A survey of what?

As my university goes through program prioritization and redesigns its undergraduate core curriculum to feature all the right buzzwords, I’m once again reminded of how broken the history survey course has become.  I’m not the first to say it, nor will I be the last, but the thought woke me up again at 3:30 this morning, so I’m writing about it here.

English departments figured this out a while ago.  They wrestled with the canon, yet–in my experience at least, as an English major and a former lit and comp instructor–they settled on a wide variety of representative works in their lower-division survey courses rather than pretending to cover literature comprehensively. In the broadest surveys that serve more non-majors than majors, there’s some poetry, drama (often Shakespeare), short fiction, and a novel or two.  Maybe some creative nonfiction.  But no one is pretending to offer any kind of coverage beyond “hey, here are some samples of a few genres that have proven particularly significant over time.”

I’m noticing the opposite is the case in many history surveys.  Textbooks purport to share a comprehensive narrative. Publishers’ supplementary materials (ugh) offer quizzes that are more about fact acquisition than any skills listed on the top half of Bloom’s taxonomy–as if the point of the history survey is to ensure students know what caused the Panic of 1837, or what happened during the Salem witch trials, or that Gettysburg is often seen as the turning point of the Civil War.

Recently, my university revised its general ed requirements, and in order for a course to count toward those requirements, we had to send department faculty to a course design institute to ensure the courses met university-wide learning outcomes. I was actually fine with that, as we were allowed to be pretty damn vague about what would go on in each section of a course–e.g., “assessments may include, but are not limited to, essays, exams, and group presentations.” Recently, however, the people who run that program appear to have added another wrinkle: formative and summative assessments.  Quantitative formative and summative assessments, across course sections.

And so one of my colleagues took the initiative to develop a proposed assessment for one of the survey courses we moved into the new core.  It was a 10- to 15-question quiz that asked students to demonstrate some basic knowledge that any eighth grader who has just finished a (very) traditional Western Civ class should be able to pass.  The idea is that students would take the exact same multiple-choice quiz at the beginning and end of the course, and voilà! We can measure and document learning with the quiz scores.

 

The gap between the university’s assumptions about teaching and what I think works grows ever wider.

I’m teaching the first “half” (Pleistocene to 1877) of the U.S. history survey this semester.  It’s my third time teaching this course, and I struggle with it every damn time, particularly in the first six weeks or so of the semester, when I’m trying to adjust students’ expectations of what a history course is and their understanding of what a history course does.

The course schedule looks fairly traditional: readings from a textbook (I know, I know–I vacillate on this; I didn’t use one last time, and next time I’ll drop it again), punctuated by fairly formal writing assignments, a midterm (an in-class essay), and final exam (also an essay).  But a glance at the syllabus does not reveal at all–at all–what happens in class.

So, for example, for yesterday’s class, we read Chapter 5 of Foner’s Give Me Liberty.  It’s dry, it’s boring–think Stamp Act–but when I ask students here what most interests them about history, the Revolutionary War ranks right up there with the Civil War, so I feel compelled to give a nominal nod toward coverage of the subject.

Once we were in class, I asked students to summarize what the colonists who were protesting the various British acts wanted.  After the students discussed this briefly in small groups, we made a list on the board.

I passed out a press release on the current-day Tea Party’s platform, and I thumbnailed for students Tea Party demographics.

I then asked students if today’s Tea Party adherents, who claim the Revolutionary era as their intellectual and political legacy, are actually in line, ideologically speaking, with the original Tea Party.  My students agreed that, at first glance and even with some reflection, they did, if we’re looking at their political planks. We also discussed what today’s Tea Partiers find attractive, politically and culturally, in that historical moment, at least as it’s traditionally chronicled.

But, as I said to my students, “If there’s one thing you take away from this course, I hope it’s that when someone is drawing conclusions from history for political ends, you say, ‘It’s actually more complicated than that.’”

So, my next question for students was, “How does today’s Tea Party perceive and use Revolutionary-era history? And why does it matter how Tea Partiers represent history?”

We watched two videos that feature history as told by Tea Party darlings Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck:


 

The first is an easy one for students to analyze, Colbert’s enjoyable theatrics aside: Sarah Palin is a big Second Amendment rights advocate, and she tells a popular story in a way that emphasizes her concerns and inflates their importance.

The second is more complicated. Glenn Beck talking about black history in early America? And taking a vaguely art historical approach?  What the hell rabbit hole have we fallen into here? On the surface, he’s asking for the same thing Clarence Walker does in Mongrel Nation, which we read last week: that Africans and African Americans be fully integrated into our stories of the founding of the American republic because it will change how we understand American history and race relations.

I encourage you to watch the video; it’s a very rich text that, on close reading, yields all kinds of insights into the hopes and fears–but mostly fears–of the Tea Party.

The first thing I highlight for students is that Beck is arguing for less emphasis on slavery as central to the black experience in the United States. As he explicates various paintings, Beck (along with everyone’s favorite early American historian, David Barton) names the African-American men depicted in them, then asks why we focus so much on slavery in telling the stories of black lives.

(Hint: Every single African American Beck names in that clip was a slave.)

My students and I talked about why Beck wants to downplay slavery, why Beck might believe the Tea Party should take an interest in black history at this time, and why this black history instead of the history Beck dismisses rather casually (Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement). It was a lively discussion among students from a broad political spectrum.

If this course were in the university’s new core–which many are arguing it should be, if only to keep enrollment up–how would we assess these students, formatively and summatively, in a quantitative way?  Hell, I struggle to assess such learning qualitatively.

I feel just as some of us were beginning to push back successfully against the content coverage model that keeps student learning low–very low–on Bloom’s taxonomy, university administrators and the state board of ed (which, alas, controls all public education in Idaho, not just K-12) once again demonstrate they have no idea whatsoever what the humanities are or what they do for students.

Idaho in particular needs students who can engage in informed, reflective civic discourse, not students who can parrot information from a textbook or lecture. (Our statehouse is filled with party-line parrots.) My students would do miserably on formative and summative assessments like those proposed by my colleague.  But which kind of person would you rather have participating in our democracy–a student who shows one-semester improvement on a quiz, or one who can thoughtfully evaluate politicians’ and pundits’ motivations for deploying history in political discourse?

A matter of fit

I.

This week in our upper-division U.S. women’s history course, my 40 students and I are reading and discussing Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 I’m really enjoying the book because I’m learning a ton from it, but it’s clear some students have already given up on it. Last class, one student commented that she found the writing terrible, and I said it takes time to learn to read an academic book like this one, and that I found it an easy read, but that’s only because I’ve paged through thousands such tomes.

I then asked students for whom the book was written.  Several answered “for us”—by which they meant students in a history course at a regional four-year university.

I explained it’s unlikely the author ever imagined undergraduates at Boise State would constitute the book’s primary audience, or even its secondary or tertiary one.  Students seemed surprised.

“Well, then, who’s it written for?” one asked.

“Other academic historians.”

Students seemed puzzled.  Why would anyone write for such a small audience, and why would they use such dense language?

 

II.

I don’t lecture in my classes.  It’s not my style.  Years ago, when I would attend humanities conferences where I was expected to present my research, I might prepare a paper, thinking I would play by the rules, but I’d end up speaking off the cuff, often in front of the podium instead of behind it.  When I do conferences now, I prefer roundtables and discussion over panels and presentations, and I like to talk about the state of the field rather than my own work.

But recently I’ve been invited to give more formal presentations on my work.  I’m even keynoting at an unconference.  (And yes, I get the irony.)

While I’m happy there’s interest in my work, I feel uneasy with the medium of the research presentation.

The last time I read part of my work aloud was during my job talk for my current job, when I was extremely nervous and pretending not to read.  When I was finished, the assembled faculty asked me to have a seat.  The chair fell apart under me.

Honestly, that’s how I feel after any formal presentation.  Disoriented and slightly embarrassed.

 

III.

I was talking with a friend today who was trying to figure out if she should stay in her current (exceptionally sought-after and rare) job in a field she loves but in a context she finds challenging.  Her alternative was a pink-collar job with great benefits and just-about-guaranteed raises every year, but which would likely be brain-deadening.  She wasn’t sure if brain-deadening was better than soul-killing.

I asked if there was a third path.

She moved on to talk about the land mines at work, which may or may not be metaphorical.

 

IV.

It’s all a matter of fit.

It’s no secret to longtime blog readers that I have a slippery academic and professional identity.  I move across fields, degrees, departments, and programs.  I switch sides, from staff to faculty and back again.

And back again?

Perhaps.  There’s been a lot of bloggy soul-searching recently–even more than usual, it seems–about how the dysfunctions of academia, and faculty life in particular, are beginning to snowball in earnest.  Work-life balance is more off-kilter than ever.  Faculty governance is disappearing along with the tenure track.  MOOC-thinking—education driven by efficiency rather than pedagogy—has widely infiltrated university administration. Pay is stagnating, with many faculty barely maintaining a fingerhold on the middle class.

If I were a single person without a kid, I would be counting my blessings. I adore my colleagues and my students.  My teaching load is ideal, and I have a good deal of autonomy in choosing what I teach.  I get course releases (although they’re never enough, are they?).  I find sufficient small grants to fund whatever project I might have at hand.  I’ve grown so much here in confidence and in skill, thanks to the supportive environment of my department.  (It’s entirely non-pathological, a rare beast!) And–again, if I were single–I might be happy with only a small apartment to maintain in a city whose scale is, if not walkable or bikeable (for me, at least), entirely reasonable.

But I’m not single.  I have a family, and accordingly my current position is not financially sustainable.  On paper, the salary is below median.  Once taxes and retirement savings and whatever else are taken out of it, my take-home salary is less than half what experts estimate it costs to maintain a family here in Boise.  Yes, Fang works, but he’s self-employed in the newspaper industry; I’m grateful for what he brings in (more grateful than ever), but we don’t know how long it will last.

Two clear paths forward:

1) Go up for tenure next year.  That would increase my pre-tax salary by around 14 percent starting roughly fall 2015, and would bring me almost back–in three more years–to where I was in my staff job in Davis.  It would likely be my last raise until I went up for full professor, however.  Make up the difference between my salary and our needs by doing some college admissions consulting with wealthy families.  Keep my fingers crossed that newspapers don’t disappear during our lifetime.  (Ha!)

2) Seek sustainable employment elsewhere—a tenure-line faculty position, an academic staff position, an alt-ac job in industry, etc.  Or start my own thing, which isn’t immediately realistic because while living in Boise we’ve spent down our savings to a point where I can’t justify striking out on my own.

 

V.

Some people think I’m crazy to be discussing this in the open, under my real name.  And yet when I burst into my department chair’s office on the first day of classes this fall and ranted that the HR folks from a top university where I applied for a fabulous staff job way back in early July chose that day to get back to me, she merely told me, “Of course you’re available. Immediately, if need be.  Take the interview.”

 

VI.

And so I’ve been thinking about fit.  Do I serve a community better as faculty or in another role?  Am I happier with the relatively autonomous but always-on faculty life or in a staff position where I don’t typically have to take work home every evening and work on weekends?  Which is more important to me–the prestige of a tenure-line position or something resembling financial security?  What’s best for my spouse and son?

Must it be either/or?  Because I spend an awful lot of my faculty job doing things that don’t cleanly fit into teaching, research, outreach, or service, but which are sometimes all four simultaneously.  And when I was on the staff side of academia, I engaged with more intellectually challenging and paradigm-shifting material at conferences than I ever have as a faculty member.

I’m thinking a research institute would be a really good fit, inside or outside a university—but probably inside would be better.  If the job’s primary mission was conveying complex information to a public audience, that would be awesome.

It ends up that the job for which I have a second interview on Monday is at a research institute in a terrific interdisciplinary field of study, and it involves lots of interpretation of research and social issues for the public. Without discussing exact numbers, the HR rep who conducted the first interview said the salary would be “comfortably above” my current one.  (I’ve done my research, and “comfortably above” is a euphemism for “a hell of a lot more.”)  On top of it all, I find the university’s location very attractive.

Wish me luck?

Fatigued

On September 11, 2001, Fang and I had just moved to Davis. We only had rabbit ears on the TV and we were using our old dial-up internet access from Southern California. We were watching NBC, and when we saw, through the static, the first WTC tower fall, Fang said, “This country is about to go screaming to the right.”

He was, alas, correct, and I regret all the pain countless U.S. Americans and others around the globe have experienced on that day and since. I see my students who are veterans struggle with PTSD and physical pain, and I think about all the first-responder and war widows and widowers, as well as the vast suffering and loss of life of civilians in the Middle East.

I’m tired of Islamophobia, which I still see not only in the media but also in my Facebook stream from people I respect and trust and love.

I’m tired of jingoism and shallow, flag-waving patriotism and end times rhetoric. I’m tired of the profiteering of American companies in the Middle East and North Africa.

I’m tired of it all.

Can we please, today and always, speak and act with love and compassion and generosity rather than fear and violence?

The Leslie multiverse

When I returned home from the final day of my short, grossly underpaid stint as a staff writer for a newspaper named for a fish that climbs out of the water to mate, Fang–then the art director of the paper—sent me an e-mail in which he expressed his delight in working with me and announced that “in a parallel universe, we made a terrific couple!”

My first thought—after shit shit shit! (because I had harbored a crush on him for a couple months, and in ten days I would move from Long Beach to Iowa City)—was, “Wait a minute; I live in a parallel universe.”

That sentiment emerged from my experience as someone who was socially awkward and thus lived intellectually and psychologically on the margins of my world even as I seemed to bodily inhabit it.  I like to think I’ve overcome most of my social awkwardness (ha! more like embraced it), so in recent years I’ve seen myself as on a sometimes unconventional path through Earth Prime.

 

But then, suddenly, this summer has been all about parallel universes.

I’ve spent almost as much time outside Boise as I have in it: a dozen days or so in the Bay Area and Davis, California for a women-in-technology unconference and archival research; two weeks in a village just north of New York City for my internship with Seth; and ten days in Long Beach visiting family and trying to recover from what turned into a summer in which I worked a lot and accomplished much, but none of it what I projected in my faculty activity plan.

I stayed in Davis long enough to feel as if I had moved right back into the town. My evenings and weekends were packed with visits with friends and former colleagues, and it was downright charming—perfect, in fact, except for the absence of Lucas, Fang, and a bicycle. And indeed, in a parallel universe, I never left Davis, never landed a job in the ultra-collegial history department at Boise State, never met all the funny and awesome Boiseans whose friendships I treasure.

Then there was the internship with Seth Godin. As you know, I’m still processing it. But for two weeks I inhabited a parallel universe in which I wasn’t an academic, in which people valued my expertise and skills differently (more highly! more openly!) than in my everyday professorial life.

And Long Beach. Honestly, I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with this city. It would take a lot of therapy, and a lot more writing, for me to distill what exactly it is I believe about Long Beach—typical, I suppose, of any place where one’s family has lived for nearly a century. But this trip has been delightful thus far. I’ve spent lots of time with my sister, helping her with her business, but more importantly hanging out with her mercurial two-year-old daughter and absolutely charming three-month-old son.

Today, for example, I breakfasted with Lucas and my parents, then headed down to a local saltwater lagoon because my parents said with its restoration, it’s possible to stand on the pier that runs across it and see jellyfish.  Lucas and I saw huge moon jellies, yes, but also lots of fish, an egret, crabs, a skate, and an octopus that put on quite a show of locomotion and camouflage. Then we went down to Newport Beach, where, just as I settled into my beach chair, a pod of dolphins swam near shore and stayed for a while to play and feed.  I headed out into the waves with Lucas and my parents, and we took turns body boarding in the excellent surf. We were amused by the biggest, fastest fish I’ve ever seen in such shallow waters—maybe three feet long and six to eight inches tall. I finished out the day with my sister and her family at a concert in a park featuring a really fun 1980s cover band.  We dined on some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had.

 

It would be easy to dismiss such relaxing, delightful experiences as a vacationer’s indulgence. And for me, at the moment they are. And the story I’ve been telling myself all these years is that Long Beach is too expensive a place to live on an academic’s salary—hell, Boise is, too—yet millions of people manage to live in Southern California, and probably hundreds of thousands of them end up at the beach each day during the summer, even on a weekday. The secondary narrative is that even if I did see an academic job advertised here that paid sufficiently, the applicant pool is too competitive because the weather is nice and the cultural resources are plentiful.

With these thoughts running through my head, I count down the days—three, now—before I must return to Boise for the new semester (at a job, remember, I love—but whose salary is insufficient). I look at the news and see that much of the country immediately outside Boise is on fire, which means horrifying air quality (Lucas and I both have asthma). I think about how unhappy Fang has been in Boise, and how few connections we’ve been able to make in the city because everyone else at Lucas’s school seems to have deep family roots in town and established social networks that can be difficult to penetrate.*  And I wonder why the hell I’m going back there.

Because despite my mild-mannered academic life, the truth is, I fully inhabit a parallel universe—one in which as a professor I apply for stuff that seems crazy, like two weeks of 7 a.m.-to-1 a.m. days as an intern for a mystery project with a marketing genius on the other side of the country.

 

During that internship, Seth dedicated the last couple days to not only tying up loose ends, but to having individual conversations with each of us about where we’re headed next.  My private meeting with Seth lasted only a few minutes, but what emerged was this: I’m way too intelligent and talented to feel underappreciated, and I’m too smart to stay somewhere I’m not adequately financially compensated for my work.

As I mentioned in a previous post, later that day, during the business brainstorming session, I tossed out an idea I had no intention of following up on myself, but which a room full of frighteningly bright people seemed to think was a perfect fit for me.  I began reading the websites of other people in this professional niche, and I realized—I admit, to as much horror as delight—I would very likely succeed in it.

I pulled Seth aside and asked him what he would do if he were me, in an academic culture that (a) expects us to give 110% of our waking hours to the job and (b) doesn’t usually smile upon professorial entrepreneurialism unless it directly benefits the university.  As I remember the conversation, Seth pressed me: Was I worried people wouldn’t like me if I took on a side project that had a high financial return on a small investment of my time?  Yes, I said, I was.  Then he asked which was more important to me: making six figures or being liked by my colleagues. I averted my eyes and said, “Making enough to fully support my family.”  To which he added quickly, “They’re going to like you anyway.”

I ran this conversation by a friend and colleague, and she confirmed that yes, indeed, this narrative of doom-and-gloom was mostly in my head, and not based in reality.  The university, she says, wants faculty to be out in the community, and now that she knew about this potential side hustle, she’d think I was crazy not to pursue it.

And it is crazy not to at least give it a try. It shouldn’t prove much of a distraction from my university duties, nor a conflict with them. So I’m spending the final evenings of summer researching the field, creating a website, and filing the appropriate paperwork with the state to make everything above-board.

Worst-case scenario?  I fail, and I learn to survive on a professorial gig I love and at which by all accounts I’m excelling. Somehow, I find ways to make Idaho life less corrosive on my family’s individual and collective psyches.

Best-case scenario?  I try this for a couple of years, I’m crazy successful at it, and I get to pick which path to take: an intellectually rich but financially unstable life as a tenured historian in a state for which I’ll never be a booster, or this other thing—I promise not to be coy about it much longer—that would allow me to live wherever I want (read: near my extended family).

So here’s to parallel universes, as confusing as they can be when they become less-than-parallel and intersect.  This should be fun.

*When complaining thus, I need to acknowledge my gratitude for Lisa V. and Bert V., who have been so generous with their kindness and their Thanksgiving dinners. Without them, we’d feel completely alienated from non-university life in Boise.

 

Long days at the internship

I haven’t been this tired since those 15 months of sleepless nights after Lucas was born.

It’s enough, perhaps, to say that this internship has been, and will continue to be, transformative.  I’m working with 17 amazing people who set the bar higher every day.  Days are long, work is hard, and everyone is at once vulnerable and brave.  It’s absolutely, wonderfully crazy, and I can’t believe it will be over in a week.

Please don’t make me go back to grading papers.  This is far more fun.

Impostor syndrome and what I value

A few months ago, I wrote a post about impostor syndrome in academia.  Honestly, I don’t suffer from impostor syndrome much anymore, and I like to think this is because I’m confidently eccentric rather than arrogant.  But the journey to this point was long, peppered with lessons that sometimes were revelatory in the moment and sometimes only with hindsight.

This worry about being called out as a fraud is on my mind right now because I’m studying for my next project, a two-week internship with one of my favorite authors.  (It may surprise you that he’s among my faves.)  I’m not feeling so impostory about this opportunity, but it’s exactly the kind of opportunity that would have freaked out an earlier version of me, and there are people much younger than me participating, and some of what they’ve said suggests they might be feeling a bit out of their league. Hence, my thinking about impostor syndrome.

In particular, I’ve been recalling a couple moments from grad school. Even in the thick of my cultural studies degree, the language of that field, and the accompanying opacity of its concepts and paradigms, was a source of frustration and stress.  I suspected I needed to learn the lingo to communicate with future colleagues, but at the same time I resented the sheer incomprehensibility of many of the articles and books I read–especially since once I learned to translate the diction, syntax, and rhetoric into my own tongue, I realized they were unnecessarily inaccessible to laypeople, even as the authors often championed the democratization of knowledge and equitable distribution of resources.

So. . . We were reading something by Derrida–I think it was Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, though I may be misremembering.  Much of what we had read in our other seminars referenced Derrida, but I’m not certain how much of Derrida’s work itself had been assigned to us.  Still, people cited Derrida and his ilk in our wide-ranging seminar discussions, making allusions that passed far above my head, and I felt as if I had read all the wrong things. So when it came time to read Given Time, I pretty much just wrote off that week’s discussion, figuring I’d once again be dog paddling among much more accomplished swimmers in the deep, ever-churning pool of critical theory. Each week, the professor required us to write a two-page response to the readings, and despite my reservations, I took this one as seriously as the rest because I knew Derrida mattered quite a bit to the other students in the course.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ran into the professor before class, and she thanked me for my thoughtful response paper–not because my ideas on the book were especially worthwhile, but because I was the only one in the class, she said, who engaged with the book’s content.  The rest complained about the book’s abstractions and its opacity of language.

In this scenario, is there an impostor?  Some might say yes, and it’s the other students. One of my criticisms of cultural studies, at least as represented in the courses I took and the readings assigned in them, is that few people seemed to go to the source.  Lots of people would reference Derrida, but I realized after this experience that in our class discussions no one was actually citing any specific work by Derrida, only concepts they had probably gleaned from reading secondary works.  Does that render impostors of the students who lionized Derrida in discussions but crumpled in the face of a sustained piece of writing by the man?

I’m not so sure.  It’s been so long now that I can’t remember all the details of students’ resistance to Given Time, so perhaps they saw the work as a departure from Derrida’s best thinking, and that’s why they balked.  (From my current perspective as a professor, I suspect that’s probably a far too generous assessment of the situation.)

The lesson I gleaned from this experience–and it’s one I’ve had to learn again and again, though I think maybe (maybe) I’ve finally internalized it–is that as long as I put in a serious effort to do good, reflective work, I shouldn’t have any reservations about sharing my authentic intellectual or emotional response.

A few years earlier, in a different graduate program, I had to read The Black Atlantic, which I also found opaque, just as much because I found it poorly written as that I was ignorant of most of its allusions. Before the first of two classes in which we were to discuss the book, my fellow students complained about the work, finding similar faults with it. One student admitted throwing her copy of the book forcefully across the room. But when the professor asked us what we thought of the book, and I leapt in with my assessment, the other students didn’t back me up, which I found kind of humiliating, as they then went on to praise the book. I sat quietly the rest of that class and the next one, during which we also discussed The Black Atlantic.  It was only at the end of that second class meeting that the professor admitted he shared my view of the book.

Of course, I had already sat through six hours of class totally doubting not only my interpretation of the book, but also my entire education up to that point and my decision to pursue this degree.  But I ended up excelling in the course and came to find the field (American studies) particularly felicitous for someone with my academic training and perspective.

Similarly, when I took my current position in a history department, I was worried I would fall flat on my face because I didn’t have even the knowledge of the past that a junior history major might have, let alone the depth of understanding of a history Ph.D. Fortunately, we live in an age where  information about the past, including primary source documents and thoughtful interpretations of them, is often easily accessible. In the classroom, I admit my shortcomings to my students–I’m not a content expert–but I also emphasize that the practice of history is at heart an amalgamation of curiosity and interpretive chutzpah, tempered by available evidence.  I’ve come to focus on the process of doing history (not only in the classroom, but as a research topic in itself) because it’s where I am right now; I’m still learning the process myself and trying to model it for students. I don’t have a separate classroom persona who is an expert on the past, and I’m surprised as anyone to discover that being authentically myself in the history classroom and in other academic and quasi-academic contexts is really paying off.

Reflecting on values

Fortunately, there are ways to decrease feelings of impostor syndrome that don’t involve an emotionally punishing 15- to 20-year sojourn through academia. Earlier this summer, I attended AdaCamp San Francisco, which opened with an exercise to decrease feelings of impostorhood.  Basically, the premise is that if someone’s impostor feelings arise from stereotype threat–”the tendency of people to perform in ways that confirm stereotypes of groups they identify with, such as women performing worse on a math test if its mentioned that the test is looking for gender differences in performance”–writing about her values prior to the anxiety-producing event (a public discussion, a job interview, writing a résumé) will lead to “a more realistic, positive assessment of [her] own ability and achievements.”  You can download the exercise worksheet, which includes a sample list of values, to use on your own, in your courses, or at events you’re organizing.

Hiking trail sign on green hill

Partly because I’m naturally inclined to reflection, and partly because I’m participating in Marci Glass’s Starward project (my word is calling), I’ve been thinking about both values and the qualities I’d like to have more of in my professional life. Among the qualities I value are:

  • congruity between thought and action/a greater alignment between how I want to spend my working hours and how I’m actually working
  • synthesis of my various interests, and clarity in articulating them to others
  • experimentation with new knowledge and the fluency that comes from regular practice of emerging skills and vocabularies
  • receptivity to new opportunities
  • financial stability

I also want to share my gratitude for the qualities already abundant in my professional context, as they all contribute to my current freedom from impostor syndrome:

  • autonomy
  • supportiveness
  • collegiality (and especially humor)
  • enthusiasm

How far these are from what I valued–or thought I should be valuing–in my grad school years: competence, confidence, mastery, seriousness.  Every time I think I’m stagnating intellectually or professionally, I need only remember where I was a decade ago.  I’m grateful for the opportunities for personal and professional growth, and I’m committed to seeking out more of them.

And you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on or experiences with impostor syndrome and shifting (or deepening) values, regardless of where you do your best work (academia, industry, freelancing, art, parenthood, etc.).  Leave ‘em in the comments, or write a blog post and link back to this one so we can continue the conversation.

 

 

image by Horia Varlan, and used under a Creative Commons license

The humanities as navel-gazing

David Brooks writes that the humanities went to hell in a handbasket half a century ago. He explains what humanities instruction used to be and what it should become once again.

The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.

Specifically, he mentions we should study Pericles, Socrates, and Galatians.

Hmmmm. . .I wonder why the emphasis on such figures faded, to be replaced by cultural studies?

Let’s see. . .50 years ago was when? Ah, yes–1963–when the Civil Rights movement was exploding into the national consciousness. Funny that it was at that moment humanists in the academy felt it necessary to shift gears to consider race, class, and gender–to try to help their students make sense of the giant demographic, cultural, and economic shifts of the second half of the 20th century.  David Brooks would like us to go back to navel-gazing and the ancient world instead of studying how people make sense of and engage with a rapidly changing modern world.  (Yes, I get that we can learn lessons from those who came before us–I work as an historian, after all–but I’m wondering if there isn’t a statute of limitations on learning from others’ experiences. The men of the ancient world always felt remote and inaccessible to me, despite my excellent teachers.)

As someone who earned four degrees in humanities fields between 1993 and 2006, let me assure Mr. Brooks that I was indeed required to read the ancient classics, and students still read such works in the history department where I teach. However, in reflecting on my own soul and my place in the world, I found Thucydides and Plato less compelling than Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Langston Hughes, Cornel West, and countless other authors of the 19th and 20th centuries who shared their experiences of being pushed to the margins because they were women, queer, people of color, living with disabilities, or in some other way out of the mainstream.

What was your experience in your humanities courses, in high school or college or beyond?

Google Street View as time travel

I admit it–I’ve used Google Street View to revisit places I used to live, and it’s fun to see our cars still parked in the driveway or on the street.  The views will be updated eventually, of course, but I enjoy the feeling of being transported into the past when it’s presented by Google as if it’s the present.

Even more fun is when I happen onto a seam in the space-time fabric.  On Harrison Boulevard in Boise, for example, there’s a moment when the seasons suddenly change if you shift your view to the other side of the street:


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And at the corner of University and Capitol in Boise, taking one virtual step to the right jumps you back in time a few years, but it seems like a decade or more:

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Even better would be if Google made it possible to dive down through the different “layers” of its Street View drive-bys when they’re updated, instead of just overwriting the virtual landscape with the new images.  Google Earth already does have this capacity for some places, and third-party services like WhatWasThere and HistoryPin allow users to “pin” historical photos to specific locations on Google Maps.

What spatiotemporal quirks have you found in Street View?

“Big tent” technology

Let’s begin with a few U.S. maps published recently.

Here’s one, built at the National Day of Civic Hacking, of every public library branch (and a few bookmobiles) in the contiguous U.S.:

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And here’s a similar map of every museum in the lower 48:

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Note the dearth of such cultural institutions in large swaths of the western U.S.  Yes, some of that cultural hole can be attributed to less dense population patterns in the West, but it’s not as if there’s no one living in, working in, or visiting those areas.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that less dense, conservative states might not allocate sufficient funding to sustain cultural institutions. Indeed, even where museums do exist in the relatively sparsely populated Intermountain West and Great Basin, they are, with a few notable exceptions, not exactly distinguished institutions.

Even more significant is the giant western hole in the map of cities participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking:

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Now that I’ve spent three years in that region and have become familiar with its technological deficit—in terms of professional development but also of basic connectivity (in parts of Idaho, bears can take down the internet, and as recently as 2011, Idaho had the slowest internet speed in the nation)—I’m not surprised to see a complete lack of participation in the day of civic hacking.  Rather than advocating for public investment in educational and technological infrastructure—which might both make Idaho’s workforce more attractive to high tech companies and inspire individual Idahoans to launch start-ups and tech businesses—political “leaders” in Idaho are focusing on abolishing minimum wage laws and other government regulations that allegedly inhibit the growth of low-paying industries.

Let’s look beyond my current region, however. Imagine overlaying that civic hacking participation onto a map of the results of the last presidential election returns, especially one that represents results by county:

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It’s no wonder the Obama campaign was able to mobilize social media, big data, and related technologies so well in 2008 and 2012.  Republicans have taken notice, and cultural observers like Markos Moulitsas are pointing out that the Republican failure to take advantage of technology and data is less about “a lack of organization” than it is about “a lack of talent.”  Worse, as Moulitsas uses several examples to illustrate, when conservatives do engage with technology, they may be more likely to use it to close down access to information rather than open it up.

Big tent technology

As someone on the left side of the political spectrum, it would be easy for me to sit back, smirk, and enjoy watching conservatives’ lack of technological skill help to drive the Republican party into oblivion. Alas, this technological divide between red states and blue states has repercussions beyond who holds political office.  Of particular concern to me as a professor and a parent are career opportunities, particularly since my current state of residence appears to be putting more stock in attracting arms manufacturers and call centers than in cultivating a generation of civic-minded, technologically savvy workers.

I’ve said it here before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: being a progressive means “big tent” thinking.  It means seeking justice and fairness and uplift for all people—even those who have political views I find repugnant. And so I’m saying those of us who have any tech savvy at all who live in red states need to help conservatives (and others) get their technological house in order.

Over the past 30 years, conservatives have ridden a wave of fundamentalist Christian indignation over demographic shifts and changing social mores. Accordingly, conservative political operatives have—at least in the public eye—invested more time and energy in developing rhetorical flourishes that manipulate feeling than they have in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. I’m not the first progressive to observe that conservatives are not interested in reliable evidence or carefully interpreting data. Both conservatives and liberals participate in social and mainstream media echo chambers that amplify and reinforce our beliefs, but in my experience, liberals are more likely to read widely, learning from a broad spectrum of voices in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts.  That learning, I’ve observed, often includes a depth and breadth of knowledge about technology.

People from all over the political spectrum ought to be interested in hearing all voices, in having more conversations, in increasing the quality and quantity of civic discourse.  In the 21st century, that discourse involves a good deal of digital, networked technology.  We connect and communicate with it, and we wade into its ever-flowing streams of data, news, and information.  Again, in my experience (and as suggested by the maps above), those who identify with the political left are more likely to swim boldly into and try to make sense of—or even shape—these currents.

(It was at this point in my discussing this idea with her that a good friend pointed out I’m setting up a positivist narrative, one in which technological enlightenment leads to intellectual and political enlightenment of a group of people who can cling stubbornly to outdated ideals and dangerous cultural and economic practices. I don’t believe in technology as redemptive in and of itself, but I think in the case of Idaho and other conservative regions, a good dose of training in technological tools and languages–in the digital humanities–couldn’t hurt.)

In local practice

Let’s look at an example of this thinking in action.  Already my minor infusion of digital humanities practice into my classroom has revolutionized many students’ relationships with technology.  They write in their end-of-course reflections about how they had seen themselves as technophobic or technologically inept, and now they’re curious about digital tools and willing to experiment.  Of course, learning to use most apps doesn’t involve manipulating and visualizing data or writing code that can change the functionality of an app or website.  But my students’ growing confidence in their technical savvy has led them to  imagine developing apps–and in one assignment I had them write grant proposals to do so.  For some students, this app development plan took the form of investigating software development firms, but other students researched the ways they might build apps themselves.

And yes, at least half of my students from this past year consider themselves to be conservative, many of them profoundly.

How can we grow this kind of energy and curiosity, and teach these kind of tech skills more broadly?  Digital storytelling is a natural fit.  But I think we need to take the next step, too, and engage people who inhabit the vast unhacked spaces on the map in civic hacking, in the languages—rhetorical and computational—of the digital era.

If you have ideas on how to make this happen, especially face-to-face, and how to fund it, leave them in the comments.

(This post was inspired by a session I attended at AdaCamp San Francisco on resources for women new to coding.)

On the banks of expectation

Irrigation Canal, aerial view

I had never lived in a city striated by irrigation ditches, so when I arrived in Boise, I was surprised to hear water coursing under a sidewalk, come across a completely silent and barely rippled canal running behind houses, glimpse a tiny waterfall disappearing under a street, or discover what appeared to be a happy, fast little stream rushing along the perimeter of a park.  (In the image above, the canal is marked by trees, and runs from lower right to upper left.) In the summer, many homeowners receive irrigation water one day a week, but it floods their yards, sometimes inches deep. For someone from drought-stricken California, this seemed beyond luxurious–an egregious waste–but still I cooled my feet in it last summer when the swimming instructor’s backyard was five inches deep beneath the shade trees.

In my neighborhood, there’s a stretch of irrigation canal lined by a dirt road that, although it’s marked “no trespassing,” attracts solitary walkers and runners, families with small kids headed toward a local playground, and lots of people with dogs, some of whom splash in and out of the canal.  During much of the year, it has no water in it, but when it does, I like walking along it.  The most life I’ve ever seen in the water is half a dozen mallards and tufts of green algae, but its far bank is marked by dilapidated remnants of earlier generations, and it’s overgrown with all kinds of flora. If I hit it at the right summer moment, I can grab a few apricots from a feral tree near the park.

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It’s sort of idyllic, this intrusion of water into the spring and summer suburban landscape.  But television ads warn us not to let our children near the canals because canals mean death.  And indeed, even the stillest of them may: who knows what chemicals they pick up as they cross the patchwork of urban, suburban, and rural lands? Even a quick glance at irrigated lawns in the spring reveals noxious agricultural weeds whose seeds the water deposits in the suburbs. Noxious weeds bring herbicides, which seep down into the soil and back into what Mark Fiege has termed the ecological commons.

Still, I’m drawn to the canals because they suggest the potential for erosion. Unlike the rivers of my native Southern California, they’re for the most part not cemented into their banks, and while the possibility of their wandering is faint, it exists—some upstream slip-up, some unclosed gate or broken meter, and the water overflows its banks and cuts new channels.

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There’s always been a similar tension for me—intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally—between structure and disruption. As a K-16 student, for the most part, I benefited from my ability to flow through established channels. By the time I started my third (and thankfully final) graduate program, however, I began to realize that established channels were no longer particularly attractive to me; I had pretty much mastered the art of the seminar paper and had come to resent much of what I was being asked to read.  (I took the authors seriously, and read every word, and I appreciated their politics, but the language and attitude of these texts were just so off-putting that I felt compelled to take a vow of comprehensibility–never to write like a typical lit crit theorist or cultural studies scholar. Fortunately, I had mentors whose training was outside those fields.)

I began to look outside school for opportunities. During grad school, I started a freelance writing and editing business as a side hustle, I held a series of positions at a local science center, I consulted on an outdoor science ed program, and I developed and managed a large, popular science exhibit at the state fair. When I graduated in 2006 without an academic job, I took on a couple of fairly well-paying “alt-ac” jobs at the university and seized the opportunity to adjunct in a graduate museum studies program. I enjoyed much of this work, and I adored some of it, and I always appreciated the additional income. Shortly before interviewing for my current job, I founded a consulting firm with a colleague, but sold my ownership in it when I moved to Boise.

In the intervening time, I’ve learned to play the academic game fairly well, though there are certainly aspects of it that I could embrace more fully.  In an alternate universe, there’s a Leslie who puts all her intellectual efforts into peer-reviewed writing; she has many journal articles and a book under contract with a university press.  She reads papers at disciplinary conferences.  She writes book reviews. In her spare time, she has kept up with her French horn studies and plays in a community wind band.  Her home office is organized.

Actual me, meanwhile, is overflowing the intellectual and emotional banks of a canal that cuts across the landscape of too many disciplines. I’m more likely to pick up Fast Company or a book on digital journalism than I am The Public Historian or the latest monograph from Duke University Press. My stack of books to read comprises a mix of museum studies, poetry, programming, fiction, and business. I’m more likely to have a Python tutorial or WordPress stylesheet open on my computer than I am to be mining JSTOR. Most days, I’d rather be writing essays for a popular audience than papers for academic journals. It’s not that I don’t enjoy or have given up those other things—it’s just that they are no longer enough.

This overflowing—this mania of research and writing about technology, culture, and entrepreneurialism—has resulted in flora sprouting wildly on the banks of the relatively narrow canal of what’s expected of an assistant professor of history at a university known more for its football team than its graduation rate.  And some of those flowers have drawn passers-by into conversation in a way that my traditional academic research never has.

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I’ve written before about this restlessness that manifests sometimes as a strangely driven lack of focus.  And it’s a weird restlessness, because I love my current job—the students, my colleagues, the autonomy I’ve been granted because I’ve already pretty much checked the boxes for tenure—and I’m succeeding here.

Honestly, as an adult, I’ve always lingered in the weeds of what’s expected. But now economic considerations—personal and structural (the situation in Idaho schools, for example) are driving me to think about how to take my unique combination of skills, passions, and expertise to a different context, one in which, ideally, I’d be fairly and perhaps even generously compensated for my work.

That’s a very difficult thing for me to admit. As an English major and writer, as the daughter of public school teachers, and as a student inculcated by the economic and structural criticisms inherent in cultural studies, I picked up the message that pursuing economic gain beyond the very modest is something that only shallow, selfish people do. And honestly, if it was just me, I could live comfortably in a small apartment or carriage house here in Boise. But I have a family, and between the costs of various lessons for the kid, the expected contributions to his criminally underfunded school, the cost of maintaining two aging cars (because we live in a city without good public transportation), and various ever-rising family medical costs, the salary I’m paid at Boise State isn’t sustaining us in a way that’s comfortable.

The problem, of course, is I don’t know what my next stage is going to look like, or when it might start.  I’m going to have to open up the gates on my intellectual and emotional canals, and let the water flow.  Who knows what seeds it carries, and what might grow?

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Epilogue

I wrote all of the above more than a week ago, and in the last week, I’ve felt the shift accelerate. I finished up the semester. I helped the boy with one of our semiannual purges of his room in search of toys, games, and clothes to donate, and I realized how quickly he’s growing up and all the things I want for him that I haven’t found here. I took an overnight retreat with a friend that helped me see the bigger geographical picture and gave me time to read and scribble some notes about me instead of about my research and teaching. I’m starting to pack for my next research/conference trip, this time to Davis (for archives) and to San Francisco (for Adacamp, an unconference for women in open-source technology), and both aspects of the trip are providing all kinds of food for thought—plus there’s the nostalgia factor of visiting my old stomping grounds. And then I felt drawn to apply for a spot at another interesting event later this summer, and I secured a place there, too. This last opportunity, which I hope I can say a tiny bit more about soon, is going to bring me into contact with all kinds of amazing people with whom I might not otherwise cross paths, and I’m thrilled about it.

Plus, my birthday is on Sunday–I’ll be 38–and the date always prompts some soul-searching.

Maybe nothing life-changing will come of this reflection and experimentation–I am, after all, a person of many ideas and insufficient time to develop them all, so I have to leave some at the side of the canal, out of reach of its waters–but I’m feeling that strange blend of confidence and impostor syndrome that usually means I’m poised for some serious professional, personal, and intellectual growth.