A Career Shift, A New Project

I recently read an article on taking time to mourn during career transitions. When your identity is so deeply tied to work and to the relationships that have been fostered at your workplace, leaving can be hard.

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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.

My official title is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Fisk University. This is a welcome and exciting change. I am thrilled to learn from new people at a new place and to use my training to enrich the intellectual life of campus.

Fisk is a fascinating place. A historically black university founded in 1866, this campus has an extensive list of legendary graduates (including W.E.B. DuBois, Nikki Giovanni, Ida B. Wells, Nella Larsen) and visitors (like former President of Haiti Paul Magloire, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes). Fisk faculty and students also played a major role in the civil rights movement in Nashville in the 1950s and 60s and throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. It was at Fisk that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

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I am learning a lot about this community and how to find my place in it. The postdoc is part of a bigger initiative to strengthen humanities education at regional partner institutions. As part of the fellowship, I’ll teach two courses a year and develop a new project in the digital or public humanities (I also have the privilege of using a large chunk of my time to work on my personal research).

As a new person at a campus that has just started classes, developing a project can be difficult. My original idea was to initiate an international film series, invite speakers that contribute to the university mission to foster global perspectives, and help grow the Gender Studies program. But a good team player starts a conversation to see where the need exists — they don’t fling open the door and announce their initiatives.

So far, here is how things have gone down:

  1. The Dean of my respective school appointed a contact person who would help coordinate my work at Fisk.
  2. This contact person scheduled a meeting with the faculty director of Gender Studies, the Special Collections librarian, and the Dean of the Library to talk with me about the perimeters of the postdoc and how my skills meet their institutional needs.
  3. We held the meeting and decided that my experience in Digital Humanities was most valuable to them. They expressed a desire to establish scholarly communications through the digital display of materials from the library’s Special Collections.

What have I learned about this process thus far? Things will not be exactly as you had planned. And that’s a good thing.

So, in lieu of my initial plan, the real need seemed to exist in spotlighting the special collections and archives at Fisk. The Special Collections librarian and Dean of the Library (who happens to be the first African American to get a PhD in library science from the University of Illinois) had many ideas for presenting the library’s treasures that relate to Fisk’s history and African American literature, history, and culture. There were a lot of options on the table, and this was both stimulating and overwhelming. After this meeting, I left wondering how in the world I was going to tackle all the potential branches of this project: digital story maps, podcasts, multimedia website, blog posts, taking the archives into the classroom… the oral histories, Charles S. Johnson’s presidential papers, the Rosenwald collection, the women of the Harlem Renaissance, the women of Langston Hughes’ life, preserving the photos of Fisk’s history, the international connections at Fisk, etc, etc. I immediately ran to consult a colleague and friend to seek advice for how to move forward. The advice? Look at the collections, meet with another Special Collections librarian, create a physical and/or digital exhibit, and do something that you can wrap up by December.

Based on her sound and therapeutic advice, here are the steps that I am charting out as I begin to approach this project:

  1. Brainstorm ideas and ask questions. Find out what resources are available and the particular needs of that institution, all while considering your own research and professional goals. Is there a way to link their goals with yours? This is ideal. Can you connect your project to a course that you will teach there? Can you write an article based on the materials in their archives?
  2. Dig into the archives. To know the platform that you ultimately want to use for the project, you must first have the data. Use the library’s finding aids, read descriptions of Special Collections’ materials online, and look at physical objects and texts to determine the focus of your project. And allow some time for the project to take shape. 
  3. Consult the specialists. But even more important is regular consultation with the librarians. They possess formidable knowledge of their own collections and they know the gems of their archives. Set up several brief meetings to discuss materials and directions for the project — otherwise, you risk missing something important.
  4. Consult other librarians and digital humanists. Let the project breathe. Talk with other librarians and specialists who have worked with digital exhibits of archival items to get ideas.  
  5. Create a game plan and set goals. Once the project begins to take form, create a project timeline. To make sure you come up with a deliverable, set up dates by which you want to complete certain branches of the project. I plan to schedule meetings with faculty and staff who are invested in the project so I can seek advice and give updates — and be held accountable!
  6. Spend your time wisely. Consider the perimeters of your position. If you have to commit 50% of your time to research and 50% teaching and service, then around 25% of that time should go to developing the project. It’s easy to get caught up on perfecting the project, but important not to forget about other obligations.    

The last one is more of a principle than a step. I am excited to get my hands on totally new materials, and know that I could give a lot of my time to this project if I let myself. Given my own timeline, my current goal is to create a multimedia website that spotlights pieces of the collection that (sometimes) intersect with my specialization in gender studies and French studies. The pieces in the collection that the library would most like to share are:

  • Original applications for the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship Program, which fostered the successful careers of numerous African American scholars and artists
  • Initiatives of Charles S. Johnson to bring international dignitaries and artists to campus 
  • Photographs from Fisk’s history

I am also particularly interested in:

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The open door of my library office.

I am imagining that the website will have four layers that will attempt to satisfy all parties’ interests: (1) Rosenwald Fellowships, (2) International Celebrity, (3) Women of the Archive, (4) Fisk History (with a subsection on “Women at Fisk”). (1) and (2) may fuse; it all depends on how the project evolves. The project’s platform is still to be decided, but I am considering WordPress, Scalar, and Omeka. My next steps are to continue consulting the collections, have a follow-up meeting with the librarians at Fisk, and then, hopefully, schedule another meeting with librarians at Vanderbilt. Then, I need to decide which parts can get done by December, and which might get done later in my 2-year tenure. Though it puts me in a liminal space, I am thankful for the joint position between Fisk and Vanderbilt because it allows me to use resources at both institutions, without which this project would not be possible (or would be much harder).

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is the need to work — and the privilege of working — with a team to complete a project like this. Having worked on my own research for so long has gotten me out of the routine of collaborating with others. Though this is primarily “my” project, I am relying on librarians, colleagues, and — potentially, in the future — students to brainstorm and to push this project forward. Usually, being unsure about the precise direction of a project is stressful and dysphoric for me. But this time, these emotions are counterbalanced by the exciting opportunity to work in digital humanities and public history and to create a new team of intellectual partners. So, no mourning here — only curiosity and enthusiasm for the road ahead.

3 thoughts on “A Career Shift, A New Project

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