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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Random thoughts on moving

I try to keep references to my personal life at an arm's length in this blog--both to protect my privacy and the privacy of my friends and loved ones, and also because I don't think people inclined to read this blog are necessarily interested--but I will say that over the past few weeks, my girlfriend and I have moved in together. This post will be random thoughts on moving, but I will say right here how happy I am to be living with her. There were times in my life when I thought I never would experience the opportunity to live with a partner who I love and care for. I am indeed a lucky guy.

Some observations about the moving process:
  • As a general rule, you'll use all the time you'll allow yourself to prepare for and execute the move. I've allowed myself one month, and that's pretty much what it took (I'm rounding out the last week of that month now). If I had allowed myself only two weeks, I probably would have taken only two weeks. In short, moving is a great way to procrastinate doing other things.
  • I've noticed that the process of actually finding a place and a landlord through regularized channels (i.e., through an apartment finder instead of through informal grad-school contacts, which is a different process altogether) is easier for a (heterosexual) couple than for a single guy or a gaggle of grad students looking to move-in together. I think it's a combination of the fact that the couple is dual income, but it has more to do, I think, with the fact that a couple seems to suggest, rightly or wrongly, that they are "stable" and won't tear up the place. In places I had to get as a single guy, I had to often overcome the view (perhaps most of this was in my head, but I think some of it was real) that I was somehow suspicious. I had one landlord who inspected our (my and two fellow students') place on a regular basis probably because she just was suspicious of students.
  • Moving is hard financially, especially if it's pursued through regularized channels that involve credit checks and large security deposits. Fortunately, both my girlfriend and I have excellent credit, so that part of the process was almost worry-free. Our security deposit was very large, the equivalent of one and one-half month's rent. Also, we each ended up paying double rent because the lease to our old places overlapped with the start date of the lease of our new place. (Although this was expensive, it did make the move itself very easy.) We hired movers, and this was the first time either of us had done so. It made moving itself very easy and less stressful (neither of us is comfortable driving, and it was a relieve not to have to be the ones who put the square pegs of the couches into the round holes of the doors that seemed twice as small). But for this convenience, we paid a lot.
  • Moving brings to light the importance of simplicity: it makes you (or, at least it makes me) realize how much happier one can be with fewer "things," especially when one has what one cannot possibly need or even use. The fewer possessions one has, the relatively easier it is to move. (Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy has made a similar point a while ago, but I have trouble finding the actual post. I think he is right, but he uses this point to make what I see as an argument that is much more problematic than he appears to acknowledge: that the poorer one is, the easier it is to "vote with one's feet.")

Sunday, August 8, 2010

"Forum culture" in academic journals

I don't read academic journals as much as I, a grad student in history, should. Journals are important because they acquaint scholars with the state of the field, often in a more comprehensive way than simply reading monographs. (In the historical profession, monographs are emphasized more than I understand them to be in, say, political science or legal scholarship, where journal articles are even more important than in history for tenure decisions, etc. Of course, I stand to be corrected.)

One characteristic thing about journals is the occasional "forum" issues, where several--usually three--scholars opine about a work--usually a monograph, but possibly a previous journal article--of another author. These forums (fora?) give readers exposure to a variety of viewpoints, and in that respect are quite useful and important.

But they also follow a vexingly predicable format. Consider a forum about the work of author A in which scholars X, Y, and Z participate. Here is the format that is usually, almost always, followed:
  • X writes a long, often 20+ page, thought piece on author A's work.
  • Y writes a shorter, about 5 to 10 page, piece.
  • Z writes an even shorter piece, usually only 2 or 3 pages.
  • A writes a "response" that usually runs like this: "X, Y, and Z bring up many good points, but in general I'm right and they're wrong, and here's why....."
Just once, I'd like to read a forum where author A says "I enjoyed reading the commentary of X, Y, and Z. Although I think my original work had made many valid points that need consideration, it appears I will have to fundamentally rethink what I wrote before."

Perhaps this does happen occasionally. As I've said, I don't read journals nearly enough. Still, it would be nice to actually see it happen.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

"History is best, and historians are better people"

In my prior post (click here to see it, or scroll down), I stated:
There was a time when I criticized students for what I assumed to be their fixation simply to get a job and make money. I'm not in this blog post talking about those types of criticisms. But I would like to state here that I now believe those criticisms were unwarranted and inappropriate.
Here are my reasons:

One, I didn't know any given student's hidden heart and desires well enough to believe that they were simply looking to be yes-men and yes-women. Sometimes, to paraphrase Robert Frost, it's necessary to be practical-minded in one's youth so as to be artistically minded in one's older age.

Two, even if I had known, it's not clear to me that looking for skills to get a good paying job is a bad thing.

Three, I'm not really so different, even though I chose, from early on, to major in studies--History and French--that, I knew, by themselves were not obviously conducive to job prospects, a fact which was reinforced when I graduated, looked for a new job that wasn't food service related, and found so many requests in the classifieds (this was the mid-90s....people still read the papers then) for accounting majors. I wanted and value--and still want and value--the security that comes with having steady employment. I'm not necessarily all that different from my colleagues in grad school, either. Beginning in my masters program, I encountered that strange breed of person who had devoted themselves to living the life of the mind and who solemnly declared to me that they preferred that to "working for Bill Gates." Yet that didn't seem to stop them for working for the computer industry when there was a demand for their programming and web skills.

Fourth, now that I study business history--although I have always been interested in political history, I used to approach it more from a labor history angle and now I approach it more from a business history angle--I have a greater appreciation for the fields of business study and realize they command their own aptitudes and even have something approaching their own aesthetics that, in theory, I imagine to be comparable to those of the liberal arts and social sciences.

Update 8-7-10: In the paraphrase from Frost, I changed the word "use" to "youth" because I meant "youth" and not "use" and, in a more metaphysical sense, because I didn't proofread.

"You'll need to know this when you get a job"

In my career as an instructor and as a TA in history (usually American history), I grew increasingly usually reluctant to lecture students the virtues of studying history. In particular, I was always hesitant, and became even more so, to claim that the skills undergraduate history courses help teach were transferable to jobs.*

There were/are two main reasons for this. First, I have never been in a position to hire anyone, and I don't have firsthand knowledge of what employers look for. I know people who are or have been in hiring positions, and at least a few of them do state that such things like being able to write well, think clearly and logically, and know how to process a lot of information from various sources (skills which history courses, at their best, help inculcate or strengthen). But I have never been in a position myself to know how true this is. I suppose, without knowing, that the hiring process itself does not make it clear who has such skills beyond the normal things one looks at in an application, a resume, or an interview.

Second, every job I have had outside of academia--and I have had quite a few, although not as much, probably, as most people--has been in some degree entry level in that it did not nominally require any more than a high school diploma. One can be "only" a high school graduate and do well at these jobs, which is not to say that they are "unskilled." In fact, one of the things I noticed at my very first job--at a fast food restaurant--was how skilled one had to be in order to do what a lot of my high school and middle school teachers had derided as merely "flipping burgers." Just because those skills were not formally acquired in a university (or, for that matter, in an apprenticeship program for trades like plumbing or electrical work) does not mean that they do not have a value in themselves. I have a hard time telling my students, with a straight face, that when they graduate, they will "need to have these skills" when usually they did not apply in the type of jobs I used to have.

The reasons my experiences are varied, I admit, probably have at least as much to do with my own priorities as they do with whether the skills one learns as liberal arts major are marketable outside of academia. Simply put, I'm really not that ambitious, or at least haven't been in the past when it's come to looking for jobs. In my more idle moments, I like the idea of being an important person who works for the government, for an important firm, or for an enterprise that is profitable to those who work there but that officially disavows a profit motive for tax purposes nonprofit. But in practice, I have been, rightly or wrongly, content with more modest jobs. But who knows? Maybe I'll be ambitious some day.

I don't write any of this to say that the skills that history courses supposedly impart or help develop are not worth anything. Nor do I say, right here and now, that the value of learning history for the sake of learning history is not all it is cracked up to be by historians and even non-historians (even though I tend to believe that). But I think we should be more modest before we, especially those like me who have never been in a supervisory position, give our students another unhelpful lecture they won't pay attention to anyway about how they need to write this week's paper so they can get a job.

* There was a time when I criticized students for what I assumed to be their fixation simply to get a job and make money. I'm not in this blog post talking about those types of criticisms. But I would like to state here that I now believe those criticisms were unwarranted and inappropriate. I'll explain why I think so in another post.