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It’s the First Day of the AHA and Already My Head Hurts

January 4, 2008, 10:05 pm

But that doesn’t mean I’m not having fun.

Most of the highlights of my day consisted of running into old friends — many of whom were in graduate school with me. One is an editor at a university press, one is chairing her department (actually, four people from my cohort, or in cohorts immediately before and after, are now chairing departments or programs; I think it’s a life cycle thing.) On a quick tour through the book exhibit, I turned a corner and found Eric Foner, Ira Berlin and David Blight in a single conversation group, which I wish I had a picture of, well — just because. It’s kind of neat isn’t it, to have that many people who are important to a single field in one place?

This morning Anthony Grafton, Vice President, Professional Division, organized a workshop on interviewing; there were tables organized for different kinds of positions where graduate students could sit down and work with faculty on job interviewing techniques. I worked with Atina Grossman, of Cooper Union, which was a good mix because Cooper and Zenith both have great students but are very different kinds of schools. One of our customers was a young woman in Native American Studies who is still at the Masters level, who has started asking for advice early because, as she pointed out, she’s in a field where it’s even less easy to get a job than it is in most fields, as there are few departments or programs in Native American Studies. I thought this was unbelievably smart of her to do this. On the one hand, graduate students need to present who they are and what they have achieved to the best advantage; on the other hand, part of graduate school is crafting a profile as a scholar, and there are choices one can make in graduate school that allow one to apply for more jobs or fewer jobs. For example, as we discussed, a person in a Native American Studies program could take a number of courses that would prepare her to do her work in an ethnic studies job; a nineteenth century job; or a women’s studies job.

Big things we ended up emphasizing?

1. Know who your audience is. Go to the department website, and cruise the university or college website so you get a sense of what kind of courses they offer, what the major looks like, and how you would make an impact on that school’s program.

2. Answer the question. When you are asked about your dissertation, talk about it; when you are asked about teaching, don’t bring the conversation back around to your dissertation.

3. If your job would involve internships, co-curricular programming or liaisons with the community around the school, be able to talk about how your teaching dovetails with that work. Importantly, as Atina pointed out, know that many students can’t afford unpaid internships, and you need to have ideas about how they will be funded.

4. Evoke your classroom when you talk about the teaching you have already done — what do you like about your students? (One prospective job candidate did this beautifully, demonstrating that several years as an adjunct or visitor in the same place, while frustrating, can be a big advantage because you have a chance to develop empathy for your students and talk about them in nuanced ways.) What has worked well for you? Have you done something that failed? How did you address it — or how will you strategize that part of the course next time?

In other news, in the afternoon session, I went to a fantastic roundtable with Mark Bradley, Marilyn Young, Bruce Cumings and Juan Cole on “The United States in Asia, the United States in Iraq: Lessons Not Learned.” It’s often exhausting to think about what the Bush administration does not know, but the discussants laid out some important arguments. Cole placed the war in the context of the Bushies’ failure to understand the dynamics of decolonization, and that the divisions in Iraq had been long repressed by the lethal repressions that the Baath party had been known to use over the period of its dominance. Instead, the Bush administration substituted a decapitation strategy; as Cole quoted Douglas Feith: “Think about Iraq as a computer, Saddam Hussein as a processing chip. Remove Saddam chip and insert Chalabi processing chip.”

I mean, wow.

Bruce Cumings then chimed in with a series of analogies to other presidential administrations, concluding that Bush and Cheney are more contemptuous of domestic and international law than any previous administration and “the most dangerous and reckless administration in the history of the United States.” Cumings also noted the administration’s “complete absence of any sense of history,” and ended by warning the audience that anybody who does not think a long-term occupation of Iraq that does not resolve the fundamental issues at stake is not possible should take a second look at the Korean peninsula, and an occupation that has lasted over sixty years.

Marilyn Young concluded by working against the premise of the panel: the Bush administration did, in fact, learn from Vietnam — they just didn’t learn what we wanted them to know. These lessons include: controlling the press is important, but not always easy; controlling the historical narrative is also important; opponents of the war must be made to feel that it is morally wrong not to “support the troops,” even in a criminal war when they are committing criminal acts; at all costs, avoid a draft; avoid body counts; atrocities should be attributed to “bad apples,” not the nature of the war itself; avoid language that provokes bad memories, such as massacres and the mass death of civilians; when in trouble, up the ante; a war needs heroes; and finally, criticism of previous wars can be usefully invoked, particularly when it leads to the conclusion that the war must be sustained despite criticism or that the problem in the previous war has now been “fixed.”

There was a great discussion, which I won’t summarize: I am happy to say that Juan Cole came out strongly in favor of blogging as a way to get what we know as historians out in a way that makes our knowledge useful to others. Apparently fewer than 1% of the members of the AHA publish in electronic formats. I don’t remember taking this survey, but it sounds reasonable, given that I know a fair number of people in my generation who either don;t know what a blog is or who say flatly, “I don’t read blogs,” as if it were a vice to be avoided. After all, you rarely hear electronic publishing mentioned in any discussion of tenure criteria, and if demographics hold, it should be our younger colleagues who are really jumping on the new media. Bu my guess is they are too busy meeting the old-fashioned expectations of their elders.

In other news: here is Rick Shenckman’s account of yesterday’s proceedings. Also, if you are reading this blog at the AHA — drop by the Inside Higher Ed booth — they are giving away free refrigerator poetry magnet sets.

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