Publication Date

May 1, 1994

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

"Lost Generation" Knows No Gender

In her recent discussion of "The Academic Marketplace and Affirmative Action" (Perspectives, December 1993, page 7), historian Nell Irvin Painter suggests that “the lost generation” of scholars is a continuing victim of employment policies in academic institutions. As I read the description of that group, a group of which I am a part, I wondered how the experience of others so lost compares to my own. I wondered if they, like me, more often feel a loser than a member of something as exotic as a generation of gypsy scholars. Do they, as I do, wonder what went wrong? What did we do wrong? When?

I entered graduate school in the fall of 1977 anxious to begin a new life, excited by the new social history and a cast of characters at Rutgers University that I still remember with affection. I hit the U.S. history survey as a teaching assistant for Richard P. McCormick and Lloyd Gardner. We were a dozen TAs, a group hungry to learn and talk history. We argued in classes and agonized over the virtues and faults of the historiography. On good days we sat around a seminar table laboring over a text in cultural history while Warren Susman, who later became my advisor, in turn prodded, shouted, and muttered at us.

I felt alive, challenged, and came to believe that I would be able to make it. I loved the classroom, as student and as teacher. As the years went by, I defeated the odds (can a working class kid from North Dakota get so lucky?) and received all the right fellowships: a Danforth Fellowship, a Rutgers Fellowship, a dissertation fellowship from the American Association of University Women. With the support of a strong committee, I completed my dissertation research and defended in 1982.

By that time, I had accepted a one-year appointment to Bennington College. After three one-year appointments there, I received a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship at New York University. During the time at Bennington and NYU, I interviewed periodically for jobs but did not receive any offers. My spirits began to lag as I tried to understand why. Did I need a book contract? Publications? (By the time I left NYU I had two.) Should I give talks, papers at conferences (I did). Was I a bad candidate at an interview? Was it because my advisor died? Because one of the members of my committee was a European historian? Was it because I was a woman? Was it because I wrote about the lives of nineteenth-century prostitutes? Was it simply me?

I felt the weight of defeat increase. Slowly I decided that I just wasn't good enough. Old fears of inadequacy that any Midwesterner feels on the East Coast returned. When one spring I had nothing under contract after July, I moved to Maine. Surely I could be a part of the Portland Renaissance. Unfortunately, it ended as I arrived and after two years of near poverty doing interesting assignments for public radio and local humanities groups, I returned to one-year contracts, this time at my old alma mater.

At this point, I decided to pursue my teaching by applying to prep schools, a kind of institution I didn't understand but was told was a golden opportunity for someone who wanted to teach. I received a job in one, a large one, committed to excellence but burdened by hundreds of years of white male tradition. There I learned the meaning of James Baldwin's phrase "the rage of the disesteemed." I began to have feminist nightmares: I was sleeping and I felt someone trying to smother me, or I opened my mouth to speak in a meeting and my voice was gone. The classroom, the one space in which I had always felt comfortable, a space I was told was my natural space, became a proving ground. Could I, not a man, lead a flawless discussion of ten pages of a textbook, teasing out meaning but not talking more than the students? More important, could I put aside, erase from my brain, all that I had learned in graduate school and relearn high school history, names and dates and political history? Could I keep writing without the support of the school or a cohort of like-minded individuals? Was this better than being "lost"?

The match was, and remains, a problematic one. And now, as I consider my situation, I wonder about the roads not taken, the roads down which I intended to go but was not able to follow. How different is life in other institutions "of higher learning" for one now a committed feminist? We have here the walls of white male portraits that stand as an obstacle to feeling a part of the institution, the same portraits Lani Guinier wrote recently that she stared at when she returned to Yale Law School after thirty years. We have here the white male fear of affirmative action, the fear that excellence will be compromised, the same fear that Nell Painter explored as part and parcel of the academy across the nation. We have here the denial that the portraits oppress, the denial that the institution falls short in its affirmative action efforts.

What we also have here is wonderful students who look to you with an eagerness that on a bad day sustains you. They don't understand that you are "lost," that you didn't imagine that you would be teaching kids with braces who still sleep with stuffed animals. They are the lure which keeps you attached, keeps you struggling to find a way to survive, to disprove the feminist wisdom that women cannot change institutions, that they must leave them or find a corner in them, separate from the rest.

I wish I knew how others of the lost generation stay alive, how they sustain the love of history that graduate school instilled, the need to write and talk about that history with people who share the same experience. And I wonder how many of those lost souls are women like me, women whose graduate training shaped a feminist consciousness that helped to quiet the fears of personal failure only to awaken greater fears about the status of women.

I can't imagine that those of us who have remained outside the traditional academy will ever find a way back, graying as we are, and I am not sure who or what was lost. But I know that I have gained a sense of being part of women's history in the years I have spent wondering.

Marcia Carlisle
Phillips Exeter Academy

No Reassurance in Job Statistics

As one who has been on the job market for four years (Ph.D., 1991), I am gratified to hear from Prof. Nell Irvin Painter (Perspectives, December 1993) that I have nothing to fear but fear itself. Over the past four years I have applied for more than seventy-five jobs, and received only two interviews. Rejection letters, however, inform me that I was one of 350 “highly qualified applicants.” I do not fear competition from “other white people,” as Painter so delicately puts it, nor from minorities or women. At this point I fear being forced out of the profession entirely.

Having taught graduates and undergraduates basic skills, survey courses, and advanced seminars for more than a decade, I despair at ever being offered a full-time position. I am now teaching at three universities, not one of which offers full benefits to adjunct faculty. More and more universities hire part time at bargain rates, and I resent Painter's smug reassurances from her Princeton office that there is no crisis in the academic job market and that affirmative action is not an issue. (I have, of course, also considered the possibility that the dearth of interviews is because my degree is from CUNY instead of Columbia.)

Sadly, one job listing drives home the point: "History, any field. As part of the efforts by the State University of New York System to identify qualified underrepresented minority applicants for faculty positions within the SUNY system, the history department of the University of Albany is assembling a minority vita bank … ." I am apparently ineligible even to apply for a possible future position within SUNY based on what I look like in the shower. Indeed, we have turned Martin Luther King on his head—it is not the content of our credentials, but the color of our skin that qualifies us for appointments in SUNY. How does this square with the AHA's policy statement: "Job discrimination is illegal, and open hiring on the basis of merit depends on fair practice in recruitment, thereby ensuring that all professionally qualified persons may obtain appropriate opportunities. Candidates should be evaluated exclusively on professional criteria and should not be discriminated against on the basis of sex, race, color… ." On that basis the AHA should have rejected the SUNY ad. However, the policy excepts "those cases in which federal law allows specific preference in hiring." Since federal law recognizes "protected classes," the AHA policy statement is meaningless.

When I applied for a position at a small liberal arts college, I received a hand-written letter from the department chair. After noting he was impressed by my credentials, he added, "What we are looking for, alas, is an African American." A once legitimate quest has become an obsession. Some universities are at least up front about it and want resumes sent directly to the affirmative action office, which will presumably make the first cut before passing on the approved list to the department.

Along with preferential hiring practices, which Painter refuses to acknowledge, more insulting evidence can be found in the OAH requirements for its annual convention: "The program committee actively seeks to avoid gender-segregated sessions. The joint committee likewise will work to follow … guidelines of having … individual sessions, to the extent possible, represent the full diversity of the … membership." Can we historians, we who operate in the realm of ideas, not be trusted to evaluate the work of our colleagues without considering race and gender? Are sessions rejected if they are not as diverse as the "committee" wishes? Will they ultimately assign a monitor to observe each session to judge whether the audience is sufficiently diverse?

The opening sentence of Painter's badly reasoned, badly written, and patronizing article is incomprehensible: "In the good old days, it is said, the people—mostly men—who became historians were like Henry Adams: independently wealthy and/or married (in the formal or informal sense) to women who assured their standard of living." How were historians married in the "informal sense"? And what historical style accepts "in the good old days" or "it is said"? ("Said by whom," I would scribble in the margin of an undergraduate's essay.) Painter offers a past of wealthy, white, male, and, I expect, Protestant historians, as if Henry Adams was typical of his generation of scholars. I do thank her for the suggestion that I marry a wealthy woman "in the informal sense," perhaps in the capacity of a kept historian.

Painter's elliptical remarks about gender politics are equally indecipherable: "But, as feminists say, the personal is the political (here the academic)." And what is one to make of her paranoid claim that "men seem to be holding their own better in history than in other comparable fields"? Has Painter finally exposed the great secret conspiracy to keep women out of the profession, that all of us men are banding together in a last, desperate rear-guard action, holding off a tide of women and persons of color? How disappointing to read such unsophisticated analysis in Perspectives, that historians are classified by their physical characteristics rather than their contributions to the profession.

The assumption behind much of the affirmative action thinking is that there must be discrimination if women are not the statistical equals of men among the universe of history graduate students. Does this not insult the decisions of those who chose one discipline over another, as if the choice was the result of impersonal forces rather than a love of the subject? I chose to study first European intellectual history, and then American urban and social history. What did my gender have to do with it? My teachers, male and female, inspired me in a love for the field, and I elected to turn my life in that direction. Does Painter mean that I chose as I did because I am white, male, and Protestant?

I am not afraid of competition in the job market, nor am I pining for Painter's "good old days" when my advisor could assure my future. I am simply disgusted by the rosy tinge she applies to the job market. I appreciate her concern that "historians who have been peripatetic and/or underemployed ought not to be carelessly shunted aside." But it is too late.

Jeffrey A. Kroessler
Queens College, CUNY
Adelphi University
Long Island University

Serious Job Problems Require Serious Attention

The letters from Marcia Carlisle and Jeffrey Kroessler in this issue, and Andrew Gyory's letter in the April issue ("Nothing Irrational about Job Fears," Perspectives, pages 19–20) give personal voice to the frustrations that hundreds of history Ph.D.’s have encountered in a job market that has been in near perpetual crisis. They also reveal that the injuries of class often play their part. Marcia Carlisle says that she came from a working-class family in North Dakota and was bright and fortunate enough to receive a series of prestigious fellowships. Jeffrey Kroessler wonders whether he, with his City University of New York degree, is at a disadvantage against people from Columbia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the shortage of teaching positions may impact differentially applicants who hold more or less prestigious doctorates or who began in different socioeconomic classes.

I hope that Carlisle, whose letter makes an auspicious start, will consider investigating at greater length the phenomena of which she is a part—working-class academics as well as gypsy scholars and underemployed Ph.D.'s—for this heartbreaking story is an essential part of late-twentieth-century labor history. Carlisle says that she wishes she knew the experiences of other historians in her situation. Why doesn't she collect them and write about the anguish and unanticipated rewards of careers like hers?

Leaving aside the class dimension and what I hope Carlisle will do with her talents, let me turn to the other two letters. Kroessler and Gyory lead with accusations (misused data, misrepresented facts, scurrilous assumptions, smug reassurances) then wonder why I wrote of paranoia. One provocation seems to be the very fact that I am at Princeton and therefore must be—despite my comments on "hard times" and the collapsing job market of the 1990s—too complacent to recognize the anguish of the less fortunate. Kroessler half recognizes the wretched state of the job market, half lashes out at affirmative action. I'd like to reinforce the first impulse and discourage the second.

Affirmative action is very much at issue here, which is precisely why I decided to address it in connection with the academic marketplace. Affirmative action has done much that I applaud, beginning with the habit of advertising jobs openly. Unlike my correspondents, I recall that a very large proportion of American institutions for many generations refused to interview or hire any but white men. I do welcome the effort of colleges and universities to diversify faculties that a generation ago were monolithic, and I realize that the law—not just good intentions—has played the crucial part in encouraging change.

The effort to diversify faculties was not undertaken until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in hiring. Given the very long and very broad history of institutional racism in this country, I am not confident that any segment of our society can yet be left without some sort of oversight when it comes to altering old habits, whether or not, as Kroessler suggests, we historians are to be considered immune to the habits of our society because we "operate in the realm of ideas." His quote (with my emphasis) from a department chair who told him "what we are looking for, alas, is an African American," may indicate why many are convinced that old ways die hard, even among historians. It is not that historians are particularly blameworthy, but that so many American assumptions devalue white women and minorities.

I apologize for having confused Kroessler with my comments about informal marriage. I was referring in a too-brief shorthand to stable unions between people who cannot marry by law: lesbians and gay men.

There is much to counter in Gyory's letter, which presents eloquent testimony that makes my main point: The fundamental problem in the job market is the lack of jobs, and fierce competition for a small number of positions is what white men (or any other historians) have most to fear. As he shows, many advertised positions are part time and tenuous, which I, too, regret and which the Professional Division may soon be investigating. In the past such positions fell disproportionately to white women and minorities, but during the recession of the early 1990s, the proportion of white men who lacked full-time, tenure-track jobs increased. The tragedy is that capable historians of any sort, including but not merely white men, who are seeking permanent positions should have to settle for less.

Gyory may leave Perspectives readers with an erroneous impression of what I had to say about whether departments are willing to hire nonminorities and men for jobs teaching minority and women’s history. He deleted the modifying clause that preceded the statement he quotes, making it seem that I was corroborating his conviction that history departments refuse to hire white men for such positions. I was instead speaking specifically of situations in which departments had left positions unfilled year after year, and I condemned such actions. I will add anecdotally that the experiences of the five of my dissertation advisees (four of whom are white) who were in the 1994 job market does not bear out Gyory’s assertions about the unwillingness of history departments to employ nonminorities for jobs teaching minority history.

These letters, together with many comments I have received, convince me that the profession needs to address directly the situation of the "lost generation," which is not a single generation limited to people who received their doctorates in the 1970s, but a continuing phenomenon. The root source of the problem is the lack of permanent, full-time jobs, which the AHA cannot correct. But the AHA can speak out against the increasing use of temporary and part-time teachers and perhaps formulate policies that will address the isolation and lack of support services that plague historians who have not found suitable employment.

Nell Irvin Painter
Princeton University

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