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Conservative Sob Stories

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Lots of folks are writing about this Sun “expose,” which details the sad plight of Mark Moyar, a self-professed conservative military and diplomatic historian who — unlike anyone else orbiting the planet with a Ph.D. — found the academic job market to be a hard row to hoe.

If you’re the cries-at-Old-Yeller type, now would be a good time to grab a tissue:

Mark Moyar doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a disappointed job seeker. He is an Eagle Scout who earned a summa cum laude degree from Harvard, graduating first in the history department before earning a doctorate at the University of Cambridge in England. Before he had even begun graduate school, he had published his first book and landed a contract for his second book. Distinguished professors at Harvard and Cambridge wrote stellar letters of recommendation for him.

Yet over five years, this conservative military and diplomatic historian applied for more than 150 tenure-track academic jobs, and most declined him a preliminary interview. During a search at University of Texas at El Paso in 2005, Mr. Moyar did not receive an interview for a job in American diplomatic history, but one scholar who did wrote her dissertation on “The American Film Industry and the Spanish-Speaking Market During the Transition to Sound, 1929-1936.” At Rochester Institute of Technology in 2004, Mr. Moyar lost out to a candidate who had given a presentation on “promiscuous bathing” and “attire, hygiene and discourses of civilization in Early American-Japanese Relations.”

As always, I’m not as stunned as I’m apparently supposed to be to learn that yet another Eagle Scout, Harvard graduate and published author has failed to land a job in the historical profession, where a glut of qualified Ph.D.’s — conservative or otherwise — are either working part-time, laboring away in non-tenure track positions, or abandoning the profession entirely for law school. I’m also quite literally yawning as I reflect on the fact that he’s applied to 150 positions in five years. Only 30 jobs per year? Who does this fellow think he is?

Seriously now. The job market for historians is a humiliating, soul-spindling meat grinder, a fact to which I would happily attest more specifically off the record and over multiple strong drinks with anyone who feels like looking at the clock every five minutes and wondering when this guy is going to shut the fuck up. That said, I obviously can’t speak to the specific reasons why Moyar failed to receive interviews or job offers from Iowa, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Old Dominion, or any of the other schools who rejected him (although I assume from the tone of the article that I’m supposed to be annoyed that someone who studies culture received an offer instead of the almighty Mark Moyar.) Now I’m hardly an expert on the vicissitudes of the job market, and I’m pretty much a non-entity in my field, so the appropriate caveats apply here. But I’ve served on five search committees in five years, and I’ve seen highly intelligent, qualified applicants who were not moved along for all kinds of reasons. The fact that he received letters from “top scholars” tells us nothing — most credible applicants to these schools would also enjoy such endorsements. The fact that he’s published two books is also not necessarily meaningful. I know a well-regarded lit scholar — a radical environmentalist, no less — who teaches in a highly undemocratic nation because his two books (published by two very good university presses) weren’t enough to land him a decent job in the US. Unlike Moyar, though, this fellow isn’t suing one of the schools who rejected him.

Perhaps Moyar didn’t receive a preliminary interview because his areas of expertise didn’t mesh with departmental needs (I’ve seen that plenty of times); perhaps he received a preliminary interview and was completely unprepared (I’ve seen that at least once a year); perhaps his job talk was an incoherent disaster (seen it three times); perhaps he came to campus and wouldn’t shut up about how amazing and interesting his research was (seen it once); or perhaps he just rubbed everyone the wrong way and — all else being equal — just didn’t seem like a good colleague.

And sure, maybe at the end of the day, it didn’t help that Moyar’s scholarship argues that Ngo Dinh Diem was a capable South Vietnamese leader who could have prevailed in an anti-communist counterinsurgency if only American journalists like Neil Sheehan, Stanley Karnow and David Halberstam — communist dupes to a man — hadn’t persuaded Americans that Diem was a font of corruption and brutality. Maybe scholars are a bit suspicious of someone willing to argue that the Kennedy administration was justified in asking the New York Times to fire Halberstam in 1963 because his reporting paid insufficient tribute to US “national interests.”

Whatever the reason Moyar is now happily employed at the US Marine Corps University, it isn’t because he’s an academic pariah, nor is it true that the Sun‘s story is “a blockbuster that breaks a scandal hiding in plain sight.” If anyone reads the article, it’s clear that Moyar’s job search was frustrated by an idiosyncratic combination of factors — none of which add up to the liberal conspiracy for which Moyar himself will now become a willing poster child.

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