Dear Job Searchers: Don’t Forget to Have Fun


I recently had coffee with a friend before going to see the Oscar-nominated animation short films. We went together last year and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to continue the tradition. I proposed grabbing a coffee before the viewing because I really wanted to hear about my friend’s job search, how she’d tailored her documents, and what kind of positions she was looking for. Lo and behold, she had no desire to talk about any of these things. We both grew quiet. I sat for a second, cappuccino in hand, and realized I didn’t have much else to say.

As a PhD who’s really good at narrowing in on (and obsessing over) one thing, I realized that I’d focused so intensely on my own job search that I wasn’t allowing myself to grow and be stimulated in other ways. I felt…boring.

I should pause and give myself a little bit of credit, though. I have been actively working toward the life/work balance (purposefully switched) that I set out to achieve at the beginning of the year. I made a goal to invest in personal time and wellness by planning an event or series of events for myself every month (for at least the first 5 months of 2020). In January, I began working out 4-5 times a week, bought a cycling studio membership, and scheduled professional portraits (okay, mix of professional and personal, but it was a fun session so it counts!). In February, I planned a weekend hiking trip, and in March I booked another silent retreat.

But after that conversation with my friend, I was left feeling like I need some sort of creative output. A hobby that didn’t involve words or skills related to my career path or intellectual identity. I started to remember how much I loved drawing as a kid and how rarely I return to this activity as an adult. What if I made that a bigger part of my life? I decided to sign up for a 4-series class at a small, women-owned business, which happens to be right around the corner from the coffee shop where I had my epiphany.

I just finished my first class and am already so glad that I signed up. One reason I enjoy drawing is because of its meditative quality. It invites me to be in the present moment. When I’m drawing, I’m focused on the object at hand (or my actual hand) rather than the river of thoughts flowing through my head. (Tanya just wrote a wonderful post on mindful teaching moments, and I think drawing helps me to take the same calculated pause that lets me recalibrate and more thoughtfully engage in the next activity of my day.) Also, drawing is a skill with a learning curve, which appeals to me, but I also don’t feel like it’s something that I need to master. Because I’m doing it for fun.

My first artistic productions.

Prioritizing these “personal” activities is helping me to keep the job search in perspective and take it in stride. At least that’s what I’m striving for––to remember that something will work out and that devoting time to personal wellness that takes me (momentarily) away from the search might actually provide some necessary distance and clarity that allows me to get in touch with what I really want out of my career.

Celebrating MLK Day in Nashville, TN

“… I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other. And God grant that something will happen to open channels of communication…”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Cornell College, Oct. 15, 1962

In Nashville, I have been attending events over the past few days to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. It feels particularly special to celebrate this holiday here in Nashville, given that MLK confessed to feeling inspired by the city’s methods of nonviolent protest during the civil rights movement. During a trip to Nashville in 1960, MLK spoke at Fisk University, whose students propelled the city’s lunch counter sit-ins in the following decade. As a result of those protests, Nashville eventually became the first Southern city to desegregate lunch counters. (This year marks the 60th anniversary of those Nashville sit-ins.) So it seems that MLK both inspired and was inspired by Nashville’s social justice scene.

Last Friday, Fisk University celebrated MLK’s life with a campus-wide convocation that called upon the university’s history of social activism. The invited speaker, State Representative Harold Love Jr., insisted on the need for continued action against injustices in this time of paradoxical progress and stagnation, a sentiment that was echoed by students’ responses to the speech. While the representative delivered the core message, undergraduate students were quite heavily involved in the rest of convocation: they delivered vocal performances, introductory remarks, responses, and led the audience in song. As a faculty member in the audience, it struck me that the university was preparing students to assume the action and leadership they observed in the civil rights leader. As one of the students said during her address to the crowd that day, the students sitting in the university chapel pews are themselves the blossoms of MLK’s labor, the flowers offered in tribute to his life. The students embodied the legacies of both MLK and the university.

Fisk University’s Program for the 2020 MLK Convocation

At Vanderbilt’s MLK commemoration event, it emerged that one form of “action” that can be taken is that of sharing one’s own story. (While Vanderbilt held a less admirable role during the civil rights movement, the university has created partnerships and foundations in order to support its mission to foster education for all regardless of race, sex, or religion.) Last night, Dean Emilie Townes cited the epigraph above from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech delivered at Cornell College in 1962 in order to ponder how we are opening lines of communication today. At the series keynote panel with Janelle Monáe (songwriter, producer, actress, and more) and Yusef Salaam (one of the Exonerated Five), the two invited guests spoke with moderator Emilie Townes about the power of storytelling to communicate to broader audiences. Monáe insisted on the power of being vulnerable and transparent in order to foster empathy, connection, and love through sharing one’s story. Salaam empowered listeners to understand that we are all “born on purpose and with a purpose.” With this conviction, Salaam compelled the audience to live a full life by recognizing one’s worth in order to go forward, pursue one’s passions, and give to the world whatever their gift may be. Salaam continued that the “best of our story is yet to be told,” and it is up to us to tell it.

Dean Emilie Townes, Yusef Salaam, and Janelle Monáe at Vanderbilt’s 2020 MLK Commemoration keynote panel

Both institutions insisted on celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. by taking action in order to make the world a more just place, whether that be through sharing one’s own story through the media of film or fiction or through direct participation in governmental decision-making bodies.

After these events, as an instructor, I felt re-inspired to empower students to tell their stories, to hone the art of argumentation, and to leave space for students to express themselves both critically and creatively in the classroom. I also felt re-energized to engage in others’ stories through literary and language study in order to engage with multiple points of view and generate more empathy. These are certainly impulses that I have felt in the past, but that were strengthened during these commemorations of a national leader who valued communication and connection that surpassed superficial differences that create false hierarchies in order to foster change. 

However you decide to celebrate MLK’s unique legacy, I hope you get the chance to reflect on your purpose and passion while considering the singular impact this leader had on American history and how we–and our students–can further that impact.

Smart Women Write about 2020

Dear Readers,

Welcome to a new decade! To celebrate this transition, we are looking back on 2019 and sharing our hopes and goals for 2020. We’ve enjoyed writing for you this year, and look forward to continue thinking together about career transitions, the pursuit of health, teaching, parenting … and how writing overlaps with all of these.




2019 Reflection

Angela: I learned how to switch my focus from global to local through my work with the Fort Negley Descendants Project. This saved me from burnout and helped me to use my skills as a historian and digital humanist make a positive difference in my community. I also facilitated a huge number of deserving projects through the Mellon Collaboration Grants at work, published an article, and developed process-based goals for regular writing and exercise. 

Lynn: 2019 was filled with some unexpected challenges and because of that I became good at finding silver linings this year. I traveled, I turned 40, I read amazing books, and I spent quality time with friends and family.  There was a lot to complain about, but even more to be thankful for. All in all, it was a good year.

Raquelle: I felt energized by the relationships I created with students. I also published two academic articles on topics from or inspired by my dissertation, and it felt satisfying to get that work out there. I’ve also had some healthy emotional shifts in the way I hold the job search, and am feeling excited to see how the next chapter of my career-life unfolds. This summer I got to travel a lot — and I also celebrated turning 30 with a trip to Mexico City, which sparked my desire to keep pursuing language learning!  

Tanya: While I’ve been seeing a lot of commentary online about 2019 not being a great year, I don’t think mine was half-bad. I turned 40, got to make the trip to NYC that I wanted to have to celebrate, and won an award for my book manuscript. I also finished out the year with a trip to Taiwan as part of a teacher delegation (more on that soon).

Our Hopes for 2020

Angela: I hope that I can figure out the right balance between my work and my life while keeping up with the research that interests me

Lynn: 2020 is shaping up to be another challenging year, health-wise, but it also offers hope for new opportunities and experiences.  My hope is to heal, to run a road race, and to travel.

Raquelle: To find a way to contribute to my local and global community that allows me to think deeply and to use my strengths and skills as a humanist, mentor, reader, and writer. 

Tanya: I hope 2020 will be the year I finally get a book contract and get my book revisions to the publisher. I don’t expect the book to come out in 2020, but these steps will feel like major milestones after so long. I also hope to continue in my wellness habits that I began working on this year. Beyond that, I’d say world peace, but I’ll settle for seeing some good progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


Personal Goals for 2020

Angela: Maintain regular exercise and writing while undergoing a job transition

Lynn: Make art and continue seeing silver linings

Raquelle: Continue pursuing a healthy life/work balance that allows me to exercise, meditate, and work in a way that doesn’t feel like each of those activities are so separate

Tanya: Breathe more. Balance better.


Professional Goals for 2020

Angela: The grant I’m working on comes to an end this summer, so my goal is to figure out my career while keeping a toe in the exciting research part of academia. I want to work in academic administration and will be working hard to do my research and figure out the best fit. 

Lynn: My professional goals for this year are: 1.) to return the writing projects I put on the back-burner in 2019 and to pursue the new ideas that have come to light and 2.) to upgrade my online courses by incorporating new technology to improve student experience.

Raquelle: To enjoy and be present for this last semester of my postdoc before transitioning into a new phase of my career. In the next few months, I’ll: (1) wrap up the final semester of the French language requirement at Fisk–in a way that’s both fun and rewarding; (2) finish a digital exhibit that I’ll co-present with my team at an annual campus research symposium in April; (3 & 4) present personal research at two national conferences. So, I want to focus on these 4 major goals while leaving time to figure out the role that I’ll step into next. 

Tanya: Keep writing, and don’t let my teaching and teaching preparations consume me. 


Writing We’d Love to Read in 2020




End-of-Semester Retreat & Reflection

I recently went on a four-day silent retreat at an abbey in Kentucky. Retreatants are given a simply furnished room to sleep in, and every day monks prepare three humble, plentiful meals for the guests. What excited me most about this abbey retreat is that guests have access to hundreds of acres where they can roam the beautiful hiking trails (right after I left, the grounds were officially designated a “Registered Natural Area”). Because of the abbey’s philosophy of hospitality, stays are completely donation-based. 

Earlier in the semester, I had imagined that late November/early December might be a paradoxical period of relief and anxiety, so I decided to schedule some self-care in advance. By the time the retreat dates arrived, the semester had just ended and I had also just submitted all of my academic job applications for Fall 2019. This is how I wound up celebrating the end of the semester by taking a break all by myself in the middle of nowhere to reflect and recalibrate. Continue reading “End-of-Semester Retreat & Reflection”

A Cross-Campus Collaboration: Mariannes Noires

On Friday afternoon, I went on a student-led campus tour of Fisk University with Mame-Fatou Niang (Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University), Roxane Pajoul (Assistant Professor at Tennessee State University), and Cara Wilson (Postdoctoral Scholar at Vanderbilt University).

The tour ended at Fisk’s Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery where Jordan Wright, the current gallery fellow, led us to the primary exhibit, “Artists in Residence 1888-Present: Fisk Faculty & Alumni Show.” When I stepped into the gallery, my eyes immediately graced the printing plates of W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The feeling of looking at these plates and the boxes in which they are cased—which still bear his home address—is indescribable. This book altered American (literary) history by articulating the “problem of the color-line,” and here we were, standing in a building that Du Bois had funded at his own alma mater, looking at the plates that printed and distributed his legacy. 

As we stepped into the exhibit, Jordan began to read a textual excerpt that was inscribed on the gallery wall. While he read these words that articulated the inspiration of music to Du Bois’ text, one of the undergraduate tour guides (who is also a Jubilee Singer) softly sang a spiritual in the background. Mame-Fatou was filming the event (and also on the phone with a collaborating artist), while Roxane, Cara, and I stood in awe of an interaction that we had—at least in part—helped to foster. I can’t do justice to the depth of this moment. But I imagine that the connection in that room was (in small part) generated as a result of the trust that was built in the small-group discussion that had preceded the tour. After several days of talking about Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang’s documentary, Mariannes Noires, and her contribution to Black French Studies, we were collectively inspired by Du Bois’ text and the talent and engagement of the students and staff of Fisk University, in which he was deeply invested.

Let me tell you about how we got to this moment. Continue reading “A Cross-Campus Collaboration: Mariannes Noires”

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”

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.


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


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.