Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

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.



Teaching and learning when you’re “locked out”

Becky Nicolaides’ recent piece in Perspectives on being a scholar who is “locked out” of research access is a must-read.  Rather than simply contrasting those with university affiliations and those without, she draws on a 2017 AHA study to explore a variety of experiences that will resonate with many of us who have spent time at institutions where access has been insufficient or inconsistent.

One line caught my eye:

Some lamented that their students could not access key primary sources, limiting their ability to produce research papers.

This is something I struggled with at the small private university where I taught as a VAP for three years. While the institution had some good database access, it largely wasn’t in the field that I taught. As much as I loved having students work with early American newspapers and pamphlets, it became significantly harder to do when I couldn’t have students use Readex or APS. 1)Yes, I know there are other online newspaper collections, and I used them at times, but I think it’s okay to say that Chronicling America isn’t a replacement for Readex. Oh, for those long discarded Shaw Shoemaker microfilm reels!

When we talk about universal design in teaching, we mean that our institutions, courses, and assignments should be accessible and usable to the greatest number of people right out of the box, to so speak. In practice, many of us still create courses and assignments without regard to this and then change things in order to make them usable for students with disabilities. Moving from a state R1 to a small private university with far fewer institutional resources made me go through a similar process in order for my courses and assignments to be “usable.” Some assignments had to be reworked while others just had to be discarded.

Now you may disagree with my analogy here, or think that it’s comparing apples and oranges. I think many (but nowhere near all) faculty members would admit that it’s bad to ignore the principles of universal design in your courses and assignments. But different schools have different resources, right? That’s to be expected and therefore it’s perfectly fine to make those adjustments depending on where you’re teaching.

I suppose it is fine, to an extent, but I think we should consider what it means for how we think about and talk about pedagogy.

To put it bluntly, I think it’s all too easy to equate well-resourced pedagogy with rigorous pedagogy. This matters because it frustrates many instructors whose institutions lack resources or who are barred from using those resources as a result of their employment status. But it also matters because it can lead us to unthinkingly expect and draw on our students’ personal resources.2)For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “resources” I’m talking about financial resources. Issues of cultural capital are important and they’re often related to these other resource issues, but I’m bracketing them off here in a way that I hope isn’t too problematic. I also know that simply attending an institution of higher education means that most of our students have some financial resources, but I think we all know that being able to take out student loans or get scholarships doesn’t mean that students have ready money to buy their books every fall.

A few years ago, when I had students in my women’s history class create digital commonplace books, I would have loved for them to build websites using the university’s infrastructure and resources. Other universities have prioritized making sure each student can have a domain of their own. That’s really cool. But I couldn’t even get space as a faculty member, let alone space for my students, so we built them all as free WordPress blogs and made do with the features we had.  When I hit an institutional resource barrier, I knew I couldn’t shift it, so I changed course.

But I still had students struggle with the project because they lacked consistent internet at home. I know what the response is here: “But they have access through the school! There are computer labs!” There are computer labs. But they still required students be on campus to use them, and more than that, there weren’t enough of them to allow students to work on the projects when they had available time. Many students who lacked consistent internet at home also worked 30+ hours a week; simply telling them they could loiter in the library all night waiting for an open computer was not only not going to work, it was insulting.

My institution was quick to confirm that it didn’t provide the resources for my students to create their own website, but even had I asked, I doubt it would have admitted that it didn’t provide sufficient computer resources for the needs of the student body. As such, while I knew that some of my students might have trouble completing the project using their home internet, I thought institutional and personal resources in combination would be sufficient. It was only when some students told me that they were having trouble, and in the process revealed financial insecurity they had every right to keep private from me, that I realized how under-resourced the project still was.

Some might argue that the “solution” here was to not attempt something that required internet access. Setting aside how ludicrous that would sound to many, it’s really unfair that I should have to consider such a thing for my students. I wasn’t just making it digital because that was cool. I had sound pedagogical reasons for this project being digital and public, and I think my students deserved to have the opportunity to work on this kind of project and gain these digital skills, even though the project was far less flashy than what many of my colleagues can do with their students.

I could have done it without the digital component. Maybe I should have. It wouldn’t have allowed students to practice quite the same set of skills, but it still would have been a good project that made use of rigorous historical thinking.  But would it have read as interesting, cool, and impressive pedagogy to search committee members who think they prioritize that sort of thing? I’m not sure. We might say that we assess rigor based on the historical thinking that’s done, not the format in which its done, but I think we all know that’s not completely true. And for better or worse, how those “above” me assess my pedagogy matters, even if I their measures are poor.

But it goes beyond technology. This is the time of year that I see lots of colleagues on Twitter posting photos of the cool pile of books they’ve assigned for their fall classes. They’re always full of new and interesting books, challenging stuff that will give students a lot to think about.

I could never in a million years get away with assigning a pile of books like that.

I don’t say this because many of my students work full time jobs and reading academic monographs takes time they don’t have, though that might often be the case. I say this because there is no possible way most of my students could afford to buy those books, even heavily used. I say this because by putting those books on the syllabus, I’m inviting those students to do one of three things: buy none of the books and do none of the reading, buy a few books and do some of the reading, or buy all of them and sacrifice God knows what else in their life to do so. None of these choices would lead to good outcomes for the student or the class in general.3)If your suggestion is that 25 students can ILL all of those books and get them all to arrive at precisely the right time to read them, I’d love to know how I can come live in your fantasy land because it sounds pretty sweet.

I don’t think I sacrifice rigor by considering my students’ personal resources when designing a class any more than I do by considering my institution’s resources. In many ways, I’ve found it forces me to think hard about what exactly I want my students to learn and consider how much stuff is really necessary for them to learn it productively. I also know that many faculty members, deans, and even parents would look at my syllabus and look at one containing 8 nifty monographs and conclude that my class was inherently less rigorous.4)I know that many of my colleagues who assign these 8 nifty monographs are precisely NOT the kind of people who’d think my class was less rigorous.

Just as rigor shouldn’t be based on how technologically-advanced an assignment is, it shouldn’t be based on how much it makes students read. By tacitly equating well-resourced courses and assignments – or courses and assignments that presume and expect institutional and personal resources can be brought to bear – with academic rigor, we can sometimes shift pedagogical conversations away from the thorny and still-unclear business of how to teach historical thinking.

I think it’s perfectly fine to think about how to do an existing assignment in a more clever way or want to introduce your students to the most current and innovative scholarship on a topic. I think I try to do both of those things in my own courses. But I think we need to make sure we aren’t simply throwing more resources at the problem, so to speak, or worse, asking our students to do so.5)If you want to have an argument about how students shouldn’t be in school if they can’t afford to spend some (more) money on their education, you can escort yourself right out.

I guess I want to end with some questions, though I don’t claim to be the first person to ask them.  What ideas and methods are at the core of how we teach historical thinking? How do we talk about teaching and learning in a system shot through with institutional and social inequities? How do we equitably compare and assess methods and assignments in light of these inequities? What would our pedagogy look like if we placed a higher priority on making sure that it was always accessible to those who lack access to further financial resources? If it’s not there, and if we can’t get it to that place, is it any good?




References   [ + ]

1. Yes, I know there are other online newspaper collections, and I used them at times, but I think it’s okay to say that Chronicling America isn’t a replacement for Readex. Oh, for those long discarded Shaw Shoemaker microfilm reels!
2. For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “resources” I’m talking about financial resources. Issues of cultural capital are important and they’re often related to these other resource issues, but I’m bracketing them off here in a way that I hope isn’t too problematic. I also know that simply attending an institution of higher education means that most of our students have some financial resources, but I think we all know that being able to take out student loans or get scholarships doesn’t mean that students have ready money to buy their books every fall.
3. If your suggestion is that 25 students can ILL all of those books and get them all to arrive at precisely the right time to read them, I’d love to know how I can come live in your fantasy land because it sounds pretty sweet.
4. I know that many of my colleagues who assign these 8 nifty monographs are precisely NOT the kind of people who’d think my class was less rigorous.
5. If you want to have an argument about how students shouldn’t be in school if they can’t afford to spend some (more) money on their education, you can escort yourself right out.

The Best That Could Happen: Suicide and Suffering under a Benevolent God

TW for extensive discussions of mental illness and suicide

A few notes to start. I originally presented this at the July 2018 SHEAR conference in Cleveland, which means that while it is deeply-considered and deeply-sourced, it is also something that had to be read in 20 minutes or less. It was also written to both make an argument and provoke conversation about that argument, not simply to be provocative, but because those kinds of conversations help us, as scholars, make our work better. This is all to say that there’s much more to this story, and to the argument I was making, and there are dozens of threads to be pulled in here. I have no idea if I’ll ever have the chance to weave them into something bigger than this, but I’m glad I got to tell this story. 

Three other things: I created a (hopefully) helpful family tree of the Sedgwicks and Minots discussed in the paper which you can find here. The Massachusetts Historical Society has this pretty complete listing of Theodore Sedgwick and three generations of his descendants (click on “Appendix” in the table of contents), and you can see how most of them have all been laid out in the famous Sedgwick Pie, the family burial plot in Stockbridge, MA. Also, I am not attempting to retroactively diagnose the people I’m analyzing in this paper; when I use terms like “depression,”  “mania,” and “insanity,” I am using the words and understandings that the physicians and family members used in their writing at the time. And finally, thanks to Greg Wiker for putting together our panel, to him and Leah Richier for speaking on it with me, to Dea Boster for chairing, to Becky Noel and Jeff Mullins for their comments, and to Mike Mortimer for live tweeting the panel, which you can read here.

In the spring of 1841, Charles Sedgwick awaited word of his son Charlie’s safe arrival in Liverpool. He hoped that the activity of the voyage would provide Charlie some relief from the severe depression he had experienced over the past eighteen months. Word arrived on April 21st. Charlie had died by his own hand.

In the days and weeks that followed, Charles expressed resigned gratitude that his son was at peace, but also argued that the manner of Charlie’s death was as much a merciful act of Providence as his death itself. How could a man like this – a New England elite and liberal (if unaffiliated) Protestant – express these beliefs about mental illness and suicide at a moment of such faith in human progress, when many physicians believed they could treat and even cure mental illness?

I argue that he drew on contemporary ideas about a benevolent God and the meaning of human suffering to come to terms with a tragedy that, in his eyes, demonstrated the continued failure of mankind to treat and cure the kind of mental illness his family had endured for three generations.

Born in 1791, Charles was fifty years old when his son died. Over those same fifty years, historians chart a distinct change in the way physicians treated mental illness in Europe and the United States. Condemning their predecessors’ methods as cruel, European physicians like William Tuke argued for “moral treatment.” Under the proper supervision of a doctor, in a healing environment, with their passions and appetites diverted and regulated, those with mental illness could be treated and even cured.[1]

An increasingly-professionalized community of physicians in the United States asserted similar claims, and many politicians and social reformers believed them. In the late 18th century, Benjamin Rush and others urged the creation of separate wards for the treatment of those with mental illness, though they continued using older treatments like bloodletting.[2] McLean Hospital, opened in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1818, was the first of several private asylums which put moral treatment into full practice, expanding into state asylums in the 1840s.[3]

But by the time of his son’s illness, Charles Sedgwick had reason to doubt these heroic claims. Both his mother and brother had been treated by physicians using moral treatment which had not only failed to cure them but seemed to have made their mental illness worse before their premature deaths. Charles did not reject the principles of moral treatment, but he was willing to reject the expertise of its professional advocates.

In the fall of 1839, Charles received a letter from William Minot, the brother of his sister-in-law Jane. 17-year-old Charlie, just beginning his junior year at Harvard, was “ill at his house of a nervous fever.” Despite William’s reassurance, Charles departed for Boston that day, and arrived to find that Charlie had been steadily improving.[4]

Despite positive contemporaneous accounts of Charlie’s recovery, a lifetime of experience meant the family was immediately on guard for evidence of mental illness.

Charles’ mother Pamela had experienced her first episode of mental illness on the eve of his birth in 1791. For years, her husband Theodore asserted that his wife’s “episodes” were caused by overwork and could be treated by hiring more domestic staff.[5] Her half-brother, a doctor, believed it was a “disorder of the blood,” not the brain.”[6]

When Charles’ brother Harry began exhibiting similar symptoms in 1826, his family members initially wrote it off as his extravagant personality made more irritable by periodic blindness.[7] It took two years for the family to fully accept this was something more and seek treatment.

In the wake of Harry’s illness, some of the Sedgwicks acknowledged this might be hereditary. But many things were hereditary, and the Sedgwicks believed this particular tendency could be counteracted by what amounted to proactive moral treatment, described by  Theodore Sedgwick II in a letter to his son as: “conduct regulated by wisdom & far removed from all extravagant hopes, fears, phantasies” and the maintenance of a “sound mind in a sound body,” since “bodily illness brings on insanity.”[8]

Charlie may have been “fast getting into as quiet a state as the Sedgwicks ever are,” but that wasn’t saying much. Charles was concerned that his son’s illness might catalyze something worse in his Sedgwick mind.[9]

His subsequent decisions demonstrate that he still believed in the principles of moral treatment but was no longer willing to place his faith – and his son’s life – in the hands of its professional practitioners.

His mother’s treatments at the turn of the century reflected early attempts at moral treatment in the United States. Theodore Sedgwick placed his wife under the care of doctors who practiced bloodletting and kept her separated her from her family – as far as 150 miles away – to calm her mania. Each period of treatment sent Pamela home “much improved,” though the improvement never lasted. When Charles was 12, these treatments stopped, and his mother died four years later in 1807.[10]

Twenty years later, when confronted with their brother Harry’s periods of mania and depression, the siblings considered placing him under the care of doctors, who now advocated moral treatment in dedicated asylums, but their mother’s experience made them skittish.

In December 1828, Catharine stated that doctors might be able to help her brother, but knew his wife opposed it. Harry himself had “most solemnly warned her against ever putting him into the hands of a ‘mad Doctor’ & in his sane moments he expressed great horror of sending patients to the hospital.” He made the source of his fear abundantly clear to his wife: “they served my mother & if you do it Jane you will repent it forever & forever!”[11]

Yet less than a month later, Jane and Charles brought Harry to McLean where he was placed under the care of Rufus Wyman. Wyman’s moral treatment again included keeping Harry completely separated from his family for nearly a year, save two visits from his oldest brother, to settle his alternately “exalted” and “depressed” passions.[12]

Instead, Harry became a “most violent maniac,” and by December 1829, the family deeply regretted what they had done.[13] Catharine wrote that “the thought of his confinement has become an intolerable burden to me – it seems like imprisonment – an infliction in which we have part.”[14]

Jane removed her husband to Eli Todd’s Hartford Retreat, founded in 1824, where he experienced a “moral treatment” more to his liking, including chess with Todd and visits from his family.[15] He was released home five weeks later in a calmer state.[16] Over the next year and a half, however, his illness gradually returned. He slipped into a coma in the fall of 1831 and died two days before Christmas.[17]

This background helps us understand both Charles’ familiarity with the principles of moral treatment and his deep skepticism of its practitioners’ methods and optimism.

He consulted Samuel Woodward, the head of the Worcester Asylum, James Jackson, the first physician of Massachusetts General and founder of McLean, and Walter Channing, Jackson’s assistant and a close family friend. All agreed that there was no cause for alarm over Charlie’s illness, and only Woodward suggested keeping him out of school, though not for the whole term.[18]

These doctors were not only “experts,” they were fellow elites and friends, but though they assured Charles this was as an isolated incident, he could not accept their conclusions.

Charlie did not return to Cambridge that term, or ever. Charles put his choice down to being a “fidgety and anxious person” himself, but he was not alone; “the nerves of the whole family [were] on the outside” about Charlie.[19] His reason may have returned easily this time, but his father was unwilling to take chances.

Charles accepted physician’s beliefs on the causes of mental illness and the basic tenets of moral treatment, but he never placed his son in their care. Instead, Charlie remained at home, engaging in regular physical exercise and a sedate course of study, reading Greek and history.[20]

It’s not difficult to imagine that an elite family believed they could provide a healing environment for one of their own, but equally important is their experience with family separation as a part of moral treatment.

Pamela Sedgwick attributed her distress to her husband’s absence and was then subjected to treatment that mandated further separation from her family. Harry begged his family not to place him in a hospital, but they did anyway. When his wife finally came to see him at Hartford, he screamed at her for leaving him isolated in such places for so long.[21]

In the wake of Harry’s death, Charles wrote to his brother Robert: “It was a sad error to permit him to go into that solitude unattended by some friend.”[22] Moral treatment may have been fine on principle, but the practice of family separation had only brought pain to the Sedgwicks, and they rejected it for Charlie.

By May 1840, Charles was cautiously optimistic about his son’s recovery, and Charlie went to New York to work in the law offices of a cousin, but like his uncle and grandmother, Charlie slipped into depression again and returned home to Lenox.[23] He spent the fall with his extended family in New York, and his younger sister Bessie reported to her father in December that he was “out of sorts but not so weak or fearful as at Lenox,” and the older women of the family agreed: “Aunt Lizzy considered him perfectly recovered and Aunt Susan confirms her in that opinion.” Even the homeopathist favored by some of the city Sedgwicks found Charlie’s sluggish circulations “to be now in perfection.”[24]

And yet again, Charles Sedgwick did not trust the doctor’s assurances, nor those of his sisters-in-law and daughter. Within a month of these letters, Charlie was preparing to set off on the packet to Liverpool, with this father’s full support.[25]

The family was hopeful that occupation would help Charlie, but they were worried too. Catharine seemed concerned that this wouldn’t cure her nephew, but Charles reassured her that if it didn’t, they could always try again.[26] Charlie’s mother seemed deeply concerned for his safety on the voyage, but his older sister Kate was worried for what came after.

In a letter to her father marking Charlie’s birthday on April 5th, she said she was “more anxious for him after he leaves the ship, loses the sphere of necessary exertion, & has time again to brood over himself, to extend the cloud of the past over the future.”[27] They had taken a chance in treating him themselves, and in sending Charlie away alone, they took an even greater chance. Charles regretted sending his brother into solitude, but had he made the same mistake with his son?

Kate’s fear was ultimately borne out. As Catharine later reported: “Captain Delano wrote that [Charlie] was cheerful during the greater part of the voyage, active and useful to him. The day before their arrival he took to his bed and said he had a bad fit of dyspepsia. It was with difficulty that Capt. D. persuaded him to leave the ship and go with him to his hotel — he was in the deepest dejection. The next day he was found dead in his bed with an empty phial of laudanum beside him.”[28] He had not lived to see the birthday his sister had commemorated in his absence.

The morning after receiving the news that his oldest son had died, Charles wrote to Catharine: “He is at rest, poor boy, and I am not unthankful…I assure you, after much reflection, that the loss is not aggravated by the manner of his death. I think there is as much reason to believe that that was a merciful dispensation of Providence, as there is to think that God ever interferes in the affairs of men by any special interposition whatever…

Charlie has been taken from the evil to come — mercifully taken from sufferings which human skill could not remove, which the watchful affection of earthly friends could not alleviate.”[29]

He elaborated on this point in a letter to Susan: “I am glad that my dear boy is at rest. I fear that some of my friends have fancied that there were some ingredients mixed in this bitter cup that have increased its bitterness — but I have not tasted them. If he had no choice, God has in mercy taken him from the evil to come.”[30]

We see this theme further elaborated in the regret Charles did express: “I was impatient of Charlie’s weakness, intolerant when his disease was upon him. The experience of seventeen and a half years…ought to have satisfied me that disease had wrought the change in him, and that he had no greater power of will than the dead.”[31]

The doctor who performed a post-mortem declared of Charlie’s brain: “Neither time, nor care, nor art could have restored the organ.” In light of this, Charles spoke even more emphatically about his son’s suicide: “I am so satisfied with Charley’s change in his mode of being that I cannot murmur or repine — so fully convinced that suffering awaited him here, that I am thankful.”[32]

In these reflections, we see how his family’s decades-long experience with doctor-supervised moral treatment formed the basis of three “truths” from which Charles Sedgwick formulated suicide as a blessing: that human skill could not cure Charlie’s suffering, that the love of his family could not alleviate it, and that Charlie himself had no control over it. These three truths then combined with one more, a truth that Charles would not abandon, even in his sorrow: that his God was a benevolent and merciful God.

Elizabeth Clark outlines emerging ideas of pain and suffering in the antebellum period that proceeded from new understandings of God as benevolent, rather than punitive. Liberal Protestants distinguished “unavoidable” pain brought on by illness from “avoidable” pain which stemmed from the violence in hierarchical relationships.[33]

Even as this perspective downplayed the importance of suffering in personal moral growth, the idea of gazing upon and entering into the suffering of others led white abolitionists to use the image of the suffering slave – the victim of punitive, avoidable pain in an immoral hierarchical relationship – to “call forth deep sympathy,” in William Ellery Channing’s words.[34]

Pain caused by typhoid fever was unavoidable, pain suffered in enslavement was avoidable, but how was the suffering caused by mental illness categorize in an age when doctors vowed they could treat and even cure it? In his letters after Charlie’s death, Charles repeatedly used the phrase “the evil to come.” He spoke from experience, believing that his child’s suffering would continue and increase with no natural foreseeable end. He believed his son’s pain was not only unavoidable but also unendurable.

Given what he had seen his mother and brother endure, he was confident that neither doctors nor family members nor Charlie himself could cure or alleviate his suffering. We also must consider that Charlie’s own lack of control is what made his suffering particularly unendurable in his father’s eyes.

While the suffering endured by an enslaved black woman who could not consent might be greedily lapped up by northern white audiences seeking to use it as fuel for their moral growth, could a young white man be expected endure such suffering and objectification in which “he had no choice?”[35]

Charles Sedgwick believed his benevolent God would move Charlie’s hand to end his own life before demanding he live it in suffering he could not avoid and should not have to endure.

A little over a year before his initial illness, Charles wrote to his son: “my dear boy, do not commit the unpardonable sin of denying that God has created us for happiness.”

In an age of boundless faith in the ability of humans to make the world better, Charles watched three generations of his family endure mental illness that could not be cured and suffering that could not be alleviated.

He did not lose faith in human skill, but until it had advanced to the point that it could bring his son back to happiness – for a young white man like Charlie, something inseparable from reason and agency – he was willing to leave it to the mysterious workings of Providence. Whatever Charles Sedgwick’s benevolent God decided was, in his words, “the best that could happen.”

[1] Mary-Margaret Mahoney, “Books as Medicine: A History of the Use of Reading to Treat the Self and Its Diseases in the Anglophone World, 1800-1940” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Connecticut, 2018), Ch 1.

[2] Richard Bell, We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2012), 251.

[3] Bell, 104-5.

[4] Letters from Charles Sedgwick to His Family and Friends, ed. Catharine Maria Sedgwick (Boston: Privately Printed, 1870), 141-2.

[5] Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick, ed. Mary E. Dewey (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872), 27-8.

[6] John Sedgwick, In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness & Desire in an American Family (HarperCollins: New York, 2007), 108.

[7] Letter, Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Frances Sedgwick Watson, January 21, 1828, box 80, folder 2, Sedgwick Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; Letter, CMS to FSW, February 8, 1828, box 80, folder 2, SFP, MHS.

[8] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 195-6, also LLCS, 27-8

[9] LCS, 142.

[10] Richard E. Welch, “Theodore Sedgwick (1746-1813): Federalist” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1952), 616-9; Timothy Kenslea, The Sedgwicks in Love: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in the Early Republic (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2006), 21-8.

[11] Letter, CMS to FSW, December 27 1828, box 80, folder 2, SFP, MHS.

[12] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 191; Rufus Wyman, A discourse on mental philosophy as connected with mental disease: delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society, June 2, 1830 (Boston: From the Office of the Daily Advertiser, 1830), 18.

[13] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 191.

[14] Letter, CMS to Louisa Davis Minot, December 13, 1829, box 80, folder 3, SFP, MHS

[15] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 192-3.

[16] William Minot to Jane Minot Sedgwick I, May 27, 1830, box 27, folder 4, SFP, MHS

[17] Sedgwick, In My Blood 193-5.

[18] LCS, 141-2.

[19] LCS, 142.

[20] LCS, 136-7.

[21] Sedgwick, In my Blood, 193-4

[22] LCS, 66.

[23] Proceedings at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Graduation of the Class of 1841 at Harvard University (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1892), 75.

[24] Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick to Charles Sedgwick, December 20, 1840, box 7, folder 7, Charles Sedgwick Papers, MHS.

[25] LCS, 142-3.

[26] LCS, 145.

[27] Katharine Maria Sedgwick to CS, April 5, 1841, box 4, folder 22, CSP, MHS.

[28] LCS, 145-6.

[29] LCS, 146-7

[30] LCS, 148.

[31] LCS, 147.

[32] LCS, 149.

[33] Elizabeth B. Clark, “”The Sacred Rights of the Weak”: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America” Journal of American History 82, no. 2 (September 1995): 471-3.

[34] Clark, 476-8.

[35] See Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

“…then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery”

This is a portion of a letter dated January 2, 1845, from Herbert O’Sullivan, the younger brother of John L. O’Sullivan, to his friend Jane Minot Sedgwick II, whose life I researched for my dissertation. Herbert was in New York, and was writing to Jane while she was teaching at Harriet Randolph Hackley’s school for girls in Norfolk, Virginia.  It is one of the best things I found during my dissertation research and I’ve taught with it many times. It’s certainly good evidence of white women’s engagement in politics and the mansplaining they received in response,  but more importantly, it’s one man’s rationale for the continuation of chattel slavery expressed in clear, brutal terms.

So you are not gratified at the election of Polk, because you suppose it will have a bad effect on slavery.  By the by, don’t express any abolitionist sentiments in Norfolk.  I should become very much affected if I were to read in the newspaper of your having been tarred and feathered; or rather, as men only would probably be [illeg.] with that suit, of you being incarcerated from the charge of you exciting sedition, and aiding and abetting the escape of slaves, like our New England heroine at Louisville, of whom I suppose you have heard.  I suppose you don’t see much at Norfolk to shock your delicate feelings; though from feeding upon the pure mountain air of Berkshire they are perhaps somewhat fastidious.

Slavery as it appears in the towns at any rate is, I think, by no means the awful bugbear that it is made to work upon the sympathies of northern abolition audiences.  The slaves in Norfolk, for instance, are well clothed and fed, very kindly treated, and quite intelligent.  In fact it seems to me that if the present state of society is to continue, and some of us are to live in luxury, while others are to work hard in laborious and menial offices, that it is much better for the happiness of all that there be a class to take the latter place who shall be brought up from infancy to habits of submission and respect, and be prevented from learning anything that may make them discontented.  Our country is now thinly populated, and not for many years can we expect to have at the north any very frightful amounts of pauperism, but if the rules that govern society are such that, when every acre here teems as every acre in England does, we are to have an immense throng of hungry proletarians crying aloud not for bread only, but frankly totally unable to purchase for themselves anything besides the hardest  necessities, and often starving to death, then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery.  Perhaps my hypothesis is wrong, and we are never to be reduced to that extremity.

This letter can be found in the Sedgwick Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Should I stay or should I go? (and why I never have an answer)

This week, Slate’s advice columnist Prudie (Daniel Mallory Ortberg) got asked about leaving grad school. The advice-seeker noted that they’d been in grad school for five years, but had decided they didn’t want to be a career academic. What held them back from leaving was not only the personal, economic, and social upheaval such an event would bring, but the feelings of shame about being unable to hack it.

Prudie’s response focused mostly on the shame aspect, and gave the answer that many academics have given and received:

This isn’t a matter of being able to “hack it,” this is a matter of figuring what you want out of life. You can feel anxious and ashamed and still move ahead with your decision to leave your grad program. You’re doing your future self a great favor by not continuing to spend more time in a job you know you don’t want just because you’ve already spent five years there.

While I might not have said “go to your chair/supervisor for help” without some qualification, it’s pretty good advice overall. There’s not much advice to be given on the issue of how disruptive leaving grad school after five years will be to your life; it is disruptive, in exactly the ways the advice-seeker fears, and there isn’t much one can do to get around it.

There are two responses from readers that say different things. The problem is…their advice might be worth thinking about too, even though it’s contradictory.  The first asks the advice-seeker to consider whether dropping out now will hinder them on the job market if they go into a related field and whether employers will see their decision to quit as just that – the mark of a quitter. The second says unequivocally that the advice-seeker should leave right away, because getting the PhD will only over-qualify the advice-seeker on the job market: “A Ph.D. is a professional degree. You wouldn’t stay in law school if you didn’t want to be a lawyer, would you? ”

Neither of these responses are wrong, but neither of them are completely right either. The first presumes most employers have any idea what it means to be in grad school or leave grad school (I don’t think they do) and the second assumes that neither a PhD nor a JD is transferable or worth anything outside of a narrow professional framework (I think the answer here is that it depends a lot on your field and what you want to do). Prudie’s advice is the most neutral and broadly-applicable of the bunch, but to do that, it has to speak in real generalities, offering the promise that, in two years, they’ll be able to look back on this choice and be glad, and avoiding the fact that in many fields and situations, the financial, social, and psychological disruption of leaving might not have settled down in two years, or ten years.

I was unsettled by the exchange of advice here, and I think that feeling stemmed from two things that crop up every time this question is asked in real life as well.

First, the advice-seeker isn’t really looking for more reasons why this decision is or isn’t a good idea, even though some of the responses feel compelled to offer them. They’re not struggling because they don’t know whether to leave grad school, they’re struggling with very real feelings of anxiety and shame. Giving them – or anyone in this position – more reasons why they should or shouldn’t do a thing doesn’t really help. It can actually make them feel worse by emphasizing how very rational the decision is and how very screwed up they must be not to be able to make it, or not to have made it years ago, or to have even gone to grad school in the first place. When I said I was leaving, I had a whole Internet full of people telling me that any rational person wouldn’t have ever gotten themselves into this mess in the first place, which simply reinforced the idea that I had no right to feel grief or anxiety or anger.

Second, even though there are openings in the advice-seeker’s letter that hint at needing some direction on the timing and manner of their departure, we simply can’t and shouldn’t be giving blanket advice about how to do that.  And sure, you can say that this wasn’t intended to be blanket advice, it was specific to a situation, but also…it’s a public advice column, not a coffee klatch or a therapy session.

I get asked all the time now about what advice I’d give to people considering grad school or currently in grad school but thinking about leaving. In some ways, asking “is it good to go to/finish grad school?” is like asking “Is it a good idea to be a farmer?” I don’t think anyone would presume to answer that question in a paragraph or book or conversation, because it’s not even a single question. Are you asking  “Should I get backyard chickens?” or “Should I buy an apple orchard?” or “Should I invest in soybean production?” or “Should I take over the family farm?” or “Should I spend my tech wealth to become a gentleman farmer and grow precious hydroponic lettuces?”

I had much the same reaction reading the advice-seeker’s letter. Rather than having an answer, I had more questions. What field are they in? What does “five years” mean in that field? Is the “school stress” they mention because of their research or something else? How close is the dissertation to done? Would the support of a close-knit social circle help them get through that final push? What would be the financial costs of finishing? If they left, would they be returning to a profession they’d had before or trying to break into something new? How much do they have in savings to live on at the moment?

But the advice-seeker frames this dilemma as being torn between the rational – “Rationally, I know it’s time to quit” – and the emotional – “I can’t find it in me to leave” – and wants to know how to deal with the emotions that seem to be preventing them from behaving rationally. I take them at their word, because they know their own life and field better than anyone.  In a sense, we don’t need to know the answers to any of our questions about the specifics of their field or career options because the advice-seeker has told us they’ve already done that thinking for us.

And yet two responses highlighted present “rational” arguments, as though the advice-seeker just needed one more pebble of evidence to tip the scales, but both clearly do so with particular background experiences and fields in mind. I put rational in quotation marks because both responses use fear to make precisely the opposite points: “Get out now or you’ll be unemployable!” vs. “Finish it out or you’ll be unemployable!” Both of those arguments might be true in particular fields and situations, but how is an advice-seeker to know?

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with all three responses, taken together, because each of them – one gentle and general, and the other two strident and specific – might be what this advice-seeker needed. Maybe it’s good to have this sort of a mix. But as someone who’s been asked constantly to offer advice to current and prospective graduate students and has never come up with anything good to offer, I still found myself unable to think of any advice I’d give.

Yes, I think we should be able to talk about grad school, higher ed, and the problems of both in some broad strokes, because there are commonalities, even across fields that might seem too different to compare. But we should be careful of one-size-fits-all advice, the same way we are when approaching those books about how to write your dissertation in nine months. And we should be particularly wary of listening to or dispensing advice that comes down to “just be more rational” or soft-pedals the pain and disruption that may be unavoidable , even if one does make the “rational” choice to leave – or stay – or even go in the first place.


Quit lit or Driven out lit?

I spent some time recently gathering up all of the responses I could find to the original piece of mine that caused such a fuss, so there’s a convenient list now. If I missed any, feel free to comment and let me know.

But I wanted to highlight one response in particular that I think gets at a lot of the things I was thinking when I originally wrote and that I’ve talked about in other spaces over the past few weeks. Over at The Professor is In, Ian Saxine has written  a really great reflection on the problems of calling the genre “quit lit” using my piece as a jumping off point. It’s not just a term of art, in his estimation, but a careful framing designed to rechannel agency from the left behind, who could work to change the system, to the people leaving, who can’t.

This is not a hot take on Erin Bartram’s much read—and even more needed—essay, “Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind.” That essay stands wonderfully and poignantly on its own. I read it right before lecturing, and my students asked me who died.  I suspect I’m not the only educator who had that experience.

Instead, this is a reflection on many of the responses to the piece, which I’d argue is revealing in a different way. I broke one of life’s most important rules and read the comments, as well as other responses in other forums like Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Ed. And much of the response was thoughtful. What surprised me, though, even more than the fact that so many non-horrifying comments appeared on a thoughtful blog, was how so many writers from Inside Higher Ed on down have persisted in calling the piece “quit lit.”

In fairness, the label is often accompanied by a the qualifier “a new kind of” or something of that nature, but nevertheless the fact remains that many (presumably academic) readers keep resorting to that category for Bartram’s piece.

Read the rest here.

If I were baker, you could have a cruller

In the six weeks since I metaphorically climbed out the bathroom window at my wedding, and especially in the two weeks since I burst into Central Perk and told you all about it, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do next. Since the future I imagined isn’t going to happen, I’ve been trying to imagine new futures.

But I haven’t stretched the “what do you want to be when you grow up” muscle in a long time because I knew what I wanted to be. Now it seems I’m all grown up and more in need of that muscle than ever. And so, a list of jobs I am currently imagining for myself.


Job: I could be  the general manager of a baseball team.

Pros: I like sports.

Cons: That can be hard to get.


Job: I could work in publishing in some fashion. Maybe something editorial?

Pros: I am quite good at taking people’s scholarship, seeing what’s good and what could be better, and helping them get there. TBH my favorite academic task was giving comment on a panel, and I was really good at it, so maybe I can just write the introductions to edited collections.

Cons: There are a lot of other people who have done a lot more work and preparation for this kind of career. It sounds presumptuous to even suggest it for myself.


Job: I could be an announcer, like a color man.

Pros: I always make those interesting comments during the games.

Cons: They tend to give those jobs to ex-ballplayers and people that are, you know, in broadcasting. (That’s really not fair.)


Job: I could create a concordance for the Sedgwick papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Pros: I’d wager I know those papers – and those people – better than almost anybody. They’re chock-a-block full of interesting commentary on so many aspects of 18th, 19th, and 20th century US history and you’d never be able to find it without a concordance or index or something.

Cons: This is not a job that exists.


Job: I could be a poet.

Pros: If I were a poet, I would write a sonnet. It would say “I love you.” Your name would be on it.

Cons: Did you guess my secret? I am not a poet. Couldn’t write a sonnet, and I think you know it.


Job: I could edit, annotate, and publish primary sources, either physically or online.

Pros: I’d love to do anything that helped teachers at all levels have a wider variety of source material to use. Also, having worked extensively with a student who uses a screen reader, I would want to emphasize transcription over, or at least alongside, straight digitization of page images.

Cons: I don’t really think this is a job unless you’re also charging for access to the materials, and while I know that this labor is valuable, and that the maintenance of digital source collections costs money, I am also committed to open educational resources. I suppose it could be a job at some well-funded private and government archives and universities.


Job: I could open a small movie theater that only shows classic/second-run films and B-movies

Pros: I am already a night owl, so the hours wouldn’t bother me. It would provide me a great excuse for being out of touch with current movies. Also, inspired by the little theater I grew up with, I would sell coffee and tea and cookies, but the cookies would be themed, and specific to the films running at the time.

Cons: I am not independently wealthy and no one would give me a loan for this (nor should they). With the income history of a graduate student, I could barely get a car loan a few years ago.


Job: I can be your hero, baby.

Pros: I can kiss away your pain; I will stand by you forever.

Cons: Am I in too deep? Have I lost my mind?


Job: I could start an independent bookstore, new and/or used.

Pros: I have worked at two libraries, an archive, a rare bookstore, and The Strand. While I grew up in a place with quite a few independent bookstores, this part of Connecticut desperately needs one.

Cons: See my movie theater idea above. Also my friend Liz has had this dream longer than I have and she’d be much better at it, so if anyone does have some capital, she’d be the one to talk to.


Job: I could be a talk show host.

Pros: I talk to people all the time!

Cons: How do you get that, though? Where do you start? You can’t just walk into a building and say “I wanna be a talk show host.”


Job: I could finish my monograph and publish it as a paid subscription-only serial TinyLetter.

Pros: I could use GIFs. I could also make each chapter title start with “In which our heroine…”

Cons: Publishing my monograph wasn’t really the big hurdle for me. Also this is not a job because only five people would subscribe to it and I already know who they are. And I think TinyLetter is being shuttered anyway.


Job: I could do policy research.

Pros: I am good at examining a situation or problem, framing appropriate research questions, carrying out that research, refining the questions as I go, and producing analysis at the end. I also really want my work to mean something, especially at this moment, and this seems like a way I could do something meaningful.

Cons: I know I have the skills for this kind of work if it were focused in particular areas, but I’m not sure how to convince employers of this, especially when they explicitly ask for a public policy degree. I’m not saying a degree like that is unimportant, but that I think my degree is relevant in ways that are not often apparent. Also lots of people seem to think academics are incapable of working to deadlines, when in fact firm deadlines set by other people or institutions are what many of us crave. I suppose for all we hear about alt-ac and skills, I’ve heard plenty about how difficult it is for ex-academics to get these kinds of jobs. Lots of people have ideas about what academics are like, and many of them aren’t true, but how do you even get a chance to prove that?

So, those are my imagined futures. In the long run, though, I know that I probably won’t be able to have any of them, just like I couldn’t have the one I trained for. In that sense, I’m very much in the same boat with lots of other workers. Don’t think I don’t know that.

Still, it seems useful to think about what I might do and what I could be good at. I haven’t done that in years because I’ve been focused on being good at a job that I won’t get to do now. When you’re a kid, especially when you’re a little girl in the 90s, they tell you that you can be anything you want to be. Clearly that’s not true, but maybe it’s still good to fantasize a little.

In case you don’t know which of these were serious ideas and which were jokes:

Sublimated Grief responses and FAQs

So, how was your week?

As you probably know, mine was completely surreal. My goodbye lament quickly overloaded the capacity of my website, and led to this, this, this, and this. My DMs and email inbox have been flooded with responses and inquiries in addition to all the comments on the pieces themselves and around Facebook and Twitter. I’ve heard from so many who are in my situation, have been in my situation, and perhaps most painfully, know they’ll be in my situation soon, as well as people in tenure-track jobs, people in publishing, people in journalism, and people who have no connection to academia but read what I wrote and were moved in some way.

I want to follow up with so many of you, but it’s going to take me some time, not just because I’ve received hundreds of messages, but because the whole experience has been emotionally overwhelming: the outpouring of grief, frustration, and rage I’ve seen in public and private, the HR horror stories you’ve sent me, the supportive messages from other quit-lit stars, and the truly strange experience of my ideas and my life being discussed by thousands of people who didn’t know me. I punched academia right in the feels, and academia punched back.

One thing that has not been a problem for me is the unsurprising nastiness of people on the internet. I approved all of the rude comments people left on the original piece because I think it’s important to know what the reactions were. When it got to IHE and the Chronicle, the angry comments were either willfully obtuse about what I had argued or were directed at an imagined version of me that bore so little resemblance to reality as to be comical. So if you were worried about my mental health in that area, don’t be.

If you are one of the many who told me I was a privileged, entitled academic/snowflake who needs to learn about The Market, and you imagined I’d never heard or considered these arguments before:

Those comments aside, I did get certain questions and comments over and over, and I thought I’d take some time to respond here, just in case anyone who saw the original post sees this one too. I know lots of people who are unfamiliar with academia read my original piece too, so if I use terms in here that are confusing, leave a comment and I’ll try to clarify.


Why would you give up on the job market after such a short time? Only three cycles?

But don’t you understand The Market!?

Why are you blaming tenure track professors? We can’t do anything either!

Why didn’t you talk about the role of administrators and funding cuts to state institutions and federal grant programs?

Aren’t you just a privileged academic? Do you even know what work is?

Maybe you should consider that you didn’t get a job because you’re not passionate enough about your work. If you were more passionate, you would keep publishing even if you didn’t get paid.

You need to get over yourself and stop thinking that teaching at an R1 is the only acceptable career.

Why haven’t you applied for jobs at community colleges/Catholic colleges/women’s colleges?

Why haven’t you applied for jobs in other countries?

Why don’t you want to teach high school? Don’t you value teaching?

Don’t you realize there are other ways to be a historian? Don’t you know you can do other things with a PhD? What about public history?

What did you expect when you went into history instead of a STEM field?

Obviously this is because you are a radical gender theorist. Aren’t we better off without you ruining everything?

Obviously this is because you chose to write about gender. Wouldn’t you have been fine if you’d picked a topic the market valued?

So you didn’t get tenure, big deal. Stop whining about it.

You didn’t have a Plan B and that was stupid. What did you think would happen?

How dare you ask us to buy you a coffee?

Didn’t you just write this hoping someone would feel sorry for you and give you a tenure track job?

You said your feelings aren’t subject to peer-review, but I think you need to know that your feelings are wrong.



Why would you give up on the job market after such a short time? Only three cycles?

There are several answers to this because there are several assumptions that seem to feed into the question. Some people seemed to think that three cycles wasn’t enough to know for sure that I’d never get hired, and that I’d screwed myself out of a position by giving up so early. Some seemed to think that it was presumptuous of me to think I’d get a job so quickly, and that I should have waited longer and paid more dues.

Three cycles was, for me, enough to know. I know that each year you are out of grad school but not in a TT position, you are regarded (incorrectly) as a bit more stale, and I suppose maybe there’s an idea that if you haven’t gotten a job already, there are good reasons, so you become increasingly unhireable. People do get jobs at that point, but despite conventional wisdom, we have evidence that the time you’re most likely to get a job is early – even when you’re ABD.

In light of that, and despite having had a really good year in 2017 and feeling like I was running on all intellectual cylinders, I decided it was time. Staying in would have meant that I would not have started a TT job, even if I got one, till the fall of 2019. In between now and then, I’d have to find another teaching job, or two, or five, earn very little, probably go without benefits, all while continuing to spend money to do research and go to conferences. Staying in the game is expensive, unstable, and usually doesn’t lead to the results we hope it will.

Back to the FAQs


But don’t you understand The Market!?

I mean, I’m a historian, so I understand that there’s no unchanging Magic 8 ball that helps us make economic decisions about the future, and even if there were, humans are not rational economic actors. That’s not a thing. My training as a historian encourages me to assess evidence and understand people, rather than rush to judgment. It’s one of the reasons I like the field I chose. In this case, I’m choosing to extend to myself the empathy I’d extend to someone in the past.

For many – hello, IHE comment section regulars! – this “don’t you know how supply and demand works” argument is a familiar and oft-used cudgel, and not one that indicates those wielding it have ever read much Adam Smith. If you are genuinely curious, though, Prof. Kate Antonova, historian of Russia and holder of a sacred blue check mark, has laid a lot of it out in an excellent thread right here:

Her analysis and the information in this 2016 piece put out by the American Historical Association provide the context for making sense of my particular experience. I started my MA in the fall of 2006 and my PhD in the fall of 2008, then defended my PhD in December 2015. Take a minute and think about the economic changes the U.S. experienced over that time period, and how many of them you could have predicted in the fall of 2005, when I was applying to graduate school.

Now take a minute and find my span on this chart.

Back to the FAQs


Why are you blaming tenure track professors? We can’t do anything either!

I’m not blaming tenure track or tenured professors. I wasn’t even trying to make them feel bad, or even trying to get them to fix the problem.  I was, however, asking them to consider something that they have the power to avoid considering. They may not have all the power they want, but they have more power than lots of vulnerable scholars.

If you felt attacked by my piece, or by the follow-up interview, and immediately sought out ways to explain why I personally didn’t get a job, that may be because you disagreed with my contention that the loss of me and thousands of other scholars is a loss to the field. Or maybe you just didn’t think I was much of a loss. Maybe you didn’t disagree with the contention that there’s significant loss, but still found yourself searching for ways to make this my fault and the provost’s fault; it’s a bad system and we’re all just cogs but I could have at least tried harder and been a better cog.

I understand that it’s less risky for you to punch down, but maybe consider what it would mean to punch up instead? In a part of the interview with the Chronicle that didn’t get included, I argued that we, as a discipline, either think it’s possible for people to change systems and institutions, or we think it isn’t. We seem to have one standard for the agency of the people we study and another for ourselves. I just thought maybe we could imagine something better, even if it’s hard to know how to make it happen. But imagining something better requires accepting all the ways that what we have is not good. That might mean acknowledging that what happened to me was not good, even if you think my project was dumb and I shouldn’t have gotten a job anyway.

Back to the FAQs


Why didn’t you talk about the role of administrators and funding cuts to state institutions and federal grant programs?

Those things were, as they say, outside the scope of the project. If you read my piece in the Chronicle, it’s worth reading the original on my blog, and considering, as I’d ask my students, who the intended audience originally was.

I’m not denying those things are important, but I have to say, when a reporter from the Chronicle asked me whether advising could fix the problem, I managed to give a response that pulled on a lot of threads and refused to accept the idea that there was a simple answer. I didn’t manage to pull on all the threads, but this is a pretty good depiction of what I looked like on the phone trying to explain why fixing academia was hard.

man gesturing at murder wall with string

I’m sorry I didn’t manage to talk about all of the things that are making academia a mess. I missed some of the threads. But if you’re mad I didn’t talk about other things because talking about those other things would mean not talking about the things people in your position could actually do, then that’s a thing you want to think about.

Back to the FAQs


Aren’t you just a privileged academic? Do you even know what work is?

I shouldn’t have to do this, but apparently it’s necessary: I grew up working class. I have been a member of three unions in my life, one of which I helped organize. I earn a salary that places me solidly in the working class nationally, which means quite firmly in the working class in Connecticut. I wear a lot of tweed, but you can get tweed at the Goodwill.

Back to the FAQs


Maybe you should consider that you didn’t get a job because you’re not passionate enough about your work. If you were more passionate, you would keep publishing even if you didn’t get paid.


Back to the FAQs


You need to get over yourself and stop thinking that teaching at an R1 is the only acceptable career.

I have never had any desire to teach at an R1. There might be graduate students and early career scholars in my field who approach the job market crying “R1 or Bust!” but I have never met one.

Back to the FAQs


Why haven’t you applied for jobs at community colleges/Catholic colleges/women’s colleges?

A couple of really different assumptions seem to be at the root of these questions. To begin with, it’s important to know that college professors don’t just send their resumes everywhere. Colleges and universities post ads for very specific positions, asking for people with specific fields of study, people with specific skills that will allow them to taken on additional duties, and people at specific points in their careers. As a scholar of US history, specializing in the history of women and religion in the 19th century but with the ability to teach a much wider variety of broad and focused courses, many of which I’d already taught, I applied for almost every full-time TT job I could reasonably qualify for, skipping a couple of ads for positions at very elite universities.

Applying for every full time TT job I could reasonably qualify for meant that I applied to fewer than ten jobs this year. I imagine each of those jobs had between 50 and 300 applicants. I applied to Catholic colleges. I have applied to women’s colleges. I would have loved to teach at those places.

Community college jobs are just as difficult to get, and even harder to find because they’re not advertised in consistent ways. Even at the start of my grad degree, they were hard to get. The days when a PhD would set you apart at a community college are long gone, if they were ever really there. I did see a few that I could apply for, but the teaching loads were so high and salaries so low that I made the decision they were not worth moving halfway across the country for.

These queries, as well as the comments about scholars needing to get over their obsession with teaching at an R1, are all rooted in a desire to make this about the individual – about me – rather than about the system. I know many people made suggestions in good faith, because they wanted there to be possibilities I hadn’t considered yet.

But there were fewer than ten full time TT jobs I could apply for this year. Even if you think I didn’t get a job because you read my CV and think I just wasn’t good enough, there’s no way to get around the fact that this isn’t about individuals, it’s about the system itself.


Back to the FAQs


Why haven’t you applied for jobs in other countries?

I have, though not this cycle. But this isn’t a uniquely American problem, so leaving the U.S. isn’t a magic fix. Also, let’s just stop and consider that someone in my position isn’t considered dedicated enough or persistent enough if they have been unwilling to apply for jobs in Dubai or China.

Back to the FAQs


Why don’t you want to teach high school? Don’t you value teaching?

If you have never heard of me before you read this piece, you can be forgiven for assuming that I am more concerned with losing the research aspect of my job, since that’s what my piece emphasized. But at least half of the things I’ve written in this space are about teaching, and I regularly contribute to Teaching US History, a blog on college pedagogy. I’m really into teaching.

I am not certified to teach public high school, nor should I be, because public high school teachers and college professors have very different training and responsibilities. I couldn’t just fall into that job, contrary to what poorly-conceptualized sitcoms would suggest.

Many people have pointed out that there’s the option of teaching in a private school, which wouldn’t have the same certification requirements. Some commenters seem to think this would be super easy because I’m in the Northeast, where we have so many. You know what we also have a lot of in the Northeast? People in the same position as I am who are looking for jobs.

And yeah, I’m aware of the existence of private schools. I grew up a couple of miles from Hotchkiss, I sang at Kent, I filled in the women’s roles in musicals at Salisbury, I competed against kids from Norwich Free Academy and Choate and Loomis and all the rest. I know this world because I grew up a “townie.” And because I know that world, I still call them private schools, not independent schools, because the salient fact about them to me is that they are private, set apart from the public school system. I have friends from grad school who teach in schools like this, and they do great work and love what they do there. But even if I were inclined to teach high school, I’d have a very hard time working in many of these places.

As soon as I told people what had happened to me, lots of people said I should look into teaching high school. But when my friend Alex asked about it, and I responded “I don’t really want to, but…,” she said “If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.” And that’s actually enough. It’s not an issue of certification or ideology or anything else, when it comes down to it. I don’t want to do it because I don’t think it’s for me.

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Don’t you realize there are other ways to be a historian? Don’t you know you can do other things with a PhD? What about public history?

I saw a lot of this in academic comment sections where people seemed to have read excerpts of the piece, read it poorly, or are from very different academic fields. Lots of people didn’t agree that a) the history PhD is still primarily designed to produce professors and b) that most people who get history PhDs want to be professors. I think they’re incorrect, but fair enough.

The thing that bothers me more, though, is the way some academic commenters seem to think “public history” is just some kind of field you can cruise into from the field I’m in. I worked for NPS as a historian before grad school; it’s actually why I came to grad school. But it’s not the same. It’s really pretty gross to think that I could just rock up at a historic house and get a job with little experience in the field and no specific training in museum studies or public history.

This suggestion, just like the suggestion that I teach high school, is often framed in a way that implies I think too much of myself to “lower” myself to these jobs. That these suggestions could be made so glibly suggests that many people don’t think enough of these jobs to imagine that there might be specialized skills needed to do them.

Again, other people made this suggestion in good faith, and I appreciate that so many think I could use my talents in another field. The problem is that public history has its own issues with paying people for their skilled work.

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What did you expect when you went into history instead of a STEM field?

Setting aside the plentiful comments on the piece and emails in my inbox from people in STEM fields who have gone through exactly what I’m going through, you could just google “postdoc crisis” and see that this isn’t just a humanities issue. Here, you don’t even have to google it: “So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings As Professors.”

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Obviously this is because you are a radical gender theorist. Aren’t we better off without you ruining everything?

I mean, I’m not a radical gender theorist, but sure, you want to point to the world today and say the thing we need to think less about is gender? Congratulations, you’re the newest New York Times opinion writer.

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Obviously this is because you chose to write about gender. Wouldn’t you have been fine if you’d picked a topic the market valued?

Oddly enough, it’s the combination of women and Catholicism that I believe makes my work harder to market in academic circles, as I’ve discussed here. But again, it’s not just that I couldn’t get a TT job. It’s that there aren’t very many of them at all. Lots of people study gender, and lots of people don’t, and lots from both categories end up without a TT job.

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So you didn’t get tenure, big deal. Stop whining about it.

If nothing else, the number of replies like this that I got reveal that lots of people have room to grow when it comes to close, careful reading. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had people who knew how to teach that?

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You didn’t have a Plan B and that was stupid. What did you think would happen?

So, when a reporter from IHE asked me what I was going to do after my teaching contract ended, I told her that I had lots of ideas about what I might do, but that I didn’t know what I would be doing, and I was scared because I don’t have a job lined up. She summarized that in the article as me not having a Plan B. I think those are two different things.

But lots of people seem to think that I should have been cultivating a side gig the whole time. All I can say is that the time required to do Plan A as well as I could was significant enough, and Plan A was what I wanted to do, so I tried to do it as well as I could until I couldn’t do it anymore.

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How dare you ask us to buy you a coffee?

I only asked you to do it if my writing had been meaningful; I didn’t charge you a fee to read. And even though my piece was explicitly about wanting to be valued for my writing, I felt awkward putting the Ko-fi link in and even more awkward when people clicked through.

I couldn’t process, and still can’t, that anyone found my writing that meaningful. No matter how much you value your own skills, when the world around you devalues those skills constantly, you internalize some of it.

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Didn’t you just write this hoping someone would feel sorry for you and give you a tenure track job?

[Speaking of really bad depictions of academic life on TV…]

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You said your feelings aren’t subject to peer-review, but I think you need to know that your feelings are wrong.

i don't care

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The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind

It happened during AHA.

I was sitting at home, revising my manuscript introduction and feeling jealous of all of my historian friends at the conference, when I got an email telling me my last (and best) hope for a tenure-track job this year had evaporated.

I’d promised myself that this would be my last year on the market. Now, I’d promised myself that last year, and I’d decided to try again, but this time, I knew it was over.

I closed my laptop and walked out of my office. In that moment, I couldn’t bear to be surrounded by the trappings of a life that had just crumbled around me. The perfect reading lamp, the drawer of fountain pen ink, the dozens of pieces of scratch paper taped the walls, full of ideas to pursue. The hundreds of books surrounding me, collected over nearly a dozen years, seemed like nothing more than kindling in that moment.

I cried, but pretty quickly I picked myself up and started thinking about the future. The circumstances of the job I didn’t get were particularly distressing, so I discussed it with non-academic friends, explaining over and over again that yes, this is the way my field works, and no, it wasn’t surprising or shocking to me, and no, I won’t be able to “come back” later, at least in the way that I’d want to, and yes, this was probably what was always going to happen. And then I started looking forward.

Only now do I realize how messed up my initial reaction was.

I was sad and upset, but I didn’t even start to grieve for several weeks, not because I hadn’t processed it, but because I didn’t feel I had the right to grieve. After all, I knew the odds of getting a tenure-track job were low, and I knew that they were lower still because I didn’t go to an elite program. And after all, wasn’t this ultimately my failure? If I’d been smarter, or published more, or worked harder, or had a better elevator pitch – if my brain had just been better, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But it had happened, and if I were ultimately to blame for it, what right did I have to grieve?

Despite the abundance of quit-lit out there, we’re still not, as a community of scholars, doing a great job dealing with this thing that happens to us all the time. The genre is almost universally written by those leaving, not those left behind, a reflection of the way we insulate ourselves from grappling with what it means for dozens, hundreds, thousands of our colleagues to leave the field.

Quit-lit exists to soothe the person leaving, or provide them with an outlet for their sorrow or rage, or to allow them to make an argument about what needs to change. Those left behind, or, as we usually think of them, those who “succeeded”, don’t often write about what it means to lose friends and colleagues. To do so would be to acknowledge not only the magnitude of the loss but also that it was a loss at all. If we don’t see the loss of all of these scholars as an actual loss to the field, let alone as the loss of so many years of people’s lives, is it any wonder I felt I had no right to grieve? Why should I be sad about what has happened when the field itself won’t be?

Even in our supportive responses to those leaving, we don’t want to face what’s being lost, so we try to find ways to tell people it hasn’t all been in vain. One response is to tell the person that this doesn’t mean they’re not a historian, that they can still publish, and that they should. “You can still be part of the conversation!” Some of you may be thinking that right now.

To that I say: “Why should I?”

Being a scholar isn’t my vocation, nor am I curing cancer with my research on 19th century Catholic women. But more importantly, no one is owed my work. People say “But you should still write your book – you just have to.” I know they mean well, but actually, no, I don’t. I don’t owe anyone this book, or any other books, or anything else that’s in my head.

“But your work is so valuable,” people say.  “It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it.”

Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldn’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?

I don’t say this to knock any of my many colleagues who write and publish off the tenure-track in a variety of ways that they find fulfilling. I just want us to be honest with ourselves about who exactly we’re trying to comfort when we offer people this advice and what we’re actually asking of those people when we offer it.

We don’t want these people to go and we don’t want to lose all the ideas floating around in their heads, so we say “Please give us those ideas, at least. Please stay with us just a little bit.” But we’re also asking people to stay tethered to a community of scholars that has, in many ways, rejected them, and furthermore, asking them to continue contributing the fruits of their labor which we will only consider rigorous enough to cite if they’re published in the most inaccessible and least financially-rewarding ways.

We also try to avoid grappling with the loss of so many colleagues by doing just what we do with our students: reminding the departing scholar about all the amazing skills they have!

I’m not saying I don’t have skills, or that my professional training hasn’t refined them. But when we talk to our students about the thinking skills they learn as history majors, we’re talking about how they can use those skills to be things other than historians. You can use those skills in finance! Insurance! Non-profits! All sorts of regular jobs that your concerned parents will recognize!

Here’s the thing, though. I got a PhD in history because I wanted to be a historian. That’s what I am trained to be. I didn’t write a dissertation on 19th century Catholic women to learn the critical thinking skills of history and then go work in insurance. I didn’t spend my twenties earning so little I ended up helping unionize my coworkers because I wanted to be in non-profit work.

Obviously, when we’re confronted with a colleague in the situation I’m in – someone who didn’t want to leave and who doesn’t know how she’s going to pay the rent after May – we emphasize those skills because we want to reassure this person (and ourselves) that they can find gainful employment, if not necessarily fulfilling work.

But we also emphasize it, I think, for the same reasons we encourage the departing colleague to keep publishing. We don’t want to face how much knowledge that colleague has in their head that’s just going to be lost to those who remain, and even worse, we don’t want to face how much knowledge that colleague has in their head that’s going to be utterly useless in the rest of their lives.

I teach my undergrads skills through content, and I keep the amount of content low, but as both a teacher and a scholar, I personally know so much stuff. I have forgotten more about Martin Van Buren than most people around me will ever know. I might find a job that uses that content, but in all likelihood, I won’t. I knew what job would pay me to know a lot about stuff that happened in the past. I just couldn’t get that job, and now I have to do something else.

Now, there are people who get PhDs and don’t want to be professors, and that’s great for them and I’m glad they find the PhD a useful part of their personal and professional lives. But let’s be honest: most graduate programs in history are preparing students to be history professors. We can talk all we want about alt-ac careers, but when it comes down to it, few of them actually require a PhD, and almost none of them need you to have learned as much as I’ve learned about the day-to-day operations of rural 19th century parishes. I learned all that because I wanted to be a history professor, and because that’s what my program trained me to be. I certainly didn’t learn all that because I wanted to find a new career at 35.

I started as a VAP where I currently teach in the fall of 2015 and defended my dissertation that December. I remember feeling really sad at the end of that first month, coming out of the first A&S faculty meeting. I wasn’t sad because I didn’t think I could do the job, I was sad because I realized that I could do it really well. Of course I could do it really well! This was what I had been trained to do. This was what I wanted to do. I was sad because I knew that I might already be on borrowed time – that I probably wouldn’t get to do it for my whole life.

And now I know that I won’t get to do it for my whole life. I probably won’t publish my book, at least not in its current iteration. I won’t teach anymore. I won’t sit on all those committees that I actually wanted to sit on. If that article that’s been under review for seven months ever comes back, I probably won’t do the work to publish it in a prestigious, pay-walled journal. After about half a dozen tries, I finally got accepted to SHEAR, but couldn’t even be happy about it. All the stuff in my head – Emerson’s ideas of vocation, how to interpret what a dean actually means, the collections at MHS I still need to go through, the entire life story of a woman I’ve spent the last eight years researching and writing about – doesn’t matter in the way that I hoped it would matter: as part of a life spent researching, writing, thinking, and teaching as a member of an institution of higher ed and a broader scholarly community.

I’ve been writing this in my head for over a month, and after siphoning off about five other significant arguments that will appear later in this same space, I’m finally making myself put it out there. It’s become too painful to keep up the facade in public (let’s be honest, on Twitter), and I also need to put it out there so I can extinguish the last ember of hope that somehow this has all been a big mistake and I’m actually the recipient of a newly-created named chair in 19th Century American Lady Studies at Literally Any University-Anywhere.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m good for. I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that I have so much in my head, and so much in my Google Drive, that is basically useless right now. I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that the life I imagined is not going to happen. I’ve already stopped doing my scholarship, other than editorial work for forthcoming pieces. In a few months, I’ll be done teaching.  I don’t know how to come to terms with never doing those things again.

Most of all, though, I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never see most of my colleagues again. I won’t get to work with so many of you that I’d hoped to work with. I won’t even ever get to meet some of you. My friends.

I’ve lost a huge part of my identity, and all of my book learning on identity construction can’t help me now. What hurts the most, in a way, is that my loss has been replicated a thousand times over, and will be replicated a thousand times more, barring some mass rejection of capitalism, and rather than face what that means, we have, as a profession and as people, found ways of dealing with it that largely erase the people we lose, erase their pain and grief, and erase our own.

I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me. I’m not sure what I’m asking you to do. All I know is that it was easier for those few weeks when I didn’t grieve, but it wasn’t honest and it wasn’t ever going to get me to a better place emotionally. I suppose I just wonder what would happen if we, as a community, stopped saying “he’s gone to a better place,” bringing a casserole, and moving on. What would happen if we acknowledged the losses our discipline suffers every year? What would happen if we actually grieved for those losses?

A few final points:

  • No, I don’t want to teach high school, either private or public.
  • No, I don’t want to adjunct or VAP anymore.
  • Yeah, this is a highly emotional piece of writing and paints with a broad brush and you might disagree with a lot of the ways I’ve characterized academia.
  • No, I don’t care that you disagree. My feelings, thank heavens, are not subject to peer-review.

Preview of coming attractions:

  • A list of things I might do with my life, with pros and cons. Hopefully it’ll turn out better than Ross’ list did.
  • How can we have productive conversations about pedagogy when our institutional resources and the economic and cultural resources of our students vary so widely?
  • Why is the response of so many senior scholars to the cult of hyper-productivity just a big shrug emoji? Possible title: “Slow Scholarship For Me, But Not For Thee.”
  • How long have I been, in the words of a friend, shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic? An examination of structure, agency, and luck.

And finally, the part of this post that makes me most uncomfortable. If this or anything else I’ve ever written or tweeted has been interesting or helpful to you, you can buy me a cup of tea:


In response to many of your questions and comments on this piece, I’ve created a list of FAQs with further information and clarification. You can find a list of responses to this piece here.

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