An Amazing Adventure in the Archives in Arkansas

by Samuel Malby

This year I was lucky enough to get a research grant from the graduate school, as well as funding from the department to go on a research trip to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. The first step of the process was of course planning ahead of time. I was looking for documents related to immigration policy over the course of the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001), but also looking more specifically at primary sources that dealt with immigration detention.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

First, I used the online Finding Aids to look up what useful documents were available, and what boxes I wanted to look at while I was there. Second, and perhaps the most important step was to contact the archivists and inform them of my plans to visit the archives. They emailed me back with a ton of information, supplementary sources they recommended I look at, and informed me that they had digitized a few of the sources I had mentioned and that those were available online. Therefore, before arriving at the archives I had a list of everything I wanted to look at, and this made the entire process so much easier once I got there.

I flew into Little Rock on a Sunday and had four days in the archives (Monday to Thursday) before flying home on the Friday.

On the first day, I arrived at the archives as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. I only had a few days and thousands of documents to get through, so I did not want to waste any time. I informed the security guards at the entrance that I was here for research and they let the archivists know that I was there. Then the archivists came to find me and took me through a long corridor and up some stairs into the archives themselves. There, as it was my first time, they explained the process, the rules, and the regulations. I received a visitor’s badge, a locker key, and a research card. Next, they took me into the research room and gave me my first cart with ten boxes (ten is the maximum they can give you at any time). On my list I had 34 boxes to get through in four days, but I had no idea how long it would take me. I therefore started off with the most important ones. It is important to prioritize especially if your time is limited. On the first morning, I only got through one box. I needed to speed things up. As I had so much to get through I was not really reading documents, I was mostly just taking photographs of all the useful documents I had before me. For the first few boxes that were related specifically to immigration detention, that meant taking pictures of everything. Some of the first ten boxes were filled exclusively with email exchanges between administration officials. While I am sure some of these contained interesting information, I decided it would be more beneficial to look through other material first and come back to these if I had time (Spoiler Alert: I did not).

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Between 12 and 1 the archives closed for lunch, so I went to find food. I had lunch at the 42, the restaurant situated in the Clinton museum, on one of the lower floors. As a true Englishman, I had fish’n’chips with a dark chocolate cheesecake with fresh fruits and a strawberry coulis for dessert. The dessert was hands down one of the best desserts I have ever tasted, it was fabulous!

After lunch I headed back up to the archives. I got through box two, and over the course of the day took 1521 pictures. By the end of the day I had a record of all the documents related to immigration detention in those two boxes.

On the second day, I went straight into the research room this time. I started to look at the email boxes, but there were just too many, and the process was too long. I skipped ahead to the final boxes on my first cart of ten boxes. They were mostly about former IRA members who were going to be deported. This was both remarkably interesting and quite unexpected. Who knows, maybe I will be able to find out what happened to them and write something about that one day! Once I got through those, I was done with cart one. The next cart started off with one of the boxes I was most interested in. From what I could see online, it looked like it would be particularly useful for my research and contain lots of critical information. In the end, however, it was very disappointing. It of course contained some relevant stuff but mostly documents that I knew were available elsewhere. However, one of the other boxes I was not expecting to find much in turned out to be a gold mine! Jam-packed full of interesting documents, juicy sources, and controversial material, this was the kind of stuff I was hoping to find.

Back in the 42, I had lunch with one of the other researchers. He was a retired professor of History from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, looking for sources related to narcotics. Over lunch he told me about his interactions in his youth with drug dealers in Colombia and had many other interesting stories to tell. At the end of the day, I took advantage of the heat and the sunny weather to go sight-seeing and took a two-hour walk along the Arkansas River trail.

On day three I went through some more boxes. I found lots of documents on Operation Gatekeeper. It was sunny and warm, so I had lunch outside on the patio at 42 again. I resisted the temptation to get dessert but decided I was going to have one tomorrow to celebrate my last day here! In the afternoon I got a new cart with 10 new boxes. Most of those contained useful and relevant sources. In the evening, after the archives had closed, I headed to a coffee shop to start drafting my article and simply enjoyed being in a city for a change.

On day four, I woke up to thunderstorm and rain. This meant that getting a cab was harder than usual as there were fewer drivers about. My driver that morning was Darill who was originally from Trinidad and Tobago. He was a big soccer fan, so we talked about our favorite soccer clubs and players (and how bad Man United are, everyone knows that!). He also talked about how he was also a musician who played steel drums.

On my final day at the archives, I continued to work through sources. By this point, thanks to my earlier prioritization I was mostly looking at documents that were less related, so I spent a little more time deciding what to skip over, and what to focus on. My aim was to get through it all before I left. I made timely progress and had almost finished cart three out of four by lunch on Thursday. At the restaurant, I ate with the researcher Eduardo again. As it turned out, he was half-Colombian and half-Argentinian. We talked about soccer (the theme of the day), and national allegiances. He was an Argentina supporter, and we talked about soccer rivalries and European football. He also talked about his experience of the military Junta in Argentina in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was a remarkably interesting guy!

After lunch I quickly moved onto cart four. There was some interesting material, but time was running out. I had to decide what to take photos of and what to not get bogged down in. I rapidly got though my final cart and finished my final box with about three minutes left on the clock!

In the evening, the weather was nice, so I went for a walk through the city and eventually stopped off in a bar that had hundreds of beers available. I sat down and drank a few of them and enjoyed my last evening in Arkansas. Life. Was. Good.

IGHS Conference Recap

by Erik Noren

As a former graduate student at Central Michigan University, and current PhD candidate at Wayne State University, I was recently invited by the leadership of the International Graduate Historical Studies Conference to come up to CMU to serve as a commentator. It was an honor to be given this responsibility, and I also learned a great deal from the panels during my stay. 

Acting as commentator on a conference panel was quite the learning experience. Just as a teacher learns their subject material far better after teaching, one also learns much more about a paper after engaging with it critically. I enjoyed hearing the presentations by Julianne and Kristian at my panel, but reading their papers beforehand had given me a better grounding in their respective subjects. Julianne’s presentation on the Ford Administration’s involvement in the Angolan Civil War in the 1970s was very intriguing, discussing it through the lens of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and international economics. Kristian’s work explored the history of the Equity, a farmer’s union that formed in 1902 and helped pave the way for larger organizations to follow. In both cases I couldn’t be a passive member of the audience, but instead had to constantly follow the material. Even if the criticism towards a paper is minor, writing comments can be quite challenging.

Thankfully, my visit did not stop at providing comments. Instead, I was able to attend other sessions and learn from those other panels. Following that, I was able to reconnect with several familiar faces. It had been a couple years since I had spoken at the IGHS conference and it was good to be back. My earlier time at CMU was a significant period in my development as a historian. I earned my MA in History here back in December 2014. Walking through those familiar halls brought back old memories. Some of those memories included my time as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for Dr. Donohue, the informative classes I took with Dr. Euler, Dr. Harsanyi and many others, and also the great conversations I had with my fellow colleagues. Even though some of my old colleagues were not on campus that day, it was good to meet up with some of the current graduate students in the department and learn about their interests.

Another part of the conference that is definitely worth highlighting was Dr. Lynn Hunt’s keynote address. Her examination of the recent role of social media was very interesting. In many cases it resonated with her previous work Writing History in the Global Era, in which she stipulated that writing history from below requires a familiarity with how people think and act. Even though I was not able to talk to her for very long, I still enjoyed meeting such a fantastic scholar in person. In my own classes I have often used the short Bedford books as useful ways to introduce students to primary sources, and Dr. Hunt is at the top of the series’ advisory editors. To conclude, I found my short visit back to CMU for the IGHS conference to be both eventful and rewarding. I hope in the future to be able to return to the conference as a commentator or presenter. The scholarship in my panels was top-notch, and I look forward to seeing more good work in the future.

You have to be There to Believe It: History Comes Alive

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

by David Banas

Spring Break. That semi-magical time full of the hope of freedom for undergraduates and the false hope of it for graduate students who will invariably be writing term papers or, perhaps even worse, grading term papers. While there is an emphasis on working over Spring Break, especially in graduate circles, there is still nonetheless time during most of our Spring breaks to do something relaxing or exhilarating. The latter came for me on a surprise, last minute trip to Connecticut and New York where I was confronted face-to-face with the idea of history coming to life. Most time when one tosses the phrase “history comes alive” around in the CMU History Department, it generally refers to the methodology of game-based learning. However, there is another, older, and perhaps more established way in which history has been made accessible to generations of the public and historians alike over the past two and a half centuries: museums.

On my trip I visited two such institutions. In addition to the rich primary sources that the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library offers, it presents something even more valuable to the public (or even the historian not studying Medieval and Early Modern history): an enormous glass display filled with examples of their rare collections, visible for every visitor. In addition to the large display of the collection, the Beinecke has several individual display cases with invaluable books scattered around the library. What struck me the most was the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five in the United States and of twenty-one remaining in existence. I was instantly drawn back to my undergraduate years when Dr. Rutherford had repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Gutenberg Bible to the point of making it an ID term on his Renaissance history final exam. And here I was, face-to-face with the oldest, western, printed book in history. In that moment, I forgot all the greater surrounding details that Dr. Rutherford had sought to impress upon my memory and instead was enraptured by the beauty and majesty of this work and the book’s heavy Fraktur font. For me, history came alive as I experienced not only the object in its larger historical context but also its sheer beauty.

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

After being hauled around for nearly an hour and a half around a semi-frigid New York City by my girlfriend and her friend who were hell-bent on seeing all of New York in a day, we finally arrived at the end of Central Park with a rather large and imposing stone building in front of us: the MET. The MET—officially known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has several interesting exhibitions of which we visited the Byzantine and Medieval art collections (because my girlfriend said so). The collection that stood out to me was “Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance,” which, as the title suggests, focused on pieces created by such master craftsmen as Adriaen de Vries, Hans Daucher, and Albrecht Dürer. Despite all the previous sections of beautiful art, this section—Dürer’s works in particular—held my profound interest. On all of his works—just like the Renaissance textbook I had read when I was a baby-faced freshman had claimed—was Dürer’s famous signature of a large, block capital ‘A’ straddling a smaller, capital ‘D’. I was again confronted with history truly coming to life. Having a historian in a rather dry and boring textbook explain to you how Dürer signed all of his works does not compare to not only the sensation of being a mere few inches away from something so old and important but also the thrill of the opportunity of trying to find his signature on every one of his works in the Met’s exhibition. Describing an item or painting is one thing. Actually seeing and experiencing the beauty of it in person is quite another.

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

When people complain about history being boring and merely a collection of dates, I point to experiences such as the ones the Beinecke and the MET afforded me to make history truly come to life. Closer to home, the Clarke Historical Library provides students and the local Mount Pleasant community with the same kind of experience that the MET and the Beinecke gave me over Spring Break. The Clarke’s most recent Hemingway exhibition is on the same magnitude as the Met’s and Beinecke’s collections in that Ernest Hemingway as a person truly comes to life, especially while reading such works as the Gamble letter, a letter to Hemingway’s friend and commander during the First World War. One can feel the true character of the man, seeing the beauty of his handwriting, or some of his choice phrasing (the “fleshpots of Charlevoix” readily comes to mind).

In an age in which history and the humanities face budgetary cuts and restrictions, museums and historical libraries offer us a glimpse as to why we deemed history important in the first place. They can also show the public the beauty and importance of historical artifacts and give visual aids for many generations to enjoy. By writing the history of museum pieces such as Hemingway’s letters or the Gutenberg Bible we as historians can do our part to make history come to life.

Assets and Obstacles of Researching Transnationally: Using Archives in the U.S. and in Europe

by Alessandra Magrin (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow)


Having been required to use a large number of archives in two different continents during my joint research assistantship for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Wyoming) and PhD research at the University of Strathclyde (Scotland), I thought that talking about my experience and giving out some practical advice could be of use to some of the students in the Comparative and Transnational history program at Central Michigan (of which Strathclyde is one of the partner universities). Coming from a background in Foreign Languages and Cultural Studies, I had little previous experience with collections, foundations, or national archives (both in the U.S. and Europe) when I began this project, and—in all honesty—I would have treasured a few pragmatic tips on how to approach and what to expect from each of them. So here I am, I hope this post can help some of you avoid a total ‘research freak-out’ when you are thousands of miles away from home and from your beloved supervisors.

Let me begin by saying that participating in a big transnational research group such as the ‘Papers of W.F. Cody’–researching the life and times of Buffalo Bill Cody—was no doubt a thrilling experience, but also a challenging one. And while meeting international scholars (such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Louis Warren, Robert Rydell) was electrifying, so was getting a shock from the Microfilm machine in the National Library of Rome, alas not in the same way.

 

American Archives:

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Regardless of the picaresque journeys to get there— long transatlantic travels with plenty of missed connections and the odd interstate bus ride with Greyhound (Laredo-Denver, I’ll never forget you)—I have to admit that my experience with American archives was, luckily, always ‘easy peasy’. As some of you might already know, research collections are carefully indexed in most major American repositories, and a thorough preliminary search will make you fairly certain that your hunt will be successful. Professional archivists working in specific collections will also provide invaluable help, so make sure to reach out to them and explain precisely what you are looking for. They might be able to show you additional material on your topic which is contained in boxes that, for whatever reason (a misleading nametag or vague description), had escaped your initial search—as it happened to me in Denver Public Library. Generally, the staff working in large archives and libraries is abundant, and the distribution of the material and the opening times are user-friendly, with some repositories operating also during the weekend. This will allow you the chance to use your time at the archive to the fullest, especially if you are on a tight schedule due to long commutes. Furthermore, an increasing number of museums and archives now have digitized copies of some of their items, which, in some instances, will remove the need to actually visit the archive—at least for some time. This brings me to a tip that will save you some trips to Europe: Major American archives (Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, Newberry Library, Huntington Library, Archives at Yale and Stanford Universities) have copies of collections and documents held in European archives. So, even if you are researching a ‘European topic’, it is worth to first take a look in US archives as they are generally rich in European collections. However, the downside is that this material has probably been studied extensively before, and, unless you approach your topic from a particularly revolutionary angle, you take the risk of not being wholly original in your study. So, if the aim of your research is to examine original or little-known documents or to uncover previously unpublished primary sources, my recommendation is to cross the pond and start rummaging in some dusty European archive!

 

European Archives:

And this is when the challenges began for me! The way archives function in Europe varies from country to country, from institution to institution, and even from whether the archive is state-funded or financed by a private foundation. The organization of British archives and libraries is the one which resembles most the American system. The British Library, the National Archives, the National Library of Scotland, and the British Film Institute archive all have professional and semi-professional staff to assist users in their search. Several holdings are available digitally to users, both on and off site (including index cards, manuscripts, and newspaper collections). Besides that, the distribution of documents is frequent, and normally very quick. On the other hand, the reproduction of material can be rather costly (printing and scanning) but taking copies with your own devices for study purposes is allowed and it is free—although check how many pages of the documents/books/stills you are allowed to copy, each archive implements different policies.

Milan State Library (Italy)

Milan State Library (Italy)

When it comes to archives in continental Europe, the rules and organization change significantly. First of all, do not expect to always find staff who understands and speaks English. Although this might be more common in archives in some central-northern European countries (the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, parts of Germany, large French archives like the BNF in Paris), it is much more infrequent in central-southern and eastern European countries. You are researching a transnational topic, so ideally you would already have some skills in the language of the country you are visiting. If you don’t, I strongly suggest getting a research assistant/fellow PhD student/friend who is a fluent speaker (or, even better, who is based in the country) to assist you during your archival visit. The best way to achieve this is to meet international students, at university, during conferences or summer schools – so make sure you polish your networking skills!

Take into account that opening times often don’t include weekends, especially in countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain where everything shuts down on a Sunday, and that some archives might close as early as 5pm. Also, the distribution of material is sometimes limited to specific days and even specific times of the day (just mornings or just afternoons, or, for instance, only between 9 and 11 am and between 2pm and 4 pm), and that some material needs to be booked a few days before the day of delivery because it comes from an external warehouse (as in, for example, the antique newspapers collection of the National Library of Florence). So, a preliminary thorough check of the archive website and borrowing rules are fundamental—also to make sure you don’t get there on a national holiday or when the archive is closed for restoration (which happens often in archives held in historical buildings). It is good practice, especially in smaller archives, to preemptively announce your visit via email to the curator/archivist responsible for the specific collection you need to use. The staff will normally be able to prepare the material for you and reserve a space in the consultation room. Indeed, you will find that certain archives, despite housing generous collections, have very restricted spaces for the consultation and only accept visits via booking.

Don’t expect to find ‘cutting edge technology’ in all the repositories, especially if they are state-funded archives or libraries (which in certain European countries are notoriously underfunded, and understaffed). Internet and computer access are now generally available everywhere, but probably the Microfilm machines will be from the 1980-90s (don’t be like me and make sure you always dry your hands well before you use them, otherwise get a good life insurance). After years of lagging behind, the digitization of archival material, and especially of newspapers, is now efficient in several major European archives. However, most state-funded repositories have gargantuan collections and only a fraction of their holdings is online.

The situation is usually better in the archives of private foundations, which might have smaller holdings but are equipped with professional archivists with meticulous knowledge of their collections. In my personal experience the document retrieval process was always quick and efficient, so my advice would be to privilege this type of archive and go to state-funded archives if the items you are looking for are only held there.

So, as a rule, you do have to face a number of challenges when you decide to research in European archives. Arm yourself with a lot patience, never lose confidence in your abilities and keep persevering. Having a flexible mindset will help a great deal when you are there. Sometimes you just have to accept that certain things are beyond your control and, no matter how well organized you are, the unexpected will just happen (like when I was in Rome and my archive suddenly shut down due to the first snowstorm hitting the ‘eternal city’ in 27 years). However, I am certain that the rewards, especially for transnational scholars, outnumber the obstacles. Europe is a goldmine for historical records and the chances to come across some truly original material, or at least sources that have never before been studied by English-speaking scholarship, are extremely high. This will make a whole lot of difference in the quality of your research and, eventually, in the way your work will be received by the scholarly community.

The Mayflower Conundrum

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

by Marcel Haas

Judging by the onslaught of advertisement for genealogy kits, quick tests to find out one’s genetic heritage, there is a rapidly growing market for selling and buying knowledge of our heritage. Of course, many of us have grown up with stories of family history: Grandparents talking about the struggles of their lifetime, parents reminiscing about holidays when they were little, and even stories of our own – the first love, the last cigarette, and the latest conference trip to Europe. Beyond our immediate memory, however, few families (at least in Germany) record their history in writing. Maybe they keep letters and postcards, perhaps some aunt or uncle keeps a record of a near-mythical great-grandmother born in the mid-nineteenth century, but on average it would be hard to find anyone with complete knowledge of their ancestral history.

In America, the situation looks slightly different, at least judging from several encounters and conversations I have had over the years across the United States. Here, many people will refer to a specific ancestor from a long-gone century that crossed the oceans to come to the young United States (or the British colonies). They can also add an exact description of their genetic ancestry. More than once, I saw faces light up with delight when I answered the question of my nationality with “German,” only eclipsed by the heartfelt joy in explaining to me that they, too, were “German.” In a few cases, people I talked to were even able to tell me about the very German ancestor who had come to the US. Now, I don’t want to sound dismissive. Of course, I understand the value of oral histories transmitted in families, and I can see in the history of a country like the United States, shaped so heavily by immigration, the reason for a hunger for genealogical knowledge. Nevertheless, I cannot but feel a slight discomfort when dealing with such ancestral stories.

One of my most memorable exchanges happened just last year, while I stood at the counter of a grocery store in Mount Pleasant. My accent had peaked the interest of the guy next to me in line, and he was overjoyed to hear that I was indeed German, like him, as he told me. In fact, he explained, his family had traced his direct ancestry to one of the people traveling on the Mayflower! Of course, I was a bit sceptical, considering that the Mayflower Puritans were mostly English. I did not want to be pedantic, so I let him tell me his story, paid, and left the store. Identity is a complicated and sensitive matter, and he was surely entitled to decide his own. However, the encounter remained with me, if only for the strange mix of self-declared German and Mayflower ancestry.

For one, if the ancestor he identifies most with was on the Mayflower, why did he immediately emphasize his being German with me? How did the English Mayflower ancestor and “Germanness” correlate (let alone the fact that in 1620, there was no Germany in sight)? And above all, and that is really the subject of this post, what were his other 65,535 ancestors doing in 1620?

What emerges, is a simple problem of mathematics. If one assumes a generation to be around 25 years, then someone born into my generation is 16 generations removed from someone old enough to have been on the Mayflower. In general, anyone alive today would be directly descendant from a total of 131,072 people alive since 1590. Since that does not count siblings, cousins, and their respective relations, the grand total of relatives each one of us must have over the course of only the last four hundred years should be roughly around 400,000. (I admit, this is only my lazy estimation.) Thus, only considering ancestors alive in 1620, besides his ancestor of Mayflower fame, our friend from earlier could be proud of 65,535 other people. Some of them lived probably all over Europe, in Sweden and Finland (many of whom came to Michigan in the 19th century), in France and Italy, Poland, Russia, North Africa, Asia, and Great Britain. (Again, this is based on my lazy generalization. If I would speculate based on historical movements this post would be a small book.) A good amount of his ancestors in 1620 were most likely living across North America. Arguably, the great majority of his ancestors must have been poor, some were rich, a few of some fame. Some might have died in debtors’ prisons in England, some of the plague, some of the ague in Michigan. Some might have been Moravians, some Jewish, maybe some were Muslims, and some believed in non-Abrahamic religions. Perhaps one of his ancestors really came with the Mayflower.

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books. https://www.masthof.com/)

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books. https://www.masthof.com/)

Looking at these numbers, one cannot but feel overwhelmed – and confused. After all, we cannot possibly all have 65,536 ancestors in 1620, as the total number of original ancestors would be larger than the number of people who ever lived on this planet. The consequence is simple: At some point in time, the chances are high that we are all related somehow. That one nameless ancestor from the Mayflower likely features in the family trees of millions of Americans alive today – people who would identify as Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic, African American, Native American, Asian American, and more. Ultimately, one ancestor in 1620 is nothing compared to the people we are today. While it is surely fascinating to know that someone of our blood line did great things, it is also important to remember that all of us come from a rather small number of Homo Sapiens about 350,000 years ago.

Disclaimer: As my worried fifth grade teacher can confirm, math is not my strong suit. I have assumed the average duration of 25 years for one generation. Others have used 30 years or 32 years. If I would change my earlier example according to these calculations, the number of direct ancestors in 1620 is quite a bit lower. However, since I haven’t counted the people related to my grocery store friend in 1620 (as in cousins, siblings of ancestors, and their offspring), I believe I have used fair numbers. If I did make a mistake, please let me know (or comment below).

 

Nostalgia is not History

by Angelo Moreno

It’s not exactly accurate to say that I am an alum of the graduate program in history at CMU because I quit the program almost as soon as I began, realizing very early on that I didn’t have the guts for the kind of work it required. But I never quit a real and genuine interest in history as a discipline and as a way of asking questions about the world. After quitting, I became a librarian and have been working in libraries for about six years now, including a stint at the Clarke Historical Library. I have never been directly cut off from the world of professional historians, much less people associated with, in one way or another, CMU’s history department.

            When Marcel asked me to contribute to this blog, I wanted to say no. What would I write about? I am not even an alum! I thought about it for a bit and remembered that a question had been circulating in my mind for the last couple days as a result of my current job teaching research methods (supposedly) to the children of the wealthy elite at a private high school in Mexico. It turns out that some of these privileged teenagers have a genuine and somewhat enthusiastic interest in “history.” Specifically, they are nostalgic for a period of time in Mexico that neither they nor even their grandparents actually experienced: the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz from 1876-1911. As a casual student of Mexican history, this nostalgia startles me. The most widely accepted scholarly narrative of the Porfiriato, as the period is known in Spanish, is that it was characterized by, among other things, a dictatorial government that restricted the rights of the people of Mexico. In addition, the regime carried out organized violence against rural and indigenous communities in order to forcibly implement its idea of order and progress in the country (Turner 1969; Balbas 1927). How could Mexican teenagers in 2019 be nostalgic for that?

            Like a good librarian, I played around in scholarly databases for the answer. I quickly came across an article written by Dr. Jacqueline Avila (2016), a scholar at the University of Tennessee. Avila (2016) analyzed a genre of film that emerged in Mexico during the 1940s called cine de añoranza porfiriana, or “films of Porfirian longing.” According to Avila (2016), these films “nostalgically shape[d] the period as a carefree, bygone era for the bourgeoisie, a utopian space far from the social, political, and economic instability taking over Mexico during the late 1930s and 1940s” (p. 2). This line resonated with what I have come to observe about my elite students: though they are not, on the whole, an intellectually curious lot, they are most certainly, at this early stage in their lives, products of their bourgeoise households. As such, they often uncritically express anxiety about what they see as a socially, politically, and – most important for them – economically instable country. Many of them fear that the most recently elected president, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), will bring chaos and stagnation to the country by curtailing the privileges of, quite literally, their families and their class. Avila (2016) described the porfiriato as a time when

“[c]ommerce and industry flourished, giving rise to new consumer cultures, lifestyles, and social stratification, and the Porfirian elite class became the embodiment of cosmopolitanism. The wealthy, perceiving themselves as the pillar of civilization, enjoyed the pleasures of the Porfirian regime by means of all things foreign…” (p. 4)

It would not be a stretch to use this same language to describe the last couple decades of neoliberalism in Mexico, and I believe my students are unconsciously aware of this. They perceive that with the election of AMLO to the presidency, this period is coming to an end. Perhaps, then, their anxiety and invented nostalgia is logical?

Screenshot from a Facebook page dedicated to posting humorous material in support of former Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz.

Screenshot from a Facebook page dedicated to posting humorous material in support of former Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz.

            For those of us who have imagined and fought for a world in which many worlds fit, and a world free of exploitation and oppression, these are scary times in the western hemisphere. It would be easy to simply write off this Porfirian longing as bizarre, “ignorant,” and marginal, but I fear that it is more than that. I fear that my students are genuinely willing to defend their privileges and comfort up to the point of accepting and supporting a political regime that uses violence and coercion to maintain “order” and to keep them isolated from the great majority of their compatriots. Nostalgia and history are not the same. Historians have a duty to aggressively interrogate nostalgia if they are interested in truth and justice.


 

References

Avila, J. (2016). México de mis inventos: Salon Music, Lyric Theater, and Nostalgia in Cine de añoranza porfiriana. Latin American Music Review, 38(1), 1-27. DOI: 10.7560/LAMR38101

Balbas, M. (1927). Recuerdos del Yaqui: Principales episodios durante la campaña de 1899 a 1901. Mexico City: Sociedad de Edición y Librería Franco Americana

Turner, J. K. (1969). Barbarous Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.

You are cordially invited to: The International Graduate Historical Studies Conference 2019

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by Amy Greer

It is that time of year again. The beginning of a new semester brings the joys of course work, deadlines, and, for many of us, teaching and the mountain of grading we sleep under every night in our office. Despite this, I am here to tell you about something that could be a promising addition to your calendars, that I am sure are beginning to fill up (if they aren’t already). What is this promising addition you ask? It is the opportunity to present at our annual International Graduate Historical Studies Conference (IGHSC), taking place on the 29th and 30th March 2019! Our conference this year, “Transcending Boundaries,” welcomes graduate students from across the social sciences and the humanities to submit proposals that apply interdisciplinary or transnational approaches, all within a grounding of original research. Last year, graduate students from five different countries presented fascinating research analyzing a wide variety of areas and fields, including painted illustrations in Medieval Islamic Cartography, language migration, and masculinity’s link to the failure of soccer in California, just to name a few. 

Our conference, held here at Central Michigan University, is unique, and for many reasons it is not difficult to understand the longevity of the annual event. The IGHSC is a realistic and well-rounded professional experience. Unlike many graduate conferences, it is a full two-day event with panels that are commented and chaired by a historian of the field, as well as the chance to network and socialize (and of course the most important part, eat lots of food), as our event has professional development experiences built in. You will leave our campus with real experience of what it is like to present your research at a professional historical conference, as well as detailed comments on how to further build upon your research. Panels are open and free to the public, so even if you do not wish to apply, come and engage with exciting historical research. Social lunches, dinners and receptions are also open to non-presenters for a fee at the door. Details of these events will be in our program, which will become available in the weeks prior to the conference.

Dr. Lynn Hunt, UCLA, https://lareviewofbooks.org/author-page/lynn-hunt

Dr. Lynn Hunt, UCLA, https://lareviewofbooks.org/author-page/lynn-hunt

Every year we invite a historian to present the keynote speech, and this year we have the honor of hosting an early modern European historian, Dr. Lynn Hunt, author most recently of The French Revolution and Napoleon: Crucible of the Modern World (2017) and History: Why it Matters (2018). Professor Hunt currently teaches at UCLA and her keynote will address ‘Why History Matters.’ For more information on Dr. Hunt or for information on how you can contact her, please visit http://www.history.ucla.edu/faculty/lynn-hunt. If you would like to hear the answer to the question of why history matters, and enjoy a weekend in the beautiful Mount Pleasant, then please send an abstract and apply by February 3rd, 2019. More information can be found on www.ighsc.info. We look forward to seeing you there!

NAFTA – History without Borders

by Scarlet Munoz Ramirez

As a Mexican citizen, a graduate student in the USA, and currently employee in Canada, I thought that “NAFTA” would be a good title to start my blog post since I am a good example of it. It has been almost seven years since I started my adventure as a Graduate Student at Central Michigan University. With hopes to graduate this summer (without jinxing it) I recently found myself in a totally different position and place. This year has started very busy, forcing me to already miss important academic events such as the AHA conference due to my immigration status being in process. So far, I haven’t even been able to leave the country unless I travel with my spouse (thank you, Canada). Yet, it gets a bit more complicated than that: While finishing editing the introduction and conclusion of my dissertation, a bigger challenge waits for me. This Winter semester I started teaching at the University of Regina. I was lucky to get a sessional position here in Canada, to teach the classes Imperialism in Latin America, First Nations and Colonization as well as History of the Mexico-US Border. We will even employ some game-based learning methods!

View of the First Nations University, which is part of the University of Regina’s campus, Saskatchewan

View of the First Nations University, which is part of the University of Regina’s campus, Saskatchewan

I was very fortunate to get the classes at the University of Regina since they were looking for a Latin American Historian and I happened to be in the right place at the perfect time. The university puts special emphasis on the continuing support for Indigenous peoples and is situated (similarly to CMU) on Indigenous land. Besides the opportunity to gain wonderful teaching experience, I also had the chance to develop my course on the Mexico-US border. The latter is a relevant, fluid, dynamic, and ever-changing space which greatly influenced the history of North America. Considering the heated current events and politics of the border, the class could not come at a better moment. Thus, the University of Regina (in collaboration with the department of International Studies) gave me the opportunity to design this class and think of it as a history class with a focus on transnational studies. Students will gain a better understanding of the origins of the border idea, its formation and delimitation, while also participating in an open dialogue with the academic community. The Mexico-US Border will provide information on the effects of the past and the legacy of the present border situation.

In my First Nations and Colonization class, students are engaged in learning and understanding the Mesoamerican cultures and the impact of Colonialism in the Americas. Using elements of game-based learning, students will participate in a “First Nations Conventions,” a short but hopefully revealing debate. In addition, in my Imperialism in Latin America class, I will use the Mexican Revolution RTTP game. Students are already curious and engaged in the discussion, preparation, and conversation of the game.

As I look back and think on my experiences at CMU, I can only feel lucky and grateful for the education and training that I received from my professors and during my teaching training. Consequently, I will apply the methodologies that I learned in my time at CMU. The classes that I will be instructing are within my field of interest, which makes things more exciting but at the same time more challenging when you want to do your best in those areas. However, it can be very tempting to try to cover the topics more deeply than you should for the relevant education level. Nevertheless, I am teaching students in their 4th and final years and I have at least 8 students that are majoring in history. I believe that this gives hope for the future and development of the humanities by knowing that history is still a great subject of interest. 

After all, the study of history is our job. Regardless of how busy and difficult things can get at the end of the day, teaching, writing, and presenting the stories that you enjoy as an academic historian are fulfilling and satisfying.

New to being a TA: Where to start?

by Sam Malby

You’ve just got the news. You’ve been given funding by the History department at CMU, and you’re going to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant. For fifteen seconds you’re ecstatic. Then you come to the realization… you’re going to be a Teaching Assistant. And you have no idea how to teach, how to talk to students, or how to grade. You suddenly realize that you know nothing about anything, and that they will immediately realize that you must be an impostor and will hunt you down with torches, pitchforks, and (this being America) probably some guns. 

But fear not! There is no need to panic, simply take a deep breath and try to calm down.

Let me suggest a few places you can start.

First of all, there are some things to remember before you even enter the classroom.

1.     Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you’re a cheerful, joke-laden person who always has a smile on his or her face, don’t put on a stern, scary face because you think it’ll give you more authority in the classroom. It won’t. (Don’t be the Grinch, unless you’re naturally a mean, green, grumpy machine). Be natural and do your best to make others feel comfortable around you.

2.     Remember that the aim of a discussion section is getting the students to talk. You are there to guide the discussion; you certainly shouldn’t be talking for 50 minutes straight. You will most likely end up putting yourself and your students to sleep.

3.     It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know.” Just follow it up with “I’ll look that up for our next class” or “can someone check that on their phone or laptop?”

4.     At first, it is better to be overprepared than underprepared. Eventually, you’ll know how much preparation an hour of discussion section requires.

 

Now a few tips on how to improve your teaching skills.

1.     You might think that the go-to person is the professor you are teaching for, but while the professor is high up on the list, the first people most of us turn to are other TAs. These could be those you are working with as well as other TAs in the History Department. A quick discussion with one of them will often help you find a solution to your problem, an idea for your next class, and suggestions on finding resources.

2.     You can of course also discuss your dreams, doubts, and questions with the professor you work for, and usually they are also a great resource for dealing with any difficulties you may have.

3.     If by chance you are an International student arriving during the summer, there is an International Teaching Assistant Workshop. This is a nice place to start and will help you become aware of some of the cultural differences between your country and the United States.

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4.     During the fall semester, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) provide bi-weekly GTA workshops where they discuss topics such as ‘Starting on the Right Foot,’ ‘Dealing with Issues in the Classroom,’ and ‘Tackling the Demands of Professional and Personal Responsibilities’. Many of these sessions have been a great resource this semester and provide feedback and discussion points throughout the year that will help you reassess your own teaching.

5.     The HST 700 Practicum in College Teaching is a great place to discuss classroom issues and might make you re-consider many of the pre-conceived ideas you may have about teaching.

6.     The professor for the Teaching Practicum in the Fall 2018 semester, Dr. Brittany Fremion, introduced us to a number of books on teaching. For example, Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do can be a great place to start if you’re in need for some ideas.

7.     If you need a quick refresher on a topic or need some information on something you haven’t studied yet, a great place to start is the Crash Course YouTube channel. Their videos on World History and US History are full of information, presented in a fun and easy to understand way.

 

Ultimately, experience is the best teacher. All you need to do is walk into the classroom, stand in front of the class and begin to talk. Not everything will always go to plan, but that is absolutely fine. Over time you will learn to adapt, improvise, and survive. Just remember what Winnie the Pooh says: “You’re braver than you believe and stronger and smarter than you think.”

What is in a Syllabus?

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by Julie Haefner

As someone who has been a Teaching Assistant for a while, and a student for even longer, syllabi are nothing new to me. Almost every semester I would look forward to getting the syllabi in the first week of class (and color-code everything – much to the ridicule of some of my fellow students who attributed this to my German organization). To my delight, this past semester I took a graduate course called teaching practicum in which one of our final assignments was to design a syllabus for a class that we would hopefully teach one day. I choose to write a syllabus for the 1865 to modern day U.S. history survey course offered here at Central Michigan University. Throughout this assignment I learned a great deal about how to put together a syllabus – a challenge that was much more difficult than anticipated. 

The first task in the process was to come up with learning objectives. What was the purpose of this class? What did I want my students to learn? What kind of skills would they acquire? One of my learning objectives, for example, was for students to develop public speaking and presentation skills. I still had to learn how to present effectively myself (something that I still sometimes struggle with), and it is my belief that universities need to do more in this regard to prepare students. Presenting is a skill, just like writing. With this in mind, one of the assignments that I come up for my students was to in groups prepare presentations on the changing landscape of New York City in the early 20th century. 

Aside from the topics covered in the class, any good syllabus also must include thoughtful course policies. Some of my polices are pretty standard and required by the university. Others I could customize: the use of electronics (absolutely not), the policy for late assignments (loss of 1/3 of a letter grade for each day late), or proper e-mail proceedures. What helped me most in coming up with course policies was my extensive experience as a teaching assistant. Over the years I have seen a variety of course policies, and I selected my favorite policies from all the professors with whom I have worked.

In addition, I had to come up with means to evaluate students; I chose a variety of different means to accommodate different student learners: participation, written papers, journaling, and class presentations. In doing so I had to ask myself questions like: Does this assignment make sense for my learning objectives and the content of the course? Does the assignment work? (something that most likely I will figure out once, and when, I teach this particular class) Am I including a diversity of methods to accommodate different learning types? 

Teaching survey courses is by no means an easy endeavor. Depending on the scope of the course, the professor must cover a wide range of topics.  This is especially true for world history courses, for example, since they cover a large geographical area and time span. Thankfully the post-1865 U.S. history survey course “only” needs to cover about 126 years. It was, however, not easy for me to pack everything into around 15 weeks of actual class time. Modern United States history has, after all, seen quite a bit of turmoil: from Reconstruction to two world wars, isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s, the New Deal, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movements. My own research interests lie in diplomatic history, and in particular the Gerald Ford Presidency. In a perfect world I would have told my students everything about my dissertation. But when teaching a survey course that is simply not possible. While obviously students should know about Gerald Ford (he was a Michigander after all), the main reason for taking this survey course is not to learn everything about my particular research topic. Balancing my own interests and passions while keeping in mind what students needed from that particular course was sometimes challenging.  I was able to use some diplomatic history in designing their final paper though – the so-called cable assignment. 

Overall designing a syllabus has been interesting and worthwhile. There is much more that goes into it than students usually think: What kind of material do I as a teacher want to cover? What should my students learn? What kind of previous knowledge can I assume they have? And finally the most important question (at least in my opinion): What kind of teacher do I want to be? Hopefully one day I get to teach the course that I designed, and maybe I can even inspire my students to color-code their syllabus. 

Wrapping it up with Thomas Aquinas

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As the semester and year come to a close sadly so does my time as the editor of [Re]collection.  Though there are still a few weeks before the end of the year, this is the last time that I will write a personal post on this blog.  Therefore thought I ought to give a few words of salutations before passing the torch to the more-than-capable Marcel Haas.  I have learned a lot in my six months as editor and have greatly appreciated all of the authors and readers that make this blog a point of interest. I could spend the rest of this post describing the mechanics that go into editing and managing a blog:  copy editing, working with peers and senior colleagues, managing deadlines, keeping an eye out for tone of writing, scrambling to get the final touches on a post, and much more.  But I am sure that many of you are familiar with this process already; in fact, I can imagine a great deal of our readers are academics themselves and are therefore all too familiar with these processes (and more).  So rather than spend any more time on these matters, I have decided I am going to share a parting story from my own research and teaching interests.  My hope is that this story will be interesting and serve properly as parting words for my time as editor.

In May of 1244, Thomas Aquinas decided to leave his cushy life assured of future ecclesiastical appointments and to join the Dominican order.  Perhaps this change of heart is all too close to some of our own lives – leaving a life of potential financial and professional success for headier pursuits (i.e. signing up to spend half a decade of your life getting a PhD).  As he left, Thomas utterly stunned his family who worked so hard to set him off on the right track.  Regardless, Thomas followed his calling and trudged on.  In fact, he did not trudge at all – he became one of the most prolific writers in medieval European history.  Historians estimate that, during his prime, he was producing two to three novel-length volumes per month.  Most readers will likely recognize Thomas’s name from his life’s work, Summa theologiae– a tome that addresses over 4,500 theological questions and was meant to replace the outdated Sentencesof Peter Lombard. Curiously, though, Thomas never finished his magnum opus.  This fact is curious because Thomas simply decided to stop writing seemingly out of the blue.

On December 6, 1273 (not that long from today’s date, albeit 745 years later), Aquinas is reported to have said, “After what I have seen today, I can write no more, for all that I have written is straw”. Historians are not sure exactly what it was that Thomas saw and why exactly he had such a dramatic change in perspective.  Dying three short months later in March 1274, some speculate whether it was some sort of medical diagnosis.  Nevertheless, Thomas stepped away from his enormously productive career at the height of his powers.  More critically though, he did not finish what seemed to be his life’s work. Thomas’s halt in writing has fascinated historians and theologians for years, and it remains puzzling to this day.

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I share this story not to draw any parallels between the theological giant Thomas Aquinas and my own time at [Re]collection. Nor do I plan to offer any new answers as to Thomas’s sudden stoppage of writing.  What I find most fascinating about this whole story is how Thomas continually displays what he thinks is a realistic perspective on his own legacy.  He is reflective and even self-deprecating as he halts his projects to engage in more contemplative pursuits.  This is especially true if he did not know that he would soon pass away just a few months after ceasing writing.  A general point of application that I draw from this story, and, by extension, offer to you as readers is to have the proper perspective as you reach the end of the year.  Whether it is with professional goals, writing projects, grading, or end-of-year holiday hustle, be sure to not overestimate how critical every detail is. Remember that you will always experience a mix of failure and success – perfectly embodied, I believe, in my time here as the editor.  If even Thomas Aquinas gives himself a thoughtful critique and reflection, so can you too.  So, as I wrap things up in the next few weeks, I hope that the posts over the past few months have been a little more than “straw”.  At the same time, I know that it has been a productive season.  Thank you all for all of your support – especially former editor Chiara Ziletti and everyone in the History Department at Central Michigan University.  Finally, I wish my colleague and future editor Marcel Haas all the best in the coming year – viel Glück mein Freund!

Teaching in Bochum, Germany

By Dr. Carrie Euler

On June 2, 2018, I kissed my husband and two children (ages 9 and 13) goodbye in Lansing and flew to Germany for a month to teach a seminar at Ruhr University Bochum in northwest Germany.  I was excited for the adventure, but I was also nervous.  Though I have traveled in Europe extensively, and I can even speak some German, I had never taught a course at a university outside of the U.S. before.  Even though I was going to be teaching in English, I was nervous about being a guest in a department (would I have access to a copy machine?), the students (would they find my teaching methods unusual or have trouble understanding me?), and generally about being an American in Europe at this time of political upheaval and tension (would I get non-stop questions about Donald Trump?).  

Why was I headed to Ruhr University Bochum?  The short answer is that the history departments at RUB (the abbreviation for the university) and CMU had been awarded an Erasmus Grant for an exchange of faculty and graduate students over a two-year period.  Erasmus grants are funded by the European Commission in order to support student and faculty exchanges across countries.  Until recently, these grants were only for exchanges within Europe, but a few years ago, the Commission started offering a few grants between Europe and non-European countries like the U.S.  I was the first faculty member to take part officially in our exchange.  When I arrived, three M.A. students from our department were already in Bochum and had been there since February.  

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Bochum is in the Ruhr river valley.  It is one of a cluster of medium-to-large cities in that valley that make up a large metropolitan area; among the others are Essen, Dortmund, and Duisburg.  It is an area of Germany that was very industrial in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; consequently, it was bombed very heavily during World War II, and it has a reputation for being, well, heavily industrial.  The reality is, however, that the cities are quite cosmopolitan—with lots of amazing cultural opportunities like museums and concerts and great food—and the countryside around the cities and alongside the river itself is beautiful.  The university campus itself is not beautiful, at least not in a traditional American college campus way.  As you can see in the first photo, which features the building in which the history department is located, it boasts a lot of concrete and a definite 1960s look (the university was indeed founded in the 1960s).  The second photo, however, is taken from the same spot, just after making a slight turn to look out over the river valley and a lovely little town dating from the Middle Ages called Stiepel. 

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In the end, my experience at Bochum was very positive. None of the things I had been nervous about ahead of my departure came to fruition.  Happily, no one I met was particularly interested in discussing President Trump.  I was given a lovely, newly-renovated apartment with a view of the university and the river valley; it was within walking distance to the university, shops, restaurants, and the commuter train into the center of Bochum (the university campus is located just outside of the main city).  I was granted office space and a graduate assistant to do copying for me. I did not have a printer, however, so I was happy that I had loaded up my suitcase with paper copies of the various readings I wanted to assign my students. 

The course I was teaching was a graduate-level seminar. Bochum’s spring semester runs from April to July, so compressing the course into four weeks in June was not easy, and I only ended up with five students.  It was a nice group, however; they seemed very interested in what I had to teach and gave very well-prepared presentations.  My topic was “Printing and Print Culture in Early Modern England,” which I had just taught as a seminar in the spring semester 2018 at CMU. The history department at RUB was happy to have an English history topic, because they do not have anyone who teaches British history.  I would say that the biggest difference between our system and that at RUB was that, in the end, only one student registered to take the course for full credit, meaning she had to write a long research paper.  The others took it for half credit, where all they had to do was a presentation in class.  This is something that is not an option for students at CMU, and it took some getting used to.

Nevertheless, I was happy to be a guinea pig and get this exchange going, and I believe the three MA students who went to Bochum on behalf of CMU felt the same.  In addition to the teaching experience, I had a lot of time to work on my own research and writing—I even took a quick trip to England to do some archival research on my latest project.  Furthermore, the exchange is thriving—this fall CMU has hosted Dr. Andrzej Michalczyk from RUB, and next fall Dr. Budrass will be visiting.  Hopefully another CMU professor will go in the summer of 2019 or 2020.  I will certainly recommend the experience, and I even hope to go back one day myself. These types of exchanges are vital for our graduate program and they certainly benefit both students and faculty enormously.

Alexis de Tocquville’s “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” and the Clarke Historical Library’s Fall Exhibit 2018

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By Gillian Macdonald

As a PhD student in the history department you expect to be a teaching assistant for much of your time in the program.  Recently, however, the History Department at Central Michigan University has partnered with the Clarke Historical Library and the Michigan Historical Review to open up new opportunities for PhD students to embrace possible alternative careers to being a tenured professor. As the job market remains ever so thin, this opportunity is particularly helpful in offering training for careers outside of traditional tenure-track positions. 

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As one of the first PhD students to be granted this opportunity, let me take some time to describe my responsibilities at the Clarke Historical Library…my new home away from home as Frank Boles has so wonderfully called it. Simply put, arranging and creating exhibits is hard, detailed work. Anyone that thinks it is anything less than stressful (but enjoyable) up until the last minute is likely still enjoying the euphoria of finishing a project to give an accurate assessment. While exhibit curators and designers are fun people to work with, there is a lot of negotiation throughout the process. As historians we hope to see all elements of our research make it into an exhibit, but it is simply not possible to do so. That leads me to the Clarke’s Fall 2018 exhibit:  Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. The idea for the exhibit itself began with United States District Court Judge Avern Cohen.

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Alexis de Tocqueville visited Michigan in the 1830s.  “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” or “Quinze jours dans le désert,” describes the journey he and Gustave de Beaumont took along the Saginaw Trail in 1831.  “We are going with the intention of examining in detail and as scientifically as possible the entire scope of that vast American society which everybody talks about and nobody knows.” Enamored with the vast forest and wilderness of Michigan, he described the interior of Michigan with great admiration: “While exploring this flourishing wilderness...you feel only quiet admiration, a gentle, melancholy emotion, and a vague disgust with civilized life. With a sort of savage instinct, it pains you to think that soon this delightful solitude will have been utterly transformed.” Tocqueville’s travels in Michigan were part of a commissioned trip to the United States to examine the prison system.  However, his true aim was to explore the untapped outer limits of civilization was only made clear upon his arrival. 

Despite only being part of about half of the process for this exhibit, it is challenging nonetheless. The excruciating detail and time-consuming activities make a time crunch almost inevitable. Nonetheless, I had so much fun. Hands-on work and practical applications of history and the training that we get in the history department are put to the test not to mention an ability to create statistics about Michigan in the 1830s from scratch. This particular exhibit is marvelous (and I don’t just say that because I helped). It is the result of hard labor and a lot of fun exploring stacks and running back and forth from the printer doing last-minute labeling. Another fun perk is that the Clarke’s very own Bryan Whitledge is now on a first name basis with the Countess Stephanie de Tocqueville, so that’s pretty cool too. 

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In summary, the Clarke has one of the nicest housing spaces for exhibits that I have seen in any university library (in my limited experience). With this, they have a unique ability to showcase collections and exhibits, work with departments, be an archival library, and house a journal. You should check it out!

Adventures and Conferences

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By Marcel Haas

If you ever wondered whether immersing yourself fully into academia is a good idea, this week’s post has some ideas that might convince you to do so. Let me begin by saying that I truly enjoy going to conferences. Think about the fact that the university allows you to go on a short holiday where you meet some interesting people, make great new friends (who can also be quite influential and helpful), and all you have to do is give a short presentation and listen to why people think that you should use different sources. Conferences become even more enticing when they are held in a different country than the one in which you are currently working. In my case, that foreign country was Mexico, and that conference the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory (of which I am a shiny new member). 

Right away, I felt the rush of oncoming adventure when my plane touched down on the runway of Oaxaca’s Xococotn Airport and I emerged into October’s tropical heat. The conference took place in a comfortable hotel a little outside the city center, which commanded a magnificent view of the valley. Oaxaca is an incredibly beautiful place that boasts architecture from the Spanish colonial era as well as modern art, markets, and restaurants that overlook the tremendous sight of ancient Monte Alban. The latter truly feels like the city of the gods it was meant to resemble. Built entirely upon the peak of the central mountain of the valley (which had been razed to create a massive plateau), it surely takes its place besides Mexico’s other archaeological highlights such as Teotihuacan and Palenque.

As a center of art, culture, and history, Oaxaca was the ideal place for a very special conference. The Society for Ethnohistory is generally focused on examining the history of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, but more specifically highlights the agency and achievements of Indigenous people in interaction with the colonizing Europeans (the latter part is mostly due to the source availability of course). In South Mexico, this focus allowed conference attendees to experience the region’s history while presenting their new research on exactly that. Coupled with the brilliant organization by the colleagues of UNAM and Oaxaca, the proximity to world-renowned archaeological sites (apart from Monte Alban, also the fascinating former Zapotec city Mitla is only a short cab ride away) made the conference week very special.

Besides its historic relevance and culinary excellence, it seemed to me that Oaxaca (and Mexico specifically) had also been chosen as a political statement in the face of increasing xenophobia in the United States. The choice reaffirmed the close connection of the Society with Mexico (especially considering that the “American” in its title does not simply refer to the US!), and the importance of Mesoamerica for the study of Indigenous peoples and the history of the continent. Importantly, a fiery speech by the outgoing president of the Society, Matthew Restall, emphasized the need for empathy for the suffering of other people, especially Indigenous women who have been the target of violence for centuries. 

After five days of talks, presentations, round tables, receptions, and late-night chats, the conference came to an end. Exhausted, amazed, laden with ideas and photographs, I finally made my way back to Michigan. The week in Oaxaca had been special, but also a perfect example of the experience we as graduate students, early career researchers, and even established scholars can have at one of the many conferences throughout the academic year. Alright, why aren’t you applying yet?

 Oaxaca, 2018

Obama Center, African-American golf, and Chicago

Original members of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club, courtesy of Chicago Tonight

Original members of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club, courtesy of Chicago Tonight

By Dave Papendorf

Through the great work of CMU’s own Dr. Lane Demas a recent item of news has come to the forefront — and one of historical note concerning former president Barack Obama’s proposed Obama Presidential Center on the south side of Chicago. Refurbishing bits of Jackson Park along Lake Michigan, the project, headed by the Obama Foundation, plans to provide a “refurbished” public space that connects the park to the lakefront. The park will also include a museum tower that tells the history of the Obamas’ story in the United States and prominently features exhibits on the history of civil rights, African Americans, and Chicago generally. Complete with Obama’s presidential library, a conference center, and a large athletic center, this project will celebrate the Obama family and provide a new public space for south-side residents. The city of Chicago has been largely enthusiastic towards the project, giving the Obama Foundation a sweet deal on the property — a $10 (!), 99-year lease to rent and use the land. Despite a dendrological lawsuit and real estate critiques, the project continues forward.

One larger and more historical concern with the project, however, is closely related to Dr. Demas’ book, Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf. Jackson Park is the site of the Jackson Park Golf Course, an important historical site for African American golf in the city of Chicago. This course is the primary course of use of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club — established in 1937 and featured prominently in Dr. Demas’ book. Golfers and historians were initially concerned that the Obama Center might close the course in favor of improvements, but this concern seems to have been tempered for now. Currently, the Obama Foundation’s plan is to redevelop some of the property into a six-hole “short course”, and they have enlisted the help of Tiger Woods for design and input. Whether the course will still be accessible to South-Side residence is still debated, but the history of this course is indispensable in telling the history of African Americans in Chicago. Included below is a recent presentation at the CWGC’s clubhouse concerning Nettie George Speedy — the first female African American golfer in Chicago and a founding member of the CWGC. One of Speedy’s descendants offers insight into the history of the organization and its importance. Moreover, the archives preserved at the clubhouse of the CWGC have proven to be a historical resource for retelling this important story:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCT3AgEo9Xs&feature=youtu.be

As previously mentioned, Dr. Demas’ book is award winning in many capacities. He was the 2017 USGA Herbert Warren Wind Award Winner as well as the recipient of the North American Sports Society for Sport History’s book award. Be sure to read more about the history of golf in Chicago in his monograph and keep an eye on the news concerning the course in Jackson Park.

Spooked by Comps?

By Chiara Ziletti

Boo! Is this a ghost? Nah…it is just a past editor paying a quick visit! Did I scare you? Halloween is around the corner, but one of the things that probably scares graduate students the most are their comprehensive examinations. And indeed, it is quite understandable: lists of books that seem never-ending for each minor/major fields, hours and hours of reading and studying, written and/or oral components to pass… probably even the most confident of us would have at least one or two moments of insecurity, hesitation, anxiety, or even just frustration. I know it is a truism, but if you get in a graduate program, it is because you really like what you study, and that is why you are so scared of failing. There is a huge emotional investment lying behind comps, and as a consequence, sometimes it is hard to think rationally and objectively about the whole picture.

I passed my comprehensive examinations last summer. I am really glad I did it, not just because it was an important milestone for my academic career, but also because it was a significant experience from which I learned a lot as a person. And now that I see some of my colleagues getting closer to the date of their exam, I would like to share a couple of thoughts and suggestions to encourage them:

1.    Do your best; in this way will have no regrets and you will feel less anxious. Your best changes from day to day. One day you will feel at 120%, the other you might be tired and maybe sick. I had a moment when I was preparing for my exam in which I was not feeling well at all, and this really concerned me at first: how am I supposed to pass the exam if I feel so sick that I have almost zero energy and can barely study? What I decided to do at that moment was to simply approach one day at a time, doing the best I could with the little energy I had. Would that be sufficient to pass the exam? I could not be 100% sure, but in this way, I was sure that I would not have any regrets. Every day I put forward my honest work.  This might have not been much sometimes, but it was reassuring, and it really helped me to have a calmer and more objective mindset when the day of the exam approached. In fact, I was able to think that no matter the situation, I had always been working hard. This really reduced my levels of anxiety. Since I am sure you are already doing your best, you just need to realize this and see it in a more objective light.

2.    You know more than what you think. One of the most common feelings right before taking an exam, written or oral, is that you do not remember anything. I know this feeling very well, but after taking so many exams, I learned that it is just an apparent sensation. Your knowledge is all there with you, lurking in a corner of your brain just waiting for you to summon it. As soon as you will hear or read a question, everything will come back to you and you will just need to organize it to give your best answer. 

3.    Experiment and find your own method to prepare for the exam. When I started preparing, I spoke with other graduate students that had already passed it to hear how they managed their long lists of books. It was interesting to learn how they did it, and I experimented for a while until I found the best way for me. All this involved a lot of compromising, which was a huge learning lesson for me, since I tend to be too much of a perfectionist. After trying to take notes on the computer, making notecards, getting stuck reading books for too long, and so on, I saw that the best thing for me was to take hand notes for each book. This forced me to summarize, and in general I remember better the things that I write by hand. Additionally, once the date of the exam drew closer, I did mind maps for each major topic I focused on. This truly helped me to further summarize and visualize what I absolutely needed to remember. We are all different, so keep trying until you find the best method for you.

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4.    Let’s be objective: your professors will not let you take the exam unless they think you are ready. Trust them; they might be intimidating sometimes, but they are not sadistic individuals throwing you into a kamikaze mission while secretly hoping that you will blow up. They care about you and have a lot of experience. This will help you reduce your anxiety and stress when thinking about the exam. In addition to this, each professor will privilege certain aspects over others; talk with them and see what they want you to focus on the most when preparing for your exam: this will significantly help you when going through your huge lists of books. 

I know it is not easy, but the more you try to think objectively about the exam, your knowledge, and the work you put forward to it, the less anxious you will be. This was a lifesaver for me. Probably the day of the exam you will still be a little bit scared, but do not let the anxiety freeze you. Take that jump, and as soon as you land, you will realize how dangerous it was to stay still.

Civil War and American Indian Research: Getting out of the “Archives”

By Dr. Michelle Cassidy, Central Michigan University

I’m trained as an archival historian. I depend on the scraps of information that I find in archives, libraries, and government offices, as well as recorded oral histories, to support my arguments related to the past. Yet, as I work on articles and a book proposal related to my dissertation research, it strikes me how many “ah ha” moments happened outside of the archives, either in conversations or while visiting the places that are central to my historical narrative. My current project focuses on Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters—an almost completely Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) Union company. I explore how service in the Civil War provided some Ojibwe and Odawa men with multiple strategies to acquire or sustain leadership positions, maintain autonomy, and remain in their homelands.  They claimed the rights and responsibilities of male citizenship – voting, owning land, and serving in the army – while also actively preserving their status as Indians. My work is in dialogue with both American Indian and Civil War historiographies. In both fields, it’s important to step out of “the archives,” talk to people, and, when possible, explore the places related to your research. Of course, all historians know that the archive is bigger than what you find inside institutional walls. 

Injured soldiers at a hospital near Fredericksburg, VA. The man standing on the far right may be Thomas Kechittigo from Saganing, who was wounded in his left arm from a shell fragment at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. Source: LC-DIG-cwpb-01550, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Injured soldiers at a hospital near Fredericksburg, VA. The man standing on the far right may be Thomas Kechittigo from Saganing, who was wounded in his left arm from a shell fragment at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. Source: LC-DIG-cwpb-01550, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

During the early stages of my research on Anishinaabe soldiers, I met with Company K historian Chris Czopek. In May 2010, he accompanied the Ogitchedaw Veterans and Warriors Society, as well as descendants of Company K, to Andersonville, Georgia to honor the seven Company K soldiers who died at the Confederate prison. Czopek has recorded many of the final resting places of Company K soldiers.[i]Listening to his advice, I went to cemeteries while conducting research, often taking wrong turns, ending up driving on one-lane paths, or unexpectedly and belatedly realizing graves were on private property (the results of settler colonialism). 

Looking for a soldier’s grave in Leelanau County. Photo by author.

Looking for a soldier’s grave in Leelanau County. Photo by author.

Seeing someone’s final resting place reveals much about their life, and, at times, the lives of their descendants. Visiting soldiers’ graves soon became part of my research routine. First, a moment of silence to acknowledge an individual’s life, then a look around with the eyes of a historian to observe the landscape, which includes hints of what nineteenth-century visitors might have seen from the same spot: the gentle hills of the Leelanau Peninsula; the view of Omena Bay from the site of Private Thomas Miller’s grave; and glimpses of the same bay from another hillside where a gray-spotted white marker reads: “Aaron Sargonquatto: Co. K 1 Mich. Sharp Shooters: Known as Aaron Pequongay, 1837-1916.” In the Omena cemetery, where Sargonquatto was buried, there are many other familiar names—descendants of Company K men—with several gravestones indicating twentieth-century military service. Anishinaabe cemeteries in Michigan attest to American Indians’ high rate of military service. 

The graves of three Company K soldiers are located in Arlington National Cemetery. Private David George (enlisted at Isabella, May 18, 1863) shares his final resting place in the Lower Cemetery, section twenty-seven with the earliest interments near Robert E. Lee’s occupied plantation. George died May 12, 1864 and may have been buried before the land officially became Arlington National Cemetery on June 15. James Park, a former slave of General Lee who remained at Lee’s plantation, dug many of the early graves and may have dug this Anishinaabe man’s grave. Former slaves and African American troops occupy much of section twenty-seven, but, unlike George, they were segregated from the other burials. George was buried next to white soldiers, as were Sergeant Peter Burns and Private Oliver Aptargeshick. In contrast, African American troops and free black civilians were not, at least in section twenty-seven; a reminder that while the “Indian Company” was frequently racialized and viewed as something unique, it was not placed in the same category as “Colored Regiments.”[ii]

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with another Company K researcher, and we visited the Riverside Cemetery in Mt. Pleasant. I learned how to make a tobacco offering during our visit to the gravesite of Thomas Wabano (Waubauno)—an Ojibwe soldier who enlisted in Isabella on May 18, 1863 with around 19 other Ojibwe men. Wabano’s Company Muster Role notes: “Went home on sick furlough and died at Isabella, Mich., Jany 7th, 1864.” His grave is located behind the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) memorial. The Mt. Pleasant G.A.R. Post was organized in 1884 and named the Wa-bu-no Post. Researchers interested in Company K note that this is the only G.A.R. post, to their knowledge, that is named after an indigenous individual. Visiting Wabano’s grave was a reminder of a research avenue I haven’t yet pursued. Why was this post named after this particular Anishinaabe soldier? 

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, Riverside Cemetery, Mt. Pleasant. Photo by author.

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, Riverside Cemetery, Mt. Pleasant. Photo by author.

Stepping out of the archives has been important to my research process, especially given there are many silences in the traditional archives related to race, class, and gender. The information learned visiting final resting places or traversing the modern contours of a historical landscape doesn’t always make it into your central argument. Yet, these visits often illuminate connections between the past and present—a task that seems critical when writing history related to both the American Civil War and indigenous peoples. 

[i]Chris Czopek, Who was Who in Company K(Lansing: Chris Czopek, 2010).

[ii]Robert M. Poole, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery (New York: Walker & Company, 2009), 58-61. Arlington National Cemetery, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Map/ANCExplorer.aspx, accessed May 9, 2014. Burns and Aptargeshick are both buried in Section 13. I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Company K soldiers’ graves in Arlington; instead, this information is from a virtual visit via Arlington’s website. 

Language Learning for Academics Part. 1 : Choosing your Teacher

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By Emily Sieg and Willi Barthold            

Learning a foreign language while pursuing a Master’s or PhD can be a difficult challenge. The amount of work and commitment it takes to truly master even just the basics of a foreign tongue seems especially overwhelming when you are busy with coursework, comps, teaching, or research. However, language learning can be of great benefit beyond just fulfilling your program’s requirements, since it not only offers the opportunity to immerse yourself into a different culture and become more aware of the meaning making capacities of language but might also help you to receive research fellowships abroad and enhance your research abilities. This two-part post will thus try to offer some assistance for academics that seek to learn a foreign language, may it be for the purpose of research or simply to broaden your personal and professional horizon as a scholar.

As graduate students enrolled in a German PhD program, we – the authors of this post – not only have a good grasp of typical graduate students needs and interests when it comes to language learning, we also would like to share with you our experience as instructors of German who often have PhD and Master’s students in their classes. Since one of us is a native speaker of German and the other a native speaker of English, in this part we would like to discuss the differences between taking a course with a native or non-native speaker of the target language and the pros and cons of each, in order for you to be able to assess what you want or expect out of a language course and help you choose the right one. 

If you are in the luxurious situation to be able to choose between a native and non-native speaker as your teacher when you pick a language class, your first intuition might tell you to go with the native speaker. Who would know a language better than someone who grew up speaking it every day in the country in which it is actually used? Knowing teaching practices and styles of native and non-native speakers, however, makes this choice a less obvious one. In fact, native and non-native teachers bring in very different perspectives and qualification when it comes to teaching and these differences can become both advantages and disadvantages for your language learning experience, depending on your individual needs and preferences.

Let’s start with the native speaker as usually most people’s first choice. The advantages are quite obvious, as the native-speaker usually not only has a good command of the language in all its varieties, but, as a member of the foreign discourse community, will also be able to shed light on the various cultural contexts in which the language is used in specific ways. The native speaker will teach you colloquialisms that the textbook does not know, enrich your learning experience with real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the use of language in context, and provide you with a sheer endless vocabulary knowledge that allows you to gain an understanding of not only one but multiple ways to achieve communicative purposes in the target language. This high degree of linguistic flexibility comes with a high degree of accuracy regarding assessment and error correction. The native speaker sees and hears every mistake. It is an old saying that one learns by making mistakes, so this accuracy will raise your awareness of areas in which you still need to improve and thus will have a positive effect on your language acquisition process. 

The high attentiveness to mistakes, however, might also very quickly turn into nitpicking, which brings us to some of the disadvantages of the native speaker and areas in which the non-native speaker can shine. While the latter might be lacking some of the abilities that we have just outlined as features that distinguish the native speaker, the non-native speaker in contrast will be better able to give you feedback on your performance in the foreign language that prioritizes aspects that are most essential for meaning making. In other words, this means that while the native speaker might see more mistakes and easily gets hung up on them, the non-native speaker knows which mistakes need to be pointed out at that particular moment in your learning process and which will stop occurring by themselves once you master the most essential literacy skills. Not limited to instances like this, it is precisely the personal experience as a learnerof the foreign language that the non-native speaker is able to draw on in order to scaffold your language acquisition productively. Native speakers often lack essential theoretical knowledge about the grammar of their own mother tongue, simply because they never had to study it consciously. The non-native speaker, on the other hand, went through the same learning process as his students at one point in his life and should thus have a comprehensive command not only of grammar rules but also of how to convey and instruct them most effectively. 

When just starting a language, it thus may be to your advantage to take a course with a non-native speaker. While the complex language used by the native speaker can be a great source of inspiration, some students might prefer the non-native speaker’s pragmatic language use that allows him to single out the most essential words and phrases without overwhelming students with an unmanageable sea of choices. Furthermore, what the non-native speaker might lack in comparison to the native speaker’s comprehensive knowledge of the language is often impressively compensated by their precise knowledge of grammar choices. Yes – your non-native speaker might make mistakes that the native speaker would not, but if you want to know how to avoid mistakes, the non-native speaker will more likely be able to advise, whereas the native speaker will say “no, we just don’t do that.”

We hope that this post has given you a new perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of both native and non-native language instructors. In the next post, we’ll discuss some strategies for language learning to help you once you’re already in the classroom.

The First Year

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Image courtesy of Getty Images

By Dr. Timothy Orr

Hey all, it is an honor to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection! My special thanks to David for this opportunity. 

My name is Timothy Orr, and I am an Assistant Professor of History at Simpson University in Redding, California (Redding has been in the news recently as the location of the very devastating Carr Fire, but thankfully my family, home, and university are all safe). In May I completed my first full year of employment as an Assistant Professor, and it is this period I want to reflect upon in this entry.  As an overarching disclaimer, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have full-time employment in my field, and I am aware of the privilege and rarity of my situation. My below thoughts speak only to my situation and are not meant to imply a universal understanding of each individual’s graduate and professional experiences. 

Before discussing my first year of full-time work, I want to say a very quick word about the job hunt. The job market is the worst.  If you are an academic, then you are very familiar with this fact. There is so much literature on the realities of the job market that I do not feel I can add much to that discussion, but I wanted to mention it because it has continued to affect me as I move into my career, as I will discuss below. 

My first year of teaching has been a strange combination of fulfilled dreams and continued challenges. Every professor I spoke to told me that finishing a dissertation, even while maintaining a steady teaching load, is still significantly less work than the first several years of a full-time position. They were, unsurprisingly, correct. Writing lectures preps, continuing to work on research projects, and beginning to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript competed with meetings, committee work, and extra-curricular activities with students (not to mention suddenly living an area with beautiful mountains and a wife who wants to explore a new one every day she can). It has absolutely been the most work I have ever done in my life and I have loved almost every minute of it. I can remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach as the sole instructor for that period. I was already well into graduate school and two thoughts plagued me as I did: 1. What if I am no good at this? 2. What if I hate teaching? At the least, I definitely do not hate what I do, and the opportunity to engage students every day in the classroom continues to shape me as a professor. I love teaching, and while there is less time to devote to research, I have discovered the context of being fully immersed in the life of a university provides a framework that helps me better orient why research is such a significant part of our field. Even committee work, which is undoubtedly the least glamorous part of our profession (aside, perhaps, from administrative paperwork), has helped me better understand the functioning of the university and the diverse backgrounds from which my colleagues have arrived at academia. 

There are also new challenges I have faced during my first year of full-time work. I Skyped with a friend who had also just completed her first year as a full-time professor, and we shared very similar experiences—even though she is at a large state university and I am at very small liberal arts university. We have both struggled to find a sense of community like what we enjoyed during our doctoral programs. During my Ph.D. program, I spent five years delving deeply into a subject that I love and, while doing this, I was surrounded by people who love what I love. It is an incredibly rare thing and it created friendships I will enjoy the rest of my life. But full-time work is more isolating. You inevitably spend more time with students than with peers, and colleagues, for a variety of reasons, are less engaged with your work. My friend and I also both experienced periods of existential doubt regarding the humanities and higher education during our first year as full-time faculty. These doubts certainly are not new, but they took new shape as we wrestled with these questions not just in our lives but in the lives of our students. How are we preparing and shaping them and what support, financial and otherwise, will be available to them as they continue on their journeys? 

These new struggles and doubts have been a critical part of this first year. However, I anticipated new problems as I moved into full-time work and their emergence has not surprised me. Rather, it is has been the continuation of old doubts and fears that have affected me most during this past year. The Ph.D. behind my name and the Assistant Professor tag underneath it on badges at conferences has done little to assuage the sense of self-doubt I still experience encountering senior colleagues, or even just colleagues, at conferences. Every line I write and every article I submit still seems woefully inadequate and my imposter syndrome is apparently not impressed with the degrees hanging in my office. But even this is, in some ways, unexpected. The absolute greatest fear in my professional life was, is, and will remain the job market. 

I thought that when I landed a full-time position my constant fear (terror, really) of the job market would be gone, but the terrible reality of it continues to hang over me. With so many academic institutions in very difficult financial straits, new positions are nowhere near as secure as they need to be—and even whole universities are threatened. The tenure deadline also looms ahead and I spend just as much time worrying that I will have to go back on the job market as I did worrying about landing a job when I was on it. Again, I recognize that this unfair as I am incredibly lucky to have a position when so many do not. But it would have been helpful to hear more about the ways things do not change as you transition from graduate school into the academy. It gets harder in all the ways that I expected, but it does not get easier in any of the ways that I hoped. 

However, it does seem to say something that my greatest dissatisfaction with my profession is the threat that I might not get to do it. There are a lot of layers to my fear of being forced back onto the job market. I have concerns about finances, failure, and relocating, but the primary fear is that I will not be able to continue to do the work that I love—and I think that is a rare and fortunate thing.

5 Tips for every PhD student's Partner

By Sara Papendorf

Many of the posts on this blog come from the point of view of those in the academic world. I thought it might be interesting (and helpful) for some readers to describe several experiences of a PhD student from a completely different point of view – the view of a partner. My name is Sara Papendorf, and I am the partner of Dave Papendorf, your favorite blog editor.  I am not an academic, but I’ve lived through the process and, therefore, have some tips to share.

To provide some context, my life as the partner of a PhD student started back in 2014. After much discussion about our future, Dave and I decided that he should pursue a PhD in history. Thus began the long hours of filling out applications. Dave applied to a number of different programs in the Midwest. I still remember how exciting it was getting letters in the mail from the different universities he applied to – honestly, I think I was more excited than Dave was! I have always been the mail checker in the family, so Dave had to kindly ask me to not open any letters without him. I obliged his request......well......basically. There were several times when I held a letter up to the light to try and see what it said. In fact, this was how we discovered that Dave was accepted into the program at CMU. It was a very exciting time for us!

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Fast forward four years later to July 2018, and Dave is currently in the writing stage of the program. As for me, over these past four years, I would say that I have learned much about being the partner of a PhD student.  If I were to provide you with any advice, here are some tips that I have found helpful: 

Tip 1: Expect challenges

Anyone who is currently working on or has completed a PhD program knows that the life of a PhD student is not for the faint-hearted. There are huge milestones in any program – being accepted, passing comps, completing one’s dissertation, defending one’s dissertation, and securing a job – not to mention that each milestone is filled with its own set of tasks to complete.  It has been important for Dave and me to recognize that this stage in our life is not permanent, just temporary and to expect that there will be difficult times throughout each major milestone.  Keeping this outlook has allowed us to pace ourselves, take one day at a time, and enjoy ourselves along the way.  

Tip 2: Show interest in your partner’s work

Frankly, I never had much interest in history during my academic years.  I much more enjoyed math and English.  It’s quite comical that my partner has such a great interest in history.  Even though I am not a huge history fan and it takes some focus to learn about history, I have discovered over the past several years that Dave appreciates when I take an interest in what he is working on.  My interest in his work doesn’t have to be a big ordeal; questions as simple as, “What are you reading about now?” or “What did you discuss in your colloquium today?” can go a long way.  I actually find great joy in hearing Dave describe what he is learning because I can tell that he truly enjoys doing what he does.  Last year, Dave taught his first course, which was medieval history.  At the beginning of the semester he asked me if I was going to attend any of his lectures. Looking back, I think he was half joking and half serious.  However, I was able to attend two lectures, and I know taking the time to attend really meant a lot to Dave.    

Tip 3: Be spontaneous. 

There are times when your partner will need to do something to take their mind off of the grind academia - studying for comps, reading primary sources in sixteenth century Latin (I might be speaking from personal experience here ;-)), or editing the same chapter of their dissertation for the fifty-second time.  From January to June of this year, Dave and I lived at the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) located in Mainz, Germany.  The IEG has dormitory-like living – single rooms equipped with a sink, shared kitchen space, and shared bathrooms. Over the six-month span, Dave and I both worked in our room every day.  I am sure you can imagine how easy it would be to go stir crazy working in a small space. To help keep us sane, we often took spontaneous walks along the Rhine River.  There were a handful of Saturdays where Dave and I intended to tackle several items on our checklist; however, instead of working, we decided it would be better for our quality of life to set aside our mile-long to-do-lists and spend some time enjoying each other’s company and enjoying our German surroundings. Sometimes an unplanned trip to get gelato or to the market was just what we needed.  And you don’t have to live in Germany to follow this tip – find some spontaneous fun that works in your locale!

Tip 4: Be supportive

Throughout the past four years, consciously attempting to be a supportive partner has been an important component of my role as Dave’s partner.  Supporting Dave has taken on many forms, and I have learned that sometimes being supportive is more about listening to Dave describe his concerns and struggles rather than offering my best solution to a difficult problem.  Honestly, this is one thing that has been the most difficult for me to do but has meant the most to Dave.  Lending a listening ear has often provided Dave with the support he needs to keep plugging along.  

Tip 5: If you get to travel, take advantage!

During the second year of Dave’s program, we spent the academic year living in Newcastle, England.  Knowing we would be in the UK for quite some time, we decided to book several trips to various locations across Europe – Belfast, Rome, Geneva, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Edinburgh.  While these trips could get prices, I would say that our experiences (seeing the spectacular views of Giant’s Causeway, walking the streets of ancient Rome, taking a ferry ride down the Amsterdam canals, and touring the catacombs in Paris……just to mention a few) were worth every penny.  I can honestly say that we made the most of our time in the UK and have no regrets.  Throughout all of our travels, we have discovered some simple ways to save money:  choosing to stay in an AirBnb rather than a hotel, packing a lunch (and dinner…and breakfast), and searching for deals on cheap European airlines (EasyJet and RyanAir). Traveling with Dave has been such a great privilege as he is often able to explain some of the history behind many of the things we have been able to see when traveling abroad.  As someone who was born and raised in the Midwest, I would say it’s often easy to get wrapped up in visiting places in the US. Don’t get me wrong, the US has much to offer, but the world is quite a big place.        

These tips are by no means scientifically proven. They are just the things that have worked for me and Dave over the past 4 years. I expect (and hope) that some, if not all, might be encouraging to you as well!