It’s been a week since I got home from two jam-packed days of sessions and panels at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held this year in Chicago. It’s the third time I’ve attended – I also made it to the 2016 and 2018 meetings in Atlanta and Washington D.C., respectively, to speak and hear about career diversity topics – but this was my first meeting as a member of the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee, which seeks to address concerns of graduate students and early career professors nationwide. The AHA has always been something of an overwhelming experience, and one which is heightened by controversy both real and misunderstood, all amplified (in both helpful and excoriating ways) by Twitter, a platform which I tend to use only when provoked into it by large professional gatherings and events such as this (when I really go at it). After a week of mulling it over – and recovering from a strain of germs or two which I suspect I picked up on the journey – I have a few takeaways I’ll carry forward into the next year of work :
1. Thoughtful career diversity planning is here to stay.
Northwestern’s Lindsey Martin, who has previously worked for the University of Chicago’s history department on career diversity initiatives, may have had the quote of the conference for me (and others) when she insisted that “No matter what you do, you are first and foremost a historian if that is how you identify.” This can be a hard truth to accept when you are still a student and working towards the official credential of a degree that will convince us that – at least according to the standards of the academy – we are a ‘real’ historian. It is still my sense after four-ish years of being involved in career diversity programming that it is students, rather than faculty, who are leading the charge towards wanting (and in fact needing) to modulate our career expectations to the reality of the academic job market. (Whether this is entirely fair, or whether departments and universities have to take a hard look at their recruitment models, may depend on how much of a natural cynic you are.) What has become promisingly clear over the past eighteen months is that a huge new body of allies have been found for this process both within alumni groups and academic administrations, leaving individual academic departments somewhat in their dust. In future, I’ll be holding out hope for initiatives from the AHA and elsewhere which might be able to tackle the career diversity problem on a national level, and in ways which students from any part of the country can tap into. A recurring conversation I have had with like-minded students and staff members has been about our sense that many of these programs have spent a lot of time re-inventing the wheel when it comes to starting up career programming in various universities; this is not to devalue the work that has been done, but there might be methods of sharing program goals and structures nationally which could encourage quicker and deeper engagement with resources that can get more students ready for whatever careers they hope to pursue.
2. Graduate student experiences across the country are both universal and siloed.
A lot of my time in graduate school, after the first flush of pride and panic and heavy coursework was over, has been spent groping my way towards a series of realizations which add up to thinking that most of what we are expected to do and how we are expected to act really sucks, and is rather too much for any individual to bear without a heck of a lot of support (financial, emotional, and intellectual). By fourth or fifth year, we communicate with our institutional colleagues and graduate students we meet from other states and universities via a large array of knowing smiles, shrugs, and grimaces – we mutually recognize bureaucratic struggles, insufficient advising, and, on quite a basic level, the inherent ridiculousness that is the set of academic expectations we are supposed to live up to with very little hope of a job waiting for us at the finish line. The AHA meeting helps expose the myriad ways and projects by which student groups around the country are attempting to tackle these issues, from union representation and bargaining to engaging in career diversity programs, mobilizing against abusive administrations and professors, and working in local communities. What I did find frustrating, however, from sitting in on these conversations – and from running a listening session for the GECC which was attended almost entirely by graduate students – were cases where it seemed clear that there was a resource base available for students on many topics, but mechanisms did not exist to expose them to those resources. One problem I hope to help to tackle in the next year is that of establishing clearer lines of communication between the AHA and their graduate student members directly, to share resources already hosted by the AHA and make sure more of us will be able to attend #AHA20 in New York City next January cheaply. I also found myself wondering, after listening to the brilliant voices featured on our committee’s open forum (see this writeup from the History News Network), why a national graduate student union doesn’t exist – something along the lines of the AAUP-CBC might provide a platform for connecting individual student unions to a national conversation or national bargaining tactics or expectations.
3. Conferencing is made so much better by friendly faces!
In the sterile, fluorescent, windowless world that is huge hotels and convention centers, I have tended to rapidly forget what time it is – occasionally even what day it is – and be rendered very dull not only by the long hours, but by the intellectual, social, and physical demands of conferencing (these can be summed up by ‘Pay continuous attention,’ ‘Network until you can’t remember your own name,’ and ‘Definitely pack an extra shirt and breath mints, because you will offend yourself by 5pm’). I was immensely grateful this year, therefore, to have been able to reconnect with Maggie Hoffman, who is doing sterling work for career diversity out of Marquette University, and several other contacts in the Chicago area who I could talk with not only about the professional concerns of the day but about everything else in life and work. It is hugely relieving to spend your conference downtime not alone or flitting around other people’s sessions, screwing up your courage to introduce yourself to yet another stranger, but with someone you know you can have a good time with, whether over coffee in a hotel lobby or while out roaming a cold city in search of food much better than anything you can grab on the fly between panels. I hope to spend a lot more of the coming year staying in touch with those academics I really want to maintain friendships with, and I can’t wait to see what they might be up to by AHA 2020.