myself a lot of new material before I teach my students, but also in the sense that it doesn’t feel like a chore in the way prepping for classes out of my sweet spot often does.

And, even more surprising, my revived interest in academia got me sufficiently motivated to complete three job applications yesterday. One of them was even a tenure-track position at a school that, while not necessarily prestigious, is at least located in a good climate. Even though this particular job advertised for a military historian, my adviser was in contact with the chair of the search committee, who said they’d be interested in someone like me, provided I could teach a class on military history. And as I thought about it, I came up with what I felt was a pretty good argument for why I “do” military history — or at least for why there’s considerable content on military history in my dissertation. I think I wrote a pretty good cover letter, and I actually felt sufficiently reinvigorated by things that I rattled off applications I had put off for weeks for a couple of one-year positions.

Maybe it’s just that I feel a sense of liberation, since I’m not really expecting anything to come of these applications. At least, I’m not investing a lot emotionally in the outcome. I assume it’s more likely than not that I won’t get any of them, but perhaps I can get someone to show at least a little interest, and at this point that tiny bit of affirmation would make me feel good.

Mostly, though, I think it’s a function of being reminded, after having lost sight for some months, why I thought this was a good path to follow in my life.

I suppose if these are, in fact, my final months in academia (or at least before I become a glorified hanger-on without any formal standing), I might as well enjoy them.

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Long ago, around the time I was starting graduate school, or maybe even when I was still just considering it, I recall someone telling me something to the effect that you finish graduate school once you reach a point where you hate your dissertation. Or being a graduate student. Something like that. The upshot was that it’s once you’ve had your fill of being a grad student and writing a dissertation that you hunker down and finish.

Well, I think I’m about at that point.

Essentially, I took a whole year off from working on my dissertation. I finished the first full draft at the end of January 2009, and while I read through it a couple of months later to do some proofreading, it was only in early February 2010 that I sat down to start making revisions.

I was fortunate that the comments I had from my readers were extremely positive and indicated that there weren’t major problems. There were some things that I needed to fix, a few points that needed more explanation or development, but it was all relatively minor.

Anyway, earlier this month, after I finished writing lectures for the quarter, I finally got around to starting the revisions. I looked through the comments I received on my drafts, made a list of corrections, pulled out the relevant books, and got cracking. It took a little more than a week to get through the initial pass. The worst of it was the beginning, since the biggest revision was rejiggering the introduction and first chapter, mostly to shift sections around, but it also required me to reshape Chapter 1 slightly.

I submitted the revised Introduction and Chapter 1 to my writing group as my quarterly contribution and got some helpful feedback. Today I finally got down to making those changes, though I probably didn’t do justice to all the feedback my colleagues offered.

I’m just finding it hard to summon the motivation to make substantial changes. A large part of it, I suspect, is that I’ve known I could more or less coast on the initial draft I finished writing last year. And I’ve certainly improved upon that, based on the comments from my committee and my writing group. But I also feel like I’m at a point of diminishing marginal returns, where it would take an obscene expenditure of time and effort to generate minor improvements in quality.

On some level, I’m telling myself I can get away with what I have because it leaves something to revise if and when I publish my dissertation as an honest-to-goodness book in the next few years. But I’ve also been writing my dissertation like a book manuscript to minimize the amount of work I’d have to do down the road. And my committee members have commented that they’re impressed that my dissertation reads more like a book than a dissertation.

Anyway, I just feel more and more like I’m ready to throw in the towel and run out the clock. The sooner I decide I’m finished with revisions, the sooner I can give it to my committee and schedule my defense. And the sooner I defend, the sooner I can advance to goofing off until graduation.

It’s just odd, because in a lot of ways I feel like I have senioritis, even though I’m a (theoretically) responsible adult and on the cusp of receiving my doctorate. It’s also odd because I don’t think I really suffered from senioritis in high school or college.

Of course, I still have the important task of deciding whether to change the title of my dissertation. I’ve been using the same boring descriptive title I’ve been using ever since I had to list a working title on grant applications several years ago. But more recently I’ve been toying with the idea of changing to something quirkier or cleverer, or at least resurrecting the informal title I devised long ago: “Springtime for Dubček and Slovakia.” I haven’t decided.

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Next week I have my class discussing Voltaire’s Candide, a classic of Enlightenment commentary and satire. To help my students prepare, I sent out a list of reading questions this morning.

When I checked my e-mail this afternoon, I had this reply waiting from one of my students:

I am sure we will be discussing this in class on Tuesday but I did not see how Candide was humorous or satirical.  The numerous calamities were a bit over the top but people being quartered and disemboweled seems a bit too disturbing to be funny.  Am I missing something or is it just a dark humor?

Sigh. I really don’t know how to respond to this e-mail. My first instinct is to wry a terse reply. Yes, you’re missing something.

My next thought was to write a slightly more expansive response. Yes, you’re missing something. Something big.

The response that comes to mind that I think would be most humorous (ironic, no?) would be to give this student a t-shirt that says, “A sarcasm detector, that’s a real useful invention.” But, alas, the humor might well be lost on the poor soul.

Instead, I’ll craft a lengthier reply that gently nudges the student to think about how the narrator’s initial belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” does not, perhaps, square with the awful things he encounters on his travels.

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Anyone who knows me well knows I enjoy good wordplay and frequently insert puns into my everyday conversation, just to show off how clever and witty I can be.

Over the years, I’ve given the world — or at least my closest friends and relatives — a ton o’ puns that have made the world a little bit better. We all remember the classics. (What do altar girls wear? Altar tops! Oh, the hilarity!)*

But with my proclivity for pun-ditry, it’s easy to take my wittiness for granted. And, as I learned today, even I fail at times to appreciate in full my own genius.

Take for instance the e-mail a student sent me today during the mid-class break. I had been lecturing about the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and right before break I was talking about Newton and his contributions to physics. I mentioned the concept of gravity, and how other thinkers had suspected such a force existed. But I mentioned that Newton is associated with gravity because he derived formulas that explained how this and other laws of motion functioned.

Evidently, at this point, according to my student’s e-mail, I added, “and that put some real force behind it.”

“Well placed,” wrote my student.

Indeed. So well placed was this bit of wordplay and so caught up in my own gravitas was I that my gem of a joke had gone unnoticed not only by most of my students, but also by me.

My un-WIT-ting pun also explains why this student and a couple of others around him were quietly laughing at one point during my lecture. And to think, I was afraid I had neglected to zip my fly.

Naturally, I wrote back to my student after class to thank him for his note, but also to take full credit for my ingenious pun. I saw no sense in confessing to the accident of my witticism. The joke, if unintentional, captured his interest and got him engaged in the course.

No, a candid admission of accident was out of the question. My unintended joke had done some pedagogical good, and I wasn’t about to sacrifice that for the sake of total and excessive honesty.

After all, I appreciated the gravity of the situation.

* I don’t care if there is no such thing as an “altar girl.” You can’t allow “reality” to get into the way of a legendary pun, just like you can’t allow the desire for straightforward storytelling to prevent you from recounting an anecdote in an especially tortured and convoluted way just so you can make a pun (or four) along the way. Like any good joke, the secret to great puns is in the set-up.

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A big part of the reason I stopped watching the History Channel eons ago was that I grew tired of the constant assault of programming fixated on the Second World War. It seemed like there was always some documentary or special touting some minor campaign in the Pacific, or cheering the heroes of D-Day, or (somewhat less frequently) pointing out the horrors of the Holocaust.

Of course, as I began training to become a professional historian and read more widely, I found the American perspective on the war tiresome and wanting. To watch the History Channel or, I’m guessing, to ask most Americans, the history of the Second World War went something as follows:

Hitler and the Nazis did some bad stuff, and there were evil deeds afoot in Japan, then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the war began, and it was a slog until D-Day, which turned the tide of the war and it was only a matter of time before the Allies defeated Nazi Germany and then Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima to end the war in Japan.

Certainly that version captures some of the general contours of the war. And it definitely covers the major American participation. But as tantalizing as it is to think that “our boys” single-handedly won the war, such a view just doesn’t do justice to what actually happened.

Then again, it’s convenient to forget that a bunch of Commies did a lot of the heavy lifting and bore the biggest human toll. Even if we occasionally remember that Stalin was an ally: remember “Uncle Joe”?

Anyway, I saw a headline for a story in the NYT op-ed section that piqued my interest: “How World War II Wasn’t Won.”

It seemed promising. I wasn’t offhand what occasioned such an audaciously headlined piece, but I thought it might be an attempted corrective on the narrative so entrenched in the American popular consciousness.

Naturally, I was wrong. Wrong to think this was going to challenge American perspectives. Wrong to think it would deflate the deification of D-Day, if only a little bit. And certainly wrong to think it might be something so simple as a think piece to say, “Actually, the turning point of the war in Europe came on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army did the real heavy lifting.”

Nope. None of that. In fact, there was no mention at all of “Soviet” (or “Russian,” which was and remains synonymous with “Soviet” in the American lexicon) or “Red Army” or “Eastern Front.” Nope. Nothing.

Instead, the piece focuses on a counter-factual about a possible “second D-Day” along the Western Front. Chance to end the war a few months earlier. Potential glory for the Americans. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Sigh.

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Applying myself

The past two days I finally hunkered down and assembled applications for a whole slew of tenure-track positions with upcoming deadlines, and today I finished sending in the remaining eight.

Counting the earlier deadlines for two jobs, I’ve now applied for a total of ten positions, all of which are tenure-track jobs.

Looking through my files, I see I applied for a total of thirteen tenure-track jobs last year, plus three one-year/post-doc positions. In terms of aggregate numbers, it would seem that the job market isn’t lagging too far behind last year’s. But those raw numbers obscure the reality that there are, in fact, fewer jobs this year.

Case in point: last year I was pretty selective about where I applied, especially in the fall. I passed on schools in places that seemed too remote (North Dakota) or too bitterly cold (Buffalo) to live, and mostly aimed for jobs in places that seemed like they’d be nice to live, or at institutions where I thought I’d want to be.

Plus, I didn’t apply for everything under the sun that said “European history” with the field and/or specialization open, reasoning that there were some places liable to attract hundreds of applications, thus making them real shots in the dark. Moreover, there were at least three tenure-track jobs, plus a one-year position, in my field. What minimal traction I did get with job applications last year was almost entirely with jobs in my field, where I had my only AHA interview, plus a phone interview for a one-year position. (I did get a request for more work from one of the open-specialization European history jobs last year, but so did about eighty other applicants, and I got tossed out clearing that preliminary bar.)

Contrast that to this year, where I’ve seen exactly one job that might be described fairly as being in my field, and where virtually everything else for which I’d even be theoretically qualified is casting a very wide net. I’m applying for everything and anything. So far I think I’ve only passed on a couple of jobs at religious universities (meaning they want people who reflect those religious values in the classroom), plus North Dakota (again). I’m not being picky, even though it’s the case with at least some of these jobs that I think the $10-plus it cost me to assemble and mail the application would’ve been better spent on scratch-off lottery tickets (which I generally regard as a form of taxation that targets people who can’t do math). One of this year’s jobs is actually a reopened position for which I applied last year; the search was canceled due to budget cuts a year ago, and this year’s search remains “pending budgetary approval.”

Undoubtedly there will be more jobs announced in the coming months, and it’ll probably be a couple of months yet before a bunch of the post-docs, adjunct and interim positions get announced. But it’s still frustrating to know there are only so few options, and probably so many people striving for the scant crumbs that do exist.

It’s probably more frustrating to know that, as the chair of one search committee that had me in the running for a job said to one of my advisers, I’d likely have little trouble getting a job in a “normal” year, yet it’ll probably be a year, or more, before the academic job market in European history gets back to “normal,” if it ever even recovers in full.

At least things aren’t so bleak on all fronts. I did finally get feedback on my dissertation from my primary adviser, and he was generally pleased and had few comments that would require substantive changes (mostly it’s just checking on something here, explaining something there, clarifying my phrasing elsewhere), and no problems with my argument or the key points. It’s a major hurdle to have cleared, and I feel like I’m in good shape in terms of making final revisions. It’ll take a few weeks to make the edits needed to address his comments, but it’s mostly just because there are a lot of little things to address, a lot of facts or numbers to look up, rather than needing lots of time to revamp the organization or rewrite large sections. I’m still awaiting comments from the other two members of my committee, and they may have other questions for me to address, but ultimately it’s the chair of my committee whose opinion matters most, so I feel pleased about that.

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Lost amid the mindboggling reports of billions lost in Harvard’s endowment are the human impacts budget cuts are having on the Harvard community.

Fortunately, the intrepid reporting of the NYT helps to put a human face on this tragic story of Harvard budget cuts.

Gone are the hot breakfasts in most dorms and the pastries at Widener Library. Varsity athletes are no longer guaranteed free sweatsuits, and just this week came the jarring news that professors will go without cookies at faculty meetings.

No free lunches breakfasts? Egads!

We’ve known for some time that draconian budget cuts can happen anywhere. But Harvard? Perish the thought!

But many here assumed student life at Harvard, more than any other institution, was immune from hardship. The loss of scrambled eggs, bacon and other cooked breakfast foods in the dorms of upperclassmen on weekdays seems to have stirred the most ire.

“Students generally feel that if you come to Harvard, for what you’re paying, you should probably have the right to a hot breakfast,” said Andrea Flores, a senior who is president of the Undergraduate Council. “They want to preserve the things that are at Harvard that you can’t get anywhere else.”

If Harvard students don’t get their victuals gratis in the morning, or at the library, how will they be reminded on a daily basis that they’re better than everyone else?

Oh, and the 250 Harvard staff members who’ve actually lost their jobs as a result of budget cuts? They don’t rate more than that brief mention. Probably because they can still get a free hot breakfast on a breadline somewhere.

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