Driven by…what, exactly?

Lately I’ve been thinking about motivation and drive.  Why, exactly, do people do what they do — more specifically, why do people do crazy things?  Things like climbing a mountain, running a marathon, or, I don’t know, spending twelve years in post-high school education in order to get a degree that might someday get a job that pays as well as an entry-level position at Costco?  I’ve been thinking about this because a few people have said that getting a PhD is “quite an achievement.” My grandfather has been particularly keen on this observation, noting that I’m the first in the family to become a “doctor.”  I usually respond to such kind words in typically tactless fashion, saying something like, “Well, it just kind of happened,” or “momentum basically carried me through.”  My well-wishers receive such gracelessness with a warm chuckle, but there’s also a look of genuine bewilderment — is he really so poor at displays of modesty?   But this isn’t false modesty; I’m telling the truth when I say that the PhD just kind of happened.  Or, more accurately, I never set out to achieve the goal of getting a PhD.  It was the next logical step in the path towards the kind of job that I want (which itself isn’t so much a goal as another step).

This, I think, differentiates two ways of approaching life.  There’s my seemingly haphazard method — do one thing, then the next, and so on — and then there’s the “achievement” method, perhaps best illustrated through the unfortunate current popularity of the term “bucket list,” (as in, “I want to visit Paris so I can check that off my bucket list”).*  A “sense of achievement,” drives some people to do what I would consider actually crazy things: finishing an Ironman race, running marathons, that sort of physical-endurance thing.  More accurately, some people want to do these things once, so that they can say that they have done it.  But I’ve never understood that, and I think it’s because I am not driven by a sense of achievement.  I don’t do things to check them off a list or to prove to myself that I can do them, and so when people offer those reasons as explanations for doing things like climbing a 14,000-foot mountain, I warmly chuckle while wearing an expression of bewilderment.

Initially, I thought that my approach was better (of course I did!).  Doing something for the sake of saying that I’ve done it seemed so superficial and meaningless, not to mention frustratingly temporary in its satisfaction (“Okay, that’s done.  Now what?”).  But then I considered how many people I know who do things out of a sense of achievement, and surely they are not superficial and meaningless people.  Moreover, I began to ponder the virtues of being driven by a sense of achievement.  It takes a certain kind of single-minded determination, it seems to me, to set out a goal and pursue it with such passion, and there’s something laudable about that.  And then I started to wonder: well, why am I doing all of this stuff, anyway?  What’s the reason?  Are my reasons any less superficial?  Perhaps even more so?

I don’t have an answer.  But I think I might have a role-model: this guy.  Lonnie Thompson is a climate scientist who has been chasing down the causes and effects of global warming for decades, despite challenges ranging from life-imperiling avalanches to flat-earth society reactionaries.  And, unless I’m wrong, he didn’t do it for the awards or a sense of achievement.  But he also didn’t do it just because it was the next step (although there seems to be a little bit of that, given what looks like a relatively haphazard transition from coal geology to ice core studies).  Instead, Thompson seems driven by a sense of righteousness, for lack of a better word: a belief that what he is doing is real, important, and true. That righteousness has kept Thompson doing all sorts of crazy things, but it makes sense to me.  I don’t know where that kind of drive comes from, but I applaud it, I understand it, and I’ll be thinking about whether I have, or can cultivate, something similar for my own career.

* Unfortunate because the movie was horrible from premise to execution.


How to Write Historical-ish Op-Eds for the NYT

Earlier this week, Matthew Lassiter, author of the brilliant The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times.  This got me thinking: how does a historian get her/himself published in the pages of the Old Grey Lady?  I did a quick search for “professor of history” in the opinion pages over the last thirty days,* thought about the results, and herewith offer some ideas for getting your name into a dying medium.

First, the list of the op-eds:

Matthew Lassiter, “Populism and the Silent Majority” (3 Nov 2011)
Douglas Brinkley, “The Grand Canyon and Mining” (31 Oct 2011)
James Livingston, “It’s Consumer Spending, Stupid” (26 Oct 2011)
Randall J. Stephens, “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason” (18 Oct 2011)
Jill Lepore, “Here’s the Guy Who Invented Populism” (16 Oct 2011)
Jeremi Suri, “America the Overcommitted” (14 Oct 2011)
Louis Hyman, “Wal-Mart’s Layaway Plan” (12 Oct 2011)

And now, the rules:

  1. Write within your field of expertise, making connections to present-day phenomena.  Duh.
  2. Use an innovative interpretation of the past to make sense of the present.  See Lassiter.
  3. Find interesting individuals from the past and draw (tenuous) connections to the present.  See Brinkley and Lepore.
  4. Identify something really weird and apparently unexplainable in the present, and use the past to make sense of said bizzare thing.  See Hyman, Stephens, Lassiter, Lepore, and Brinkely.
  5. Provide some sort of policy advice or corrective.  See Suri, Livingston, Brinkley.
  6. Be famous, like Brinkley or Lepore.  Note that this does not mean you have to be a serious or rigorous scholar.  Just famous.

BAM.  That’s how you do it.  Get to work.

* Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not a perfect sample.  Go read your statistics textbook, nerds.

Finding My “Voice”

No, not that one.  Although I hear it’s a fine television program.  No, I’m talking about the writing “voice” about which I’ve read in oh-so-many books on the craft, like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, in which Mr. Zinsser instructs his readers to, “develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone” (233).  That’s all well and good, Mr. Zinsser, but how, pray tell, does one develop that voice?  (I suspect more advice is to be found in his weekly column at The American Scholar, to which I’ll try to pay more attention).  I’ve been puzzling over this for some time now, usually while also stumbling through some troublesome sentence that I can’t seem to extricate myself from (or should it be “from which I can’t seem to extricate myself”?).  I suspect that I get stuck on some sentences not because I don’t know what to say, but because I’m not sure how I want to say it — which is to say, so to speak, that I haven’t found my voice.  Lately, in an effort to just get through these tricky times, I just write out what I would say if I were trying to get through a lecture on the topic.  I pretend that I’m standing in front of students and I’ve lost my place in my notes and I simply need to push on to the next big point.  Sometimes it’s clumsy, but it always gets me through.  And often, it’s my voice.  Those are words that I might actually say, rather than some prose that I forced out in an attempt to sound intelligent.  Obviously, those words need editing and polishing and  more elegance.  But the essential sound of the sentence is still mine; it’s the “voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page,” as Mr. Zinsser would put it.  And it starts by realizing what seems an obvious truth: my “voice” is actually my voice.  But without the annoying nasal tone, I hope.

How to Stop Your Left Arm from Twitching

Last night, while working on a book review that I had promised the editor 41 days ago, my left arm started twitching.  And it wouldn’t stop.  I’ve had twitches/spasms before, but they usually give up after a while.  This one, though would not quit.  And it was violent, too–like, all of the muscles in my upper left arm were trying to break out of my skin.  I found this excessively irritating and distracting, because I was trying to write this damned book review.  So I tried clenching my fist, slapping my arm, shaking my arm.  Nothing worked.  I gave up and tried to finish the book review, but didn’t, and went to bed.  Then I got up today, started writing the book review, and the twitch came back.  Was it some sort of punishment for having procrastinated?  A manifestation of stress, which, according to the interwebs, causes twitches?  I don’t know.  I know that the twitching didn’t stop when I (finally) sent the review off, at least not immediately.  But I though there might be something to the stress bit, because I’ve been juggling too much shit for my little brain to keep track of: dissertation, book review, article revisions, job applications, current teaching gig, remodeling the upstairs of our house.  So I decided to get away from the house and from the office.  I piled up all the stuff I’ve been meaning to read–back issues of The Nation, journals that have piled in my “do.” box, and that William Sewell book, Logics of History, which I’ve read before but been wanting to go back to–and headed off to a coffee shop, where I sat my ass down in a comfy sofa and just read for a few hours.  Twitch gone.  Mental state slightly better.  Work load roughly the same, but the way I figure it, that’s never really going to change.  I’ll finish one thing, take on another, and it’ll all even out.  I’ve long had the theory that every person has a certain level of stress that she will find a way to meet, no matter the time in that person’s life.  I’m sure I was freaking out about spelling tests when I was 10 as much as I’m freaking out about my dissertation now.  In any case, today was a valuable lesson for me.  Every now and then, get thee the hell away from the places that mean work and deadlines and responsibilities.  And maybe that twitch will go away.

Researiting or Wresearch

Another day, another helpful column from Inside Higher Ed.  This one’s from Kerry Ann Rockquemore*, who reminds us that writing is thinking (I love it when the thesis is in the title).  Rockquemore suggests that it’s not necessary to wait for the reading, research, and outlining to get done before you start writing, and that, “You can write before, during, and after the research process.”  Absolutely right; I find that writing while I research helps direct my research a bit more.  I’d vice-versa that advice: research while you write.  I’ve found that if do some research directly relevant to whatever I’m writing at the time, I get inspired: new ideas, new approaches, new energy and interest in the topic (“Oh, yeah!  That’s what I thought was so interesting and full of potential!”).

On another level, the article is an argument about the magic that happens when you write–that your brain has to do some extra tricks and flips to make letters make words make sentences make paragraphs.  (See the J-5 video below for more).  And there really is something to this: when I write, I move muscles that help with arguments, muscles that don’t seem to be fully engaged in that same way when I outline or brainstorm.  There–it just happened.  It’s occurred to me that brainstorming, outlining, and writing are different ways of approaching an argument, with each offering their own strengths and potentials.  I’m sure all of this was obvious to you before now.  But then again, we’ve always known you were the smarter one, haven’t we?

*Which, by the way, is surely one of the best names ever: Rock You More.  Awesome.


I had ambitions of writing a substantive post today (it would have been a first!), but I woke up with a headache and a feeling of foreboding that I can’t shake.  This isn’t just bad for the blog and its eternally-suffering readers.  This portends disaster for the writing I need to do this week, with a chapter and article revisions due soon.  Yesterday was a barnburner; I wrote about five pages in two hours, which is out-of-this-world for me.  I was hoping to replicate the same success today, but I keep looking for something that will deliver quick gratification, like cleaning up the house, skimming websites, and, yes, writing this meaningless blog post.  But I must remind myself–and sure, you can take this as advice if you want to–that this is just a damn job, and I have to push through like any other job.  In proper jobs, having a bad day is simply tough shit.  Get to work, or get fired.  We grad students (particularly those with $pou$al support) have the unfortunate luxury of being able to whine about our headaches and how we just couldn’t get inspired to write.  Implied threats from our advisers, grad programs, and publishers are too easy to ignore from the comforts of your home office or library cubicle; our independence can be our undoing.  Perhaps I’ll install a webcam pointed at my desk and distribute the web address to my adviser and spouse so they can check in on me.  I’ll add a loudspeaker, too: “Hey, you!  Get back to work!”  This strikes me as a fantastic idea.  I shall spend the rest of the day planning for it.

Librarians, Archivists, and Researchers of the World Unite

Another hyperbolic title.  It’s just so tempting.

In light of my recent archive experiences, I re-read a news piece Inside Higher Ed ran earlier this month titled “Eroding Library Role?”, which discusses the decreasing role of librarians in the research of humanities scholars.  Apparently, people like me are more and more likely to use Google, and less and less likely to use the frumpy guy behind the research desk at the library.  To which we all say, of course, No Shit, Sherlock.  But rather than crying like a bunch of whiny newspaper editors and reporters (in the words of Nelson, “Ha ha!  Your medium is dying!”), let’s briefly discuss why librarians (and archivists, for that matter) are less important to me right now than a fast Internet connection, and how and why that should and might change.

Here are my top three problems with librarians and archivists:

  • a lot of them are painfully awkward, painfully mean, and/or painfully smelly
  • they don’t know jack shit about my field, much less my work
  • their “research assistance” amounts to a keyword search in the library/archive’s version of Google, which I can do myself much faster and in the comfort of my home with an open container of something delicious.

For these (and other) reasons, I am often loathe to consult librarians and archivists.  On the other hand, I am also drawn to them in the belief, sometimes confirmed, that they actually know the archive/library, and they can get me to the thing I know I’m looking for or — even better — the things I hadn’t even thought of.

In short: I want to work with archivists and librarians, but things have got to change.  And it’s not just them.  I think that I, and other researchers, could make some changes in how we approach the archive and make things more pleasant and productive for everyone involved.  And so, in the pursuit of Truth, which we researchers and archivists make together, some suggestions.

For researchers:

  1. Do your prep work.  Compile a keyword list.  Get the dates, places, people, and events of your topic straight.  Write down the footnotes and citations from other work that you’d like to check out yourself.  Bring all of this with you to the archive–or, even better, send it to the archivist/librarian ahead of time, when you schedule your appointment with her/him.
  2. Be friendly but persistent.  The archivist/librarian, despite a foul attitude/smell, is a person and deserves civility.  But that person is also getting paid to do this–not much, granted, but it’s still a j-o-b.  So if you get a “I don’t know” response, keep pushing.  Try asking your question in different ways.  Be such a nice pain-in-the-ass that the archivist wants to help both because you’re a good person and so that she/he can get rid of you.
  3. Follow up.  Send a thank you note to the archivist/librarian.  I’ve noted the potential pay-off from this.  And write to the bosses, administrations, funding agencies, and politicians who have budget power.  Probably the main reason that archivists and librarians don’t know enough about our fields is there simply aren’t enough of them.  It’s impossible to become an expert in all the areas these people supervise, particularly when the jobs don’t pay enough to retain people long enough to become as familiar with the material as we need them to be.  Researchers have a responsibility to advocate for those positions.

For archivists/librarians:

  1. Adjust your attitude.  I’m sure it gets boring when you have to answer the same questions day after day.  I understand that some researchers don’t know what they’re talking about, and that you have a lot of other things to do.  But you knew what you were getting in to, so quit your whining and go study the finding aids some more.
  2. Spend some time in the stacks.  Get to know the material that the researchers are coming in for.  If you have 100 cubic feet of something labeled “Subject File 10,” maybe you should figure out what that means, exactly.  No, you don’t have to look into every folder or even every box.  But you should have some sense of the scope of collection.  You need to make yourselves invaluable to a researcher.  If you can’t tell me anything more than what I can find on the computer, then your job is not safe.
  3. Ask more questions.  In the best of situations, researchers will only have a partial sense of what they are working on and what they are looking for.  Ask us questions: who was involved in this topic?  When did it happen?  What kinds of materials are you looking for?  What have you already found?  What tools have you used in your research?  The less time I have to watch you run the same search I just did ten minutes ago, the more time we have to identify new materials and new ideas.

I should end with this: alles liebe, archivists.  I love you, even with your bad attitude and your often pathetic computer skills.  We can make this work, baby.

The Unfortunate Passion of an Undergraduate History Major

While working on my dissertation, I’m adjuncting (more on my efforts to unionize in some other post), and a couple of “my” students have asked for my advice about graduate school.  Like many people, my knee-jerk reaction is to tell them to run the other direction.  But I also understand that for some of these students, there really doesn’t seem to be any other option.  And I’m not talking the “I’ve-never-been-out-of-school-so-what-else-am-I-gonna-do?” student, who clearly should not go to graduate school.  I’m talking about the students who are truly passionate about doing the work of history, who love to read, research, write, and teach.  I met with one such woman yesterday, and I went through the litany of problems with getting a PhD in history: the crazy faculty, the even crazier (and sometimes nasty) grad student colleagues, the meager allowance, and, of course, the horrid job prospects.  When I took a moment to breathe, the student asked, “Well, I’m not sure what to do, then.  Just abandon my passion?”

Ouch.  She didn’t mean for that to sting, but it did.  A few reasons: first, have I become so cynical, materialistic, and bourgeois that all of my decisions are based on career opportunities?  When did that happen?  And second: what kind of hypocrite am I?  I mean, I know damned well what’s going to happen in a couple of years: I’m going to get bitch-slapped by the job market.  And I’ll come back for more, because I frankly don’t know what else to do with my life.  Part of that comes from having done this for the last 10+ years of my life, and at this point, I’m all in, baby, win or lose.  But the more important part is that I can’t think of anything else worth doing–that this is important work.

So I told the student, no, don’t abandon your passion.  Go for it.  You’re going to do really well in graduate school, and don’t worry about the job market.  There’s no way of knowing what it’ll look like in five years, and there’s no point in worrying.  Do some smart things if you can–take a resume-boosting job between undergrad and graduate school; build good relationships with your family (you’ll probably need them more than you think you should in five years); marry money (just kidding.  Kind of).  And prepare yourself for the suckiness of graduate school and the job market.  But don’t give up on the only thing you know and want to do, because you’re exactly the kind of person we need doing it.

Writing Tips from Someone Who Knows, I Guess

I’ve mentioned before that I’m becoming obsessed with figuring out how to write.  There’s a ton of material on “how to write” (oh, the irony of so much to read when you’re trying to write), and I’ve recently come across a series of articles by Peg Boyle Single on Inside Higher Ed.  She’s in the middle of her series, but here’s what I’ve culled so far:

  • If full-time graduate student, regular writing routine 5-6 days/week; if working full-time, 4 days/week.  That means weekend work.
  • At least 45-minutes to keep momentum going and minimize warm-up time for weekend writing sessions.
  • Start with 20-minute sessions, then increase by 20-minute sessions up to no more than 4 hours of focused writing/day.
  • Why it’s important: “something happens when you engage in a regular writing routine — more than linearly building skills and investing time in writing. Along the way, you develop habits that allow you to see patterns in your writing, patterns where you focus on the meaning and the intent rather than on word recall and word order.”
  • Write while doing research–don’t compartmentalize.
  • During revision, focus on “global problems” re: meaning and intent rather than “local problems” re: sentence structure.
  • Stuck on a word?  Just stop.  With pen, answer “What am I trying to say here?” focusing on meaning.  Type answer into document and move on.
  • Turn off your internal critic.
  • Stop and prepare for next session.  Leave notes for yourself on where you’re going.

Outside of that, some of my tactics:

  • Use a full-screen word processor like WriteRoom.  No clocks, widgets, etc.–just you and the text.
  • Don’t stop at the end of a section; stop in the middle of something.  That will get you going the next day.

Money Troubles

My spouse and I are staring down the barrel of an ugly budget situation.  I’m teaching now, but come 2010, I got nothin’, and that’s putting us through a bit of stress.   There’s about a $500/month gap between our current expenses and our 2010 monthly income, and I’m entirely sure how we’re going to close that gap.  I’m not freaking out…yet.

This is part of being a graduate student, of course.  I remember a former adviser warning me that  graduate school is an exercise in well-read pauperism, or something to that effect.  It hasn’t been that bad for me, mostly because my spouse has been pulling the load.  But I’ve also had pretty steady work as a TA and now as an adjunct, so I’ve been chipping in to the family budget.  That stops in January.  Originally, the idea was that we would save up while I did the adjunct thing, and then I’d stop teaching and dissertate full-time.  That didn’t go quite according to plan, so now I find myself in a position very similar to that of other graduate students, I imagine.  I’m firing away fellowship applications, hoping that they come in so that I can pay for research and life expenses.  I’m hoping that  promised summer and fall teaching jobs come together, so we’ll have that income.  And I’m toying around with getting a proper job, at least enough to cover the expense/income gap.

For the next couple of years, this will probably be my life.  There will be times when the cash is flush (while I’m teaching or when a fellowship comes in), and there will be times when we’re leaning pretty hard on my spouse’s salary.  It’s not a condition unique to graduate students–migrant workers, seasonal labor, or start-up/slow-down factory workers all have to deal with this shit.  And hell, that’s real work, so I really shouldn’t be complaining.  I just wish I had learned this particular lesson earlier.