some aha reflections

I’m back from San Diego and the AHA and have a few simple reflections to my conference experience this year. This is my fourth AHA, and the first to meet in a place where the weather was positively excellent. And that’s reflection #1- the AHA needs to break out of the ridiculous cycle of Northeast/Midwest cities (with the occasional diversion), and make the Southwest/West coast a regular feature. The city’s are set for the next six years or so, and where are we going? Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington, New York, Atlanta. You see the pattern here– north and east (plus Chicago) for two years, then south or very occasionally west. They really should consider swapping the cycle, because the weather made this a much nicer experience.

Of course, for me it was a nicer experience as well because I wasn’t interviewing for a job, interviewing others for a job, or doing the publisher-please-i’m-begging-you-read-my-book-proposal tap dance. Instead, I participated on a roundtable, went to a handful of panels, and saw old friends from grad school and from my Fulbright-Hays days in Ecuador. A few of them I hadn’t seen in years. The proximity to the bar scene of the Gaslamp District certainly greased the gears of hanging out with old friends. And, without those other pressures, the conference this year was, for me, relaxed. I think in part that was also the result of the relatively dearth of ABD and other job-seeker angst. And that’s a bad thing. The job center was practically hidden off of an outdoor terrace at the Marriott, and the signage was poor. This meant two things– 1. Crowds (had there been any) of job seekers were far away from the central nodes of the Hyatt’s conference registration, hall of books, and presentation rooms; and, 2. The general sense that there are no jobs this year was heightened.

There is a lively discussion going on this year about just what the downturn in the job market this year and last signifies for the profession, sparked in part by Robert B. Townsend’s release of the AHA’s own jobs report in the days before the conference. I really like the critiques of that report in the posts by Historiann and Marc Bosquet. It is simply galling to blame an overproduction of PhDs for the disjunctures of the academic job market. The reality is that there is an overproduction on in relation to tenure-track positions. The casualization of academic labor over the past two decades has produced the veneer of a supply-side problem, but the reality is that classes still have to get taught and college/university enrollment is at an all-time high. (According to the linked stats, enrollments grew from 1987-1997 by 14%, and again from 1997-2007 by 26%. They cite a total of 18.2M enrollees in the nation’s colleges and universities.) There’s really no question what is happening– as the NYTimes reported just a few days ago, in 1960, 75% of faculty were tenured or tenure-track. Now, that number is 27%. With the highest college enrollments in US history. Who’s doing the teaching? Grad students, lecturers, and adjuncts, paid pitiful wages with no benefits. There isn’t a supply-side problem, there is a complete devaluing of educational and disciplinary expertise by the very people who produce this expertise.

Unfortunately, a number of friends are caught in the trap this has produced. None of us entered grad school thinking we were guaranteed a job, more less a great R1 job.  But, these friends are solid academics and dedicated teachers who should have a permanent home in the academy. I did not go to a top 5 program in the country, and we knew from day one that we had to do extra in order to compete on the market. But, historically speaking, the program I attended had great success in placing candidates who put forth the serious effort– get nationally competitive funding, chose a smart dissertation topic, teach a few classes, demonstrate the capacity to publish, and actively share one’s research at regional and national conferences. These were the expectations we had for ourselves- it was our grad school culture. If you could do this you could get a job. My friends have done all of that, and they’re stuck. And they’re stuck not just because of the economy, but even more so because of the appalling statistics on casual labor and the university.

So, the AHA was a weird place to be this year It was smaller, because so fewer candidates and programs were interviewing. Travel budgets have been cut. These realities settled into a conversational malaise for many who were there. But, it also meant (at least for me) that the AHA was a conference for panel-going, networking, and seeing old friends. CLAH has established itself as a veritable conference within the conference, and for a Latin American historian, it certainly makes the experience more positive. For years I was told one just should never go to the AHA without some form of job-search related task or requirement. But, the consolidation of CLAH as, almost, a top-notch parallel conference to the AHA. Plus, at least some of us Latin Americanists stick with out own sense of informality and dress like we’re at LASA instead of all the damn formality of our Americanist and Europeanist colleagues.

The big story of CLAH this year was the celebration of Stuart Schwartz’s career– with numerous awards and panels held in his honor. I had intended to get to the two panels honoring his work, but didn’t quite make it due to other obligations. I did, however, go to a great panel on Spanish American independence that had two very solid papers by Marcela Echeverria and Olga Gonzalez-Silen, to a roundtable proffered by CLAH’s Mexican Studies Committee on teaching, reading, and writing violence in Mexico, to another great panel reconsidering the spiritual conquest of Mexico (and thus re-visiting the word of Robert Ricard), as well as a few others on Latin America. I also at the Google Books panel, which I’m planning on writing about in the context of the Digital Humanities/New Media Studies debate that’s been circulating the twitter and blog rounds today. And also my own panel, which I’m going to include in that discussion.

One final note– the controversy over Doug Manchester left me feeling very ambivalent. As with many others, I was happy to see that this controversy led to the most extensive inclusion of GLBT panels of any AHA before. Having those panels in the Hyatt negated the possibility of boycotting the space, now, didn’t it? And any grad student who had an interview in a suite in the Hyatt should have felt no compunction walking into the garish lobby. It’s hard to imagine that the AHA as an association should be responsible for vetting the politics of every hotel owner six or seven years in advance– and backing out would have been pretty disastrous financially for the association. I think the special, dedicated mini-conference on marriage and sexuality was a good response. And I say all this because, well, hotels are owned by individuals and groups of individuals whose politics I will invariably disagree with. And they profit off of the conferences by having the facilities capable of holding a meeting for 5,000 people. The Marriott had fucking Fox News running in the elevator. I complained. They didn’t turn it off. Seventeen floors of Sean Hannity ever time I went to my room highlighted the extent to which the Marriott chain which was founded by Mormons, who supported Prop 8 with $$s and bodies. I resent the gender and cultural roles Paris Hilton has played in the past decade’s rise of raunch culture. Giving money to any giant hotel chain means one is giving money to rich assholes whose politics I loathe.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Conference Reports, Digital History, Latin American History, Panic and Terror
5 comments on “some aha reflections
  1. I enjoyed your conference tweets a great deal, but it’s also nice to read something a bit longer and clearer!

    One of the things I love about the AHA is that it’s a chance to be exposed to historians working in other fields, and this is a great extension of that.

  2. ctb says:

    Thanks, Jonathan. One of the things I love about twitter, digital history, and the historical blogosphere is that it extends that conference exposure experience year round and daily.

  3. Katrina says:

    I also had fun at this year’s AHA – including meeting you and the other #twitterstorians.

    I too was not interviewing, so had a pretty relaxed time (I gave a paper).
    The numbers did seem massively down on previous years, but I don’t know if people were there just enjoying San Diego rather than attending panels!

    Regarding the boycott, I’ve explained my views in detail elsewhere, but I would like to note that it is possible to attend the AHA without staying at the conference hotel. In Philly a few years back I stayed at a cute B&B, walking distance from the convention, for half the official hotel rates. There are always other options nearby, although it might help if the AHA (local organising committee?) put out a list of non-skanky hotels near the convention, as well as the DoubleMarriHyatton where they have the group room rate.

  4. ctb says:

    Hi Katrina– it was nice to meet you too and the other #twitterstorians. I did see your earlier post on the boycott. You are, of course, correct in noting that people can stay elsewhere. It is the case, though, that sometimes departments/universities require or encourage (depending on the situation) people to stay at conference hotels. If involved in interviewing others, for example. It’s even a checkbox on the submission form.

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