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”