Archives for September 2011

Advising “alternative career” graduate students

I’m working pretty closely with a few of my public history grad students this semester, and in so doing, I’ve been reflecting on my earlier experiences with grad students in museum studies.  Advising grad students who are focused on vocations outside academia has been a joy to me, but it’s meant I’ve had to shift my paradigm considerably from my own graduate school experience.

While I did, over the course of grad school and during breaks from it, take on a number of jobs outside the classroom, my focus while I was in school was almost always on landing a tenure-track job.  My adviser gave me very practical advice in the job search–her best career advice was for me to accept an alt-ac job as soon as I graduated rather than adjuncting while I remained on the market–but most of our time together was spent discussing my intellectual interests, not my vocational aspirations.

These days, however, I advise several students in our Master of Applied Historical Research program. The M.A.H.R. students are every bit as intellectually engaged and bright as the M.A. students, but as with the museum studies students I taught a couple years back, their immediate needs are different.  Our M.A. students tend to be focused on teaching (high school, community college, and/or adjuncting) or a Ph.D. program; the M.A.H.R. students are interested in pretty much anything but teaching, and they want to develop hands-on skills.

Here are some things I’ve observed over the past several years of teaching or advising students who anticipate working in jobs outside the academy:

  • A big part of my job has been encouraging students to embrace their own intellectual interests and, through the framing and crafting of their Master’s project, help them think strategically about future employment.
  • These students are ready to (intelligently) embrace technology like no other students I’ve met.  Last spring I required my grad students to create small public history projects optimized for mobile devices.  I expected (and eventually received) several websites optimized for the small screen, but several groups of students investigated app development pretty seriously.  The greatest obstacle to their completed apps was financial, not intellectual.
  • Many of my students are discouraged by the prospect of low-paying careers and a thin public history (and especially museum) job market.  I find myself trying to imbue them with a reality-based optimism, which almost always means building up their own confidence in their knowledge and skills.  This might mean reminding them of what they have already accomplished outside of their coursework or it might mean I hook them up with an internship or workshop that fills a gap in their skills or understanding.

Here is my description of the stereotypical graduate of a museum studies program in the western part of the country: A smart young woman, armed with lots of generalized knowledge about museums and how they should be, taught by university professors, some of whom have never worked in a museum in the real world. As a member of the emerging generation, she wants to be in charge right away, figuring that her studies were enough dues to pay and that traditional starting roles would be both boring and low paying. She is fortunate enough, through connections, to find a job as director of the local historical society in East Jesus, Texas. She has a 1,000 sf museum complete with a two-headed calf and the baptismal clothing of the first white child born there. She has a volunteer secretary and no other help, while the board of 25 people is made up of 70+ year olds, all of them very conservative. Besides the challenges of improving the museum, she finds that there are very few people of either sex her age with whom to be friends or even acquaintances. She starts looking at the AAM job site after her first month on the job, hoping to spin herself up to the next higher circle of hell in a larger city. She might also consider going back for another advanced degree in social sciences.

I always keep East Jesus in mind when advising grad students and helping them network.  (In Idaho, East Jesus institutions are also identifiable by their collection of likely inauthentic Nazi knives. Idahoans for some reason love them some Nazi memorabilia.) I’m discovering Idaho is packed with East Jesuses.  I’m also finding that, in my Boise students’ minds, the opposite of East Jesus is Portland, Oregon–which totally makes sense to me, although I’m guessing there are more opportunities in the San Francisco Bay Area.  (If you’re in Portland or its environs are are looking for engaged grad students, either as interns or recent graduates, let me know.)

  • Having graduate students already employed in a professional capacity by local organizations is tremendously convenient, as I can pick their brains about opportunities there for other students, as well as get a sense of who best to approach about projects, programs, collections research, and other collaborations.
  • Grad school doesn’t have to suck. High-quality advising and thoughtful mentoring can help cut down on the suckiness. I say this both as a well-advised former student and as an professorial observer of students who have a good relationship with their advisers. Accordingly, I’m always trying to improve as an adviser.  (Related: It’s good to make grad students laugh. A lot.)

If you’ve worked with Master’s-level students who are not seeking academic jobs, and especially students who are seeking jobs in the nonprofit sector, I’d love to hear about your experiences.  If you have been (or are currently) such a student, what needs of yours have been met well, and what needs might be better fulfilled (and how)?

Random bullets of September

I accomplished an amazing number and quantity of things today, but of course it wasn’t enough.  And now I’m supposed to be grading, so instead I’m blogging, random-bullets style.

  • I had a lovely happy hour on Friday with Lisa V, who introduced me to a bunch of other moms I should know.  Lisa and I met on the Internet, of course, over at Phantom Scribbler’s place, though occasionally we tell people it was on Craigslist via “Casual Encounters.”  There are many good things about living in Boise, and Lisa is near the top of that list.
  • There are also many things about Boise that need improving.  Number one on my list: grocery stores.  I’ll have a post forthcoming on that soon.  If this whole tenure-track thing doesn’t pan out, I may open a grocery store or deli, as Boise is desperately in need of a fabulous example of each.  (Seriously: my favorite deli in Davis was in a grocery store. One of their regular sandwiches featured sauteed Granny Smith apples, brie, and whole-grain mustard on a roll baked on site. For $5.49. Sorry, Jimmy John’s–the white roll and shredded iceberg lettuce gooped with mayo aren’t cutting it for me.) I’ve been trying to approach all this mediocre food as “exotic flyover state cuisine,” but that’s just not working for me anymore.  Those of you who know me well will be shocked at this: I haven’t had Thai food for months because the stuff here just doesn’t compare to California Thai.
  • I’m in that magical place where I have two journal articles and one book chapter (for an edited volume) out for review.  As tenure at this place apparently consists of three good articles, service, and good teaching, one of my colleagues said to me, “Well, you can stop working now!”  Instead I’m grading papers, trying to get undergrads in a lower-division survey course to see the charms of Historiann’s Abraham in Arms (it has many!), giving a presentation tomorrow about having my grad students create mobile public history projects, reading another new-to-me book before my undergrad public history class on Tuesday, bringing snacks for kindergarten tomorrow, grading a set of papers, scheduling guest speakers for my class, finding internships for those last three students before the registration deadline, gnawing my fingernails over the distance between now and payday, helping Fang learn Omeka, and trying to figure out how, really, one best introduces one’s beloved dead grandmother’s everyday stainless into one’s own silverware drawers with more love than pain. And that’s just this week. Perhaps it’s all a bit too much?
  • Next semester I’m teaching an upper-division seminar called “Women in the West.” Anyone have suggestions for readings? I’m trying to look beyond pioneer women, and I have the California Gold Rush covered pretty well. Multiculturalism, urbanism, and the twentieth century are particularly welcome.  I’m doing pretty well with Asian Americans and Native Americans. I could use some suggestions for African Americans (I have a nice piece on Biddy Mason, but not much else) and the Chicana/Latina experience.
  • The trees in my front yard have cast off a few leaves. They only finally leafed out in June, so I figure they owe me leafiness until at least late November, yes?  (Where I grew up, the trees that did lose their leaves lost them between Thanksgiving and Christmas and blossomed no later than February.  Is five months of foliage really too much to ask?)
  • Lucas is getting cranky.  I’m hoping we can chalk it up to his new molars coming in and his going to a new, albeit awesome, school–and not just the Reality of Being Six.

What’s up with you?  Feel free to leave your own random bullets in the comments.

I haven’t paid any attention to the September 11 memorial coverage

. . . because I’m not inhabiting the appropriate emotional and intellectual space right now.  As a public historian, I suppose I should be interested in the performance of memory and its material culture, but I’m not feeling it right now.

Although I now know people who were in New York City that day as well as people who knew someone lost in the attacks, in 2001 I wasn’t in contact with anyone in New York. I’ve observed that, like me, many Californians had a very different experience of September 11, 2001 than did people back East.  We were geographically removed, and–relative to people in New York, Washington D.C., Boston, and Pennsylvania–I’m guessing the majority of Californians were at least a couple degrees of separation removed from the immediate victims of the attacks (unless, of course, we had family or friends on the ill-fated Los Angeles-bound planes).

Fang’s and my experience was moderated by a static-riddled broadcast of the Today Show on a smallish TV screen; we had just moved to Davis and didn’t yet have our cable or DSL connections. This lack of media contributed to our feeling of distance from the events. Accordingly, while I was shocked and saddened by the deaths of September 11, I immediately adopted a longer-term perspective on the event, wondering what it would mean for everyday life in the U.S., as well as what kinds of military entanglements it would engender.  Fang had much the same reaction; as he recounted in a post five years ago, upon seeing that a plane had crashed into the second tower, he said, “This country is about to go screaming to the right.”

And hoo boy, has it ever.

The tragedy of September 11 didn’t, alas, contain itself to that day.  It has been played out every day since–not only in individual and national mourning of the victims, but in poor political decisions, an erosion of civil liberties, a rising Islamophobia, and two (or more, depending on how you’re counting them) wars that have contributed significantly to our current domestic economic troubles.

I’m not prone to anger, but those legacies of September 11 raise my hackles.  Here’s hoping I won’t feel the same way on the 15th or 20th anniversaries of the event.

Sky and. . .sky?

We’re having a crappy air quality week here in Boise.  Here’s what the sky looked like last week:

And here’s what the sky looked like this afternoon:

There are supposed to be foothills and mountains on the near horizon in that photo.  Ugh.

Sometimes driving through Boise is like driving through the Los Angeles basin in the late 1970s.  I’m guessing in California this would be an “orange” air alert.  Here it’s yellow, and there’s only a “voluntary burn ban.”  Ick, ick, ick.

Six, and Eighty-eight


Fang has already written a paean to five.  (And he totally stole my idea for a blog post, the bastard, and then did a far better job than I would have.)

Six years ago today (Labor Day–ha ha) at around 1:30 p.m., I finally delivered baby Lucas into the world. Forty-plus hours of labor produced a lovely but cranky baby boy who would, it ends up, not sleep through the night for fifteen months.  Add his only-weekly bowel movements and colic, plus the thrush and mastitis that he caused in me, and you can begin to see why we stopped with just one child.  (Another significant data point in that study: $50,000 in daycare and preschool costs over 5 years.)

Knowing how it all turned out, these six years later, if we had the financial werewithal and physical energy, we’d be jonesing for a sibling.  Lucas is bright, inquisitive, funny, creative, and sensitive.  He’d be an awesome big brother.

I am so very grateful that in the cosmic genetic lottery, we ended up with this child.  I’m thrilled that Fang is his father, as he’s ensuring that the quirkier aspects of our joint DNA experiment are channeled productively in an environment filled with love, understanding, and creativity.

Congrats to all of us, then, on six.


Yesterday my mom and her sisters held a memorial for my grandmother, who died last month at age 88. Like many family weddings, it was in a backyard. Despite my grandmother’s assertion that everyone she knew was dead, 52 people showed up.  We’re not a particularly religious family, but I imagine it was a service infused with tremendous spirit and gratitude.

I say “I imagine” because the memorial ended up being scheduled on the day between Lucas’s birthday party and his actual birthday, and I didn’t think it was appropriate to drag him to such an event on what should be an awesome, Lucas-focused weekend.

Still, my parents opted to read aloud some of Fang’s blog post from last spring, as well as the letter I wrote to my grandmother the week before she died. When my mom read the letter to my grandmother a month or so ago, Grandma apparently announced, with typical grandmotherly pride, that the letter needed to be framed and hung on the wall, as well as published in the newspaper.  (Cute, yes?)

Anyway, I had thought the letter was the kind of thing that she’d want to keep private between us, but apparently she wanted it shouted to the world, so I’m going to share it here.  If you’re family, get out the tissues. . .

Dear Grandma,

I know you’re going through a really bad time right now, and I wish I could do much more to help. The best I can think to do right now is to put in writing—so that you can read it, or have it read to you, more than once, if you like—how grateful I am to have you as my grandma.

I love you. You’re not only the best grandmother I could ask for, but also one of the best friends. I’ve been wandering around this world for 36 years now, and I’ve realized something:

Everyone else has old ladies for grandmothers.

I have you.

I have pinned up on my bulletin board at work the photo of you that was printed in the newspaper—the one where you’re emptying sand from your shoes. It makes me smile every day. I wish I could have known you then as well as now; how fun it would have been to be young together!

Regardless, I’m so happy for the time we’ve spent with each other. You have created an absolutely amazing family of women—daughters and granddaughters—dedicated to the public good through education.  I’m so grateful to be a part of that clan, to be a recipient of that heritage. I’m so glad that Lucas feels he knows you well—he’s more [Surname 1] and [Surname 2] than you may know.

You contributed so much to my growth, not only by taking care of me before and after school, but also by letting me live with you for a time. I treasure all those memories.

Some things I remember:

  • Making kites from dowels and white butcher and tissue paper on your kitchen table, and gluing onto them pictures of jewelry you helped me cut out of the J.C. Penney catalog. Pops and I flew the kites on the playground at Fremont.
  • Thirty-six years of frosted and sprinkled sugar cookies.  (It’s a miracle, really, I’m not diabetic.)  I have your recipe, and I make the cookies with Lucas.  He loves to add the sprinkles.
  • Drawing portraits of each other while sitting at the old marble table in the living room. I was in elementary school. You drew a really funny, ugly picture and we both laughed really hard.
  • How much you helped me with my tricky “Think Pages” while I sat at the big round table in the kitchen. They were really hard for a third grader, but it was fun to have you figure them out with me.
  • When I once said a bad word, you told me you were going to wash my mouth out with soap, and then you asked, “Where’d you learn that crap?”
  • You knew, somehow, that [Fang] was going to propose to me on my 26th birthday. I remember leaving your house for a fancy dinner, and you asking me, “What if he asks you to marry him?” I think of you several times each day when I look at the wedding ring you gave me. I still have the envelope in which you handed it to me, with the business card from the jewelry store.
  • Looking for four-leaf, and even five-leaf, clovers under your lemon and grapefruit trees. One day we found six or seven of them. You taped them to pieces of notepaper, and we wrote the date on them.

The last time I was at your house, I went out into the yard and looked for four-leaf clovers, but there weren’t any. I wish I could send you a bouquet of them.

Mom told me you’ve been praying. I hope it’s helping you with all the awful things you’re going through. I was reading some poetry recently, and a few lines of a Walt Whitman poem jumped out at me, as it captured this idea, I think, that you’ll always, always be a part of this family, and of me especially:

We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us;
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also;
You furnish your parts toward eternity;
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

You have definitely contributed to my soul, to the woman and mother I am today. Thank you for that. A million times thank you.

[Fang], Lucas, and I love you very much. Please know that we’re thinking of you all the time.