To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?”

Emotional Juggling Act

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.

Continue reading “Emotional Juggling Act”

The History of Us All

 

eleanor_roosevelt_at_united_nations“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?”

Continue reading “The History of Us All”

The Art of Recommendation

I’ve just finished writing college letters of recommendation for former students of mine, and that got me thinking of the mechanics of writing these letters. Recommendation letters are a writing genre unto themselves. Just like with any good piece of writing, there’s a convention or formula people tend to use, but the very best pieces flout the convention successfully (the very worst flout it poorly, but that’s another post).

Writing a stellar letter is important to me. I want a letter that conveys exactly what I mean, to someone I may never meet. Studies have shown that letters that are more personal and show how well the recommender knows the student tend to hold more weight. Anyone can compose a generic letter, but I want to write the letter that best shows off just how hard the student has worked in my class, and how much they deserve a chance to make something of themselves.

So I do think about all those things that make a good recommendation: understanding a student’s goals, personality match, traits that will serve them well in a university setting, examples, things from personal life that give weight, specific language, evidence of growth and potential for further growth, etc.

Then I approach it the way I would when writing history: It’s all about the story. Continue reading “The Art of Recommendation”

Facing the Fake

6641427981_6296af68e1

In the last six months, I’ve had frequent flashbacks to my early college years. Those were the days when the university still had computer labs all over campus (including mini-labs on every other floor of my dorm building), and almost no one brought a computer with them to school. In my freshman year, I practically lived in the computer lab on my floor, often hunkering down with a Subway sandwich in hand and a bottle of soda. I spent hours online and refreshing my inbox in those days before social media. Who could forget all those hilarious email forwards that went around before we could simply link to something funny or interesting in our Facebook feeds?

In the last 19 years, I’ve managed to forget the content of most of those forwards, except for certain ones that had to do with the Profound Meaning of certain words. I thought such emails were long dead, replaced by online memes and 140 characters on Twitter.

I thought wrong.

Continue reading “Facing the Fake”

Endings|Beginnings

Last month, we were all a little obsessed with beginnings. New year, new presidency – it’s all been a little crazy. It still is. Here in my little corner of the universe, though, I have an ending in sight: my sophomore history course ends in 9 days.

This year, I’ve had a total blast teaching two sections of Accelerated 20th Century World History, a course I’d only taught once before. 20th Century World History is one of my favorite topics, and it’s one I’ve taught nearly every year since I started my job. The content is a blast, and one of the things I love about it is that it’s pretty much all still relevant. If you want students to understand how the past continues to be present, then take a look at 20th Century World History.

All of my 20th Century World courses have been fun over the years, but this year was something special for me. It’s been a fabulous run, and I’m sad that the course is already coming to an end. A month ago, it felt like we were just getting started: we’d finally moved past the basics and were starting to apply our knowledge to trying to understand more recent events, such as the Syrian conflict.

Right now, I’m sort of stuck in this moment. It feels like limbo; I’m eager to see my students produce their culminating projects (documentaries with oral history interviews), and I’m looking forward to these final class sessions. At the same time, I wish we could just keep going, and I’m sad that two weeks from Tuesday we’ll start our third term of the year and everything will be different. I know it will be good, in its own way, but I’m going to miss this.

I’m trying to remind myself that this must be the mark of a successful course: that when you reach the end of something and feel sad that it’s ending, it must mean it was good, right?

Mother: Well.

Tateh: You say that often, ‘well’.

Mother: It’s because I don’t know what else to say.

Ragtime the Musical

Right now, I really don’t. I’ve spent the past month alternately overwhelmed by non-stop grading and non-stop political news and non-stop personal life changes. I’ve written about my class today because it’s something that’s on my mind that is neither political nor writing related – two things I either don’t want to write about right now, or can’t (since I’ve done no writing in weeks).

But this is where I am. A few weeks into the new year, I’m nostalgic for a class that I’m about to leave behind, and feeling not quite ready for the new adventures that lay ahead.

I will be. And you’ll hear about them soon.

Well.

 

Handle with Care

neil-gaiman-new-years-wishes-and-gifts-2014http-%2f%2fjournal-neilgaiman-com%2f2014%2f12%2fnew-years-wishes-and-gifts-html

I am not good at being kind to myself. For more than two decades, I have been a self-starter, a highly motivated individual with often singular focus on a certain goal. I am very good at getting things done, and have been ever since high school. Time management comes easy; I have a strong, innate sense of time and how it will flow through my fingers once I set my mind to a task. It is not foolproof, but I am good.

This is handy for many points in life. Grad school, writing a book manuscript, reading tons of books each year, managing motherhood and career, teaching high school – everything I do relies on my ability to get things done.

Continue reading “Handle with Care”