Candor

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I’ve been giving a lot of advice lately to graduate students – partly because I taught an intro class to doctoral students here, and partly because the world seems upside down to them and they ask tough questions. I’ve already shared a boot-strapping “advice list” written for this group, but – with the recent flap over Tenured Radical’s post in mind (see here and here and here) – it seems like a good time to put this in print: we owe prospective, current, and past students our full and complete candor about everything.

So here goes.

I earned my degree in 1999, taught World History 1 & 2 for a year at St. John’s University in Queens (for $1750 a course), started a tenure-track job at Washington State in 2000, published my first book in 2001, got a two-year postdoc at Brown (2001-2003), and left it to start a new tenure-track job at an R1 school (Indiana) east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line. This kind of career path is increasingly impossible, because one-year positions have proliferated, tenure-track lines are decreasing or static, and funding for postdocs is ephemeral.

The personal backdrop to my professional arc wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. For most of it, I was living apart from my wife – three planes away, in fact. My father was dying, and his ultimate passage and my consuming grief made me question whether I was right for this job. I filled out law school applications, and came very close to accepting a job at Bard High School in the Village. I got tired of moving, driving, and flying. The rise of “Quit Lit” might be new, but the sentimental search for a “better” life is old. I still think about those other paths almost taken.

Other realities: I have pulled more (work-related) all-nighters since I turned 40 than I ever did before – and I’m only 43. (Six and counting, if you are curious). I started taking medication for high blood pressure in year two of graduate school, and have blown through more medical regimes than is healthy. Sometimes, I eat out; sometimes, I just eat scoops of peanut butter and cheese sticks. I drink coffee far more than I drink water. The academic life is a sort of half-life.

I tell students to write a great book, because I believe that is still excellent advice – and, well, we need more smart books in this world. But I also need to get a lot better right now at helping them to navigate a radically transforming publishing market. In 2000, my advisor hand-delivered my dissertation to an old friend at Harvard University Press and encouraged her to publish it, and so, in the end, she did. That still happens today, I know, but not for everyone. There are new fiscal realities with which to deal, and many presses can’t afford to take a chance – as Aida Donald did so long ago – on a random, unknown PhD from the #23 History Department and with a small state school undergraduate degree.

Every single step on this career path has been taken on an uneven ground. By that I don’t just mean to single out my obvious whiteness and maleness and class position, but also, of course, my generational good fortune at having excellent mentors (of all sorts) who were willing to flex their influential muscles on my behalf at a moment when such gestures could make a big difference. Few recognize that the old school influence that once worked so well (and usually worked conservatively) seem to have stopped working for today’s graduate students and junior faculty, many of whom (in the Humanities, at least) are women or people of color or LGTBQ. I reach for the levers, but they often aren’t there. Or, more frustratingly, I note that the recent attachment of “Brown” to my signature line impacts the weight and force of my words, giving me access to an influence that was absent during my decade in the heartland.

I am doubling down on the book and the usual accompanying articles. I’m teaching a year-long graduate class this spring, summer, and next fall – an overload of sorts – aimed at the composition of a polished, publishable, well-written essay, as interesting to N+1 as to the Journal of American History.

But I’m also encouraging students to do different sorts of things. This year, with the encouragement of new colleagues, I had the students in my graduate class write a collaborative final project, a critique of the work of the local Providence phenomenon of “Waterfire,” which they hosted online in a multimedia platform. The experience was so amazing (for me, and I hope for them) that I am certain to repeat it in every graduate class I teach. I also hope it will be useful to them – in life, if not in their career. Next year, I’m going to have my writing group participate in local film series, a part of my department’s delightful focus on public humanities. I now encourage blogging, twitter usage, social media experimentation.

Most importantly, I listen to the students, who have a far better sense of the groundworks than I do.

This blog is partly a consequence of our conversations. What might seem, from the outside, to be egoistic broadcast is – when viewed my living room – merely the finger’s tip of a dialogue conducted more fulsomely online and offline, on Facebook, over email, at Andreas, the local Greek diner, around my kitchen table, in the classroom, on the green, and wherever.

We train students pre-professionally as potential academics, but the job market for tenure track jobs continues to tighten even as opportunities for perpetual status as an adjunct expand. New technologies have transformed the classroom, and social media has altered how we collaborate, circulate, and debate. Our students are different. The political climate is different. There is still so much to learn.

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