Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

A little party to celebrate St. Valentine’s Eve

This is one of my favorite letters from my dissertation research, a description of a Valentine’s party in Boston written February 19, 1837. It’s from Mary Minot, Jane’s cousin on her mother’s side, who was 26 at the time. Jane spent months at a time living with her Boston family, so the society mentioned here is familiar to her, especially George, William, and Frank, Mary’s three brothers. It’s a great source for learning about how young people socialized, how the celebration of this holiday developed, and even about introduction of the triangle into Boston society.1 But I always think about Jane, stuck in snowy Stockbridge, reading this letter about a party full of all of her friends that she couldn’t go to, just a few days after her own 16th birthday.

How much I wanted you & Fanny here the other day my dear Jenny we had a little party to celebrate St. Valentine’s evewhich went off with such eclat that I determined to sit down & write you an account of it, hoping it will be relished by one of your romantic tastes.  The first idea of the party originated with George who had lately become quite intimate with an agreeable [group?] of young ladiesThe Jacksons Channings &c& wishing to make himself interesting in their eyes,  he bethought himself of paying this tribute to their charmsWe received great assistance in the decorations from Mrs. King, a friend of Mother’s who has been staying with us.  She is a mighty learned lady from Cincinnati but was kindly disposed to descend from her sublime musings to sharpen a dart from Cupid’s bow & bury a heart in roses.2  You remember the large window in the back parlourAgainst the shutter was printed in large Evergreen letters valentineover this was placed Cupid’s bow trimmed with roses and the mischievous arrowjust ready to be discharged at a heart which was suspended between the folding doors.  Another heart transpierced with the dart was placed opposite over the parlour table, & the walls were hung all around with evergreens & flowers.  The company of course was small & select about 16 ladies & an equal number of gentlemen.  Some of the girls were very prettyamong the prettiest were Miss Susan Jackson, Miss Dana (a niece of Mrs. Thorndike’s) Miss Mary Channing & Miss [Sohier?]  Others were more distinguished for their mental charms.  The beaus were none of them very distinguished except young Flagg the painterwho is quite a geniushe is the nephew of Mr. Allston.  I must not omit to mention among the ladies Miss Bowditch who is a great favourite with allHelen & myself played for them to dance & Frank accompanied us on the triangle, a new instrument which has lately been introduced into the family & is a great assistance in playing cotillions.  It is simply two pieces of steel which are struck together at short intervals with a clear musical sound.  It gives considerable animation as an accompaniment to the piano & can be played by anyone who has an accurate earabout the Middle of the eve & the girls names were written on separate slips of paper rolled up & thrown into a basket & the gentlemen were all brought up “to the sound of slow music” to take their chance at a ValentineAfter they had made their bow to the lady whom fate had bestowed on them – they all came to me again for their Valentinewhich was a poetical effusion of two or three verses applicable to the peculiar charms of each ladyMost of these were original productions of Mother’s, with some assistance from Henry DavisThey were all appropriate and very pretty. & the girls as you may imagine were quite delightedIn addition to the Valentine, each gentleman brought a bouquet which he presented to his fair one & then devoted himself to her in the dance for the remainder of the eve.  You have no idea what a pretty animated group they formedYour friend James Coleman was here – his Valentine was Elizabeth Bryant, George’s was Miss Jackson – Wm’s was Barbara Channing & Frank’s Julia Bryant.  They continued dancing in great spirits awhile 12 o’clock & winded up with a very good new ***** song of Helen’s about matrimonial advice to young men.  The idea of the party was quite a new one and proved so successful that it is just now the engrossing topic of conversation among the rising beauxs and belles.

Selection from Mary Minot to Jane Minot Sedgwick II, 19 February 1831, Sedgwick Family Papers, Box 84, Folder 22, Massachusetts Historical Society. The associated image is from a piece of Valentine ephemera from the 1840s, available digitally through the Library of Congress.

Podcasts as Pedagogy, AHA 2020

I participated in a panel on teaching with podcasts at the 2020 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York. You can read more about the assignment at Teaching US History, where I wrote about it in some depth a few years ago, and check out the actual assignment sheet here in case you’d like to adapt the project for your own classes. You can also read a thread of tweets from the panel starting here:

Chapter 2 skeleton 1212017

Lately I’ve been really struggling with my choice not to finish my book manuscript after I made the choice to leave academia. I couldn’t have finished it, not really. For one thing, I didn’t have the money to support the rest of the research I needed to do to make it the book I wanted. But it also just hurt too much to finish a book for a community that I felt had rejected me. Their desire to have that book actually made it worse.

I’m still not going to finish it, at least not in the form I had initially intended. Since I left academia, I have worked on a proposal for a different kind of book, a memoir for a trade press, only to have that adventure fall through. I am getting very good at trying to write books and failing, which is why I’m not desperate to find a way to write my Jane book, in any form. It’s so hard and so expensive and it takes so much from you.

And yet, I’ve been struggling with this choice that wasn’t really a choice. Some of it, I’m sure, comes from the fact that I have a wonderful job designing and giving educational programs at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. I have a job that lets me use my PhD in ways I never could have hoped for. But it also means I spend every day talking about the same things I wanted to write about. It means I’m deeply aware that people would jump at the chance to publish a book centering Clemens that touched on the same things I was exploring with Jane, and that no one would find that book lacking because it used one person’s life and network as its lens.

So I decided to put this out there. It’s the first 11 pages of a really messy draft of what I thought would be Chapter 2 of my manuscript, with the original file name. I’ve included all of the comments, the parentheticals, the tentative strikeouts. If you think it would be instructive, you can even compare it to Chapter 2 of my dissertation and see what’s pulled from there and what’s new.  The date on it–December 1, 2017–is about a month before I got the rejection that closed the door on full-time academic work for me. It’s a preliminary draft, and two years out of date as well. While I doubt anyone would want to cite it, for those reasons and others, if you do, please ask me first.

I love this material and I still find myself thinking about it. I just couldn’t keep it to myself anymore.

Chapter 2 skeleton 1212017

What do the people who teach college get paid?

You may have run across a spreadsheet collecting salary information for adjuncts, full-time NTTs, and tenure-track faculty. If it’s this spreadsheet, then it was started by me, and I’m the one who’s maintaining it. It began to track the salaries of adjunct and full-time NTT faculty, but has recently expanded to include salaries for tenure-track faculty. I will eventually add a sheet for grad student pay, but since I have to do a lot of tidying-up and outright repair to the spreadsheet as people add more information, I’m going to wait till the TT rush is over.

I am not the first person to do this. The Adjunct Project was compiling this information when I was a grad student. The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a database that is current through 2017-2018. I know that some of this information is publicly available if you work at a state institution, but it’s often several years out of date, and having been one of the people whose information was included in one of those databases, I can tell you it’s often not accurate.

Moreover, none of this information is presented in a way that lets you see the complexities and read comparatively without having specific places or fields you want to compare. And the sleek, professional databases provided by AAUP and the like sure as hell don’t include comments from workers right alongside their salary info.

Lots of people have asked why I’m not recording this or that, or why I haven’t cleaned up certain information that’s been put in, or why I don’t just have people send me their info so I can input it and make sure it’s clean. To get that last point out of the way–this isn’t my job, and it’s already time consuming enough cleaning up the mess that thousands of people can make in a crowd-sourced spreadsheet, setting aside the lack of standardization across institutions that messes with the data.

But in general, I didn’t design the spreadsheet to be used as a data source for those in academia to precisely analyze pay disparities across rank, field, and location. I hoped that, when it was sufficiently full, it might be a good thing to show students and parents, to show them a little bit of the financial, emotional, and geographical realities of college teaching and maybe even prompt them to ask some questions about how colleges—and state governments—are spending money and compensating employees. That’s why I’m not recording things that are mainly of interest to people in academia and aren’t really important to those “on the outside.”

It’s not the definitive data set, nor is it intended to be. It provides enough pay transparency for people who teach and work in colleges to know what’s what. But for the most part, it’s a spreadsheet that’s good enough to illustrate some of the things I think are important for people to know about how college teaching works.


No More Little Match Girl Stories

A drawing of a girl wrapped in a cloak crouching in the snow. She is having a vision of a Christmas tree.

An image from Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy tales and stories, 1900.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Match-Girl,” an unnamed girl struggles to sell matches on a snowy street. Having sold nothing at the end of the day, and desperate to avoid her father’s wrath at home, she lights each of her matches, one by one, to stay warm. As she slowly freezes to death, she envisions a warm house, a full kitchen, a twinkling Christmas tree, and her loving grandmother. Passers-by finally notice her in the morning; they realize she was trying to warm herself with her matches, but they can’t know of her beautiful visions. Only we, the readers, can know–and only in retrospect.

This story is all I could think of when I read Adam Harris’ recent piece in the Atlantic. Thea Hunter lighting her matches, sharing that light with her students and colleagues, researching and writing and building entire worlds in her brilliant mind, and all the while she suffered, only to be noticed after her death by passing crowds unaware of the richness of her life. Harris has made Hunter’s life–especially her inner life–legible to us. Where Andersen did so to assure us that the little match girl was safe and happy in heaven, Harris’ motivations are far more earthly: to highlight “the human cost of higher education.”1

There is so much that is good and important about Harris’ story that I was wary of saying anything about it. I was wary of even reading it, as I know many adjuncts were. His story of Hunter’s life is thoughtfully researched and beautifully written. He tells the story of a scholar I wish I’d known. I am glad to know of Thea Hunter’s life, and to join with so many others in bearing witness to that life and the injustice of her death. But I have mixed feelings on seeing more stories like it. It is not that I think her life and death aren’t worth knowing about. I do. And I am not afraid to confront the awful realities of her experience and the broader issue it represents. Quite the opposite. But I feel uneasy about the “historical” nature of the genre itself, and the way some people–especially people in higher ed–engage with stories like this one, the focus on one person’s life and death allowing them to cling to the barest slip of personal and historical distance from an ongoing problem, even as they sigh and say “something should really be done.”

Nearly six years ago, the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko led to headlines like “The Sad Death of an Adjunct Professor Sparks a Labor Debate.” That headline was untrue in two regards. The debate was nothing new in academic circles, though how much you participated in or ignored the debate had a lot to do with where you stood in those circles and how much you benefited from adjunct labor.  But more problematically, Vojtko’s death did not “spark” any real labor debate among those outside higher ed–even if it did, in some places, it didn’t lead to any measure of change except that which has been forced on institutions by activist adjunct workers themselves.

Here we are, in 2019, reading another tragic story of an adjunct’s life and death, and things have only gotten worse. We’re in late-stage adjunctification. I haven’t seen adjuncts who hold out hope that Hunter’s story will do what Votjko’s didn’t. They know.

But if things have gotten worse, maybe we just need more of these stories? Perhaps the accumulation of these stories in the public’s consciousness could lead to a tipping point where we’ll see some change? Setting aside that having one of these stories “break through” every few years isn’t much of an accumulation, I’d argue that we have no evidence that this is the case.2

Even if it is the case, I don’t want to wait for that to approach to work. And I still struggle with the idea of this genre, not because these lives are are unimportant or unworthy of notice, but because they’re worthy of so much more.

Harris’ approach is reminiscent of the way many historians approach their research and make their arguments. Hunter’s life is a rich source for understanding the lived experience of thousands of contingent faculty members across the U.S. in the early 21st century. That’s a framing you’d expect in the introduction to a historical monograph written fifty years from now. But she’s not some distant historical figure. She is our contemporary, one of our colleagues. We didn’t have to wait till she was gone to hear her story, and even then, only in the form of a historical retelling. Thea Hunter was telling it all along, through her life and in her own voice.

“The human cost” of adjunct labor includes the loss of physical and mental health, financial, social, and geographical stability, and emotional well-being. The costs accrue over time, but their effects are felt in real time, rippling out to colleagues, students, and even institutions, whether they want to admit it or not. Harris makes it clear that Hunter hustled as hard as she could, making tough decisions in a system that was crumbling all around her. Her colleagues knew some of this, and they tried to help sometimes, but neither they nor Hunter herself could fix a system that was doing exactly what it was designed to do. The human cost to Hunter was significant well before her death.

The things that make Hunter and Vojtko such good and representative “sources” for the study of contingent academic labor after their deaths–age, gender, and in Hunter’s case, race–are the same things that facilitated their entanglement in an exploitative system that ignored their voices. As Harris makes clear, even her “successes” required her to “[fly] against a current,” enduring questions about her expertise and assumptions that she was part of the maintenance staff. The particulars of Hunter’s struggle were unique to her, but while they may not always have been visible, the general shape of her struggle, the arc of her academic life and death, were there for all to see–if they were willing to see.

Harris did a service in sharing Hunter’s story with a broader public. He illuminated the life of a brilliant and collegial scholar and teacher and the brutal system that was happy to exploit her as long as it could. But, to paraphrase a friend, adjuncts shouldn’t have to die for their stories to be told. Their stories shouldn’t have to be told in other people’s words, after their deaths, in order to be heard. That stories like Hunter’s can only be this powerful precisely when they’re too late to effect change for their subjects tells us as much about this labor system and its miseries as the stories themselves do.

The little match girl had been struggling every night before the one Andersen shares with his readers. Her struggles were just as important and significant and painful before she died. Even if a passer-by had seen her, and helped her out, she’d still have had to go out in the cold the next day, along with all the other little match girls. The people who finally saw her in death, Andersen tells us, could not fully understand her experiences. If we only recognize the human cost of adjunct labor when the cost is as high as it was for Thea Hunter, it’s not because we cannot see it. It is because we refuse to see it until it is “in the past,” where we can’t be held responsible for fixing it.

So You’re Leaving Academia

In the academic world, ’tis the season for announcements: new jobs, postdocs, fellowships, and promotions. This means it’s also the time of year when many scholars are beginning their departure from that same world. Some may have been planning that departure for months, or even years, while for others it’s more like Wile E. Coyote’s realization that he’s run out of cliff.

First things first: if you’re leaving, and you feel sad or angry or spiteful or jealous or ashamed or tired or all of these emotions at the same time, you have every right to feel those feelings for as long as you want. You may have already felt all of these things and now you’re just done. You may feel them months from now, or years from now. Or you may never feel them. You may just feel relief, excitement, and joy. All of these responses are just fine.

Since I’ve spent the last year writing about leaving academia, I’ve gathered it all here in one place, along with all of the responses I’ve seen. Anyone leaving academia, or thinking about it, may find something useful in this collection. I ended up expressing a lot of grief (and other emotions) in public, and I heard from a lot of people that it was helpful to read and hear someone else express the feelings they had been struggling to process or even those they’d been bottling up for years.

Lots of this writing is about the practical issues of leaving academia and some of the emotions that surface in that process, so you may find some of it useful as you move through the process.

You may also want to share some of these pieces with friends, family, mentors, and colleagues, now or some time in the future.

My writing on this topic began with the piece I wrote in February 2018, which emphasizes some of the emotional aspects of the decision; there was also a follow-up blog post that addressed the questions and responses I’d received. I talked about it more extensively with the Chronicle and a couple of podcasts.

In addition to having conversations on Twitter, Facebook, and quite a few comment sections, quite a few people responded to my initial piece in more structured forms: articles, blog posts, videos, and podcasts. Some contested my argument, some considered it from the perspective of those in other disciplines, and some talked about it as it related to other pieces of “quit-lit.” Many were from the perspective of other early-career scholars, often precarious, though there were some tenure-track and tenured voices in there as well. Most of these pieces agreed with some of what I said, but not all, and there was a great diversity of views on what it all meant – or if it even meant anything at all.

I have also written a series of pieces for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Advice section. Whether the title suggests the piece is for those leaving academia or those staying, you can be sure that each piece addresses both audiences to some extent.

And then, if you’re in that stage where you’re not sure if you should stay or go, I don’t really have any good advice on it, but I wrote a bit about why lots of the simple, straightforward advice you might receive won’t necessarily help you make your decision.

Contingent Magazine

Many of you have been wondering what I’m up to. Surely I couldn’t just be adjuncting one class and tweeting about my dissertation research! Well, in addition to that, and job-hunting, I’ve been working on something else for months, and now it is finally live.

Contingent Magazine has three principles:

History is for everyone.

Every way of doing history is worthwhile.

Historians should be paid for their work.

Based on these three principles, the magazine will pay for and publish high-quality history writing. That writing will be by those whom the academic job market has left behind. It will be for those that academic publishing and mainstream media alike often dismiss as possible audiences for historical writing.

I’ve been working with Bill Black, Marc Reyes, and Emily Esten for months on this project. We are hoping for financial support from a general public thirsty for historical understanding, but also from those within academia who know the talent and expertise that has been lost due to the collapse of the job market. We’re very proud of the concept we’ve put together. If we raise the money to fund this magazine – which largely means paying the writers – then it will happen. And I really hope it happens.

September in Jane’s World

A month ago, I decided to start tweeting out lines from my dissertation research, one for each day of the year. Many of the bits I’ve chosen were never referenced in the dissertation or any of my published work; they’re just evocative or amusing lines. Some are sentences that have stuck with me since I first read them.

Revisiting this material has been enjoyable and painful in equal measures. I could weave a brief historical narrative based on every sentence I’ve selected or tell a fascinating story about every person mentioned. I don’t know that I’ll ever publish the book I intended to write using this research, but even if I did, I wouldn’t get to write about every interesting life and event I discovered. That’s just the way historical research and writing work.

But all of these sentences, and the letters they’re from, were important in helping me understand who these people were and what their lives were like. I got to know all of these people really well, or at least as well as a historian ever can, and it has been nice to visit them again.

Here’s everything that happened in September, with a key to the people, archives, and books referenced.



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