When There is a Mission

This March, I took two trips for work that ended up having a profound effect on the way I see my job and my place within it. I think this is a good place to talk about that.

My job involves grants administration. Vanderbilt is part of a consortium of five universities in which the Mellon Foundation has taken an interest to facilitate digital humanities collaboration. My job is quite broadly defined- I assist the PI on the grant to do whatever is necessary to help ensure that all the things that were promised in the grant happen.  A big part of that is facilitating collaborations between faculty and staff at our partner institutions in the consortium, and the best way to do that is to build relationships in person.

Two of our universities are in Nashville as well- Fisk and TSU. Relationships between Fisk and TSU and Vanderbilt have been taking place for a long time. But we also have Berea up North in Kentucky, and Tougaloo down South in Mississippi, and the distance between the three of our campuses meant that collaborations hadn’t been as long-standing. This is exciting for me- going to new places, meeting new faces, and getting to feel like the good news fairy. I kept repeating, “I know someone at a partner institution who works on that! Let me connect you,” or “That would make an amazing collaborative grant application, write that up!” and “there’s definitely money in the grant for that kind of faculty development.”

A DH Skill-share session at Berea, with faculty, staff, and students from Berea, TSU, Fisk, and Vanderbilt.

It was also fun to help facilitate important discussions and presentations. There were Digital Humanities skill-shares, planning for future events, teaching talks, postdoctoral presentations, and so much crucial foundation-building work.

But beyond that, what was amazing about these two trips this month was the feel of both Tougaloo and Berea. Both schools are smaller and deeply mission-driven. Tougaloo College is an HBCU just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, built on the grounds of the Boddie Plantation. Just opposite the old mansion in direct juxtaposition to it, is a church that has hosted many of our world’s finest Civil Rights thinkers: MLK, Angela Davis, Joan Baez, and Stokely Carmichael, to name just a small selection. During the Civil Rights era, Tougaloo Campus sheltered Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights activists, and their Special Collections room holds a fragment of a cross that white supremacists burned on that campus as a reaction to this.

One of the trip’s highlights was getting to meet John Johnson, who worked with Professor Phoenix Savage to produce an exhibit funded by one of the collaborative grants.

John Johnson poses with some of his photographs for the “Black at Brown” exhibit for Tougaloo’s Humanities Week, funded by the Mellon Collaborative grant through Professor Phoenix Savage.

Berea College has a similarly inspiring history. It was founded by a white Southern abolitionist, the son of a slaveholder. He was disinherited for this, and his family threatened often. Berea’s mission was to educate black and white students together, and it was the first co-ed institution in the South to accomplish this. In addition to that, the founders of Berea wanted their students to never have to pay tuition, so they committed to fundraising to ensure none would. That promise lasts to this day, and as a result the majority of Berea’s students are first-generation students and/or come from households with limited income. In rural Appalachia, where opportunities for economic advancement are few and far between, Berea College stands out as a beacon of hope.

Though Berea and Tougaloo each have their own distinct feels, they both share a vibrant commitment to mission. Each person I spoke with cared deeply about students, about social justice, and about creating a better world through education. They reminded me of why I was attracted to this world, and of how far education has propelled me. I too was the first person in my family to go to college, and the school in which I landed (the University of Stirling in Scotland) was also an institution with a mission. Set in Scotland’s coal country after the closure of the mines, it too attracted faculty who cared about reversing the economic depression of the region through teaching a specific population of students. All of my professors were so cognizant of the additional challenges first generation students faced, and despite being overworked and underpaid, they gave so generously of themselves to ensure that we could reach our goals. They did so much with what they have, just like the faculty at Tougaloo and Berea.

March should have zapped my energy with two additional business trips thrown into the busiest part of the semester. Instead, I came away feeling renewed, hopeful, and excited about the future. Visiting these two places helped remind me of why I do what I do, and why the long hours are so incredibly worth it.

Double Your Digital Archive

Picture the scene: You’re one of the founders of an oral history digital archive. The archive, the Fort Negley Descendants Project (FNDP), finds and collects the voices of those who descended from the population of builders, both enslaved and free, and United States Colored Troops who defended a historic Civil War fortification in your city.

Destiny Hanks, Juliet Larkin-Gilmore, and I make up the current core members of the FNDP.

The project is time sensitive. A year ago, the land upon which the fort was built was sold to developers in what I’ll euphemistically describe as a shady deal. While the fort’s future was up in the air, the neighborhoods surrounding it rapidly gentrified. Each tall and skinny in these areas surrounding Fort Negley represents a family whose story left with them as they were priced out of the neighborhoods that had been theirs for generations.

Continue reading “Double Your Digital Archive”

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 2: The Proposal

Click here to see Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction.

When I wrote my first Non-fiction book proposals, with all of its moveable parts, I felt intimidated. I had to create an overview, author bio, market analysis, competition, plan for promotion, the table of contents, my chapter summaries, and a detailed explanation of my source materials before a literary agent would even consider looking at my idea for a book.

I definitely can’t tell you how to write a non-fiction book proposal (thankfully others have gotten into that), but I can tell you about my experience creating and revising my first one (I’m now working on my second, woo!), and how worth it it really was.

Of course I loved creating the table of contents and the chapter summaries. Doing that helps you figure out if you’ve got enough material for a book, or if you’re trying to collapse too many elements into one. And the part where I explain my source materials? Really fun- I loved gathering all of my books, microfilms, photocopies, and archival photos into once place and taking stock of all there is. Seeing all the primary sources together like that helped me to ask where the silences were, and where the meatiest parts of the story existed. That caused me to make a few changes to my table of contents. Then gathering up my secondary sources helped me to figure out if my book had a chance of being fair and balanced, or if I over-relied on a handful of historians whose interpretations I enjoy more.

But then there were the other parts. A big shout-out to my agent for being patient enough with me to revise them multiple times before sending it on to publishers. The other parts are much more marketing-oriented. I tried to imagine how someone in the book-selling business would see this book of mine, and how they would sell it. On which shelf would it go? To which books could I compare it? What kind of reader would want it? How could it be made most profitable without losing its essence and integrity?

Writing those parts of the book proposal showed me that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world of publishing. And that’s to be expected- I’ve spent the past twelve years in academia. While I do read widely and enjoy trade history books (and other trade non-fiction), the majority of the books I’ve gone through in that time have been academic. That means that I have been exposed mostly to books created to fulfill professional curiosity and research gaps, not books created to entertain and teach the public about history. I had to entirely re-orient myself.

Thankfully, that’s where the teacher-brain took over. I sell history to everyday people all the time. My students, whether they are undergrads or older adults continuing their education for fun, do better with historic material if it’s presented in an interesting way. I weave together all kinds of stories for them upon which to hang all the facts and theories they need to know. I’m always picking the unconventional and surprising historic figures in my primary sources and showing students the larger paradoxes of the time periods through these characters’ daily lives. When my students lean forward and stop surfing the net, I know it’s a story that will sell.

Writing the book proposal taught me that the main difference between writing an academic and a trade book is like the main difference between sitting in the archives and standing at the lectern: it’s audience. The “So what?” is important in any non-fiction book, but the other academics who read your academic book don’t need it: they understand the intrinsic importance of most historic research, and if your book has to do with their topic, they’ll give it a glance. In a trade book, however, how well you nail the “so what?” is everything. If you show your readers how everyday people were affected by the thing you’re writing, they want to know more. Just like you’ve got to convince your students that the time and money they have invested in your class will pay off, you’ve got to reassure the reader that your book is worth it. It’s a mental shift that affects every other part of the proposal and your book, and opens up so many exciting avenues to explore.




Writing With A Day Job

How do you make time to write when you’ve got a day job?

I think it’s something every working writer struggles with. Most of my friends write, some of them full-time, and others on the side of a full or part-time job, and it looks really different for everyone. Here’s how I found the best way for my current life:

Radical Honesty

First of all, I had to face that I have many more ideas and dreams than I can feasibly turn into reality. But rather than being sad about all the ideas that won’t get written, I try to be excited that I’m in such a position of opportunity. I have the desire and ability to write academic articles, non-fiction trade books, encyclopedia articles, think-pieces, creative non-fiction essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, blog posts, and more. I have ideas for all of these things, and most of them are exciting to me and allow me to examine something I am interested in or passionate about.

That said, my other goals in life- personal, financial, career- mean that most of my time is spoken for, and there’s not really much I can move around or give up. Every piece I chose to write takes time away from a career development opportunity, time with family and friends, or time I could have spent earning money. Radical honesty means being honest about my shifting collection of needs and how they conflict: my needs for creative expression, versus my needs to feel like I’m doing a good job at work, versus my need to pay bills, versus my need to connect with the people I love.  So realistically, I can only give up about an hour a day to writing projects that are not connected to finances or career.

Knowing that means that I have to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I have to be honest about how many hours something will take to complete and how many weeks that will take at the rate of one hour per day. Or actually, less than an hour per day, because most days I use part of that hour to write morning pages.

Morning Pages

And by “writing morning pages,” I mean, I scrawl some stuff longhand into a notebook, just to dump all the miscellaneous thoughts that are taking up valuable brain space. Morning pages (the idea comes from Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and is discussed on this blog) are a way for me to stay connected to the page and explore how I feel about my writing and the things that get in the way of my writing. I don’t fully understand why they work, or how exactly, but I do know that when I write them, my writing goes more smoothly and I produce more of it, and when I get away from that habit, I start to  be more blocked and writing feels like squeezing blood from a stone, so I avoid it. I’ve lived long enough to know that when something works (and doesn’t hurt anyone), you don’t question it, you just do it.

Routine (maybe)

In order for me to wrest that daily hour away for myself and my writing, it helps me, sometimes, to have a routine. I’m definitely not religious about it, and I don’t always need it, but I find that during the semester especially when my to-do list is a mile long, having a routine helps. I take my writing time as seriously as I take my savings- I pay myself first. First thing in the morning, I don’t get online to check emails, I get straight to the morning pages and then transition into my writing project of choice. After an hour, I feel connected to it, and am much less begrudging of the other tasks I have to do for the day.

Squish Expectations

Since I only have that daily hour to write, I don’t have time to waste on projects that I don’t love. If I’m being paid for a project, I don’t do it in that hour- I count it toward my career and do it during the workday. That daily hour is for my passion project. These projects may never see the light of day or result in a paycheck. I write them for sake of doing it- for the sake of being involved in a creative pursuit, for investigating something that is important to me, and for keeping me tethered to my interests on days when my job or personal life don’t do that as much. It’s a creative, artistic, and spiritual pursuit that I do completely independently of expectations. No matter how successful a writer I become, no matter how many publications I rack up, no matter how much money I get for my writing, I want to always set aside this hour to just do what I feel like doing. If it later ends up becoming a viable project that sells, that’s great, but it’s also ok if it never amounts to anything more than my own enjoyment. Ironically, since I’ve been squishing expectations, a lot of my writing-hour projects have seen publication.

Now it’s disclaimer time- I have the type of job (a postdoc) where writing is built into it. I have set tasks I do in exchange for my salary, and then I have more abstract expectations of what I should be doing with the rest of my work week. This gives me tremendous flexibility in terms of my writing projects. It means that once a project I’m working on in that morning hour becomes a viable project that either will further my career or get me paid, I have the flexibility to incorporate it into my work hours and then use that personal hour of writing time for something else. The way I structure my day makes sense for my day job right now, but this won’t always be my job. Writing, on the other hand, will. I think setting up a habit for daily writing outside of my job hours sets me up for continuing this habit regardless of my day job.

A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Writing Audience (Part II)

I read about Lynn’s year of writing and my first thought was “that’s excellent! I love when people decide on a path, then walk it despite their fear.” She’s such a strong writer and the world needs more of her voice. She’s got nothing to be scared of.

My second thought was “Oh boy, how do I follow this? My 2018 writing year is a hot mess.”

It’s all over the place! I wrote… all the things. For all the people. And the range is intense:

FirstLutheran2018
 

Sharing research with First Lutheran Church in Nashville

 

history lectures in my field for a church class, a co-written article on maps (not my field) for my crowd (professional historians),  exhibit text for a general audience interested in makerspace culture, a talk on the Slave Societies Digital Archive for scholars of religion at SORAAAD, a talk on the Fort Negley Descedants Oral History Project for the National Humanities Alliance, a Digital History Profile, an academic book review, two very different grant applications, a trade history book proposal  and sample chapters, blog posts, and more!

Unifying these incredibly diverse writing projects, is the question of audience.  For who do I write, and why? For me, 2018 was the year I spent experimenting with audiences. Continue reading “A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Writing Audience (Part II)”

What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?

In honor of  National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to tell you another story about the time I taught a nonfiction writing class titled “Writing Your Family History,” at the Nashville Public Library for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).

But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child?  Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?

That’s the magic, right there.

Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).

I think it’s such an important question. One that set the tone for the entire session. Continue reading “What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?”

Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh

First of all, Happy Indigenous People’s Day!

I’m a historian of Atlantic Africa, the slave trade, and Africans in the Americas, so often that’s where my focus is. But this week I want to remember that while this nation was built by the enslaved, it was built on native land taken by force. I want to remember not to make anyone feel guilty, but to take some moments to sit in my discomfort with America’s past. White people’s attempts to avoid discomfort have caused a great deal of hurt and destruction, and change begins with the self. I will sit in discomfort, and I will help others do the same. I truly believe that it is only when we tolerate our discomfort to fully acknowledge the injustices of our shared past that we can move into an equitable future.

I still believe it is possible, even if the ideal of an equitable future feels far away sometimes. Especially this week, especially if you are a woman or a non-binary person with any history of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, or related trauma. Which is, well, all of us. We all have some experience with it, either directly, or through friends.

I’m not going to mince words. This week, most women in the US, like many other groups of people targeted by this administration, have felt that their country treats them like garbage.

That’s because right now, women (and other groups) are treated like garbage by our country. It’s the only way I have to explain what happened with Kavanaugh.

Something I want to address is how much something like this can affect the writing and productivity in general of women. Most of us are one “let’s give him the benefit of the doubt” away from either full-on screaming or bursting into tears in public. Our writing outputs are suffering. Continue reading “Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh”