Lost and Found: A Post-ac’s Book List

In this week’s blog post I want to share some of the books that have helped me through the 2-year transition between receiving my PhD in art history and now, when I more fully identify myself as PostAc, and more specifically as someone starting a new business on my own.   If this list seems a bit idiosyncratic, that’s because it reflects an evolution in my interests as I edged closer to figuring out what I wanted to do next.

I think documenting various aspects of this kind of transition can be helpful to others who are just starting out as new doctorates. Two years ago I had no inkling that I’d be interested in working on a business that focuses on connecting kids to the outdoors (though I could have probably told you back then that I feel more comfortable being my own boss than working for someone else). Part of my processing involved becoming okay and comfortable with the reality that there are points in our lives that are filled with uncertainty. We just have to have faith that eventually something will work itself out. So you’ll find books in this list about the idea of processing, and the concept of uncertainty, as well as books that are more specific to my current interests.

A side note before I begin. Although I have not yet read Kelly Baker’s new e-book, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, I had been following her essay reflections on a life post-ac when they were first coming out in blog form a couple years back. Her work dives deep into what it feels like to have to start fresh after the dreams of an academic career disappear. Based on what I’ve read of her essays, I’d definitely recommend it to any recent doctorate.

Now without further ado, here are some of the books that I have found especially useful over the last couple years.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed’s memoir was one of the first books I picked up after graduating with my PhD. At the time, I had chosen it as a purposeful break from the heavy political content that I had been wading through for my dissertation topic (which was related to political satire and the grotesque during between WWI-WWII). What Wild ended up providing was a validation for my lifelong desire to get outdoors as a form of self care. Strayed’s memoir was also helpful because it is grounded in the thesis that uncertainty, mistakes, pain – all of these are okay and are a profoundly vital part of what it is to just be a human. Anyone who has read it knows the book is specifically about working through loss; the book is also about moving past regret for any choices you might make when you are grappling with that loss.  I found both her physical journey through the PCT and spiritual journey of processing useful models for navigating through the uncertainty of finding a career after the doctorate.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit.

It’s hard to explain the value of this book except to say that if you are feeling uncertain about yourself or your place at this moment, you’ll find solace in Solnit’s celebration of what can be gained from feeling and being lost. Her work demonstrates that the state of confusion is an essential component of discovery and change. The essays meditate on this concept through a variety of frameworks – from the idea of longing during uncertain times in one’s life, to the transformative effect of experience the unknown.

Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.

Bird by Bird is not a book about writing – or I should say, it’s not just about writing. It’s a compassionate, gentle, hilarious, guide for getting through just about anything in life that’s tough. It’s a book about the acts of faith required to take new steps. It’s a recognition that no one ever really knows what they are doing when they start out on something new. Of all the books I’ve read since graduating, this is one that I wish I had read earlier in career, before the toiling period of dissertation work.

The Artists’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

Regular readers know I love this book, so I’ll spare the details, instead just say that I found the exercises throughout this book extraordinarily useful as I spent time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. The book has sections that help with the “gremlins” and Imposter Syndrome. It has sections about procrastination, perfectionism, and fear. And as I’ve noted before, Cameron’s concept of the Morning Pages continues to use.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.

Confession: I’m a bit of a self-help book junkie. After years of reading  dense critical texts about the history and theory of art, this genre of writing feels like such a breath of fresh air. But some can get a little too breezy. Behind the “you can do it” spirit is mostly just fluff. One of the reasons I like Covey’s book so much is treats the subject of “self” with a degree of compassion and seriousness lacking in many newer books. Covey’s book is informed by his Christianity, but is not religious. Rather, it is grounded in the idea that one must have a clear sense of their own values and priorities in order to be effective in the world.

The Hundred Dollar Start-Up, by Chris Guillebeau.

I bought this book on a whim last summer  when I was sifting through the self-help section of Powell’s bookstore. At the time, I was only starting to wrap my brain around the idea of maybe starting some kind of business. I didn’t know yet what kind of business it would be. This book ended up helping me narrow my focus (and also come up with a few back up ideas too). The book is not a comprehensive look at the ends and outs of business, but it is useful to make the concept of self-employment seem less terrifying and more possible.

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv.

I picked up Louv’s book after deciding to start a business related to kids and nature, thinking it would be a useful framework for thinking about the value of the nature in family life. Having read it, I think it has a broader value to anyone feeling out of balance in their life. It’s not perfect; for example, I’m not fond of the way Louv uses ableist language (specifically his term “nature-deficit disorder”) to frame his concerns. But I do like his explorations of the ways that technologies and a culture of business impact us negatively, and his research on what is gained by breaks outdoors. Although his chief concern is children, his ideas apply to any generation.

*****

There are other books and essays out there that have been useful in other ways – from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist to the numerous essays out there on higher ed. But these are a few that continue to stick out. What about you? If you have a PhD and are post-ac, are there any books that you’ve found especially useful?

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction

I’m the kind of person who writes introductions last for pretty much everything. I always have, and I always will advise my students to do the same. It just makes sense- most of us who write, do so in order to figure out how we think about something. Only once we’ve written do we find out what our writing was about.

However, when you are trying to sell a nonfiction history book to the big four publishers, the introduction is one of the main deciding factors in whether or not it gets bought. Generally, just like with an academic book, you sell your nonfiction book based on a proposal that includes an outline and sample chapters. For a nonfiction history book, the introduction is probably the most important thing, because it does so much in so little space, therefore showcasing your skill as both a historian and a popular history writer.

A good trade history introduction will entertain, inform, and make promises, usually in equal amounts. Now, I’m lucky- my book is about pirates, and spoiler: one of them gets crucified. That practically writes itself, right?

Wrong.

Well, right and wrong.

You’d be surprised (I was) at how difficult it is to use documents created for one set of purposes (a criminal investigation, international diplomacy, taxation, etc.) and pull a narrative story that reads almost like fiction out of them.

It’s easy to summarize the documents “Well, here was the court case of the main witness against the pirate who said he bludgeoned his sloop’s entire crew. Here are the pirate’s last words before his execution.  Here are some random court documents that mention how he stole the captain’s wigs before killing him so that he could disguise his own distinctive hair. Here are some newspaper articles about other crimes that were attributed to him too.”

But that’s only really entertaining to other historians who see and immediately understand the value in having all of those documents together. See, historians tend to unconsciously process documents to get directly to the “so what?” moment. It’s rarely an explicit process, because we will read a collection of related primary sources and immediately understand why those sources are interesting and important, and how they affect what other types of things were going on at the time. Because of our training and instincts, we tend to skip the most important step of reconstructing the story, and instead link everything in our heads. So we analyze the documents, then explain how they fit into, alter, or corroborate our current understanding of history. One might argue that for academia and other related professions, that’s more than sufficient.

For a trade history audience, however, that does not work in the same way. A trade audience wants to be entertained. They don’t care how brilliant I am, and they don’t want to watch me solve the historical puzzle and explain how it affects our understanding of history. They want me to show them the puzzle, and introduce the contemporary people on the ground who were part of it. They don’t want a lecture on the 18th century Atlantic economy, they want me to drop details and pieces of the historical context only as necessary and when they first appear in the narrative arc of the story, and only as necessary to their understanding of what’s going on.  These readers are smart, and they don’t want me to explain to them, they want me to show them so that they themselves can figure it out. The whole purpose of my training as a historian is to re-arrange the evidence and the context and to figure out which historic information is relevant to the story and which isn’t, and accompany the reader along a journey like a guide who allows them to discover the historic relevance for themselves.

In other words, the entertaining part of a trade history book that many academic history books lack, is consideration for the reader’s enjoyment. My job isn’t to bombard the reader with every bit of information related to those primary sources I’m writing about. This isn’t a competition to see how much knowledge a reader can absorb. Rather, my job is to carefully curate this information into an enjoyable experience that allows the reader to become an active detective figuring out things as they go along, rather than being told these things outright. Just like in fiction, I’m showing, and not telling.

So back to the introduction of the book. It needs to promise this type of entertaining historical experience to the reader, while also assuring those who know a bit more about the business, that I know what I’m doing, and am doing it purposefully. In my book proposal, the chapter outline is where I get to show off to publishers what I know and how I’m planning on piecing it together, but my introduction is the first taste of how well I am going to do that. So it’s written like a piece of fiction, introducing characters only when they become relevant, and explaining only what needs to be explained at that moment to keep the story going. In this way, you have equal amounts of entertainment and information- the best of both worlds, at least in my opinion. Then later towards the end, you get a few pages to make some promises. Now that you’ve told the beginning of what will amount to a really bloody and captivating story, you get a very small amount of space to convince the reader that they badly want to find out what happens next.

This is similar to a film trailer- you show the highlights, and allude to how the reader will be changed at the end. For me, that means hinting at ways in which this pirate case will help illuminate a part of history (the American Revolution) that they thought they knew everything about already. I am promising that in reading this book, the reader will make some discoveries that enrich their understanding of our shared past, all while being entertained by pirates. It’s a tall order, and it takes a lot more skill to pull off than I initially thought.  Three rewrites in, and I think I’m finally beginning to get it.

Summer Living, Teacher-Style

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher approaching the end of the school year must be in dire need of summer break.
Not Jane Austen, but close

This spring, the end of the school year crept up on me. I spent months being in denial that we had blown past spring break and were approaching the end of the year. At the start of May, a piece of me still imagined I’d get to continue for weeks more with my students, exploring this or that topic.

(I’m confident none of them envisioned spending their summers that way.)

At the end of May, I completed my sixth year as a high school teacher. I’ve now spent as many years teaching as I spent working on my PhD. There is something really cool about that, and also totally impossible to think that it’s been a dozen years since I began grad school.

In these six years, I’ve approached summer a variety of ways. I’ve chaperoned trips, done PD weeks at various programs, drafted a book, presented at a conference, and spent a little downtime with family.

Every single year has also involved a lot of lesson planning, at least in the last two weeks. It’s just what I do: I get my head away from school a bit, breathe, and come back to planning courses when everything is a little fresher in my mind.

1338776063923_5400305Last year, I was exhausted when June hit. This year was different. A lot of my colleagues were exhausted, physically and emotionally. I should have been exhausted, too: it’s certainly where I was in January and in February and even before spring break in March. But when the students left this past May, I was ready to look ahead to next year. I usually don’t do a lot of prep in June, but this year, I wanted to work on things while they were fresh in my mind and I was energized.

In the month of June, I was on campus almost every single weekday, keeping pretty close to usual school hours (plus some). In part, I went to campus each day because my son’s preschool is only a couple of miles from there (our house is much further away, and I do afternoon pickup). I get a quiet place to work, surrounded by books and space, and I maximize my work time since it takes only 5-10 minutes to get to the preschool (instead of leaving 30 minutes in advance from home).

Campus is quiet in the summer, but not totally silent.  In addition to the summer camp kids running through the halls periodically, you eventually discover that you’re not the only one sneaking in a little work. A few other teachers snuck on to campus to get some work done, and some of the staff are still around (and happy to enjoy a good lunch elsewhere, like a local German-American restaurant, or all-you-can-eat sushi).

b86cf7a41d08f31aca61ac17892979a11I love planning courses and classes in the summer because you get these uninterrupted stretches of thinking space: no assignments to grade, no classes to cover for someone else. No meetings with faculty or students, no daily obligations in between your classes. If you’re really good at getting stuff done without someone making you do it, well, summer is a magical time to imagine what the next year could be and start to build that reality.

I love what I do. Spending my time on campus this month – and a lot of spare time reading and thinking about courses – hasn’t felt like work. It’s just felt natural, and fun. Thinking about courses and how they’re organized, articulating the course standards, rethinking assessments, and setting goals and class plans? These are some of the fun puzzles that make me happy in my career.

So far, this summer is incredible. I haven’t yet accomplished the big goals I set for myself, but I’m discovering some good things that I think will help me be a better teacher next year.

No matter how we spend the summer, I hope that’s the goal all teachers have in mind.

Note: Tanya pre-wrote this entry because she’s chaperoning a school trip for two weeks. She looks forward to telling you more about it when she gets back in mid-July. This gives her plenty of time to fine-tune her courses for the fall, which she’s already itching to get back to.

 

 

Reading and Re-Reading Harry Potter

 

I still remember the first time I had learned about Harry Potter and the magical world that has been available to us for 20 years this week. I was an undergrad in college, it was summertime, and I was house sitting for a professor who had two kids. She had been raving about the series all spring. She swore that the books weren’t typical “children’s books” and that I should take a look at the first two in the series that were sitting on her bookshelf while I housesat.

Sure enough, she was right (smart woman!). I gobbled up the first two books right away and then borrowed the next one from her as soon as her family was done with it. Then I waited for the fourth, which came out the year I graduated. I read that as soon as I could get my hands on it…and on it went, until I had finished the final book right after it was published in 2007.

Except that reading this series was not just a process of anticipating the next twist and turn in the story. Every book became a tool and a guidepost for navigating the world around as an early adult in the 2000s.

The years between book 4 and 5 (2000-2003) was a period of tremendous change for me personally. I married that summer of 2000 (yes I married young) and moved with my husband to Washington, DC, where I immediately entered into a masters program in art history. Grad school was formative. I was in a feminist program where we were engaged in the practice of feminist art history. Professors introduced both theory and practical tools to support us as we made our own ways as scholars and adults. Though I had already thought of myself as a feminist, those were the years when I came into my own as such.

At the same time as I was becoming more engaged as a feminist, political events were occurring that would affect my life in different ways. After the Gore v. Bush presidential election, I witnessed the sea change that happens in DC when the party in power shifts, as well as the particular challenges that come with a presidential election as contested as that one. That following fall of 2001, I learned just how much it really truly matters who is is in that office. I was in the thick of grad classes and working part time as an intern for the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA) when 9/11 happened. By the time that book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) finally came out in 2003, my thesis had been published and the US involved in two wars. By the time I had read the final two books, I had experienced friends going and returning from the Middle East as enlistees during the Iraq War.

JK Rowling certainly did not know when she began her series series that such traumatic events would occur right before she released the series’ darker, second half. Yet she did have the forethought to include themes that would have long lasting resonance for anyone reading it no matter what was going on the world. In those final books were lessons about governance, corruption, war, and journalism that would serve as guideposts for navigating those heady Bush years. Also, of course, as anyone who reads those books knows well, they also provided the fundamental lessons of the importance of friendship, kindness, justice, and love.

*****************

Flash forward a decade later and here we are in another time of deep uncertainty, and I am reading the Harry Potter series again with my husband and 7-yr-old son. We’ve been making our way through the books for the last couple years and now, finally and momentously, we are in the midst of the final book.  One of the great joys of revisiting this series as a parent is getting to experience them again from my kid’s perspective. There’s such joy in watching him puzzle out all the mysteries and discover connections as we propel ever closer to the end. But there’s also something incredibly profound about reading this books here and the now, with a child in 2017, ten years after I finished the series for myself.

Both then and now, the series provides guidance for understanding national and world events. But now I lean on the books from the position of “parent,” scanning each paragraph as I go for a framework to explain themes that are too common in this world, like cruelty, fear, and prejudice. I draw from Rowling’s characterization of Dolores Umbridge to explain how figures within the government can exploit their roles to unjust ends. We talk about the different facets of the “Death Eaters” to understand how people can follow a leader while also being terrified of him. I also lean on the book for models of resistance and social justice – from Dumbledore’s Army to the numerous times Harry, Hermione, and Ron bend the rules to serve a higher purpose.

I have been fascinated, throughout this process, to watch my own son work through the valences of “good” and “bad,” whether we are talking disobeying professors, the treatment of house elves…or how Draco Malfoy struggles with the position he is put in towards the end of the series. I can see him struggling with how thin the line between good and bad can be when a person is under stress. As often as I can, I try to draw examples from real life to talk about how fear and peer pressure can do insidious work, or how, conversely, people often do the less-than-great because the alternative is worse. I am ever so grateful for a series that provides so many opportunities to ponders these eternal unanswerable questions to prepare my son for the complex moral universe.

I am also grateful, this time around, to Rowling’s deep compassion for parents and caregivers – something I was too young (and perhaps too selfish) to recognize when I read them the first time around. Whether the person is a teacher, a godfather, or adult friend, more often than not they want nothing more than to make the world a better place for the next generation. This may be a challenge for them — torn because of their own desires to live with autonomy and freedom. This is a good lesson for all of us. Adulthood is often the balance between the individual and the community, whether that community is family or society as a whole.

So too is the lesson that parenting and mentorship is tough emotional work. This time around I am far more in tune to the emotional vulnerabilities of so many characters, whether they experienced trauma in their lives, or are vulnerable by way of their love of someone else. (see Mrs. Weasely’s arc, or Dumbledore’s). I find myself choking up in the passages where Rowling tenderly, slowly, reveals the depths of Dumbledore’s love. Unlike my son, of course, my sadness if rooted in the knowledge of the trials that await Harry and his friends (and by extension all young adults) when they no longer have adult mentors to lean on.

Finally, like so many others, during that first reading I had been drawn to Hermione’s character especially, and again find myself rooting for her through to the very end. When I first encountered her as an undergrad, her very existence as a major character in the book seemed worth cheering loudly about. Like those who have watched Wonder Woman recently with a sense of nostalgic melancholy, I spent time wishing that I could go back in time and introduce Hermione to own kid-self. As I continued to read that first time around and got closer to the end of the series, I also became frustrated that the books centered on Harry instead of her. I had had enough of boy-centered narratives. This time, I still feel that frustration, but also have such gratitude that Rowling gave my son a model in Harry and Herminone for deep platonic friendship between a boy and the smartest and best of all the girls.

I’m also grateful that she made Hermione not just for girls to emulate but for boys to see as a role model as well, for she remains my favorite. How can she not? Here is a character who persists even as a rising din of “mudblood” follows her throughout the series until the final book where she is tortured – at least in part – for her very existence as such. And besides, there is no Harry without Hermione, the girl who saves him from doom again and again. Rowling may have made Harry the “chosen one” but she also gave us the girl who repeatedly saves the “chosen one” from certain death.

So thank you, JK Rowling, for giving us a story about bravery and compassion, complicated characters who show kids how difficult to always do good and do right, guidance on issues ranging from governance to prejudice to cruelty, and adult characters who give kids a glimpse of the emotional lives of parents and mentors…and a seriously kickass heroine. And of course, Harry Potter, the boy who loved…and lived.

On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics

I have just returned from Charleston, juiced up from one of the most thoughtfully constructed conferences I’ve attended in a long while. It was one of those conferences that attracts both academics and people with a wider range of career experience: I met clergy, museum workers and historic interpreters, archivists, librarians, web developers, K-12 teachers, project managers, both fiction and non-fiction writers, community organizers, and probably more I can’t recall just now. We were all there in our shared interest of the ways in which the history of African-Americans is constructed, presented, preserved, and consumed.

Many things stuck out for me in the duration of this conference as extraordinary. We got to hear from Rex Ellis, one of the curators at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his thoughts on the person who left that noose in the exhibit on segregation last month. We got to attend a welcoming talk at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, whose congregation lost 9 members two years ago this week in a white supremacist domestic terrorist attack. It was humbling beyond belief to see some of their family members greet and welcome us at the door. Afterward, we moved to a reception (catered by one of Charleston’s Top Chef contestants) and participated in a vodun ceremony for the ancestors, and then heard from intrepid park rangers about the ways in which they help Charleston fight the hoopskirts narrative in order to come to terms with its history as America’s largest import-city of enslaved Africans.

The next day, a panel about teaching African-American history in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the current POTUS got incredibly real as black public historians and activists did the emotional labor of sharing some of the most humiliating and painful stories of degradation they had experienced in their careers, and the ways in which they work to support others with the same experiences. The emotional power and conviction of everyone at this conference floored me, because I too am passionate about history specifically because of how it can illuminate the injustices of the past and transform the present.

Something that really struck me in this type of intimate space, was the ways in which attendees approached networking. If you asked them, I doubt anyone would have used that word to describe what was going on. You see, the people at this conference were each passionate beyond belief about finding ways for public history to affirm the humanity of black people, both of the past and in the present. All of the conversations around panels and receptions and plenary talks were held with utmost enthusiasm and the spirit of “What you are doing is so incredibly awesome, how can I help or be part of it?” People forged connections, planned collaborations, and shared skills organically, all coming from the same desire and passion.

So what does that tell me about networking? Continue reading “On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics”

Waiting for Wonder Woman

I don’t remember the first time I met Wonder Woman. I remember her presence in my childhood as a sense of wanting to be her (or Princess Leia, or She-Ra…).  I have vague impressions of Lynda Carter on my television screen, and maybe even my own moments of pretending to be Wonder Woman. It’s hazy, but she was there.

I forgot about her for a long time. This was easy to do, since she went a bit underground after the TV series (or it seemed that way, in my world). My dad, a long-time comics collector and sci-fi fan, helped me grow up with a healthy dose of superheroes and Star Trek, but somewhere along the way, Star Trek overcame the rest. (I never did get into comics myself until I discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman while in college.)

Continue reading “Waiting for Wonder Woman”