Thursday, January 31, 2013

Article submission tips for grads

Mike Limberg just received the happy news that an article he submitted was accepted for publication.  Hurray!  On his blog, he talks about the process he went through and offers some tips that are useful for graduate students looking to publish. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Fear of Beginning (Or, "Pushing Submit")

[My rambling thoughts on the occasion of submitting my first article for publication. -Mary]

Two days ago, I submitted my first article for publication.

It was terrifying.

I thought I was ready, I really did.  I had read and reread the submission guidelines.  I had read and reread my paper.  I had gone over my footnotes repeatedly.  I was excited to submit it.  But when it came right down to it, and it was time to hit “Submit,” I nearly had to call an officemate over to direct my cursor over the word and push the button.

This article has been two years in the making.  It started out as a seminar paper for my Historical Methods class in my first semester of PhD work.  I was lucky to have an instructor who left our paper topics open, so I chose something I had wanted to write about for a while.  It was one of those wonderful projects that was fun to work on—I enjoyed both the research and the writing.  Yet when the class was over, I didn’t feel like I was finished.  I asked my instructor (who by this point was also a member of my PhD committee) if he would help me revise it with an eye towards publication.  It wasn’t going to fit in my dissertation, so I took the next logical step.

Finally, two years later, it’s submitted.  In the interim, I’ve had roughly 10 people read it, presented different versions at two different conferences, traveled to Washington D.C. to do research I couldn’t do from home, and completely retyped the manuscript.  I finally feel that the project is finished.

I’m learning, though, that feeling like it’s finished is a long way from being ready to let go of it.  I won’t lie: I’m kind of proud of this paper.  I think it’s interesting, and original, and, yes, publishable.  But the experience of writing was one that I found extraordinarily humbling.  So many different people have looked at this project already; I have been able to draw on helpful comments from colleagues and friends inside and outside of my field.  Still, I’m scared.  I’m not scared of rejection—I expect rejection.  I hope that rejection is accompanied by “We suggest you try another journal.”  If it isn’t, I’ll probably try again anyway!

No, what I think I’m scared of is the fact that, for the first time, I have made a really conscious effort to do something that is going to stick with me.  If this gets published, my name will be attached to it forever.  I’m so used to thinking in grad school terms—short-term, even if I am planning for the future—that the thought of anything that is going to go beyond the next two years is overwhelming.  I’m currently facing the two biggest challenges of my PhD: the exams, and the dissertation.  The coursework (which, if you include my MA, I have been doing for 5 years) is almost over, and I am stuck in the thicket of “almost-ABD-good-Lord-willing-and-the-creek-don’t-rise” for the next 10 months.  Yet here I am, having decided to go and jump ahead and try to publish something.  I know some PhD advisors advocate strongly against that and don’t allow their students to publish before they finish their degrees.  I have a wonderful advisory committee who pretty much lets me do what I want (within reason, of course).  They encourage me to do whatever I think I need to do.

So the project is finished…but the career is just beginning.  Maybe I’m starting a little early.  The thought of actually having a “career” is a little foreign.  Still.  I have to start somewhere.

Monday, January 28, 2013

MOOCs from the inside

A colleague at UConn, Mike Limberg, is enrolled in two MOOCs as part of our department's graduate teaching seminar.  He offers his initial thoughts on the merits and problems of the system here.  A taste:

Here's my take so far on what's good with these courses.  They're open-access, without the cost or entry threshold of college.  This makes it easy for anyone interested in bettering their own knowledge and academic skills to join in.  Some of the content threads are dedicated to people telling where they're from, and there are thousands of people in countries all over the world taking these courses.  The comment threads also reflect some of the much broader diversity in background knowledge or "common-sense" interpretations of history people from different places have.  This can be quite good, particularly opening up American students to non-Western perspectives (though some of the troll postings about 9/11 and America show how that can be bad too).

Be sure to follow Mike's blog for further reflections on his MOOC experience. -Erin

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pulling back the curtain...

A few years ago, during my office hours, a student asked “So, what are you? A senior history major?” I realized that many of my students didn't know much about what I was doing or how certain structures of the university operated. And really, why should they know? Quite often the other parts of our academic life are very separate from our teaching. How could our students be expected know what graduate school is like, or what a Ph.D. is for, or what academic careers are like, or how colleges and universities operate? Lately I have been thinking about whether our students should know, and whether or not we as graduate students and teachers should play any role in that.

I've found that pulling back the curtain on certain aspects of my graduate life has created opportunities to connect with my students that I hadn't anticipated. The semester I was taking my comprehensive exams, I made the conscious choice to tell my students what would be occupying my time that semester. I was TAing for the second half of the U.S. survey, and I found myself talking to my students about what I was reading when it was relevant. Surprisingly, they were interested in what I was reading, and what this exam was about, and why I had to take it. When they came to my office hours the day after my exam, before they asked questions about their final exam, they wanted to know how mine had gone and what it had been like. The past might be a foreign country, but so was grad school to my students, and they wanted to explore.

Pulling back the curtain on things like comprehensive exams is one thing, and perhaps not very controversial, but my thinking about this issue was actually prompted by a few articles that have been floating around the internet lately. One, in the New York Times, discussed the relationship between a student's grades and the amount of financial support that student was receiving for their education. Amy Lewis' November 2012 piece on Inside Higher Ed used the recent “Manifest Destiny” Gap t-shirt disaster to make an argument for the relevance of the humanities to those seeking a degree in business. “The Adjunct Project,” hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other online forums for tracking the pay and conditions of contingent faculty around the country have been getting increased attention. The controversy rages over the “worth” of the humanities, with states like Florida pondering tiered tuition systems that privilege more “valuable” majors. What colleges and universities do with their money, what students are learning, and what they should be learning are all incessantly debated by people inside and outside of the academy. I know that my fellow graduate students and I discuss these articles and issues, and I can only assume the faculty do as well.

Do our students know about these things? If they don't, should they? Is it ever appropriate for us to introduce them to some of these issues? Our students remain with us as a group of people, but cycle through as individuals fairly quickly, and perhaps we assume they don't have a vested interest as a result. But when we're talking about how our institutions operate, do our students need (or want) to know how the sausage gets made? Do they need to know just how much the rest of the country can't stop talking about undergraduate education? And do we as historians defend the importance of historical thinking simply by modeling it, or is it ever appropriate to give our students contemporary examples of situations where it matters in the “real world?” 
I am thinking about bringing up the “Manifest Destiny” t-shirt issue with my class when we discuss the concept as part of a larger discussion of American imperialism. It seems like a good way to get at what the concept meant to different groups of people. But I don't know whether I'll give them Lewis' essay. I like a lot of what she says about the role of the humanities in the education of a business major, but I don't know whether bringing up those issues is appropriate, necessary, or desired.

I'd love to know how my colleagues have dealt with these sorts of situations and what they think about bringing up these kinds of issues with our students. - Erin

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Model Conversation

Some of you may have also been following the conversation on this recent NPR piece: Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?  While the piece itself is interesting to me as a historian, I was more fascinated by the comment section. 

In general, the comment section of a news article online can be a place that makes you weep for the future of humanity.  Online comments are often full of vitriol and name-calling, and sooner or later someone is compared to Hitler and it's all over.  But this NPR piece was different, and I think it encapsulates some of the possibilities that exist, even on heavily-trafficked sites, for real dialogue.  Like some of my favorite academic bloggers, the author of this piece engaged with her readers, and her readers actively sought her expertise, and the expertise of the community of scholars that appeared to take part in the conversation.  It wasn't simply scholars telling the general public How It Is, but rather a real conversation about how anthropologists think about and disagree on culture, and also how they communicate those thoughts - or fail to communicate them, as the case may be - to a broader public that is keenly interested. 

I don't know that we should immediately have "Why Does [Insert Name Here] Make Historians So Mad?"  But it did make me think about different ways of engaging with the public, and more importantly, what we can do to help make those conversations more productive.  In this piece and its comments, Barbara King moderated and engaged in a conversation that promoted learning among interested adults.  It seemed worth taking a minute to applaud that.  -Erin

Tours, Teaching, and Charity

[My thoughts on Becker's 1931 Presidential Address -Mary]

“If we remain too long recalcitrant Mr. Everyman will ignore us, shelving our recondite works behind glass doors rarely opened. Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.”

Here is a fact about me:  I am a horrible tour-goer.  Seriously.  I should not be allowed on historical tours.  I trail near the back, halfway paying attention, creating mental lists of things that are inaccurate and questions to trip up the tour guide.  In other words, I become the exact opposite of my typical self: instead of an overachieving, Type-A, generally positive and kind graduate student, I become an elitist, snobby jerk.  Granted, I try to keep it to myself, but my eye-rolling gives me away.

This stands in direct contrast to the version of myself that exists in the classroom.  In the classroom, I strongly advocate acquiring historical knowledge in any way possible.  My paramount goal when I teach is to make the information relevant to my students.  This takes many different forms, but one example is an assignment I’m giving this semester.  I’m teaching “Classical Literature,” (basically, Ancient Mesopotamian and Greek literature with lots of historical info thrown in).  I’m tasking my students with offering an interpretation of one of the plays we read using the language of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, memes, Pinterest, Reddit…whatever their minds can come up with.  I’m excited about this assignment; the goal is for the students to stretch themselves.  I hope that Grumpy Cat makes an appearance at some point.

After reading Becker’s speech, I’m left with this thought:  What is the difference between tours and what I’m asking of my students?  Both attempt to make history relevant.  Both ask their participants to use the information available to create their own interpretations.  Both don’t conform to the notion of “traditional historical scholarship.”  I can imagine some professors I’ve had who would be shocked at the assignment I’ve designed.
Becker points out that history should be Everyman-driven.  My assignments are student-driven.  My students certainly qualify as “Everyman.”  In the end, perhaps there is no difference.  And perhaps I should be more charitable in my tour-going.

Case in point.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Priming the Pump

[I thought I'd post some initial thoughts on Carl Becker's 1931 AHA presidential address to prime the pump. -Erin]
If you haven't read Becker's address yet, I encourage you to do so, even if you don't want to contribute your thoughts at this point. One of the things that struck me was how startling, even transgressive, his thoughts on the nature of the discipline would be to some of our students, to large swaths of the general public, and even to many within the confines of academic history. For instance:
  • To establish the facts is always in order, and is indeed the first duty of the historian, but to suppose that the facts, once established in all their fullness, will 'speak for themselves' is an illusion.”
  • Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none.”
  • It should be a relief to us to renounce omniscience, to recognize that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.”
  • To set forth historical facts is not comparable to dumping a barrow of bricks. A brick retains its form and pressure wherever placed, but the form and substance of historical facts, having a negotiable existence only in literary discourse, vary with the words employed to convey them....It is thus not the undiscriminated fact, but the perceiving mind of the historian that speaks: the special meaning which the facts are made to convey emerges from the substance-form which the historian employs to recreate imaginatively a series of events not present to perception.”
  • Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman's mythological adaptation of what actually happened.”
Beyond simply wanting to embroider half of this speech onto tea-towels and throw pillows, I find myself thinking about my obligation to the classroom full of Everymen and Everywomen in light of Becker's charge to us as historians. Becker describes a Mr. Everyman who practices a “history of everyday things” on the most intimate level – a man who daily gathers together the strands of history that help him make sense of his day, and his “specious present.” In many ways, this resonates with what many us practice as historians; we try to understand how people understood the world they lived in.
Becker argues, though, that we must engage with Mr. Everyman, because if we don't, he will ignore us. We must join with the rest of society as it uses history “to understand what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do.” And why not? Among other reasons, we are historians because we feel that the methods our discipline provides are the best for understanding the past. But as Becker shows, to draw lines between the past, the present, and the future is difficult, if not a waste of time, and I know that what I study is influenced by my present and helps me understand my world.
As a native Nutmegger at the flagship university in the state of Connecticut, as a historian of the Early Republic, and as a teacher getting ready to start another semester of the US I survey, I find myself pondering how to respond to Becker's argument. As a state, and as a nation, we find that our “specious present” has been violently enlarged in the past month, and as historians, we see and hear discussions of guns, the Constitution, the “Founding Fathers,” mental health, and on very rare occasions, even whiteness and masculinity. While we might see the relevance of history in everything we do, because of our training, there are times when the rest of the world actively – even desperately – turns to the past to make sense of the world, for better or worse. What role do we play, as teachers and scholars, in these debates?
I have thought about how I teach the Constitution, the composition and role of the militia in the United States, and the connection between guns and race in the 19th century. I don't talk about the 2nd amendment explicitly, but I'm wondering if I should. Now, you can make the argument that I shouldn't allow my teaching to be dictated by contemporary desires; after all, if historians only ever studied what society deemed valuable, our scholarship would look very different. But if Becker is right, and Mr. Everyman will ignore us if we ignore him, how do we engage instead? As teachers, as public intellectuals, as people who exist in society, how do we engage in the short- and long-term? Because we must, and to do that we must meet Mr. Everyman where he is – not by bending our scholarship and teaching to meet his mythology, per se, but by transforming our scholarship and teaching to reach him and be useful to him, and perhaps even to transform him.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Welcome to an experiment.

Welcome to an experiment.

Inspired by the kinds of conversations that go on in the places graduate students frequent, we have decided to attempt a broader online version of those spaces and those discussions.  

We envision a collaborative blog with many contributors, all of whom seek to make graduate school and the historical profession a better place.  To that end, we want this blog to be a constructive place where we can help each other navigate graduate school and the scholarly world we all hope to live in.

We hope to have conversations that include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

• Book reviews and historiographical discussions.  It takes a very long time for book reviews to come out, and quite often, we read books and immediately want to talk about them, but have no one with whom to do that.  We envision that this could be a place to share our reactions to historical literature, old or new, alone or in combination with other material.

• Teaching conundrums or ideas.  As graduate students, many of us spend a lot of our time teaching or leading discussion sections.  We envision that this could be a place where we share ideas about lesson plans or discussion tactics, drawing on the knowledge of our colleagues to make ourselves more conscientious teachers.

• Research.  We think that, by nature, research is an activity that is solitary.  However, we think it is always better to be in conversation with others who can help us.  We envision this as a place where we can talk about our research in collaboration, asking for help or suggestions, or simply sharing "that really cool thing that we just found!"

• Conversations about being a historian.  What do we do?  How do we do it?  Why do we do it?  What draws us to it?  What frustrates us about it?  How can we do it better?  We envision this as a place where we can constructively and collectively share our thoughts about the field to which we devote ourselves to.

This blog is growing out of the conversations between two young historians at the 2013 meeting of the American Historical Association.  Erin Bartram is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut, where she studies religion and gender in 19th-century United States history.  Mary Sanders is a PhD student at Oklahoma State University, where she studies the religious responses to terrorism.  We think that we are not the only two people who are having these conversations.  The Digital Grad Lounge is our attempt to reach out to those of you who might be out there, like us, having long, passionate conversations about the life that we've chosen to live.

We are inspired by William Cronon's 2013 AHA Presidential Address, which focused on the importance of storytelling.  We think that graduate students have important stories, and that we should share them.

One of Cronon's inspirations was the 1931 Presidential Address by Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian."  We thought we would inaugurate this blog by reading Becker's address, which can be found at this link.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it?  Read Becker's address and give us your thoughts on how it relates to our contemporary mission as historians.  Please limit your responses to 200-400 words, and email them to by January 20, 2013.  Please include a one-sentence bio about you and your work.  Anonymous submissions will not be posted; this rule will stand in general on the blog.  We hope to cultivate a professional place for conversation, and do not feel that anonymous submissions have a place here.

On January 21, we will publish whatever you have sent us in the hopes of beginning a conversation about the discipline and our place in it.  Thank you...and good luck!