It’s been more than a decade, but I still remember how excited I felt at the prospect of being a teaching assistant (TA) in graduate school. As a first year, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to be TAs yet – for our first year, we were supposed to take classes, read, and write. Incredibly exciting, but teaching – teaching seemed like the place to be. When I finally got into the classroom in my second year, it was amazing and scary.
My sense from six years of graduate school in history is that many graduate programs don’t do a good job of training grad students to be teachers. That’s obviously a generalization, and to be fair, the Teaching Center at my school tried. They offered workshops and strategies for getting feedback on your teaching. The professors for whom I TA’d always worked hard to train us on discussion strategies, and once or twice I got to lecture. I learned a lot about how to grade, and I learned a lot from being in the classroom, but it’s really been the last seven years where I’ve found the range of resources and support to help me
become a better teacher each year.
Each year when classes start again, it’s always exciting to think about how I’ll approach a topic in a new way, or try out a new technique. My school holds a conference each June focused on teaching, and the sessions there have been incredible resources. I’ve managed to take some online classes that helped with content and teaching strategies over the years, I have access to a library with an excellent range of professional development materials, and on top of that, watching my colleagues at work and sharing ideas with them has helped me think about teaching in a plethora of new ways.
Teaching is all about finding the strategies that are effective for you and your students at any given point in time. For the past couple of years, I was focused on how to teach research to students; since last year, I’ve also thought a lot about how to help students engage with reading nonfiction effectively. This year, though, my primary goal is to expand engagement in the classroom, particularly in student discussion.
Smart Women & Co., I am so excited to tell you about my new position as Mellon Partner for Humanities Education Fellowship Postdoctoral research scholar at Vanderbilt University! That’s a mouthful, I know. But that’s because it’s an amazing program and opportunity that is allowing me to stretch in all the good ways I want to grow.
Essentially, one of the previous deans at Vanderbilt coordinated a grant to the Mellon Foundation to facilitate an educational exchange between our university and several liberal arts colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the area in order to strengthen the mutually beneficial ties between these campuses. Vanderbilt sends recent PhD graduates as postdoctoral fellows to these schools to provide teaching and support with digital projects, and to strengthen ties between faculty and facilitate research and teaching collaborations.
My job in all of this is to help fulfill grant management- ensuring Vanderbilt does all the things it has promised in the grant, stays within budget, and that our postdoctoral fellows (like our very own Raquelle at Fisk University, yay!) are supported in their work at these various institutions and have what they need to succeed. And I have lots of freedom and leeway with how I do this, which leaves room for creativity and troubleshooting and problem solving.
And I get to do all this while working on my own writing projects!
I do leave behind my position with the Slave Societies Digital Archive with a bit of fond sadness. It was an invaluable job that allowed me to learn so much about project management, grant writing and fulfillment, financial administration, event planning, and also flexed my digital skill sets. I liked how elastic the various tasks left my brain, and how much I learned on the job as the archive’s needs changed and I grew to meet them. Everything I learned there was a transferable skill that will serve me well in my new position. I anticipate remaining involved with the archive as I go on to digitize documents and add them to the ever-growing database, and am relieved that there are several graduate students and outside consultants who have been working alongside me and can keep the archive functional and grow it until a replacement can be hired.
I’m filled with gratitude and excitement about these next two years. In a world where fulfilling academic and academic-adjacent work is hard to come by, particularly when like me, you are choosy about where you live, these opportunities are few and far between. I’m excited for another two years to follow my passion, support institutions that make huge differences in this world, continue to expand my project management skill set, and pursue my own research goals. It’s a perfect fit. I look forward to having you all along on this new chapter of my journey!
Labor day weekend can be a mixed bag. While I never lament a Monday off, especially to honor workers past, present, and future, this weekend does herald the end of summer.
I am not particularly sorry to see the summer end this time, though the magnitude of this goodbye is striking. Summer was a struggle that culminated at the end of July with the death of my father. August was spent much like the previous months, with family, facing the harder facts of life.
With the start of my semester approaching quickly after, I anticipated spending more time on self-care than ever before. To cope, I’d been baking, running, and encircling myself with friends. Despite those invaluable supports, when thoughts and actions turned to work I became increasingly negative. Saying goodbye to summer, no matter how difficult it may have been, is tough and welcoming a September of “same-old, same-old” can hold equal elements of hope and frustration. I found myself struggling to swallow the stress of what did not get accomplished over break, marinating in disgruntled feelings of another year with little recognition or compensation, annoyance at expectations that syllabi would be available a week before I had even signed a contract meaning months of working for free, and immense pressure about what I wanted from the year ahead and how I would fulfill those goals.
These negative thoughts were fed by recent articles and online dialogue about the cost of higher education, a deluge of emails and articles about the realities of student life, and more importantly, student debt. I am not new to the subject. I put myself through undergrad and graduate school, but I’ve always had a support system. Even though I worried at the start of every school year that my financial aid wouldn’t come through quickly enough, I always knew that I’d be able to make it. I had to work every semester, and ate a lot of noodle packs of varying quality, but work was part time, it never took precedence over my studies, and I didn’t have to worry about feeding anyone else. Senior year I had to ask my parents for money to buy books because the financial aid did finally run out. I knew they went without in order to help me, but the support was there. Those loans still haunt me, but I still consider them an investment that improved my life and career.
They are dark days indeed when one realizes that it could have been worse and it has been important for me to acknowledge that my college experience is not the same for my students. At the start of every semester, I read about the escalating monetary struggle of students. In the middle of every semester, I have students who disappear when funds ran out. They have full time jobs, they have families to support, they have higher costs and less help.
So where did I go when feeling so full of malaise? Costco, because misery loves company. It was enough to make me want to actually eat the 5 gallon tub of guacamole I’d put into my cart.
However, the deeper I dug into the articles and twittershpere, the more I found others who had figured out ways to help, and finally I could make steps to do the same, things I should have been doing all along.
Higher education has been changing considerably but I had inadvertently held on to ancient rituals that can no longer be supported. So I filled my cart with groceries to donate to my college’s food pantry, a much needed program that was established last year. I have also vowed that every time I am compelled to shop at that God-forsaken place I will buy enough for them. I’ll be bringing paper and pens to class for students who cannot afford the materials necessary to take notes. Something I had never even considered in the past. I have made every assignment available to turn in online so students need not worry about the costs associated with printing, or stapling. Last semester I brought snacks and meals to my classes during finals week and will do so again. Textbooks have always been on reserve at the library, but I also changed my syllabus and study guide so students can utilize older, and thus, cheaper versions of the textbook. In addition, I will loan out old copies that I have to those who cannot afford any other option. It’s not much, and it’s not enough, but it’s what I can do. More importantly has been the advice I’ve read about changing my approach to students and their struggles in and out of the classroom.
I am from a blue collar working- class background teaching a subject associated with the elite. Art should not be kept out of reach and neither should text books, education, and basic needs. I need to amplify my voice and find new ways to facilitate learning with the current academic and economic challenges. It needs to be something I consider every year, particularly on Labor Day weekend.
Angela wrote a fantastic piece last week about finding your nonfiction writing voice. This week, I’m going to branch off from that a little to reflect on finding your teaching style, which I think has some connection – although certainly, teaching style varies by where you teach, what you teach, and who you teach.
Last week, I walked in the door for my eighth First Day of School at one of the places I love most in the world. Of course, Year 8 started long before then: it started a year ago, when my entire department began re-imagining our courses. It continued last spring as I teamed with a few colleagues to build our new 9th grade course and accelerated 10th grade course (aka honors). And of course, it certainly continued into the summer this year, as a full-on department redesign takes a good time commitment from all involved.
It’s been an exciting process, and this year, the redesign is where my creative energies have gone.
Even though Virginia Woolf’s famous essay about the importance of creative space for women (both public and private) was published in 1929, it wasn’t until 2013, after the birth of my daughter, that I finally claimed a room of my own.
I lost myself a bit after becoming a mother and I struggled while my body, mind, and purpose felt as if they were no longer fully my own. Personal space suddenly became more important as I grappled with identity and nagging doubts about career and choices, in general. So I staked a claim in my home to help me retake my place in the world. This was also important for legitimizing my work, to others and myself. My contingent faculty career status had often been maligned, and this often made me question my place and worth. Both became stronger after I added “mother” to my list of jobs. “Maybe now you should focus on something more worthwhile?” “Maybe this could be a chance to switch careers?” “Are you even going back to work?” “When?” “How?” “Why?”
I did go back to work because I love what I do, and I didn’t switch jobs because I’m also good at it. However, I needed to find equilibrium between my career and my new role as caregiver. To do this I needed space. I found a tiny section of my already cramped home and tried to carve it into something. I ripped up carpet, scrubbed floors on hands and knees, stripped wall paper, patched walls with joint compound, painted newly sanded surfaces and trim, hauled books, dragged furniture, hung curtains, and remade the space as I tried to remake myself.
It’s not perfect, and it’s a bit chaotic, but it reflects me: who I have been, who I am despite the changes I have undergone, who I may become. My actual work space, a narrow desk with an obsolete X-Files mouse pad, is surrounded by objects that make me contented: books, art, notes, papers, mementos, trifles. Tomes on art, popular culture, programming, science, culture, politics, and religion are stacked below art made by my grandmother, my sister, my students, and my daughter. (The drawing by my daughter depicts me, fighting a dinosaur with a sword. Totally bad ass.) Mismatched bookcases and sills hold some of my most prized keepsakes. An antique typewriter found at a garage sale was given to me by my parents. They had high hopes that I would write my first book with it. I won’t, but it is a sign of the support I have from family and friends. A guitar built by my great-uncle from an old stump that was half rotting in the backyard of my childhood home serves as a reminder to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, and to make something beautiful and useful. My collection of running medals, all earned during road races of varying distances, reminds me to put in the work no matter how tedious.
Not everyone has the luxury of a room of their own and sometimes I still don’t. I began writing this post on one of those yellow legal pads because my daughter had commandeered both my desk and my laptop. In addition, my office now temporarily houses her new kitten and all his kitten accouterments. However, the process of making that space my own resulted in an important change of mindset about room and my need to make some for myself in the world. It’s okay to take up space.
As with the season itself, my summer themed blog post has gone through a lot of edits. Most recently it devolved into one sentence that started with the letter “A” followed by countless “H”s: a primal scream to express the despair induced by the summer of 2018. Like my colleagues, I had begun the summer with high hopes to do what was important, professionally and politically, because summer is an occasion to carve out time for the work that gets neglected during the year.
I tried. I really did. I had a manageable, organized schedule of all the significant (and some insignificant) things I was going to accomplish. I was going to update all my syllabi early and set up all my courses’ online components in May. I was going to do the bulk of my research for lecture improvements and attend important protests in June. I was going to teach two summer classes in July. I was going to do independent research in August. I was going to arrive at the fall semester feeling prepared, having had a fulfilling and productive summer.
I’m going to say something that may shock those who work in fields that do not “observe” summer break, and it may even seem controversial for those who do: I dislike summer vacation. I equate summers to holidays like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and ones 21st birthday. Expectations are too high, you never end up doing what you really wanted, and most of the time it ends with you sweaty, stressed, and either too drunk or not nearly drunk enough.
I know I’m not alone when I say that my summer did not turn out how I had planned. Syllabi remain unfinished, I have yet to read a book in its entirety, another adjunct was kind enough to take my classes, and August is shaping up to be a real shit-show. Despite the stress to come, I am glad I made this decision. Time with my family has been invaluable. Most of my summer days thus far have been filled with a different kind of valuable work: trying to keep my daughter busy and happy as I help my mother take care of my father. I never thought I’d be dealing with a dying parent at this point in my life, but here I am, living in my hometown, something I haven’t done since I was 18. Although there have been picnics, crafts, sprinklers, and quality time with loved ones, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that the weight of those unfilled expectations is staggering. The thought of extending and postponing my to-do list until next summer is crushing.
Being forced to slow my life to a screeching halt has been an incredibly tough adjustment, but it has given me some clarity and a new plan for summers to come. I’m giving up the summer to-do list, possibly forever.
I do so with a happy heart, to honor my father because it’s time for me to find a better work-life balance in all seasons. Most of my memories of my dad revolve around labor, projects, and things that needed doing. Running a successful family owned and operated heating and cooling business in a small town meant working hard…always. Despite his large circle of friends, countless creative hobbies, and an aggravatingly optimistic personality he spent most of his life elbow deep in work. It wasn’t until he was forced to retire due to the cancer that he was able to enjoy his “summer” and even then he spent much of his time on building projects. I wish reconnecting with friends, traveling, and playing in a band had not been left to, what would become, the last years of his life. I’ve inherited his work ethic and I’ve realized that I don’t want to sing karaoke as a pot-bellied 60 year old. I want to do it now, as a pot-bellied 40 year old.
Like most everyone, I still have to deal with normal life constraints, but this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give up on the idea that at some magical point in my year, or life, the stars will align and I will have the opportunity to get everything done. The promise of summer often allows me to put off until tomorrow what should be today, and this is my trouble. I have to strive to make time for what is important at all times, so that life may be fuller, rather than just busier. This will be more easily said (typed) than done, I know, but I can try. I’m throwing the summer to-do list out and instead, each month I plan to do at least one thing I’d normally save for summer. It could be as small as finally reading that book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a decade, or big, like finally taking that research trip to Paris.
All the things on my list cannot not, and should not, wait until a literal or metaphorical summer. Lectures will be re-written, research will be done, articles will submitted, Python and SQL will be learned, cabins will be rented with friends, parties will be planned, canvases will be painted. It will all be done, but not if it is relegated to side projects to be executed during vacations and holiday breaks.
I look forward to the experiment of interspersing the year with greater flexibility for all important activities and opportunities. If you don’t mind indulging me, I’ll tell you sporadically of the successes and failures in future posts.
Although I’ve always tried to take an activist’s approach to art history and fought against the notion that it is inconsequential, there have been times that I have succumbed to the denigrations of my profession. In the wake of the 2016 election, with attacks on immigrants, refugees, the LBGT community, the rise of violence against people of color, and the return of the white supremacist public voice (to name a nauseating few), my job felt particularly frivolous. I am lucky to have a circle of friends who are avid do-gooders. Through their chosen careers they fight for voting rights, for reproductive rights, for clean energy and natural resources, and for fair banking practices (to name a brilliant few). Being surrounded by such people gives me an enormous sense of pride, and an enormous inferiority complex. What could I do to make a difference?
Beth Pickens’ book is an open letter to those working in the fine arts, but her advice could be used for anyone. The passage that will likely reverberate wider than what the author may have originally intended reads:
“The lesson I took away—and that I access during every natural and human-centered crisis—is that I can start exactly where I am, with what I have, to work toward justice and be of service to someone more vulnerable than I am. I don’t have to wait. I don’t need to become somebody else or wish for difference skills.” (Pickens, 28)
This is the passage from the book that most inspired me. What are my skills? What is my passion? What is my creative outlet? What do I hope will impact others on a micro or macro level? For me, it is my research and my teaching. I had my answer; this is what I could do.
I could find ways to expand the discourse and challenge the status quo. I could strive to think even more critically about what I see and read, and I could teach students to do the same. I have long been in the process of rewriting my lectures to be inclusive of voices of those that had been marginalized throughout history; I could double, triple my efforts. I could create more assignments that challenge long time ascertains about art, art making, and art seeing. I could give to my student food bank and reach out to students in a greater way. Many would now be dealing with less assistance and would be dealing with family members (or their own) threats of deportation. I could also support writers and scholars working to improve the inclusiveness of my, and related, fields. This is how I could channel my fear and anger. “Anger is real and necessary, and it can be transformed into fuel.” (Pickens, 37)
“When our culture becomes oppressive and moves toward upholding the white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy, we need creative, public forms of dissent to inspire, counter fatigue, rally, instigate, and inform.” (Pickens, 104)
Art is often in service to those in power, however, art has always had a purpose beyond that. “I read about artists making work during war, in times of violence, and despite systemic neglect.” (Pickens, 10) Art has power and it can give voice to the powerless. I think this is one of the reasons that art is viewed as dangerous. It can easily be used to tear down the false narratives that our nation was built on. I could address those false narratives in my approach to history and how it has been recorded in visual forms.
“Your art will help you navigate the world, and it will light the way for others.” (Pickens, 9)
As I look to those working in the fine arts to light my way, I can say the same for fellow scholars working in the humanities. Again, to make this change I’m doing my research and finding likeminded teachers, scholars, and historians. They are making a difference and they are helping me to strive for the same. A tumblr page entitled People of Color in European Art History provides outstanding resources for addressing race in the visual arts. LaTanya S. Autry has created an invaluable resource regarding museums and social justice. Smarthistory.org has amazing resources on myriad art historical subjects, but their Seeing America theme is particularly helpful in addressing notions of a more inclusive National Identity in the visual arts. Angela Sutton and her colleagues at the Vanderbilt Center for Digital Humanities working on the Slave Societies Digital Archive have inspired me to address hard histories in my classroom despite the risk. Pickens’ book offered additional people of action like Marcia Chatelain who created the #Fergusonsyllabus, a resource for educators teaching “every age group in every discipline, to share resources for bringing racism, policing, urban history, civil rights, and black history into each of their classrooms…” (27)
I still feel inadequate and ineffectual most of the time, but the more I read, the more I learn, the more I see others in my field resisting, the more I feel better equipped to help. “We have a vision for the world we want to live in, and we have the tools for resistance.” (Pickins, 25)