Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects

Recently a tweet on #Twitterstorians caught my eye:

Tweet
Tweet from @JohnRosinbum: A student just asked me, “In research how do you deal with reading depressing things?” Any help #twitterstorians?

I replied twice, but soon realized there was so much more to say.

I’m a historian of the Atlantic Slave Trade. There’s nothing but depressing things in my research and writing. Just when I think I’ve bottomed out on the amount of cruelty humans can inflict on one another, I find a new, more grotesque piece of evidence that proves me wrong. After a decade of researching this, you would think that I would grow numb to it, but I haven’t. Some days are definitely harder than others.

Our political climate compounds that- I know for certain that the racism pervasive in every element of our society today comes from what I’m studying- the horror of slavery for which we as a nation have never fully taken responsibility. The racism perpetuates itself because we haven’t had any reconciliation. We tell our children that we are all equal, and expect the descendants of our enslaved populations to pretend that the very real trauma they still face as the result of this history is all in the past and best forgotten. This perpetuates the mental violence of our slave society, to the detriment of all Americans now.

So when I see these depressing things in my source material, the weight of the terribleness is magnified. Not only am I crushed for the people who never had a voice, never had justice, but I’m so conscious of how this unaddressed act of violence I’m reading about reverberates into the present.  Our current systemic racism is made possible by these millions of historic acts of race-based violence that went unaddressed.

So what do I do with information like that?

Continue reading “Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects”

Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley

The other day, I did something terrifying.  I gave my professional opinion as a historian in front of an overflowing room at a televised Parks Board Meeting. I had the honor of speaking about one of the most rewarding and illuminating things I have done for history in a while: completing the involved research for the nomination of a local landmark, the Union Civil War Fort Negley, to the UNESCO Slave Route Project. If accepted, Fort Negley will become the first US site, ever, to earn this monumental designation.

…which is a big deal, because the park that the Fort sits on is slated for a controversial development that has consumed local and state news for months. This meeting drew a huge crowd of people concerned about the sale of city land to private developers at the expense of this fort and its history.

My relationship with this fort is as long as my relationship to Nashville itself. When I first moved here in 2007, I lived in a house with a few others in the neighborhood of historic Edgehill. When grad school got stressful, I would climb up to the ruins of Fort Negley, and sit under one of the trees there, soaking up the peace and quiet. To be able to see Nashville’s skyline but not hear many of the city’s noises felt like a luxury.  I would daydream and doze and if I let my brain relax and I squinted just right, I could see the way the fort looked when it was first built.

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Interpretive marker for the African American Laborers who built Fort Negley, at the Fort Negley Visitors Center, sponsored by the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt University.

The tree behind me would have still been a sapling. I pictured the soldiers, in sweat-stained blue union uniforms, pulling cannons up the hills, and the laborers digging ditches in the hot sun. I could imagine the charge of the Confederate army’s attempt to storm the hill, smell the burning gunpowder, and hear the scrambling of people and horses as they moved defenses into place. Before moving to the US, the Civil War was just a series of films for me, but at Fort Negley, it felt real for the first time. I felt a special sense of wonder about this secret jewel of a place hidden in plain sight.

At the time I was only 23. I had an undergraduate degree in history and religious studies, and a year of museum work under my belt. With even that limited experience in public history, it struck me as odd that the city had not made more of such an important place. Where were the historical interpreters? The tours? Merchandise? Displays for all the artifacts found? Why wasn’t there a twice-daily reenactment for tourists?

It wasn’t until I completed my PhD in history at Vanderbilt in 2014 that I understood how Fort Negley, a union stronghold built by conscripted and escaped slaves, and defended by the US Colored Troops, had been allowed to purposely languish by the same people in this city who continue to try to rewrite history.
Continue reading “Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley”

On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics

I have just returned from Charleston, juiced up from one of the most thoughtfully constructed conferences I’ve attended in a long while. It was one of those conferences that attracts both academics and people with a wider range of career experience: I met clergy, museum workers and historic interpreters, archivists, librarians, web developers, K-12 teachers, project managers, both fiction and non-fiction writers, community organizers, and probably more I can’t recall just now. We were all there in our shared interest of the ways in which the history of African-Americans is constructed, presented, preserved, and consumed.

Many things stuck out for me in the duration of this conference as extraordinary. We got to hear from Rex Ellis, one of the curators at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his thoughts on the person who left that noose in the exhibit on segregation last month. We got to attend a welcoming talk at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, whose congregation lost 9 members two years ago this week in a white supremacist domestic terrorist attack. It was humbling beyond belief to see some of their family members greet and welcome us at the door. Afterward, we moved to a reception (catered by one of Charleston’s Top Chef contestants) and participated in a vodun ceremony for the ancestors, and then heard from intrepid park rangers about the ways in which they help Charleston fight the hoopskirts narrative in order to come to terms with its history as America’s largest import-city of enslaved Africans.

The next day, a panel about teaching African-American history in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the current POTUS got incredibly real as black public historians and activists did the emotional labor of sharing some of the most humiliating and painful stories of degradation they had experienced in their careers, and the ways in which they work to support others with the same experiences. The emotional power and conviction of everyone at this conference floored me, because I too am passionate about history specifically because of how it can illuminate the injustices of the past and transform the present.

Something that really struck me in this type of intimate space, was the ways in which attendees approached networking. If you asked them, I doubt anyone would have used that word to describe what was going on. You see, the people at this conference were each passionate beyond belief about finding ways for public history to affirm the humanity of black people, both of the past and in the present. All of the conversations around panels and receptions and plenary talks were held with utmost enthusiasm and the spirit of “What you are doing is so incredibly awesome, how can I help or be part of it?” People forged connections, planned collaborations, and shared skills organically, all coming from the same desire and passion.

So what does that tell me about networking? Continue reading “On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics”

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 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”

Finding Guidance in Activist Art History

This fall term, in my capacity as an adjunct instructor, I have been teaching an upper-level course of my own design called “Sex, Gender, and Politics: Art in the Age of AIDS, 1980-Present,” that centers on several overlapping units tied to themes of race, gender, sexuality, censorship, and civil liberties as they pertain primarily, though not exclusively, to arts and activism engaged with the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although I knew this class would be timely when I developed it months ago, I never imagined how meaningful it would become throughout this election season.

In the last two weeks since Trump was elected, especially, it has emerged as something of a lantern in the dark tunnel of the post-election landscape. Over and over, I’ve turned to the class material for inspiration, drawing from the reservoir of artists, activists, and political events that I’ve been studying and teaching to help me find the words (beyond some profanities) to speak to my emotions and evolving ideas.

In this post, I want to talk especially about I how looked for guidance from this class for teaching both of my classes the first days after the election, when emotions were at their most raw. Continue reading “Finding Guidance in Activist Art History”