A year ago, my school asked if I would be interested in chaperoning a trip to South Africa this summer. In between my shock and jaw dropping, I managed to say “Yes! Absolutely!” and spent the next few months wondering if it would really happen. It seemed too good to be true.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher approaching the end of the school year must be in dire need of summer break.
– Not Jane Austen, but close
This spring, the end of the school year crept up on me. I spent months being in denial that we had blown past spring break and were approaching the end of the year. At the start of May, a piece of me still imagined I’d get to continue for weeks more with my students, exploring this or that topic.
(I’m confident none of them envisioned spending their summers that way.)
At the end of May, I completed my sixth year as a high school teacher. I’ve now spent as many years teaching as I spent working on my PhD. There is something really cool about that, and also totally impossible to think that it’s been a dozen years since I began grad school.
In these six years, I’ve approached summer a variety of ways. I’ve chaperoned trips, done PD weeks at various programs, drafted a book, presented at a conference, and spent a little downtime with family.
Every single year has also involved a lot of lesson planning, at least in the last two weeks. It’s just what I do: I get my head away from school a bit, breathe, and come back to planning courses when everything is a little fresher in my mind.
Last year, I was exhausted when June hit. This year was different. A lot of my colleagues were exhausted, physically and emotionally. I should have been exhausted, too: it’s certainly where I was in January and in February and even before spring break in March. But when the students left this past May, I was ready to look ahead to next year. I usually don’t do a lot of prep in June, but this year, I wanted to work on things while they were fresh in my mind and I was energized.
In the month of June, I was on campus almost every single weekday, keeping pretty close to usual school hours (plus some). In part, I went to campus each day because my son’s preschool is only a couple of miles from there (our house is much further away, and I do afternoon pickup). I get a quiet place to work, surrounded by books and space, and I maximize my work time since it takes only 5-10 minutes to get to the preschool (instead of leaving 30 minutes in advance from home).
Campus is quiet in the summer, but not totally silent. In addition to the summer camp kids running through the halls periodically, you eventually discover that you’re not the only one sneaking in a little work. A few other teachers snuck on to campus to get some work done, and some of the staff are still around (and happy to enjoy a good lunch elsewhere, like a local German-American restaurant, or all-you-can-eat sushi).
I love planning courses and classes in the summer because you get these uninterrupted stretches of thinking space: no assignments to grade, no classes to cover for someone else. No meetings with faculty or students, no daily obligations in between your classes. If you’re really good at getting stuff done without someone making you do it, well, summer is a magical time to imagine what the next year could be and start to build that reality.
I love what I do. Spending my time on campus this month – and a lot of spare time reading and thinking about courses – hasn’t felt like work. It’s just felt natural, and fun. Thinking about courses and how they’re organized, articulating the course standards, rethinking assessments, and setting goals and class plans? These are some of the fun puzzles that make me happy in my career.
So far, this summer is incredible. I haven’t yet accomplished the big goals I set for myself, but I’m discovering some good things that I think will help me be a better teacher next year.
No matter how we spend the summer, I hope that’s the goal all teachers have in mind.
Note: Tanya pre-wrote this entry because she’s chaperoning a school trip for two weeks. She looks forward to telling you more about it when she gets back in mid-July. This gives her plenty of time to fine-tune her courses for the fall, which she’s already itching to get back to.
I have just returned from Charleston, juiced up from one of the most thoughtfully constructed conferences I’ve attended in a long while. It was one of those conferences that attracts both academics and people with a wider range of career experience: I met clergy, museum workers and historic interpreters, archivists, librarians, web developers, K-12 teachers, project managers, both fiction and non-fiction writers, community organizers, and probably more I can’t recall just now. We were all there in our shared interest of the ways in which the history of African-Americans is constructed, presented, preserved, and consumed.
Many things stuck out for me in the duration of this conference as extraordinary. We got to hear from Rex Ellis, one of the curators at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his thoughts on the person who left that noose in the exhibit on segregation last month. We got to attend a welcoming talk at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, whose congregation lost 9 members two years ago this week in a white supremacist domestic terrorist attack. It was humbling beyond belief to see some of their family members greet and welcome us at the door. Afterward, we moved to a reception (catered by one of Charleston’s Top Chef contestants) and participated in a vodun ceremony for the ancestors, and then heard from intrepid park rangers about the ways in which they help Charleston fight the hoopskirts narrative in order to come to terms with its history as America’s largest import-city of enslaved Africans.
The next day, a panel about teaching African-American history in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the current POTUS got incredibly real as black public historians and activists did the emotional labor of sharing some of the most humiliating and painful stories of degradation they had experienced in their careers, and the ways in which they work to support others with the same experiences. The emotional power and conviction of everyone at this conference floored me, because I too am passionate about history specifically because of how it can illuminate the injustices of the past and transform the present.
Something that really struck me in this type of intimate space, was the ways in which attendees approached networking. If you asked them, I doubt anyone would have used that word to describe what was going on. You see, the people at this conference were each passionate beyond belief about finding ways for public history to affirm the humanity of black people, both of the past and in the present. All of the conversations around panels and receptions and plenary talks were held with utmost enthusiasm and the spirit of “What you are doing is so incredibly awesome, how can I help or be part of it?” People forged connections, planned collaborations, and shared skills organically, all coming from the same desire and passion.
So what does that tell me about networking? Continue reading “On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics”
Think back: when did you learn how to do research?
You know, that process of going to the library sometime in your elementary or secondary or college education to learn about some topic so you could write a paper about it. I remember my first research paper ever, in Miss M’s third-grade classroom. She listed all the available topics on one of those clear sheets she could display with the overhead projector, then went around the room allowing us the chance to choose.
I reallyreallyreallyreally wanted Elizabeth the First, but either my last name was too late in the alphabet or I wasn’t listening well that day (probably both), so I was out of luck. Fortunately, there was also an Elizabeth II, so my luck hadn’t entirely run out, even if this one didn’t have the neat-looking dresses.
Ironically, the next research process I remember well, the one where I think maybe I started to get the hang of “research,” finally took me back to Elizabeth I, or more accurately to her older half-sister. (It’s almost shocking I didn’t become an early modern British historian, right?)
I’ve spent countless more hours, days, and weeks doing research since then. In grad school, I wrote a lot about my research and note-taking process, but it’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve begun thinking about an even larger question: how do you teach someone to do research?
Picture the scene: I am eight years old. I have a mullet (I have a German mother, and it was the early 90s, so I refuse to be ashamed of this). I am on the playground during recess with my best friend, whose parents made better hair choices for her. Another kid approaches the teal-colored plastic picnic table and asks if he can sit with us. My friend pushes colored pencils and construction paper at him while I tell him sure- as long as he will help us write an encyclopedia. He wants to write about GI Joes, but that day we were doing geology, so we put him on igneous rock duty instead. Two minutes later, he’s playing red-rover with the other kids. We shrug and page through the National Geographic my friend swiped from her pediatrician’s waiting room. We debate whether the next day’s topic should be shipwrecks (me) or cloning (her).
It would be a few more years before I learned that this was a bizarre way for a child to be. But even my 8 year old self knew that anything worth learning about was *really* worth learning about. And she learned through writing.
Little has changed since then in that regard. Sure, reading is great for learning, but to really get something at the visceral level, I have to write about it. Writing is the best way for me to figure out how I think and feel about something, and if there is a disagreement between my heart and my head. It’s not until I write something that all the connections between my subject and the rest of what I know are forged.
Now why am I telling this story, besides outing myself as a bemulleted child? It’s because the semester is almost over, and summer approaches. Summer is the season in which grad student and junior faculty get approached by educational tools companies and specialized encyclopedia publishers seeking to find qualified content creators.
I’ve written several of these pieces in the past, and here’s why:
- If there is ever some weird time-travel situation and I get to meet my hyper-critical perpetually squinting 8 year old self, this is totally going to break the ice.
- Getting back to the basics of the subjects that pretty much make up the cornerstone of my research can be really helpful. Writing an encyclopedia article or study guide designed for undergraduates first learning about a subject is a lot like teaching. It helps to pull me away from the narrow periscope-view I can sometimes develop when writing a book and help me remember the different aspects that are there and that I have to keep in mind while writing. For example, when I am writing about the deals between the Swedish and Fetu on the 17th century Gold Coast, it’s helpful to have in mind the latest big picture of the Atlantic slave trade, of early Swedish imperialism, and of precolonial West African history, because that shapes how I pull the narrative out of the sources. Writing these encyclopedia articles was a good exercise for me in reminding myself of the most recent scholarship (and reminding myself to always be reading the most recent scholarship), and in critically evaluating which sources and viewpoints provide students with the most fair yet nuanced understanding of the subject.
- Speaking of students and a fair yet nuanced understanding, creating high-quality materials like this is an important service to them and to the field. The way I write one of these introductory overviews of the field shapes the way students think about it, and the sources I suggest will color their view also. It becomes an exercise in thinking through the political and socio-cultural implications of privileging points of view. For example, when writing about Timbuktu, I thought about how residents of city experienced the many changes it underwent. Which people and events shaped the city in ways that are still felt now? A big theme in the history of Timbuktu is the position of the Tuareg peoples in relation to that city, and there is a cyclical sense of history repeating itself each time they staked their claims upon it. I think about this in my writing always, but am hyper aware when creating something that requires as much objectivity as is possible in order to fairly represent the past in a way that is still easy to understand. It feels good to do a good job with these, because of how important a solid foundation in a historic subject really is.
- The pay- I’m building my personal library, and academic books don’t come cheap. If you have a solid background in the subject, writing these articles doesn’t take much time, and your hourly rate is pretty good- far better than most freelance writing work.
So with that said, if you’re also interested in writing something like this, here are a few things I learned that may be helpful to keep in mind: Continue reading “To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?”
For the last week, I have been busy working on a new business project with my husband called Super Nature Adventures that I plan to launch this month. This project stems from my lifelong love the outdoors and will feature monthly subscriptions of adventure packets. Each will focus on a different family trail in the Pacific Northwest. This has all been very daunting, but also very exciting, especially in the last few days as we’ve been smoothing out the final details for the project. Yet at the same time, my teaching still lingers in the background. Just this week, I began teaching a class that will likely be my last one as an adjunct on a topic related to my dissertation, no less.
It would be an understatement to say that this juggle been a challenge, and not only in the ways that I had expected when I laid out this game plan to make sure I had some income while I was working on the business launch. I knew that juggling two kinds of work would be stressful, and I had anticipated such common challenges as learning a new culture. What has caught me off guard is the emotional work of this juggling act. I am at the starting point, but also must attend to the closure of a chapter in my life. This simultaneous process of closure and change has brought forth emotions that had been lying dormant since I first walked across that stage to be hooded for my PhD. And yet simultaneously I am so so eager to move on. Each side of this equation comes with so many competing emotions that some days I feel like I am having an identity crisis.
“I became more of a feminist than I ever imagined.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
The more I learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, the more I like her. I also like to think we could have been BFFs, but I think that’s how it goes with heroes. Like good old ER, I haven’t always identified as a feminist, nor have I always been a women’s historian, but today those are two integral parts of my identity. For people who think like me in those regards, every month may be Women’s History Month, but March is the designated month of observation. I suspect that I know more than a few people who probably wonder “Why do we need Women’s History Month?” I still tend to think, “Why not?”