The Smart Women’s Writing Desk, Part 1

I cleaned for you.

I know it doesn’t look like it, because my home desk is an eccentric travesty (or the desk of a maverick, as one of my super kind friends always says), but I spent a good 15 minutes cleaning up this desk. I was throwing out a half-empty vial of bubbles given to me during a Pride parade, tossing the 14 lipsticks (yes, there were 14) into a bag rather than having them strewn all over my stuff, hiding a fast food wrapper (my writing requires weekly crunchwraps, with plenty of Bajan pepper sauce, which, if you look closely, you’ll see I forgot to take back to the kitchen), stacking random papers and placing a clean notebook over the top of them as if it always looks like that, and blowing the dust off the top of my ancient speaker so no one would judge me.

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This is what my home writing desk looks like after 15 minutes of cleaning. I even lit a prayer candle!

Why do I feel the need for internet people to not judge me? I love being messy, but I hate being thought of as a messy person. Let’s just blame childhood and move on. That’s why my work desk (in an office I share with others) is very orderly. There’s a place for everything, and the ability for someone else to plug in their laptop and work without feeling like they are invading my personal space. That’s not the only reason I keep it clean, though.

At work, I have orderly thoughts. A large part of my job is helping to organize and prioritize the hundreds of pressing tasks that come to us from all of our project partners around the world- one of our Brazilian digitization teams hasn’t been paid yet, so I have to follow up with finance. An article I wrote for the Afro-Hispanic Review about cases of slave resistance in our archive needs another round of edits before it goes out, so I’ve got to make those. Our supervisor is going to Colombia, so I need to get a to-do list from her before she goes. Our grad student research assistants are due at any minute, so I need to make sure the space is ready for them to work in. A skype call is coming in in 30 minutes and there’s a grant application due soon so for the project I’ll be on in St. Eustatius. Have all of our volumes been ingested? Should we schedule a meeting with our partners at the library? Should I order lunch? What does everyone want?  Having a clean desk does help to impose that vital orderliness on a project that by its very nature wants to be chaotic at all times.

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My work desk. It does always look like this.

My home office though, is the place where I can tap into my own chaotic, creative brain.  I have the traces of several different projects there, as well as reminders of what’s important, why I’m working on them, who I am, and what I love. For example, in the top right corner, there’s a picture of Jem, an 80s cartoon show. The husband of a friend I went to grad school with worked for the same company as the woman who voiced Jem (Samantha Newark), and to surprise me got me her framed autograph. It means a lot to me- that he would know me well enough to know it’s something I would treasure.

My younger self loved Jem so much because she was, well, truly outrageous. She was the woman who had it all- She expressed herself through super femme 80s punkrock fashion, had a hunky boyfriend with purple hair (he was a bit dim, sure, but his heart was in the right place), and put her philanthropic careers first. She ran an orphanage for emotionally troubled girls, fronted an all-girl band, and worked for her record label, often doing free concerts for good causes. Though she was beautiful and stylish, that wasn’t her priority, but a means to an end. I loved that about her. I wanted to be creative and expressive and find ways for my talents to help people and resonate with them, too. Having her at my desk reminds me of what I’m working toward. And I love that right under her, is my bag of lipsticks. The stack of books hides it, but several of the colors- violet, fuchsia, orange – are colors she would wear. These are the things I keep around so that I keep doing things my child self is proud of.

There are lots of other gifts from friends at this desk- a figurine of Krampus (just a friendly little German Christmas demon who eats naughty children, given to me so that I can have a Krampus on Campus instead of Elf on a Shelf in December), a notebook with a glittery Cthulhu (just a friendly little Lovecraftian Edlrich horror abomination) who looks like swallowing the world is part of his drag performance, an incredible drawing of David Bowie as the goblin king from my favorite 80s cult classic film Labyrinth, several books gifted by friends who know the way I think and the types of thoughts I need to consume to stay well, a pirate mug, postcards from writers I love, and a rainbow patch of the Babadook (who has become somewhat of a queer icon, and as my friend said to me, “I’m Baba-shook!”). I like the thought of writing while surrounded by the things people gave me to support that habit. I think it’s important to turn toward those who do, and away from those who don’t.

Honorable mention goes to the desk itself. If you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not a desk- it’s a cheap folding table that is made of particleboard covered in a sticker of wood finishing that is peeling off. I found it leaning against a dumpster when I was a grad student. Someone had thrown it away because the legs fold weird and threaten to severely bruise your fingers if you don’t watch them.

I get asked a lot why I don’t just buy a real desk. I have a decent job. I could. But… I don’t know. I’ve written some amazing things at this table. It would feel disloyal, to just abandon it after it gave me several years of an amazing writing space.  Because… you have to honor those things that help you in some way. A writer’s space isn’t just a space, it’s a carefully (or uncarefully) curated area for your fledgling ideas, for your hopes, and for your dreams that you dare put on paper and send out into the world. I’ve cried at that desk, and I’ve cursed at that desk. I’ve eaten spicy crunchwraps at that desk. I’ve slumped over it, half asleep. And yet, when I look back over my body of work, academic, technical, non-fiction, fiction, both published and not, I’m really happy with it.

And I want to create so much more.

 

The Smart Woman’s Summer, Part 4: The Siren Song of Summer

by Lynn Clement


As with the season itself, my summer themed blog post has gone through a lot of edits.  Most recently it devolved into one sentence that started with the letter “A” followed by countless “H”s: a primal scream to express the despair induced by the summer of 2018.  Like my colleagues, I had begun the summer with high hopes to do what was important, professionally and politically, because summer is an occasion to carve out time for the work that gets neglected during the year.

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Detail of South Wall, Detroit Industry, by Diego Rivera, 1933, fresco, photo taken by author at the Detroit Institutes of the Arts

I tried. I really did.  I had a manageable, organized schedule of all the significant (and some insignificant) things I was going to accomplish.  I was going to update all my syllabi early and set up all my courses’ online components in May. I was going to do the bulk of my research for lecture improvements and attend important protests in June.  I was going to teach two summer classes in July.  I was going to do independent research in August.  I was going to arrive at the fall semester feeling prepared, having had a fulfilling and productive summer.

I’m going to say something that may shock those who work in fields that do not “observe” summer break, and it may even seem controversial for those who do:  I dislike summer vacation.  I equate summers to holidays like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and ones 21st birthday.  Expectations are too high, you never end up doing what you really wanted, and most of the time it ends with you sweaty, stressed, and either too drunk or not nearly drunk enough.

I know I’m not alone when I say that my summer did not turn out how I had planned. Syllabi remain unfinished, I have yet to read a book in its entirety, another adjunct was kind enough to take my classes, and August is shaping up to be a real shit-show.  Despite the stress to come, I am glad I made this decision. Time with my family has been invaluable.  Most of my summer days thus far have been filled with a different kind of valuable work: trying to keep my daughter busy and happy as I help my mother take care of my father.  I never thought I’d be dealing with a dying parent at this point in my life, but here I am, living in my hometown, something I haven’t done since I was 18.  Although there have been picnics, crafts, sprinklers, and quality time with loved ones, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that the weight of those unfilled expectations is staggering.  The thought of extending and postponing my to-do list until next summer is crushing.

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The Blue Gown, by Frederick Carl Frieseke, 1917, oil on canvas, photo of original taken by author at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Being forced to slow my life to a screeching halt has been an incredibly tough adjustment, but it has given me some clarity and a new plan for summers to come.  I’m giving up the summer to-do list, possibly forever.

I do so with a happy heart, to honor my father because it’s time for me to find a better work-life balance in all seasons. Most of my memories of my dad revolve around labor, projects, and things that needed doing.  Running a successful family owned and operated heating and cooling business in a small town meant working hard…always.  Despite his large circle of friends, countless creative hobbies, and an aggravatingly optimistic personality he spent most of his life elbow deep in work.  It wasn’t until he was forced to retire due to the cancer that he was able to enjoy his “summer” and even then he spent much of his time on building projects.  I wish reconnecting with friends, traveling, and playing in a band had not been left to, what would become, the last years of his life.  I’ve inherited his work ethic and I’ve realized that I don’t want to sing karaoke as a pot-bellied 60 year old.  I want to do it now, as a pot-bellied 40 year old.

Like most everyone, I still have to deal with normal life constraints, but this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give up on the idea that at some magical point in my year, or life, the stars will align and I will have the opportunity to get everything done.  The promise of summer often allows me to put off until tomorrow what should be today, and this is my trouble.  I have to strive to make time for what is important at all times, so that life may be fuller, rather than just busier. This will be more easily said (typed) than done, I know, but I can try.  I’m throwing the summer to-do list out and instead, each month I plan to do at least one thing I’d normally save for summer. It could be as small as finally reading that book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a decade, or big, like finally taking that research trip to Paris.

All the things on my list cannot not, and should not, wait until a literal or metaphorical summer.  Lectures will be re-written, research will be done, articles will submitted, Python and SQL will be learned, cabins will be rented with friends, parties will be planned, canvases will be painted.  It will all be done, but not if it is relegated to side projects to be executed during vacations and holiday breaks.

I look forward to the experiment of interspersing the year with greater flexibility for all important activities and opportunities.  If you don’t mind indulging me, I’ll tell you sporadically of the successes and failures in future posts.

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Grasslands, painted by the author, July 2018, acrylic

 

The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 3

Last year, I spent the summer months finishing my dissertation. I was a sleepless madwoman, constantly tapping away at the computer and pacing my apartment with primary and secondary texts in-hand. After a hard-earned successful defense and a year of intense job-marketing, I thought I would give myself a bit of a break in 2018. A few weeks ago I made a healthy, feasible list of not just academic but also personal goals, which included submitting a couple articles for publication, starting to learn a new language, spending more time in the kitchen, and traveling. And so, after the semester ended in May, I submitted an article manuscript for publication: “Queering Sexual Difference: The Evolution of the Cixousian Medusa.” (It has been sent to the readers!)

And then…I went on a two-and-a-half week trip to Paris and Aix-en-Provence, France with my partner. We met up with old friends, visited beaches on the Riviera, and ate the best cheeses the regions had to offer. I love travel because it lets me recalibrate priorities and brainstorm about academic and non-academic projects. But even more, I adore allowing myself to spend hours at restaurants, markets, and bakeries; undoubtedly, food is always a major focus of my travel. Which got me thinking. Because I am so intrigued by gastronomy, French and otherwise, I decided that I might incorporate that love into my academic work. This led to my next summer writing project.  Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 3”

The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 2

I loved reading about Angela’s summer-so-far and her summer plans. My summer-so-far hasn’t been as exciting in some ways (yet crazy in others), but it’s about to get there. For me, summer is a time to stop teaching, reflect on the teaching year I just had, prep for the next one, read a ton of books, and ideally, travel. In the seven years I’ve been in my job, I’ve only taught summer courses two or three times, and I think I’ve traveled every year except the summer of 2013 when I was on maternity leave.

That summer was also the only time I did zero work. In the years since, I’ve found that summer is a great time to put my creative energies into planning for the fall: my ideal the past couple of years has been to work in June and relax in July. I planned the same for this year. This is what the Summer of 2018 was supposed to look like:

  1. Take Kiddo to summer camp every day
  2. Use the camp hours (in June) to…
    1. Do a brief side-gig
    2. finish prepping logistics (assessments, standards, etc) for a new unit in a new course
    3. Prep lessons for the fall
    4. Clean my house, read books, write, etc., etc.
  3. Travel to England for a one-week seminar and a few days of extra sight-seeing (namely at the Imperial War Museum, for teaching purposes).

But best-laid plans and all that. About two weeks ago, the plan began unraveling. It’s not bad – it’s just different.

Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 2”

The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1

Summer is in full swing and the Smart Women want to talk about what each of their summers looks like.

Mine?

I’ve already had a full summer’s worth of life crammed into my summer so far, but why not live in the fast lane?

I just got back from Barbados, where I presented on the Caribbean holdings of the Slave Societies Digital Archive at the Association of Caribbean Historians’ annual meeting. Let me tell you, this group of scholars is amazing. About half come from institutions in the Caribbean itself, and the rest from everywhere else. They do simultaneous translation so that people who don’t speak English, Spanish, and French can hear the latest scholarship of the full region and ask questions of people a language barrier would prevent them from asking. And they are the only scholarly organization that I know of, that has a end-of-conference fete written directly into the constitution. Our right to party is constitutional! And what a fete. You haven’t lived until you’ve been part of a group of scholars who can both bachata and whine. Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1”

Tools for Resistance: The Importance of Art, Research, and Writing

by Lynn Clement


Although I’ve always tried to take an activist’s approach to art history and fought against the notion that it is inconsequential, there have been times that I have succumbed to the denigrations of my profession.  In the wake of the 2016 election, with attacks on immigrants, refugees, the LBGT community, the rise of violence against people of color, and the return of the white supremacist public voice (to name a nauseating few), my job felt particularly frivolous.  I am lucky to have a circle of friends who are avid do-gooders.  Through their chosen careers they fight for voting rights, for reproductive rights, for clean energy and natural resources, and for fair banking practices (to name a brilliant few).  Being surrounded by such people gives me an enormous sense of pride, and an enormous inferiority complex. What could I do to make a difference?

Rose Valland

In the wake of this election I have read more than ever before because when I am in doubt, I do research. I turned to articles and books to guide me to an answer, to guide me out of inaction and uncertainty.  I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I read This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century by Mark and Paul Engler.  I read Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hoschchild.  I read Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis.  I read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  I read So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo.  Most recently, I read Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens.  While each of these books have been immensely important and helpful, it is the last in my list that I would like to expound on because of its resonance for those of us who might feel they are ill equipped to be part of the movement against the growing tide of injustice.

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Beth Pickens’ book is an open letter to those working in the fine arts, but her advice could be used for anyone. The passage that will likely reverberate wider than what the author may have originally intended reads:

“The lesson I took away—and that I access during every natural and human-centered crisis—is that I can start exactly where I am, with what I have, to work toward justice and be of service to someone more vulnerable than I am.  I don’t have to wait.  I don’t need to become somebody else or wish for difference skills.”  (Pickens, 28)

This is the passage from the book that most inspired me.  What are my skills?  What is my passion?  What is my creative outlet?  What do I hope will impact others on a micro or macro level?  For me, it is my research and my teaching.  I had my answer; this is what I could do.

I could find ways to expand the discourse and challenge the status quo. I could strive to think even more critically about what I see and read, and I could teach students to do the same.  I have long been in the process of rewriting my lectures to be inclusive of voices of those that had been marginalized throughout history; I could double, triple my efforts.  I could create more assignments that challenge long time ascertains about art, art making, and art seeing. I could give to my student food bank and reach out to students in a greater way. Many would now be dealing with less assistance and would be dealing with family members (or their own) threats of deportation.  I could also support writers and scholars working to improve the inclusiveness of my, and related, fields.  This is how I could channel my fear and anger.  “Anger is real and necessary, and it can be transformed into fuel.” (Pickens, 37)

“When our culture becomes oppressive and moves toward upholding the white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy, we need creative, public forms of dissent to inspire, counter fatigue, rally, instigate, and inform.” (Pickens, 104)

Art is often in service to those in power, however, art has always had a purpose beyond that.  “I read about artists making work during war, in times of violence, and despite systemic neglect.” (Pickens, 10)  Art has power and it can give voice to the powerless.  I think this is one of the reasons that art is viewed as dangerous.  It can easily be used to tear down the false narratives that our nation was built on.  I could address those false narratives in my approach to history and how it has been recorded in visual forms.

“Your art will help you navigate the world, and it will light the way for others.” (Pickens, 9)

As I look to those working in the fine arts to light my way, I can say the same for fellow scholars working in the humanities.  Again, to make this change I’m doing my research and finding likeminded teachers, scholars, and historians.  They are making a difference and they are helping me to strive for the same.  A tumblr page entitled People of Color in European Art History provides outstanding resources for addressing race in the visual arts. LaTanya S. Autry has created an invaluable resource regarding museums and social justice. Smarthistory.org has amazing resources on myriad art historical subjects, but their Seeing America theme is particularly helpful in addressing notions of a more inclusive National Identity in the visual arts.  Angela Sutton and her colleagues at the Vanderbilt Center for Digital Humanities working on the Slave Societies Digital Archive have inspired me to address hard histories in my classroom despite the risk.  Pickens’ book offered additional people of action like Marcia Chatelain who created the #Fergusonsyllabus, a resource for educators teaching “every age group in every discipline, to share resources for bringing racism, policing, urban history, civil rights, and black history into each of their classrooms…” (27)

I still feel inadequate and ineffectual most of the time, but the more I read, the more I learn, the more I see others in my field resisting, the more I feel better equipped to help.  “We have a vision for the world we want to live in, and we have the tools for resistance.” (Pickins, 25)

On the Virtues of (Feminist) Mentorship in Academia

While I was sitting out on my friend’s back porch the other day, I knew I had struck gold. The two of us were deep in conversation about my recent campus visit when I started to realize that I was being adopted as a mentee. While I gave a play-by-play account of the meetings, presentations, and dinners with potential colleagues, she listened attentively,  offered praise, and rolled her eyes at all the right moments. This person is not just a friend, but a new colleague who has, on her own account, put time and effort into my professional development over the past year.

In a way, this person and I arrived at the department at the same time. In August 2017, I transitioned from graduate student to temporary faculty member and she arrived as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in French. As a newcomer, she granted me the collegial respect that – I imagine – is harder for former professors and committee members to accord. 

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Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

As a short-term Lecturer, the department did not arrange any type of mentorship for me. I assume this is due to the transience of my position and the expectation that my thesis advisor would continue to work closely with me. The latter proved true, in part. When I have questions about interviews, campus visits, and publishing, I text or email my advisor, who is happy to respond with careful counsel. However, knowing that she has two other advisees and a rigorous research agenda of her own, I understand that she might not want me begging her to give feedback on my writing or to offer me life & job advice at every turn. 

And so, early in this grad student-to-faculty member transition, my introversion had me turning inward and online. But – blessed be the extroverts – there was one person who I couldn’t keep out of my office. I quickly accepted this as a stroke of good fortune, because this colleague was kind, funny, and smart. She was also someone who I respected because of the sincere, candid way in which she interacted with everyone in the department, regardless of their rank. What’s more, this person had fascinating research and her lack of a filter exposed me to behavioral issues and professional ladders in academia which my freshly-minted-PhD self had not yet fully experienced.  Continue reading “On the Virtues of (Feminist) Mentorship in Academia”