Goodreads: Finding Writing Inspiration Through a Monumental Year of Reading

by Lynn Clement


Aging and birthdays are usually not a big deal to me which, now that I really think about it, likely stems from childhood.  Having a summer birthday meant I missed bringing treats to school and birthday parties were useless when everyone was out of town.  Thus, I’ve long been accustomed to marking my journeys around the sun with minimal celebration even at major milestones.  This was the same with turning 40, which I did in August.  While my lovely friends made sure I celebrated properly later, I spent that actual day taking a 7 hour road trip from an indoor water-park hell-scape to home.  The day itself may have felt lackluster, but the anticipation of this monumental number did inspire me to make some challenges for myself months prior.  On New Year’s Day I was making plans for my 40th year. I had planned to run my 6th marathon and a total of 2019 miles in the year, had planned to take a big trip, for fun and for research, and I had planned to read 40 books.  While life shenanigans interfered with the first few, I am happy to announce that I am on schedule to celebrate my 40th year with 40, completed and contemplated, books.

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I am also happy to announce that most of the books I’ve read this year (currently working on numbers 33 and 34) have been wonderful.  I decided to be choosey about the titles so I would not get derailed from my goal, which can often happen since I am stubborn and hate to give up on any book, no matter how terrible.  In addition, even though cancer treatment made exercise and travel almost impossible, it did afford me some uninterrupted time for reading.  The hours spent in cars, waiting rooms, infusion chairs, on radiation tables were given to memoirs, biographies, historical fictions, historical non-fictions, true crime, poetry, etc., etc., etc.   They provided much needed escape, and I must take a moment here, dear reader, to assure you that I didn’t just choose short stories to help reach my goal.  In fact, one of the more enjoyable of the books was The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, a 771 page journey detailing lost lives, lost art, and lost souls.  The story centers around a lost painting and equally lost young man, and although it was not without its faults, it was worth the effort.

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The Goldfinch was recommended to me by many because of its connection to art history. I usually shy away from these types of books because of my background, but I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. I have to admit that it was fun to think about art in a new way.  Contrary to my expectations, the visual details of the painting and its history amounted to only about 2 pages of the more than 700.  The Goldfinch (aka Het Puttertje) is an actual painting Donna Tart saw during a visit to the Mauritshuis museum at the heart of the Hague. Measuring little bigger than a sheet of paper, and depicting an even smaller, chained, pet bird by the little known artist Carel Fabrutus, the reader might initially question the value of a work such as this, especially when it enters the narrative amidst Vermeers, Hals, Rembrandts, and other master works of the Dutch Golden Age.  However, our understanding of the value of this work is established on a personal level as it anchors itself to times, places, and people that mean so much to the main character.

This led me to thinking about the possibly for fictional tales centered on factual events and objects. History and its imagery is filled with a wealth of possibility for invented stories and a basic Google search on making the transition from non-fiction to fiction brings up a wealth of sites with advice and success stories.  Would it be worthwhile to approach my own research topics similarly and could these histories be told in new ways? Or, perhaps more importantly, should they? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but the thought of this type of experimentation with research and writing excites me.

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I have been dealing with a bit of a writing dry spell, particularly in regard to my academic research.  However, the possibility of using what I’ve learned to create a new, imagined story provides the kind of inspiration I’ve been needing.  Writing community, I would love to hear if you’ve tried something similar!  Please comment or tweet your advice, tips, or experiences!  My own updates to come…

 

Working with Students on DH Projects

I have recently recruited 6 students to work on a digital archival exhibit at my university. In this post, I’m going to share how the team grew to that size, how the students and I decided what their role would be on the project, and offer some general advice on student collaboration on DH projects.

“Women of Rosenwald: Curating Social Justice 1928-1948” started as a result of my postdoctoral fellowship at Fisk University. I began researching the project in Fall 2018 based on the suggestions of the Special Collections librarian and the Dean of the John Hope And Aurelia E. Franklin Library at Fisk. The exhibit focuses on the narratives of ten African-American female Rosenwald Fellows who broke professional barriers and gave back to their communities in the fields of music, fashion, literature, sculpture, painting, and dance. (You can read more about the project in the document below.)

Working independently on the first part of this project was a necessary step. I needed the time to decide on the format (an exhibit), platform (Omeka), and organization before making the move to train students in archival research and digital curation. By the time the Spring 2019 semester arrived, I felt confident enough to start inviting student collaborators.

The first two students joined the project somewhat organically. I was lucky enough to have a couple of staff and faculty members who were excited enough about the project to share it with students. One student caught wind of the Rosenwald exhibit and became interested enough to co-curate one of the 10 sub-exhibits with me. After working through a portion of the exhibit together, she is now spearheading a section of her own based on her research interests in the overlaps of song and poetry in the Black Power movement in the US. Another student joined after I heard her impressive work on a student research panel of which I was the judge (Fisk holds an annual research symposium). As a panelist, she presented her work on the history of HBCUs with a focus on the era that encompassed the dates of the Rosenwald project. I spoke with her about the project after the panel and she expressed interest in joining the exhibit team. Now, she is researching the relationship between the Julius Rosenwald Fund and Dr. Charles S. Johnson, the first African-American president of Fisk University, as her Honors project at Fisk. Her work will feature as a page of the final website that explores the history between Fisk University and the Rosenwald Fund. Continue reading “Working with Students on DH Projects”

To Do it Better: Teaching the History of Slavery

Courtesy Library of Congress

Note: I’m taking a brief break from my recent series on the women’s history course I’m teaching. I’ll provide a final update on the course next time I write here, but today I want to talk about teaching something else: the history of slavery in the United States.

Do you remember when and how you first learned about slavery? I don’t. I wish I could say I remember, but I have no memory of when I first read descriptions of slavery and enslavement, nor how I felt about it. I suspect this is not uncommon for white people like myself who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement seemed to end, and as school bussing began declining in the late 1980s and 1990s. There was also the matter of geography: my parents knew few black people, having grown up in Southern California (dad) and Northern Iowa (mom), and until I was 15, we lived in places that tended to be majority white or Latinx.

I can count on one hand the number of African American people I knew before I started college, including a friend when I was six or seven, and a youth minister when I was 15. Even my reading was pretty whitewashed: I know I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and its sequels, but I have more vivid memories of Nancy Drew books and my obsession with British books (Secret Garden, A Little Princess…). I didn’t encounter A Raisin in the Sun until college. Probably the only thing I can tell you for sure is that I did somehow learn that slavery caused the Civil War, although I spent more time visiting battlefields than reading about the causes of the war. I know my historical knowledge expanded in undergrad, where I first encountered the concepts of analyzing race, gender, and class, and certainly graduate school deepened my knowledge and understanding much further.

Last year, I returned to teaching US History after several years of teaching only world history. Coming back to my specialty area was exciting, but also thought-provoking, as I worked to develop a new honors-level US history course that would spin off of AP US History (the class prepares students for that exam, while not being specifically an AP class). Over and over again, I found myself disappointed in how poorly I was teaching my students about the history of slavery. I could blame the AP curriculum, on the one hand, because there was so much to go through that it didn’t seem like it could be helped on the one hand, but on the other hand – that’s not the right place to direct the blame. As a result of this, I started a personal effort to better understand and teach the history of slavery to my students. It began with a lot of reading, beyond what I’d studied in grad school, to look more deeply at what I thought I knew, and how I’ve approached that in the classroom.

Continue reading “To Do it Better: Teaching the History of Slavery”

Does your Digital Humanities Project Have a Mission?

Most of you know that among many of the hats I wear, one of my favorites is director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, a digital humanities archive of oral histories from the descendants of the enslaved and free blacks who built and defended Nashville’s Civil War Fort Negley. My team of three films the interviews, researches their testimony to find additional resources, edits the footage, uploads it, creates content, and maintains/updates the website which gives you more information about the interviews, as well as information pertaining to the UNESCO Slave Route site of Fort Negley, and its unique role in shaping our nation’s history. We also occasionally put on events and screenings of the videos for the public.

It’s a ton of work, and I love doing this, and feel grateful to be able to do it alongside my job as postdoctoral fellow for Vanderbilt’s school of Arts & Sciences. It’s been humbling to be trusted with people’s family histories, and to hear their pain, share their triumphs, and help amplify their voices in a city whose demographics are rapidly shifting as gentrification pushes black people to its peripheries.

Analyzing the stakes others have in this project has been useful for keeping our team on track and developing its mission. For us, it is has always been most important to collect the histories of people who have gone digging for their own and are ready to share their findings with the world. We want to film and edit these videos in the highest quality, and offer the videos alongside supporting primary sources, secondary reading, and family histories. We want to create lesson plans that expand upon the important historical themes touched on in the videos. We want to preserve all this information, and keep it available for free to everyone.

Often our goals dovetail with the goals and stakes of others. For example, Fort Negley and the Friends of Fort Negley benefit from the project giving human faces and voices to a physical site. Vanderbilt University benefits from increased visibility and interaction with the wider community through my team and I. Some people have politically benefited from descendant voices being amplified in local politics, while others may have had their plans and aspirations thwarted by this same amplification.

To each of them, I would say the same thing: We are here to record, disseminate, and amplify the voices of a group of under-documented and under-heard people whose incredibly rich family histories have shaped our nation. Who do we work for? We work for history and its preservation. We work for a future in which everyone is equally heard, and in which everyone’s history holds equal value to this nation.

Nothing more, and nothing less.

How would you articulate the mission of your Digital Humanities project?

Finding the Possible Value of TV in the Classroom

by Lynn Clement


In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, self-care has been an important part of my cancer treatment.  Self-care can be difficult for many of us, despite how important it is, because of the expectation that we stay busy on productive, worthwhile activities.  Thus, for me, self-care often means exercise and reading-both useful and relaxing.  However, another soothing activity is watching television…way too much television.  Needless to say, I am at odds with this habit.  With access to Netflix, Hulu, AmazonPrime, HBO-GO, etc. it’s rare that I can’t find something to distract and entertain at any given moment.  However, while in graduate school a beloved professor/mentor likened watching television during the day to drinking before 5pm.  As someone who does most of their work at home, this slightly nagging inner voice prevented me from diversions that would have interfered with work.

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However, does watching tv and doing something valuable have to be mutually exclusive?  After a particularly difficult day of doctor appointments, and after having already binged the new episodes of “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, I happened upon a show entitled “Fake or Fortune”.   “Fake or Fortune” is a BBC program hosted by journalist, Fiona Bruce and art dealer, Philip Mould.  The two come together, along with various researching side-kicks, to investigate the style, material, and provenance of art works in order to determine their authenticity.  From the start I was hooked, not only because I’m an art historian but also because the art mysteries were hugely entertaining.  However, the more I watched, the more I saw the value in the series also as a teaching tool.

Bruce and Mould, along with historians, curators, art historians, scientists, gallery owners, cultural institutions, and librarians, show the lengthy and laborious process of research.  What a gift this could be to students who struggle with exactly that.  The hosts, and hosts of scholars who help them along, rely on interviews with collectors, connoisseurs, and curators.  They dig through insurance inventories, gallery archives, and sales receipts.  They travel to local libraries, foreign countries, and scientific labs to find clues in the unlikeliest of places.  Perhaps most important in its accessibility to the viewer is the way they present research as a fun, and important, investigation.

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Again, the more episodes I watched, the more I saw how I could use this in the classroom and how it could help my students in their approach to historical research. Although I have passed shied away from the use of videos in the classroom, and certainly pop culture programs such as this one,  I plan to show my students an episode in the next few weeks.  I’ll have to leave this post on a bit of a cliff-hanger (the value is currently in its theory stage), but my theory is that viewing research through this new lens will help them in their own projects.  At the least, they will get a fuller sense of what goes into the research process; it’s just not lonely hours in a library with mountains of monographs.  Research is also talking to people, reading journals, watching documentaries, looking at photographs, collaborating people in and outside your field, and confronting preconceived notions and hopes.

I’ve been taking a break from my own personal research projects during treatment, but watching tv has me getting excited about them again.  Wait…did I just tun my only self-care guilty pleasure into work?  Oh well.

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Ananda Devi’s Painful, Poetic Prose

Good books are the ones you can’t get off your mind.

You continue to think about them, mull over the plot lines and character development, try to discern the ending’s “meaning”––especially when the novel is a “tough read,” one that takes you out of your comfort zone and causes you to see people and places in a new light.

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I just finished Ananda Devi’s Ève de ses décombres (Gallimard, 2006), and it is what I classify as a “good book.” When I fell asleep, and the moment I woke up, the novel was on my mind. And luckily for you, it’s available in English as Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum, 2016). (J. M. G. Le Clézio, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote the forward to the novel’s English translation; I haven’t read it yet, but I’m dying to.)

Ananda Devi is both a scholar and novelist. Born in Trois-Boutiques, Mauritius, she earned a doctorate in social anthropology from the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. After spending time in Congo-Brazzaville, she moved to Switzerland. Devi has published more than a dozen novels and also writes poetry and short stories. She writes in French, but incorporates Mauritian Creole into her texts; much of her work is set in the island of Mauritius, which is located off the eastern coast of Africa. The French government named Devi a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2010. In 2006, the author won the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie for Ève de ses décombres

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For my academic work, I veer towards novels written in poetic prose. These are the texts that make me want to write and attempt to untangle various layers of meaning and discern the literary devices that create meaning. The novel’s polyvocality is one of the poetic aspects that drew me in. It is told through the voices of 4 young adults––Sad, Ève, Savita, and Clélio––who disturb the reader’s desire to make quick assumptions by following a singular narrative. The poetic style illustrates the characters’ exploration of the complex and difficult psychological development of youth. There is also a nameless narrator whose thoughts appear in italicized font, noting their non-physical existence in the text’s setting.

The characters live in the city of Troumaron, which might be a wordplay on the familiar word for “sewer” in French trou and the color “brown,” marron, a name that disrupts the stereotype of Mauritius as a tourist destination with sandy beaches and palm trees. The young people in this novel are at a grave disadvantage: they suffer from being a neglected group on a small island with few few role models and resources they need to succeed. The only teacher we meet in the novel is ineffective (an extreme understatement) and their parents are worn down by economic struggles and harmful gender dynamics. The text’s violence is certainly tied to Mauritius’ postcolonial history,  which I do not fully understand but am interested in knowing more about. In the novel, the volcano that created the island becomes a metaphor for the violence in their own lives. While Savita feels herself being swallowed by the disaster

“My feet are sinking in lava. Soon I won’t be able to move anymore. The volcano will tear me to pieces.” (73)

Sad feels he might have the chance to escape it

“I don’t want to be one of those waking up the volcano. This island was born from a volcano. One eruption is enough.” (126)

Other scholars have written on the inexpressibility of pain, such as that which is experienced by the characters, particularly the young women, in Ève de ses décombres. I’ve also been thinking about how poetic language serves as a possible, and perhaps ethical, way to narrate stories of extreme violence and trauma, which we might call correlates of “pain.” Devi’s poetic language imbues the fear, confusion, and identity disruption that often results from these situations.

Ève de ses décombres, (like Devi’s other novels) also caught my attention because of its subject matter. The novel closely examines the “construction and confinement of femininity” through the main character, Ève, who struggles with disembodiment. Ève uses her body as a source of power to get what she wants. And yet these endless sexual encounters in exchange for material objects comes with a price as she slowly loses her sense of self. Because of the themes it tackles, Devi claims that this story extends outside the borders of Mauritius: 

“I am not only talking about Mauritius in my books, I am talking about human beings who happen to live in Mauritius and who could be from anywhere in the world. This is particularly so for Ève, whose four young people could be from anywhere — a Parisian suburb or a South American city.” (Devi cited in a LARB interview with the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman)

I have a feeling that my relationship with Devi’s texts will be a long one. Her 2018 novel Manger l’autre (Eating the Other) is now on my bedside table, and I’m already wondering how it will figure into my next book project on consumption. 

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(Re)Designing Women

Part 3 in an ongoing series about Tanya’s fall elective on American women’s history. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

It’s September, which must mean that my course is ACTUALLY under way. Yippee!

We started the school year two weeks ago, and as expected, it’s been a good – but intense – two weeks of getting to know my students, getting my first lesson plans out the door, and, unexpectedly, getting hit with a massive head cold (on the second day of school, no less).

When I last talked to you, I pulled the veil back on my initial course planning efforts for my one-trimester Intro to American Women’s History. But a month ago, I didn’t know how many students I’d end up with, or who they were, or what they would want to do.

I’ve now solved 2 of those three problems, and reader, it’s about get interesting.

Continue reading “(Re)Designing Women”