Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Niall Ferguson's Intimate Knowledge of One Verse of the Koran (But Not the One About Fidelity)

I hate being scooped, but when the dish is this juicy, I have to report it. The Daily Mail offers this lengthy expose of Harvard primadonna Niall Ferguson, who pulls in an estimated $7.5 million a year (not too shabby for a practitioner of America's fifth ranked profession). Ferguson, now a certified member of the international glitterati, has left his wife for Somali activist and filmmaker Aayan Hirsi. (They met at a Time Magazine party for the "100 most influential people in the world." How long before Aayan revealed her special Koran verse to him?

How long this one will last is unsure: this is not Ferguson's first extramarital dalliance. And how much it will cost is another big question. Niall might have to give up one of his three estates and a nice chunk of change to his soon-to-be ex and their three children. The poor boy. As he says, "I intensely dislike spending money, which means that I love big conferences where somebody else pays for everything... I am definitely a saver. Staying in cash seems like quite a good idea at the moment."

Love don't come cheap, Niall. This time you will have to pay.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Last Tycoon or Irrational Exuberance in the Land of the Grand Ole Opry

Every decade or two, a university uses its riches to narrow the gap between its prosperity and its academic reputation. The results can sometimes be dramatic.

Duke, for example, used its tobacco fortune to transform itself from a sleepy regional university into a hotbed of academic vitality, best exemplified by its English department, which at its peak in the late 1980s, was as wild and crazy a collection of celebrity academics, shameless self-promoters, and pure geniuses ever assembled in a single department in any field anywhere. Until it imploded, that is. That’s the inevitable reality when you put a couple of dozen prima donnas in a room together, give one or two of them disproportionate power, and lubricate with enough sherry to really let their hubris loose.

In another legendary example, the University of Texas, never doing anything less than trying to be legendary, famously tapped its oil riches to create world-class departments in philosophy and classics, among others, temporarily depleting the ranks of some of its most prominent competitors.

And in a whole scale transformation, NYU went from being a mediocre, but expensive commuter university to a first-class institution, spending way, way beyond its means (you could say that NYU pioneered the go into deep debt to make a profit policy that would reach hypertrophic form in the go-go noughts). Of course, NYU has some incomparable lures, namely subsidized housing in the heart of Greenwich Village, even if much of it consists of what would pass as a public housing projects in other settings.

However NYU also offers a cautionary tale for the wannabe rich and famous. Its locational attractions couldn’t keep such celebrities as Walter Johnson from flitting away to Harvard or Robin D.G. Kelley from moving uptown before the lure of a celebrity girlfriend (and USC’s own ambitions) tempted him to Los Angeles. Other NYU hotshots (like Lauren Benton, who looked Brown-ward) might still be lured away in the future.

But cautionary tales be damned. The noughts turned every somewhat rich university into a wannabe Duke or NYU. When future historians look out onto the irrational exuberance of the early twenty-first century, they won’t be able to miss the extraordinary ambition of those rich American universities, public and private, who stuffed their classes with teaching assistants and adjuncts while using their gains to reach for the stars and lure them with astronomical salaries and perks.

The most interesting phenomenon of all, at least to me, is the way that a few second-tier universities, places with lots of money but rather less by the way of reputation, used their riches to try to vault over the competition. Who? How about Vanderbilt. The university of the First Tycoon was well-endowed but understaffed. Some smart people, but still a sleepy place dominated by frat boys from Atlanta who like to golf and the debuntantes who loved them.

All of that started to change in the last years of the boom. Vanderbilt aspired to be the Princeton of the South and, to do that, went right to the source. They lured away Princeton historian of gender and science, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and her husband, American political historian, Gary Gerstle (an ex-Princetonian in exile in Maryland). They seduced the erudite Peter Lake, Princeton’s senior early modern British historian, with a whiz-bang university professorship. They reunited Penn’s recently-tenured hotshot Sarah Igo and Yale's Ole Molvig who, like Gerstle and Lunbeck, had tired of commuting. And they lured Paul Kramer, a rising star scholar of U.S. and the world, who had been inexplicably sent packing by Hopkins. Along the way, Vanderbilt (finally repudiating its reputation as a bastion of southern, white gentility) diversified its faculty, hiring major scholars like Richard Blackett and junior scholars Anastasia Curwood (another Princeton product) and Brandi Brimmer.

That said, Vanderbilt seems to have put most of its energy into bolstering its American history program--the recruitment of Lake, Molvig, and a few bright lights like Islamist Leor Halevi (recruited from Texas A&M) and Chinese historian Ruth Rogaski (another ex-Princetonian) aside. For now, that means that Vanderbilt won’t really compete with its idol, Princeton, or other major departments with formidable faculty across all fields.

Still, it's quite a start, even if the Last Tycoon’s history department is still an unfinished project. The Last Tycoon's university might be the last gasp of irrational exuberance. Whether or not its investments prove to pay off remains to be seen. The hometown of the Grand Ole Opry might have a harder time retaining its cosmopolites than NYU. But until then, yee haw!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Social Mobility Studies -- 2.01

Amigos from sea to shining sea: I have it on pretty good authority that Walmart won't be closing its Athens branch after all.

But you fans of public universities do not gloat too much. The rich are still trying to get richer.

Harvard, struggling to make ends meet on a mere $26 billion (pass the hankies, I'm verklempt) has scrounged up enough to make an offer to a major historian of the Caribbean. You could say that, even in a period of fiscal restraint, Harvard has more than the usual, er, degrees of freedom.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Social Mobility Studies -- 2

Good morning Mr. and Ms. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Your Perez Hilton, er Perez Hyatt, is tanned, rested, and ready after skipping most of the AHA to join the March on Manchester and do a little swimming and hot tubbing, though I was bumming not to be able to bubble with Ian Lekus, Nick Syrett, and Jen Manion. They were just too busy elsewhere.

I did pick up some juicy gossip in the jacuzzi:

Corporate reorganization alert! Wal-Mart is considering opening a Baltimore branch, right on the Johns Hopkins campus. But like all corporate relocations, it's a zero sum game.

If Baltimore wins, Athens will lose. What will the truckers and confidence men do?

But that's a big if.

One thing for sure. No one will be saving money. But someone will live better.

Still waiting for more news.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Gate Crashers

I crashed Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's presidential reception last night and no Secret Service agents were there to notice my presence. Hoped to scoop up some Harvard gossip, since (not surprisingly) her home institution was overrepresented in the room. It was like the (strangely named) smokers that seemed to be fewer and further between tonight, except the food was a lot better and the wine was decent. Harvard's budget can't be that bad.

And yesterday afternoon, I spent a few hours with the GLBTQ protestors and then (shhh) crossed the picket line and rode the slow elevator up to my friend and informant R. Mutt's room and took the above aerial photo of the march as it circled the hotel for a second time. The band marched on. The walls of Jericho did not fall--and the protestors even politely walked past the handful of police officers who guarded the hotel entrance.

I wasn't the only person crossing the picket line, even if my reasons were more principled than theirs. As I sauntered through the lobby I brushed shoulders with more than a few historians who were there despite of (mostly inattentive to) the protest outside. The coffee shop and bar were a little quieter than they had been earlier in the day, and the book display was sleepy--perhaps reflecting the unease that some historians felt in crossing the picket line.

It's said that about 300 people showed up for the demonstration against the Manchester Hyatt. Maybe, but it seemed smaller to me. And not nearly as many members of the crowd looked to be historians as I had expected. I saw a few familiar faces and heard a few more, but most of the crowd's energy seemed to be coming from the local labor activists on hand. It was a fitting protest, both for the mood and energy of this year's still sleepy AHA.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pissed Off

Doug Manchester should have spent his $125,000 on hotel maintenance rather than Proposition 8. The main restroom in the Manchester Hyatt, Saturday, January 9, 2010, where four out of four urinals have been out of order all day. h/t to Anonymous Informant Number 2.


It's an oft-heard complaint: "History is boring." Well, I don't want to pile onto the obvious, but this is the most boring AHA ever, my randy neighbors excepted. It's surprisingly peaceful here in San Diego, no tsunamis yet.

There are some pluses to the dullness of the AHA. It's actually possible this year to find the time to sit down with friends for a drink rather than rushing by in a hurry from this place to that. And the lack of jobs has lifted a cloud of anxiety that usually hovers over the conference. No need to lace the hotel water with Paxil this year.

Overall, this year's panels have been sparsely attended. No sparks. The book display has been peaceful. And people are trickling in and out of the gargantuan and not-particularly-tasteful Manchester Hyatt, with no signs whatsoever that there's a boycott going on.

It's not that I'm missing out on a good time. I joined a boozy bar crawl last night in the gaslamp district bars (you could pick out the terminally nerdy historians a block away amidst the sea of trendy twenty-somethings prowling the streets, wearing micro black dresses and ubiquitous Abercrombie shirts).

Over margaritas (a toast to you AHB, III, if you are here, anonymously working the crowds), I listened to drearily repetitive bellyaching about salaries (frozen or down), hiring (frozen in most places), graduate admissions (applications up, acceptances down), and even phone service cutoffs (use your own cellphone, Professor). The grumbling, coming from some of the highest paid and most secure members of profession number five, was a little hard to take. Professor Grumbledore: stop bitching. You have tenure in a country that has lost 7 million jobs.

So today, before I join the GLBTQ protest at the Hyatt, I'm heading to the pool. It can't be more boring than the Marriott or Hyatt lobbies.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Journal of the Sexuality of History

Here's the top reason why history ranks number five on the list of best jobs. It's because we know how to have fun in the stacks and in the sack. That might seem counterintutive, given how fast the AHA hotel bars thinned out tonight (I cruised both, in hopes of gossip and, perhaps, a little more). But the real fun, as it turns out, was happening upstairs. It kept me up late. Way too late.

Next door to my room here in San Diego, two American historians, a fairly well-known middle-aged man and a rather younger woman, separated from my headboard by just a few inches of plaster, enacted a cliche and had a raucous, horizontal party of two.

Ha! I bet that if they knew that "History's Louella Parsons" shared a wall with them, an unwilling witness to their enthusiastic bi-coastuality, they would have kept it quiet.

Unlike those two, I'll keep it quiet, though I am tempted, sorely tempted to repeat that name whose shrill syllables penetrated my space at 1am. But hey, wouldn't want to tarnish my sterling reputation or tick off any department chairs.

As for my amorous neighbors, good for them that there are direct flights between the two cities where their universities are based...I'm just sayin'.

I'm sure there was a lot more extramarital activity going among my fellow historians here last night (though I was glad not to overhear it). Unfortunately, for many of these late-night partiers, unlike my heterosexual neighbors, the extramarital part was mandatory, not optional.

And that's what's really at stake here at the American Historical Association annual meeting.

Every AHA has a theme (this year's is "Oceans, Islands, and Continents"). No one other than the overworked members of the program committee and desperate graduate students hoping to get their first paper accepted ever pays attention to it. Even less so this year.

That's because the real theme at this year's conference has everything to do with what's martial and what's extramarital. It's not (despite my snarky comments about my randy neighbors) ultimately a story of who's boffing whom, but rather who's boffing whom with the approbation of the state and who isn't.

The main conference hotel this year is the Manchester Grand Hyatt, an over-the-top luxury resort on the San Diego waterfront. Its owner, magnate Douglas Manchester, gave $125,000 to the campaign for Proposition 8 that overturned Californians' hard-fought right to marriage equality. Local LGBTQ activists, joined by labor activists and queer historians, have launched a boycott of the hotel and they are asking all of us to refuse to cross their picket line. (A major protest is planned for 2pm on Saturday, the busiest day of the AHA convention). The AHA leadership responded by scheduling a conference-within-a-conference on the historical contingency of marriage.

Neither strategy will make much of a difference. The AHA sessions are meant to be transgressive, by raising the taboo of marriage as a historically-contingent reality right in the midst of the staid Manchester Hyatt--and inviting the public to join the event. Epic fail. The place is still a sea of badges--there's just not much of a public audience for history panels in conservative San Diego. And anyone who knows even the slightest bit about the history of marriage won't be surprised by what they hear.

But the boycott hasn't worked either. Manchester is a douchebag, but the picket line is just going to make a bunch of liberal historians uneasy ("Should I cross the picket line? should I not?" "What about my interview with Straight State? It's the only job in my field this year") while the hotelier laughs his way to the bank.

I might just be too polite, but I respect the AHA's good faith effort to turn the conference into a teachable moment, and I respect the boycotters' justifiable anger. Whatever happens on Saturday afternoon, I'll be outside the Hyatt, notebook in hand, reporting on what happens. It's bound to be a performance worth watching.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Social Mobility Studies

Good morning Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. It's a beautiful day here in San Diego. Still quiet. Not that many historians are loitering in the lobby and the GLBTQ, etc. protesters haven't assembled their picket line in front of the Hyatt yet. So let's go to press.

Breaking news: CVW launches a new feature today: Social Mobility Studies. Social mobility studies--you don't read them any more. Who does?

I guarantee that you will now.

At the top of the list: Yale has sizzled for Chapel Hill's Crystal Feimster and Daniel Botsman. Crystal and Dani are garbo-ing it with Yale. The courtship paid off.

New Haven might be a terminally dreary place, but Yale's history department and American Studies program are not. Over the last few years, Yale has poached away some extraordinary young and mid-career scholars. It's tenured many of its own. The results are spectacular.

No place beats Yale for the history of the U.S. South. Sorry Chapel Hill, Duke, Harvard, Hopkins, Penn, and Wisconsin. No place is better staffed (pardon the pun, never mind, don't pardon it) in the history of gender and sexuality in America. Not even close.

Feimster, whose book on rape, lynching, and race was just published by Harvard, joins a stellar lineup, including George Chuancey, Glenda Gilmore, Joanne Meyerowitz, Laura Wexler, Hazel Carby, Jonathan Holloway, and David Blight.

Yale will probably never be UCLA or Chicago when it comes to Asian history, but its lineup is growing stronger. Botsman, author of an acclaimed book on punishment in modern Japan, brings some mid-career energy to New Haven, joining young superstar, Yale-educated Fabian Drixler.

Bulldog, bulldog, bow wow wow.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

We're Number Five and How to Stay There

The Wall Street Journal has just published a ranked list of the 200 best and worst jobs. And guess what? Historian ranks close to the top. We're number 5. I'm not sure that I'd rather be an actuary (the top-ranked job) but it sure beats out number 200, roustabout.

Alas, it's harder and harder to become a historian these days. (For a reality check, read this.)

Tenure line faculty positions are disappearing. Secure jobs as public historians are even scarcer as the feds and state governments take the budgetary axe to museums and libraries. Where's the stimulus package for historians?

The reality is that a lot of us will be moving down the list. (Not very many will be moving up, given the techno-illiteracy that prevails in our corner of the humanities). In the short run, you may find work as 125 (waiter/waitress) or 138 (bartender), but over the long run, shoot higher.

For those of you frozen out of the interviewing suites or the cattle call tables at the AHA, resist the temptation to become an attorney. At number 80, you will certainly not be happier and it will be a few years (after you've paid off your $120,000 in student loans) before you are richer. And before you think about law school, pay heed to the growing number of disaffected, bored, burned out, or laid off JDs who are applying to PhD programs. Surely you had at least one washed-up lawyer in your graduate school cohort.

Another counterintuitive piece of advice: Unless you love standing for six hours a day teaching some bland version of world history to a bunch of sullen adolescents, avoid number 116 (teacher).

Instead, look for jobs where you can use your skills as a writer and researcher. Number 7 (paralegal assistant) isn't too shabby, if you can stand working for someone else (a skill that you'll have to cultivate after years of solitary research in the archives). Or check out number 13 (technical writer), one of the few jobs that will reward the literary talent that you tried to pick up in grad school (history writing may not be as good as it used to be in the golden age of narrative, but compared to the run-of-the-mill author of computer manuals and corporate reports, you are C. Vann Woodward). Anyhow, that work isn't much drier than writing the average dissertation--and you won't have to figure out how to cite that obscure manuscript collection in proper Chicago style.

If you can't give up the graduate student lifestyle, try out number 74 (author, books). You can get up when you want, you'll avoid excruciating faculty meetings, and even if your life is insecure, you'll set your own schedule.

Here's CVW's best advice. While you're toiling away at number 125 or 138 or even 200, find yourself a good matchmaker or spend more time applying your research skills to perusing OKCupid. The best way, short of tenure, to remain happily ensconced in job number 5 is to find yourself a spouse or partner who can support your vocation.

Monday, January 4, 2010

San Diego Tsunami

The AHA begins on Thursday, and it’s likely to be a bleak, long weekend in San Diego. While the rich and well-funded among us will enjoy a respite in the expensive southern California city, a storm is brewing on the Pacific coast that may well wash over the nation’s most venerable historical association like a tsunami. To start, GLBTQ activists are boycotting the convention’s main hotel, despite the AHA’s best efforts to fashion a compromise rather than walking away from its contract with the Hyatt and losing at least $750,000. Add to that the effects of cutbacks in travel budgets nearly everywhere and the high cost of holiday season airfares to warm climes like Southern California. The real gathering storm cloud is the job market. There’s really no other reason to go to the AHA other than interview or be interviewed. And that means there's no good reason for hundreds of people to go to San Diego this coming weekend.

It’s a grim job market out there despite the best efforts of Hopkins and a handful of other departments. Sure a few lucky senior people are packing their bags and moving to greener pastures: David Bell from Hopkins to Princeton, Naomi Lamoreaux from UCLA to Yale, Nancy Maclean from Northwestern to Duke. A yet-to-be-substantiated rumor has arrived in my inbox that despite its now legendary budget crisis, Harvard is recruiting two senior American historians from an east coast state university with a first-rate history department (more soon, I hope). But this is deck shuffling. Usually, the departure of a senior historian sets off a chain reaction in the job market, opening up jobs as people pick up and move (even if it's not the most efficient or just way to allocate academic positions). Not this year. Most departments, even those at the top of the food chain, are leaving empty chairs unfilled. Hell, they are even slowing or halting their hiring of adjuncts, who already compose a majority of university teachers. It’s really bad.

For a sobering glimpse at statistics on hiring (and these are from 2008-09), check this out. For those of you who have jobs, hold on. For those of you looking, if I believed in any God other than myself, I'd pray for you.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Baltimore Shocker! "Strangely, Awfully Interesting." Johns Hopkins Embarrasses Early Modernists in Mass Mailing Gaffe

It's a Baltimore shocker--one of the worst job market gaffes in years. Johns Hopkins, one of the few big history departments that seems immune from the current fiscal crisis, is hiring away this year. Big time. What a bonanza it will be for two lucky early modernists who have been pining to follow in the footsteps of such giants as J.H. Elliott and Sidney Mintz. Hopkins has advertised not one, but two positions, any rank, in early modern European history. One of those jobs is to replace French history heavyweight and dean of the faculty, David Bell, who is decamping to Princeton (where he'll fill the shoes of his mentor, former Princeton great, Robert Darnton). The other: Europe and the world.

All was smooth until mid-December, when Hopkins sent a mass email to 106 applicants for the early modern job. But oops! Forgot about the blind cc option. It's a great bit of marginalia in the history of letters. Old time epistles might be mass copied, but never with a complete list of recipients.

I'm too polite to name names, but wow, it's a Who's Who. Most of them don't stand a chance, but Hopkins is going to have a helluva shortlist come January, when they finally sift through all of the applications.

The European history job wiki lit up with with outrage and delight at the news.

"Don't know whether to laugh or cry. Anyone who's 'secretly' on the market will be majorly P.O.'ed..."

"That's very, very bad. I can't recall a search committee making a similar mistake. (Although I can't help finding it strangely, awfully, interesting)."

"I was sickened to see the list of email addresses. This is an unacceptable breach of confidentiality."

Confidential or not, industrious early modern sleuths immediately began breaking down the list of names by subfield. Good thing there are still some quantitative historians out there, even if they probably won't get the job (the field is dominated by cultural historians these days and Hopkins is unlikely to buck the trend by bringing a number cruncher aboard). Right now, we have a list of 40 (plus or minus a few) French historians and 50 Europe and the world.

Ha, ha! Hopkins.