Several months back, my friend Jonathan Sterne wrote an especially insightful post about social class and academia. One of the few American professors gifted enough to pass through Canada’s protectionist employment barriers, Jonathan teaches communication studies at McGill, where he recently had the opportunity to eat an expensive meal and reflect on the exaggerated postures that often define the lives of professionals who imagine themselves to be more well-to-do than they actually are. The whole post is quite fantastic — there’s a discussion of shitty and/or bizarre jobs his colleagues used to hold (carnival barker, Vegas lounge singer, etc.) — but this passage in particular stood out.
Major field-wide conferences . . . are held at hotels so expensive that they decimate university travel budgets. Groups of academics routinely go out to meals at these events that they can’t really afford. Broke job candidates are expected to dress in nice, expensive suits while senior faculty interview them wearing torn jeans and a t-shirt . . . . The first month or so of an assistant professor’s career can be financially crushing as he or she is drawn into a (more) middle class lifestyle before the funds have arrived. The list goes on.
Since I officially entered the professoriate in 2002, I’ve noticed that very few of my pre-professional tics have disappeared. I’m a notorious freeloader by nature and custom, although in my own defense I should note that until I was 32 years old I never earned more than about $14,000 a year. Among friends, my exploits are apparently legendary. In graduate school, for instance, I once pulled a hamstring lunging for a box of stale (albeit still edible) mini donuts; early in the dissertation stage, I spent several days trying to find someone to set up a website that would aggregate the day’s free food across the University of Minnesota campus (e.g., boxed lunches at the med school if you can sit through a 60 minute epidemiology lecture; coffee and cheap cookies at an afternoon meeting of the English Club).
And those are only the episodes I’m prepared to discuss in public. Let me put it this way: If there were an academic equivalent to George Costanza scarfing an eclair from the top of the garbage can, that person would be me.
As an assistant professor at an underfunded public university located in one of the most expensive states in the nation, I’ve had little cause to amend my ways. At the meeting of the American Studies Association in 2003, for instance, I shared a room with seven other graduate students from my old department, all of whose travel allowances were about at generous than my own. Because my annual travel budget is barely sufficient to get me as far as Seattle, attending the major conferences in my field can be almost prohibitively expensive, absent my apparent willingness to live on (or below) the cheap. At the Organization of American Historians conference in 2005, I subsisted on appetizers and free booze for an entire weekend, spending a mere $13.75 over the course of three days, mostly by appearing surreptitiously at receptions to which I had not been invited. At a conference in Washington, DC, in November 2005, I stayed at a cheap hotel that one cab driver hadn’t heard of and another didn’t think existed any more. And these, as I said, are only the examples I’m willing to mention.
Of course, the perversity of the academic job market requires that I be grateful for this. Unlike many recent PhD’s, I was fortunate to receive a job offer from a school that — while underfunded by its state legislature — treats its faculty reasonably well. Most history professors in the US, I would imagine, don’t enjoy that luxury. And most Americans don’t have jobs that pay them to read books and speak and write about things that genuinely interest them. So to pre-empt the inevitable charges of ingratitude and unacknowledged privilege, I’ll simply announce that I’m happy to be able to do what I do for a living and that — like nearly everything short of Stage 4 cancer — things could certainly be worse.
All that being said, if any LGM readers happen to be in Atlanta for the American Historical Association conference this weekend, I’ll be shacking up at the Motel 6 near Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Feel free to drop by and share a bottle of Boone’s Farm or a six-pack of Zimas with me. Otherwise, I’ll be the guy lurking around the hors d’oeuvres tables.