Midsummer 2019 was the day I moved into my first house. The sky blackened as I drove a carload of belongings there. I made it to my new neighborhood in North Nashville just as the thunderstorm hit. Pulling into the driveway, a loud snap shook my car. I watched the thick, sturdy tree in the front yard of the neighbors across the street collapse onto the road. It pulled down power lines right across the driveway making it unsafe to drive out. Fortunately, the damage was to property, and not people.
Stranded, I decided to make the most of it and unload my
things. The rain started up again, and cardboard boxes nearly disintegrated in
the deluge, but I got everything in more or less undamaged.
When the electricity went out, I checked my phone and saw that the storm been upgraded to a tornado warning just as the sirens came on. There was nothing to do except wait it out as night fell.
I didn’t want to sleep with no bed, electricity, or water service, so once the warning was over, I considered driving through the front yard to get out. Then I saw that the power lines weren’t just across my driveway, but across the whole yard. There was no way out.
And then two men in soaked hooded sweatshirts and flashlights knocked on my car window. They introduced themselves as Ernesto and Big Will, neighbors from down the street.* They were going house to house checking to make sure no one needed anything. With their help, I was able to reverse out out through the backyard and in the alley. They rushed to clear away tree branches and garbage cans that the storm had knocked over so I could get home and waved me off. Before I left, they talked about bringing out their chainsaws in the morning and helping my other neighbors break down that tree, so I could get my moving van in, as it might be a while before the city sent someone up here. North Nashville, a historically black neighborhood that is now in the grip of gentrification, hasn’t traditionally been high on the city’s priority list. Or even on it, for the vast majority of its existence.
If I don’t go for a career in academia, I still want a position in which I can read, research, think, and write. To brainstorm possibilities for a future career––potentially outside of the university––I often look to individuals who have jobs and lifestyles that appeal to me. Lauren Collins is one of those people. To glean some insight from her path to writing, I requested an interview. She graciously agreed. And now I’m bringing her answers to the SWW community.
Lauren Collins began working with the New Yorker in 2003 and has been a staff writer since 2008 (she just published a fascinating piece on the pioneer-princess of Georgian cuisine, Barbare Jorjadze). She has also written a book, When in French: Love in a Second Language, that explores the nuances of affection in another language.
It’s the end of the semester, which means it’s final project season. When everyone has their eyes set on summer break (myself included), it can be difficult to keep students engaged and putting effort into the last week or two of coursework. So this year, I decided to try something new.
This spring, I have been teaching a course on women writers and filmmakers in contemporary France. My students have submitted a blog-style composition that applies earlier course readings (more theoretical texts from the 1950s-70s) to contemporary events. They have also completed two close-reading papers (standard for developing analytical habits of mind for literary scholars). The final project — the one they’re working on now at the end of the semester — allows them to transform one of their close reading papers into a multimodal text. These projects are being created in an online format for a general audience (i.e., not just their professor). My hope is that this activity will encourage them to consider (1) how engaging with course texts can go beyond the classroom walls and (2) how and why they might talk about this course material to their peers. This links to a bigger question: What will you take away from this course? (How) Have the course’s readings influenced the way you think about identity politics and everyday life in France and in the US?Continue reading “Final Projects”→
While a lot of people are just getting into the swing of their semester, in my K12 world, our second trimester of the school year just concluded. It’s always strange to say that, or maybe it just feels that way because saying “It’s the end of the trimester!” has made people ask me if I’m pregnant (more than once).
No, it’s just how we do things. On the one hand, being on trimesters is great because of the way it breaks up the year. On the other, end-of-trimester is always a busy, stressful time. To offset that, in November, we get a three-day weekend between trimesters. In February, we get a four-day weekend (thank you, Presidents Day!). In both cases, students tend to get a lot of assessments and faculty get the opportunity to give students feedback on their work (also known as grading).
It feels like I’ve had a lot of chances to give students feedback recently, and it’s in those moments that I realize just how much I’m still using from grad school.
When I wrote my first Non-fiction book proposals, with all of its moveable parts, I felt intimidated. I had to create an overview, author bio, market analysis, competition, plan for promotion, the table of contents, my chapter summaries, and a detailed explanation of my source materials before a literary agent would even consider looking at my idea for a book.
I definitely can’t tell you how to write a non-fiction book proposal (thankfully others have gotten into that), but I can tell you about my experience creating and revising my first one (I’m now working on my second, woo!), and how worth it it really was.
Of course I loved creating the table of contents and the chapter summaries. Doing that helps you figure out if you’ve got enough material for a book, or if you’re trying to collapse too many elements into one. And the part where I explain my source materials? Really fun- I loved gathering all of my books, microfilms, photocopies, and archival photos into once place and taking stock of all there is. Seeing all the primary sources together like that helped me to ask where the silences were, and where the meatiest parts of the story existed. That caused me to make a few changes to my table of contents. Then gathering up my secondary sources helped me to figure out if my book had a chance of being fair and balanced, or if I over-relied on a handful of historians whose interpretations I enjoy more.
But then there were the other parts. A big shout-out to my agent for being patient enough with me to revise them multiple times before sending it on to publishers. The other parts are much more marketing-oriented. I tried to imagine how someone in the book-selling business would see this book of mine, and how they would sell it. On which shelf would it go? To which books could I compare it? What kind of reader would want it? How could it be made most profitable without losing its essence and integrity?
Writing those parts of the book proposal showed me that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world of publishing. And that’s to be expected- I’ve spent the past twelve years in academia. While I do read widely and enjoy trade history books (and other trade non-fiction), the majority of the books I’ve gone through in that time have been academic. That means that I have been exposed mostly to books created to fulfill professional curiosity and research gaps, not books created to entertain and teach the public about history. I had to entirely re-orient myself.
Thankfully, that’s where the teacher-brain took over. I sell history to everyday people all the time. My students, whether they are undergrads or older adults continuing their education for fun, do better with historic material if it’s presented in an interesting way. I weave together all kinds of stories for them upon which to hang all the facts and theories they need to know. I’m always picking the unconventional and surprising historic figures in my primary sources and showing students the larger paradoxes of the time periods through these characters’ daily lives. When my students lean forward and stop surfing the net, I know it’s a story that will sell.
Writing the book proposal taught me that the main difference between writing an academic and a trade book is like the main difference between sitting in the archives and standing at the lectern: it’s audience. The “So what?” is important in any non-fiction book, but the other academics who read your academic book don’t need it: they understand the intrinsic importance of most historic research, and if your book has to do with their topic, they’ll give it a glance. In a trade book, however, how well you nail the “so what?” is everything. If you show your readers how everyday people were affected by the thing you’re writing, they want to know more. Just like you’ve got to convince your students that the time and money they have invested in your class will pay off, you’ve got to reassure the reader that your book is worth it. It’s a mental shift that affects every other part of the proposal and your book, and opens up so many exciting avenues to explore.
Ah, February. The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start. It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me. It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.
A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.
For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included. However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial. This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.
I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”
In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium. Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence. Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident. I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education. This is because I immediately saw its worth. This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.
Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking. We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have. I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom. We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation. We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing. How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see? Hopefully by taking my class.
This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking. Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.
I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person! Really! I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.
I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years. While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.
Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.) They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?
Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment. In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation. What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done. Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.
I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years. With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.
I’m not a person who moves slowly. Growing up, I spent many years taking piano lessons and practicing for hours. I always added a bit more speed to the songs than they really needed. When I started learning how to type, my mother told me she wanted me to type at least 60 words per minute; I figured that was too slow. I walk quickly, I talk fast, and even in graduate school, I often worked at breakneck speed. I have a lot I want to do, and I get a lot done.