The Research Connection

Think back: when did you learn how to do research?

You know, that process of going to the library sometime in your elementary or secondary or college education to learn about some topic so you could write a paper about it. I remember my first research paper ever, in Miss M’s third-grade classroom. She listed all the available topics on one of those clear sheets she could display with the overhead projector, then went around the room allowing us the chance to choose.

elizabeth_i_when_a_princess
Seriously, who wouldn’t want to study someone who dressed like that and had red hair? I wanted red hair and a dress like that.

I reallyreallyreallyreally wanted Elizabeth the First, but either my last name was too late in the alphabet or I wasn’t listening well that day (probably both), so I was out of luck. Fortunately, there was also an Elizabeth II, so my luck hadn’t entirely run out, even if this one didn’t have the neat-looking dresses.

Ironically, the next research process I remember well, the one where I think maybe I started to get the hang of “research,” finally took me back to Elizabeth I, or more accurately to her older half-sister. (It’s almost shocking I didn’t become an early modern British historian, right?)

I’ve spent countless more hours, days, and weeks doing research since then. In grad school, I wrote a lot about my research and note-taking process, but it’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve begun thinking about an even larger question: how do you teach someone to do research?

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To Chapters, New and Old

TasselOne of the nice things about social media is that you never forget an important date, like the one when you defended your dissertation. In the six years since then, so much has changed, but not everything. For example, I haven’t entirely left grad school behind – or at least, I’m still working on what once was my dissertation project. Only now, I have a little more to show for it.

Before I finished the dissertation, before I took my teaching job, I was part of a panel proposal for the 2012 American Historical Association meeting.I didn’t know in February 2011 – when the proposals were due – whether I would even have a job the following school year. I hoped, at the time, that having this as a forthcoming talk would look good to a prospective employer.

Almost a year later, I flew to Chicago for a quick weekend, making sure I didn’t miss any teaching obligations. I hung out with old friends and enjoyed conference sessions on my terms. I hit up the Art Institute in Chicago (and had an unfortunate run-in with a light pole while walking down the street). That Sunday morning, our panel convened in the final hours of the conference in front of a small audience of people. (The panel focused the military’s experiences of integrating women and minorities as a way to manage the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.)
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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?”