Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Author: Erin Bartram (page 1 of 6)

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.

nah

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.

Again:

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.

Back to the FAQs

 

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.

Back to the FAQs

 

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.”

Back to the FAQs

 

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.

Back to the FAQs

 

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: https://ko-fi.com/erinbartram.

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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.

Civics 101 in History 130 & 131

My friend Virginia introduced me to the New Hampshire Public Radio-produced podcast Civics 101 earlier this year.  She was on the board of NHPR and rightly-proud of their new venture. I’ve enjoyed listening to host Virginia Prescott (a different Virginia) interview a different guest each week – including many professors – on topics like “Party Whips,” “Emoluments,” and “The IRS.” In some cases, I’ve listened more than once in order to take notes. Yes, I’m talking about you, “Federal Courts.”

As soon as I started listening, I started thinking about how to integrate the podcast into my classes, and I’ll be doing so this fall. This isn’t wholly a response to the political turmoil, though. Even though many of my students – certainly those from Connecticut – took a civics class within the last five years, they often struggle to understand the contemporary structure of the U.S. government and the ideas behind it. This makes it hard to teach the history and evolution of those structures and ideas, not least because students sometimes can’t see just how different things are.

I’ve gone through and selected episodes that pair up well with different days on the syllabi of both my US I and US II classes, and I’m offering students the chance for some extra credit if they listen to the podcast and give a short presentation on it on the relevant day. They then have to write a brief thinkpiece on how the contents of their podcast help us understand what we’re talking about in class, and how the content of the class might counter or reshape the podcast’s interpretation of the issue.  For now, I decided to keep this as an extra credit assignment, partially because the longer-term project in US I is also podcast-based, so stay tuned for a description of that here or over at TUSH.

I’ll admit that it was harder to pair up episodes of the podcast in US I, mainly because the podcast is aimed at contemporary concerns and takes its inspiration from listener questions. It’s remarkably responsive in that sense, which makes it such great listening, but I couldn’t really slot in any episodes for the first six weeks of US I. In US II I had the opposite problem: not only is every episode relevant, but there are several episodes relevant for certain clusters of the semester, notably the dawn of the nuclear age and the Watergate controversy. In this case, I had to make some sacrifices.

Some episodes appear in both classes. Episode 27, “How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court,” is paired with the lesson on Indian removal in US I and with the lesson featuring the Warren Court decisions in US II. Episode 42, “U.S. Territories,” which focuses on Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is paired with the lesson featuring Hawaiian annexation, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War in US II, and with a lesson discussing Manifest Destiny and the political and social ramifications of creating territories and states between the 1820s and 1850s in US I.

This last pairing speaks to one of the things I hope my students will do with these episodes: critique them. The guest on the U.S. territories episode repeatedly speaks of the Spanish-American War as the “beginning” of U.S. imperialism. Given the way I’ve paired the episode in both classes, the students who end up listening and presenting should be able to think and talk about why that framework is problematic and why it’s also unsurprising to hear it in the episode, even in 2017.

The episodes are short, fifteen minutes or so, and the host speaks with one guest, so the podcast isn’t complete, nor is it perfect. There are episodes, like the U.S. territories episode, that have moments or even entire interpretive frameworks I find frustrating. And this isn’t just because not all of the guests are historians; nothing Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh say in the “Church and State” episode is wrong, per se, but their choices about what to talk about and how to talk about them aren’t precisely the ones I would have made. But I think that’s good. The exercise would be a waste of time if it replicated my own teaching, and my hope is that my students will see the differences between my interpretations and those in some of the episodes, which might lead to some productive conversations on interpretation itself.

I’m also hoping the podcast, in attending primarily to the structure and mechanics of the government, might leave space for and lead students to be more confident in talking about ideas. That’s the stuff that I struggle with the most in my teaching, and my hope is that by seeing differences in how the government has worked over time, my students will be able to consider why those changes took place and what the different ideas behind a given body or policy or interpretation of the Constitution meant to the people who held them.

Even though I’ve left this as an extra-credit option, I have no doubt most of my students will take me up on the offer. If it works well, I’ll think about rolling it into both courses as a permanent assignment. Who knows, maybe some students will want to listen to the podcast all on their own, and will bring up things that they learned whether there are points attached to it or not. Mostly, though, I hope the exercise helps my students understand how meaningful the past is to our present experience and gives them a little more confidence in engaging with that present experience.

Killing the Dad Book Table

On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I was not surprised to see the usual tables of “Father’s Day” suggestions piled high with books about famous white men, making war and doing politics, largely authored by people who look remarkably like their subjects. Around this time last year, I was thinking about related issues, most notably “relevance” and writing for “the public.” There’s lots of talk about Dad Books, which overlaps with talk about crappy popular history, followed by self-flagellation about historians and our bad writing. None of it ever goes anywhere. But I think a lot of the talk of bad writing is overblown, just as I think a lot of the talk about “the public” and its interests is misguided.

If you’re a historian and you want the people in your life to read “good” history, it has to start with knowing what your family members and friends are interested in. One of the things we say is awesome about our discipline is that there’s a history of everything. If there is, surely there’s some good, well-written history on anything the people in your life are interested in.

My dad is a potential reader but rarely an actual reader. By that I mean he loves to read, but he is also a true Yankee who can’t stop working and volunteering. The one time he makes sure to read is our one week of vacation every summer. Still, I get him books all the time, hoping that one day he’ll read them, and he often does. He has a degree in meteorology, works as an architectural consultant, volunteers as a firefighter and an EMT, and teaches both of those subjects. He likes history, but he doesn’t particularly go in for the conventional Dad Book.1)He did read a used copy of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ once, because we all got stories from that one Christmas, but I don’t know whether he picked it up himself or it was mine that I left at home. To that end, I’ve tried to get him books about topics that interest him, but that might bring in a subject he doesn’t even realize is relevant, or examine it in a way that a popular history isn’t going to.

Here are some of the books I’ve gotten him, and how they went over.

Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life Dad read this several summers ago when we were in Maine, and told us all about his reading every night at dinner. I loved it, but I’m not sure my mother and sister did. He didn’t idolize Guthrie beforehand, so I didn’t worry that this would tarnish a hero for him.

Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon, Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics I got this last year on the recommendation of one of my doctors at UConn, because it seemed up his alley. I don’t think it’s been touched yet.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History I bought for my father before I’d read it myself. I think that was a mistake.

Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City I think my father read this, or part of it, because I think I remember him recounting a story from it to me.

Peter Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation and Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 I got him these because he loves reading about big civil engineering projects, but I wanted to show him how historians can write about the same thing very differently. He read both, and when he was reading the second one, which was Sheriff’s, he mentioned it to me and said how amazing it was that it was presenting such a different interpretation. I count this as one of my real successes.

Ryan Dearinger, The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West I spotted this in a University of California Press sale last fall and snared it for him. He had a hearty laugh at the title when he opened it at Christmas, but I don’t think he’s read it yet.

David Wyatt, Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California Another gift this past Christmas, so I don’t think it’s been read yet, but I hope he might like it.

Obviously not all of these have been successes, and some have been outright failures. I think that’s a risk you run any time you get someone a book, though. I’ve certainly been given books that I’ve never broken the spine of. Sure, we should think about how “readable” a book is, but I don’t think that’s the thing that’s going to solve the problem. The first step is knowing the people you’re giving or recommending books to. The second might be asking your colleagues for recommendations if they are well-read in an area and you are not. There are plenty of academic history books that are perfectly readable to interested laypeople, but there are some that are dry and unreadable even to those of us who read this stuff for a living, so we should help each other navigate around those boulders.

To that end, any suggestions for books I should get my dad?

References   [ + ]

1. He did read a used copy of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ once, because we all got stories from that one Christmas, but I don’t know whether he picked it up himself or it was mine that I left at home.

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Well, folks, it’s the one year anniversary of this website, so it seems like time for me to think about what I’ve done.

I say that I’ve been “writing dangerously”  not because anything I’ve written here has been particularly provocative, but rather because doing anything other than keeping your head down and publishing your ass off is often framed as “dangerous” for young scholars, particularly those of us living life on the job market.

All in all, I’ve liked the space I have here, and I’ve liked what I’ve done with it. People often ask me if my writing here takes a lot of time, the unspoken question being “Does this take away from your real work?” I can honestly say no, it doesn’t take a lot of my time, but that’s mostly because the things I write about are things I’m already thinking about. Sometimes I poke at a draft of something for a while, but most of the time, I’ve thought it through in my head by the time I sit down to write.  Heck, the anniversary of this blog was actually two days ago, but I wasn’t ready to sit down and write this till today, so I didn’t!

I’ve written a lot on teaching, and some on the intersections between the past and the present, and now I write about both of those things on other blogs too: Teaching United States History and The Daily Context.  I have also written a bit on the strange historiographical and disciplinary conventions I find myself tangled up in. Those have been some of my favorite pieces to write, and they’re the ones that will always stay here, I think, because they’re so central to my scholarship.

I can’t say what any of this writing has done for anyone out there, but I think it’s done some things for me. It’s certainly helped me practice writing in a different voice, to such an extent that I can really feel the shift between this voice and the more scholarly voice I use in other forms of writing. Sometimes it feels like I have a bad kickdown cable, honestly. But I think being aware of these different voices has helped me refine each one, just a little.

It’s also just helped me think better. My high school had signs in all the classrooms that said “Writing is Thinking,” and I’ve done a lot of thinking through writing in this space. As a result, I’ve put a lot of in-process thoughts out into the world, which is sometimes tough, and I know that some might find it dangerous for an early career scholar. But really, isn’t every bit of writing we put out into the world unfinished in some way? As long as I don’t claim that what’s here is the equivalent of peer-reviewed writing – and it is most certainly not – I think I’m okay with it.

So, in this age of data, let’s look at what people read.

My most-read piece was this description of think-alouds, the assignment I use in my intro classes. Second, another piece on teaching, “Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics.” which also received the most comments by far. Both posts deal with something that I think we don’t talk about enough when we talk about teaching – the assumptions our students bring with them when they enter our classes and approach the texts we give them. I remember the Twitter conversations that erupted over the second post, mainly from scholars who were aghast at the lack of religious knowledge my students generally bring to the classroom. But my goal with both of these – and indeed with all of my posts on teaching – was never to shake my head at “kids these days.” I cannot claim to have figured out how to deal with my students’ assumptions and blind spots, but it seems fruitful to continue thinking about them and comparing notes with each other.

The #3 piece on my list of the most-read is one that I really liked, but that generated almost no response at the time, so I was really surprised to see it ranked so highly. I didn’t think many people read it! It was a piece I wrote just before Christmas about my frustration with the “Hillary didn’t win the working class” narrative, a narrative built on ideas about labor, race, and gender. She did win the working class, and she did talk about labor issues, but since the dominant image of “the worker” in America continues to be a white man with a wrench (or a coal miner’s helmet), policy proposals delivered by a woman that aimed to help workers who were also women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and non-white Americans were written off as things for special interests, not “American workers.” I actually think the piece holds up even better all these months later.

There are two pieces I wish more people had read and engaged with: last fall’s “The planks in our own eyes” and the more recent “Confessions of a horse shed historian.” The first dealt with my discomfort as a historian of Catholicism in the broader field of American religion, and the second with my discomfort as a historian of things non-religious in the field of American religion. I understand why some people might have worried that I was attacking their scholarly priorities; I can assure you that was never my intention. But I do think the people who engaged with both were generally those who, I suspect, feel these same discomforts in their own scholarly lives, and I hope my giving voice to them was helpful.

We’re always telling our students to think about audience when they read a text. When I started here, I wasn’t sure who my audience would be, or even if I’d have an audience. I’m still not actually sure on either count. But I’m going to keep doing it, and if anything I’ve written or anything I write in the future is interesting or helpful to those of you who do read, I’m going to count that as a win.

Confessions of a horse shed historian

David Hall famously wrote of the “horse shed  Christians,” those people in early New England who, during service, were just as likely to be out back by the horse shed talking about the price of wheat with their friends as they were to be in the church listening attentively.  I’m stretching the metaphor a lot for the purpose of this little essay, but I hope you’ll go with me.

Much of the time, I feel like a horse shed historian of American religion.

I am an editor for H-AmRel, I list religion as one of the things I study, I did a comps field in it. But while I’m usually always at the first service, by the second one I find myself out at the horse shed, talking about other things with other historians.

To some extent, we’re all like this. We often have a primary field and several secondary ones. Knowing a few fields well is key to formulating productive research questions, and usually those fields are defined by theme, by geography, and by time period. Specialization is not only the way the academic discipline works, it’s prudent.

I think about the history of the 19th century in America, including Americans abroad. I think about the history of women. I think about the history of ideas. I think about the history of social status. But it’s really only when operating in the history of American religion scene that I feel as though I’ll never be a full member, in the old New England sense.

I have discerned two distinct markers of full membership. They are not explicitly stated anywhere, and indeed many of you reading this might recoil at the suggestion that they exist and have power, but I hope you can hear me out. It strikes me that if a historian can manage one of these things, they can scrape by and get full membership. Having neither means I probably know you from the horse shed.

First, if you’re not a historian of mainline/evangelical Protestant Christianity or conversant enough not to embarrass yourself when talk turns to Protestant theology and church structure over drinks at a conference, you’re not a full member. Understanding Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism, etc etc etc beyond a few notable events or figures is optional.

The argument one might make here is that, for better or worse, Protestant Christianity has dominated American public life and institutions. If you’re going to be a historian of religion in America, you have to know this stuff. And I’ll grant you that, to an extent. But the LDS church is about as American as you can get, and Catholicism is the largest denomination in the country and has been for a long time. Knowledge of neither is sufficient or even always necessary for membership.1)Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.

Second, and to my mind more important, is that if religion isn’t the central topic and driving force of your scholarship, you’re not a full member. This, I find, is as applicable when I’m among historians of Catholicism as it is when I’m among historians of Protestantism. I find it more the case among historians of religion than any other historians I work with. It is also, unfortunately, much harder for me to articulate and explain, but I’ll give it a whirl.

We have all these fields, and most of us work across fields all the time, because people in the past lived “across fields.” But most of us have a place we start from. A thing that we want to know more about, more than anything. The framework in which we operate. Talking with other historians of religion, I have heard scholars (who were not there) described as “not really a historian of religion” or “not really a historian of Catholicism.” These comments indicated that religion was not central enough to a particular scholar’s work for it to “count,” that history of religion wasn’t the singular place from which the scholar formulated their questions and departed.

Religion often seemed pretty central to the books we were discussing, so at first I was confused. How could they not really be historians of religion? Sometimes, it was because the book wasn’t a certain percentage about religion. What was the right percentage? That was for them to know and for me to find out, apparently. Sometimes, it was because the historian had written a book in which religion played the central role but had also written a book in which religion didn’t play the central role, even if it was there. Sometimes, it meant that their work on religion didn’t give sufficient attention to The Institutions Where Religion Happened and The People Who Defined What Religion Was. Sometimes it was just that the history of religion was forced to share the page with the history of women.2)Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.

This is why I find myself at the horse shed.  I didn’t go to grad school to study the history of religion explicitly, though I had done extensive work in American Jewish history in college. I didn’t have a department with any prominent historian of American religion. I listen attentively and hope no one asks me my thoughts when conversation turns to Joseph Bellamy. But I found a dissertation topic that interested me, and a good part of it was about religion. I wrote it, and now I’m revising it for publication, and I know it’s not going to be about religion enough to count. 3)Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.

My study of the history of religion has been and continues to be fruitful and fascinating, but I don’t think it’s ever going to get me to full membership because it’s never going to hit both of those markers. Moreover, I’m not actually sure I know whether there’s any topic that I always want to know more about, other than the 19th century in America, which might be a problem.4)A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?” A much as I have felt compelled to convince historians who don’t focus on religion that what I study is important and worthwhile, a thing many of us have had to do, I have also felt that I had convince other historians of religion that what I study is enough about religion – and not too much about other things – for them to care about it.

Sometimes my students complain that there’s “too much religion” in US I, and of course I know that relative to how important religion was to the people I study, there’s actually far too little. Part of the reason that this issue of full membership is so frustrating to me is that it seems to work against the goal that many of us have: to help others understand how important – how integral – how integrated – religion was and is in the history of the United States. It feels like these markers of full membership exclude lots of people from scholarly conversations that would help further this goal. And to put it bluntly, if historians of religion are going to complain all the time that “regular” historians don’t pay attention to our work, I should never have to hear, or feel, like certain scholarship about religion isn’t about religion enough. That’s the stuff that sends me to the horse shed, folks. And you know what? It’s not bad out here.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.
2. Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.
3. Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.
4. A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?”

No, I didn’t read that article in The New Yorker

In the past few weeks, I’ve added a couple more online writing outlets to my list of things to do. I’ve started contributing to Teaching United States History, which I’m really excited about.  I’ve also started something else, with my friend Chris: The Daily Context.  It is a group blog, aimed at non-academic readers, providing introductory historical context to what’s happening in the news. Each post is 1000 words max, preferably shorter, and includes a primary source and links to further reading.  This is meant to be rapid response history, so no long editorial process. If you could give a good solid answer to a student who asked a question about the topic in class, that’s all we’re looking for. We are using Facebook a lot, and inviting our academic friends to both write for us and share our posts with their friends and family.

Why do this? You’d be right to point out that there are lots of other ways to communicate this information to the public. Why don’t I pitch a piece for a newspaper? Why don’t I write for an existing blog? Why don’t I tweetstorm?

I could, I suppose. Those are all great things to do, and I’m glad lots of historians are doing them. But the reason why I want to do this, and why I’d love to have more of my colleagues join, is that I don’t think a lot of what we’re doing right now is very accessible to a non-academic audience, both because of the forms we use and the approach we take to writing.

To put it more bluntly, lots of what we’re writing is for people like us.  I love the conversations we have in the blogosphere and the Twitterverse but ultimately, very little of that is reaching the people I grew up with.

Because here’s the thing – I’m not sure I’m really supposed to be here. I’m from a working class family in rural Connecticut. I was in no way the poorest of the poor, and I had the advantage of growing up white, in New England,  with an okay school system and a small-but-friendly library. But most of the people I went to high school with – the 99 people from a six-town district I graduated with – didn’t go to college, let alone finish it. We grew up in a small, isolated part of the state where rich people from the city came to hide away. “Cultured” people drifted through our lives, and we patiently listened to their complaints about the poor selection of fish in the grocery store and helped them find the train station at the end of the weekend. I knew those people, but I was never going to be of those people.

I left that place, went to a liberal arts college, then went to graduate school, and like everyone else in academia who came from a background like mine, I’ve been faking it ever since. Laughing and nodding like I’ve read that person or could share a similarly amusing travel anecdote, blushing furiously every time I said something that revealed I didn’t speak the cultural language of everyone around me. Every one of those moments sticks in my memory. “Fake it till you make it” is bunk, as is the idea that you can talk about this openly and bear no repercussions. But maybe I can come clean here. To everyone who’s ever asked me this question: no, I didn’t read that article in The New Yorker. And you could probably tell.

The thing is, when I go home, I’m not sure I’m supposed to be there anymore either. I so deeply respect the people I grew up with and the work they do and the lives they live, but they’re uncomfortable with me. I want to share what I do with them, but can’t find a way to do it.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m trying this. Because the people I grew up with are not reading our tweetstorms, and they’re not reading our academic blogs, and they’re not reading our pieces in The Atlantic and The Washington Post.  And maybe they don’t want to read The Daily Context either. Maybe they do. Either way, I need to try. I want to be able to write a piece in The Atlantic, and I want to write my book, but if I truly believe that the study of history can enrich people’s lives – and I do – I need to be able to write this too.

I need to know that who I am now can write for who I was then.

 

 

 

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