Where History is Alive

I know, I’m sorry, I’m late!

Actually, I’m not sorry. I’m late with my post because I am on the beautiful Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius for work, and it is so heart-breakingly breathtaking that I needed a minute to just appreciate being here and learning.

SWW2You see, the formerly Dutch island is also a location in the nonfiction history book I’m writing. Known as the “Golden Rock,” it was the center of Atlantic Commerce in the 1700s, and a lot of that was deemed illicit by the other European superpowers of the time. It was filled to the gills with pirates, and plunder, and esoteric objects from around the world.

The island isn’t a big tourist destination (outside of a small and devoted group of returning diving and nature enthusiasts), and doesn’t have a place for larger cruise ships to dock, so much of the material remnants of this history remain. Down every alley, over every cliff, is evidence of corrupt governors, the enslaved, plantations, merchant homes, warehouses, etc. Yellow bricks imported from the Ijssel River regions in the sww4Netherlands comprise some of the most important ruins. Sherds of blue and white Delftware can be seen embedded in the runoff from several forts and plantations. Divers still regularly find glass beads used in trading in the sand. Many residents live in or on top of historically important buildings and sites. Everything is free and open to be viewed by anyone who cares enough to look. Every breath you take, is saltwater and history.

Thankfully this island also has people who appreciate all they have, and work hard to keep it safe for the future. I had the fortune of meeting them, and seeing the history through their eyes.  And you know what happened? I discovered that several of the things historians like to repeat about this island in the literature, had to have been written in error if they weren’t outright falsification.  When you can tangibly step into a place that you only before knew from the documents, a whole new truth unfolds right in front of your eyes.

This happened to me when I visited Ghana in 2010: many of the slave forts I wrote about, I had discovered in documents in The Hague, where most Dutch imperial materials are kept. From reading them, I had an idea in my head about what it must have been like. But actually going there, showed me that many of the things people wrote about would have been impossible. I walked several of the trails mentioned in the documents to see how long it took. I looked at the distances between forts, and how far away they were from the ocean, to see which cannon shots claimed in the literature could have made it, and which wouldn’t have. I saw the way the vegetation grew. I looked at how ruins were positioned. I realized at what points of the day which way the shadows would lie. I made note of the directions the wind blew. All of the sudden, a whole new world of what would have been possible and what wouldn’t opened up.

SWW1It’s the same here. Seeing the bays makes it obvious which could have sustained ships, and which would have wrecked them against the rocks. Seeing the plantation setups allows me to make guesses as to how many enslaved workers there could have been at any one time. Seeing the steep immensity of the inactive volcano known as the Quill (pictured above) makes it clear that no planting could have happened on its sides without some serious twenty-first century landscape architecture. Going to the ruins of the governor’s mansion helped me to see the types of things he could and could not see from his desk. All of these facts are incredibly helpful, and will breathe life into my book that I wasn’t even aware was missing.

I’m living the dream, folx.

Learning St. Louis

Note: want to write with us? See this post and apply by March 10!

The bus bumped slowly through the sprawling shopping complex, squeezing past rows of cars and pausing as shoppers sped in front of its path to get on with their shopping. We kept going, past the Trader Joe’s and World Market, even beyond Total Wine and More. We reached the back of the parking lot, just before an intersection with a small industrial road. We were looking for a plaque, our guide told us, but all we could see was the trash dumpster.

It took a moment, but we finally saw it: there, away from the bustling shops, right next to the dumpster, in a place no one ever goes. “Commemorating Evans Howard Place, 1907 to 1997, By the City of Brentwood”.


If it hadn’t been for this trip, the first of several mini tours of St. Louis I’m taking this year through the Cultural Competency program at my workplace this year, I would have never noticed this. I don’t shop at the Brentwood Promenade often, but it’s a well-known spot for St. Louisans. I didn’t know, but I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it stands on what was once an African-American community of more than 800.

Continue reading “Learning St. Louis”

Writers Wanted

Copy of smart womenSmart Women Write is a blogging platform by and for cerebral self-identifying women and non-binary writers engaging with the creative process. We are seeking to add another blogger to our team.

Our current fields of expertise are in history, digital humanities, public humanities, translation, gender studies, and education. While our current authors hold terminal degrees in their fields, this is not a requirement. We are looking for writers who can help diversify our offerings in the following fields, which you should define broadly: reportage, creative writing, digital media creation, technical writing, editing, and publishing.

Bloggers each contribute a monthly blog post of no more than 1,000 words and share in the management of our social media. Our blog posts address the various types of writing we do, work-life balance, reflections on the creative process, self-care for writers, how-to guides, and current events explored through a writer’s lens.Smart Women Write began in August 2016 as a labor of love; it’s an inclusive and affirming space where we can write and explore ideas. At this time, the site is not monetized and the blogging team does not receive any financial remuneration.

To apply, please send a cover letter and 2-3 writing samples (pdfs or links if online)  to smartwomenwrite@gmail.com by March 10. In your letter, include your fields of interest/expertise, some ideas for blog posts you would like to write, and links to your social media (we are not checking for numbers of followers, but would like to see the ways in which you engage with the world). We will contact successful applicants for informal skype interviews by the end of March.  Before applying, please familiarize yourself with our tone at www.smartwomenwrite.com and @SmartWomenWrite on Twitter.  

Applications from women or non-binary writers who are disabled, queer, undocumented, and/or of color are especially encouraged. We are also open to submissions from writers outside of the US.

A Final Post: Reflections and Thanks to Smart Women Write

Today I am writing to announce that I will no longer be writing regular posts for Smart Women Write. This was a really tough decision to make. I’ve loved having this platform as a space for reflecting on all kinds of themes at the nexus of gender and academia. I’ve also loved sharing my experiences about life #withaPhD during a period of transitions from adjunct instructor to a career completely outside academia as a small business owner. But more recently, as my new business as the co-creator of Super Nature Adventures has begun to take off,  I’ve found it harder to balance this blog with my career, and with the arrival of a new year I realized that it was time to make a tough decision and say goodbye.

Angela and Tanya have been amazing collaborators throughout and will continue to be here with regular blog entries. I will miss having this platform, and will miss working these two smart amazing fierce women. I’ve enjoyed trading ideas with them and working together on group posts. I’ll continue to look to their reflections as a source for inspiration.

Reflections on my Time at Smart Women Write

I started at Smart Women Write over a year ago, during a period of transition from new PhD to small business owner that I am today.  I had already been out of graduate school for a couple of years, and had gotten past what I like to think of as the post-PhD panic.

But I was an adjunct instructor, who despite my joy for teaching, felt very unsatisfied in the contingent work force. I tried to keep a good public face about adjuncting because I loved my subject matter and loved working with  students. But privately, I was cranky and snarky, and often unfairly rude to others who love what they do in academia because I was fed up with being disrespected as an adjunct.   I was starting to see the contours of an idea that would later develop into Super Nature Adventures — at a stage in the process where I was excited but also incredibly anxious about what that business might turn out be. I was juggling a lot but also experiencing that excited energy that comes with the promise of something new. 

This blog initially served as the space to step back and reflect on where I was and where I was going. It was a place for me to sort out what teaching meant to me. I used it to explore what had helped me thus far, and explore the ways that the PhD life can be unsettling. After the presidential election, it also became a place to process the everyday challenges of the weight of a Trump presidency.

One of the most striking things about this period of transition is how much my very conception of the PhD has changed since I first started blogging. When I was an adjunct, my grad degree was at the center of my thoughts, and now it hovers off in the periphery, only mentioned once in a while.

Our business involves materials for family hiking, and because it connects so much to kids, I find myself thinking and talking more about parenting experiences than anything related to my dissertation. I am involved in the Mom Owned Business (MOB) alliance and find greater affinity with that group than with PhDs at the moment. I am also often connecting with naturalists who can help me broaden my perspective.

This still strikes me as funny even as I write it, especially if I go back in time to reflect on my former self.

Not so long ago, that PhD was so important to my identity, the mark of my expertise (and not to mention, the excuse for my debt!), that it dominated every conversation around the subject of “what comes next?” And when I was putting that degree in the center, my answer to that question always involved some combination of the words “academic,” “alt-ac,” or “post-ac.” I believe now that this kind of thinking limited my own sense of self worth, even if it also, paradoxically, also gave me a bit of superiority complex.

I had to shed myself of the PhD’s mystique to get beyond these trappings. I had to set that identity aside for a bit. I had to mine other facets of my life, through an explorations of hobbies, childhood interests, and everyday joys. I journaled, wrote, and explored, and tried to foster an attitude of play to shake off all the academic/grad school baggage.

And now…now I am still proud of my PhD, but I don’t give it nearly as much weight as I once did. Now I see a PhD as one type of work experience from which I learned several transferable skills. Skills like writing, project management, research, and thinking creatively. There are also skills of communication and empathic listening that I also honed through years of teaching.

These skills are vital to the work I do starting and growing a new business, but so are other skills I am still developing. I have to humble myself to that fact in order to be able to grow.

Since shifting away from the world of “academia,” I’ve also come to see its limitations  in new ways. PhDs are conditioned towards perfectionism through experiences like dissertation committees and peer reviews. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of experimentation (okay, so I still struggle with this!). I’m still learning that one must leap, then leap again, then again and again, in order to shift careers completely, and that once you take that dive, a shift in attitude can happen rather quickly. You have to kind of “build the bicycle as you go,” so to speak, to get a business off the ground, because in business, there’s no way to plan for every contingency. The only way to learn is by jumping in.

I still get to write a lot, in ways that excite me because they are about the challenges of communication, connection, and inspiring joy (like I said, I work a lot with parents and kids). And if you are curious…or if you are into nature…you can always stop on by to read what I do now on the Super Nature Adventures blog.

Thanks for coming to read my posts and thanks for sharing them with others. And thanks, again, to Angela and Tanya for this great collaboration!

Creation & Curation: The Fort Negley Oral History Archive

Drinking from the rooftops of certain honky tonks in downtown Nashville, you can spot one of the nation’s most important, yet underappreciated sites for African American history: Fort Negley, the Union Civil War fortification on St. Cloud Hill. Many tourists have no idea what it is they are looking at.

The fort was built in 1862, using a combination of forced labor of enslaved Africans which the Union army in Nashville had rounded up from nearby plantations, and free blacks of Nashville and the surrounding areas, who offered their services in exchange for payment (much of which never materialized). There were also contraband workers- people from all over the South who fled their enslavement and sought out the protection of the Union forces on St. Cloud Hill through volunteering their labor. Once built, the fortification was defended by various regiments of the United States Colored Troops against the Confederate forces. Both builders and defenders died in record numbers at Fort Negley in the defense of our union.  Recent ground-penetrating radar reports have indicated a high likelihood that their remains still lie on the grounds of Fort Negley Park.

After the war, those who survived settled the nearby historically black neighborhoods of

Reenactors Bill Radcliffe and Gary Burke, descendants of soldiers who fought with the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War, stand at the base of Fort Negley, December 2017.

Chestnut Hill, Wedgewood Houston, historic Edgefield, and Edgehill. At the turn of the century, several prominent families from these neighborhoods founded North Nashville and all of the prestigious black institutions residing there- the historically black colleges, businesses, and churches. In the 1950s, these same institutions trained and supported some of the sharpest minds of the Civil Rights movement. There is a long and unbroken connection between the builders and defenders of Fort Negley, and Nashville’s current African-American population. Many members of this population see the fort as sacred, and they memorialize it with ceremonies, oral traditions, and historic reenactments.

Recently, Fort Negley has received national coverage due to a highly controversial development plan that would jeopardize the site and disturb the final resting place of the builders and defenders of the fort. Many take exception to the development for a wide variety of reasons beyond historic (questions concerning who was granted the development and why, the ethics of selling off city land to private developers who stand to profit from it,  how it exacerbates unfettered gentrification in a rapidly-expanding city, etc.) Continue reading “Creation & Curation: The Fort Negley Oral History Archive”

The Rearview Mirror and the Road Ahead, One year After my Dissertation

Author’s Note: This week I am out sick with the flu, so in lieu of a regular post, I am re-posting an essay I wrote for the blog, Un/Settled  – where my brother and I explored our rural roots and subsequent decisions to leave the midwest – back in spring 2016. It focuses on life after the dissertation, about 1 year out. Much has changed since that post, as is evident by my more recent posts about my post-ac career. As you’ll see, this essay explores the feelings of uncertainty in the midst of that transition period. Enjoy!


[Orig. published April 2016]

Almost exactly one year ago, I finished my dissertation in the field of art history. Not the final version, but the draft that would I would submit for my oral defense. For me, that’s the draft that counts the most because it’s the one that I used to jump through that last major grad school hoop. Few moments have sparked as many disparate emotions as when I hit send on that email to my committee members – satisfaction for having achieved such a monumental task, but also no little amount of anxiety about the impending defense, plus a large dose of impatience to just get on with it and get out. Most of all, I remember worrying and wondering about life on the other side of the defense – when I no longer had a dissertation to write and worry and obsess over, and I’d need to figure the rest of my life out.

It’s not just that I didn’t know where I was going. Looking back to last year, I realize that I wasn’t completely sure who I actually was. I mean, I’ve always known who I am in the broadest sense, but I had spent the last several years as “graduate student and budding art historian,” and that moment, a year ago, I dreaded the idea of being just another PhD without a full-time job (read: adjunct), or worse – an unemployed PhD who had to explain to non-academics why I just spent years without more than fellowship pay working on a book-length project for grad school.

I had also grown weary of the culture of the Ivory Tower, or what Jessica Langer has recently summed up as the  “climate of constant and unrelenting criticism” – that sense that you’re never quite good enough, even if you’re an award-winning scholar, just finished your PhD from an Ivy League school, or received the highest scores on teaching evaluations. Then there’s the work culture – the obscene work hours – that I had come to know too well. Let’s just say, I’d still be doing that dissertation if not for a spouse that took on the role of lead parent for most of my grad school life (we have a 6-year-old son). Every time I got an obscenely late email from a tenured professor (many of whom also had kids!), it felt like an omen of an overworked future that I dreaded. And did I mention I was also burned out on my dissertation topic and had no interest in turning it into a book? (For those of you not in academia, that’s what is expected.)

But I think I could have navigated all of those particular challenges if it weren’t for the additional fact that no matter how much I had tried throughout my years of graduate school, I never could shake a nagging feeling that I didn’t quite fit in.

I grew upon on a farm in Iowa. When I was 18, I had been very happy to leave. One of the reasons I’d been attracted to art history as a field of study was because I saw it as a means to escape my rural background and move toward something I imagined to be more worldly. I was drawn to its transportive powers when I took my first class my freshmen year. When I studied art works from the past, and got to know them well – and grew fond of the artists making them too – I felt like I could escape temporarily into another world. That was (and is) one of the discipline’s most liberating aspects.

And yet.

As much as I wanted to leave the farm, the farm is still very much of who I am, and as I became more involved in art history and academia, I began to feel torn. I felt constrained and managed. I grew frustrated with unwritten rules that are often challenged, but rarely rewritten.

My frustrations show themselves in my research interests over the past several years – my interest in working-class artists, my publications on politically leftist regional artists who take up farming as their subjects (love them!), my ongoing engagement with feminist issues because even to this day, women and people of color play second fiddle in the major stories of art history. I also grew tired of always talking about the “discourse” whenever we talked art history (“contributing to the discourse,” “expanding the discourse,” “challenging the discourse,” and so on and so on).  What I longed for was something less like a discourse, and more like a community. I longed for outreach and connection, dialogue and listening, and thinking about how creativity has played a role in all kinds of aspects of society.

Because of these frustrations, there were many occasions during all of that discourse talk that I felt like I was turning my back on my rural background. By the time I turned in that penultimate dissertation draft last year, I had come to feel a bit like an unhappy performer in a play that demanded my character reject her rural identity. I’m not saying that anyone told me explicitly to reject it.  Some of my mentors even nudged me to explore rural themes further. But there were also judgmental comments about rural America, stereotypes that colleagues and professors seemed to accept without question, and assumptions that made me uncomfortable.

And also – art history is also not just a discipline; it’s a culture built very much on notions of sophistication, and sophistication and rural culture don’t intersect comfortably in any way deeper than a bohemian wedding or farm-to-table dinner.

Last year when I turned in that draft, I began the journey that would lead me where I am today, writing this blog that confronts this discomfort, getting settled into the idea of being in flux, exploring that flux. I had no idea I’d be here, but here I am. I still engage closely with the arts (I do, in fact, currently work as an adjunct and like it). But I’ve also been involved in community arts projects, and I co-created and am founding editor of another blog focused on the arts and its relationship to place [author’s 2017 note: this is no longer active]. My brother [co-author of Un/Settled blog] and I talk frequently about the aspects of our backgrounds that comfort us, puzzle us, or encourage us to ask broader questions.

On Asking For Help

My job with the Slave Societies Digital Archive is probably one of the coolest I’ve ever had, and just to give you context, I’ve worked in a Scottish maritime museum on a real ship from the Age of Sail, so the competition is stiff.

Our archive sends out project teams to Africa and areas in Latin America with high percentages of African-descended populations. These teams go to churches and other places that typically hold on to old records and search for undiscovered primary source historic documents from the time of slavery. Most of the enslaved people in our records have never made it into any history books, because the creators of documents never found them important enough to write about or preserve. History tended to be written by the victors, after all, and those are the same people who decided what is worthy of being preserved in an archive, and what is not.

What our teams have found, is that if you know where to look, the stories of the enslaved, even those from the seventeenth century, can still be found on dusty shelves in church basements or people’s attics, crumbling and slowly eaten by insects, but otherwise intact. Our teams train local students to photograph every page and then the Slave Societies Digital Archive uploads these documents for researchers to use for the very first time. We currently have around 500,000 images, concerning the lives of 6-8 million Africans and their descendants. That is a LOT of stories, just waiting to be rediscovered and re-integrated into bigger histories. Continue reading “On Asking For Help”