From the Electronic Archive: My Second Career at the Same University

Olympia_Typewriter.smThis is a (slightly) shorter version of a presentation I gave eight years ago at the 2008 American Historical Association Conference in Washington, D.C. I wrote it at a time when I had come to terms with some professional challenges. Most immediately, my promotion to full professor gone horribly awry, and as I began to investigate it I came to see the workings of institutional sexism, and the hidden barriers to women’s success, in new ways. Sexism had undermined my self-confidence; this had hindered my ability to move forward with my scholarship in ways that I wanted and desired; and it had delivered other kinds of work to me that, in hindsight, helped me grow in ways I would not fully appreciate for another two years, when I became a successful candidate for other jobs. One aspect of this post that may be useful to others is that it outlines a personal strategy for fitting into the box I was already in, a strategy that included launching Tenured Radical, the blog that moved me into my actual second career — or my third, depending on who’s counting.

It’s very difficult to do a talk like this – one that gives advice, in other words –without universalizing my own specific experiences in a very specific place.   So to begin, let me situate myself in relation to today’s conversation: retention, promotion and quality of life for women in the historical profession. Although I know something about retention, having successfully mediated the retention of others as a chair, I myself have been retained without any effort on the part of anyone. In other words, Wesleyan University, after the heady year in which I was initially hired, has never again had to compete for my services as I have not since been offered another job.

Secondly, promotion, for me, was initially something that went quite well at tenure time, and then didn’t. My multi-year  promotion to become a full professor became an ordeal for everyone, a case the likes of which had never been seen, and it was finally resolved a few days after I got in touch with the AAUP. Whether the two events were connected, I do not know, but they were coincidental. This ordeal is what caused me to invent a second career, because suddenly the one I had — although I had become a full professor, and was awarded all kinds of pay to make up for the delay — I felt like what had bound me to a job I love had become some version of professional roadkill. Yet my quality of life,in objective terms, is the same. I have a good job, a stimulating scholarly environment, wonderful students, many great colleagues, decent health insurance and domestic partner benefits. I have a cheap university mortgage, a nice house and a 2007 Toyota Corolla that I bought on sale. My institution supports my research and my attendance at conferences, and although we at Wesleyan would like to be paid better, I make a good salary.

Sometimes it is a marvel to me that I ever acquired the first career. When I embarked on my graduate education, I never meant to be a professional historian. I just had a vague idea that I would be a writer. In other words, I decided to study history because when I sat in front of my typewriter trying to write fiction, nothing came out. My brain was like a bright room prior to sitting down to write, a room full of ideas and conversations. Then when I rolled a piece of paper into the machine, it was as if someone had pulled the shade and the light went away.  I also knew that when it had come time to buckle down and act like a real writer – as opposed to someone who lived in a cheap East Village apartment in New York, talked about being a writer and went to work at an advertising agency every day– that something was not clicking the way it should. Since I was not accustomed to failure, I simply moved on. Or moved backward, into a place where I was more confident that writing could happen: school. Graduate school.

Even as I applied to graduate school in history in the fall of 1982, it never occurred to me to become a professional historian, but rather a journalist, because that was also a kind of writing I knew I could do. I knew this because I had written for and ultimately become editor in chief of a major college monthly magazine. After graduation, although I was unable to plot a short story, much less imagine motivated fictional characters, I was able to dash off several photography reviews every month for a downtown gay weekly run by men who eventually lost all their ad revenue because of their conviction that AIDS was caused by untreated syphilis. I knew nothing about photography, mind you, beyond what I had learned in an art history survey and a quick read of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which I skimmed the night before the first opening I attended. Rather, I would go look at the pictures, do a little historical research at the New York Public Library, and presto. The words would pour out onto the page.

I remember my youthful lack of direction vividly because, quite honestly, unlike my students who ask me intelligent questions about what I do for a living and why I do it as they are trying to decide whether to go to graduate school, I never asked a single one of my beloved teaching assistants how they had plotted their lives, what they hoped for or even what graduate school was like. Nor did I ask my professors: I simply connected the dots from what I picked up. I was actually quite clear that John Merriman, who had taught me French history, had sprung, full-blown, from the forehead of Charles Tilly; he more or less told me so at a party. And all my friends at Yale knew that being a historian was David Montgomery’s fallback career, once he had to stop being a machinist and an organizer for the United Electical Workers.

And in case you are still wondering whether I, who have been a quite successful academic in the scale of things, am making up all this stuff about my lack of ambition, absorb this fact. When I got into two out of the three graduate schools to which I had applied, I accepted the least prestigious program because:

It was a four-block walk from my house. The other university, you see, would have required a daily train or motorcycle ride uptown. Lucky for me the university I did attend turned out to have wonderful, idiosyncratic graduate students like me, and some pretty devoted teachers. Between these two groups, I got a fine graduate education despite my lack of planning. Even luckier, in the ‘nineties, my university did one of those makeovers you now see on reality TV, and I am now in possession of a very snazzy degree that gets more impressive every year.

One day, because of the nature of my financial aid package, I found myself in a classroom leading a discussion section, and realized that if only I were slightly more focused I could make a very nice living as a university professor while I wrote. One thing led to another, and all of a sudden I found myself on the street with a Ph.D., as they say, in hand. Then came a couple good visiting jobs, and then – mirabile dictu – a tenure track job at a really good liberal arts college where I more or less throve, and then I got tenure. That year my first book was published.   Suddenly I was an actual writer. I remember the day I finally felt that I had succeeded in my first career, because my colleague Renee Romano and I had gone to see Titanic together, which we both agreed was absolutely ripping, and when I got home the book was in the mailbox. I spent the rest of the evening leafing through it, reading my own words, and knowing that whatever had prevented me from writing was over.

Now this is the part of the story where the graduate students and the tenure track faculty sigh and say, “A happy ending!” Well yes, it would be a happy ending, if it were, in fact, the end of the story. And very often when we talk about careers in history it is the end of the story, because the rest of your life is somehow, magically, supposed to take care of itself. Yet there is very little conversation about how any of us plots a career after tenure, or worse, after not getting tenure, or not being reappointed. I was vaguely aware of the dream scenario. You know it too: a dazzling offer lands on the table almost immediately after you get tenure and either you proceed up the academic food chain or your home institution is forced to grapple with How Valuable You Really Are, and you are successfully, as they say, “retained,” with new prestige, fully loaded research accounts, a partner hire and whatnot. Or you are not successfully retained, and tearful goodbyes are said as you proceed to your next job, with graduate teaching, preferably in, or near, a sophisticated city and/or a hotbed of radical thought.

But that does not happen to the vast majority of us, after tenure or ever; or if you have built a life in a particular place, with particular and beloved people who are reluctant to make a new life elsewhere, even with you, you will stay at the same institution for an indefinite period of time. Now add to this the fact that one not so great effect of the tenure system is to bring mobility to a virtual halt at the more senior levels of our profession, and you can perhaps see the crying need to talk about what happens to careers after tenure.

I don’t know what the statistics on job mobility are for senior people, and I am sure they are different at different institutions, but if you look at my department, which has 26 full-time lines, virtually nobody has left in the seventeen years I have been there, except to retire, and for most that is not for lack of publications. One senior woman received an administrative offer from an urban research university that she accepted, and I know of two colleagues, one male and one female, who have received outside offers and decided to stay. But that’s it: about 12%. One thing I will say is that at places like Wesleyan, otherwise known as “selective liberal arts colleges,” or SLACs, when there is movement, the biggest drain on the faculty right now is senior women getting cherry-picked by research institutions, and senior women deciding not to do all the committee work and chairing they have done for free anymore and going into administration. Whether more women than men at SLACS actually leave I don’t know, but when women do leave the institutional impact is far greater because there are simply fewer of us, and those left behind feel the burden of the extra work that tends to fall to women. And I would hazard a guess that, because there are also very few senior women in most R-1 history departments as well, that when a department is pressured to, or is amenable to, increasing the number of women, women at small liberal arts colleges look pretty attractive if they have kept up a reasonable publishing pace, because most of us have done everything. We have had to teach well to survive, we have had to become skilled negotiators to get things done, and we have probably performed every kind of academic labor there is – chaired the department or program, chaired a major university committee, chaired the faculty, run searches, put together tenure and promotion cases. You name it, and we’ve done it, chaired it, or searched for it.   And life after tenure can become consumed with these tasks.

Should you wake up one day and not want to do these things anymore,  should you feel that there must be something more to life than what you have worked and fought for — well, there is no one to give you advice on how to make these changes. As I was beginning to sort out how to make my second career after my promotion troubles wer successfully resolved, I recommenced revisions on a second book that is literally about dead white men – men who were in the first generation of professional historians.   And career advice leaped out of the archive.

This was one of my favorite exemplary tales. Ulrich B. Phillips, perhaps the most famous member of the Dunning school of — to quote W.E.B. DuBois – Reconstruction propaganda, plotted his professional path with a kind of care and stealth that is astonishing even today. As his biographer, Merton Dillon, wrote in 1985, Phillips, after having achieved tenure at the University of Michigan, was ambitious to receive an offer of employment, or a “call” as they referred to it in those days before search committees or the EEOC, to one of the prestigious research universities in the northeast. This was something a native southerner had never achieved and which Dunning, Phillips’ mentor, would not help him do. Dunning believed that southerners, after earning Ph.D.’s at Columbia under his direction, should return south and inspire the natives.

After several years of trying to gin up a good offer with no success, Phillips began to court Lucy Mayo-Smith, who he met in 1909 at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New York. Lucy was the daughter of deceased Columbia historian and statistician Richmond Mayo-Smith. She was also the niece, and ward, of Worthington Ford, a future president of the AHA, a member of the editorial board of the American Historical Review and a member of the AHA Council (in those days the same fellows tended to recycle into both groups regularly, and some, like J. Franklin Jameson, were appointed for decades.) Phillips married Lucy in 1911, and she joined him in Ann Arbor where they set up house. But they may not have entirely unpacked. It was said, Dillon reports, that Lucy was so dearly missed by her extended family network that every Sunday after church the extended clan of Fords and Mayo-Smiths would gather and say a prayer to God that Ulrich would receive a call from Harvard or from Yale. Miraculously, the call came only four years later, and Ulrich and Lucy Phillips’ moved to New Haven where regular family visitations resumed.

I am not suggesting that we all pray for new careers. Although it is said that God helps those who help themselves, divine intervention is an unlikely, and unnecessary, route to professional advancement. What is necessary, I would argue, is to think seriously about what brought you to this profession in the first place, and work specifically to make that thing – or things – happen, regardless of what or who has seemed to limit that in the past. Those things can happen whether you stay where you are, which is most likely, or whether you go somewhere else. Think hard about what keeps you from minimizing those aspects of your work that hinder what you value most: do what you can to eliminate them. This does not mean withdrawing from the life of the institution, but rather doing what you can to focus on what you care about and let go of those things, if you can, that you do because other people (maybe even your friends) care about them.  On this list I would include:

  • eliminating meetings where your presence may be requested but is actually unnecessary;
  • not being in struggle with others when it does not affect the immediate interests of you or your friends;
  • knowing the difference about what kind of engagement deserves a true ethical commitment and what kind of engagement does not;
  • not indulging in unnecessary guilt and self-criticism over mistakes made or priorities misplaced, but simply trying not to “fail better” today;
  • being willing to sit by and watch something be done poorly or not at all without becoming exasperated and stepping in to get it done right.

The reality check that launched my second career in blogging and digital humanities also caused me to revisit my serendipitous path to becoming a professional historian in the first place. While the decisions I made in my first career might have not taken me on the most rational or fully conscious path to success, when I became derailed it was because I temporarily forgot why I had become a historian in the first place: writing, and being a writer. I hadn’t failed; I just hadn’t spent enough time writing. I had assumed that only certain kinds of writing – the scholarship I would be most directly rewarded for – mattered. Following my promotion troubles, I recommitted to my writing and decided that all subsequent efforts in my second career should promote that goal. To the extent that being a professional, university-based historian is consistent with that, my writing life ought to enhance my life as a teacher and institution builder, and vice versa.

What does this mean?

Most important, I write every day, something that makes it possible to be a writer all the time, not just on weekends or on sabbatical. Time spent doing other things is time when I am taking a break from writing, not the other way around. Even if large projects are completed slowly, to write every day is to nurture connection to my writing as primary work – not work that gets done when working for everyone else is finished. In this regard, blogging saved my life. Some of you may know me as the Tenured Radical, a cultural critic, essayist, unrepentant goad to right-wingers and faux Dear Abby for young scholars. Blogging is considered highly suspect by many scholars I know, in part because there are virtually no rules that govern blogging, and the university world is obsessed with rules and the respectability that comes with following the rules. Blogging is also an activity mostly associated with the young, which makes a middle-aged scholar-blogger even more suspect as a serious human being. It also doesn’t make you popular with everyone: some of my colleagues treat me like someone who has taken up competitive skateboarding in middle age. While blogging has involved me in some dicey interactions in the university world, it has also included me in a diverse intellectual circle of people, most of them younger than I, and many of whom are graduate students or contingent faculty. In other words, people I really wouldn’t know otherwise.

Blogging allows me to write short pieces, work on form, voice, and getting complex ideas across to an audience that I need to entice in order to keep them reading. I sometimes compare it to a pianist playing scales: to the extent that blogging is not, perhaps, the most serious scholarly form, to take it seriously is to become a better writer. But best of all, I am read every day and my readers write back. They tell me what they think, and sometimes they tell me that my writing made a difference to them. Sometimes they get angry at me, and because of that I have become a keener listener and grown a tougher hide. I have come to terms with something that is often difficult to face in the scholarly world, particularly given our systems of high-stakes evaluation: that sometimes there are people who really hate what you think is your best work. This has made me a braver writer.

Second, while writing books and articles remains central, I am willing to put scholarship aside for short periods of time to write for traditional print audiences beyond my field and beyond academia. Most, although not all, of these opportunities have come from blogging, and blogging has engaged me in a much broader discussion about what it is intellectuals have to offer to the public at a moment where ideas seem to be less and less capable of generating political or institutional action. Blog posts of mine have ended up linked to the Chronicle of Higher Education, to an increasingly influential internet publication called Inside Higher Ed, and they have caused editors of essay collections and weekly newspapers to approach me to write for them. Best of all, I am more likely to approach editors with ideas – and to succeed in getting something placed. Some of these people even pay me. And while I am no less committed to my research and scholarly writing, you would be surprised at how energizing it can be to a book project that will take months or years yet to complete, when you can also write a 600 word piece on Monday and see it published on Friday.

I offer these examples not to say that I have life all figured out, but rather to say that this strange path has revealed to me the real limitations of how we currently imagine a scholarly life should play out after tenure, and what role institutions – universities, colleges – can and should usefully play in that. First, I do not begrudge the amount of thought and effort that goes into mentoring people from graduate student to tenured professor. But the fact is that a great many people never have the opportunity to travel that path, and even for those who do, a lifetime sinecure is not the answer to everything, even if it is not interrupted, as mine was, with a moment of profound doubt and re-evaluation. Second, while I would advocate for a serious discussion in universities and in the professional associations about what a life after tenure should look like, it should be a discussion that looks at the advantages and disadvantages of keeping so many people frozen in what can be a forty-year career in the same institution. If we do think that is an advantage, or even unavoidable, then we need to begin to talk to each other about how to shape institutions to offer us internal flexibility and change over time, to help individuals learn new skills, explore new avenues and shift – or eliminate –work that has become burdensome.

Finally, I would be surprised if I were the only person I know who temporarily lost touch with the literary ambitions that brought me to my work as a professional historian in the first place. In my second career, it was writing I needed to come back to, and fortunately, this is consistent with a central value of universities and will, whatever people think about blogging, probably continue to enhance a more or less traditional career. But that might not be so for everyone, and to the extent that imagining a second career as part of a life trajectory would require reforming our assumptions about what kinds of personal and professional fulfillment tenure can actually promise, it might also require coming to terms with creating new institutional structures where people can be helped to choose different careers at different times in their lives.

Postscript: I had a final shock coming in 2011, when I was offered the job I am now in at The New School, which is that Wesleyan did very little to keep me. They met the outside offer, but did not exceed it; nor did the administration work with me to imagine how supporting the digital humanities work I was doing could be unseen capital in that project. This struck me as odd, since outside offers had always been pointed to as the principle way of demonstrating one’s value: what I had not noticed is that nearly all women who had received outside offers had left the university. There are a couple of lessons in this that may be useful to others. One was offered by a senior colleague who had just changed jobs, who advised me not to solicit a counter offer at all, since I was essentially asking the University of Orange to imagine valuing me as much as my suitor, the University of Apple, did. I wish I had followed that advice. A second lesson, however, may be far more useful: while not denying that sexism was a terrible problem at my old job, my efforts did nothing to change that. Coming to terms with not being valued in the ways one wishes to be valued, and at the same time doing the work in which one believes,  may be the braver and better path to intellectual and professional freedom. A third is that losing value at one institution does not necessarily degrade your value elsewhere: indeed, that thing that has caused you to become less respected at your current institution — in my case, digital humanities and administrative expertise — might be precisely the thing that someone else wants.

2 thoughts on “From the Electronic Archive: My Second Career at the Same University

  1. Thanks for writing this and reposting, too. Not at all my trajectory, but provides points of reflection as I consider my own ideals, successes, burns and restorations. Surprise has been a power throughout my career and the more open I’ve been the stronger the writing has become.


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