Monday, January 24, 2005


Age of anxiety

This weekend the latest issue of Perspectives, the magazine of the American Historical Association, arrived in the mailboxes of historians around the country. Apparently Jason Kuznicki and I had very similar reactions to two of the articles.

There was yet another job market report that seemed to suggest things are bad -- and not getting any better. The supply of job candidates continues to outstrip the demand for tenured junior faculty, and the numbers are especially discouraging for an American historian like myself, since my field is overrepresented in the numbers of doctorates awarded every year.

Perhaps the editorial staff at Perspectives knew the effect that such an article would have on anxious graduate students like Jason and myself, because they packaged the report with a feature on the Beyond Academe website. The site is run by two historians who are not academics, and it is an upbeat and generally convincing account of the grass on the other side. Apparently, some of it really is greener. But the fact that I say "it really is greener" (no, really) is one of the problems with the academic job market. Why do so many graduate students reach the precipice of graduation with the idea that the alternatives to an academic job are hopelessly bleak?

One explanation is institutional. As Jason points out, many graduate programs in history do little to encourage students to seek out nonacademic jobs, nor do they prepare students for the possibility that they will need to compete for some job other than a faculty position.
Forgive me for repeating myself, but if only one third of all PhDs in history ever end up working as academic historians, and if two thirds end up elsewhere, shouldn't the academy focus more--rather than less--on securing jobs for the majority? It may be easier to help place students in teaching positions, but it can't be that hard to place them elsewhere: Two nonacademics with a website are already doing more in their spare time than many entire departments.
As the Beyond Academe authors point out, however, the resistance of departments to training for jobs outside the academy has little to do with how easy it would be from an institutional perspective. The resistance is better explained by socialization. There is an unspoken presumption among academics that leaving the academy represents either professional failure or a loss of interest in intellectual life. As Jason says, "it's not usually an explicit prejudice in academia, but it's certainly there beneath the surface."

What prevents graduate students from seeking jobs out of the academy may not necessarily be a lack of preparation or professional training for such jobs. I suspect that, for many potential employers, simply having a doctorate gives a job candidate an immediate advantage. Corporations and non-profit organizations, unlike universities, are used to having to provide additional on-the-job training to employees. So I don't really fault history graduate programs for preparing people to be academics, since this preparation does a reasonably good job of preparing one for nonacademic jobs as well. Rather, what needs to be corrected is the idea--a relatively recent one in the long run--that only academics are intellectuals, and that only students who move immediately into a tenure-track position have succeeded.

Job market woes are always fueled by particular definitions of the job market. If we enter graduate school with the expectation that it will guarantee us a posh position at a tier-one research university in an urbane location, with a package that includes plenty of time and money to jet around to conferences in Hawaii and Italy, then we are bound to be disappointed. We know this. But what we are less likely to accept is that even our expectations of receiving an academic job might be defined too narrowly.

There is something about academia that is almost redolent of gymnastics programs in Eastern European countries. We are drilled to accept the idea that our deprivations (low stipends and a lack of financial self-sufficiency) will all seem worth it when our anthem is sung and the medal is hung around our neck. No wonder we find ourselves in tears at the prospect of receiving a bronze medal! We have been conditioned to think of bronze as failure, because our trainers know that is the only condition under which we will accept the self-discipline required to go for the gold. The obvious way out of this dilemma, though, is to banish the idea that there is a chasm of difference between bronze and gold, or even that the beauty and athleticism of bodies and minds can be assigned absolute values.

Anxiety about the job market befalls every graduate student sooner or later. We can prepare ourselves for academic jobs or non-academic jobs, but either way we will feel a certain amount of anxiety about leaving behind the known for the unknown. Recently I read parts of a short book on writing by Heather Sellers, in which she advises the aspiring writer to "study anxiety." She even recommends this exercise to writers who constantly struggle with self-doubt. (I tried it, so I can vouch for the method.) Take a blank sheet of paper, give yourself three minutes, and write down your 25 top writing fears, without stopping to think about them -- remember, you only have three minutes, so you have to tap your anxiety and let it flow.

The idea is to acquaint yourself with your anxieties -- even befriend them. Fears and self-doubts come with the territory of writing, so when they come around, that's a good thing. As Sellers says, it means you are a writer. Plus, once you are acquainted with your worst fears about your writing, your anxiety loses the strategic element of surprise. The next time those anxieties begin creeping up from the corners of your mind, you can invite them to pull up a chair and sit around, just like overly familiar, slightly annoying, but oddly comforting friends. This advice about writing may be worth applying to the job market as well. Study anxiety. Figure out what it really is that worries me. Defuse the power of my fears with the antidote of familiarity.

One conclusion I've drawn from my anxiety studies is this: Fears about job security are a normal part of being young. High school graduates who go to college manage to put off these fears about the future for four years or so. Those who go on to graduate school postpone the fears for another four or five or six years. By the time the graduate student approaches the job market -- academic or otherwise -- these fears have often grown more acute precisely because more time has passed. Life seems shorter. The urgency of fears about the future are heightened. And this understandably makes those of us who have been in school for years uneasy. But it helps to remember that it is not an unusual fear. It is simply one that we are feeling later than many of our peers.

Everyone faces a similarly liminal moment in life -- a precarious point of balance between the familiar past and the unfamiliar future. Realizing the normalcy of that anxiety takes some of the edge off, or at least it should. In Auden's masterful longer poem, "The Age of Anxiety," one of the characters, Emble, personifies the kind of liminal state I'm describing. In a few strokes, Auden sketches a man who is not very different from many graduate students:
Having enlisted in the Navy during his sophomore year at a Mid-Western university, he suffered from that anxiety about himself and his future which haunts, like a bad smell, the minds of most young men, though most of them are under the illusion that their lack of confidence is a unique and shameful fear which, if confessed, would make them an object of derision to their normal contemporaries. Accordingly, they watch others with a covert but passionate curiosity. What makes them tick? What would it feel like to be a success? Here is someone who is nobody in particular, there even an obvious failure, yet they do not seem to mind. How is that possible? What is their secret.
If graduate students cannot recognize some of themselves in Emble, his later monologue on the Fifth Age of Man cannot fail to sound familiar:
EMBLE said:
Why leave out the worst
Pang of youth? The princes of fiction,
Who ride through risks to rescue their loves,
Know their business, are not really
As young as they look. To be young means
To be all on edge, to be held waiting in
A packed lounge for a Personal Call
From Long Distance, for the low voice that
Defines one's future. The fears we know
Are of not knowing. Will nightfall bring us
Some awful order--Keep a hardware store
In a small town. ... Teach science for life to
Progressive girls--? It is getting late.
Shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply
Not wanted at all?
I wonder whether Auden cribbed that speech from his own top-25 list of writing fears. If so, perhaps verbalizing the anxiety and giving it a name helped. Hello, Emble, old friend. Pull up a chair. As long as you're here, I know that my pangs are those of youth. And those, in many ways, are still the sweetest pangs of all.

Collective Improvisation:
Auden and the graduate job market, who woulda thought it--but it suddenly all makes such sense! Very nice post. 

Posted by rob

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/25/2005 04:11:00 PM : Permalink  

Auden and postgrads--it suddenly all makes sense! Especially like the East-European gymnast comparisons, also--although does that mean supervisors administering steroids? Who knows, it might even aid completion rates.

Very nice post. 

Posted by rob

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/25/2005 04:20:00 PM : Permalink  

Auden and postgrads--it suddenly all makes sense! Especially like the East-European gymnast comparisons, also--although does that mean supervisors administering steroids? Who knows, it might even aid completion rates.

Very nice post.

Posted by rob

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/25/2005 05:09:00 PM : Permalink  

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