It’s springtime in England, and for students everywhere this means late nights staring at blank screens, anxiety over pointless essays and exams, fruitless searches for spare change in the back of the sofa, paralysing boredom, and the inevitable feeling that your life is slipping away. For those of you contemplating a career in history, brace up: you’re supposed to prefer the company of dead people…in archives, in committee meetings, and at conferences…As Robert Sklar once told me, it’s all downhill after 21, so enjoy being miserable in your own youthful way. And for me, being a curmudgeon has its perks; I don’t do social media, so the younger generation still has to write to me. Here are some vignettes to take the sting out of the essay, the revision, and all the other academic anxieties.
The Case of the Superstar Twitterer:
Hey Professor, I’ve just started my semester and wanted some advice. Two of the classes were fine, but the third guy gave us an assignment in the first seminar. Okay, I am not kidding…We had to either follow him on Twitter or join his Facebook page for his new book (very prominently displayed in his class PowerPoint). Will I fail the class participation part of the seminar if I don’t? Is this normal? — Andy
Dear Andy, You mean he didn’t ask you to add to his wikipedia page too? From what you’ve told me about this guy, it looks like in his little world, this is normal, and you will fail class participation if you take the high road and say you’re only on Instagram. Really sorry, but this is what happens when you cross social media with a diversified curriculum.
The Perils of Co-Supervision:
Hey Professor, I’m halfway through my PhD at S*** University, and just found out my two supervisors are having an affair (they’re both married to other people). Should I change supervisors? Wouldn’t it look bad getting rid of both? — Anna
Hi Anna, Well, now you know why you should avoid co-supervision at all costs. It doesn’t look good. I hope they aren’t married to other academics at your university. If there’s a breakup, both of them will pick over your thesis when they aren’t attacking each other. If they’re together– well, they aren’t thinking much about your writing– or anything else. But all supervisors have the potential to be lethal. A big name is useful, but the person is very often “past it,” and doesn’t give you the necessary attention. Young academics will be brilliant and au courant, but totally focused on their own work and perspective, and if you deviate…well, you’re in the shit again. If you’re a straight woman and have a straight man or (yikes!) men as thesis advisors, you’ve got other potential problems — even in the #MeToo era. As you’re already in a program and have grad student colleagues, you must know who is civilized and reasonably supportive and not a creep. If his/her work overlaps with yours in any way, it’s a reasonable request to ask for that person to take over your supervision. It helps if they have some clout and have as many if not more connections than your current supervisors. If they accept, then a meeting with the dean will seal things and you can send your love birds a short, meaningless email. They shouldn’t bother you– they’ll be too worried you’ll tell their spouses.
Historiography is Driving Me Crazy:
Dr. J, My history class is driving me crazy. The teacher assigns nothing but Althusser, Foucault, and Derrida for us to read. When I started my degree I really wanted to be a historian and now I’m told there is no such thing as objectivity, facts are all lies, and I’ll never be able to know anything for certain ever. I’ve never had counselling before but am now seriously considering it. What should I do? –Fred
Dear, dear Fred. You are not alone. The stuff you are reading drove Althusser crazy too and he topped his wife. Your lecturer is not a schizophrenic, like Louis A, but a sadist. Donald Trump didn’t invent fake news, but he’s certainly profited from the theorists who cut their own scaffolding away from history and created the concept. There is a way through this. Breathe deeply and go outside for a long walk in the sunshine. If you live in England and have no direct access to sunlight, then order some pizza and watch something with sun like The Swiss Family Robinson (1960). There is nothing like carbs and the Disney version of the patriarchy (John Mills) to cheer you up. Then, don’t read any history for a week. Then, read only Carl Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian” (1931). It is short, it is readable, and it will restore your faith that history, theory, and good style are not mutually exclusive. Then, change your class.
A Four-Star C***:
Dear Professor, We met a few years ago at S*** conference. I’ve published my first book at last (!) and I wanted to ask you some advice. I was lucky to get a few good reviews in journals and even a blip on the BBC, but I noticed on Amazon that I had a 1-star rating from a few people– and two of them were because the book arrived late from the seller and had bad packaging– the rating had nothing to do with my content. Another (signed) post was from a colleague at another university I don’t get along with on a personal level. I wrote to Amazon about the bad product posts and didn’t get any reply. What should I do? — Carrie
Hey Carrie, Congratulations on the book and the good reviews. But you really know you’ve arrived when you get shafted on Amazon or Goodreads or any of the other online platforms– and over packaging. Not much you can do except encourage a couple of colleagues to post more relevant comments and hope they do it. I cringe over this myself–can’t ask– and then when I see someone’s post whom I recognize I get all embarrassed. Please don’t do what I’ve seen other (ahem…senior) academics stoop to and have their spouse or sister or brother-in-law rate the book 5-star. Here’s a funny story: the wife of an aged prof colleague got annoyed with me and went on the rampage, giving all my books 1-star. Hell hath no fury, right? My advice is just take your time and find your audience. If half of the people who read you seek your stuff out because they like what you write and the other half are annoyed by it, you’re doing all right.
Dr. J, Are conferences a complete waste of time and money? — Ben
Dear Ben, Shhh. Yes. Unless they are in an exotic locale, you are the keynote speaker, all expenses are paid, and there are more than 4 good bars in a 500-foot radius of the conference hotel. Alas, if you are a bullied junior colleague, they will put the thumbscrews on to make you shell out your diminishing pay check on conference-related expenses. The theory is, they are an investment— and then when you get a decent salary, you spend it paying off the debts accrued in order to get where you are. Nice system?
The Woes of Working Parenthood:
Dr. J, How is it possible to be a single parent and work in academia full time? I can’t afford childcare on my pay, and since I’ve taken up a post at S*** College, which is across the country from where my mom lives, I don’t have any cheap childcare options. They are in school, holidays never overlap, I have to drop off and get them– can’t always be asking friends to do it. I want to save some money, but I’ve basically given up any hope of a liveable retirement income. I just hope I live long enough to get the kids through college and then I can drop dead and not have to pay the mortgage. Help. –Oonagh
Oonagh, I am with you. It’s been 12 years, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. And of course, you are expected to write and get grants and travel for long periods of time for research…And they never think about who will watch your kids or who will pay for watching your kids. That’s why I don’t do grants any more. Academia is not for the likes of us, girl. It’s for dual income households, married academics, stingy single people who can afford mini-breaks to Bali, and the white men of the ivory tower who married their secretaries. Okay, I have some solutions for you. Join your union and read up on employment law in your spare time. Yes, I know: spare time–who has that? Kids on holiday when you have to teach? Give ’em some education and bring them to class. Late departmental seminars and events? Don’t go. And call me Jen.
Dear Jen, The dean has invited me to dinner with a few other colleagues for some bigwig they’re giving an honorary degree to later in the year. Should I take the kids to that?
Oonagh, You could take one as your plus one. Have you had a raise recently? My preferred response would be to email his (I presume it’s a him) secretary and say you can’t unfortunately as you don’t have enough money for the babysitter this month.
Hey Professor, Is it worth it working super-hard at uni, only to get a 2:1? I am always in the library or revising in my flat, and even though I have tried to keep up with readings over the year, I am really overwhelmed with essays. –Ed
Dear Ed, Time spent on a good Second is time wasted. I didn’t say it– Evelyn Waugh did. Aim for a First or — if you have a rich parent– a Third. If I knew the secret of undergraduates getting a First I would be a rich parent. But get your books out early and stay away from the library during exam time; the atmosphere is awful.
Dear Dr. J., I’m currently doing a joint degree in IR and Politics and want to switch my major to Film Studies, but I’m afraid my parents will kill me when I tell them. Help! –Annie
Annie, They are going to kill you. Or disinherit you. Thing is, they want value for money. And you don’t want to die of boredom in a job you hate for the next thirty years. But you do want a job, so you could
a) compromise by changing to Economics and minor in Media Studies (film is so over!)
b) be a dutiful daughter and be miserable and support your parents in their dotage as a global financial consultant (or whatever people do with an IR/Pol degree)
c) change the major, delay telling them– if possible till graduation day– and then disown them.
Not Taken Seriously:
Dear Professor: I want to write my dissertation on the Disney Princess franchises, but I’m worried I won’t be taken seriously. –Janice
Dear Janice, You should be worried. Just kidding.