Dispatches from Quarantine 2020

Tanya

As I wrote on Facebook earlier, today is tentative. Today, I was supposed to start my (much-needed) two-week spring break. My goal was to sit in my home office and work on my book. I spent the weekend relaxing and reading, hanging out on the couch while my son played Minecraft. Any time I thought, “oh, maybe I should go get started on some book edits?” I paused and told myself it was okay to do that later.

Then my son’s school district announced at 6:30 last night that there is no more school for 3 weeks.

We’re very fortunate: with my two-week break, we don’t have to worry about childcare. My reality may look different than I planned, but it’s okay. (Or it will be: in all honesty, I’m struggling to wrap my head around everything and feel more than a bit panicked at times.) Even when my “break” ends, my school will also transition to online learning, which will also alleviate childcare concerns for the most part, but synchronous learning will present its own new challenges.

For the time being, I’m going to try to settle in. I was homeschooled for most of my own education before college, and helped raise several of my (much-younger) siblings. I’m a teacher, although admittedly I don’t usually teach first grade. On the plus side, I’ve been paying close attention to the Singapore Math they’ve been doing, and I think I can get my son more practice on his reading and math, with a few more side adventures, in the next couple of weeks.

Today is tentative; my self-care focused on breathing and not setting expectations too high. I’m hoping for fun and cuddles with my kiddo, laughs, and – probably the highlight of his day – my first-ever Minecraft tutorial, which will turn the teacher into the student.

 

Lynn

As Tanya stated above, I feel that my own success during this ordeal will be achieved by keeping realistic expectations and having appropriate responses.  As a newly immunocompromised person (only 3 weeks of chemotherapy to go!) I oscillate between concerns that I’m too worried and not worried enough, feeling prepared and then panicked. 

So far, I feel that I’ve been rolling with the punches fairly well.  When colleges and universities started moving online I was ready with my web based courses.  When local schools closed I was prepared to work from home so I didn’t have to stress about childcare.  However, with both I’ve had to make adjustments with my expectations. Due dates for students have to be more fluid as we all work together to continue despite new challenges that none of us have ever faced and I can tell in our electronic communications that students are stressed so I’ve tried to keep that in mind in my responses. I’m trying my best to focus on compassion and kindness.  I’ve been trying to do the same in my own home as I’ve quickly discovered that my attempts at home-schooling a 1st grader will have its own unique challenges, as well. 

I’m doing my best to take it easy on myself and those around me.  That’s all I can do, and hope that everyone can come out of this safe and with a renewed appreciation for teachers, nurses, those stocking shelves, delivering supplies, and everyone keeping us all on track as best they possibly can.

 

Raquelle

What a month. Less than two weeks ago, Nashville was hit with a tornado that barely missed my campus and ravaged our neighbors. Now, my students have to be out of their dorms by tomorrow at 5pm because of covid-19. The original date for move-out was Saturday evening, but administration has hastened the deadline in anticipation of increasing governmental restrictions.

I’ve mostly been in states of shock and stasis, frankly. I sit down to get started on work only to get distracted by an article on travel bans, an email that another of my conferences has been cancelled (and now I have to attempt the reimbursement circus), or a text from a connection in France with updates on the total lockdown or who is suffering from decreased access to medical services. Today, I was finally able to type out a plan for the rest of the semester. My motto? Simplify. I’m taking a step back, reconsidering my course objectives, and cutting out material that doesn’t directly meet them. I don’t have the emotional or mental ability to do otherwise, and I also want to be compassionate toward my students who have widely varying priorities and access to technology. So, we’re going to keep it simple. In an uncanny turn of events, the adjunct professor of another French course at my university passed away, so I’m also absorbing that (now online) class. Today, I created and sent a video message introducing myself to those students in hopes of striking up a human connection. To give some semblance of stability, I also shared a plan for moving forward––which I instructed them not to even think about until next week, because they needed to focus their time and emotions on getting themselves home and attending to loved ones.

For now, I’m totally operating from home. I’m trying to act out of compassion by self-isolating (with my spouse/housemate) to flatten the curve and attempt to care for those who are most vulnerable. I’m not worried about catching the virus, but I do not want to spread the virus as an asymptomatic carrier. I’m really lucky to be able to work from my apartment, as so many I know do not have this luxury. 

After this month, I’m just grateful to be alive and grateful for the human connections that I have, both beautiful and terrifying. My students and I had no idea that we would be sitting in the same room with each other for probably the last time last Wednesday. I’ll be excited to reconvene virtually with them next week–synchronously and asynchronously–and imagine that I’ll hesitate to take such relationships for granted in the future and will learn a whole lot about my teaching (and about myself) during this phase.

Angela

Just two weeks ago, on March 4, 2020, an EF3 Tornado ripped through my neighborhood of North Nashville, taking out homes, churches, businesses, and power lines. It happened early in the morning, and there was no warning. I woke up, ran to the bathroom, and crouched next to the bathtub as my house shook and the sound of a roaring freight train drowned out the clanging of debris battering the roof. I was unbelievably fortunate that the damage to my home was minimal, but the house 8 doors down the street from mine saw utter devastation. Trees older than this nation had been ripped out of the crumbling sidewalks and dragged through houses. Nearly all of the neighborhood was rendered uninhabitable. 

For over a week the entire area was left without power, and people slept under tarps or in cars in front of their ruined homes, trying to figure out what to salvage and how to navigate the complicated and emotional web of disaster response and relief. 

We were already aware of Covid-19, but back then (I say, as if this was long ago, because these past two weeks have been the longest year of my life), few Americans feared it, or understood its potential for spread. We couldn’t think about a virus when people’s most basic needs weren’t being met. Dozens of families struck by the tornado with no immediate shelter travelled by foot over wrecked houses and downed trees and powerlines in order to join the survivors at the Farmer’s Market makeshift overnight shelter. When damage was discovered to the sanitary facilities there, the shelter was moved to the Sportsplex. Their beds were just a few feet apart: certainly not far enough to meet social distancing recommendations. Meals came from generous donors everywhere, and were served by countless volunteers. There was so much touching, and so much in the air.

In the aftermath of the tornado, competing concerns drowned out awareness of the virus. You see, people in North Nashville live in one of the most rapidly gentrifying communities in the country. The historically black, mostly working-class neighborhood with three HBCUs in its area code, is just a mile from downtown, and so it became inundated with opportunistic developers who posed as tornado relief volunteers. These predators knocked on doors of ruined homes with offerings of canned food and bottled water in one hand, and a business card in the other. 

Every time I leave my home (which is getting rarer and rarer these days), I pass a sea of blue tarps waving in the wind, barely concealing the fragmented remains of my neighbors’ homes beneath. Yet  I’ve stopped seeing news about one of the biggest natural disasters of the decade, because Covid-19 has taken over all media. Many articles are chiding people for not being cautious enough (which is true), but how can we be? 

In a way, the story of this virus reads almost like a fairy tale: billionaires in bunkers notwithstanding, no one person can securely protect themselves against the virus, but each person can protect everyone else from it. Self-isolation and obsessive hand-washing and disinfecting isn’t so that I don’t get sick- it’s to stop me from giving the virus to someone who can’t survive it in case I’m already infected. This virus is showing us how tightly we are bound together- if I don’t take care, I could hurt others. Those who aren’t taking care are endangering me, and everyone else. 

But when a tornado has taken your home and/or your job (many of the businesses here hire from within the community), and supermarket shelves are bare, and you were living hand-to-mouth to begin with because gentrification has raised property taxes and rents in the area, there’s no space to think about sanitation and self-isolation, even if those things were affordable and available to all. Which they are not, at all. 

These are the thoughts that consume me during my Covid-19 self-isolation in North Nashville. I’ve read the Imperial College Report. I know what’s coming, and I know how North Nashville will once again bear more than its fair share of the brunt of the awfulness. I know that we are nowhere near prepared to deal with any of it: the racism and classicism and ageism endemic in the private healthcare industry, or the vast number of deaths this nation will sustain. 

We are all going to lose someone that we love. 

That someone is going to be older, and hold a wealth of experiences and knowledge vital to the community.

Many of us are going to lose more than one someone. Especially up here. 

When this is over, nothing is ever going to be the same. 

If you are in a position to help, please do. Gideon’s Army has my strongest vote of confidence to always make the right decisions for people affected by the tornado and by the virus as they help rebuild North Nashville. 

 

Year End Reflections: What I’ve Learned

by Lynn Clement


In a prior post I wrote about my dedication to reading this year and I am happy to announce that I did reach my goal of completing 40 books.  I ended on a high note by reading Tara Westover’s memoir entitled Educated.  I greatly enjoyed this elegantly written reflection on the author’s unique upbringing and the tough choices she was forced to make as her academic quest conflicted with her family’s beliefs. I read a lot of memoirs this year, which is ironic since I spent most of the year refusing to think too deeply about my own life. (There were many quotes from Westover’s book that resonated with me and I’ve interspersed some here where I felt they summarize my feelings better than I ever could.)

I think this is one of the reasons I asked for a hiatus from my contributions to this blog when I was diagnosed with cancer is March.  Much of the year was spent actively avoiding reflection for mental self-preservation. “…I closed my journal and put it away. Journaling is contemplative, and I didn’t want to contemplate anything.”  However, my ultimate return to writing was for the same reason.

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Despite my apprehension about contemplation in 2019, I learned more this year than I’d like to admit.  I learned how to live my life when I was told I might lose it.

When I first met my oncologist, on a sunny day, in April, I was ridiculously optimistic, almost flippant, about what I was about to undergo.  The disease had just been found but I’d had no symptoms.  I assumed, falsely, that they’d caught it early and that I’d be training for another marathon in no-time.  When, instead, I heard the words “stage IV” and “aggressive treatment” and that if I chose to forego treatment I’d likely be gone in “3 to 6 months” the floor went out from under me.  I don’t know if he was looking at the wrong file (sometimes I still wonder) or if he was exaggerating to make sure I was listening (terrible yet effective), but either way I knew things were going to change.

“The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.

I call it an education.”

The first transformation, perhaps obviously, was my relationship with time.  My daily life changed very little this year: I still get my kid ready for school, I still go to work, I still watch tv and play games on my phone, I still talk to my husband about the major (and minor) plot points of our favorite TV shows.  However, I am much more protective of how I spend my time.

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Photo by Enikő Tóth on Pexels.com

Being an adjunct means always hustling. Finding new places to teach and expanding one’s contact list is essential for cobbling together enough classes to make ends meet, and this continues to be my reality despite cancer.  Recently I was stood up for an interview by a department head, twice. Prior to this years’ experience I would have agreed to a third, fourth, maybe even fifth chance at an interview. I’m an adjunct and having my time devalued is part of the game, but not this year. I knew it meant giving up a chance at more income, but more importantly, my new consciousness of time has manifest in a deeper respect for myself and a demand that my time be respected. “It has never occurred to you, he said, that you might have as much right to be here as anyone.”  It does now. I’m happy to say that I’ve also become more respectful of other people’s time and priorities.  This has not just be a reflection inward, but also outward.

In Raquelle’s most recent post she recounts a beautiful experience at a silent retreat.  That time of self-examination allowed her to reflect on how she is not entirely defined by her work and how she is able to find fulfillment in other areas of her life.  My own experiences this year have led me to a similar conclusion.  The problem with this new approach to time is the horrible pressured to live life to the fullest, while simultaneously acting like you’re totally fine. I don’t enjoy roller coasters so jumping out a plane was always out of the question, but prioritizing fulfillment was necessary. I realized that those mundane daily activities were what I wanted and needed: both the normalcy and the contentment of teaching students, but also reading and spending time with myself, my family, and my friends.  These are things I would never regret devoting precious time to.

My relationship with my body and exercise has also changed. Like the wisdom written in Angela’s post it’s now less about numbers and crazy goals and more about getting it done to stay happy with body and mind. I continue to be amazed that despite poisoning it for 4 months and then bombarding it with beams for 2 that I remain strong and well. I get on the elliptical almost every day.  I don’t go as fast or as far as I used to, but I can feel my muscles strengthen, my heart pump, my lungs expand, and that is enough. To do it at all is a success.

My relationship with people has perhaps been the largest transformation. “All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine—that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.” Independent, self-sufficient, and private were words I lived by, but triumphing treatment truly took a village. Tanya, in her timely Thanksgivng post, wrote about gratitude and I, too, reflect upon this greatly this year. Recently a doctor asked how I was able to maintain such a good attitude through all this and the answer came easily; I am surrounded by the most amazing people.  Family and friends took care of me: they dropped off dinners, sent care packages, and sent me words and music of encouragement. Nurses watched over me and doctors healed me. My students brought me ginger candies to help with the nausea and my co-workers supported me in countless ways. To say that I am grateful is an understatement and there aren’t enough days in this year or the next 20 for me to show how thankful I am, but I still try and am much more open with my words and my gratitude.

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For 2020 I have a lot of hopes: to be cancer free, to be done with this journey, and to finally be able to write about something other than my illness! I also want to take what I’ve learned from this experience and build upon it rather than avoid it like I tried to do this year.  Despite the scare, I know I’ll be well. I still don’t have any symptoms aside from those caused by treatment, I still feel strong, and the same oncologist that had once warned of my demise now expects full remission.   On Dec. 20th I will undergo the last phase of my journey: surgery.  Recovery will be difficult, but I plan on beating the odds.

“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both.  It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.”

Onward and Upward.

(Re)Designing Women

Part 3 in an ongoing series about Tanya’s fall elective on American women’s history. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

It’s September, which must mean that my course is ACTUALLY under way. Yippee!

We started the school year two weeks ago, and as expected, it’s been a good – but intense – two weeks of getting to know my students, getting my first lesson plans out the door, and, unexpectedly, getting hit with a massive head cold (on the second day of school, no less).

When I last talked to you, I pulled the veil back on my initial course planning efforts for my one-trimester Intro to American Women’s History. But a month ago, I didn’t know how many students I’d end up with, or who they were, or what they would want to do.

I’ve now solved 2 of those three problems, and reader, it’s about get interesting.

Continue reading “(Re)Designing Women”

Cancer and Contingency

by Lynn Clement


Dear Reader,

It’s been a while.  Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I have.  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and put my thoughts to paper and today I do so for release.  Writing functions as such an important catharsis for me, which is why I was so desperate to get back to the page after a very long, and unexpected, writing hiatus.

I wish I could say it was for exciting reasons, but alas, it was not. As you read in my last post, 2019 started out much the same as it always has, but it did not maintain its mundanity.  The next post I had planned to write was going to feature the professional conference I attended in February. Instead, directly after that conference, I was confronted with a life changing diagnosis; Colorectal Cancer, Stage IV.

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My chemo ball, worn every two weeks for three days.  My daughter dubbed it “Rolly”.

I tried crying about it for about a week, contemplating my demise, but it didn’t suit me. Neither did eating my feelings instead of writing them down (although mindfully eating a bag of Doritos does have its merits). So here I am, doing something I usually loathe, making my personal life public.  I’ve gone back and forth about this post, and about extending my hiatus, but then I remembered that “the personal is political”, and felt empowered by idea that one’s personal experience can help political or social discourse.  Perhaps that is what I’m supposed to do with this experience.

I finished my 8th and final round of chemo at the end of July and today I start radiation as I also begin another semester teaching art history at 2 community colleges.  My doctors and I have high expectations for remission, but it will be a long road until then.  I remain my optimistic self and fortunately, the nature of my job has allowed me to use the summer to focus on my health and my family.  I was also fortunate that, despite a demanding schedule of chemo, radiation, and surgery, I was, and continue to be, able to work, semi-normally, with the help of my family, friends, and colleagues.  It truly does take a village.

Now let me pause for a moment right here, dear reader, to assure you that this isn’t intended to be a traditional cancer post.  I’m not ready to detail my treatment or any deep insights I may have gained from this humbling experience.  I may never have insights.  I still change the cat litter and my daughter still steals my phone to use the toilet.  I guess at the the least I’ve learned to be thankful that everyone else in this house has a colon functioning better than I.  In addition, I have yet to fully face the fears that come with this disease. Not yet.  I need space from it and time to figure out what my relationship with cancer will be.

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Chemo made me very tired and Hal made for a great napping buddy.

However, fighting cancer has heightened the lens through which I view the world and my own life. Detailing my journey (thus far) to close family and friends, I quickly noticed my over-use of the word “lucky”. Lucky that I had doctors who took me seriously when I told them my pain was unusual.  Lucky that those doctors sprung to action. Lucky my co-workers stepped in to teach the classes I was unable to attend and help me finish my spring semester so I didn’t lose the already tenuous hold I have on my contingent faculty position.  Lucky that my husband has good insurance and kind co-workers as well.  Lucky that I’m surrounded by family that are friends and friends that are family who have come to help take care of me, my child, my house, my cooking and cleaning, because considering hiring help on an adjunct salary is laughable.

As a long-term, career, adjunct professor, I’ve always kept up with information about the status of contingent faculty experiences, but that attention is now focused even more with one question: what if this happens to someone else who isn’t so “lucky”.  The answer to that question isn’t hard to find since my story is not unique.  The death of  Margaret Mary Vojtko sparked much debate about the treatment of adjuncts as did the death of Thea Hunter. Both women had done everything right, in terms of securing degrees and accolades, which should have garnered them success in their respective fields.  Instead, they both died in poverty.  In addition, there are myriad articles detailing the realities of life as a contingent employee, including data on low pay and the need to secure additional jobs to make ends meet, which is easier said than done.

Reflecting on my mortality, and how expendable I seem to be to the field I’ve devoted myself to for decades, has made me realize just how integral I am.  I have been teaching part-time at community colleges and universities in the DMV for about 15 years. At the onset, I felt as many in my position probably have: adjunct work was the consolation prize. I took the abuse about failure and not being good enough to be full time or tenured because I thought I deserved it.

However, while both those things may be true about myself, the statistics about the academic job market reflect that the academic system is also a failure.

Luckily, I’ve stopped thinking of my position in these terms. I am great at what I do: I’m invested in my students, I’m committed to my field, I attend (on my own dime) conferences, symposia, and local lectures that keep me up to date on research and pedagogy, and perhaps most importantly, I fulfill a need in the system.  That’s something that seems to be lost in this: I’m not the desperate one. The adjunct, the graduate student, the post-doc, the non-tenured are not disposable.  Not only is it common decency to provide a living wage and a safety net for any worker, this respect should be given to those upon who we so desperately rely. Instead, so many of us are left to rely on luck.

Despite our part-time status, we are not contingent humans. The problem now resides in a system that has not evolved to understand our power and our worth.  Academia is not doing me a favor. It’s the other way around

Again, I survive the system purely because of luck, but many others do not have the same support system. Thus, we need to come together within the profession. It’s time for us to collectively bargain for rights we deserve. We didn’t lose the game, we didn’t fail, the job system changed, so our approach to it needs to change as well.  I know people will balk at the idea of unionization and detail the varied reasons it won’t fix the problem.  However, at this point we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas. (There really is a Simpsons reference for every occasion).

Luckily, I know I will survive both cancer and a life as an adjunct professor, but I’d like colleagues in a position like mine to have the same outlook.

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Ringing the infusion center’s ceremonial gong to signal my last round.  More victory photos to come…

In addition to writing publicly about this very personal struggle, my cancer diagnosis caused me to do something else uncharacteristic: I purchased a book of encouraging quotes.

             “When you come out of the storm,

               You won’t be the same person

               Who walked in.

               That’s what this storm’s all about.”

                                         -Haruki Murakami

 

 

 

Designing Women, Part II

My main image for organizing the course, with image from Library of Congress

Last month, I wrote about my initial work designing my Intro to History of American Women’s Rights this fall. As I think I hinted at, I want to keep checking in on this course to let you know how it’s going, hold myself accountable through this blogging process, and to document my first opportunity to teach women’s history in a high school setting.

After writing last month, I stepped away from most of my teaching work for the month of July. July became, instead, a month of reading (mostly for school), momming, and just trying to be. (Oh, there was also the several intense weeks when I wrote a book chapter related to my academic research, but that’s another story.)

Last week, I got back into the teacher prep groove a little bit. My son had his final summer camp from 9-3 each day, which gave me a break from #momming (as I’ve taken to calling it) and a few precious hours between drop-off and pick-up to pull together whatever I could. I didn’t start with Women’s History, but it’s where I ended up, and I’m feeling excited about where things landed.

Continue reading “Designing Women, Part II”

Final Projects

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”

On Late Work and Penalties

Not long ago, I mentioned my school’s late work policy in passing on Twitter, and someone wanted to know more, suggesting I write about it here. This week, I’m putting on my teacher hat, and I’ll focus my twitter time on teaching resources (some related to late work, some not).

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Continue reading “On Late Work and Penalties”

When There is a Mission

This March, I took two trips for work that ended up having a profound effect on the way I see my job and my place within it. I think this is a good place to talk about that.

My job involves grants administration. Vanderbilt is part of a consortium of five universities in which the Mellon Foundation has taken an interest to facilitate digital humanities collaboration. My job is quite broadly defined- I assist the PI on the grant to do whatever is necessary to help ensure that all the things that were promised in the grant happen.  A big part of that is facilitating collaborations between faculty and staff at our partner institutions in the consortium, and the best way to do that is to build relationships in person.

Two of our universities are in Nashville as well- Fisk and TSU. Relationships between Fisk and TSU and Vanderbilt have been taking place for a long time. But we also have Berea up North in Kentucky, and Tougaloo down South in Mississippi, and the distance between the three of our campuses meant that collaborations hadn’t been as long-standing. This is exciting for me- going to new places, meeting new faces, and getting to feel like the good news fairy. I kept repeating, “I know someone at a partner institution who works on that! Let me connect you,” or “That would make an amazing collaborative grant application, write that up!” and “there’s definitely money in the grant for that kind of faculty development.”

A DH Skill-share session at Berea, with faculty, staff, and students from Berea, TSU, Fisk, and Vanderbilt.

It was also fun to help facilitate important discussions and presentations. There were Digital Humanities skill-shares, planning for future events, teaching talks, postdoctoral presentations, and so much crucial foundation-building work.

But beyond that, what was amazing about these two trips this month was the feel of both Tougaloo and Berea. Both schools are smaller and deeply mission-driven. Tougaloo College is an HBCU just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, built on the grounds of the Boddie Plantation. Just opposite the old mansion in direct juxtaposition to it, is a church that has hosted many of our world’s finest Civil Rights thinkers: MLK, Angela Davis, Joan Baez, and Stokely Carmichael, to name just a small selection. During the Civil Rights era, Tougaloo Campus sheltered Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights activists, and their Special Collections room holds a fragment of a cross that white supremacists burned on that campus as a reaction to this.

One of the trip’s highlights was getting to meet John Johnson, who worked with Professor Phoenix Savage to produce an exhibit funded by one of the collaborative grants.

John Johnson poses with some of his photographs for the “Black at Brown” exhibit for Tougaloo’s Humanities Week, funded by the Mellon Collaborative grant through Professor Phoenix Savage.

Berea College has a similarly inspiring history. It was founded by a white Southern abolitionist, the son of a slaveholder. He was disinherited for this, and his family threatened often. Berea’s mission was to educate black and white students together, and it was the first co-ed institution in the South to accomplish this. In addition to that, the founders of Berea wanted their students to never have to pay tuition, so they committed to fundraising to ensure none would. That promise lasts to this day, and as a result the majority of Berea’s students are first-generation students and/or come from households with limited income. In rural Appalachia, where opportunities for economic advancement are few and far between, Berea College stands out as a beacon of hope.

Though Berea and Tougaloo each have their own distinct feels, they both share a vibrant commitment to mission. Each person I spoke with cared deeply about students, about social justice, and about creating a better world through education. They reminded me of why I was attracted to this world, and of how far education has propelled me. I too was the first person in my family to go to college, and the school in which I landed (the University of Stirling in Scotland) was also an institution with a mission. Set in Scotland’s coal country after the closure of the mines, it too attracted faculty who cared about reversing the economic depression of the region through teaching a specific population of students. All of my professors were so cognizant of the additional challenges first generation students faced, and despite being overworked and underpaid, they gave so generously of themselves to ensure that we could reach our goals. They did so much with what they have, just like the faculty at Tougaloo and Berea.

March should have zapped my energy with two additional business trips thrown into the busiest part of the semester. Instead, I came away feeling renewed, hopeful, and excited about the future. Visiting these two places helped remind me of why I do what I do, and why the long hours are so incredibly worth it.

Legacies

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).

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 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.

Continue reading “Legacies”

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 2: The Proposal

Click here to see Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction.

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.