From the Editor

Townhouse Notes: Nothing Personal

Allison Miller, February 2018

The AHA TownhouseThe most liberating thing anyone ever said to me was “Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s OK.” I wish I could recall the context. I might have been spewing palaver about not winning some prize, not having some article accepted for publication, not getting some research fellowship, or any of the other ego-denting disappointments that go along with advanced study. But maybe I was abusing this person’s patience with an enumeration of interpersonal slights.

It took a while, but this insight prompted better reflections on the difference between the personal and the professional. At the time, I probably had a hard time distinguishing them. Eight years in journalism had taught me that my writing would never be perfect, so I looked forward to critiques on chapters from peers and faculty alike. And unlike some other students, I had never gone into a tailspin when my mentors didn’t say hello to me in the hall. (Going back to school when you’re several years out of undergrad, these things don’t mean quite so much. I always assumed they had to pick up the kids, the dry cleaning, and dinner in under an hour.)

But pouring everything I had into an application or a journal article only to encounter a rejection was difficult, until I realized that the people behind this decision (most of them strangers) weren’t judging me. Except for the writing, which I loved putting together, the things about myself that I really liked were invisible on paper.

Being liked might give one an edge in some situations. The oft-cited notion of “fit” in academic hiring decisions is legitimate, but it can be heard by a job candidate as an imperative to be gregarious, a performance many of us have a hard time maintaining. Rejected candidates naturally want to figure out what they “did wrong,” and it can be easy to assume that someone on the search committee just didn’t like them. Plenty of stories percolate about candidates who did themselves no favors through boorish behavior at dinner or by condescending to undergraduates. When no real misstep is evident, however, it can be tempting to attribute a “no” to the elusive “fit,” which can be hard not to hear as “we don’t like you.”

People who don’t fit mainstream notions of “historian” (which stock photo databases still think is basically a white person with a book or computer) are often at a disadvantage in job interviews and on campus visits, including people of color, women, gender-nonconforming or trans people, and people with disabilities. I look like an overdressed man sometimes, but I’m now used to seeing others’ double takes—and thankfully, I already have a job. Others can’t say the same. When people can’t deal with who you represent or what you look like, that can feel personal too. But it’s not—it’s both anti-professional and shameful.

Ultimately, believing you won’t get anywhere without being liked isn’t productive. Even if one is liked, a win isn’t guaranteed. We work in a relatively small, internally siloed profession, so inevitably people on a variety of judgment-enabled committees will make decisions affecting our careers, at every stage. Some of these might come like punches to the gut, but I take to heart the advice of Michael Corleone: “It’s business. It’s not personal.” So far, so good.

Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.

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