Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Shared Experiences of Different Times: Academic Empathy and Recognition in Blogging

Academic bloggers write for all sorts of reasons. Many write to share their research with a wider diverse audience than is to be found in professional journals. Others do so to "test drive" ideas with familiar folks before they move into working with them in formal scholarship. Some write as an opportunity to respond to contemporary events and to interact with others. One feature that I have noticed though is writing as a mechanism for coping with and working through challenging problems we encounter when doing our research and analysis.

I recently wrote about my struggles with questions of morality in the subjects I work with in my research, and lo, it seems that particularly in these cold winter months, others are in a similar position.

Robert Greene II, in "When History Knocks You On Your Behind," describes how he stumbled across a historical figure who shares his name (sans an "e") and the questions, concerns, and opportunities this provided. Along the way, Robert shares his experience of interacting with, and finding, subjects of future scholarly or personal interest.

Over at S-USIH Blog (the blog for the Society for United States Intellectual History), Robin Marie shared her experiences with tackling her emotions while working on racial, gender, and other social iniquities in her post, "Writing Through Rage." Despite these issues, she continues to push through with both her research and writing. Also at S-USIH Blog, Ben Alpers discusses questions of pessimism and optimism in students today in his post, "The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned." Both of these posts are fascinating, and make sure to take a look at the comments as well.

Kathryn Hamilton Warren recounts working with of her students who was morally opposed to the literature that was a part of one of her first classes in "The Reluctant Reader." This encounter, she suggests, reminded her that there is more than one perspective on the value of encountering new material.

The bloggers over at Lingua Franca often infuse their discussions of grammar, linguistics, and vocabulary with analysis of contemporary society, their everyday lives, and the issues of being in the academy.

The common thread between all of these bloggers is the attempt to use their writing as a mechanism for coming to grasps with what they've encountered in their professional lives. While surely we turn to those in our homes, workplaces, and places of faith for issues we confront, academic bloggers take the chance to try to negotiate these questions in a way that is both cathartic and hopefully useful to our peers that might be experiencing similar circumstance. 

Despite the image of the floofy professor in the coffee shop smoking and quoting obscura, those in the humanities are individuals who passionately want to understand, challenge, preserve, and render the arts, history, and values of the world around us into a fashion that improves society. Often, though particularly as of late, these attempts are marginalized and challenged. Some of this criticism is warranted, there are excesses in every endeavor. This does not mean that we as a nation should turn our backs on this challenge. Rather, we should take advantage of the thing that makes us humanists, our humanity, and turn toward each other with understanding and try to learn from, and lean on, each other as we confront the world in front, behind, and around us.

Friday, January 13, 2017

On the Job Hunt, and Ethical Quandries in Research

Many of you might know that there are two projects that have been monopolizing my time recently. The first is research and writing in pursuit of my MA, and the second is the dreaded job hunt. This post will take a look at some of the issues I've encountered with both of those as of late. Mayhaps some will find my experiences similar to their own, and for those who don't, maybe my experiences will help you in future pursuits. As always, comments and questions are appreciated.

Boundaries in Historical Research- The Necessity of Scholarly Distance

At times, researchers get incredibly close to their research topics. This is unsurprising, particularly when the topic at hand is close to their own heart and they've spent long hours learning and researching the habits, quirks, and ideas of their subjects. As historians, particularly intellectual historians, our job is to crawl inside the minds of our subjects to understand their thinking and how that thinking fits into the wider world. There are hazards to doing so, namely the tendency to over identify with our subjects, and at times to flirt with the line between scholar of and devotee to. This is simpler when our subjects are easily delineated as questionable (e.g. scholars who research the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc). It becomes much harder when studying subjects thought to have promoted positive change in the world. Scandals, escapades, and other gossipy topics have proven difficult for historical institutions to tackle, as have darker interpretations of celebrated figures and periods (e.g. the Enola Gay exhibit controversy).

Recently while researching I ran across such material while working on a project. My subject, whom I have read thoroughly, researched, and enjoyed had a skeleton in the closet I had somehow missed. This person had done something I found morally abhorrent, in this case, having had multiple affairs on their spouse.

After mulling over the problem in my own mind that I have been, functionally, advocating on behalf of this person's moral and social criticism, I was left with a conundrum. Two individuals were kind enough to suggest a solution. "Refocus," insisted both my father and my committee chair, "the goal of your work is advocacy that this individual's ideas deserve greater scholarly attention, not the individual, nor are you trying to put them up on a pedestal." This was good advice. I had, unconsciously, begun to impose qualities on my subject based on my affinity for their ideas. I needed to step back and get a clear perspective, and take the monkey off my back, about letting down my committee and my research project.

On the Job Hunt- Trying to Pin Down Work as a Landlocked Historian

The market right now is not very friendly for people with backgrounds in the humanities without either a PhD or an "in." Since this time last year, I've completed right around 300 applications for various jobs throughout my area, without any luck. This turned out to be fortunate, as it provided the opportunity to tend to sick family members and to not worry about attending my brother's wedding out of state. 

For the time being, I'm taking the time to substitute teach in the local high schools and soon beginning a temporary job working for one of the professional societies I'm a member of. Also, this provided the opportunity to take on some freelance writing jobs, so I can correctly say that I'm an author now (if your definition is getting paid to research and write). 

All of this is to say that the world of academia is much more challenging than folks from the outside typically believe. Most have images of the Dr. Doolittle roaming about a campus at their leisure with a cup of coffee spouting confounding philosophies to their students. If you don't believe me, take a look at a recent piece from Chronicle Vitae by Dr. Elizabeth Rodwell on the subject of just what academia can do to a person's personal life. 

That being said, I've found substitute teaching to be a fantastic opportunity to learn about just what sort of things work and don't work in a classroom. I've also learned about how to structure a course, ways to interact with colleagues, and how to manage concerns from all of the parties involved (teachers, administrators, and students). To say that this is valuable is an understatement. I hope that I can remember these lessons one day in my own classroom (if that's what fate has in store for me). 

I've also been pushed to figure out just how to "network." Honestly, I've always found the term a bit troubling and associated it with the sorts of folks you meet once in passing who then want you to serve as a reference for a job. In fact, I've come to rely on old co-workers, classmates, teachers, and customers as a valuable source of information and guidance on the job hunt. In fact, the soon to be job is one that came about from one of these contacts. I'll be forever grateful to those who've helped along the way. Eventually, I'll get to where I'm supposed to be, its just a question of hanging on until then.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Reviewing American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag

*Note-References are to the nearest section heading. As I was reading a Kindle Edition of the book, pagination was not available for consultation. It is well worth reading in this fashion, as you can highlight and search terms very easily as well as cycling between references and text.*

Other than documentary editors, librarians, archivists, and public historians, few ponder the relationship between historical materials, their physical construction, and their contemporary residences. I use the term residence, as opposed to holding institution or institutional repository deliberately. Books are, except in cases of gravity, transient receivers of action rather than active components interceding in human life. John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016) is an important reminder of the transitory and often imperiling journeys the stuff of historiography takes on the way to the hands of researchers.
Part of my interest in the realm of intellectual history is in the concept of intellectual ancestry. While comprehending a chain of influence between generations of thinkers is incredibly difficult, historians can gather indications of this ancestry through materials such as correspondence, allusion, and referencing. As someone who has been privy to discussions of the quirks related to individual libraries being deposited, I felt a keen sense of connection to Kaag’s lamentation that “books are lost among the millions of others in the stacks, reorganized in a homogenized Library of Congress categorization. The books are put in rigid order, and the unique integrity of the original collection is lost.” (Part 1: Hell: Finding West Wind) One area, which unfortunately has been sanitized and cataloged away, that provides the cleanest assessment of this influence is the personal library. Personal libraries are just that, personal. They are highly individualized collections of resources, pleasures, values, and aspirations (As I write, an unopened copy of Being and Nothingness taunts my optimistic bibliophilic purchasing).
Kaag’s work was described by an NPR reviewer as hitting the “spot between intellectual history and personal memoir…” While it is true that there aren’t many of the formal historical elements such as citation, this doesn’t detract from his narrative. One does get the sense that Kaag is aptly educated and experienced to write the narrative to which his name is affixed (think Whitfield’s The Culture of the Cold War). Kaag twists together elements of intellectual biography, intellectual history, and philosophy and does a good job of keeping these components separate from his personal narrative. For those interested in American philosophy, Kaag provides an impressively concise introduction to the world of late 19th and early 20th Century Harvard. Kaag presents Dewey, Kant, and Pierce as engaging human beings trying to grapple with reconciling personal and philosophical worlds. Each interacts with the others in academic and friendly settings, suggesting that at times they encountered conflicts in their home lives based on their work.
There is a nostalgic sense of intimacy which pervades American Philosophy: A Love Story, but it is perfectly appropriate given his genre. If one is seeking a detailed account of the scholastic interrelationships between modernist philosophers, go elsewhere. If what you seek instead is a personal account of one scholar’s struggles with their field and their lives, Kaag’s is a perfect example. Kaag’s work is indeed memoir and explores his personal and professional elements, but these elements add to his narrative rather than pull from it. Kaag presents an opportunity to look at the way a scholar confronts the problems of his time and the very nature of his discipline. Seldom do scholars tackle the stuff which makes scholarship possible along with the intimacies of scholastic life in the same work. American Philosophy: A Love Story is, as the title suggests, a romantic humanistic statement of one scholar’s intellectual pursuits while dealing with the problems that life sometimes brings.

Kaag’s work is not a source for intellectual historical research, though it certainly could serve as inspiration for much inquiry. It is well worth a read, particularly as breaks provide the opportunity for some more leisurely reading. For the interested, Kaag and others have started a Kickstarter project to digitize the Hocking Library which is now a part of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell Library system.  A link to that project can be found here