Friday, May 21, 2010

Remembering the Joy When the Market is "Grim"

As a current Ph.D. candidate in American history I often feel that the air is filled with dire news. Having a J.D. gives me greater security, but pursuing any type of academic job now is a risk, which is why I sometimes get well-meaning emails titled "depressing article you might want to read." They forward things like this Chronicle of Higher Education piece on how “[g]raduate school in the humanities is a trap,” this LHB post on the “grim” job market for history Ph.D.s., and this Volokh discussion of the "awful" entry-level law market. As long as I don't smell schadenfreude, I don't mind. I applaud those who seek to give honest counsel to current and prospective graduate students. But this post is not about the many reasons to be cautious, pragmatic, and anxious. Rather, it’s about the joy of doing historical work and the reason I hope to keep at it.
A few weeks ago, I received a different sort of email. The subject line was “Flemming v. Nestor,” the name of a little known Supreme Court case that I wrote about in a 2008 article. The sender was a stranger to me. The message made me smile all day long. In fact, after pausing to consider whether it was a cruel joke (on April Fool’s Day, a devious friend convinced me that he had been stabbed and needed me to call his mom), I’ve been smiling ever since.
The email was from a relative of Barbara Nestor, a feisty radical who was married to the Nestor (Fedya) of the case’s title. Drawing on a terrific oral history that I found at the Virtual Oral/Aural History Archive, I was able to include in the article lots of details about the Nestors’ lives: Barbara’s efforts to school her children in labor history, Fedya’s dreams of becoming a great inventor, the difficulty of finding a lawyer to take Fedya’s case (after immigration officials deported him for his political affiliations, the Social Security Administration refused to pay out his accrued Social Security benefits; a lawyer willing to challenge such an action, even as McCarthyism waned, was hard to come by). This relative of Barbara’s wrote to thank me for giving context to the case and for bringing this family story – which she had heard only in bits and pieces – back to life. She also shared with me her recollections of Barbara, a woman who had come to feel like my own lovable and eccentric relative. She closed her email with her take on the point of the article: that through the law, the lives of ordinary people can shape our future.
This message was significant to me on several levels. First, it affirmed my belief in writing accessibly. As academics, we should write for one another; we should develop ideas that are subtle and complex. But I like to think, as I toil over this dissertation, that we can engage non-specialists, too. Second, the email made me appreciate Wikipedia. Professors are understandably wary of students' heavy reliance on this source, and many observers have noted problems with the “wiki” method, but the website is an important gateway. The author of this email found my article through a Wikipedia link, and thankfully – another point to ponder – the Law and History Review made my article free and accessible to her (via History Cooperative).
Most important, the email helped me remember why I chose this path, despite the uncertainty. To me, the best part about writing history is not, as we sometimes joke, that dead people don’t talk back. It is that sometimes, somehow, they do.

What keeps you all going?
Image credits: Dorothy Healey, Barbara Nestor's daughter


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Thanks so much for this. I've yet to look up your article and links but I became intrigued when I saw Dorothy Healey's picture, as it's the one on the cover of her (political) autobiography (co-authored with Maruice Isserman), Dorothy Healey Remembers: A Life in the American Communist Party (1990). I don't recall much about her parents (mother and stepfather) from the book but am now curious enough to learn more.

Growing up in the 1970s in the San Fernando Valley, I listened to Healey on KPFK radio (those were the days: Alan Watts, Roz and Howard Larman's FolkScene, etc., etc.). What memories you've provoked! Two of my heroes of that generation happen to be women named Dorothy, the other being Dorothy Day (a Catholic 'communist'!).

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

The aforementioned book has wonderful photographs which I just went to look up: one with Feyda and his "perpetual motion machine"! I couldn't help but recall Wilhelm Reich and his "orgone accumulators"!

Karen Tani said...

Patrick, thanks for the kind words. I encourage you to check out the Barbara Nestor interviews. They're a treasure. I also love that Fedya photo!

Anonymous said...

At the risk of creating much controversy and critique, I am going to be blunt and say this post bothered me. While I have enjoyed Tani's posts and I am a fan of the LHB, I felt that this post reflected a lack of awareness of the state of academe today.

More specifically, as many commentators have recently observed, the "life of the mind," celebrated by Tani and coveted by so many in the profession has become increasingly inaccessible, particularly given the reliance on contingent labor in the academy. For one of the most fascinating, if not heated, debates on this topic, see

What may be of further interest to Tani is not only the ways in which the academic profession has been restructured to limit the ability of many to engage in substantive intellectual work but also the ways in which this restructuring impinges on the legal rights of academics as workers. For a fascinating article on adjuncts and welfare benefits see,

Some days I can't decide if academia is the last frontier of labor exploitation in the long 20th century or whether it's a new frontier of labor exploitation in the technologically driven 21st century. But either way, many academics face real, material problems -- problems that preclude their ability to contribute to the world of ideas.

As academics in more secure positions and, more important, in positions of power and influence, I urge Tani and other readers and contributors to this blog to consider and act upon ways in which we can make Tani's life of the mind more accessible for everyone in the profession.

Mary L. Dudziak said...

A note to Anonymous:

Thank you for including your thoughts, and for following the blog. I just wanted to point out regarding your comment about those "in positions of power and influence" -- while this might be said of me, my co-blogger Dan Ernst, and other guests, Karen Tani is a graduate student, and will be facing the same job market as everyone else. She doesn't dismiss difficulties -- instead she links to discussions of them. What I find compelling about this post is Karen's relentless effort to find silver linings. I don't find it to be a dismissal of the state of the academy, but one person's rumination on how she perseveres in spite of it. You can, of course, disagree. But Karen comes to the topic, even with her JD, in the precarious position of a grad student seeking to join an academy that -- as you note -- is increasingly structured in a way that diminishes the opportunity of many teachers to hang onto the ideal that Karen holds out in her post.

Karen Tani said...

To Anonymous: I appreciate your critique and will take it to heart. I hope that some future guest blogger takes up the important questions you raise.

From my perspective, the post celebrated not so much the "life of the mind" as the moments of connection that this profession offers. For what it's worth, I could have written the same post about teaching or grading. In both those settings, I've experienced moments of connection that were, to me, sustaining and affirming. My intention with this post was not to ignore the real problems with academia or to privilege substantive intellectual work, but to reflect on small and unexpected joys.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

rhealey said...

Finding Karen's article on the internet was wonderful. Fedya was my grandfather - I grew up with him and with the wheels in our garage. I passed her article on to my two sons and shared some of my memories about Fedya and Barbara with them. My younger son, Josh, wrote a poem about Fedya, which he performed recently:

His poem might be thought of as a descendent of Karen's article.