An Obvious Lesson From History: Your Senate Prognostication Is Likely Wrong


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In the days ahead, there’s much analysis to be written about the historical forces that propelled Doug Jones to his upset victory in the Alabama special election. The role of African American voters in that state (as well as the longstanding effort to impose barriers to their political participation), the image of the “New South” and its values,  and the confluence of national and local forces all warrant significant attention.


Senator-Elect Doug Jones (D-Alabama): As surprised as the rest of us are

But because I’m bleary-eyed after staying up much too late watching election returns, my focus is on a more mundane — though still important — point. Recent history suggests that whatever prognostications that pundits make about the next cycle of Senate races, especially a year out, they are likely wrong.

That’s relevant today because Jones’s unexpected win is causing observers to revisit their assumptions about the 2018 Senate elections. To be sure, the map makes it nearly impossible for Democrats to win a Senate majority. They are defending twenty-three seats to the GOP’s eight, and ten of the Democrats’ races are in states Donald Trump carried in 2016.

But what seemed impossible yesterday appears less so today:

The lesson from recent history, though, is that shifting fortunes should not surprise us.

Six years ago, this very same Senate class was gearing up for the 2012 election. Democrats held a 53-47 seat advantage, thanks to building up a large majority in 2006 and 2008 that allowed them to absorb the losses of 2010.

It seemed that 2012 would be time to pay the piper. Throughout 2011, observers anticipated losses for Democrats and suggested that their majority might be in serious jeopardy. But things shifted. The surprise retirement announcement by Maine’s GOP Senator Olympia in February of 2012 suddenly offered a pickup opportunity (the seat was eventually won by Independent Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats). Thanks to Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Richard “God-Given Rape” Mourdock, Democrats prevailed in the strongly Republican states of Missouri and Indiana. Rather than losing seats — let alone the majority — Democrats increased their Senate margin to 55-45.

Prognosticators recognized that 2014 elections would cost Democrats seats, but they were often wrong in predictions of who would win. For a time, Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor was put forward as the potential unlikely survivor because of his moderate profile and stature as the son of a beloved former governor. Later, Pryor was written off as doomed, but North Carolina’s Kay Hagan was championed instead as the potential survivor of a GOP wave. They both lost.

Then came last year. I suspect this is fresh in people’s minds — still too fresh, perhaps — but it’s worth briefly revisiting. Prognostications favored a Democratic takeover of the Senate. The return to politics of former Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin fueled optimism for much of the year that both of those seats would return to Democrats, getting the party most of the way to a Senate majority. Prognosticators were wrong again, though, as both lost to their Republican opponents.

I’m a historian, not a political scientist or pundit, so I’ll refrain from offering my own prognostications about next year’s Senate elections (though I’m happy to share them via Twitter!).

But there is an important lesson from history here. For the last several election cycles (and, indeed, in every cycle this century with the exception of 2008), the final makeup of the Senate has defied pre-election predictions. In fact, more often than not, the end result has been the opposite of expectations weeks or months before the election.

I suspect hardly any of us would have believed it if, six months ago, we were told that Alabama would elect a Democratic U.S. Senator. It’s worth keeping that in mind when reading confident assurances of what the 2018 midterms will bring.


The Dangers of Al Franken’s Whataboutism


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Last Thursday, Al Franken announced his intention to resign from the United States Senate amid growing allegations of sexual misconduct. While Franken has agreed to resign his senate seat, his efforts to distract from his own actions and highlight the misbehavior of others threaten to undermine Democratic Party’s ability to stand for the rights of all women.

In his statement, Franken said,

I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.

Franken has engaged in a logical fallacy—whataboutism. It’s a favorite tactic of Donald Trump, who uses it to try to shift attention away from his own activities to those of Hillary Clinton or his other numerous enemies. Whataboutism is a form of the tu quoque fallacy, which holds that “You avoided having to engage with criticism by turning it back on the accuser – you answered criticism with criticism.” The question of Trump or Moore’s behavior is not relevant to the question of whether Franken should serve in the senate. They are relevant to the question of whether Moore should be elected to the Senate or whether Trump is fit to be president. The allegations surrounding Trump, Moore, and Franken, however, are separate issues and should be handled as such.

Franken’s attempts to deflect his own behavior and highlight the actions of others raise troubling issues about how the Democratic Party and liberals are confronting the culture of sexual harassment.  When the allegations were levelled against Trump, Moore, and Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes in the past, it was easy for those of us on the left to take the moral high ground and use it as a cudgel against those on the right. After all, the Democratic Party supports the rights of women in terms of abortion, equal pay, and a host of other issues. There are many more female Democrats in Congress than Republicans. That type of behavior seemingly shouldn’t happen in the Democratic Party.


Al Franken

It’s difficult for those of us on the left to believe that a progressive leader of the Democratic Party, one who votes for the things we believe in, says the right things on the issues, and has been a staunch critic of the Trump administration, is a serial sexual harasser. We ask, how can that be? Franken believes what we believe and we believe that we’re good people. We have to resist the urge to look for other explanations. Franken is not the victim of a conspiracy or false allegations or whatever else. We must recognize that it would be the height of arrogance to assume that one’s political opponents are the only ones who engage in such morally reprehensible behavior. As the recent #MeToo movement has shown, rapists and sexual harassers don’t fit into neatly colored boxes.

Additionally, by defending Franken, Democrats and liberals send the worst possible message to women who have been sexually abused, harassed, or victimized. We support you, but only when it’s politically expedient. What kind of moral leadership is that? You can’t be the party of women and then only support women who have been abused by Republicans or conservatives. You cannot defend Franken and attack his accusers while accusing Roy Moore and Donald Trump of doing the same. These behaviors perpetuate the same marginalization and stigmatization of women that prevents so many people from stepping forward against their attackers and allows the culture of abuse to thrive.

If liberals and Democrats actually want to help to end the rampant sexual abuse and assault in American culture, then they need to take seriously the women who step forward and not care whether the abuser has a R or a D next to their name.

Follow the Tweets


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Donald Trump and Twitter have a symbiotic relationship. Trump likely wouldn’t be president without the ability to rile up supporters, spread lies and misinformation, and attack his opponents that Twitter provides. Twitter allows Trump to immediately share his thoughts with the world, bypassing any sort of filter or mediation by colleagues or traditional press outlets. His tweets trigger cycles of praise by followers and condemnation by his detractors. Twitter similarly needs Trump’s tweets to remain viable as a social media platform. Millions of people in the United States and around the world read and react to his tweets. Imagine the horror that went through Twitter when the president’s account was temporarily deleted recently. Their entire raison d’etre vanished in a single minute. As the burgeoning Mueller investigation reveals, however, Trump’s tweets may be his undoing.

Trump is impulsive and rarely thinks through his actions, especially when tweeting. He isn’t some master political strategist with a far-reaching plan. He’s like me when I play video games, mashing the buttons together until I figure out something that works. That reality has a bunch of important implications. First, his tweets are often prompted by something he’s just seen or been told. Second, he does not filter information. He’ll use whatever is at hand to strike at his enemies without regard to sourcing and whether that could potentially incriminate him in any way. Finally, because he tweets without thinking, Trump’s tweets provide a real-time snapshot of his thought process at that particular moment. His tweets could answer the question of what did Trump know and when did he know it regarding his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.

A few weeks ago, the Atlantic reported that, on October 12, 2016, the Wikileaks Twitter account sent a direct message to Donald Trump Jr. asking him to promote the release of the latest batch of the Podesta emails.  Wikileaks (presumably in the person of Julian Assange) wrote, “Strongly suggest your dad tweets this link if he mentions us. There’s many great stories the press are missing and we’re sure some of your follows [sic] will find it. Btw we just released Podesta Emails Part 4.” Fifteen minutes later, Trump tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 1.39.31 PM

The explanations for why Trump sent this tweet range from the innocent—he was independently tweeting about his well-known dislike for certain parts of the media and their refusal to cover issues that he considered important—to suggesting collusion with Russia and Wikileaks—Jr. shared the message from Wikileaks and Trump got excited and tweeted about it. Based on what we know about Trump, Wikileaks, and Russian efforts to meddle in the election, I know where I’d put my money.

Another example of this type of tweeting that came out as a result of Michael Flynn’s plea deal. Last Friday, Flynn plead guilty to lying to the FBI about phone calls he made to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016. Flynn admitted that he asked Kislyak to not escalate tensions with the United States after the Obama administration issued new sanctions against Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. After Russian President Vladimir Putin declined to retaliate against the United States, Trump tweeted this:

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Again, which is more likely? That Trump naively saw that Putin did not retaliate against the Obama administration—which since Trump hates Obama so much would be a mark of Putin’s good character—or that Trump was pleased that the Russians acceded to Flynn’s request?

All of the available evidence suggests that the second explanation is much more likely. Flynn’s charging document reveals that Flynn had discussed and sought instruction from senior Trump transition officials about what he should say to Kislyak. The implications of these phone calls should not be understated. Flynn’s request to Kislyak occurred after the Obama administration reached out to the Trump camp and asked them to stop making contact with foreign governments without looping in the State Department. The U.S. government cannot conduct foreign policy if the president-elect is trying to undermine the current administration. And especially if the president-elect has colluded with a foreign government to win a presidential election.

Trump’s tweets and Flynn’s phone calls reveal the brazen stupidity of the Trump campaign in its efforts to reach out to the Russians. Trump has had no problem associating himself with accused rapist Julian Assange. He has repeatedly refused to accept the judgement of the U.S. intelligence community that the Russians interfered in the election. Instead Trump has relied on the assurances of Vladimir Putin that the Russians didn’t interfere.  Flynn, meanwhile, made his calls to Kislyak on an unsecured phone. The call was monitored by the intelligence community (in the US, but likely other countries as well). When asked about it by the FBI last January, Flynn lied about it. His actions were altogether more astounding because he was the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, one of the key organizations in the U.S. intelligence community. Two days after his interview with the FBI, acting attorney general Sally Yates visited the White House to warn them that Flynn had misrepresented himself to the FBI and was a security risk.

As the Mueller investigation zeroes in on Trump, the president’s tweets may provide the roadmap to understanding the extent of his collusion with the Russians.

Booze, women, and movies


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On Sunday, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said the quiet part out loud.

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

Saying the quiet part out loud and getting away with it because nothing matters is sort of the theme of 2017, but his comments did provoke a reaction. There’s plenty to be said about how Grassley tries to avoid the implications of inherited wealth by framing us all as Horatio Algers at birth. I wrote a whole post about that. But honestly, that’s pretty obvious.

What has been less remarked upon, at least by male political commentators, is what Grassley’s comments reveal about who works. The fact that many male commentators haven’t picked up on that suggests that even as they critique his classism, they share – or see as less problematic – his views on gender and labor.

Grassley argues that if “people” didn’t spend their money on “women,” they might invest it and be successful. It’s not clear to me whether he is thinking about prostitution or the dinners, diamond earrings, and washing machines he thinks must be bought to maintain a woman. Unless Chuck Grassley thinks the non-elite women of America are blowing their paychecks on hiring female prostitutes, it’s pretty clear that when he talks about “people,” he means “men.” He still thinks of men as the people who do – and are supposed to do – economically-valuable labor.

I’ve written elsewhere about the way imagining the American worker as white and male can hinder productive political discussions about policy, but it’s really important to remember that this danger doesn’t just come because people like Grassley have failed to get with the times and realize the contributions that women make to the economy now. The danger comes in refusing to acknowledge those contributions have always been there by ignoring and/or devaluing women’s labor, and by assuming that our historical moment is the one in which women’s economic contributions are most valued.

The arguments we see include:

  • “Women were seen as less capable of hard physical labor and so were excluded from it in the past.”
  • “Women are weaker and you just have to acknowledge they can’t do all the jobs.”
  • “Men worked outside the home.”
  • “Women finally started working in the [insert time period here].”
  • “Women are more willing to take low-paid jobs.”
  • “Men were always seen as the breadwinner.”
  • And rarely articulated so bluntly, but at the core of all of these: “Work is something you get wages for.”

In no particular order, because weaving them into a compelling narrative doesn’t seem to make them stick any better, a non-exhaustive list of responses:

  • Childbirth is pretty physically demanding. It’s literally called “labor.” (Of course, this is used to argue against women being allowed to engage physical labor in other spheres, sometimes.)
  • In a family farm economy, did men work outside the home? Did they earn a wage? Was what they did still work?
  • Cooking, cleaning, and childcare are physically demanding. So are producing cloth, dairying, maintaining an orchard, caring for small livestock, and brewing beer, all of which women did in colonial .
  • If cooking, cleaning, childcare, and eldercare have no economic value, why do you have to pay (or enslave) other people to do them?
  • If women are not capable of hard physical labor, why did white Americans enslave millions of African and African-American women to do physical labor in fields? (Spoiler alert: they basically invented racial difference in order to justify doing this while pointing to women’s agricultural labor as evidence of the cultural inferiority of a wide variety of Indian nations.)
  • Women didn’t “start” working wage labor jobs in factories in the 1880s, or because of the war, or in the 1920s, or because of the other war, or in the 1970s, or in the 1990s. Women were the original industrial wage laborers in the U.S. And why should that be surprising? After all, what were these early factories making?
  • Also women worked in mines.
  • Also white women were harsh, violent, psychologically-abusive slave mistresses.
  • How many of our “manly” jobs today require unyielding physical strength? Is investing inherited money too physically demanding for a woman?
  • Jobs lose prestige and pay when women join the field/women can only join a field when it’s started to lose prestige and pay. See: teachers, paralegals, professors.
  • We pay people who work in certain fields – childcare, food service, cleaning, nursing, home health care, nursing home care – less because the fields are dominated by women and associated not with skill and economic value but with feminine obligation and sacrifice. That has not always been the case.
  • As much as it might unsettle your sense of historical superiority, women were paid for skilled work in colonial America and the early U.S. In case you need an example, here you go.
  • If women weren’t earning wages or producing vital economic value for the household, why did we need laws for so long stating that their husbands had the right to the money they earned?
  • Read this labor wanted ad and consider all the valuable skills required of a substitute wife: Wanted at a Seat about half a day’s journey from Philadelphia, on which are good improvements and domestics, A Single Woman of unsullied Reputation, an affable, cheerful, active and amiable Disposition; cleanly, industrious, perfectly qualified to direct and manage the female Concerns of country business, as raising small stock, dairying, marketing, combing, carding, spinning, knitting, sewing, pickling, preserving, etc., and occasionally to instruct two young Ladies in those Branches of Oeconomy, who, with their father, compose the Family. Such a person will be treated with respect and esteem, and meet with every encouragement due to such a character. [Pennsylvania Packet, September 23, 1780]
  • Also sex work is labor. It’s paid physical (and mental/emotional) labor.
  • Also wet nurses. More female labor with economic value rooted in the physical body.

“New Britain, Connecticut. Women welders at the Landers, Frary, and Clark plant.” Taken June 1943. Source:

I doubt Grassley was even conscious of what he was saying, and would backtrack if pushed on it. But plenty of people – conservatives, liberals, and leftists alike – speak the same assumptions out loud when they talk about labor. All I can suggest is that you listen to yourself when you talk about labor, and about people. If you notice yourself saying “people” when you mean “(white) men,” or if you seem to imply that there was a time when women didn’t work, start thinking about who you mean by people. who you mean by women, and what you mean by work.


Slack chat: taxes, sexual harassment, and the future of the republic


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David Mislin: How do we think this ends? In other words, where is the country going? Are we doomed? Do Democrats rally in 2018 and we all laugh and say “US politics is cyclical, nothing ever lasts”? Do we stay polarized? Are things like this tax bill so bad that they trigger a new progressive moment?

Chris Bouton: In other words, let’s do a little bit of historical futurcasting.

Erin Bartram: This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve tried to emphasize to my students this semester that we need to think of the 1787 Constitution as a failure, in some senses, because it provides no political solution to fundamental issues in the country. There’s a military solution where no political solution could be found.

David: Right. I guess an additional option I didn’t include but it sort of falls under “we’re doomed,” is whether or not there’s some functional equivalent of a military coup, which is something I increasingly worry about.

Erin: I am not saying this is the 1850s, but when I think realistically about how things proceed, the ways of fixing everything to make the system more equitable are not tweaks. They are massive overhauls. Or things don’t get fixed. People in Wyoming can only shout “It’s a republic not a democracy” so much before the fundamental inequities of the system won’t be tolerated.

And unlike something like black voting rights, the political oppression in this case isn’t specific to a demographic group, but to geographic locations.

Chris:  I’ll play the optimist here and suggest that the republic is not doomed.

Erin:  Thank you for that

David:  Yay!

Chris:  In regards to the Democrats chances in 2018, I’d say based on what I read from political wonk types, that recent elections and the generic Congressional ballot suggest a swing back towards the Democrats. Historically, the president’s party does poorly in midterm elections. And I don’t subscribe to the theory that the election of Trump broke all the “rules” of politics.

Erin:  Do you think the elections will be free and fair?

Chris:  How much of a swing? Who knows? The country is pretty heavily gerrymandered.

Erin:  That’s the thing that I think matters long term. Obviously the SC is going to weigh in on this relatively soon, but as I think Sotomayor said in the Wisconsin argument, if we’re saying partisan gerrymandering is limitless, aren’t we effectively saying voting doesn’t matter?

Chris:  I’d question to the extent of which our elections have ever been wholly free or fair, so if we want to talk about that issue we’d have to discuss degrees of free and fair.

David:  I think they will be mostly free and fair. I suspect what will impede them will be stuff we already know about; higher bars to voting with IDs, prohibitions on those convicted of felonies; limited voting hours, etc. Gerrymandering as Chris mentioned. I don’t think there’s going to be a massive suppression campaign.

Erin:  True enough.

David:  That’s exactly right, Chris. Maybe worse by degree but not in kind.

Chris:  And something like the Wisconsin case will have a huge impact, making the upcoming elections especially important for something like ensuring freer and more open elections.

Erin:  I don’t know enough about whether the reversal of net neutrality could get hung up in the courts, but I do worry about the effect of that on the elections of 2018. I think the ultimate question is whether we are more committed to federalism than to equal representation.

Chris:  I’d like to reframe David’s question this way, how does the Trump era end and what are its consequences? I think Trump himself will fade from view pretty quickly. I’m under no illusions that he’ll be impeached. I don’t think it’s going to happen. What I imagine is that the back half of his first term will be consumed by the Mueller investigation with charges and trials against people like Flynn, Kushner, Manafort, Junior etc. And Trump himself will be implicated in financial dealings with Russians.

As for the rest of it, the increased polarization, the attacks on voting rights, the resurgence of white identity politics, those are here to stay, and they were here before, and have been magnified in recent years.

David: I think that’s right. And, I have to say, while I’ve been quite skeptical about discussions about his being removed for being unfit, I’m starting to wonder if that might actually be in the realm of possibility.

Chris:  David, it’s certainly something that I’ve seen discussed more and that’s a good thing. Because let’s face it, the man is not temperamentally suited to hold the office. He’s a simpleton, easily manipulated, and full of rage. That’s a bad combination.

Erin:  The reason why I’m thinking about long term structural inequities is that Trump’s only success, largely guided by McConnell, has been the court system. Trump can be gone, but the courts are already permanently reshaped to a degree that I don’t think any of us even understand yet. Trump can also be gone but the depression this tax bill will create could reshape the rest of our economic lives.

David:  I’m actually not as worried about the tax bill as some people are. Which might be willful avoidance of reality on my part. But I think Democrats retaking Congress is quite possible, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s some effort to fix this bill. Everyone seems to acknowledge it’s bad. Republicans are just desperate for the win right now.

Erin:  Chris, to your point: Colin McEnroe, one of our local NPR show hosts in CT, said something last week that resonated. He said his whole life, he never thought he could be president, and that was something that made him feel safe. Now he honestly thinks he not only could be a better president, but would, and would gladly take the spot from Trump tomorrow because he thinks he could be better.

Chris: There’s also something I take comfort in, which may sound strange, is that human beings are really bad at predicting the future. So for as gloomy as we think the future is now, there’s plenty of other things that could emerge that will change the path we think we’re on. Maybe organizations like Indivisible and Run For Something do trigger some kind of new progressive moment.

David:  Right. I always use the example of the months after the 2004 election, when Bush was going on about his political capital, Democrats had done worse than expected in House and Senate races, and there was talk of a permanent GOP Senate majority. Two years later, Democrats controlled both chambers and Bush floundered through his term.

Chris:  Right, I’m very skeptical of anything from either side that says “This is the new status quo.” After 2008, it was the Democrats had the new permanent majority.

Erin:  I guess I’m skeptical of people who think it can’t get worse. There’s so much faith in the American system of democracy that people forget THEY are the system.

David: I guess I think it can get worse, but I don’t think it can get as worse as the doomsayers predict.

Erin:  The same way I don’t think this is a turning point for gender or sexual harassment either.

David:  Which I realize is an incredibly comfortable, non-committal position to take.

Chris:  We tend to overemphasize the impact of events right when they occur. Things will generally revert to a status quo in the aftermath.

David:  But I think our earlier discussion of fair elections is emblematic of my views. I think voting rights will become more restricted and there will be higher bars to voting for some. That will certainly have consequences (and I don’t mean to minimize the significance of those consequences). But I do think we’ll continue to have reasonably free and fair elections.  Likewise I think government corruption is likely to get worse in the short- and medium-term. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to become a full-blown kleptocracy

Erin:  I saw that FL is on its way to having a ballot initiative to restore felon voting rights, and I wonder if that issue will pick up steam.

Chris:  But Kellyanne Conway is going to fix the opioid crisis!

Erin:  I mean, I think the thing that I can’t get away from is when people say “not much has happened yet.” The situation in Puerto Rico alone should be enough. Let alone the gutting of State, what’s happened at the EPA, and Education. I finally saw some commentators yesterday say “Hey, maybe Kelly wasn’t trying to rein him in. He seems to think the same as Trump on immigration.”::slow clap::

Chris:  These are under the radar issues that get glossed over because they’re not part of the immediate news cycle.

Erin:  They also affect poor people, non-white people, people with disabilities, and non-citizens.

Chris:  And that speaks to the continued failures of many of news media institutions, who continue to push their narrative based reporting on Trump’s Tweets or whatever else.

Erin:  If the Times covered these issues, they’d have to do fewer profiles on “Nazi sympathizers” or the same diner full of white “working-class” men of East Rustbelt, Pennsylvania.

Chris:  Exactly.

Erin:  Instead of the tax bill, the lead story on the Washington Post is another “will Tillerson get canned?” story.

Chris:  That piece exemplified the Times’ inability to learn from its past mistakes while still engaging in those voyeuristic veneration of working class whites in the Rustbelt.

David:  And also its need to bring back the public editor position.

Chris:  I mean who thought giving the soft-focus treatment to a Nazi was a good idea? I really want to know.

David: I do think, unexpectedly, the sexual harassment/assault stuff going on is forcing a larger media reckoning on other issues. Thinking about how Lauer treated Trump vs. Clinton in the debate, for example.

Chris:  I hope so.

Erin: I wonder if we’ll see the emergence of new/alternative media outlets as a result.

David:   Or even just a different kind of news reporting with women taking higher positions?

Erin:  Yeah, and while I think hell will freeze over before the Times owns up to its issues, perhaps the fact that the Washington Post is sort of killing it reputation-wise will have some long-term effects.

Chris:  The Post is putting the Times to shame.

And the issue is news organizations and other organizations in general making sure they promote women into positions of power. They’ve been working hard to get women into entry level spots, but moving them up the ladder is a whole other issue.

Erin:  Wasn’t the last editor in chief of the Times a woman and forced out in some dodgy circumstances?

David:  Yeah, I think so.

Erin: (The parallel being that lots of women are in academia but most of the tenured spots are held by men)

David:  And, of course, Ann Curry, who is also back in the news.

Erin: What if some female-run VC (which we know tend to get better returns) just funded a new news outlet with Curry and Jemele Hill and Melissa Harris-Perry.

Chris:  There was a great discussion on a recent 538 podcast about sexual harassment about how news organizations promote men based on potential and women based on experience.

Erin:  I think that holds true in a lot of fields, Chris, and helps explain lots of second/third/fiftieth chances for men. I’m thinking of that Buzzfeed piece last weekend on why we keep trying to make Armie Hammer happen.

Chris:   Hollywood is a great example. How many terrible movies starring Jai Courtney will get in the next year before people figure out he can’t act?

Erin:  As I’ve been researching Unitarians for the past 10 years, I’ve gradually seen my searches for members of the Channing family result more and more in results about Channing Tatum.

Chris:  Or fill in whatever generic male actor here, while someone like Alison Tollman from the first season of Fargo can only land a sitcom lead where she starred opposite a dog.

Erin:  For all that people have said “oh, man, I’m agreeing with Bill Kristol!” and things like that, I’ve been much more compelled by former Republican/conservative women in the news sphere.

David:  Ana Navarro!

Erin: The only MSNBC show I regularly catch up on is Nicolle Wallace’s afternoon show.

Chris:  To go back to the academic example for a moment, I wonder when the sexual harassment stuff hits academia. Because if Catherine Clinton’s recent SHA address made clear, there are some real creeps in academia (and well everywhere).

There was that horrifying Derrida letter that resurfaced recently where he threatened UC-Irvine over allegations made against one of his favorite colleagues.

Erin:  That was so disgusting. And much as we are considering the effects of having a bunch of creeps shape the media coverage of Trump v. Clinton, and whether we enjoy the art of convicted rapists In retrospect, I think we’ll not only have to consider how the views of women held by certain academics shaped their scholarship, but the lengths so many went to to say that that scholarship was “objective”

Chris:  The Matt Lauer videos coming out yesterday were really disturbing.

David:  Right, it’s the whole in-plain-sight thing that we’ve seen with Lauer.

Erin:  And it only is able to be “hidden” because people think about these things as individual choices not as social structures You’re only a racist if you say the n-word and you can’t be a racist if you work with black people. Or my dad’s firm belief that our fire department at home will stop being as sexist because there are lots of women in it. There have always been women in the world. That hasn’t fixed things.

Chris:  My wife and I were talking about the Lauer stuff yesterday, and Casey cut right to the core of it, “Who allowed him to have a button to lock his door from the inside?”

David:  I mean, I don’t want to sound like I don’t take this seriously, but that’s like the stuff of a cartoon villain!

Erin:  That’s sort of the thing, though. So much of what happens is so extreme and gross and mustache-twirly that it becomes the reason the claims are discounted.

Roy Moore assaulting that 16 year old and then saying “you’re a kid and i’m the assistant DA. no one will believe you.”

Chris:  To go back to Erin’s point about women always been there, I’ve been really disappointed by the Democrats reaction to the allegations against Conyers and Franken. You either find this behavior appalling or you don’t.

Erin:  Have you seen the developments of the morning?

David:   Well right, I guess I meant that in a different way. Along the lines of Chris’s “who thought it was a good idea to have a door-locking button on the desk.”

Chris:  You don’t get to pick and choose who is morally reprehensible

Developments on Moore?

Erin:  Pelosi this morning said “step down.” Conyers just scheduled a press conference in an hour.

Chris:   She should have said that last week

Erin:  As ham-fisted as it was, Pelosi’s awful MTP appearance was clearly an attempt to allow Conyers to take a more graceful way out.

She should know better that no man will do that. Moore won’t, Trump won’t, Franken won’t.

To quote Lori Ginzberg quoting someone in the 19th century: moral suasion is moral balderdash

David:  And what about Garrison Keillor…that was a new one, issuing a preemptive statement?

Chris:  And playing the “poor me” card the whole time.

Erin:  Did you see how the Washington Post had to add an “update” to his piece defending Franken? Like “since we posted this, the author has been fired for sexual harassment.”

Chris:  Yeah, that’s the ultimate “update” I think the Democratic Party had a chance to seize the moral high ground and then bungled it horribly. I can’t say I’m surprised, just disappointed.

Erin:  Everyone likes to say the Democrats bungle everything, and I think they’re often stupid, but it’s also gone unnoticed that they’ve won a lot of local pickups in places they “shouldn’t.”

David:  I think it’s the national party that bungles things. I wonder a lot if Democrats could have picked up GA6 if it had stayed under the radar.

Chris:  I think that’s the lesson they’re trying to follow with the Alabama Senate race.

And they’ve left the local parties to wither, the Virginia state elections were a reminder that if you run people all over the place you have a better chance of winning.

Erin:  But then when you don’t win in places, there are some people that will say it’s because you didn’t put enough money in or do enough. But nationalizing races isn’t always productive.

I think Virginia showed that all politics is local but also national and that no one really knows which will motivate which voters.

David:   Yeah. that.

Chris:   My favorite example of that was the transwoman, Danica Roem, who beat Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and all she talked about was fixing the roads. While the homophobe referred to her as “him” and refused to debate.

Erin:  You put that alongside formerly red suburban counties voting Democratic, though, and you realize that it’s always going to be both. A lot of CT republicans felt great about their chances in the gubernatorial race next year but got much quieter after this year’s elections.

Chris:  Malloy’s term limited isn’t he?

Erin:  I don’t actually know. He’s not running, anyway.

And I hope that he just takes the gloves off in his last year anyway. He’s a jerk in many ways, but both parties in the assembly have been using him to avoid dealing with long-term issues themselves.

I noticed when my students were reading Carter’s crisis of confidence speech, they were tying it to really long-term historical things, which is good. But I also had to remind them that people mostly don’t think that way, which is why we get the idea that in one term, a governor should be able to “fix” everything. Same with a president.

To bring it around to our opening question, I think the legacy of the Trump era will be much longer and deeper than most people want to admit.

David:  Yeah, that definitely seems right. And it ultimately won’t be so much about Trump, as Chris said earlier.

Chris:  I think he’ll fade away, but the issues that he has championed and brought to the fore aren’t going away.

Erin:  I think he’s made many people aware of how much some of their countrymen and women don’t believe in the values of democracy and the common good.

What we do about that is still an open question.

“Conflicts, Iniquities, and Changes”: How Recent Presidents Have Talked About Native Americans


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Even by the warped standards of 2017, this has been a crazy news week. With North Korea’s most recent missile test, the firings of Matt Lauer and Garrison Keilor, and the breathless drama surrounding the tax bill, it’s difficult to believe that President Trump’s “Pocahontas” remark was a mere 48 hours ago.

In yesterday’s post, Erin wrote about the larger issues of defining American Indian identity.

There’s a second issue here that should not be lost. While Trump may have set a particularly low bar on Monday, many of his predecessors struggled — albeit less dramatically — to discuss the U.S. government’s history with Native Americans (indeed, the only exception to this seems to have been President Obama, who matched frank rhetoric with supportive policies).

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all had at least one moment in their presidency when they could address issues related to Indians, as President Trump did this week. The first President Bush proclaimed Native American Heritage Month in November of 1990. President Clinton held a major meeting of Indian leaders at the White House in 1994. He invited the heads of all federally recognized tribes, and though not were able to accept, attendance numbered in the hundreds.A decade later, George W. Bush presided over the dedication of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.


Each President had the opportunity to speak at their respective event. Their remarks shared some common, and regrettable, elements.

First, all three men glossed over the brutal treatment of Indians by the European colonists and, later, the federal government. George H.W. Bush noted the “special relationship” between the federal government and “Indian tribes,” which he observed had persisted despite “conflict, iniquities, and changes over the years.” Clinton offered a tepid acknowledgment that “our history has not always been a proud one” but quickly looked to the future. Bush’s son did a little better at avoiding euphemisms, at least making passing reference to “great injustice against native peoples.”

Second, all three presidents spoke favorably of Native Americans, but their emphasis tended to focus on a few outstanding individuals. Sacajawea’s guidance of Lewis and Clark was mentioned by both Bush 41 and 43. The younger Bush invoked the Navajo Code Talkers. His father mentioned Charles Curtis, the Vice President under Herbert Hoover. Curtis was descended from an Indian family. Because his speech was less commemorative and more policy-focused, Clinton did not invoke as many famous names. But he credited Indians collectively with an environmental consciousness that made them exemplary citizens.

Clinton’s rhetoric speaks to the third, and perhaps most troubling, common feature of presidential rhetoric about Indians. Both Presidents Bush and President Clinton all praised Native Americans — but only for things that had contributed to white society. George H.W. Bush lauded Indians’ abilities of “hunting, tracking, and farming,” which were “knowledge and skills that would one day prove to be invaluable to traders and settlers from Europe.” Clinton noted that “so much of who we are today comes from who you have been for a long time,” and suggested that Indians could help the rest of society become more aware of environmental issues. George W. Bush, while quick to argue that native peoples weren’t “vanishing Americans,” mustered support for that claim by highlighting all of the ways Indians contributed to the rest of society.

The central takeaway from all three presidents seems to be that they would discuss Native Americans only if they could avoid the worst episodes of history, emphasize exemplary figures, and focus primarily on what Indians had done for white Americans.

As Erin wrote yesterday:

Critiquing Trump for his use of the term “Pocahontas” is easy; it’s a clear racial slur, and many of us can unequivocally state that we’d never do such a thing. Examining the ways that he draws on broader stereotypes about the (a)historical nature of Native Americans might be much harder for many of us.

The same is true for our leaders. It’s easy to lambaste Trump’s use of the racial slur and horrible optics of honoring American Indians in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson. But beneath the surface level absurdity lies a more deeply embedded rhetoric that has long been part of the presidency.

“You were here long before any of us”


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The president’s use of the word “Pocahontas” to refer to Elizabeth Warren yesterday wasn’t new, but it has garnered a lot of attention because of the setting in which he used it: at an event honoring WWII Navajo Marine veterans known as “Code Talkers,” while standing in front of a picture of Andrew Jackson.


Navajo code talkers in the Pacific, 1944

It’s worth considering the context for Trump’s Pocahontas remark, because while his reference to Warren was clearly intended to be a slur, his “positive” language about the Code Talkers he was meeting is also problematic, and taps into ideas that have a deep history in North America.

And I just want to thank you because you’re very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her “Pocahontas.”

Trump, I imagine, thought he was humorously contrasting “real Indians” – the Code Talkers – and “fake Indians” like Elizabeth Warren. As many have noted, Trump is remarkably focused on genes as markers of actual and potential greatness, sounding like early 20th century eugenicists at times. Even in the speech yesterday, upon finding out how old the Code Talkers were, he noted they must have “good genes.”

But he also has a history of using genetics, and Anglo-American ideas about the “authenticity” of contemporary tribal affiliations and practices, to fight his competition in the business world, as Shawn Boburg detailed in a piece for the Washington Post last summer.

Donald Trump claimed that Indian reservations had fallen under mob control. He secretly paid for more than $1 million in ads that portrayed members of a tribe in Upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals. And he suggested in testimony and in media appearances that dark-skinned Native Americans in Connecticut were faking their ancestry.

“I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” Trump said during a 1993 radio interview with shock jock Don Imus.

Trump is certainly ignorant of the history of New England tribes, and the broader history of economic, political, cultural, and personal relationships between European colonists, enslaved people, and Native Americans in North America more broadly.

But he’s not alone in this ignorance, nor in his belief that white Americans have the power to know and proclaim what and who is authentically Indian. His remarks also contain, in a line that some might read as innocuous, one of the beliefs that helps justify and sustain this white “knowledge” of authentic Indianness.

…you’re very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here…

Jonathan Katz’s comments on Twitter outline clearly what’s problematic about these remarks.

It’s insufficient for us to say “Trump’s racist so he thinks all Indians are the same.” We have to consider the very specific dynamics of this racism in North America. Certainly Trump’s emphasis on genetics suggests he thinks that’s enough to make them “all the same,” but by pointing out that they “were here long before any of us were here,” he’s using language that would be familiar to his hero Andrew Jackson.

Early 19th century Anglo-Americans increasingly framed all Indians as relics of history whose traditions and values could be carried on and refined by the next stage of civilization while they themselves vanished into the past. If they were soon to vanish, surely dispossessing them of their lands was nothing more than hurrying along a historical process by turning over that land to the next stage of civilization, one more capable of putting it to good use through agriculture.

This argument required, of course, a complete reimagining of European-Indian relations since colonization, one that erased clear Euro-American awareness of and participation in Indian agriculture and land sales. The cultural reimagining was given legal weight through treaties and through Supreme Court decisions like Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823).

In his decision, Chief Justice John Marshall, himself deeply invested in the project of Western land speculation, argued that European powers had, through their “discovery” of the land, claimed “ultimate dominion” over it, and any tribes allowed to remain there simply had the right of occupancy. The text of Marshall’s decision reveals this rewriting of history to consign Indians to history and make way for the next stage of civilization.

We will not enter into the controversy, whether agriculturists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract principles, to expel hunters from the territory they possess, or to contract their limits. Conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny…

The tribe at issue, the Cherokee, were agriculturalists. Not only did they farm, they had adopted slavery. Moreover, the colonial system of land ownership that white Americans had inherited rested on sales that were valid because the original parties owned the land.

Yet this reimagining was so successful that most contemporary white Americans – especially those in New England – would have no problem stating, in one breath, that Indians were hunters and gatherers with no sense of property ownership, and in the next, talking about how Squanto and Samoset taught the Pilgrims how to farm.

The “knowledge” that Indians were from an earlier stage of history, without the capacity to understand property ownership or agriculture (both markers of the next stage of civilization), helped white Americans make the argument that all North American tribes were naturally disappearing.

From there, it was not too far to make the argument that Indians were not just “historical,” they were relics or living fossils, persisting past their appropriate time in human history yet incapable of changing and integrating with modernity. They weren’t simply historical, they were ahistorical. Lewis Cass, who was governor of the Michigan Territory at the time, introduced his 1829 report on the progress of “a Board in the City of New York, for the Emigration, Preservation, and Improvement of the Aborigines of America,” with this famous passage:

The Indians have gradually decreased since they became first known to the Europeans. The ratio of this diminution may have been greater or less, depending on the operation of causes we shall presently investigate; but there is no just reason to believe, that any of the tribes, within the whole extent of our boundary, has been increasing in numbers at any period since they have been known to us. . . .

To the operation of the physical causes, which we have described, must be added the moral causes connected with their mode of life, and their peculiar opinions. Distress could not teach them providence, nor want industry. As animal food decreased, their vegetable productions were not increased. Their habits were stationary and unbending; never changing with the change of circumstances. How far the prospect around them, which to us appears so dreary, may have depressed and discouraged them, it is difficult to ascertain, as it is also to estimate the effect upon them of that superiority, which we have assumed and they have acknowledged. There is a principle of repulsion in ceaseless activity, operating through all their institutions, which prevents them from appreciating or adopting any other modes of life, or any other habits of thought or action, but those which have descended to them from their ancestors.

When Trump told the Marines he was speaking with that they were “here long before any of us were here,” he was not only separating them from “us,” he was subtly drawing on 19th century narratives of Indians as historical and, by continuing to exist rather than vanishing as white Americans had foretold, ahistorical.

Critiquing Trump for his use of the term “Pocahontas” is easy; it’s a clear racial slur, and many of us can unequivocally state that we’d never do such a thing. Examining the ways that he draws on broader stereotypes about the (a)historical nature of Native Americans might be much harder for many of us.

These stereotypes are fundamental to our dominant narratives of Indian dispossession, and have been spun into romantic narratives about one-with-nature, anti-capitalist Indians who were too pure for the modern world but who you can honor by purchasing a dreamcatcher. These ideas, whether framed as positive or negative, are why the New England Indian Council, when it formed in 1923, took as its motto the phrase: “I still live.”


If you’re interested in how this idea of “authenticity” plays out in later 19th century America, I highly recommend Paige Raibmon’s Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast.


The Shrinking History Job Market



Shortly after we concluded our slack chat on the Thursday before Thanksgiving about funding in graduate school, the American Historical Association posted a short blog post about the state of the 2016-2017 academic job market for historians. The conclusions were dire. Using job postings from the AHA Career Center, the AHA revealed that job postings have declined for the fifth straight year (matching a similar decline in English and foreign languages announced by the Modern Language Association). Job postings are now at their lowest levels since the mid-1980s.

In total, the AHA Career Center listed a total 501 full-time positions. This figure of 501, however, obscures some of the realities of the job market. The vast majority of people applying for academic jobs in history are looking for tenure track positions. Of those 501 advertisements, only 289 or approximately 58% were for tenure track postings. The remaining job advertisements were for visiting professorships or permanent non-tenure positions (94 in total or 19% of all advertised jobs), post-docs (60 or 12%), with the rest consisting of non-academic appointments or administrative or staff positions.

Additionally, the AHA posted the following graph tracking the annual number of job postings compared to the annual number of PhDs awarded.


Credit: the AHA

The graph tells a frightful story. As universities award near record numbers of PhDs, the number of available tenure track jobs is nearing record lows.

The horrific story told by the line graph, however, actually undersells the difficulties of the job market for new PhDs. The AHA’s data does not distinguish between job listings for new assistant professor positions—the ones that new PhDs apply for—and advertisements for endowed chairs, full professorships, or department chairs—positions only available to older scholars. I reached out on Twitter to the AHA, asking if they had parsed out that data. They responded saying that their broader report, due out in March, would include such distinctions.

In what is becoming a habit of mine, let’s do a little back of the envelope math to get a sense of just how bad the job market is for new PhDs seeking permanent employment. Using the information provided on the chart, US universities awarded approximately, 1,150 PhDs between June 2015 and June 2016. Let’s start by assuming that all of the positions listed above (excluding the non-academic, staffing, and administrative positions) were designated for new PhDs. This is an unrealistic assumption, but this is a thought experiment. Then we’ll calculate the ratio of new PhDs to academic jobs. Then we’ll recalculate that ratio if only 75%, 50%, and 25% of new academic jobs are for new PhDs.

New PhDs and Academic Jobs


% of Academic Jobs for New Faculty Ratio of New PhDs/Academic Job % of New PhDs with Academic Employment
100% 2.6 38.5%
75% 3.46 28.8%
50% 5.2 19.2%
25% 10.36 9.65%

So if 100% of all these jobs go to newly minted PhDs, it still means that 61.5% of new PhDs won’t find permanent academic employment in their first year after graduating. These figures would represent an absolute best-case scenario.

Now let’s look at what happens if we limit our focus to just the tenure track positions.

New PhDs and Tenure Track Jobs


% of TT Jobs for New Faculty Ratio of New PhDs/TT Job % of New PhDs with TT Jobs
100% 3.979 25%
75% 5.3 19%
50% 8 12.5%
25% 16 6.26%

The best-case scenario here leaves three out of every four new history PhDs without permanent academic employment immediately after graduating.

This simple analysis does not take into account a number of factors that make it even more difficult for newly minted PhDs to land tenure track jobs. First, the 1,150 new PhDs are not the only ones applying for the new tenure track positions. There are also PhDs from previous years who took visiting assistant professor positions, post-docs, and adjuncting positions and still hope to win the tenure track lottery. That could easily double (a conservative estimate) the number of PhDs on the market.

Additionally, not every new PhD is suitable for every job on the market. People with PhDs in American history aren’t going to get jobs in European history and vice versa. Even within those broader fields, universities and colleges look for specialists that fit certain criteria.  For example, someone with a specialization in Colonial Virginia isn’t going to get a job teaching 20th century business history. Nor are the 1,150 new PhDs evenly distributed across fields of interest. So colleges  advertising for a position in 19th century history are going to have many, many more applicants than for one in Vietnamese history for instance.

At first glance, the AHA’s report on the job market looks bad. When you dig deeper, the reality is even worse than it seems.

Slack Chat: Funding



Editor’s Note. We eschewed a typical framing question and jumped right into the topic so enjoy our in medias res slack chat. 

Erin Bartram: I mean, I think a lot of this, and a lot of what we’re talking about with graduate student funding

It all comes down to one central issue – demanding “expertise” but not wanting to pay people for it

Or rather, that the labor of some people has value but the value accrues to someone other than the laborer

Chris Bouton: And that is a problem that is further exacerbated in the extreme buyers market that is the academic job market


That’s the PhD crisis in one chart

Erin: Do the orange lines include non-TT positions?

Chris: Not sure, this is also in the sciences

But it’s emblematic of the larger funding problems that we’ve discussed.

David Mislin: One thing I wonder, based on my piece yesterday, is whether the solution is to accept fewer Ph.D. students? And for lower-tier institutions to perhaps get rid of grad programs? I’m really torn about this. On the one hand, it seems like the best solution: it’s unfair to accept so many students with no employment prospects. On the other hand, is it fair to deny people the opportunity? I didn’t go to a tier-one institution, I’d been a mediocre undergrad, and I wasn’t accepted with full funding (though that was partly my fault for missing the deadline). But in the grand scheme of things, I’m happy where I’ve ended up. But I’d probably be one of the people who didn’t get to go to grad school if there were fewer spots.

Erin: I think part of the problem with the intersecting arguments is that people say “there aren’t jobs” as though there’s not enough teaching work to go around. There’s clearly plenty, institutions just refuse to bundle it into permanent, full time positions. To me, that reveals that we can’t just say there are too many PhD candidates.

Chris: I don’t think admitting fewer PhD students is the answer because there’s still a demand for labor that grad students are filling. Administrations will find other ways to fill it, either through adjuncting or increasing the teaching burden on current faculty/adjuncts/grad students.

David: I agree, to a point. I think there could be more FT jobs, but I’m still not sure there are enough.

That’s data I haven’t seen and would like to. How many jobs *could* there be?

Erin: If we took the number of classes taught by adjuncts each year at an institution, and divided it by the number of courses that count as a full load for a TT professor, we could easily see how many jobs there could be. I don’t know why no one has done such a thing.

David: I’d do it but I’m terrible at math

Chris: There’s also the decades long trend in decreasing public support for higher education

Erin: Because let’s set aside “flexibility” arguments. If you have someone who’s been VAPing for 6 years teaching the same courses, you just don’t want to pay for a TT.

oh absolutely

Chris: Which is exacerbating this problem. As universities rely more and more on tuition and fees to pay their bills, they want to control costs.

One way to do that is to admit lots of PhD and MA candidates and shift the teaching burden onto them.

The good thing about grad students is there’s a never ending supply of them.

And as long as there are people wanting to go to grad school and fill those spots, there’s a cheap supply of labor.

Erin: Though there are clearly fewer of them now that the economy has improved

Chris: I guess the point I’m getting at is, graduate admissions and the academic job market are markets in the traditional sense and we should treat them as such

Erin: That is true

But they aren’t, as so many academics pretend, markets that exist outside of anyone’s control.

Much like the “pressure to publish more and more” that gets bemoaned at conferences, it’s not a thing that just exists, it’s a thing that people can shape

Chris: Right, like any market, it’s shaped by the people who participate in it

David: Right. We were told in grad school that the job market all came down to luck. Which I guess makes sense given that our own internal rewards often seemed to come down to luck as well.

Erin: Your piece on internal funding competition was Truth. And it echoed so many things we said to those in charge of the system.

Chris: And therein lies the problem in the system. Academia presents itself as a meritocracy, but it’s mostly random

Or at least out of our individual control

Erin: And when it doesn’t function as a meritocracy, those in control reframe it as out of their hands

Chris: I had a throwaway line in my piece about the funding at UDel and how those of us who had to TA all the time wondered what some students did to get scholarships that exempted them from TAing

Since some of those students dropped out, that was our first clue that the people in charge had no idea what they were talking about

David: I think I see things a little differently. I actually think academia is a meritocracy much of the time, but those in charge are uncomfortable admitting that so they try to frame it as something else. I think that speaks to your point, Erin.

Erin: As a former professor would say: “draw that out a little bit”

David: As a former professor of mine would say, “you’re being elliptical.” Do you want me to elaborate?

Chris: Yes

David: What I mean is, I think academia does function as a meritocracy. Not necessarily on objective merit, but on the system of merit that’s existed for the better part of a century. At least with funding in my program, it went to students who seemed to check the most boxes for merit. But because most academics are by their nature uncomfortable with meritocracy, they came up with excuses for why the department wasn’t a meritocracy. The end result was just confusion.

I think that happens a lot in job searches too. Really hiring committees just want the recent grad from Harvard, Princeton, etc. But they don’t want to admit that. So they obfuscate and come up with all sorts of explanations that just leave people confused.

Erin: That makes a lot of sense.

David, I think your explanation of the meritocracy as “checking the boxes we’ve decided show merit” is pretty key

And pretty damning

Chris: So David, you see the system of funding as a meritocracy in the sense that it has institutional rules or principles that have existed for decades and people try to follow them?

David: Right. Just to be completely clear, I don’t think it’s an objective system of merit. It’s just an agreed-upon set of rules.

Chris: Gotcha, and I agree with that

Should we call it merit in that case?

(As I get really pedantic)

Erin: I mean, what would we call it in the “real world” – social capital? privilege? power?

David: I mean, it’s really no different from “merit” in most other contexts.

Chris: In true seminar fashion, I don’t know that I have answer to that question, but I wanted to raise the issue. I suppose as you point out David that this definition of merit isn’t any different from it in other contexts

But it’s also not an accurate descriptor of the process that it represents.

Erin: I have often heard faculty say that they’re clearly not good at picking who’ll be successful

I wonder how many take the serious next step and consider what they (incorrectly) see as signs of future success and what they might be missing that would be better indicators

Chris: And that’s not a problem unique to academia, human beings suck at prediction in general

David: It’s hard to do though. Even in my own teaching, I often find that the students I expect will be the all stars at the beginning of the semester turn out not to be, and people I didn’t expect turn out to be some of the best.

Chris: It would take some rigorous testing

Erin: But we don’t assign the grades at the start of the semester

We can adjust

David: Fair point.

Erin: But so much of the assessment of your quality in grad school is front loaded

Meaning that if you’re a surprise star or a surprise dud, your CV still reflects what they assumed you’d be before you started

Chris: Yes, to think of this from a Bayesian perspective (sorry I just read a book on Bayes), much of our future outcome relies on the prior

Those priors rarely get updated as we go along

Or it’s harder to readjust those priors

David: I also think that there’s a problem in grad programs of advisors not being comfortable talking to their students candidly about where they are and what they could do better.

Chris: Absolutely

David: One thing that I think could help would be a larger role for outside evaluators at various points of grad school — either internal or external. It’s hard when you are friendly with your advisees to give them tough counsel.

Chris: We had a review at the end of two years from the grad director, but it was nominal at best

David: That’s more than we did.

Erin: I think that would be really beneficial in lots of ways. Often someone external can see merit that the adviser/committee can’t or can’t make the case for to the wider department

Chris: It was, I think, a way of giving the dept the option of kicking someone who was clearly floundering out

I also wanted to further Erin’s point about front loaded academic careers, those first prestige markers–an Ivy League education for example–beget further prestige markers

Who gets the NEH grants? Fellowships at the big research institutions? etc. Those who have the right markers in their CVs, and one you get one, it’s easier to get more.

David: That is certainly true

Chris: So I think that reality reinforces Erin’s point about the priors being especially deterministic.

Erin: Much of this intersects with the unspoken class divisions within the academy, which often correspond with “generational” lines.

When many of the faculty members had parents who had PhDs and many of the grad students have parents without anything higher than a high school diploma or associate’s, there are going to be problems.

Chris: I found that whole 1st generation PhD thing that went around a few months ago fascinating.

I hadn’t really thought about academia in those terms.

Are we all first gen PhDs?

David: Yup

Erin: Yes indeed

David: Though my mom has a masters and did PhD coursework, so I’m not sure I totally count as one.

Chris: I think you’d still count

My parents both have bachelor’s degrees and my mom has a masters, my uncle has a doctorate in divinity, but I don’t think any of my grandparents had college degrees

Erin: My father has a BA and my mother has an associate’s

Sorry, a BS – they don’t give BAs in meteorology

Chris: My wife on the other hand, her grandfather on her dad’s side was an engineer who worked on the Saturn V rocket, and her father and sister have PhDs, her mother and brother have masters degrees.

And she’s almost done with her PhD

Erin: I think all of this contributes to the learning curve that shapes the first few years of grad school.

It’s not that you can’t do all of these things, it’s just that you don’t even realize how important they are, especially when your advisers are saying “don’t do too much, don’t get ahead of yourself”

David: Right. I felt like a fish out of water my first year. Fortunately I was in a smallish department, and by the time I figured stuff out I was able to make a second impression on faculty.

But in larger departments I imagine people don’t have that luxury

Chris: Right it’s more about how easily you can acclimate to the culture

Much of what we’re talking about here is not wholly deterministic. Academic fates aren’t predestined. Rather we’re talking about the factors, some in our control and some out of our control, that shape and narrow our paths.

And many of those issues, like funding, are often out of our hands and beyond our realm of understanding.

And much of that isn’t presented up front.

Between Collegiality and Competition: The Problem of Grad School Funding

In our first weeks in grad school, faculty members constantly urged members of my cohort to form collegial relationships. They reminded us that we’d be in the program together for years and that hopefully we’d be connected professionally for decades beyond. We heeded that advice. We went out for beer after evening seminars, got together on weekends, and for the most part built lasting, deep friendships.

This was well intended advice. But it didn’t reflect the reality of grad school, especially around the time of year when funding decisions were announced.

As Erin noted yesterday:

Yes, there are grants and fellowships, both external and internal, and yes, it’s important to apply for them and get them. But they are often very competitive, and don’t cover the full costs. And yes, graduate students do get funding for their research, but they’re often competing against their peers for a pot of money that hasn’t been enlarged since the mid-90s. Whether you get enough money at the right moment in your grad career – which is mostly out of your control – can make or break your dissertation.

Like many graduate programs, mine was not able to provide full funding to all admitted Ph.D. students. Thus, every spring we endured the same ritual of finding out who among us would receive full funding, partial funding, or no funding at all.

Beyond year-long fellowships, my department also offered numerous smaller funding opportunities for travel as well as competitive prizes rewarding outstanding research and teaching (these tend to be very competitive even at institutions that fully fund all Ph.D. students). All funding decisions were made by faculty committees that did not have student representatives. Nor were there clear selection criteria or, often, even an application process.

I’m happy to report that all of my grad school friendships survived these annual ordeals. But not without some work. The repeated experience of watching some folks benefiting while others got nothing certainly frayed relationships. The experience also made clear that for all the talk of camaraderie and collegiality, grad school was at its core a competition for limited resources.


I recognize that this is life; some people will get more than others. I also recognize the reality of Higher Ed today that there isn’t enough money to go around, especially in the humanities (a reality likely to be made all the worse, as Chris demonstrated, by the GOP tax plan).

Still, there was a particularly disturbing quality to the competition for funding in grad school. On the one hand, students received the repeated message that we had entered a noble calling and should view each other not as rivals but as colleagues. And yet, at least once a year, we endured what felt like a Hunger Games-esque competition for the limited resources that, as Erin observed, could make or break our career.

There are a few things my department might have done to make this process less unpleasant. Providing clear, transparent selection criteria would have removed the aura of mystery surrounding funding decisions. With so much at stake, it’s crucial that departments not allow such decisions to be shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Encouraging students to discuss their competitiveness for funding with their advisor might also have prevented unpleasant surprises. Perhaps having a student representative on the award committee, or at least involved in the process in some way, might have made things more transparent (of course, it might also have merely just shifted resentment to a new target).

Fundamentally, though, the problem is that there are too many graduate students and too little available funding to cultivate the kind of learning environments most faculty aspire to have. That problem is not going away.

Graduate programs need to make a decision. If they’re truly interested in fostering collegiality they must think seriously about only accepting as many grad students as they can fund. A Ph.D. is a full-time job and students expected to do that kind of work should be paid for it.

If, on the other hand, faculty and administrators are primarily interested in maintaining large programs with unfunded and under-funded students, my experience will become all the more common as resources for humanities departments become all the scarcer.

The tension between collegiality and competition is not easily sustained. Nor, ultimately, is it a tension that any of us in academia should want early career graduate students to experience.