SEE? I told you I was dull.

My ever-dutiful adviser dutifully sent me comments on my last chapter within three days of me sending it off — as always, I’m impressed (or is it intimidated?) by my adviser’s productivity and dedication.  And, as I suspected, this last chapter wasn’t all that interesting in terms of analysis.  Good story, fine narrative, but no analytical oomph.  My adviser identified a few flecks of gold at which I could chip away and see if there’s anything more there, so that’s good.  But the short of it is that there’s much more brain work to be done to go along with my storytelling work.

The question presents itself: do I take it slower on this next chapter, integrating analysis as I go along?  Or do I proceed as before, moving through the narrative with the plan of adding my analytical interventions in a later draft?  I’m leaning towards the latter, because it seems to me that — at least in my writing —  arguments develop through and after the narrative.  In telling the story, I make arguments (explicit and implicit) about the story.  In choosing my characters, events, timelines, etc., I am, however subconsciously, making choices about why things happened as they did, and that is essentially what historical analysis is all about: explaining why.

Here’s my take-away: accept that your first draft will be good on story and crap on analysis.  If I can live with that, then I think I can craft a better story, and, in doing so, set myself up for better analysis.

Also, a new feature on the blog: Bonus Unrelated Photos of My Dog.


Last week was a regular barnburner for writing here on the Bench.*  4,300 words in six days — not too shabby.  Is it good?  Hell no.  It’s bloated and hard to follow and not much fun to read.  I consider myself a perfectionist, but not for first drafts, apparently.  Get a rhythm going and whack away at big chunks of the marble; worry about chiseling David’s face after you know where his legs will be.  [insert your own strained metaphor here].  How to get that rhythm going?  Stay on task, it would seem; here’s how I spent my time last week:

  • WriteRoom: 9:28 hrs
  • Firefox (Zotero): 9:05 hrs
  • Word: 4:20 hrs

It turns out that when I keep my e-mail and web surfing shut down, I get more work done.  Go figure.

Here’s hoping for a another 4,000 word week.

*Nope, I don’t know where the phrase comes from, and yup, I’m pretty sure that I’ve used it incorrectly.

Student Eval Smack-Down: My Racist and Sexist Pedagogy?

Is my pedagogy racist and sexist?  Am I racist and sexist?  I quote from a student evaluation:

I am/was concerned by the lack of analysis/discussions around systems of oppression and where we’re coming from as historians.  I think the professor could/should have addressed the biases and power construction as a mostly white class analyzing and making claims about African American history.  I also would really have valued moving more beyond the black (straight) male experience.

This from from the African American history (post-1865) course I taught last fall.  I got the evaluation in January and have been thinking–stewing–about it since.  I still haven’t quite figured out my response, but here are some of the components.

First and foremost: My sincerest thanks and applause to the student who was actually honest and thoughtful in this evaluation.  Providing this sort of meaningful and direct critique is exactly what I, as a new-ish teacher, need.  Plus, saying this stuff to a prof, or even an adjunct instructor, takes some serious balls.  Ooops, there I go again…

In response to the concern about course-required readings, I think I’d plead that the student try to understand the challenge of designing this course.  It’s a 300-level (third-year undergraduate) course, so it’s meant to be challenging.  So I can understand the student’s desire to get a broad array of perspectives.  But on the other hand, only two students had ever taken classes in any area of what the school labels ethnic studies.  The rest of the students started from scratch, not only in terms of history (there’s more to the Civil Rights movement than “I Have a Dream”) but also concepts (“racism” means more than confederate-flag-carrying white dudes who hate black people).  I chose readings that would give rookies a place to start, and veterans opportunities to explore.  Which is also why students also did their own historiography project–so they could explore more complex topics if they were in a place to do so.  Students did projects on African American agency in lynching; on black feminism in the Civil Rights movement; and on the work of bell hooks.  Finally, I don’t think the reading list was that monolithic.  Included: a white academic, a black intellectual, a former sharecropper, a radical activist, and the first black president.

Perhaps more damning is the suggestion–demand?–that the class talk about our (white) subjectivity.  I ask: to what end?  How would that have changed our discussions?  I foresee two effects.  The first would be to introduce a degree of relativity that is completely out of place for a history course.  We are in the business of telling meaningful stories about the past, the quality of which can and should be measured by the soundness of logic and the use of evidence.  I do not want the students leaving the course thinking that all stories are equally good–or equally bad, if they are told by people outside of the externally- and internally-defined boundaries of the group being studied.  The suggestion here is that, the white people in our class were unable to access, understand, and indeed even accurately portray the past of non-white people.  I reject this assertion.

That said, the student makes good points.  It is important to talk about one’s own subjectivity–in fact, I’m pretty sure we did, but perhaps not enough.  I think I might have gone too far in the direction of encouraging students to embrace the possibilities of evaluating the past as neutral observers.  In my limited experience, students are a bit too quick to dismiss challenging arguments as simply a matter of perspective and bias.  Everything is completely relative for students, and so I find myself insisting that no, in fact, there are some things that are objectively true–like the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  That actually happened.  In my head, I’m trying to manage a balancing act between truth and interpretation, but, judging from this student’s review, I may be swinging too hard toward the former.  Duly noted.  But what a challenge, right?  Maybe one of the reasons that I didn’t talk more about our class’s subjectivity is that I haven’t seen/participated in such a discussion, or at least a good one that doesn’t lapse into academic jargon bullshit.  I’d love to know how to do this.  Suggestions, friends?

As for the diversity of the reading list, I think the student stands on shakier ground.  I maintain that the list was pretty good–after all, readers of this blog helped me put it together.  So it’s your fault, really.  But maybe we could have done more.  Perhaps I could have provided supplementary reading lists for students who wanted to go farther.  Certainly I could, and probably should, have incorporated into my lecture material that went “beyond the black (straight) male experience.”

After thinking about this evaluation for, oh, eight months now, I’m left having learned some lessons: about reading lists, about lecture material, about discussing the position of the historian.  But I’m also left wondering if the student learned anything from the course.  Did the student think about C. Vann Woodward’s arguments about legal systems as foundations for racism?  Did the student consider in full the meaning of DuBois’s veil?  Did the life of Nate Shaw give the student any sense of what it was like to be a sharecropper?  Did Elaine Brown’s story bring any complexity to the student’s romantic, idealized ideas about the Black Panthers?  Does the student understand any better what makes Obama tick?  Most importantly, did the student learn that racism is not the same in every place at all times, but that it has changed over time?  Or did the student simply dismiss all of this because I am, apparently, a racist, sexist Philistine?  I hope not.  I hope that I never get in the way of what the material has to offer.

Back To It

“It” being…well, I’m not entirely sure.  I’ve been away for the last three weeks on research/vacation.  It was nearly perfect.  The archivists were friendly and extremely helpful–in fact, they are in the midst of digitizing their entire archive, and simply gave me all the materials I wanted.  Nearly 20 gigs worth of OCRd documents.  Amazing.  And with that, my research is done.  Well, at least the research-collecting stage is done.  Now I have to go through all of this stuff and see what’s interesting.  I begin that today.  Right now, in fact.  But I just wanted to check in.  More at another time.

Why and How to Do Conferences

I was in the City of Lakes last weekend, visiting a friend, getting freaked out by the state Republican convention (bumper sticker: “Proud to be a Right Wing Extremist”), and giving a talk at a small-ish history conference.  This is the eighth (maybe ninth?) time I’ve made a conference presentation, which I think is above average for a fourth-year PhD candidate.  In fact, a few of my grad school colleagues have never given a talk, and some have never even gone to a conference.  This is a shame, because conferences can have a significant pay-off–if you play it right.  So, my top three suggestions for conferences:

  • Make a presentation–don’t just go.  Okay, maybe go to one conference just to see what it’s like.  But when you present, all the good stuff about conferences gets easier: people introduce themselves to you, they ask questions and make suggestions, you meet fellow panelists, etc.
  • Go to smallish conferences.  I’m sure presenting at the AHA is good for your CV.  But if you want to meet interested, interesting, and generally friendly people, small conferences are the way to go.  There are fewer pretensions; usually, people are actually interested in improving their (and your) work, rather than chalking up CV points.  Smaller conferences are usually easier to get into, as well.
  • Get away.  I usually don’t go to more than three panels–my own and two others.  Okay, maybe one other panel.  I’m really selective: the papers have to be directly relevant to my work and/or the presenters have to be interesting people.  Otherwise, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a stuffy hotel room in the afternoon is a waste of life.  Go hang out for a bit in the lobby or the book exhibit talking to people, but then get outside the hotel.  If you’re lucky (or just selective in choosing your conferences), you can visit friends.  In any case, enjoy the city: check out the sights, eat at some good restaurants, have fun.  The whole experience will improve, and you’ll be more likely to go to other conferences.

All that said, conferences, even the small ones, can be pretty exhausting.  Flights, hotels, being away from spouse/family–all that generally stinks.  But it could be worse.  You could have a real job.

Archive Blogging: PULL!

For those not in the know, “PULL!” is what you shout when you’re skeet shooting and you’re ready for the next clay pigeon.  I went and did this with my father-in-law one year, and I almost blew his foot off.  By accident, of course.  And that’s the story of how I learned that I’m not comfortable with guns.

“Pulling” is also what the archive monkeys do when you want material: they take your little form and disappear into the stacks, reemerging with your coveted boxes of yellowed paper.  In smaller archives (like the state archive I used to be a monkey for), you can get things pulled as you need them.  But at NARA-College Park (and most other large archives, I imagine), there is–of course–a procedure.  They only pull at 10am, 11am, 1:30pm, and 2:30pm (plus 3:30 on Wed, Thurs, and Fri).  So as a researcher, you have to figure out how to arrange your pull slips so you don’t end up with any dead time–so that while you are going through one pull, the monkeys are in the back getting the next stack of stuff.

This can be highly stressful if you have limited time (like me during this trip).  If you miss a pull time, you fall behind, meaning that you might not get through your research, meaning you might have to come back.  Which costs money and time, neither of which I have a lot of right now.  Okay, okay–graduate students have all the time in the world.  But only as much money as our significant others allow us.

In any case, I was having trouble staying up on the pull times yesterday morning, but by mid-day, I was moving along.  Of course, I forgot to eat until 3pm, by which time the cafeteria was closed, so I had a disgusting pre-made chicken salad.  But more on my culinary experiences in College Park later.  Now it’s time to get my pull slips ready.

Archive Blogging: The First Day is Always a Throwaway

I’m doing some research at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland this week.  It started off horribly, as is always the case for the first day at an archive.  The journey itself was so horrible as to be laughable, if only because I was delirious from exhaustion.  A bumpy red-eye flight from the west coast; no breakfast; a 45-minute wait for a shuttle from the airport to the hotel; a 30-minute wait for a shuttle from the hotel to the archive; a 30-minute drive to cover 3 miles.  You get the picture.  But I finally arrived, my computer full of references and all ginned up to do some research.

[whump]  That’s how I imagine it sounded when my enthusiasm and my exhaustion hit the wall.  Turns out my references were not at all useful; the full professor at Harvard who wrote the citations (and got them published in a paper!) fucked them up as to be totally unusable.  Just so you know, writing down the record group and the box number is not, in fact, sufficient, when a record group includes hundreds of separate programs, each with their own number sequence.  So fuck you anyway, Harvard prof.

Anyway, I spent about an hour flipping through binders of incomprehensible accession numbers, put together a records request for who-knows-what, and then just stopped.  I stared at my computer and felt like I was going to pass out.  I was about to give up and leave, then decided, what the hell–I walked up to the reference librarians and said, “Guys, you gotta help me figure out how to game this.  I’m exhausted, I’m only going to be here until Friday, and I have no idea how to proceed.  Help.”

And they did.  The two of them (Eugene and David in civilian records, second floor) came up with some great ideas, and now I’ve got a set of record requests ready to go when I get to the archives this morning.  Really–those guys came through for me.

Which is usually how these things go.  The first day at an archives, in my experience, is almost totally worthless.  You’re tired, you have no idea what you’re doing, the staff sees you as an increase in their workload.  And just when you’re about to break, things start to click.  You don’t get much work done–but you get just enough of a sense of how things work that it’s worth coming back.  So I’m off, ready to tackle the largest archive in the world.

Also: any suggestions on the best way to get from NARA II to the Lincoln Memorial?  I’ve never been to DC, and I’d like to at least see the old man.

On The Beauty of a 1929 Underwood No. 5 Typewriter

For Christmas, my spouse’s grandmother gave me her 1929 Underwood No. 5 Typewriter.  She had kept it under a plastic cover for decades, and while it’s not in pristine condition, it is still a thing of simplistic, utilitarian beauty.  What I love most about this typewriter is that there is nothing superfluous about it.  Every key, every lever, every piece of metal has a purpose.  No bells and whistles, except, of course, for the bell that alerts you that you’re close to the margin.  There is no key for the number “1”, and why should there be; use a lower-case “L” instead.  Need an exclamation mark?  Are you sure?  Well, then, you’ll have to use an apostrophe (that’s Shift-8), then backspace, then use a period.  You really have to work for it, as though Underwood doubted whether anyone really should be using exclamation marks.  The same thing for the shift lock; you have to apply a remarkable degree of force to lock into full-capitalization mode, which might make you think twice about doing so.  If only bloggers and undergraduates were subject to such rigors.  I also love the economy of this typewriter: there are keys for 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 and cents.  It says something, perhaps, about the time of this typewriter’s manufacture: when exclamation marks and capital letters were less important than keeping track of 3/4 of a cent.  I’m not sure if the Underwood company built this particular No. 5 before or after October 29, 1929, but for me it symbolizes the austerity of the days and months and years that followed Black Tuesday–a little piece of the Great Depression sitting on my desk, reminding me that I really am a lazy cuss.