The First Year

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Image courtesy of Getty Images

By Dr. Timothy Orr

Hey all, it is an honor to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection! My special thanks to David for this opportunity. 

My name is Timothy Orr, and I am an Assistant Professor of History at Simpson University in Redding, California (Redding has been in the news recently as the location of the very devastating Carr Fire, but thankfully my family, home, and university are all safe). In May I completed my first full year of employment as an Assistant Professor, and it is this period I want to reflect upon in this entry.  As an overarching disclaimer, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have full-time employment in my field, and I am aware of the privilege and rarity of my situation. My below thoughts speak only to my situation and are not meant to imply a universal understanding of each individual’s graduate and professional experiences. 

Before discussing my first year of full-time work, I want to say a very quick word about the job hunt. The job market is the worst.  If you are an academic, then you are very familiar with this fact. There is so much literature on the realities of the job market that I do not feel I can add much to that discussion, but I wanted to mention it because it has continued to affect me as I move into my career, as I will discuss below. 

My first year of teaching has been a strange combination of fulfilled dreams and continued challenges. Every professor I spoke to told me that finishing a dissertation, even while maintaining a steady teaching load, is still significantly less work than the first several years of a full-time position. They were, unsurprisingly, correct. Writing lectures preps, continuing to work on research projects, and beginning to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript competed with meetings, committee work, and extra-curricular activities with students (not to mention suddenly living an area with beautiful mountains and a wife who wants to explore a new one every day she can). It has absolutely been the most work I have ever done in my life and I have loved almost every minute of it. I can remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach as the sole instructor for that period. I was already well into graduate school and two thoughts plagued me as I did: 1. What if I am no good at this? 2. What if I hate teaching? At the least, I definitely do not hate what I do, and the opportunity to engage students every day in the classroom continues to shape me as a professor. I love teaching, and while there is less time to devote to research, I have discovered the context of being fully immersed in the life of a university provides a framework that helps me better orient why research is such a significant part of our field. Even committee work, which is undoubtedly the least glamorous part of our profession (aside, perhaps, from administrative paperwork), has helped me better understand the functioning of the university and the diverse backgrounds from which my colleagues have arrived at academia. 

There are also new challenges I have faced during my first year of full-time work. I Skyped with a friend who had also just completed her first year as a full-time professor, and we shared very similar experiences—even though she is at a large state university and I am at very small liberal arts university. We have both struggled to find a sense of community like what we enjoyed during our doctoral programs. During my Ph.D. program, I spent five years delving deeply into a subject that I love and, while doing this, I was surrounded by people who love what I love. It is an incredibly rare thing and it created friendships I will enjoy the rest of my life. But full-time work is more isolating. You inevitably spend more time with students than with peers, and colleagues, for a variety of reasons, are less engaged with your work. My friend and I also both experienced periods of existential doubt regarding the humanities and higher education during our first year as full-time faculty. These doubts certainly are not new, but they took new shape as we wrestled with these questions not just in our lives but in the lives of our students. How are we preparing and shaping them and what support, financial and otherwise, will be available to them as they continue on their journeys? 

These new struggles and doubts have been a critical part of this first year. However, I anticipated new problems as I moved into full-time work and their emergence has not surprised me. Rather, it is has been the continuation of old doubts and fears that have affected me most during this past year. The Ph.D. behind my name and the Assistant Professor tag underneath it on badges at conferences has done little to assuage the sense of self-doubt I still experience encountering senior colleagues, or even just colleagues, at conferences. Every line I write and every article I submit still seems woefully inadequate and my imposter syndrome is apparently not impressed with the degrees hanging in my office. But even this is, in some ways, unexpected. The absolute greatest fear in my professional life was, is, and will remain the job market. 

I thought that when I landed a full-time position my constant fear (terror, really) of the job market would be gone, but the terrible reality of it continues to hang over me. With so many academic institutions in very difficult financial straits, new positions are nowhere near as secure as they need to be—and even whole universities are threatened. The tenure deadline also looms ahead and I spend just as much time worrying that I will have to go back on the job market as I did worrying about landing a job when I was on it. Again, I recognize that this unfair as I am incredibly lucky to have a position when so many do not. But it would have been helpful to hear more about the ways things do not change as you transition from graduate school into the academy. It gets harder in all the ways that I expected, but it does not get easier in any of the ways that I hoped. 

However, it does seem to say something that my greatest dissatisfaction with my profession is the threat that I might not get to do it. There are a lot of layers to my fear of being forced back onto the job market. I have concerns about finances, failure, and relocating, but the primary fear is that I will not be able to continue to do the work that I love—and I think that is a rare and fortunate thing.

What a Government Shutdown Means for Researchers

A screenshot of the warning message that appeared on the National Archives Catalog website during the government shutdown.

A screenshot of the warning message that appeared on the National Archives Catalog website during the government shutdown.

By Chiara Ziletti

Due to the shutdown of the Federal Government, National Archives facilities are closed, websites and social media are not being updated or monitored, and activities are canceled, with some exceptions. Check Archives.gov for details.

During the weekend I was duly completing my assigned research for my Historical Preservation class, and I came across this message multiple times. The first time I read this warning was while checking the National Archives Catalogue, but I later run into similar messages on the National Park Services and on the Library of Congress websites.

It seems that the latest government shutdown that begun at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, January 20, has luckily come to a resolution with the approval of a short-term spending bill. A federal government shutdown has undoubtedly negative repercussions on the entire society, though some effects might be more evident than others, and the impact is not the same for everyone. But what does a government shutdown mean for researchers? How does it affect their work? As an international student which has been in the U.S. only for few years, I must admit that I never had the occasion to reflect about these issues until I literally stumbled across all these messages of closure on the websites I needed to use.

The first time I saw the message about the closure popping up in my web browser I was a little concerned, but I soon realized that in my case the disruption was going to be minimal, I was lucky. I was looking for the list of the National Register of Historic Places, trying to understand which buildings in Mt. Pleasant are included in the inventory, and the shutdown did not prevent me from finding the information I needed. However, until they start updating their websites again, the remote risk that the information I found might be incomplete still exists, and the accuracy of my research is somehow impaired. Furthermore, the fact that I did not have major problems does not mean that other historians came out from this unaffected.

Primary sources are the foundations on which historians build their research, and even though several institutions have been digitalizing more and more primary sources in the past years, visiting archives in first person to access the sources remains a crucial and valuable step in the work of any historian. As a consequence, the closure of important institutions such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives have a significantly disruptive potential for anyone dealing with material being preserved in those places. I guess that researchers planning a trip to these institutions should start taking into account federal spending bill deadlines in order to avoid losing precious funding. The temporary cancellation of activities and events taking place at these institutions – especially those of educational significance – is also a considerable loss for those who were planning to visit them in these days.

Lastly, it is important to remember that a government shutdown negatively impacts both the entire research world and higher education. On January 18, for example, Nature published online an article explaining the major effects that a shutdown would have on federally funded scientific research. Several researches would be sent home, and important projects would be temporarily halted. Similarly, on January 22, Inside Higher Ed wrote that a protracted shutdown would more likely affect the processing of grants and funding, leaving researches and colleges without money.

It seems that for now the lawmakers have come to a compromise. We managed to avoid the worst effects connected to an extended shutdown, and we are back on track. Let’s hope we will not have to go through this again anytime soon.

Without Faith: Church Interactions

By Jonathan Truitt

This week has been a lesson in irony. This is no reflection on my students or my family, they have all been awesome. Rather, it is on the state of other responsibilities within my professional and personal life. I am a colonial Latin American Historian. My research focuses on indigenous interaction with the Catholic Church in colonial Mexico City. I am not actually interested in whether or not the indigenous population believed in the faith, but rather I’m interested in their day-to-day interactions with it and how those interactions influenced the rest of their community. To put it simply I am trying to remove religion from an examination of religious life. I know what you are thinking, what good is this? The short answer is that the Catholic Church, in order to serve the Spanish faithful in the manner in which they were accustomed, a whole lot of requirements needed to be met in order to operate, and there simply were not enough Spaniards to keep it functioning, so they needed the indigenous population to plug the very large gap.

To place it in more modern terms I think about this interaction in the ways in which people who live in a company town, like Midland, Michigan -- home of Dow Chemical -- interact with the company on a daily basis even if they don’t work for the company. Simply stated a lot of infrastructure needs to be in place to support the people who work for the company. That reaches beyond the business itself and includes everything from supporting a good school system to recreational activities. Whenever the company opens a new plant somewhere they have to make sure they have the infrastructure in place. If they don’t, it can still work, but the results are going to be mixed. This is the very basic version of what I spend my time thinking about when I am not grading, playing with my children, sitting in meetings (though truth be told I am sometimes thinking about this while I am in meetings), working on developing game-based pedagogy, or meeting with students and colleagues.

So where is the irony? My book is written and the press has had it for almost a year at this point. Rather, I should say the presses, plural, because it has been jostled between presses with changing partnerships. They are still very interested in my book and this past Tuesday asked me to make some edits based on a reviewer’s comments on my conclusion. They would like the corrections by the end of next week. The reviewer is having difficulty understanding the premise of my book. The idea of studying people’s interaction with something rather than their actual belief is apparently a hard sell. Here is the irony. My book is reflective of my own interaction with the church. I am not a religious person, yet I attend church regularly with my wife who is a devoted Christian and wants to raise our children in the Christian faith. I am currently getting ready to head to church with my boys (my wife has gone on ahead as she plays hand bells and has a performance today). When I get to church I will be helping out in the nursery, next week I will be at a personnel committee meeting for the church (on which I serve), I have just finished leading an eight-week educational course for children at the church, and have been asked to create a special discussion group on immigration, also for the church. I am a member and many of the people at the church know my views. I value the community and support them in many things and they support me. In my interactions with the community my belief doesn’t matter, but my actions do. This is the very thing that I study and somehow I haven’t made it clear to the anonymous reviewer that my book isn’t about belief, but about the day-to-day interactions, even though I live it. So, as I sit here preparing to take my kids to church I wonder, have I sold you?

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Archive

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

By Jennifer Vannette

We talk about archival work as if it’s always important and serious. To be fair, it mostly is. But sometimes it can be a comedy of errors. Every archive trip is different and every archive you visit has its own rules, style, and vibe.

When I was studying in the UK, I needed to use some Foreign Office papers, which are housed at the National Archives in Kew. I successfully navigated my train south to London and then the Underground out to Kew and was feeling very pleased with myself as I used my smart phone’s GPS to help me find my lodgings and then walk to the archive the next morning. I was there too early, but it was a beautiful day and the grounds were lovely so I wandered around and enjoyed myself. The doors opened, and I walked up to the desk to ask where to go. I still don’t know why they were surprised by my question, but they pointed me to the coat room. In this room, there were all sorts of helpful directions posted about using the lockers, what you could take into the reading room, and the clear bags you would need to use to carry your supplies. They also had umbrella stands, which although immensely practical for the UK, were still a fun novelty for an American. Basically, this room told me everything about using a locker -- something I have know how to do since middle school. The instructions were about to get less clear.

It took awhile to shove everything in the locker and sort out what I could take with me. Feeling a bit warm from my labors of shoving a backpack and coat into the too small locker, I nevertheless felt ready to get to work. There were signs pointing up the stairs to the reading room, so I started climbing. I came to a landing and found a billboard-sized sign emblazoned “Start Here.” So, I went up to the desk to start.

It turns out that that is not where one begins. Of course not. That would be silly. So, up one more flight of stairs I found a little room where I had to fill out more paperwork, sign more things saying I wouldn’t steal stuff (I had already done this once online), and then wait for my photo to be taken for my Researcher’s ID. Now, at this point I had walked a mile and a half to the archive, wrestled with my locker, walked up two flights of stairs and was super confused about where I was supposed to be. You can imagine how great that picture turned out.

ID in hand, I was sent back down stairs. But not as you might have guessed to the “Start Here” sign. Nope, I had to go to the other side of that floor and go through security. (I still don’t know who actually starts at the desk with the sign. It remains a mystery.) I went to hand over my bag and computer for inspection and dropped the bag; the contents spilled out. I walked through the security barrier and set off the alarm. I was sent back through twice and finally it was okay. At this point the security guards and I are having a good laugh because it was just so ridiculous. It was the start of our ongoing bit. You know, the classic “not you again!” bit. I was a hit with security.

The National Archives houses vast amounts material and hosts so many researchers that it’s no wonder they have really modernized the process. I checked in and was assigned a table at which to sit, and my table number corresponded to my locker number where they would deposit my requested materials. To request materials, I went to a computer bank and swiped my ID. That brought up my table/locker number and then any materials requested would automatically be linked to my number. It was pretty cool. When I finished with a box of materials, I took them to a return desk. The only downside is that unlike smaller archives, there was no personal attention offered by the archivists. And, unlike the security guys, they weren’t very friendly. I discovered that somewhere I lost my pencil (probably when my bag spilled) and the archivist-on-duty would not loan me one. He helpfully suggested I buy a new one at the gift shop. The souvenir pencils were £2 a piece. So helpful.

From the outside, it might look like researchers seem calm, cool, and collected, but some days it's really difficult to not feel foolish. That first day at the National Archives was one awkward moment after another. Every archive is different, so no matter how many you visit, it's just hard to predict what is going to happen. The best thing to do is roll with it and learn to laugh at yourself.