OAH Dispatch: Sometimes “I just need to listen”


Mary R.S. Bracy teaches history at Warner College in Lake Wales, Florida

Here is Mary R.S. Bracy‘s latest post from the Organization of American Historians meeting in Sacramento. Click here for Mary’s previous OAH post: “She Persisted: A New Assistant Professor Tells Her Story.”  Enjoy!

As is usually the case when I go to conferences, I have about five million things rattling around in my head at once. Yesterday was a full day. Today I’m headed back home, so I feel like this  has just been too quick!

I sat down to write this dispatch last night, but I was simply too tired to type any words on the screen. Our panel started off the day at 8:00 am. I was excited to get going, but was a bit disappointed when we only had three audience members.  I guess this is what happens when you’re up against a panel on “Hamilton!” I have participated in a lot of conference panels, but this was one of my favorite.  It was first panel I’ve been on where I’m the one with the most experience!  I would have never been brave enough as an MA student to even think about presenting a paper at a big conference like the OAH…so I was really happy to see my fellow panelists doing that.

I like to get out of my comfort zone when I go to conferences, so the other panel I attended yesterday was “When All That Is Left Is Words: The Writing Sensibilities of Civil War Soldiers.” Sarah Gardner (Mercer University), Peter Carmichael (Gettysburg College), and Timothy Williams (University of Oregon) each presented papers. I was especially intrigued by Professor Williams’s paper “Prison Pens: The Culture of Writing in Civil War Prisons,” which focused on prisons as intellectual spaces.

I only made it to two panels overall, which is about what I expected.  I gave up trying to do everything at conferences a few years ago.  If there are papers I really want to see, or colleagues I want to support, I do that, but otherwise I simply try to absorb the intellectual atmosphere.  Sometimes this is exhausting; other times it’s completely inspiring.

This time, I’m taking away a deep sense of inspiration from my fellow panelists, who are all young and excited and passionate about what they’re doing.  I am in no way old, but I am disillusioned.  The academy has hurt people I care about.  It hurts to see my friends leave the profession.  It’s been frustrating to talk with them as they fill out hundreds of job applications, only to have nothing.

But I’m an optimist at heart, and being on a panel with graduate students fed that optimism.  They know that this job market is terrible. But they love the job so much that (at least for right now) the problems seem like a distant future.  I tried to offer a dose of reality.  I mentioned that the job market is terrible and graduate students need to be thoughtful about the future.  But when they started talking excitedly about passing comps, planning dissertations, and writing grants, I just shut up.  Because in my disillusioned world, I just needed to listen.

She Persisted: A New Assistant Professor Tells Her Story


OAh LogoI am thrilled to have Mary R.S. Bracy writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento.  Mary is not new to The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Longtime readers will remember that she wrote for us as a graduate student from the 2013 American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans.  You can read her posts here.  I am also happy to announce that Mary just accepted a position as Assistant Professor of History at Warner University in Lake Wales, Florida.  Congrats!!

Here is Mary’s first dispatch:

Greetings from Sacramento!

This is my first trip to the OAH, so I’m very excited to be here.  It’s also my first time to present at a major national conference, and my first time to present something about my teaching, rather than my research. Plus, I’m excited about my panel: I’m joining with some colleagues who are public historians, and we’ll be talking about how we foster collaboration in our work. (Shameless plug: 8:00 am Friday, Convention Center Room 305!) Shae Smith Cox, who is ABD at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, put together our panel. Shae is a friend of mine from my days at Oklahoma State, and I’m happy to be working with her yet again.

I spent today traveling (Tampa to Sacramento is a long trip!), getting registered, and wandering around the book exhibit. I found lots of things that I want to buy, but won’t, because I don’t want to lug a super-heavy suitcase back through the airport.

I also spent a lot of time today musing on the nature of academia and academic labor. This isn’t anything new. I’ve been thinking about academic labor and the tragedy of so many talented scholars having to leave the profession ever since my friend Erin Bartram’s brilliant and heartbreaking piece about the grief it causes.

And I think about the nature of academia and academic training every time I work with Shae. Both of us had really, really difficult MA experiences but went on to be successful PhD students.  I haven’t kept my experience a secret, but to briefly recap:

A professor once recommended I drop out of graduate school because I did not have the research and writing chops.  This professor said I was much better at recommending books to people, so I should be a librarian instead of a historian. (I worked in a bookstore in college, and I have pretty extensive bibliographic recall.) I also struggle with anxiety, and in graduate school tended to have panic attacks at the worst times (like when I cried through my entire MA oral comprehensive exam).  Shae (who has given me permission to share this) was told by professors she should “go back to working retail” and was “too dumb to be in graduate school.” And yet we both stuck with it and went on to be pretty successful. Shae has organized conferences and managed museum displays, and is working to complete her dissertation—a study of the material culture and memory of Civil War uniforms.

As for me…I’m feeling pretty good right now, because I just landed my dream job. Starting in the fall, I’ll be a full-time Assistant Professor at a small Christian college.  It’s everything I ever wanted out of my career.  But imposter syndrome is real, and even with my professional successes, I still see myself sitting in my car, crying because I don’t think this whole “being an academic” thing is worth the stress.


Warner University

So that’s the emotional space from which I’m coming to this conference. And it’s changing how I act here. I want to be kind in my interactions and my feedback. I want every single graduate student or early-career scholar (or late-career scholar!) who feels like they don’t know what they’re doing, or they don’t belong, to know that it’s perfectly normal to feel that way.

Tomorrow I plan on recapping my own panel and attending one or two others.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.