Historiann wonders: jealous, much?

attack50ftwomanPer Thursday’s post at Tenured Radical about the silly panic at the New York Times that “traditional” history is imperiled because, well, cherchez la femme, here’s another take by Mary L. Dudziak at Legal History Blog (and h/t to Mary for the most excellent graphic, at left!).  She asks, “[w]hy a backward-looking article about the way the pie should be divided, when the more pressing news story is the impact of the economic crisis on the next generation of historians, regardless of field?”

“Anonymous” asks a similar question back in the thread at Tenured Radical, to wit:  “What’s up with the NYT and its shoddy coverage of everything that related to academia? What’s the source of its hostility/ ignorance?”  (Remember this little fracas, friends?)  Historiann would like to propose an answer to that simple question, which I think can be applied to most people working in print journalism these days:  they’re jealous.  Yes, it may come as a surprise to you that newspaper and magazine reporters, editors, and columnists are envious of the tiny paychecks and the library cards that are our reward for prevailing in the cutthroat academic job markets of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, but–when you look at the collapse (like a “flan in the cupboard,” as Eddie Izzard might say) that print journalism might be facing–well, having a tenured gig (even if not a particularly “cushy” one) looks pretty darn good from the outside.  And, I’d wager that the people who write for top-notch publications like the New York Times went to places like Yale or Amherst, where the life of a faculty member looked really good, indeed, instead of where the vast majority of us teach at Northern Mid-State U., with a 3-3 or 4-4 teaching load.

Last month when I was out at the Huntington Library, I ran into an old friend from grad school who was a reporter for 10 years before getting his Ph.D.  He commented that “20 years ago, it seemed like an incredible gamble to give up my job and try to become a professional historian, but now it looks like I actually made the most prudent choice possible.”  He’s tenured now, and feels incredibly fortunate to have that kind of job security–certainly compared to his friends back at the newspaper he worked for, who are in full panic mode.

I’m off to a “cushy” conference for the rest of the weekend with other tenured, untenured, and/or un- or under-employed historians, darlings–so, discuss!  I think reporters are just green with envy.  And maybe they should be–this cowgirl’s living the dream, a dream achieved after 6 years of grad school, 3 semesters of term teaching (overlapping some with grad school), and 4 years in a bullying department, for a mere 11 years total of preparation!  How about you?

0 thoughts on “Historiann wonders: jealous, much?

  1. I come from a family of journalists, and I think the explanation is usually more structural than personal. Journalism has metanarratives just like history does that shape the stories that are told and fit them into familiar, overarching meanings. Just as “Man Bites Dog” is a story while “Dog Bites Man” isn’t, “Things are Going to Hell and Courageous Defenders of Standards are Complaining About It” is, by the informal rules of editorial decision-making, a better story than “New Ideas Make Everyone Happy.” Another example of this framing something as a question even when it’s not really (e.g. “Is Global Warming Real?”).

    This is certainly intellectually lazy, and there are better and worse ways of doing this kind of story (i.e. more fair & accurate versus simplistic, distorted, & one-sided, which is clearly where Cohen’s story falls), but from my experience, this impulse explains a lot more about journalism than personal animosities or specific ideological commitments, though it often ends up having a conservative/reactionary effect.


  2. JJO–great point. But–you have to admit that the fact that they write the same story about academia every time–“a great institution is going to hell because those in charge are corrupt/immoral/irresponsible/all of the above”–adds up to something larger. (They could after all write the “heroic outsider takes charge and reforms an institution” instead.) Why do these journalists always write the story that confirms David Horowitz’s views? I still think it’s possible that like David Horowitz, they’re envious outsiders looking in and pretending to have contempt for what they secretly desire.

    Let’s face it: universities have been around for a long time, a lot longer than newspapers, and it’s likely that they’ll be around for a few more centuries or millennia. Of course, they have the advantage of being non-profits, which gives them more flexibility than newspapers that are for-profit companies. But that’s the tradeoff we made 15-20 years ago, right JJO? We deferred money and accepted less of it in the end for greater job security in the long run. People who were livin’ large and enjoying the dot-com bubble and the home mortgage bubble while we were eating Ramen noodles–well, they made their own choices as well.


  3. I certainly won’t dispute the existence of the phenomenon you describe, because I’ve seen it in action in other arenas. And journalists (even those who should know better) do buy into the “underworked, theory-obsessed, disconnected from the real world” perception of academia all too often. But to be (reluctantly) fair to the article, it’s not exactly Horowitz–it doesn’t take the political angle Horowitz does, and doesn’t really suggest the kind of ideological totalitarianism he does; its preferred trope seems to be trendiness rather than liberalism. It’s the kind of thing Horowitz could use as fodder, but it’s not the same tripe as what he spews. (It’s a different kind of tripe … chitlins, maybe.)

    Journalists do sometimes (though certainly not as often as they could, perhaps due to the prevailing ideological climate) take the “heroic outsider” storyline. The coverage of a certain former advisor’s rise to the presidency of a certain high-profile northeastern university was largely quite positive, and the predictable misogynist, anti-pc criticism was (appropriately) a very minor theme in the coverage in the MSM (though it predictably flowered in the right-wing blogosphere). But that’s in part perhaps because it’s a heroic individual story–an easy sell–rather than a complex institutional or disciplinary one.


  4. Here’s a quote that supports your assertion. It comes from Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and was posted last year at TalkingPointsMemo.com in one of their book discussions:

    Lawrence is on target when he hails Andrei’s narrative. It is superb scholarship, thrilling story-telling and another example of why those academics (you know who you are) who like to belittle journalists trying their hand at writing history should chill. I’m not saying this is a problem among TPM readers, but it’s a frequent complaint in the faculty clubs. These folks need to judge the work, not the credentials (or lack of them) of the author. The whole idea that only PhDs can get tenure at even the least prestigious university may be time-honored, but it makes no sense. It’s the work, not the sheepskin, that should count. Even crazier is that if Andrei wanted to go teach history at a public high school, even one desperate for teachers, he would be turned down for lacking a teaching certificate. (Some states have alternative certification). I know this sounds like a tangent, but I had to get it off my chest.

    Interesting, huh? (Many historians panned Alter’s 2006 FDR book as adding nothing new to the scholarship).


  5. Piece of Alter quoted above by PorJ:

    “The whole idea that only PhDs can get tenure at even the least prestigious university may be time-honored, but it makes no sense. It’s the work, not the sheepskin, that should count.”

    This is already happening.

    In grad school (which I subsequently quit in disgust), several recent hires for TT, long-term VAP, and extended (read: guaranteed) adjunct positions were “professionals” with spurious master’s degrees in often unrelated fields.

    These people were often rabid anti-intellectuals who quickly eroded standards because, well, they had so few of their own. But they had been hired to teach the “professional” courses in the departments I worked for, so they were considered experts in their fields. They just had little sense of academic discipline or course management.

    Aren’t those last 2 supposed to be hallmarks of a college education? Or am I hopelessly out of fashion? I think Historiann’s onto something with the jealousy angle. Add it to the lowering of standards, rampant corruption, and EduCracy-run-amok and we can see how things are unravelling.


  6. Hi Cassandra–I missed PorJ’s comment when it first came in. It is interesting. In History or in other humanities departments where a Ph.D. is the minimum qualification, the hiring in of uncredentialled practitioners wouldn’t happen–perhaps that’s at the root of the ressentiment of the Alters of the world.

    More and more, they all sound like David Horowitz, who is the king of pathetic whiners who’s desperate to join our club (and yet strangely, not desperate enough to earn the minimum required degrees.) They simultaneously diss us and yet crave our approval. All they have to do is lose their comfy incomes and dedicate themselves to earning a Ph.D. over the next 5-10 years. Yet they all think they should jump the line because they published some crap warmed-over book based on secondary sources? Um, yeah–when you go to grad school Jon, maybe you’ll learn why that’s not all that impressive.


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