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”

The (somewhat uncomfortable) Process of Digital Storytelling & Teachable Moments

This post is Part 2 of a series on the Mellon Institute of Public and Digital Humanities. A special thanks to Allison Myers, Ryan Trauman, and Marie Lovejoy at the Story Center. For part 1, please click here.

I didn’t know anything about digital storytelling  when I walked into the Story Center’s workshop as part of the Mellon Institute of Digital and Public Humanities. I thought it was maybe something like an audiobook, or a video of me, telling a story. No big deal, I thought. As a historian, I pretty much write and tell stories for a living.

But then the story specialists at the Story Center taught the other institute participants and I *how* to write a script for digital storytelling, and I began eyeing the door. Not because it was too big or difficult, but because it was so small and succinct. How was I going to tell a full story worth hearing in fewer than 250 words? I’ve probably written longer sentences than that!

The other Mellon Institute participants struggled with this concept too, which I found very  encouraging in its own way. While it’s good to provide context and delve into a subject fully, verbosity often has the effect of hiding, instead of revealing an emotional truth. No one at the institute was going to breeze through this workshop, and if they were going to be brave and bare their souls, then so could I.
Continue reading “The (somewhat uncomfortable) Process of Digital Storytelling & Teachable Moments”

Course Planning with Scrivener

A couple weeks ago on the history blog Junto, Michael D. Hattem wrote about using Scrivener for his dissertation writing process. Like Hattem, I am also a big Scrivener fan. I discovered the program about half way through my own dissertation writing and now use it for almost all my writing related projects. In this post, I want to share one of the main ways I’m been using it recently – to develop course material for two different classes that I begin teaching when my university’s quarter begins at the end of this month. Continue reading “Course Planning with Scrivener”

When the Public meets the Digital Humanities

This blog entry is part 1 of a two-part post reflecting about my experiences with the Mellon Institute in Digital and Public Humanities.  Please click here for part 2.

This summer, I signed up for the Mellon Institute in Public and Digital Humanities at the Vanderbilt Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. (#VandyPDH) While I’m usually very type-A, I was running on empty and didn’t have time to form any goals or expectations going in beyond learning all the things. This lack of specific goals for the workshop turned out to be a major lesson in being open to unexpected partnerships and projects that form organically. It would hold the seed of  creating an experimental class for Vanderbilt undergraduates interested in Digital History. More on that below. Continue reading “When the Public meets the Digital Humanities”