The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1

Summer is in full swing and the Smart Women want to talk about what each of their summers looks like.

Mine?

I’ve already had a full summer’s worth of life crammed into my summer so far, but why not live in the fast lane?

I just got back from Barbados, where I presented on the Caribbean holdings of the Slave Societies Digital Archive at the Association of Caribbean Historians’ annual meeting. Let me tell you, this group of scholars is amazing. About half come from institutions in the Caribbean itself, and the rest from everywhere else. They do simultaneous translation so that people who don’t speak English, Spanish, and French can hear the latest scholarship of the full region and ask questions of people a language barrier would prevent them from asking. And they are the only scholarly organization that I know of, that has a end-of-conference fete written directly into the constitution. Our right to party is constitutional! And what a fete. You haven’t lived until you’ve been part of a group of scholars who can both bachata and whine. Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1”

Taking A Risk: Teaching Slavery & Race to Students 50+ Yrs Old in the US South

I’ve just finished teaching what has been one of my most thought-provoking and soul-stirring classes this spring: a class on comparative slavery & race.

In today’s political climate.

In the US South.

To students 50+ years of age.

I’m glad I didn’t think it through too carefully, when this opportunity came around. I love teaching in a public history context- taking all of my research and writing, and transforming it into a narrative and compelling cast of characters that I present without any presumption of prior knowledge in the subject. It’s a double challenge for me- to ensure rigorousness without overwhelming my listeners. It takes me longer than the traditional lecture format to prepare, but when it works, it’s so worth it.

However, had I thought it through for a moment, I might not have agreed to do this particular class.

Why?

My classroom was full of people who lived through Jim Crow right here in Nashville, TN, the hotbed of the Civil Rights Movement. They remember when whites and people of color had to use separate facilities and weren’t allowed to marry. They read about the Lunch Counter Sit-Ins downtown when they happened.  They were children and young adults in 1960, when one of our city’s most promising civil rights activists, James Lawson, was expelled from the University that signs my paychecks.

And they were different people then, than they are now. They have seen so much more.

In this class, my black and my white students sat next to each other (something they would not have done when they were enrolled in school the first time around) and listened to a whippersnapper (that’s me, I’m the whippersnapper) contextualize that history for them in a broader Atlantic framework and chronology.

It’s been so humbling. Continue reading “Taking A Risk: Teaching Slavery & Race to Students 50+ Yrs Old in the US South”

3D Printing & The Digital Humanities

This semester, Vanderbilt’s new makerspace and center for innovation, the Wond’ry, approached us at the Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA) with space for an exhibit to showcase the unique and collaborative nature of the archive. In putting together the exhibit, another opportunity for collaboration emerged between SSDA, the Wond’ry, and three creative doctors of radiology at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital: the replication of sacred objects and art related to the archive, through 3D scanning and printing.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive preserves endangered documents related to Africans and African-descended peoples in slave societies from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The vast majority of records in the archive come from places in underserved areas of the Atlantic world with a high concentration of African-descended populations. Often the institutions lack funding to make their crumbling collections available to the public. SSDA teams take photographs of each page of these records in order to create a digital repository of unused primary sources for the history of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic world. The exhibit at the Wond’ry displays the processes and workflow of the archive, and the populations whose stories await to be discovered within.

Bow with Devil
Dr. Hansen Bow using the 3D scanner at the radiology lab at VUMC.

Documents without context only tell a partial story. We wanted to show some of the objects that are important to the people found in our documents. The originals though, were too fragile to keep on display without supervision, and so Kevin Galloway at the Wond’ry suggested we try a collaborative approach. The doctors at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital Radiology Lab were excited to take on the challenge. The majority of their work with 3D scanning and printing involves medical models. SSDA’s objects, with their irregular shapes,  surfaces, and colors, proved to be a challenge.

Most interesting for me were the conversations that went into which features of reproductions are the most significant for communicating their cultural value to the viewer. The nature of scanning and printing with abs material on a 3D printer means that some details would have to be sacrificed, while others could be enhanced. At what point were the sacrifices and enhancements superficial, and at what point did they alter the meaning of the object? Continue reading “3D Printing & The Digital Humanities”

Introducing: Raquelle Bostow

Dear smart women (& others) who write,

I’m so incredibly pleased to introduce to you the newest member of team SWW!

raquelle b&w

Raquelle Bostow is a truly dangerous woman who has experience as managing editor for Holly Tucker’s Wonders & Marvels, and is in the process of launching a restaurant review site.  Like Tanya and I, she’s got a passion for the public humanities, working to find ways in which to use her writing experience and training to form partnerships with people and organizations that could use it. She sees education not as something that just happens in the classroom, but an ongoing process that happens within the self, and in every interaction.

She is currently a university lecturer in French who is on the job market. She’s looking at both traditional academic jobs, as well as “alt-ac” and “non-ac” positions that will let her utilize her skills in languages and in gender studies. She’ll bring us posts about what that process looks like, how to find mentors for each part of that process, self-care when not on the tenure track, her experience with writing groups, and foreign language teaching.

When I sat down with her for coffee, her vibe was so SWW it wasn’t even funny. She’s resilient, creative, hard-working, and determined to use her training to be thoughtful and reflective. She applies her insights to problems in the wider world, and that’s why we think you will love what she has to say.

I can’t wait!

-Angela Sutton

Choosing Your Next Writing Project

I’m pretty young, and already I have more projects ideas than I will be able to write in this lifetime. This is true even if I have the fortune of living well into my 90s (which I suspect I won’t, as my family’s history is riddled with darkly comedic early deaths- too much pull toward adventure, and not enough common sense in the Sutton genes).

I do periodically root out the “bad” ideas- the ones that wouldn’t work because of the mediums I write in, or the zeitgeist, or because they would be better expressed non-verbally, or by someone who isn’t me, or the ones that go beyond my current skillset, or the ones that wouldn’t help along any of my personal or career goals. I hesitate to call them bad though, as any idea can be good under the right circumstances. But I’m all about efficiency. Do I have time or inclination to cultivate new circumstances? Not right now. Let’s work with the circumstances I’ve already got.

So even after whittling down the list, it’s still too big. How do I pick and choose what gets written and which ideas go into the big ether of ideas to hopefully get recycled and occur to someone else? Continue reading “Choosing Your Next Writing Project”

Where History is Alive

I know, I’m sorry, I’m late!

Actually, I’m not sorry. I’m late with my post because I am on the beautiful Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius for work, and it is so heart-breakingly breathtaking that I needed a minute to just appreciate being here and learning.

SWW2You see, the formerly Dutch island is also a location in the nonfiction history book I’m writing. Known as the “Golden Rock,” it was the center of Atlantic Commerce in the 1700s, and a lot of that was deemed illicit by the other European superpowers of the time. It was filled to the gills with pirates, and plunder, and esoteric objects from around the world.

The island isn’t a big tourist destination (outside of a small and devoted group of returning diving and nature enthusiasts), and doesn’t have a place for larger cruise ships to dock, so much of the material remnants of this history remain. Down every alley, over every cliff, is evidence of corrupt governors, the enslaved, plantations, merchant homes, warehouses, etc. Yellow bricks imported from the Ijssel River regions in the sww4Netherlands comprise some of the most important ruins. Sherds of blue and white Delftware can be seen embedded in the runoff from several forts and plantations. Divers still regularly find glass beads used in trading in the sand. Many residents live in or on top of historically important buildings and sites. Everything is free and open to be viewed by anyone who cares enough to look. Every breath you take, is saltwater and history.

Thankfully this island also has people who appreciate all they have, and work hard to keep it safe for the future. I had the fortune of meeting them, and seeing the history through their eyes.  And you know what happened? I discovered that several of the things historians like to repeat about this island in the literature, had to have been written in error if they weren’t outright falsification.  When you can tangibly step into a place that you only before knew from the documents, a whole new truth unfolds right in front of your eyes.

This happened to me when I visited Ghana in 2010: many of the slave forts I wrote about, I had discovered in documents in The Hague, where most Dutch imperial materials are kept. From reading them, I had an idea in my head about what it must have been like. But actually going there, showed me that many of the things people wrote about would have been impossible. I walked several of the trails mentioned in the documents to see how long it took. I looked at the distances between forts, and how far away they were from the ocean, to see which cannon shots claimed in the literature could have made it, and which wouldn’t have. I saw the way the vegetation grew. I looked at how ruins were positioned. I realized at what points of the day which way the shadows would lie. I made note of the directions the wind blew. All of the sudden, a whole new world of what would have been possible and what wouldn’t opened up.

SWW1It’s the same here. Seeing the bays makes it obvious which could have sustained ships, and which would have wrecked them against the rocks. Seeing the plantation setups allows me to make guesses as to how many enslaved workers there could have been at any one time. Seeing the steep immensity of the inactive volcano known as the Quill (pictured above) makes it clear that no planting could have happened on its sides without some serious twenty-first century landscape architecture. Going to the ruins of the governor’s mansion helped me to see the types of things he could and could not see from his desk. All of these facts are incredibly helpful, and will breathe life into my book that I wasn’t even aware was missing.

I’m living the dream, folx.

Looking Out For Yourself in the Academic Gig Economy

Note: want to write with us? See this post and apply by March 10!

When you have a salaried academic job, your tasks could fall roughly into two categories: Things you must do, and things you should do. When you’re surviving off of pay from adjuncting, your list and their list are not going to be the same.

When salaried, I know I must do: Teach. Research. Publish. Go to mandatory meetings. Conferencing. Attending department events and participating.  If I don’t do these things, I likely won’t keep my job. It will be noticed almost immediately.

When salaried, I know I should do, to ensure the health and longevity of the field: Peer review. Book reviews. Mentoring graduate students.  Guest lectures for colleagues. Public outreach and activism within our larger communities. Administrative tasks necessary to invite scholars, arrange symposiums, help out with conferences, etc.  Taking academic guests out to dinner. Driving guests to/from the airport, and generally being a good host. Closed-door chats with concerned colleagues. Grant writing. Creating and sharing educational materials. Office hours with students.  Supervising student workers. Committee work.  Maintaining listservs. Twitter. Volunteering when the local public needs a professional opinion. Responding to email requests from unknown scholars and grad students who want to share resources or research. Collaborating with centers on campus that correspond to my research interests. Teaching others how some program or equipment in the lab works. Probably more things I can’t think of right now. All of this takes time, and I don’t really get rewarded for doing it. If I don’t do it, people will eventually notice, and I won’t be considered a team player. The field will suffer from the lack of people putting work in.

The problem with these Must Do and Should Do lists is that everything on them takes a certain amount of time. Everything on them also occupies a certain place on your CV. All the things I must do take up about 40 hours of my week, if I do them well. Anything additional that gets added on from the should do list, comes out my personal time. It’s a constant calculation – is task x worth spending y hours of my personal time on? Do I like doing it? Would I rather go on a hike, or have that line on my CV? How will I be perceived next to all the people who chose to forego the hike and add that line to their CV?

And back before I was salaried, when I had just finished grad school, I pieced multiple jobs together to keep afloat. I adjuncted (paid per class), I tutored (paid per hour), I translated (paid per word), I freelanced (paid however I could get) and I did some administrative tasks for the department (paid per hour).  As I supported myself, my first priority was ensuring I took enough paying work to keep my finances in order.  I needed to pay bills, and that took at least 40 hours per week. In my little spare time, I strategically chose things from the Must Do and Should Do lists, making CV and time calculations in my head. Which tasks were most worth it? Which tasks had the biggest payoff for the least amount of time investment? To who was I beholden?

Most of the things I did came from the Must Do list. Choosing from the Should Do list was a calculated risk, because many of those things would only matter if I stayed in academia. I don’t have to tell you that the chances were, and still are, against me. If I couldn’t find an academic job, like most people who graduate with a PhD nowadays, many of these tasks would be close to useless on a re-tooled Resume for the corporate world. So to be very strategic and yes, mercenary, about my time and my life (You only get one, after all, and no one knows how long that will be), I prepared myself for alt-ac.  I chose to do the tasks that would best translate from a CV onto a Resume. That means choosing the tasks that would push me to learn skills that are valued outside of academia, such as collaboration, organization, giving presentations, grant writing (and all writing in general), high-level administration and management, and digital skills.

So for the purposes of this post, maybe instead of dividing these tasks up by Must Do and Should Do, I could divide them by helpful only in academia, and helpful in both academia and alt ac. They would look very different then.

The point of this blog post, is that you shouldn’t feel bad for getting by however you can. The Must do and Should Do lists were created long before you were born, back when nearly everyone with a PhD and a baseline mental stability got a tenure-track job, and was salaried. As the work model changes, and universities hire more contingent labor that gets paid per gig, a lot of these tasks on the Should Do lists become greater and greater risks for the untenured. They are risks you do not have to take.

Repeat after me. You do not have to take these risks.

You do not have to perform service to your profession until your profession has let you in, and invested in you. It is exploitative to perform this work for free, when you are getting paid (usually quite poorly and less than what your labor is worth) by the hour or class. Right now, only do those things that you love and will help you get ahead, however you are choosing to define that. Once salaried, you can start giving back.

Until then, practice saying no. Be strategic about the unremunerated labor you perform for the profession. Make sure it benefits you, too. It’s what any salaried academic would do if their job security were threatened and they had student loans to pay off while making adjunct-level money.