The Research Connection

Think back: when did you learn how to do research?

You know, that process of going to the library sometime in your elementary or secondary or college education to learn about some topic so you could write a paper about it. I remember my first research paper ever, in Miss M’s third-grade classroom. She listed all the available topics on one of those clear sheets she could display with the overhead projector, then went around the room allowing us the chance to choose.

elizabeth_i_when_a_princess
Seriously, who wouldn’t want to study someone who dressed like that and had red hair? I wanted red hair and a dress like that.

I reallyreallyreallyreally wanted Elizabeth the First, but either my last name was too late in the alphabet or I wasn’t listening well that day (probably both), so I was out of luck. Fortunately, there was also an Elizabeth II, so my luck hadn’t entirely run out, even if this one didn’t have the neat-looking dresses.

Ironically, the next research process I remember well, the one where I think maybe I started to get the hang of “research,” finally took me back to Elizabeth I, or more accurately to her older half-sister. (It’s almost shocking I didn’t become an early modern British historian, right?)

I’ve spent countless more hours, days, and weeks doing research since then. In grad school, I wrote a lot about my research and note-taking process, but it’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve begun thinking about an even larger question: how do you teach someone to do research?

Continue reading “The Research Connection”

Thoughts on Being a “Mama PhD”

2015-05-15 14.57.59 HDRYesterday morning, Facebook reminded me this week marks the 2-year anniversary of
my doctoral hooding ceremony. That’s right, I’ve been a PhD for 2 years!

While there are many memorable moments from that day, one of my fondest is when I heard my son (then age 5) shout “that’s mommy!” when I walked across the stage. That moment, I quite publicly joined the club that is often called “Mama PhD.”

Not that I wasn’t already a “Mama PhD” in training before that ceremony.  My son was born right at the end of my comprehensive exam period. I had thus spent the entirety of my dissertation period balancing the roles of parent and grad student. By the time I was hooded, he was part of my regular rhythms of life, and, I should note, part of a community of people who kept me buoyed when I needed to be lifted up, and grounded when I need to be brought down. Still, as I was regularly reminded by well-meaning faculty and peers, the odds of finishing your PhD go down when you are a woman-with-kid, so walking across that stage was significant. Continue reading “Thoughts on Being a “Mama PhD””

Thought Distortion and Writing: On Showing Your Work

Do you remember being in math class when you were little, and getting points taken off your homework because you didn’t show your work? Repeatedly, teachers drilled into our heads how important it was to take the time to write out all of the steps that got you from point A, the problem, to point Z, the solution. At the time, you could sort of see the logic. Sure, a lot of those steps you could combine, or do in your head, but if you wrote them all out, it prevented a lot of confusion, and made it easier for the teacher to follow how you solved it. It also made you less likely to get stuck on a problem, and if you got the wrong answer, it helped those assisting you figure out where you went wrong.

That last point I think is just as crucial when it comes to writing.

Often when I write, I assume that my audience understands where I am coming from. If they have made it onto Smart Women Write, then I assume they are a smart woman writer, or someone who loves smart women who write. If they pick up my specialized academic articles, I assume they have a baseline of knowledge and a shared understanding of the basic historiography, etc.

Often though, those assumptions can cause me to take shortcuts, just like in math class, where in my haste to get it all out, I forget to show my work.  Just like in math class, that can come back to bite me. Or at the very least, it can cause my writing to be less than it should.

That is because things are not as self-evident as they seem. Making those things that are obvious to me more explicit has some rewarding effects when it comes to my writing:  If I examine the thought process that got me from point A to point Z, it is possible I’ll discover some thought distortion– some beliefs that are not accurate or true, or consistent with one another.

Thought distortion happens to every writer, no matter how clear their mind, no matter how mentally well they are. The way someone thinks through an issue has a lot to do with habit and environment, and often as we grow, we discard some habits, while others persist until we excise them. And it’s worth writing out your thought process because these beliefs you’ll find embedded in them, whether they are clear and consistent or not, shape how you feel about something.

I find I am a lot happier, and my writing a lot more authentic, when the beliefs that shape my emotions are rational, logical, consistent, and true to who I am at my core, rather than originating in habit or from my environment.

So the next time you tackle a writing project, give this a try- show some more of your work and look over it. Is there anywhere you went wrong?

To Chapters, New and Old

TasselOne of the nice things about social media is that you never forget an important date, like the one when you defended your dissertation. In the six years since then, so much has changed, but not everything. For example, I haven’t entirely left grad school behind – or at least, I’m still working on what once was my dissertation project. Only now, I have a little more to show for it.

Before I finished the dissertation, before I took my teaching job, I was part of a panel proposal for the 2012 American Historical Association meeting.I didn’t know in February 2011 – when the proposals were due – whether I would even have a job the following school year. I hoped, at the time, that having this as a forthcoming talk would look good to a prospective employer.

Almost a year later, I flew to Chicago for a quick weekend, making sure I didn’t miss any teaching obligations. I hung out with old friends and enjoyed conference sessions on my terms. I hit up the Art Institute in Chicago (and had an unfortunate run-in with a light pole while walking down the street). That Sunday morning, our panel convened in the final hours of the conference in front of a small audience of people. (The panel focused the military’s experiences of integrating women and minorities as a way to manage the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.)
Continue reading “To Chapters, New and Old”

There’s No Wrong Way to Do the Morning Pages

Several months back I wrote a blog post about using Julia Cameron’s concept of the Morning Pages (from her book The Artist’s Way) as a form of regular journaling. As I noted then, I began to develop this practice not long after finishing my dissertation as a means of self-care in that confusing landscape post-dissertation life. I’ve since received a number of inquiries about the Morning Pages. Do I still use them? How do they work? How are they helpful?

Although I have offered of basic thoughts to people one-on-one, I don’t feel like I’ve fully explained how I still find them useful. This is partly because they have become so routine that I hardly think about them anymore. The Morning Pages are part of a comforting morning ritual that happens before my child gets up.  I write them (almost) every day, always with a cup of coffee by my side, and usually on my couch with a blanket draped over me (it’s still chilly here in the PNW!).

Sometimes when people ask I feel like I can only explain their value to me as much as I can explain why I always drink that coffee from the same mug.  That’s the other reason I trip over explanations: the Morning Pages are personal. Once you start to do them regularly they can feel like an old friend – and like an old friend, for each person, they’ll provide a different kind of value. Still, there are common features to the Morning Pages that make them broadly useful – as I remembered once I went back to Cameron’s book as I was preparing to write this post. What follows are some of the main reasons they are one of my go-to morning rituals. Continue reading “There’s No Wrong Way to Do the Morning Pages”

To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?

Picture the scene: I am eight years old. I have a mullet (I have a German mother, and it was the early 90s, so I refuse to be ashamed of this). I am on the playground during recess with my best friend, whose parents made better hair choices for her. Another kid approaches the teal-colored plastic picnic table and asks if he can sit with us.  My friend pushes colored pencils and construction paper at him while I tell him sure- as long as he will help us write an encyclopedia. He wants to write about GI Joes, but that day we were doing geology, so we put him on igneous rock duty instead. Two minutes later, he’s playing red-rover with the other kids. We shrug and page through the National Geographic my friend swiped from her pediatrician’s waiting room.  We debate whether the next day’s topic should be shipwrecks (me) or cloning (her).

It would be a few more years before I learned that this was a bizarre way for a child to be. But even my 8 year old self knew that anything worth learning about was *really* worth learning about. And she learned through writing.

Little has changed since then in that regard. Sure, reading is great for learning, but to really get something at the visceral level, I have to write about it. Writing is the best way for me to figure out how I think and feel about something, and if there is a disagreement between my heart and my head. It’s not until I write something that all the connections between my subject and the rest of what I know are forged.

Now why am I telling this story, besides outing myself as a bemulleted child? It’s because the semester is almost over, and summer approaches. Summer is the season in which grad student and junior faculty get approached by educational tools companies and specialized encyclopedia publishers seeking to find qualified content creators.

I’ve written several of these pieces in the past, and here’s why:

  1. If there is ever some weird time-travel situation and I get to meet my hyper-critical perpetually squinting 8 year old self, this is totally going to break the ice.
  2. Getting back to the basics of the subjects that pretty much make up the cornerstone of my research can be really helpful. Writing an encyclopedia article or study guide designed for undergraduates first learning about a subject is a lot like teaching. It helps to pull me away from the narrow periscope-view I can sometimes develop when writing a book and help me remember the different aspects that are there and that I have to keep in mind while writing. For example, when I am writing about the deals between the Swedish and Fetu on the 17th century Gold Coast, it’s helpful to have in mind the latest big picture of the Atlantic slave trade, of early Swedish imperialism, and of precolonial West African history, because that shapes how I pull the narrative out of the sources. Writing these encyclopedia articles was a good exercise for me in reminding myself of the most recent scholarship (and reminding myself to always be reading the most recent scholarship), and in critically evaluating which sources and viewpoints provide students with the most fair yet nuanced understanding of the subject.
  3. Speaking of students and a fair yet nuanced understanding, creating high-quality materials like this is an important service to them and to the field. The way I write one of these introductory overviews of the field shapes the way students think about it, and the sources I suggest will color their view also. It becomes an exercise in thinking through the political and socio-cultural implications of privileging points of view. For example, when writing about Timbuktu, I thought about how residents of city experienced the many changes it underwent.  Which people and events shaped the city in ways that are still felt now? A big theme in the history of Timbuktu is the position of the Tuareg peoples in relation to that city, and there is a cyclical sense of history repeating itself each time they staked their claims upon it. I think about this in my writing always, but am hyper aware when creating something that requires as much objectivity as is possible in order to fairly represent the past in a way that is still easy to understand.  It feels good to do a good job with these, because of how important a solid foundation in a historic subject really is.
  4. The pay- I’m building my personal library, and academic books don’t come cheap. If you have a solid background in the subject, writing these articles doesn’t take much time, and your hourly rate is pretty good- far better than most freelance writing work.

So with that said, if you’re also interested in writing something like this, here are a few things I learned that may be helpful to keep in mind: Continue reading “To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?”

Meeting yourself where you are

 

Eighteen years later, I still remember the moment I first told someone I wanted to be a writer. The certainty of that idea developed over a year I will always hold close. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, but it was also the year I learned what it felt like to achieve a dream.

A year earlier, I had been uncertain of what I wanted out of college and unwilling to take out loans without more direction. I left school after my freshman year, and by late October, I was flying east to be a nanny for a family I’d never seen. It was one of the scariest and most thrilling decisions I’d ever made.

Continue reading “Meeting yourself where you are”