January
3rd 2009
Hotshot Harry, day 2 at the AHA: “A photo of the candidates in the job center might be worthy of Walker Evans”

Posted under: American history, jobs

Hotshot Harry has sent in his latest and last dispatch–the price of scotch and eggs has driven him out of Manhattan after only two days!  Fortunately for us, he typed this up tonight on a bumpy bus ride through New Jersey:

I said scotch AND eggs, not scotch eggs!

Day two got going early and kept is pace.  The book exhibit was a hub of activity; more books being pitched at editors than sold by them, it seems.  One press expressed concern that  many conference goers will leave on Sunday, sticking the presses with an unusual number of remainders to either sell off to area bookstores (hello Strand!) or ship back home.  So I’m not sure the Friday to Monday  experiment will have worked all that well in the end.

I paid an obscene amount of money for eggs and dry toast at a midtown ”diner.”  I know there is cheaper food in Manhattan, but by the time you pay bus/subway/cab fare, it still ain’t that cheap.  At what point does the AHA drive more people away than it attracts by holding the conference in NYC?  (We won’t talk about how much the glasses of scotch cost.)

The Hilton did not have free wireless in the lobby, and for some reason, zero wireless in the conference areas (that I could detect, anyway).

I tried to go to a session on the fourth floor.  Floors 1-3 are accessible by escalator.  To get to floor four, one needs to take the elevator.  With, it seems, everyone else who needs to go anywhere else in the entire 15-floor hotel.  I felt like I was on the last chopper leaving the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in ’75.  Leaving floor four, I decided to sneak down the stairwell to avoid the elevator crush, only to discover that it had no exits except to some random spot in the lobby.  I think I passed Jason Bourne along the way.

A photo of the candidates in the job center might be worthy of Walker Evans.

Starbucks attached to the hotel?  Madhouse.  Forget about it.

There were so many people sitting on the floor in the promenade:  talking on the phone, working on the computer, reading through a conference paper, learning to breathe after an interview.  Can somebody please spring for some folding chairs?  And some tables?

I went to a session on the problems of writing the social history of the elite in a ballroom that looked like John Jacob Astor’s dining room.  At least one of the panelists noted the irony.

Why is it that at all conferences (and at commencement, come to think of it) chairs for the audience are crammed right up against each other.  How cozy are we supposed to get?

I had an interesting conversation with the sales director of a particular press.  I expressed pleasure that the book of a friend of mine is now available in paperback.  She was wondering why/how professors make decisions against hardback books for course adoption.  As I told her, from my perspective it is better to wait for the book to arrive in paper before assigning it, and if that means waiting a year or two for a given 
course to work through the cycle, then so be it.  There is only so much money I can ask my undergrads to pay for books, end every extra dollar that goes to a hardback is a dollar not spent on an additional  paperback book.  If the book does not appear in paper, then I’ll move on to something else.  She seemed genuinely intrigued/surprised.  Your thoughts, fellow readers?  (Ed. Note:  my first thought is that perhaps she hasn’t yet been to college?  Or maybe fourth grade?  Seriously–can she not subtract $22.95 from $45 or $65?)

Registration seemed to settle into its normal pace.  I agree with Archie–whatever half-wit decided to encourage pre-registration only to make folks wait in a different kind of line for a badge should be relegated to stall-mucking at el rancho Historiann.  And the staff with the T-shirts:  my thought was Apple Store employee, but that might be because I had just been to the Apple Store on Fifth Ave before heading to the conference.  (Totally cool store, BTW.)  Sad indeed.

My main takeaway this year is this question:  do historians have a celebrity complex?  Several years ago, in an attempt (I think) to encourage more scholarly activity and engagement at the conference, the AHA instituted a series of panel discussions with established scholars engaging the big questions confronting the profession.  It was a grad student’s dream.  Drew Faust and James McPherson on the same panel discussing the writing of the Civil War?  Sign me up.  James Oakes and William Fogel on slavery?  Save me a seat.  Well, these little sessions have blossomed over the last few years, and generally they are quite engaging.  I and about 100 of my friends tried to go to one on the study of Jacksonian America, featuring Daniel Walker Howe.  One problem:  the program was slated for a room that fit about 30-40 people.  Now, if you are the AHA, and you promote these sessions as a way to encourage attendance at sessions and engage the big ideas, wouldn’t you put the session in a slightly larger room, especially with the most recent Pulitzer Prize winning author on the dais?  

The crush of people, many of whom (like me) wandered off to another  session, has me wondering:  do we historians have a celebrity complex?  Are we, in the end, no different from our students in this regard, save the fashion sense of the idols in question? (Though I do love Michael Holt’s bow ties.)   Is the primary function of the conference to see the bright lights and be seen by them, rather than the introduction of new ideas that might shape the body of knowledge for the next several years?  For that matter, when was the last time a  great idea came out of the AHA, one that really impacted a given field of study?  Please tell me it wasn’t Frederick Jackson Turner.

17 Comments »

17 Responses to “Hotshot Harry, day 2 at the AHA: “A photo of the candidates in the job center might be worthy of Walker Evans””

  1. ej on 03 Jan 2009 at 9:11 pm #

    Although I didn’t really have the desire to attend the AHA this year, the last few days had me feeling a sense of regret at a potentially missed opportunity. Your posts have brought me back to reality! It is almost like I was in that crowded, tweed-filled lobby, paying way too much for a sandwich and coffee, feeling tainted by the desperation floating in the air, with you, Harry! I was happy to be participating vicariously after all.

    Great posts! I hope you made it home safely and relatively unscathed by the experience.

  2. Indyanna on 04 Jan 2009 at 12:39 am #

    I just walked in the door at 2 a.m. after doing the bridge-and-tunnel version of the AHA, kind of like that mid-90s movie “Daytrippers,” only less interesting. I’d recommend the Red Flame, at 44th St. just off Sixth Ave., for breakfast, although I don’t think you could get scotch there. After half an hour of working the halls in a desultory way I decided to hike uptown to the New-York Historical Society to get a little work done. I had the whole place to myself all afternoon with one other productivity-crazed historian. At the end of the day the McNeil Center “smoker” (as these things used to be called back when Nat Hentoff was your basic idea of a celebrity scholar) down at NYU was pretty smoking. No good stories that I can recall, though I did run into a recent refugee from Potterville, who said ze misses the old place, but otherwise seems to be pretty content at the new stand.

  3. squadratomagico on 04 Jan 2009 at 8:41 am #

    I haven’t been back to AHA since being hired by OPU, lo those many years ago. I always thought the atmosphere of jobs panic there overwhelmed any intellectual content; and that in any case the latter was overwhelmingly American and Modern history, with minimal nods to other fields. Perhaps that has changed, but it used to be pretty egregrious.

    This is the first time I’ve read reports about the conference, though, and I’m enjoying them immensely!

  4. Ann Bartow on 04 Jan 2009 at 9:15 am #

    I was at that Hilton for a conference last January! And while my room did not have wireless, I did find some whilst sitting on the floor near the elevator banks. I was also able to connect in the restaurant with the ridiculously expensive breakfasts, but the tables are tiny and the staff will understandably want you out of there fast if they are busy.

    Also if you walk out the door by the Starbucks and cross the street, there is a convenience store with decent coffee, tea etc.

  5. GayProf on 04 Jan 2009 at 9:21 am #

    I love scotch eggs (and scotch and eggs independently).

    New York is too expensive for the AHA, IMHO. Sometimes the AHA forgets that grad students often have to pay their own way for the privilege of attending this conference.

  6. AHA blogging round-up: how will we keep them down on the ranch, now that they’ve seen NYC? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 04 Jan 2009 at 10:31 am #

    [...] case you missed it, Hotshot Harry checked in with us last night from the AHA with his second report.  Meanwhile, there are some other folks blogging the conference–some of the most interesting [...]

  7. Historiann on 04 Jan 2009 at 10:39 am #

    Thanks for the mini-report Indyanna, and I’m pleased that y’all are enjoying Hotshot Harry’s dispatches. (We’re always happy to provide a public service here at Historiann.com!)

    Thanks to Ann for the insider’s tip on finding the elusive free wi-fi at the NYC Hilton–I’ve highlighted it in my roundup post above.

    GayProf–one of the recurring themes of most of the bloggers reporting in about the AHA is the insane cost of everything, not to mention the crowding. Your comment is yet another reason to put a nail in the coffin of convention interviews. Although most faculty I know are hardly on limitless expense accounts for conference travel, I think the profession forgets that the people who are un- and underemployed are precisely the people who don’t have access to any travel funds, whatsoever. Maybe we should start an “adopt a grad student/adjunct” program, like the WorldVision fundraisers where donors can buy chickens, or a goat, or a cow for a rural family in the developing world. (It seems especially incumbent on departments that are searching and using the job registry or other conference interview services to help subsidize the travel of the poor and jobless.)

    And if searching departments had to pay more to fund the job registry–maybe they’d stop doing convention interviews altogether! It could be a win-win situation.

  8. Cameron Blevins on 04 Jan 2009 at 12:12 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more about the celebrity complex, especially for us fresh faced younger attendees who have never seen these people in person before.
    Also the wireless network I’ve found is around the bar area and is “hhonors”.

  9. Historiann on 04 Jan 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    Aren’t you cute-as-a-button, Cameron Blevins! All in good fun, I hope you agree. And thanks for the further intel on the wireless network–how supremely convenient that it’s working in the bar! I’d buy you a Boilermaker myself, if I were in NYC myself, but alas…

  10. R Collins on 05 Jan 2009 at 7:49 am #

    Many of the profs now not only wait for a paperback but send their students to the amazon.com and alibris.com websites to buy those same books for twenty percent of the original price after they have been out for a few months. Our bookstore gave only a ten percent discount on used textbooks; it is criminal to expect students to pay a thousand dollars a semester for books for their courses. The prices are well out of hand.

  11. Historiann on 05 Jan 2009 at 8:19 am #

    R Collins–yeah, don’t get me started on Book Buyback week. Once again, students were lined up to shuck off their used books *before classes were even finished* in December. Students would do better to sell their used books on Amazon!

    However, I have to say that history profs are far from the worst offenders in terms of book prices. For most of my classes, I assign 5 paper monographs, which can cost up to about $115.00 (if all are brand-new) but which can usually be had for less if purchased used and/or on-line. These are supplemented with primary source handouts (which I provide gratis) plus on-line journal articles that are accessible via our library. It’s the large textbooks for economics, engineering, and other science and math courses that make for the big-dollar courses.

  12. R Collins on 05 Jan 2009 at 8:26 am #

    Historiann
    And I am a mathematics prof so that is why I try my best to put a dent in the prices. It didn’t hurt that my favorite textbook came out in paperback.
    We have a ban on our campus on the book buyback guys. They are turned around at the door. We also have a ban on the reselling of our textbooks that we get for free. Had a few profs who were ordering books like crazy, and then just reselling them at the faculty book resell places for alternative income.

  13. Historiann on 05 Jan 2009 at 8:40 am #

    Ick–yes, I think faculty selling the books they’re sent unsolicited is borderline immoral, let alone sending away for books that they intend to re-sell! Good for your campus to turn away the book buyback people.

    A few years ago, I invited my grad students into my office to take away the free textbooks, course readers, primary source readers, etc. I’d been sent unsolicited. (Grad students usually appreciate books, and since many of them will need decent reference books, I thought they were worthy.) I walked out for a few minutes to give the students some room to browse, and when I came back in I found a total stranger in my office with them taking away some of the books! When I asked her who the hell she was and what she was doing in my office uninvited, she said she was a book re-seller but that the books she was taking were for her daughter, a high-school student. I called bull$hit on that and asked her to leave, and informed her that my materials would be donated to my grad students only.

    I couldn’t believe this larceny. Tacky, tacky, tacky.

  14. John S. on 05 Jan 2009 at 12:37 pm #

    I have something of a middle position on unsolicited textbooks. I have, in the last three years, given over a dozen textbooks to my local public library. They have sold some to raise money to expand their collection, and have put others on the shelves. I don’t think that local residents will actually check these books out of the library all that often (interest in history being what it is), but I feel satisfied being able to contribute to the public interest this way.

    (Of course, the librarians were far more interested in the donation of 2,000 comic books I made last year. The fact that I owned so many, and that the library was so interested, says something about me and them, I suppose.)

  15. Historiann on 05 Jan 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    That’s a good solution, John S., and very generous of you, too. Public libraries need all the help they can get. Are your comics now in the Special Collections, or were they sold to raise cash?

  16. moi on 05 Jan 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    Where I taught undergrad courses, it was against university policy to order textbooks from any store but the campus bookstore, which was really a big chain bookstore (selling mainly football merchandise) under a university alias. And this store would not order any but the latest edition. So the university was doing everything in its power to ensure professors couldn’t order older editions, where more used books would be available, in paperback, on websites like half dot com and amazon marketplace. How much more anti-student and anti-learning can a university get! Some of us got away with giving our business to a local independent bookstore anyway.

    I sometimes requested one or two “review” copies to give away to needy students or to place in the reference section of the library. I figured if publishers can twist the university’s arm to sell only new books, and if marketing is such a big priority that they give professors $100 books in the hope of making $10,000, there’s nothing unethical about making full use of those free copies. I also got a lot of unsolicited review copies in fields I did not teach. Those went to a library in a third world country.

  17. Shooting fish in a barrel : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 28 Apr 2009 at 6:46 am #

    [...] elite institution who argues that we must “End the University as We Know It” (h/t to Hotshot Harry who sent the link on to me.  Congrats on the new job, Harry!)  Stanley Fish has the week off, so [...]

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