Category Archives: making history

what I really want…

From my handwritten journal (written in green ink, no less) on July 17, 2000


I’ve been thinking about what I really want (Though, as I’ve said to John, I am destined to follow on his coattails rather than forging my own destiny):

  • live in the Isle of Man for a period of time; a season, a year, a few years
  • write sometime important
  • study yoga, nutrition and natural healing
  • grow a huge, beautiful flower garden
  • return to school and study literature, women’s studies, and literary history (made that last one up, but surely it exists somewhere)
  • take more trips (holidays) and just wander and meditate in beautiful places
  • try to do things in old fashioned ways i.e. spin wool, weave, quilt, sew, do needlepoint etc
  • get a housekeeper
  • have a “library:” a room in the home totally devoted to the love of and perusal of books


How strange it is to think that I’ve tried my hand at all of those now–except for the Isle of Man part, but I suspect that living in Belgium is close enough  🙂

Voices from the Archive

making history podcast imageI started the Making History Podcast ten years ago when I realized that I wanted to talk to historians about the craft of history-making, and especially to hear about how they organized their research at each phase of their project–from the initial forays into the archives to the writing process.  I wanted to learn about their serendipities and frustrations, and to demystify the notion of the scholar working alone in the ivory tower.

The podcast has fallen by the wayside in the ensuing years, primarily being a victim to my working full-time in university administration.  Podcast episodes took about ten hours to produce and I simply haven’t allocated the time for that type of labor in the past few years.

However, I have a new endeavor that will launch this afternoon, that will be in the same vein as my Making History podcasting efforts, called Voices From the Archive, Letters During War.  I’ll be taking a virtual audience into the Archive with me, to spend some time working in correspondence held in the Chapman University’s Center for American War Letters Archive. Rather than using podcasting technology, I’ll be using Facebook Live to record the events, and supplementing that with links on FB and Twitter. And this will not be a solo effort, as I will have librarian and writer Doug Dechow as my partner in this venture.

war letters photoThe intention behind the FB Live programming stems from two primary motivations.  The first of which is to foster the kinds of discussions that I had in my podcasts–to have scholars engaging with primary source materials and to talk about how they will use those materials to support their research questions.  The second motivation is to explore the wealth of holdings of the CAWL Archive and to share with the public the rich source of materials that are available there.

Since I began having students work in the archive three years ago, I’ve been surprised at how engaging it is for them to work in these materials.  It is the case with nearly every student that works in the archive, that they write in their course evaluations that it was the most meaningful part of the course for them.  As one wrote:

Holding the correspondences of soldiers abroad in my hands was an incredibly moving experience. I now have the desire to do research and see if these authors ever made it back to Pier 17 in San Francisco, where they swore to meet after the war.

In this age of email and texts, which are often deleted after being read, we often forget the power that letters can have to preserve history…Even though it was time-consuming, I feel honored to have been entrusted with this small piece of World War II history…

In sharing a few bits and pieces from the treasures held in the CAWL Archive via social media over the past few months, I’ve seen that these materials are meaningful to a wide variety of people that extends far beyond the scholarly audience.  Nearly everyone has a family member whose life has been touched by war and the memory of that experience shapes their identity and worldview in a myriad of ways. Also, there is an element of innate human curiosity that stems from peering inside the personal correspondence of people who lived not so long ago.  How much are they like us?  How are they different? And what was it like for them to live through such an important moment in history?

If you’d like to follow along and join in this project, please follow our brand new Facebook page, where you can access the FB Live broadcasts as well as view other media that we’ll add to the research that we’re doing in the Archive.  We also have a Twitter feed    where we will regularly share small excerpts from the Archive.


Historians as Project Managers

“Students in history [must] learn techniques of project management” because of the growing need for collaboration on “Big History” projects, says James Herbert in the most recent issue of Perspectives (the magazine of the American Historical Society), in an article titled “Professions and Publics.”  Herbert is paraphrasing the words of author James Cortada, who writes about the ways that historian need to change their research practices in his recent book History Hunting: A Guide for Fellow Adventurers.

It would be nice to see those skills incorporated into graduate school, but I can hardly imagine such a sea-change occurring anywhere but at the most innovative of institutions, where staff support, in the form of technologists and project managers, is available to graduate students.  Off the top of my head, I can only think of two (well-heeled) programs that might have such resources allocated to their graduate students.  Few (too few) even have technical support for faculty, much less their students.

I haven’t yet read Cortada’s book, so perhaps it’s premature for me to offer my concerns about the practicality of his suggestions.  However, I’m looking forward to reading it to see what concrete ideas he offers about how this change in curriculum might fit into the training of students at non-elite universities.


Open & Closed: some brief thoughts on participating in THATCampSF & OneWeek

It was hard for me to tweet this weekend for a variety of reasons, one of those being that I misplaced my phone charger cord (ack!), and another being that I was participating in an “unconference” called THATCamp Bay Area that required a great deal of attentiveness. But probably the most significant reason that I wasn’t tweeting was that I felt uncomfortable with being a part of a select group of attendees at this event, knowing that many qualified people weren’t able to attend. That took a great deal of the pleasure out of advertising my own presence. I know that’s a bit ridiculous, and if anything is counter-intuitive because I ought to be tweeting precisely because it would include non-attendees in the conversation. But I didn’t over-analyze my resistance–instead I immersed myself more wholly in being present. While at the conference I talked quite a bit about my work with One Week | One Tool, but I felt awkward about advertising the fact that I was part of this project too loudly, again knowing how many scholars vied for positions on the team and feeling somewhat self-conscious about my own good fortune in winning one of the golden tickets to participate.

Digital Humanities tends to be quite an inclusive community (as some have said, it is a “big tent”). At my core, I believe in open-source, freely-shared tools and content. I don’t like cliques and in-groups and members-only clubs. I feel everyone has a place at the table and I’ll undoubtedly continue to struggle with those moments when some are excluded because there aren’t enough chairs for everyone who wants to join the feast.

Perhaps I’m feeling overly self-conscious about my own good fortune in attending these events. Or perhaps I’m concerned that I’ll be labeled as a member of a particular inner-circle of DHers that I don’t really feel a part of. Or perhaps I’m simply insecure about my own place in the field. It’s probably a combination of all-of-the-above, as well as a recognition of how much I still have yet to learn from those around me.

And speaking of that….I’ll be in the Bay Area for the next few days meeting with scholars and friends. If you’d like to see if we can connect, drop me a note in a comment or via twitter.

What Has to be Done, redux

Many of you might remember my blogpost from two years ago, “What Has to Be Done.”  That post, and the talk I gave alongside famous blogger Heather Armstrong (of brought over 30,000 new readers to my blog.  What a hard time that was.  As I suffered through the pain of my surgery and the side-effects of the intensive antibiotic therapy, I wondered whether my plans to finish my PhD were evaporating.  I questioned whether my mobility might be forever impacted by the surgery and the persistence of the infection.  I marveled at the support of my family and my community even as I worried about John’s ability to hold together our lives while my health was so fragile.

About a year ago, I faced another moment of “what had to be done” when local LDS leaders chose to summon my spouse to an ecclesiastical court.  I attended that event to testify on his behalf, and also to observe the events closely.  It was a time when my own relationship with the church was tenuous, and seeing how this event proceeded was a significant step in my realization that I could no longer be an active adherent of the Mormon faith.  Lately many of those feelings have been bubbling up again–I drive past the temple and the local LDS meetinghouse almost daily, which serves as a constant reminder of the church’s impact on my life.  Even now I remain cosmically disappointed in the Mormon church and its leaders (on all levels–local, regional, and global), despite supporting my friends who are members.   I feel a rather irrational amount of anger at the group of men who conducted John’s church court proceedings, especially because they were people in whom I’d once placed a great deal of trust.  Distancing myself from the church wasn’t because I was “offended” by these leaders, it was that I could no longer put my faith in an institution where leaders could wield so much power (such as the power to sever my sealing to my spouse) so irresponsibly.  Choosing to walk away from my LDS community was hugely difficult for me, given all that I had invested in the church through the years.

On July 25th this year (in sharp contrast to July 25th two years ago when I was being re-admitted to the hospital for my leg infection), I was in Fairfax, Virginia meeting with a group of twelve digital humanists to embark on a radical tool-building experiment.  My colleague Effie, described our process on her blog today as “doing what needs to be done” (see the last paragraph).  I loved that she said that, because I hadn’t thought of our fast-paced development process in that way until now.  That phrase helped me to see the connective threads in my life from a point two years ago when I was purely in ‘survival’ mode, to the point that I’m at now with an abundance of opportunities ahead.  I feel as though the lessons I’ve learned since then continue to serve me in my scholarly and creative work, as well as in my spiritual life.  For now, “what needs to be done” is to focus on my dissertation while juggling an exciting array of side projects and the needs of my family (as well as squeezing in plenty of time out paddling on the ocean and time for quiet contemplation–sometimes simultaneously).  I feel so fortunate to have the health and confidence to move forward with my dreams.  These past two years have taught me much.


Recently I heard someone make a funny comment about blogs.  They said that every time they’d ever seen a blogger write a post saying that there were going to start posting more often, it never happened.  I suspect that I am guilty of that myself.  Not so much in this space, where I seem to have a compulsive need to spew my thoughts out over the keyboard, but much more so on my History blog. However, as much as it might not work that blogging about the need to blog more does not actually inspire one to blog more frequently, I believe that blogging about goals can introduce a level of accountability that really can work.  For example, an exercise blog that I participated in a few years ago is what got me into shape after my leg surgery.

So this afternoon I just made some calculations about the biggest looming-out-there goal that I need to accomplish.  I want to finish my dissertation.  Sooner rather than later.  By that, I mean that I want to finish it by my next birthday.  At the end of May.  I have all kinds of motivation to do so.  There’s that UCI tution that’s costing me $12,000 per year.  There’s the knowing that the longer it takes to finish, the less likely it is that I will finish.  There’s that wild crazy dream of have of putting those little letters by name to show that I finished.  And, there are these history stories that I’ve been wanting to tell for too many years now.

So….my rough calculations tell me that I have 45 weeks to knock this thing out.  I think I can do it.  I’ve just learned what I can accomplish in One Week, and now I have 45 of those!

But can you help me?  Can you offer advice and ask me how things are going?  I’m going to post many of my daily and weekly goals on Twitter.  If you hang out in that space, can you follow along and give me some support?

As busy as a…bunny?

I’m working on gathering the statistical information for the maps that I’m making this week, and I just encountered the image above in a scanned googlebook from the 1870s. It actually gave me the creeps–like those goosebumps that I get on the back of my neck when there’s an odd breeze blowing through an empty room. And it sort of reminds me of the creepy nineteenth-century spiritualist images, too…

PS: The bunny reference has to do with the overabundance of the creatures on this campus.  Being very careful of the ones with fangs, I promise!


Cross posted at History Compass

Lido bridge at low tide
Since I started paddling an outrigger canoe through the Newport harbor, I’ve gone under a lot of bridges. I learned, very quickly, that the current around bridges can be unpredictable–even dangerously so. In my small boat if I hit a bridge it means that I’ll likely end up going for an unintentional swim and the blow from hitting a cement pylon can easily cause irreparable damage to my fragile canoe.

As I paddled under a low-lying bridge last week and heard the uncanny echo of water and wind through that space, I realized why trolls always live under bridges in folktales. Bridges are important places–necessary crossroads. But they are also liminal places where danger lurks. It might be in the form of a malintentioned someone hiding in the shadows, or it might be a whirl of current that pulls the boat toward a cement piling encrusted with mussel shells. Whatever the possibilities, bridge-crossings demand heightened attention.

Like the dangers of the bridges that I face as I paddle around segments of the harbor, there seem to be trolls lurking around the bridges of academia, too.

Right now the trolls that I’m facing are the distractions that pull me away from finishing my dissertation–the largest being the specter of the awful job market, but others include my inner perfectionist that needles me with reminders that the dissertation will never be as good as I wanted it to be.

Every morning as I plan my day and make my “To Do” list, I realize that some choices I make keep me on a straight and safe course, while others bring me dangerously close to wrecking my boat as I let the current pull me this way and that. And some days I don’t get anywhere–eschewing the list of daily tasks and paddling around in circles rather than making measurable progress toward my end goal.

off and on

grandma’s flowers, originally uploaded by pilgrimgirl.

Being a scholar, an “academic,” allows me to meld my daily life into whatever I study. Even the most mundane of experiences can augment the way that I’m approaching a question or a problem that I’m seeing in my historical work. I see this as an asset, as an important skill that I bring to the table. However, it can also be a bit wearying. I feel the weight of the unfinished dissertation pulling me constantly. It’s always there in the back of my mind, even in my most carefree of moments.

I tend to be very good at “turning off” the dissertation mind on weekends–meaning I can put my work behind me and just enjoy the family or the garden or some solitude. But on weekdays I’m not so good at it. There’s just always more I should be doing, or at least I feel that weighing into my decision-making.

One reason I love being out on the water with my outrigger team is that when I’m handling the boat, I don’t have the mental space for the dissertation. It’s just ‘gone’ for those few hours. There’s a lightness and freedom in that. But as soon as I’m off the ocean, it’s there again.

I’m not complaining. I love my life, I love being engaged in my work. I love graduate school–fiercely, even. But sometimes I wonder how the constant pull & tug of stress makes it difficult for me to enjoy the now and is a barrier to saying YES to today and this moment.

For those of you who’ve taken a similar path, can you offer any advice?