The History Teacher Abroad

Last summer, I mentioned I was heading to a seminar in Cambridge as part of a sabbatical through my school. Now that the weather’s cooled and summer seems eons ago, I’m thinking about that experience more than ever – perhaps in no small part because I’m going to talk about it at school this week to all my colleagues and students, and because I finally retrieved the 750+ photos I thought I’d lost from the adventure.

Attending the Oxbridge Summer Seminar for teachers last year was an orchestrated effort on my part: I’m fortunate enough to teach at an institution that offers summer sabbaticals for faculty, and this was my second time applying. Whether or not you’ll get one depends on a variety of factors, including how many other people applied, but there’s also the limits of your own imagination. Most of the time, I haven’t applied because I couldn’t dream up something that sounded good enough, if I’m honest.

(A few years ago, I finally managed my first application, with a colleague in a different department. We didn’t get selected for the dream trip to Cuba, but two colleagues who actually teach Spanish did, so we were happy for them.)

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Peterhouse College, Cambridge, UK

Last spring, I discovered the Oxbridge Summer Seminar by chance and set about writing an application to attend “Why History Matters,” a week-long program held at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University. My proposal paired that experience with the idea of a few days in London to visit the Imperial War Museum and Churchill’s War Rooms, particularly because the world wars come up quite a bit when you teach 20th Century World History and US History.

What happens when you go abroad to spend a week contemplating “Why History Matters?”

First and foremost, of course, you have an amazing time.

The Oxbridge program, which included several seminars under one umbrella (mine, one on math, and one on English), included about 20 people from all over the world: Trinidad, Denmark, Pakistan, Taiwan, Canada, and various US states. In addition to our seminars, our program included daily activities, access to copious amounts of tea, speakers, and excellent food.

We took a guided tour of Cambridge, relaxed with drinks on a bridge over the River Cam, went punting on the river, listened to the choir at King’s College during Evensong, drove out to explore Bletchley Park (the home of WW2 codebreaking efforts). We strolled along the river, through meadows and cow pastures, to visit The Orchard Tea Room, frequented by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes in years past. One night, we toured a local gin distillery (complete with tasting – and a try of truffle gin, amazing stuff). One afternoon, I walked up the grand staircase into the Trinity College Library, a building designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Cathedrals haven’t moved me as much as the site of those ancient books and shelves and card catalogs long unused.

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Me, geeking out at the Trinity College Library

With my History group, each day was an adventure on top of this. When you think “seminar,” it’s never quite clear how much time you’ll spend in a classroom, but Oxbridge did it right. Following breakfast each morning, our group of 9 or 10 conversed around a table in an upper room with our instructor, the first female fellow at Peterhouse. We explored the British history curriculum, analyzed war poetry and how (and why) we teach it, and even read about ancient magic rituals to think about the role of anthropology and archaeology in studying history.

And then we left the classroom, often first to the warm weather in the Fellows garden, circled up beneath the trees as we chatted over copies of British university history exams. From there, we walked (or drove) to places I had never heard of or had not thought I’d be fortunate enough to see.

We strolled through town. We took taxis out to the Cambridge American Cemetery (and were nearly left there when none returned for us). We explored artwork (mostly Antony Gormley’s). We traipsed through the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, discovering ancient bones on which poets have written a few lines. We didn’t just read about history: we encountered it, we explored it, and we came face to face with our own thoughts about how and why that matters to each of us, as teachers, as people, and as citizens of our respective places.

I left Cambridge after only a week, but it hasn’t left me, which is the way these things always go, happily. It’s always good, then, to have something to head off to next when one adventure ends, and mine included a jaunt to visit one of my oldest friends (not by age, but by length of our relationship). My peaceful weekend between trip legs included little more than sipping elderberry cordial, playing games, walking around a village (or two), and clambering over ruins that once hosted kings. I paid my respects to Sir Churchill, learned how to do the floss, and contemplated the myriad ways we make our lives as we wish.

I finished my summer interlude with a few days on my own, at least, in London. I left the

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I found the cancellation line at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and it was worth the wait.

kindred spirits behind me and spent three nights in solitude at the top of a lovely inn across from the Imperial War Museum. (At night, the breeze blew in just right along with my view of the London Eye.) I tried to make the most of the time I had – as noted, it’s never enough, but I’ll keep trying. I got lost in the Imperial War Museum, waited in line for the Churchill War Rooms, discovered Ben Franklin’s House, and even managed, through a bit of patience, to score a ticket to see Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Along the way, I discovered the Tardis and King George III’s personal library, visited the Doctor Who shop, rode the London Eye, and visited the mummies and the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.

My summer was unexpected from start to finish, but this trip – the most expected part of it all, and yet in so many ways so unexpected itself – was tremendous all around. Now that winter appears to have settled in on my corner of the world, it’s nice to have memories of England and history in summertime, and that dream that maybe one day I’ll be British when I grow up.

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The ruins of Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, England.

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?”

Tangled Webs

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.

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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

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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.

Enter Spider Web Discussions.

Continue reading “Tangled Webs”

The Creativity of Project Management & Grants Administration

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.

It’s a really fun job, in that there are a lot of different people from different institutions I get to work with, while sharing my digital skills and coordinating events that help facilitate ongoing training and collaboration opportunities between the institutions. It’s been really rewarding finding people I have worked with for years through my work with the Digital Humanities Center, the Fort Negley Descendant’s Project,  the Friends of Fort Negley Board, and the Slave Societies Digital Archive and connecting them in new ways and watching partnerships flourish.

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!

Ruminations on the End of Summer, and the Start of the School Year

by Lynn Clement


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.

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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.

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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.

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I am lucky to be surrounded by Smart Women who wrote this month about finding your voice in writing, in teaching, and in unfamiliar territory. I have learned from each, luckily at the right time.

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.

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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.

Continue reading