Surviving the Archive

If you are a graduate student researching a historical subject, odds are that you will find yourself, at some point, waist-deep in the yellowing folios of an archive. Archival research has a certain appeal – the adrenaline rush cloaked in tweed, the thrill of the hunt with a reader’s card. You are, after all, hunting. Hunting for scraps. Hunting for evidence. You’re a deerstalker and a pipe away from being a much less sexy Sherlock Holmes. And when you do find what you’re looking for, hello cloud nine. It took everything I had not to let out a yelp in the middle of the London Metropolitan Archives when the elusive figure I’d been tracking showed up in the first document I unfolded.

But most of the time, the archive is a slog. It’s a lot of sitting. In fact, it’s rather more like a trip to the dentist than a ride-along with a super sleuth. It’s dull, it’s long, it’s uncomfortable – even a bit numbing – but in the end, it’s what you need, and you’re better for having done it.

Students of early modern subjects in particular will find an archive daunting, especially because research seminars or methods courses usually address general theoretical and historiographical concerns of the discipline rather than specific skills such as paleography. For me, the archive became a second round of coursework, which makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be a horrible idea to have a methods course in one semester and a field methods course in another (which some fields, like architectural history, often require anyway) that would be more tailored to the individual student’s project. It took me several weeks to understand English chancery hand, the structure of British archives, numerical systems of the seventeenth-century (assessing valuations in scores of pounds, shillings and pence, for instance), and early modern systems of measurement. And I am fortunate because I get to do all of this in English. I can’t imagine what my colleagues in Italian archives have to endure.

In the hopes that I can help assuage the anxieties of any newly minted researchers in full panic mode after that inaugural archival experience, here are a few tips on surviving the archive. Continue reading “Surviving the Archive”

Parents in Grad School: We’re Doing the Best We Can.

When I signed on as a blogger, our fearless leader, Claudia Farber, suggested that I write about the work-life balance, as I am a new mom as well as a grad student at the finish line of a Ph.D. program.  “I’ll blog about the work-life balance as soon as I find one,” I joked.

Well. Half-joked.

I can’t offer advice.  It would be downright fraudulent. Advice should only come from people who know what they’re doing, and I’m winging it. Instead, I offer a handy little list of lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a parent and as a graduate student.

  • We’re all doing the best we can.

When you’re a parent, judgment abounds.   Your parenting style, your appearance (You look great!  You look tired!), your schedule, your work – everyone from grocery checkout clerks to your pediatrician will weigh in on your life choices.  And it’s a bit redundant because no one is judging you more harshly than you probably are on all these fronts.  At least, I know that’s the case for me, and all the ink that’s been spilled on imposter syndrome tells me I’m not alone here.  Parents in grad school, especially new parents, have a lot to handle and not enough time in which to do it.  So something, somewhere, has to give.  Here’s the good news.  Parenthood also brings a remarkable sense of clarity, so it’s pretty obvious what relationships, habits, etc., need to go.  Sometimes, in fact, they’re self-selecting.

  • I do not have time for this.

This sentence pretty much runs on repeat in my head throughout the day. Grad school and parenthood are each colossal black holes for free time.  Membership in either of these institutions comes with enough stress to turn your hair as grey as a two-term president’s, and the combination of the two means that you will probably have less time for friends than you used to.  If you’ve got deadlines, girls’ night out is going to have to slide.  If you’ve got a newborn, you can bet the farm that you’re not making it to that 35th birthday party, and if you do, you’ll be home in time for the local news.  Which you’ll miss because you’ll collapse in a heap at the foot of the bed instead.  That babies and grad school mean considerably less time for socializing is patently obvious to you, but you will find yourself occasionally having to explain and defend your priorities to a few folks.  If you find that, “I’m doing the best I can” isn’t good enough, you know whose number you can delete.  Anyone who can be jealous of a baby or a conference paper is going to demand more time than you can give.  It’s not their fault.  Your life is completely foreign to them – which you’re not allowed to say because it sounds sanctimonious and condescending – but it’s not your fault either.  As Ben Folds sang, it just happens sometimes.  And you don’t have time for it.

  • You can do it all.  You just can’t do it all at once.

I call my system “parenting triage”.  While the baby is napping, you have an opportunity to do the things that you’ve let slide.  (By the way, let me offer one small nugget of truth here. The advice that new parents invariably receive – especially moms – to sleep when the baby sleeps is nice in theory but not necessarily workable.  When else will you shower?  Eat lunch?  Read?  Put out the fires that we used to call housework?  And – do I dare dream? – work on the diss?)  But here’s the thing.  You can’t do all of them. You can’t even do most of them.  So you prioritize.

First come the basic bodily functions.  Sleeping, eating, visiting the bathroom that has now become something of a sanctuary in your house because it’s the only place that’s quiet – all of these things usually come at the top of the list.  These are closely followed by basic hygiene.  Normally this isn’t negotiable either, but the fact is that you can leave your house without having showered.  You can’t really go on with the rest of your day, much less take care of a child, if you are a sleep-deprived, starving shadow of a human being.  The third-level priorities then include writing, taking care of household chores, catching up on e-mails, and the like.

Now here’s the thing.  And this is the absolutely critical point.  You can do one, and sometimes you can do two, but you cannot do all of them.  If you want to nap, you are likely going to do it at the expense of a shower.  You can eat and then write, but you cannot eat, shower and then write.  Your priorities will shift depending on how long you’ve let one or more of them slide. And it’s okay.  You’ll get there.  Just do the best you can.  Hating yourself because you’re not as productive as you’d like to be is going to make you less likely to meet your deadlines and less likely to enjoy your time with your kids, not more.

  • Having no time means having no time to waste.

Credit for this quote, which I’m paraphrasing, goes to Laura Bennett, Project Runway’s most famous parent.  It’s completely true.  You might not have much time anymore, but when you do, you don’t waste it.  The parenting triage principle translates smoothly to writing.  It’s just about cutting the fat.  What do I absolutely have to do first?  Solidify the argument, address any gaps in the research, track down the only text that ever described the one London garden gate that is the lynchpin for my chapter on the architectural orders.  Now, what is negotiable?  That excursus on the semiotics of classical architecture is interesting but rather beyond the scope of the chapter.  And I don’t have time for it…at least, not today.  Just as you can leave your house without washed hair but not without, say, pants and a reasonable blood sugar level, your draft can go to your adviser without the paragraph in which you take on Habermas just for fun.  But it can’t go without a clear argument and explanation of your contribution to the field. 

Look, parenting in grad school is hard.  So is being a working parent of any walk of life. That’s why a modicum of compassion for others and for yourself is crucial to survival.  Your friend with the new baby couldn’t pick up the phone after you got dumped?  Be disappointed, but be compassionate.  She’s doing the best she can.  Your friends are subjecting you to insulting conversations about your parenting choices?  Stand up for yourself, and end it if you have to, but don’t judge them. They’re doing the best they can.  Not everybody has to accept your life choices, even if they’re the right ones.  Beating yourself up because you can’t spend the day at the park with your daughter?  (Oh, the guilt.  The guilt that comes with being a parent is a mighty thing indeed.)  It’s temporary. It’ll pass.  So lay off yourself.  You’re doing the best you can.

The Job Search. Gulp.

Of late the job search within academia has been popularly compared to the Hunger Games.  It would be funny if it weren’t actually true.

Having worked for two years between my completing my Master’s degree and entering the Ph.D. program in art history, I’ve had the benefit of going through this ringer before.  While I have no idea if my experience was typical, it was definitely a trial, and I suspect that writing about it can only help anyone else going through this phase of graduate school.  Either you’ll relate, or you’ll enjoy a bit of schadenfreude.  Without further ado, What I Learned About the Job Search:

1. Don’t take it personally.  If you didn’t get the job, or even an interview, it sure feels like the hiring committee has weighed you, measured you and found you wanting. But having been on the other side of the hiring process too, I think I can say with some certainty that nobody was sitting with their feet up on a conference table, throwing darts at a copy of your CV tacked to the wall and joking that you must have been mad to apply in the first place.  I have been in the room when hiring decisions were made, and no one cackled like a Bond villain over rejected résumés.  A rejection letter often has nothing to do with you.  In my field of art history, for instance, perhaps a museum’s upcoming exhibition schedule dovetailed beautifully with another applicant’s thesis on Rembrandt.  It didn’t mean other applicants couldn’t do the job.  So it’s not you. You’re lovely.  And qualified.

2. It could take awhile.  After my M.A. program, I spent about six months sending my CV to anyone who would take it, applying for anything remotely within the realm of possibility.  In all, I sent out 52 applications and got two interviews and one offer.  A few months later, I was chatting with a senior member of the museum staff at an office happy hour, comparing war stories.  After his Ph.D., he’d sent out 125 cover letters.  Maybe you’ll find something immediately, but be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint.

3. It’s not the end of the world.  It just feels like it. Every day I made a point of checking the same sites and searching the same fields – and then trying new ones just in case they yielded anything.  Most days, it came to nothing, and it was so very easy to be glum.  But chin up.  Sometimes things get worse before they get better – it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason.

4.  Network.  Eat something.  Network.  Coffee break.  Network.  Then network some more.  I have to admit, I’m not so great at this, since networking in academia can entail attending conferences, which in turn entail registration fees and travel expenses. While they may not amount to a fortune, a small pile of coins can be a fortune in grad school.  But things like alumni associations can be useful as well, along with social media such as academia.edu or LinkedIn.  And not all functions are pricey – be on the lookout for things you can afford to do.

I’m no expert, and for all the advice I’m dishing out, I will probably let the job search get to me every now and then.  It’s hard out there for a prof, especially if you have to take a series of adjunct jobs to string together a meager income.  (It happens.  A lot. When even fashion magazines are talking about this, you know it’s officially a thing.) But armed with the knowledge that hiring decisions, while not always in my favor, are often the result of a perfect storm of events having little or nothing to do with me, maybe I’ll have fewer sleepless nights.

What advice do you have for people entering the job search?

Defending the Arts. Again.

When I was a Master’s student a decade ago at the University of Virginia, someone had posted on the department office wall a cartoon in which a young boy described his dad’s new girlfriend. She seemed really smart and motivated, the boy explained, because she talked about getting her “M.R.S. degree.”

“I think it’s something in the art history department,” he quipped.

The arts have, of late, been a punch line, if not a punching bag, in debates about the role of higher education. Frank Bruni points out that it’s not that new a phenomenon, but maybe it was President Obama’s dig at my field of art history in a 2014 speech that made it feel fresh.

The standard line of defense for the fine arts these days seems to be that they foster critical thinking, which is problematic. It’s not that it isn’t true.  The argument is that exposure to methodologies that question conventional approaches to knowledge – say, feminist theories of art history – is beneficial in the creation of good citizens, which is undeniably true. But it’s beside the point.  After all, biologists and physicists challenge conventional wisdom and push the envelope too. (Check out a compelling critique, from a slightly different point of view, of the critical-thinking argument here.)

The arts are not important solely because they do what other disciplines in the humanities can do.  Rather, they’re important because they do what other disciplines cannot.  They are crucial because they are our humanity. As Alissa J. Rubin wrote, the destruction in Aleppo, Damascus, and countless other cities, and the looting of countless archaeological sites, including Dura-Europos (which I routinely teach in art history survey courses), means the loss not only of buildings, mosaics and frescos but also of the knowledge that different religions coexisted in this now war-torn space. And losing that history only enables those who’d wish to marginalize or eliminate groups with whom they differ. It’s about a lot more than buildings.

Are the arts a luxury? Maybe. Do your students ever ask you this? Friends outside of academia? If you are in a STEM field, what is your opinion of the arts and the purpose of the academy? How have the humanities impacted your work? It seems utterly silly to me that the humanities need to be defended at all, or that they’re derided as luxuries. We couldn’t do without them.

The Truest Sentence You Know: How to Get Un-stuck

The greatest frustration of graduate school has to be that, no matter how often I hope it will, the dissertation never writes itself. How convenient that would be! Alas. It’s one thing to feel confident and assured that you know what you’re doing in the archive. You found a seventeenth-century piece of parchment, and you actually managed to decipher a line of chancery hand? Congratulations, and well done you! You’ve earned a slice of cake and sit-down. And while you savor that pastry, it all comes together in your head – chapter titles, concluding paragraphs, clever introductions. You can see it all. Then you sit down to write it. And that’s another thing entirely.

I can’t be the only one who knows this feeling. It’s like that liminal space between waking and dreaming when your limbs don’t quite work. The fear of failure or – worse – mediocrity can be paralyzing. I’ve always fashioned myself a writer, but what if this time…what if this time…

And then I know I need him. I need Ernest Hemingway.

Hem may have led a disastrous personal life, but he knew a thing or two about putting pen to paper. And even he, the (so to speak) consummate professional, had his bad days. But, thankfully, because he was the consummate professional, he soldiered through them, and, lucky for us, he wrote about it. His advice, recounted in A Moveable Feast, was directed at himself as he struggled with a story in his Paris years. But he might have been talking to me too.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

By some miracle, it works. It always works. It gives my writing the strength and attitude it needs to be convincing and, if luck is shining on me that day, stylish. Excavating my draft for the core truth I want to convey – in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter – and being able to communicate it in a simple declarative sentence makes me a powerful writer for a moment.

Because that has to be part of the goal, doesn’t it? I’d like the dissertation to be more than passable, more than good. I’d like it to be stylish. Readable. Art historians like me write about people who created, but we’re creating something too. Shouldn’t we recognize that we are engaging in a creative act and try to act accordingly? Shouldn’t we try to write something worth reading? Something that contributes not only to our field or to the humanities but to humanity? (Did I go too far there?) I don’t flatter myself that I’m the next Simon Schama, Paul Barolsky or John Summerson, whose work I would gleefully read under the shade of an elm tree. But what was the point of doing all this if I’m not going to try?

Hemingway rented a room in the Latin Quarter of Paris – no heat, no toilet, no fun of any kind. When he was stuck, he stared into the fire, peeling an orange until he settled on the truest sentence he knew at that moment. He knew the fear of failure would be there, and he had a strategy for facing it. And Lord knows, he wasn’t alone. A list provided by my good friend and writer Michael Fuchs includes a series of successful writers lamenting their own fear of failure, including himself as he prepares his fifteenth manuscript. And Nora Ephron famously said, “I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.” We all get stuck. What is your strategy for getting un-stuck? In the end, I suppose it all comes down to discipline, whatever your discipline.