Designing Women (Part 1)

Readers, it’s summer. It’s that glorious time when teachers (like me) can kick back, relax, and just be in the peaceful bliss. (At least in theory. You probably already read a bit of my end-of-school angst and excitement here.)

I wound up spending most of my June in reading mode. It became a really good decision for me, because I had piles of pedagogy books I wanted to read and had no idea where to begin with the course planning that I so desperately want to tackle this season (also, when your kid is at a 3-hour-a-day summer camp for a week, books seem more digestible in those short spurts of time).

In the final full week of June, I began to switch gears, and readers, that’s what I wanted to talk about today: designing an intro to women’s history course for high school students.

On my first day of planning, I decided I’d document my efforts on Twitter, mostly in the hopes of keeping myself on track:

Read through to see the thread of what I worked on that day…

All in all, I felt the day was pretty successful. I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted, but I made a good start. Below, I’ll expand on that process, talk about what changed later in the week, and explain where I am now. Hint: if you have ideas/experiences, please @ me!

Continue reading “Designing Women (Part 1)”

The School Year Ends

Dar Williams sings,

The summer ends and we wonder where we are 
And there you go, my friends, with your boxes in your car 
And you both look so young 
And last night was hard, you said 
You packed up every room 
And then you cried and went to bed 
But today you closed the door and said 
“We have to get a move on. 
It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead, 
We push ourselves ahead.”

“The End of Summer”

Every year when summer really does end, those words float back into my head, and they make sense then – but they also make sense now, because the end of the school year feels much the same.

It’s that sense of wistfulness in the face of impending change, which I also catch glimpses of when TS Eliot reminds me that

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  April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, 

“The Waste Land”

For teachers, summer is mostly a hopeful thing – a time of rest, if we’re smart, or exploration, if we’re lucky. It’s a moment to catch our breaths and step out on hiatus from the school building and the classroom and experience our lives in different ways. We bring our heads up from the papers we’ve spent all year marking and our students say good-bye (if we’re fortunate, not forever, but just for now), and we say hello to the million little things we’ve waited months to do. It’s that time to just be us.

Did I mention that sounds easier than it really is? At least for me, and I’m hoping I’m not alone in that.

Continue reading “The School Year Ends”

Going Home

Facebook’s been reminding me that it’s been eight years since I defended my dissertation and got my job. I love these reminders, although I shake my head at them, incredulous that so much time has passed.

There’s something nice about knowing the buildings are (mostly) still there.

Although I still live in the same metropolitan area, I don’t make it back to my PhD institution very often. Life just doesn’t take me that direction more than once every year or two, and that’s okay. I’m fine with the nostalgic, honey-glow tinge of contentment and wistfulness I feel when I retrace part of my old commute or come within a few blocks of the place.

Last week, I went back as an invited guest – a panel discussant, no less!- which really felt like getting to go home. The whole afternoon was far too short and I saw too few people, but for a couple of hours, I basked in the feeling of being back on campus, back in a world that was – even at its toughest moments – one I loved dearly.

There was also this new, unfamiliar sense of feeling like I’d accomplished something. After eight years, none of the graduate students are the same ones I knew (which is good!). The faculty are still there, their offices somewhat smaller and less intimidating than I recall. I retraced my steps in one of my favorite buildings. I almost went into the (newly remodeled) library, but stopped myself because my memories are better. I paused outside the entrance of the history building, and for a moment, it almost felt like I was heading back to class as a student again.

Last week, I came back to talk to current graduate students about teaching K-12 with a PhD. This is the type of professional development that didn’t exist when I was going through – we heard lots of talks from professors, and lots of job talks from prospective hires, but the department – and the school – never provided resources for thinking about jobs outside of academia.

We were on the cusp of all that, even if the department didn’t fully recognize it yet: some of my cohort and the cohorts around me went into academia, but several of us became K-12 teachers. As I finished my dissertation, plenty of people were starting to talk about so-called #alt-ac jobs and working outside of academia, the beginnings of conversations about what you can do with a history PhD. It’s only in the past few years, however, that there’s been sustained efforts to help students explore their options more fully.

There’s still a lot to do, but on Friday, I came home again, this time as a graduate who’s been successful in her career, flourished, even managed to get a little writing in, and, well – if I didn’t get the career everyone talked about when I was doing my PhD, I certainly got a career that was right for me.

We K-12 teachers spend a lot of time teaching, but we don’t often get to spend time talking about what that career looks like. Over the course of two hours, the other panelists and I dove deep, telling the students about the schools where we teach, explaining what our daily lives look like, answering the grad students’ questions, and generally trying to demystify all we do. We tried to offer resources and things to think about, putting ourselves, just a bit, back in the shoes we used to wear, thinking of what might have helped us back when we were on the other side of the table.

I don’t know whether any of these graduate students will decide to seriously consider a career teaching in independent schools, but I am happy to know that people are inviting in conversations and getting students to think beyond the tenure track.

Eight years ago, I helped open a door. It wasn’t anything new; after all, the other panelists have been teaching much longer than I have. But every time a graduate student steps through a different doorway, we help expand the possibilities for those who haven’t yet arrived.

And we’ll leave a light on, always happy to come home again to share what we’ve learned and help others find the path that suits them.

Final Projects

It’s the end of the semester, which means it’s final project season. When everyone has their eyes set on summer break (myself included), it can be difficult to keep students engaged and putting effort into the last week or two of coursework. So this year, I decided to try something new.

This spring, I have been teaching a course on women writers and filmmakers in contemporary France. My students have submitted a blog-style composition that applies earlier course readings (more theoretical texts from the 1950s-70s) to contemporary events. They have also completed two close-reading papers (standard for developing analytical habits of mind for literary scholars). The final project — the one they’re working on now at the end of the semester — allows them to transform one of their close reading papers into a multimodal text. These projects are being created in an online format for a general audience (i.e., not just their professor). My hope is that this activity will encourage them to consider (1) how engaging with course texts can go beyond the classroom walls and (2) how and why they might talk about this course material to their peers. This links to a bigger question: What will you take away from this course? (How) Have the course’s readings influenced the way you think about identity politics and everyday life in France and in the US? Continue reading “Final Projects”

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.

Legacies

While a lot of people are just getting into the swing of their semester, in my K12 world, our second trimester of the school year just concluded. It’s always strange to say that, or maybe it just feels that way because saying “It’s the end of the trimester!” has made people ask me if I’m pregnant (more than once).

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 No, it’s just how we do things. On the one hand, being on trimesters is great because of the way it breaks up the year. On the other, end-of-trimester is always a busy, stressful time. To offset that, in November, we get a three-day weekend between trimesters. In February, we get a four-day weekend (thank you, Presidents Day!). In both cases, students tend to get a lot of assessments and faculty get the opportunity to give students feedback on their work (also known as grading).

It feels like I’ve had a lot of chances to give students feedback recently, and it’s in those moments that I realize just how much I’m still using from grad school.

Continue reading “Legacies”

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.