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!

The End of Time, and Regeneration

Acc Syllabus

The new year is barely underway, but one major part of my life this school year is about to come to a close: my 20th century world history course.

I teach on a trimester system, so technically the course won’t end until around Valentine’s Day, but we finished content this last week because the students wrap things up with a major documentary project. I entered the new years prepping lessons for a final week of topics, and now I’m finalizing a final exam they’ll take on Thursday and Friday. After that, they piece together a documentary they’ve spent all year working on, and before we know it, we’ll all be done.

Continue reading “The End of Time, and Regeneration”

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”

Being a Writer in 2018

This year was a rough one for content creators.


For everyone in our circles, 2017 was filled with too much gin, not enough vegetables, and eternal guilt for not doing more: not resisting more, not creating more, not exercising more, not inspiring others more, not loving ourselves more.

But we muddled through, didn’t we? Not all of us, but many of us. And in times of desperation, unashamedly being yourself and getting stuff done is brave, and it is resisting. Every time we didn’t succumb to despair and instead lived our lives with compassion and truth, we succeeded.

And we believe we can all do one better in 2018.

We can let go of the guilt, for starters. We can recognize and really feel that we are living in unusual times, and that takes its toll. The feelings we are all experiencing- sadness, anxiety, powerlessness, concern, anger- are perfectly reasonable. We can make space for those feelings, honor them as typical reactions to abnormal situations, and find ways to press on and be effective in our lives despite them.

This Holiday season and into 2018, we are going to take the time to process these feelings, honor them, and figure out how to best adapt. We don’t accept the current political and social climate in the World, but we acknowledge its existence and effect on our lives. And we will fight to be more proactive rather than reactive. We will fight to find a balance between giving to those more affected than us, and putting time into things that help us nurture ourselves and grow. We will pare down that which no longer feels necessary and orient toward who we have always wanted to be.

And as always, we’d like to give you permission to do the same, if you want it. From three smart women to a whole lot more (and our men and non-binary readers as well, we love you, too), stay safe, grab happiness where you can, and find a way to make 2018 the very best it can be.

Love and light,

Angela, Bryna, and Tanya

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.

Teaching Apartheid

Five months later, I think of South Africa often, but nothing took me back to South Africa like this past week.

My 20th Century World History Accelerated (aka honors) students are studying nationalism and decolonization in these weeks before winter break. Mostly, the unit gives them a general narrative thread (in their homework) along with a few case studies (in class). I’d really love a full term on any one of the case studies we have, but this gets them started and exposes them to some history they’ve never thought about.

As a case study, South Africa is an interesting starting point, since it’s not about independence from European power (as they see in India or Congo). Independence from the apartheid regime is certainly key, though, as is nationalism. While apartheid South Africa looks different than many other places we could examine, it’s a powerful case study any way you look at it.

I also think that the story of resistance to apartheid, and the ways in which the South African people have tried to move forward, is one that connects well to recent publicity around police brutality and Black Lives Matter in the US. The story of Hector Pieterson, in particular, connects well to the topic of state intervention against peaceful protests.

In this post, I’ll take you through how I taught apartheid (and the end of it) in South Africa this year in one 90-minute session. Below, I talk about how I revamped the class this year and my goals with the new approach, the way I framed the class, what I’d do differently, and offer the resources that helped me make this class.

Continue reading “Teaching Apartheid”

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”