Academia Deserves Its Crisis

I was recently invited to be part of a student panel to welcome all new Ph.D. students to the large research university I am currently attending and to share with them my words of “wisdom,” so they can learn more about the upcoming challenges of graduate student life. The student panel was the last on the hierarchy of speakers, so we had to wait for and listen to people with big titles—titles like “provost”, “associate” with this, “assistant” for that, “co-director” of this center, and “under-secretary” for such and such affairs. It was clear from these presentations that graduate students are being encouraged to think of themselves as at-will employees who are expected to do the job “well,” … [Read more...]

Let’s Talk about Comps Exams

When I read @philommeides_’s tweet about grad-school comps, my heart sank.  The author expressed how her extremely difficult experience with PhD exams had caused her anguish and self-doubt.  The tweet elicited a large number of responses from people in academia about their own bitter encounters with the hazing ritual of exams, as well as thoughts about how to reform a broken system. And it’s no surprise: hardly anyone likes the way that PhD students (in the humanities at least) are tested on their field knowledge before moving on to the dissertation.  My own experience with the process was, frankly, traumatic, though perhaps not as bad as what others have gone through.  And as a faculty … [Read more...]

A Dirty Guide to Academic Publishing

In one of my favorite 30 Rock episodes, Tracy Jordan refers to his son as “this little d-bag.” Tracy Jr. says, “I know what that means.” His father’s response is, “And yet you won’t tell me!” Academic publishing reminds me a bit of this bit. Everybody sort of knows what it is but we often aren’t exactly sure how it works. (Like sex, or the Internet.) And like most things in academia, from graduate admissions to comps to the job market, it seems opaque, mysterious, governed by unspoken rules and norms that it takes an Indiana-Jones-style quest to find out about.  As Oxford University Press editor Susan Ferber once put it: Perhaps the most critical step in the professional lives of … [Read more...]

Duke Contingent Faculty Speak Out for Fair Wages in Open Letter

We have been asked by organizers from Duke University's union for contingent faculty to publish this open letter, which speaks to Provost Sally Kornbluth about their frustration with ongoing negotiations with the university administration. Many of us at Tropics of Meta have experience with the labor movement, including the efforts to gain union representation for graduate student employees and adjunct instructors at a number of universities.  We believe strongly that the crisis of both academic employment and quality higher education can only be solved by workers themselves having a strong voice.  Otherwise, college and university administrators will continue to take advantage of academic … [Read more...]

ToM in the Journal of Urban History

Although ToM has never had a single thematic focus, urbanism has always been a familiar topic in our "pages."  From the chic streets of Mexico City's Coyoacán to the Hmong communities of East Fresno and the squatter apartments of Manhattan, we have taken readers to a sweeping array of cities and landscapes. Our contributors have had their work published in the Journal of Urban History in the past -- most notably, founding editor Ryan Reft's epic 2015 essay "The Metropolitan Military" -- and the latest issue of the august journal features several notable works by our friends and contributors.  Senior editor Alex Cummings's "Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Origins of the Creative … [Read more...]

The Triumph of the TA: Graduate Students and the Future of Postindustrial Labor

On Tuesday afternoon, I got the most welcome news I’ve gotten in a long time. In a 3-1 vote, the National Labor Relations Board reversed a Bush-era decision that denied graduate student employees at private universities the right to unionize. This news might seem both trivial and esoteric.  After all, the wording of the last sentence implies an exceedingly narrow and likely small slice of the overall workforce—that’s the esoteric part. And the fact that it has to do with, to a significant extent, PhD students at the likes of Yale, NYU, and Columbia—well, we are not exactly talking about an eleven-year-old toiling in the dark Satanic mill of yore.  Such students might seem privileged and … [Read more...]

Settin’ the Woods on Fire in the Countercultural South

I recently contributed an essay to a volume that’s forthcoming from UNC Press called The Bohemian South.  You can count me as one who is skeptical of a tradition of bohemianism in the South, at least as it is now manifested and understood. Whatever bohemianism means, it is not skinny jeans and food trucks—a familiar scene one can find in the trendier lanes of Atlanta or Durham or Richmond these days.  Sure, there was North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where Robert Creeley and John Cage cavorted in the 1950s, as well as a smattering of other avant-garde cultures in the history of the South. But the bohemianism of today’s urban creative class seems like just a hipper … [Read more...]

How One Tenure-Track Prof Left Academia: A Beginner’s Guide

I’m a former tenure-track professor of world and postcolonial literature now pursuing a career as a nonprofit communicator and fundraising professional. After 13 years spent in academia, not including my undergraduate degree, I made my career shift in 2013. I made the switch for a number of reasons, among them a desire for greater geographical autonomy and a longing to find a career in which I could be part of a team working towards a common cause, rather than a “lone wolf” researcher and professor. The most common refrain I hear from people in academia when I talk about my transition is along the lines of “that sounds great, but I’m just not qualified to do anything else but analyze … [Read more...]

Working for the Man?! Turning Your PhD into a Meaningful Job with the Federal Government

When I entered graduate school at the University of California San Diego in the fall of 2008, I knew I was taking a chance. Previous to my enrollment, I had taught for nearly 10 years in the New York City public high schools. Had I continued doing so that Autumn, I would have received a healthy pay bump for a decade of service and been one more tantalizing step closer to being a vested member of the union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Instead, I moved to Southern California and walked into a PhD program in U.S. history with my fingers crossed. Then again, I also knew the nation's public schools, especially in urban areas, nearly always need teachers. As a recent story in the … [Read more...]

Making Your Way as a History PhD in the Think Tank World

“It’s great to see you’re doing so well and working on such important issues,” my friend Alex—co-editor of this blog—recently emailed me about the nonacademic work I’ve pursued since finishing my Ph.D. Would I write for this website about pursuing an Alt-Ac career? “Where did you look for jobs?” he asked. “How did you approach resumes/ applying/ interviewing differently than the usual academic meat market? Where did you look for advice, and what was it? And pretty much anything else you think would be useful.” I feel somewhat oddly placed to answer these questions. I never applied for an academic job. I landed the first nonacademic position I applied for. I never put together a practice job … [Read more...]