The History Teacher Abroad

Last summer, I mentioned I was heading to a seminar in Cambridge as part of a sabbatical through my school. Now that the weather’s cooled and summer seems eons ago, I’m thinking about that experience more than ever – perhaps in no small part because I’m going to talk about it at school this week to all my colleagues and students, and because I finally retrieved the 750+ photos I thought I’d lost from the adventure.

Attending the Oxbridge Summer Seminar for teachers last year was an orchestrated effort on my part: I’m fortunate enough to teach at an institution that offers summer sabbaticals for faculty, and this was my second time applying. Whether or not you’ll get one depends on a variety of factors, including how many other people applied, but there’s also the limits of your own imagination. Most of the time, I haven’t applied because I couldn’t dream up something that sounded good enough, if I’m honest.

(A few years ago, I finally managed my first application, with a colleague in a different department. We didn’t get selected for the dream trip to Cuba, but two colleagues who actually teach Spanish did, so we were happy for them.)

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Peterhouse College, Cambridge, UK

Last spring, I discovered the Oxbridge Summer Seminar by chance and set about writing an application to attend “Why History Matters,” a week-long program held at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University. My proposal paired that experience with the idea of a few days in London to visit the Imperial War Museum and Churchill’s War Rooms, particularly because the world wars come up quite a bit when you teach 20th Century World History and US History.

What happens when you go abroad to spend a week contemplating “Why History Matters?”

First and foremost, of course, you have an amazing time.

The Oxbridge program, which included several seminars under one umbrella (mine, one on math, and one on English), included about 20 people from all over the world: Trinidad, Denmark, Pakistan, Taiwan, Canada, and various US states. In addition to our seminars, our program included daily activities, access to copious amounts of tea, speakers, and excellent food.

We took a guided tour of Cambridge, relaxed with drinks on a bridge over the River Cam, went punting on the river, listened to the choir at King’s College during Evensong, drove out to explore Bletchley Park (the home of WW2 codebreaking efforts). We strolled along the river, through meadows and cow pastures, to visit The Orchard Tea Room, frequented by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes in years past. One night, we toured a local gin distillery (complete with tasting – and a try of truffle gin, amazing stuff). One afternoon, I walked up the grand staircase into the Trinity College Library, a building designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Cathedrals haven’t moved me as much as the site of those ancient books and shelves and card catalogs long unused.

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Me, geeking out at the Trinity College Library

With my History group, each day was an adventure on top of this. When you think “seminar,” it’s never quite clear how much time you’ll spend in a classroom, but Oxbridge did it right. Following breakfast each morning, our group of 9 or 10 conversed around a table in an upper room with our instructor, the first female fellow at Peterhouse. We explored the British history curriculum, analyzed war poetry and how (and why) we teach it, and even read about ancient magic rituals to think about the role of anthropology and archaeology in studying history.

And then we left the classroom, often first to the warm weather in the Fellows garden, circled up beneath the trees as we chatted over copies of British university history exams. From there, we walked (or drove) to places I had never heard of or had not thought I’d be fortunate enough to see.

We strolled through town. We took taxis out to the Cambridge American Cemetery (and were nearly left there when none returned for us). We explored artwork (mostly Antony Gormley’s). We traipsed through the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, discovering ancient bones on which poets have written a few lines. We didn’t just read about history: we encountered it, we explored it, and we came face to face with our own thoughts about how and why that matters to each of us, as teachers, as people, and as citizens of our respective places.

I left Cambridge after only a week, but it hasn’t left me, which is the way these things always go, happily. It’s always good, then, to have something to head off to next when one adventure ends, and mine included a jaunt to visit one of my oldest friends (not by age, but by length of our relationship). My peaceful weekend between trip legs included little more than sipping elderberry cordial, playing games, walking around a village (or two), and clambering over ruins that once hosted kings. I paid my respects to Sir Churchill, learned how to do the floss, and contemplated the myriad ways we make our lives as we wish.

I finished my summer interlude with a few days on my own, at least, in London. I left the

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I found the cancellation line at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and it was worth the wait.

kindred spirits behind me and spent three nights in solitude at the top of a lovely inn across from the Imperial War Museum. (At night, the breeze blew in just right along with my view of the London Eye.) I tried to make the most of the time I had – as noted, it’s never enough, but I’ll keep trying. I got lost in the Imperial War Museum, waited in line for the Churchill War Rooms, discovered Ben Franklin’s House, and even managed, through a bit of patience, to score a ticket to see Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Along the way, I discovered the Tardis and King George III’s personal library, visited the Doctor Who shop, rode the London Eye, and visited the mummies and the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.

My summer was unexpected from start to finish, but this trip – the most expected part of it all, and yet in so many ways so unexpected itself – was tremendous all around. Now that winter appears to have settled in on my corner of the world, it’s nice to have memories of England and history in summertime, and that dream that maybe one day I’ll be British when I grow up.

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The ruins of Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, England.

What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?

In honor of  National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to tell you another story about the time I taught a nonfiction writing class titled “Writing Your Family History,” at the Nashville Public Library for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).

But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child?  Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?

That’s the magic, right there.

Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).

I think it’s such an important question. One that set the tone for the entire session. Continue reading “What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?”

The Big Draw: Sketching to See the World

by Lynn Clement


I’ve always considered it a great failing in my education that I never had the chance to take drawing classes, or any art making classes for that matter. In middle school and high school art was an elective sacrificed if you were on a college prep track and despite my declared major of art history in undergrad, I went to such a large university that only studio art majors could take the studio classes. Thus, it has been a personal endeavor to learn the techniques used to make art objects in order to gain greater insight into the creative process of those I study. While an important part of my profession, drawing, painting, and photography have also been an important part of my self-care.

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Photo by Lum3n.com on Pexels.com

 

After the sage advice posted this month by Angela, Tanya, and Raquelle, I felt overdue for a break in which I could think and act creatively.  I am fortunate to live outside of Washington, DC where the opportunity to pursue these activities at a low cost are readily available, which is why this weekend I found myself at The Big Draw Festival at the National Gallery of Art with my daughter and a good friend.   The Big Draw is a charity that supports visual literacy and celebrates drawing as an important tool for learning and engagement.  Although headquartered in England, every October partners around the globe host their own festivals.  At the National Gallery in Washington, DC live models posed for the enjoyment of amateur and professional artist alike and entire galleries were given over to contemplating the movement of the human body captured by some of the most celebrated sculptors through history.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that drawing was considered an art form in its own right, though it has long been used as a means of studying various fields in a deeper way.  For example, drawing has long been used in scientific fields to heighten observational and communication skills and more recently medical schools have added art classes to their curriculum.  What struck me most about the latter is how art classes have helped doctors to better understand emotional expressions and cues.  Drawing forces you to observe the world in order to replicate it, and observing the world leads to a deeper consideration and understanding.  This is especially true when looking at people.

The friend who drew with me this weekend commented on how the exercise of sketching forced him to look, observe, analyze what might otherwise be overlooked.  It was during this quiet reflection that, unbeknownst to us, shots were fired hundreds of miles away at a Synagogue in Pittsburg.  Mere days earlier, two African Americans were targeted and slain in a grocery store and bombs were delivered by innocent postal carriers to leading political figures.  Afterward, as I tried to digest the violence, I looked over my sketches and considered what my friend had said and remembered what I had seen.  Models who had smiled and laughed when poses changed, who stretched and tended to sore muscles, and were applauded for their noticeable effort.  Docents who had welcomed us with drawing materials and information.  Fellow lovers of art who sat beside us sketching their own visions or who walked through galleries filled with history in visual form.  My own daughter, my favorite muse, who I drew as she played video games after she’d grown bored of sitting still. What had made this such a magical day, such a memorable moment was more than just the action of drawing, but drawing together with people of all walks of life. I had tried to capture these figures of flesh and stone on paper, nameless to me, but so human, and so delicate.  How is that human-ness lost to others?

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The Big Draw’s claim is that “drawing changes lives”.  I don’t know if that’s true, but taking the time to contemplating the world, and especially the people around us, can’t be a bad idea.  While I’d always found creating art as part of taking care of myself, it wasn’t until this weekend that I considered it an important part of how I care for others, or more importantly, how I saw others.

I don’t know if my words are working together to convey what I wanted to in this post as it currently feels like a stream of consciousness.  It’s all become so much to take in, but I can’t stop looking.

 

 

Finding Seeds of Hope in Your Work

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Pee Dee Rosenwald School, Marion County, South Carolina, c. 1935. (Public Domain image from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History)

When it seems like the world around me is falling apart, sometimes I just feel like throwing my hands up in the air and giving up on humanity. I have always had the conviction that humans are inherently good, but there is also a lot of harrowing evidence that points to the contrary. As if you need the details, I’m thinking about the government’s terrifying attempt to erase transgender people, their condoning of sexual misconduct, the separation of immigrant families, and ongoing police brutality.  When faced with such injustices, we can protest in the streets, go to the voting booth, donate money, be allies, call senators. As Angela recently reminded us, we can pursue paths of self-care and be kind to ourselves. In this same vein, we can also make an active effort to show kindness to those who cross our paths. To counteract the hate spread by certain populations with limited mindsets, we can make a point to be attentive to the people in our lives. We can listen closely to our friends’ concerns rather than just waiting our turn to speak, sit down with our colleagues to share experience and counsel, smile at those who pass us on the sidewalk (alas, as long as it doesn’t compromise our safety), and take the time to share with our loved ones how we feel about them. 

Everyone reacts to tragic situations differently depending on their personal convictions, constraints, and resources.  In recent months, I have also realized that putting more energy into meaningful work can be another response to despairing times. (I realize however that this, too, may be less of an option depending on your workplace and work community.) This can mean bringing more intention to projects that you deeply value or that might be inspiring. For me, this has often meant highlighting marginalized narratives in my teaching and writing. Lately, though, it has meant investing more creative energy into my digital project at Fisk. Through this project, I am able to underline racial and sexual injustices of the past but also spotlight more encouraging historical narratives. This work has also given me the opportunity to educate myself on African American history and to consider how I can utilize my skills and resources to amplify voices in the archive that have been historically marginalized. Continue reading “Finding Seeds of Hope in Your Work”

Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh

First of all, Happy Indigenous People’s Day!

I’m a historian of Atlantic Africa, the slave trade, and Africans in the Americas, so often that’s where my focus is. But this week I want to remember that while this nation was built by the enslaved, it was built on native land taken by force. I want to remember not to make anyone feel guilty, but to take some moments to sit in my discomfort with America’s past. White people’s attempts to avoid discomfort have caused a great deal of hurt and destruction, and change begins with the self. I will sit in discomfort, and I will help others do the same. I truly believe that it is only when we tolerate our discomfort to fully acknowledge the injustices of our shared past that we can move into an equitable future.

I still believe it is possible, even if the ideal of an equitable future feels far away sometimes. Especially this week, especially if you are a woman or a non-binary person with any history of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, or related trauma. Which is, well, all of us. We all have some experience with it, either directly, or through friends.

I’m not going to mince words. This week, most women in the US, like many other groups of people targeted by this administration, have felt that their country treats them like garbage.

That’s because right now, women (and other groups) are treated like garbage by our country. It’s the only way I have to explain what happened with Kavanaugh.

Something I want to address is how much something like this can affect the writing and productivity in general of women. Most of us are one “let’s give him the benefit of the doubt” away from either full-on screaming or bursting into tears in public. Our writing outputs are suffering. Continue reading “Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh”

The Expressions of Freedom: Contemplating Anger

by Lynn Clement


Despite being immensely inspired by Raquelle’s awesome post on “overcoming writing stalls”, I’ve had a difficult time being productive this week.  Current events have left me angry, distracted, and anxious.  I feel lucky, because many others have had it much worse: anguish, suffering, trauma.  Due to my professional training, I am quick to analyze what I see and, even after listening to hours of testimony, it was the images that lingered: the setting, the people, the facial expressions.

My writing has long centered on women’s involvement in revolutionary political movements and their subsequent punishment, in visual form, for entering into the public sphere.  Honestly, it’s been almost too easy to find topics because history is filled with demonized depictions of women who dared to defy societal norms and demand equal rights and an equal voice.  For so long, I had naively regarded my analyses as study of a distance past.  As an art historian, it’s a strange feeling when your research becomes terribly relevant and attempting to return agency and voice after centuries of vilification and erasure feels like a particularly pressing endeavor.

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By Artist or printers mark looks like “Bernard”. Uploaded by User:Nickpo – own collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3820117

 

My attention had remained on France and their age of revolutions because, again, there was so much to study.  Negative depictions of women revolutionaries abounded.  However, I’ve since turned my attention to how other political imagery, ones that we often consider to be positive or laudatory, might be creating a negative impact.   And I’ve turned my sights to my own country, which is how I found myself picking a fight with the Statue of Liberty.

Well, to be clear, not with the statue itself, but with the way that personification was changed by those who gave, and those who received, her body.  The statue of liberty became a logical image for me given its origins. Although the most recognizable symbol of America, and the liberty and freedom (arguably) found in its republic, Bartholdi’s statue was conceived of by conservative French scholars and politicians who saw the new county as a stabilizing influence against the dangers of monarchy, as well as anarchy. Unlike what comes to mind today, Liberty (since 1792) had worn the Phrygian bonnet (an ancient symbol of the freed slave), wielded a weapon, and had functioned as the powerful, often angry, leader of popular uprising.  Joan Landes’ states, in her book on women’s removal from the public sphere during the years before and after the Revolution of 1789, that “Liberty did not simply appear on the seal of the Republic, nor did she remain fixed on canvas or carved in stone.  She went into the public forum…”  She could be evoked by real women when they asked to be treated as equals.

I thought about this more and more as I saw photographs directly comparing the calm stoicism of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford with the overt anger and frustration of Brett Kavanaugh.

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By Edward Moran – Museum of the City of New York, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=229787

Liberty is someone/something we desire to evoke now, when the status of so many, even as humans, is being tested. (I was going to include a hyperlink, but there were just too many news stories that support this.  You know what I’m talking about.  Just open a newspaper and throw a dart.) However, the idealized depiction of Liberty found in New York’s harbor is a stern goddess with a rational respect for law and order.  Her vagueness denies any relationship with the people who might call upon her protection. Although Linda Grasso’s book The Artistry of Anger focuses on black and white women’s literature, one can apply her theories to the visual.  What emotional freedom would have been available to women and people of color when the Statue of Liberty was designed and erected?  To be allowed anger is to allow a sense of self, true autonomy. “Two unstated assumptions underlie these premises: one, that the rational, righteously angry person is entitled to desire self-satisfaction, pleasure, and just treatment; and two, that the rational, righteously angry person possesses the power to make judgments about one’s own and others’ behavior.  Both of these assumptions have, historically, not applied to women.” Thus, whose liberty is implied in the title of this statue? When the torch was lit rights for women, the working poor, and people of color were being squelched. The Phrygian cap’s replacement with a crown, the removal of her armament, and her composed demeanor seems poignant, to me, in this light, and much less majestic.

My research and writing has been cathartic this year, but it has also reminded me what we are up against: even the strongest visual symbol of this country and its founding ideologies has been constrained. Once celebrated for her righteous anger and willingness to cut down oppressors, she was sanitized for political reasons.  While our bodies are used as symbols of enlightened and universal political ideologies, like Liberty and Justice, our voices, our emotions, and our experiences have also been suppressed.

I don’t know if I can say that I’m glad this is a writing project I’ll be working on more and more (to examine and include depictions of America, Freedom, and Lady Columbia), but it feels necessary to fully research and consider. I’ve been seeing Artemisia Gentileschi’s depictions of Judith and Holofernes making the rounds on social media.  Perhaps it’s time to design a new colossal national monument…