Category Archives: academic culture

Forgive me, dear readers…

but school started up again this week, which means that in addition to reading, I’ve got meetings, lectures, seminars, lesson prep, and teaching – not to mention a rather brutal schedule adjustment to a 7am wakeup call.  Thankfully my students are amazing!

Needless to say, reading is progressing slowly, and posting slower still.  I’ll write again as soon as I’m not overcome by exhaustion – hopefully before next week.


54 books in 31 days

Happy New Year!!

It’s crunch time!  My comprehensive exams are set for the third week of April.  With three months and about 160 books to go, I’m trying a few new strategies: 

In past semesters, I’ve spent hours putting together semester-long reading lists that have me reading books by topic, so I’ll spend a week on suburbia, one on slavery, one on social histories of the colonies, one on transportation (yay!) and so on.  That works pretty well, since it means that the books are often speaking to each other – different historians writing about slavery at different points in our own history, for instance, use widely different methodologies, ask different questions, and come up with very different answers. 

BUT, this semester, since I have so much reading to do, I’m trying a much more straightforward approach: regular old alphabetical order.  I’m hoping for more variety and more cross-pollination among fields and topics.  That, and there’s something nice about working your way down a list instead of jumping around on it.

I’m also only writing out my reading schedule one month at a time, which makes this whole task feel a lot less daunting.  Hence, by January 31st, I’ll be 54 books in.  (sweet jesus!)

And finally, whereas I usually just take notes on the book and my impressions of it and file them away somewhere, for the next 90 days, I’ll be posting daily updates of my progress.  I’m doing this partly because written turnovers have been a great accountability tool at every job I’ve ever held, partly to show potential future grad students what grad school is really like (hah), and partly to stay in touch with the folks I love for the next three months.  🙂

So please don’t feel like you have to read the whole thing, but do let me know when you check in!


I have spent several hours now reading about the jobs situation for Humanities PhDs – yes, partly to keep from reading the book on Long and the Great Depression that I cracked open yesterday, but also because I’ve been suspecting lately that something fishy is going on with my post-grad-school employment opportunities.  And if there are really no jobs, then surely there’s a better use of my time than preparing for jobs that don’t exist.

Plenty of other people have written eloquently on the actual numbers, so I’m not going to wander much into quantitative analysis, and anyway, my stats are kinda rusty.  But let me say that even my (extremely) cursory research has me relieved: it looks like somewhere between a quarter and a third of history PhDs are still finding tenure-track jobs, and yes, there are many, many people adjuncting, but there are also people in government, the military, non-profits, the tech sector – lots of things that put research, writing, and teaching skills to good use.  (This article from The Chronicle is probably the most hopeful thing I’ve read in a while, and it has charts!)  In other words, considering that my background is in retail and trucking, grad school really is pretty likely to help me change careers.

Since I would rather like to buy a house in the next ten years, I’ve also been poking around in salary and cost of living information.  The Chronicle has a lovely interactive piece on faculty salaries for more than 1200 universities, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists wage data by county for a ton of occupations, and provides approximate housing cost data for everywhere I’ve ever searched (so, er, major cities in the US, anyway.)  As a rule of thumb, I like to keep fixed costs (rent, bills, phone) to one two-week paycheck… and so after a little crunching for some of the occupations in the Chronicle article, I think that (in Austin, anyway) most of these professions would put me in house-buying territory within the decade.

So far, so good.  As long as I play my cards right, getting a PhD in the humanities is not a bad idea at all – it’s actually a pretty good way to get an interesting job and haul my ass up into the middle class.

Playing my cards right, though, is the part that’s still a bit baffling, because I don’t quite understand what’s going on here.  As I read through a few “post-ac” blogs and gloom-and-doom employment predictions, a few patterns stand out: people who are staking their whole identity on getting a tenure-track job, people who are afraid to talk about non-academic career paths lest they be shunned or kicked out of their programs, people who feel cheated by the system when they don’t get their dream job at a prestigious university, people who need support groups to help them down from the ivory tower.  Maybe I’ll feel this way in a few years, but right now, these people read like the lost souls in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch, stuck in some kind of unemployment purgatory.  Or, perhaps more aptly, like disgraced and brainwashed members of a secret cult.  And for the record, I’ve been the latter, and good lord I don’t want to go back.

I hope there is room in this system for people who just want normal things like job security, an interesting career, and enough money to make a comfortable living.  And I hope these disgruntled folks are the exception rather than the rule, because I, for one, would like to think this whole shindig is about opening options up, not closing them off.

vacation/procrastination (so would that be… procrastication?)

School has been out for almost two weeks, and I haven’t read a thing.  I mean – I have a book open in front of me, and I intend to read all about Huey Long and the Great Depression tonight, but I have more pressing things to do first, as I have for the past couple of weeks.  Right after I turned in my last grades and responded to the last student email, I did many of the little nagging things I haven’t been able to do all semester: I cleaned my house, shuffled around the furniture, took a load to Buffalo Exchange.  That done, I baked some cookies and watched a little TV; during the next few days I went for runs, and I dared to sleep in and lounge around until noon.  I went dancing multiple days in one week and saw people enough to remember their names and ask them about things we had talked about just a few days earlier.  I went to work often enough that the same thing happened – and for a moment I remembered the thing I really loved about retail and my world before school: the closeness and amiability, and the repetition and teamwork and fascination with the everyday that fostered it.

Sometime that week I had a drink – ok, three – reasoning that even if I did wake up with a hangover, I didn’t have to do much thinking the next day.  The boy and I went out to our old late-night haunt and had greasy food and joked around with the late-night servers.  We slept in.

And then, finally, the luxury of having time to do laundry and take three hours to pack for a week back home in the motherland, where getting to know my niece and nephew and cooking my sister- and brother-in-law a couple of home-cooked meals trumps reading about long-ago events, hands down.  Tonight, we had roast chicken and cheesy polenta; tomorrow I’m simmering chicken soup from scratch, since everyone has the flu or is recovering from it.  And when they’re asleep (they crash out early), I get to tinker with Photoshop and watch movies and read a novel and finally – finally! – decompress enough to start thinking about what I want to do when I grow up and whether the path I’m on will get me to where I want to be. 

I wrote a little while ago about how in school, we need to protect our free time for the unpaid work that will get us out of here; after two weeks of break, I’m remembering just how protective I was of my free time before I came back to school.  I read novels; I learned about baking breads and cookies and cakes; I studied knitting techniques and designed and knitted sweaters with increasingly elaborate lacework.  I watched a lot of film noir, and spent whole afternoons wandering in and out of junk shops and bookstores.  I went on ridiculously long bike rides.  I had time and energy to really be with my friends when I was with them – and I had a lot of time to be with them.  I think if I had that much time again I would spend more time writing and more time volunteering, but otherwise these are things I miss – connecting with people and learning how to do things and just generally absorbing the world we live in.

My concern now is that academia, if I stay in it, won’t afford me the work-life balance that allows me to be a real person, with varied interests and a strong attachment to the real world.  It hasn’t yet, and after almost four years, I’m beginning to worry that it won’t.  Hence the procrastination.

aaaand we’re back.

And it’s November.  It’s finally chilly out.  And since August, I’ve managed to read not 8 books a week (as I should) but roughly 8 books a month, which is not exactly helping me get to the magical unicorn of 300 books by April.  One of the (many) things I am learning the hard way about grad school is that unlike the working-class world, where you say yes when people ask you if you want to work harder and make more money, here you need to safeguard your time for unpaid labor.  Truthfully, if you’re not on some sort of fellowship, the idea is to work as little as possible and make the least amount of money you can survive on so as to have the most time possible for pursuing your degree.

I am terrible at saying no to more money.  Employment opportunities abound during the school year but are scarce over the summer, and I like to pay my rent year-round.

So this semester, when I should be spending 6-8 hours a day reading, instead I am working five jobs.  Yep, five.  There’s the 20-hour appointment in my department with an awesome prof that pays my rent and bills in return for 30 hours of grading every couple of weeks; the 10-hour appointment in another department that pays more per hour and provides close contact with another awesome prof in return for 12 hours of grading every month or so; the teacher training program I lucked into that only pays an additional grand a semester but that provides awesome pedagogical support; the 8 hours a week I work at my retail gig; and the 5 hours or so I spend making posters and teaching two-step lessons every Saturday. They’re all awesome jobs, I’m learning a lot, and four of them pay well, which is why I had a hard time saying no.  And more importantly, summer isn’t going to hurt.  But good lord that’s a lot of time spent working for other people!

I guess the good part is that instead of a chore, reading has become a rare and delicious treat?

on conferencing

This past semester, I presented at my three very first academic conferences EVER: a graduate student history conference in Michigan, a social theory conference in Boston, and a food studies conference here at UT-Austin.  Since I’m still pretty new to this business, these were also the first three academic conferences I’ve attended, which means that I spent at least as much time soaking up what academic conferences are like as I did presenting and learning about what other scholars are up to.  (And don’t even talk to me about logistics!  I spent so much of April navigating transportation systems in different parts of the country that I could write a whole article on bus culture alone.  Just going from Detroit to Boston was seriously like travelling between different planets – technologically, culturally, spatially, awesomely…!)
Anyhow.  Transportation issues aside, going to three radically different conferences in three different parts of the country was even more instructive than I’d hoped.  Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past few months:
1.      Different kinds of conferences have different purposes, so choose accordingly.
The first conference I went to was a food studies conference aimed at both academics and foodies; the purpose here was mostly to promote our oral history project and get people interested in it, so we set up our presentation so that the oral history subjects, via video and audio recordings, did most of the talking.  The history conference, by contrast, was a graduate student conference aimed at providing inexperienced grad students with a supportive environment and a great deal of feedback.  And the social theory conference was designed to help professionals in a specialized field get together and network.  Because my goal in going to conferences this spring was to learn how conferences work and how to present at them, the grad student conference was by far the most useful for me at this stage in my career (and coincidentally, it was also incredibly well-organized and well-run!), and bigger, discipline- or field-specific conferences will be more useful later, when I’ve got the conferencing thing down and am looking to network with folks in my field.
2.      Presentations are performances.
It’s one thing to present your final paper to ten fellow grad students at the end of a seminar or to lecture 15 undergrads for a few minutes; it’s entirely another to get up in front of a hundred and fifty foodies and talk about your oral history project or to try and interest a group of tenured professors in your dissertation research.  These are performances more than they are presentations, and – if you’re anything like me – they therefore require a good bit of prep to calm the nerves and keep the stage fright at bay.  And yes, this includes planning well in advance, rehearsing multiple times, knowing where the holes in your research lie, and thinking about how you’ll answer the inevitable well-meaning – or not so well-meaning – questions from the audience about them.
3.      The humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.
As I was preparing for the history conference, I thought to myself: ‘I know the idea here is to present a paper, but people can’t possibly just get up there and read papers.  That would be horribly boring.  I bet they make presentations and just hit the high points of the paper.’  So I made a simple Prezi outlining my argument, picked out a few key scenes to talk about, and went to the conference.  Where everyone read papers.  Often without visuals.  And sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, and the best speakers were able to combine ample detail with good storytelling techniques.  By comparison, my presentation, which I had constructed to be direct and to the point, seemed a bit empty and unromantic.
So, a week later, while I was preparing for the social theory conference, I thought to myself: ‘The papers I really liked at the history conference had a fair amount of detail and a good story to them, and no one really bothered with visuals.  I’ll just trim my paper down a bit and read it.’  So I cut my paper down a bit and went to the conference.  Where everyone had very structured, scientific presentations. And professional-looking visuals.  With lots of diagrams.  And again, sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, but this time the best speakers had clean, easily intelligible graphics diagramming their arguments.  And they had very little interest in having stories read to them.
Now you know: the humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.  Prepare accordingly.
4.      Talk to people!  It’s fun – and important.
You know what’s awesome about conferences?  Meeting new people and learning new things.  In Michigan, I had the good fortune to be on a panel with a gentleman who was working on a similar project, but focusing on a different city, and to have lunch with a soon-to-be-graduate who was using similar methods to mine.  In Boston, I stayed with a well-travelled artist and bookseller who turned out to be incredible resources on the city’s public transportation, and I learned more about social movements in a single day of conference sessions than I could have in a year’s worth of reading.  And in Austin, our presentation sparked a flurry of questions about tourism, growth, and networks among restaurateurs, all of which provided ample food for thought.  In other words, the presentations are important for sure, but getting to know people informally is what these things are all about!
5.      Travelling is expensive, yo.
I do like travelling, I’m psyched that I got to go to so many different places, and truthfully I needed to get a few lines on the old CV, but jetting all over the country is not exactly the most efficient or the cheapest way to get conference experience.  All told, I spent about a thousand bucks to go to two conferences, which isn’t exactly cheap when you’re on a TA salary.  And frankly, grad student conferences and small regional conferences happen all over the country, so why not go to the ones close to home and save your money for big national conferences (you know, the ones that look good on your CV) instead?  Unless you’re just looking for an excuse to visit friends or you’ve got an expansive travel budget, that is.
In sum: Know your discipline, prepare well, and try as best you can to match up what you want to get out of a conference with the kind (and location) of conference you apply to.  That, and take the time to talk to people.  Business school long ago cured me of ever wanting to use the word ‘networking’ again, but that’s what it is – and it’s important.  And at the grad student conference I went to, it’s also surprisingly fun.