It’s been more than a decade, but I still remember how excited I felt at the prospect of being a teaching assistant (TA) in graduate school. As a first year, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to be TAs yet – for our first year, we were supposed to take classes, read, and write. Incredibly exciting, but teaching – teaching seemed like the place to be. When I finally got into the classroom in my second year, it was amazing and scary.
My sense from six years of graduate school in history is that many graduate programs don’t do a good job of training grad students to be teachers. That’s obviously a generalization, and to be fair, the Teaching Center at my school tried. They offered workshops and strategies for getting feedback on your teaching. The professors for whom I TA’d always worked hard to train us on discussion strategies, and once or twice I got to lecture. I learned a lot about how to grade, and I learned a lot from being in the classroom, but it’s really been the last seven years where I’ve found the range of resources and support to help me
become a better teacher each year.
Each year when classes start again, it’s always exciting to think about how I’ll approach a topic in a new way, or try out a new technique. My school holds a conference each June focused on teaching, and the sessions there have been incredible resources. I’ve managed to take some online classes that helped with content and teaching strategies over the years, I have access to a library with an excellent range of professional development materials, and on top of that, watching my colleagues at work and sharing ideas with them has helped me think about teaching in a plethora of new ways.
Teaching is all about finding the strategies that are effective for you and your students at any given point in time. For the past couple of years, I was focused on how to teach research to students; since last year, I’ve also thought a lot about how to help students engage with reading nonfiction effectively. This year, though, my primary goal is to expand engagement in the classroom, particularly in student discussion.
Smart Women & Co., I am so excited to tell you about my new position as Mellon Partner for Humanities Education Fellowship Postdoctoral research scholar at Vanderbilt University! That’s a mouthful, I know. But that’s because it’s an amazing program and opportunity that is allowing me to stretch in all the good ways I want to grow.
Essentially, one of the previous deans at Vanderbilt coordinated a grant to the Mellon Foundation to facilitate an educational exchange between our university and several liberal arts colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the area in order to strengthen the mutually beneficial ties between these campuses. Vanderbilt sends recent PhD graduates as postdoctoral fellows to these schools to provide teaching and support with digital projects, and to strengthen ties between faculty and facilitate research and teaching collaborations.
My job in all of this is to help fulfill grant management- ensuring Vanderbilt does all the things it has promised in the grant, stays within budget, and that our postdoctoral fellows (like our very own Raquelle at Fisk University, yay!) are supported in their work at these various institutions and have what they need to succeed. And I have lots of freedom and leeway with how I do this, which leaves room for creativity and troubleshooting and problem solving.
And I get to do all this while working on my own writing projects!
I do leave behind my position with the Slave Societies Digital Archive with a bit of fond sadness. It was an invaluable job that allowed me to learn so much about project management, grant writing and fulfillment, financial administration, event planning, and also flexed my digital skill sets. I liked how elastic the various tasks left my brain, and how much I learned on the job as the archive’s needs changed and I grew to meet them. Everything I learned there was a transferable skill that will serve me well in my new position. I anticipate remaining involved with the archive as I go on to digitize documents and add them to the ever-growing database, and am relieved that there are several graduate students and outside consultants who have been working alongside me and can keep the archive functional and grow it until a replacement can be hired.
I’m filled with gratitude and excitement about these next two years. In a world where fulfilling academic and academic-adjacent work is hard to come by, particularly when like me, you are choosy about where you live, these opportunities are few and far between. I’m excited for another two years to follow my passion, support institutions that make huge differences in this world, continue to expand my project management skill set, and pursue my own research goals. It’s a perfect fit. I look forward to having you all along on this new chapter of my journey!
Labor day weekend can be a mixed bag. While I never lament a Monday off, especially to honor workers past, present, and future, this weekend does herald the end of summer.
I am not particularly sorry to see the summer end this time, though the magnitude of this goodbye is striking. Summer was a struggle that culminated at the end of July with the death of my father. August was spent much like the previous months, with family, facing the harder facts of life.
With the start of my semester approaching quickly after, I anticipated spending more time on self-care than ever before. To cope, I’d been baking, running, and encircling myself with friends. Despite those invaluable supports, when thoughts and actions turned to work I became increasingly negative. Saying goodbye to summer, no matter how difficult it may have been, is tough and welcoming a September of “same-old, same-old” can hold equal elements of hope and frustration. I found myself struggling to swallow the stress of what did not get accomplished over break, marinating in disgruntled feelings of another year with little recognition or compensation, annoyance at expectations that syllabi would be available a week before I had even signed a contract meaning months of working for free, and immense pressure about what I wanted from the year ahead and how I would fulfill those goals.
These negative thoughts were fed by recent articles and online dialogue about the cost of higher education, a deluge of emails and articles about the realities of student life, and more importantly, student debt. I am not new to the subject. I put myself through undergrad and graduate school, but I’ve always had a support system. Even though I worried at the start of every school year that my financial aid wouldn’t come through quickly enough, I always knew that I’d be able to make it. I had to work every semester, and ate a lot of noodle packs of varying quality, but work was part time, it never took precedence over my studies, and I didn’t have to worry about feeding anyone else. Senior year I had to ask my parents for money to buy books because the financial aid did finally run out. I knew they went without in order to help me, but the support was there. Those loans still haunt me, but I still consider them an investment that improved my life and career.
They are dark days indeed when one realizes that it could have been worse and it has been important for me to acknowledge that my college experience is not the same for my students. At the start of every semester, I read about the escalating monetary struggle of students. In the middle of every semester, I have students who disappear when funds ran out. They have full time jobs, they have families to support, they have higher costs and less help.
So where did I go when feeling so full of malaise? Costco, because misery loves company. It was enough to make me want to actually eat the 5 gallon tub of guacamole I’d put into my cart.
However, the deeper I dug into the articles and twittershpere, the more I found others who had figured out ways to help, and finally I could make steps to do the same, things I should have been doing all along.
Higher education has been changing considerably but I had inadvertently held on to ancient rituals that can no longer be supported. So I filled my cart with groceries to donate to my college’s food pantry, a much needed program that was established last year. I have also vowed that every time I am compelled to shop at that God-forsaken place I will buy enough for them. I’ll be bringing paper and pens to class for students who cannot afford the materials necessary to take notes. Something I had never even considered in the past. I have made every assignment available to turn in online so students need not worry about the costs associated with printing, or stapling. Last semester I brought snacks and meals to my classes during finals week and will do so again. Textbooks have always been on reserve at the library, but I also changed my syllabus and study guide so students can utilize older, and thus, cheaper versions of the textbook. In addition, I will loan out old copies that I have to those who cannot afford any other option. It’s not much, and it’s not enough, but it’s what I can do. More importantly has been the advice I’ve read about changing my approach to students and their struggles in and out of the classroom.
I am from a blue collar working- class background teaching a subject associated with the elite. Art should not be kept out of reach and neither should text books, education, and basic needs. I need to amplify my voice and find new ways to facilitate learning with the current academic and economic challenges. It needs to be something I consider every year, particularly on Labor Day weekend.
That wasn’t the case for me. Though, I’m in a bit of a different situation. I am a recent PhD leaving my grad school department for a postdoc at another institution located in the same city. And to boot, I am still a Visiting Scholar in the department where I received the PhD. So, I’m not quite leaving, which puts me in the interesting position of existing between two institutions of higher ed.
Angela wrote a fantastic piece last week about finding your nonfiction writing voice. This week, I’m going to branch off from that a little to reflect on finding your teaching style, which I think has some connection – although certainly, teaching style varies by where you teach, what you teach, and who you teach.
Last week, I walked in the door for my eighth First Day of School at one of the places I love most in the world. Of course, Year 8 started long before then: it started a year ago, when my entire department began re-imagining our courses. It continued last spring as I teamed with a few colleagues to build our new 9th grade course and accelerated 10th grade course (aka honors). And of course, it certainly continued into the summer this year, as a full-on department redesign takes a good time commitment from all involved.
It’s been an exciting process, and this year, the redesign is where my creative energies have gone.
I’ve always been somewhat of a giant. Being the tallest kid in every class made me a bit shy, and so I retreated often into my head, where all of my favorite stories lived. In kindergarten, I loved going to the bushes at the edge of the playground during recess and collecting the ladybugs that lived there. I would let them crawl around on my hands with their tickly little legs as I gave them names and invented stories about their lives. Every now and then the other kids would ask if I wanted to swing, or play house, or do other things kids did, but I was obsessed with the ladybug game, so I thanked them and promised next time I would.
One day, a boy came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I knew him as kind of a mean boy, but he had never done anything to me, and truth be told, though I was shy, I had my meangirl moments so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I explained the ladybug game to him, catching him up on the latest drama in bugland.
“That’s really neat,” he said. “Can I hold one?”
None of the other kids had ever expressed interest in my game. Eager for a friend to share in the joys of my ladybugs, I held my hand to his and nudged Esmerelda onto his thumb as I explained her backstory. She was going to become the first ladybug in space.
He held her up to the sun and nodded, then looked into my eyes. His squinted as the right side of his mouth curled up into a smirk. He dropped the ladybug onto the ground, then stomped it while looking at me in glee.
Everything inside of me screeched with the injustice of it. He hadn’t just ruined my game, he had ended a life. It was unforgiveable.
I think maybe he expected me to cry. Or to run and tell the teacher. Instead, in one fluid movement, I shook the other ladybugs off of my hands, grabbed his hair, and threw him to the ground. Then I put my little pink sneaker on his throat and held it there until he started to cry and the teacher intervened.
Now, why am I sharing this story that paints five year old me in an incredibly unflattering and violent light?
Even though Virginia Woolf’s famous essay about the importance of creative space for women (both public and private) was published in 1929, it wasn’t until 2013, after the birth of my daughter, that I finally claimed a room of my own.
I lost myself a bit after becoming a mother and I struggled while my body, mind, and purpose felt as if they were no longer fully my own. Personal space suddenly became more important as I grappled with identity and nagging doubts about career and choices, in general. So I staked a claim in my home to help me retake my place in the world. This was also important for legitimizing my work, to others and myself. My contingent faculty career status had often been maligned, and this often made me question my place and worth. Both became stronger after I added “mother” to my list of jobs. “Maybe now you should focus on something more worthwhile?” “Maybe this could be a chance to switch careers?” “Are you even going back to work?” “When?” “How?” “Why?”
I did go back to work because I love what I do, and I didn’t switch jobs because I’m also good at it. However, I needed to find equilibrium between my career and my new role as caregiver. To do this I needed space. I found a tiny section of my already cramped home and tried to carve it into something. I ripped up carpet, scrubbed floors on hands and knees, stripped wall paper, patched walls with joint compound, painted newly sanded surfaces and trim, hauled books, dragged furniture, hung curtains, and remade the space as I tried to remake myself.
It’s not perfect, and it’s a bit chaotic, but it reflects me: who I have been, who I am despite the changes I have undergone, who I may become. My actual work space, a narrow desk with an obsolete X-Files mouse pad, is surrounded by objects that make me contented: books, art, notes, papers, mementos, trifles. Tomes on art, popular culture, programming, science, culture, politics, and religion are stacked below art made by my grandmother, my sister, my students, and my daughter. (The drawing by my daughter depicts me, fighting a dinosaur with a sword. Totally bad ass.) Mismatched bookcases and sills hold some of my most prized keepsakes. An antique typewriter found at a garage sale was given to me by my parents. They had high hopes that I would write my first book with it. I won’t, but it is a sign of the support I have from family and friends. A guitar built by my great-uncle from an old stump that was half rotting in the backyard of my childhood home serves as a reminder to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, and to make something beautiful and useful. My collection of running medals, all earned during road races of varying distances, reminds me to put in the work no matter how tedious.
Not everyone has the luxury of a room of their own and sometimes I still don’t. I began writing this post on one of those yellow legal pads because my daughter had commandeered both my desk and my laptop. In addition, my office now temporarily houses her new kitten and all his kitten accouterments. However, the process of making that space my own resulted in an important change of mindset about room and my need to make some for myself in the world. It’s okay to take up space.