Erin Bartram: “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind”


Mary Sanders Bracy (l) and Erin Bartram (r) at 2013 AHA in New Orleans

I am a big Erin Bartram fan.  We have been on a panel together.  She has written multiple posts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I have learned a lot from her about teaching.  Frankly, I can’t think of a person more deserving of a tenure-track teaching job in a college or university history department.

The academic profession needs to deal with her post about leaving academia:

Here is a taste:

It happened during AHA.

I was sitting at home, revising my manuscript introduction and feeling jealous of all of my historian friends at the conference, when I got an email telling me my last (and best) hope for a tenure-track job this year had evaporated.

I’d promised myself that this would be my last year on the market. Now, I’d promised myself that last year, and I’d decided to try again, but this time, I knew it was over.

I closed my laptop and walked out of my office. In that moment, I couldn’t bear to be surrounded by the trappings of a life that had just crumbled around me. The perfect reading lamp, the drawer of fountain pen ink, the dozens of pieces of scratch paper taped the walls, full of ideas to pursue. The hundreds of books surrounding me, collected over nearly a dozen years, seemed like nothing more than kindling in that moment.

I cried, but pretty quickly I picked myself up and started thinking about the future. The circumstances of the job I didn’t get were particularly distressing, so I discussed it with non-academic friends, explaining over and over again that yes, this is the way my field works, and no, it wasn’t surprising or shocking to me, and no, I won’t be able to “come back” later, at least in the way that I’d want to, and yes, this was probably what was always going to happen. And then I started looking forward.

Only now do I realize how messed up my initial reaction was.

I was sad and upset, but I didn’t even start to grieve for several weeks, not because I hadn’t processed it, but because I didn’t feel I had the right to grieve. After all, I knew the odds of getting a tenure-track job were low, and I knew that they were lower still because I didn’t go to an elite program. And after all, wasn’t this ultimately my failure? If I’d been smarter, or published more, or worked harder, or had a better elevator pitch – if my brain had just been better, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But it had happened, and if I were ultimately to blame for it, what right did I have to grieve?

Read the rest here.  Today I grieve with her.

2 thoughts on “Erin Bartram: “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind”

  1. I’m also a high school teacher, with a recent PhD in history. While school districts may not financially subsidize our research, I’ve found that my colleagues and administrators have been very supportive as I pursue research projects, publish, and speak at conferences.

    For what it’s worth, I had four peer-reviewed journal articles before I graduated, with a fifth following shortly thereafter, in addition to something like nine external awards, and I don’t think these would have allowed me to “frontdoor” my way into a tenure-track position (to play off Nick’s phrase above); the job market is destroyed, and I believe that deliberate adjunctification has much to do with that. I’ll keep writing and publishing because I enjoy researching the past and sharing my findings with other academics (yes, I’m still claiming that title, despite not having a university position) and because it makes me a better high school teacher, which I enjoy very much.

    I’m also a fan of Dr. Bartram’s essay. It points out some hard truths about academia and higher education with which we need to seriously grapple. (Full disclosure: Erin is a friend and co-author of mine. I would stand by my endorsement of the piece even if we weren’t colleagues.)


  2. This was an incredibly sobering read. I teach at the secondary level but have always yearned to be at the collegiate level. After reading this, though, I’ll be content with my Masters.

    I understand Erin Bartram’s frustration. My own frustrations (chafing at the secondary level) have caused me to be more than a bit arrogant in my teaching and interactions with administrators (who are invariably not historians). God, is this essay a necessary dose of humility.

    Realizing a Ph.D. is not in the cards for me, I have research projects I want to develop and book projects I aspire to write freelance, but as Bartram indicated, what’s the point? Ego? The school district certainly won’t pay me more. And clearly, higher education is closing ranks so it’s not like I could backdoor my way into something. Similarly, I’ve begun and shut down two different blogs for the same reasons; as cathartic as it is to write “regularly,” why bother? I could spend the time with my kid or watch the latest Marvel movie.

    I was explaining this essay to my wife and how depressing it is and her comment was, “This is disgusting. How can she not get a tenured position?” That sums it up better than anything could. I think it comes back to the shift in Western worldview and what we value – and don’t value – as a society. At the secondary level, assuming history is given notice at all, it’s only in a utilitarian fashion, never history for its own intrinsic worth. Ours is a crass worldview only interested in the “usefulness” of something (or someone), which is unfortunate as the humanities are consequently being eroded, along with those who work in them (preaching to the choir). “Use” obviously has a place, but so too does the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (I’m clearly Catholic).

    I don’t lean left politically whatsoever, but any system that forces trained, talented, and desirous individuals from gainfully contributing needs to be torn down and rebuilt.


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