on vows and being alive

Having made a vow in August never again to stay up all night for teaching prep or work, I find myself now, once more of a winsome morn, having broken it nearly in two. Although it is just the second time for this semester—a fair-sized achievement in itself, I suppose—I’m in re-vow mode now. If there’s one thing I’m sure of in the contemporary US-of-A? It’s that our never-stop-working stances are a huge part of what’s killing the world (or whatever’s worth living for in it). Graveyard dead. Next footfall of mine to hit the floor? Is aiming higher than that. I intend to leap straight over comatose, too, and get to where I’m walking upright on both feet. Sound asleep when night claims the sky or close to it? And wide awake with the dawn. Why does failure remind us so readily of what we love?


Staying up all night to write? Now that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. Feeds the soul so well that the body follows suit, refreshed, happy, ready to face whatever the day may sling our direction. There has never been any need for me to make a vow to not write at night. Doing so opens the bay on my soul and drops anchor at home, lifting the flap on the envelope of one more of yesterday’s tomorrows so that I can read the mail of my existence. Fully, skin-tinglingly alive.


on learning and forgetting and walking paths not chosen

Do you ever learn something important—I mean, really learn it, enough that you say it out loud and build it into your days and switch directions, if needed, to head toward its wisdom—and then forget it whole-cloth? Clean, brain as clear of the info as if somebody had set to with a power washer inside your skull, somebody with strong intentions and high-level skills in the wielding of a power-washing wand? (The latter will strip not just paint but dig gouges in wood siding, by the way, but please, don’t ask how I know this!) Have you ever done that? Known something, lived by it, taught it even, and then forgot it clean? I have. Today I bumped noses with such a creature.

In Point Last Seen, my first book, on page 2 no less, I wrote

Seldom do humans actually sit on something as memorable as a scorpion. We are far more likely to settle ourselves down on much tinier, less potent creatures, who cannot retaliate enough to break into our oblivion with a sting. Then we get up and go on our way, never having noticed them or the tracks that could have led us into a larger world. Trapped by our concepts and our languages and the utter predictability of our five senses, we often forget to wonder what we’re missing as we hurry along toward goals we may not even have chosen. [Emphasis added today, excerpt available at this link.]

So there it was, plain as day, and I knew it then, precisely as I was working toward a big ol’ goal that I believed I had chosen . . . but actually had not. Or rather, I had chosen but without attending to all the relevant details thoroughly enough: my skills, background, passions, yearnings, loves, and available resources. How do we manage such stunning feats? Lay out all the pros and cons, conduct research up the wazoo, try it on for size, match aptitudes with goals and effort with multi-staged plans and snatch the closed envelope from the vendor’s hands and Voilà! Thou art thus embarked?!


Really. Well, for me anyway, this is so. Maybe you are not as hardheaded and blindered as I can be. All I know is that 23 years ago I decided to get a Ph.D. and build a strong skill set so that I could make a reliable, secure living in academia—in effect, taking a safe route to undergird the writing that I have known for 30 years is my primary purpose for being here. So I tramped along at that effort until May of 2012, knocking my head determinedly against a hard set of walls erected about me—a prison entirely of my own making—and only slowly, after reaching the big ol’ goal itself, did I begin to reckon well with how un-hannah my path had become. Yes, I became an accomplished teacher (I’m actually really good at that, given the time and resources, good enough that serving as an adjunct makes me perpetually sad because I cannot do all I know needs to be done). I love learning and research and scholarship, adore ideas and collegial but lively and spirited debates, and I’ve cobbled together enough tools to enrich my writing across all genres, too. None of the time was wasted (though the economic costs were immense and have lain a certain swathe of my life wholly to waste as a result). The degree matters to me, my yes it does, because it says I finished this valuable project I started, so that’s all cool. The dissertation is going to make an awesome book, too, just as soon as I throw the lot out the window and completely, utterly, totally—every single word—rewrite it (quite likely now as historical fiction). So there’s all that. The pro side of the totted columns of decision-making long ago.

But the reality? Ah, there’s the nibbly rub. I was just miserable in academia, just miserable, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault. I have a creative streak a mile wide, I’ve been an autodidact from the time I could walk and string words together, and I have an unbudging unwillingness to compete with anyone on anything or to feel good about myself when someone else is struggling alongside. I also am not fond of beer. Or parties. Both of which are probably important tools for the milieu. The hierarchies of modern academia, however—especially in grad school, but also in the industrialized settings that so many institutions have now become for undergraduates as well—broke my heart every day. I envision students and teachers being genuine colleagues, working together toward learning, rather than being separated by notions of ‘expertise’ and status based on roles and desperation for grades. I believe that teaching assistants and adjuncts should be remunerated much more appropriately than is common at present for their work and that having a salary myself twice that of someone else doing a harder job (or even an equally hard one) would just drive me around the last bend. I believe that professional conferences should be held in affordable places ($180/night hotel rooms are on the moon for grad students without trust funds) or—if suitable venues (e.g. on college campuses) truly can no longer be found? That professional organizations and scholars of means (established, protected by regular salaries and benefits) should find ways to cover the costs for all who do not share their privileges and thus cannot go (or must do so on borrowed funds). I also believe that administrative and coaching salaries and business school and sciences salaries should be directly in line with the lowest paid faculty or staff member (and in this I would include the people who clean the buildings and shovel the snow and mow the lawns): no exceptions. In short, academia as it exists in the U.S. today is deeply, fundamentally out of touch with a working single mother’s reality and hard-won values and insights on how this could all be so much better for all, if we would just turn those directions . . . and I did not fit well into a structure that sees today’s practices as normal or, worse yet, necessary and good. I hasten here to say this: Some of my dearest, most beloved friends and colleagues have made their peace with what is afoot and can handle all of these things in ways I cannot, and I’m deeply grateful for that and for them. But academia as presently structured was a scalding place for someone like me, destined never to really belong.

But I put myself into that gaol. That’s the nose-to-pavement truth. I alone held the key and set the conditions and determined the times of my ‘feedings’ and so on, even as I paced its ever-compressing inner walls . . . until sometime in 2013, when I began to heed the nigglings of my poor little thrashed soul. Fate intervened, too, kindly at all times (including a three-week bout of laryngitis, which I’ve never had before or since, which knocked me out of a job interview for which I was well qualified and could’ve possibly gotten), and set me on a very different path. Sans security, yes, but I’m even learning to be okay with that now, and I no longer grieve for academia or even the parts of it that I adored and did fit well within. I’ve grown wiser now, too, and have been looking lately at the institutions who approach learning in ways more close to my own, and there are a lot of them. The little person within, who clearly hasn’t totally loosed her hold on that goal, whispers sometimes that I should keep the faith, that I may find a place to belong anyway. Or, perchance, the place may find me?

This morning, I studded my walk with ‘light pole affirmations’ as I’ve been doing lately: repeating, either in a whisper or silence, sentences affirming existence and love and compassion and contributing to the end of suffering for all. The one that came to me on waking this morning was “It is well with my soul,” a point on which I have been downright unclear for whole decades of my life, and the hymn rolled forth complete with heart-stirring melodies. Near the top of a hill, with every cell singing to me, I began to smile and then to chuckle and then, finally, to laugh out loud. Merry, unfazed, delighted. The big ol’ goal in itself—that degree I earned—was fine, better than fine, good and worthy and very much me. Expecting it to provide security in this world, though? That’s the scorpion I sat myself upon and got stung with, over and over and over again, until I finally gathered the gumption to arise and go on my derrière-informed way. And then I remembered that, once upon a time, just a few years back? I already knew about the scorpion and the “hurrying along toward goals we may not even have chosen.” What a strange and beautiful trip, no, this thing we call life on earth?! If you have forgotten something, I wish you joy on the re-findings that being here so readily provides. Joy, merry laughter, and a spring in your step for going on with.



on reading to children as a shortcut to glory

When a friend shared A Mighty Girl’s list of resources with this photo/quote on their Facebook wall, I commented there and then realized it would do my Mama proud for me to say it here, too.

I credit my mother entirely with the fact that I was beginning to read on my own at age two. It was a highly valued skill to her, and she started reading to me on the day I was born and, by the time I could walk, she was carefully showing me which word she was saying as ‘we’ read, and I was given books and encouraged to tote them around all day long (and did; there are photos of me running through mud ditches barefoot and carrying a book). So it was just normal for me to be reading whatever I could get my hands on—by myself, with only occasional help for sounding out the big words and without the help of any formal instruction in phonics or the like—long before I darkened the door of a school.

Whereupon the sudden screeching thud back-to-the-pre-reading stage for a couple years running absolutely horrified my small self. My second grade teacher figured it out pretty fast and gave me a pocket-size blue New Testament with a shiny silk ribbon in it: likely she figured I could use the edification, but she also understood that I needed to be reading something besides Dick, see Spot! Jane, see Spot run! Mama also began taking me to town once a week from about the third grade on and turning me loose in the public library, where I could read any book I could reach. This was a glorious, glorious gift for the old little soul that I was. Glorious.

For this and so many other things, I remain deeply grateful to my mother. I wouldn’t have amounted to a hill of beans without her.


For my mother, who taught me to read, encouraged the habit, and then had to live with the consequences for life.

God bless her strong and willing heart!


on leaving Madison

This needed writing almost two years ago, shortly after I defended my Ph.D., but I haven’t been able to summon the guts for the task because, truth be told, I did not want it to be quite so true yet. This is a lingering character flaw from childhood, because I just hate leaving beloved places and people (and I’m not all that happy when they leave me, either), but its roots go deeper in this last departure. I am finally leaving Madison, Wis. for good, and to do that I need to write some sort of tribute that is rooted in a reckoning.

Back in 1993, I had the extraordinary good luck—while in headlong flight from what it seemed the postmodernists I adored in undergrad theory had done to my first scholarly discipline (anthropology)—to land in the capital of Wisconsin to pursue a graduate degree in history. I’d never been there before when I pitched up with two young teenagers in a Ford Bronco II towing a little UHaul with all our worldly possessions. From the flatlands of Champaign-Urbana (IL), we rolled into Madison during the weekend when undergrads were showing up for the semester, and it took over 35 minutes to drive the ten miles to our first apartment. But this small meandering, green city tucked between two lakes and more world-class libraries than you can shake a stick at? Greeted us with wide-open arms and we hurried out on our feet to meet it.

From Picnic Point along Lake Mendota up to Bascom Hill and down State Street to the capitol building, angling over to Willy Street and then along the Monona lakeshore and back down Mifflin and then Drake toward the Vilas Zoo: my, how we walked and walked! And then the semester began in earnest and I began haunting the libraries (Memorial, State Historical Society, Steenbock, Helen C. White) and working on this new, rather daunting field.

Nobody could have had better or kinder advisers, faculty, and support staff than our department provided: without exception, people went out of their way for all of us: as a first-generation college student and single mom of two teens with a fairly complicated life already, I found the collegiality most welcome and swiftly made Madison into more than a place, more than a mere campus or career training ground. To me it became early on a fair-sized icon of what was still possible when thoughtful people were allowed to congregate in a system devoted to learning and teaching and critical thinking and conversation. Aspects of the city and campus were hard to handle, yes—how race and inequalities are dealt with were perhaps the toughest for me—but places with people in them are bound to have issues and anyway we were supposed to be there to deal with such things, no?

The campus itself (aside from the libraries and the reading room in the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Sunroom or the Mediterranean Cafe on State Street) was not the draw for me, nor was the bleak Humanities building: I handled the latter by vowing, prior to every entry barring one (the first), never to commit a crime serious enough to send me to prison, for the building itself fairly exulted in how incompatible I was with brutalist architecture, bad air, and tall windows that developed thick inner sheets of ice during winter . . . which then had the unnerving tendency to get warm suddenly and crash down on our desks. The famed terrace with its brightly hued chairs along Lake Mendota was not one of my haunts: although I loved the sight of it, especially during intersessions (fewer people), I can count on one hand the times I ate there with others. The town with its famously always-orange-barreled-and-under-construction streets or its farmer’s market and street fairs almost never felt like home: congenial for a white person, even me perhaps, but not home.


None of that had much to do with the place or its activities, however: I was a first-generation college student raising and home-schooling two teens alone, commuting most semesters from 40 miles away, and to do that and cover the costs of our life prior to grad school (medical and legal bills) and in it, I had to work a 20-hour position on campus during the week and hold down full-time night jobs from Thursdays to Sundays (7 to 7 or longer, with a few 11-7 shifts on weekdays sprinkled in for good measure): the things people do to make a place home were thus far afield for me. When my peers met for drinks on the Terrace or potlucks, I couldn’t go. When they went to ball games together or Rhythm and Booms (annual fireworks), I had to work. Work and study formed the legs of my existence: that’s no way to sidle up to a place. This is, I thought then, okay, for everybody knows we’ll all have to leave here to find jobs in the end, so best not to get too attached to the physical place. Plus I am fatally, genetically unfit for the mingling and schmoozing that is de rigueur for the academy anyway, so my plan was to make it on the strength of my work. Which, of course, required a great deal more work than was even being required of us (not the best match for an already sleep-deprived noggin).

In significant ways I didn’t fit easily with U.S. history either, coming from anthropology and a life that begged all sorts of questions about methods and narrative practices and ethics that everyone else had already answered satisfactorily for themselves. But it didn’t matter to me: none of this mattered. More than anything else, Madison was the people for me. From the first week I arrived, I wanted that family of scholars to become my home in this world. Academics can argue about angels on pin heads and fight tooth and nail for things the rest of the world cares little and knows nothing about; they may well not be able to dance or cotton to doings that others easily do: but they contribute deep understandings to wells of human cognition of our species that are impossible to quantify. If you doubt this, check out what happens when a senior scholar dies: people show up for the tribute because they know how much it means. They know how much heart and work goes into doing this for a living—into meeting students year after year, trying to figure out how best to connect and create the magic that can only happen in good classrooms because the teacher puts in the time and resources to make it happen no matter what. They know the intense pressures that scholars face, on the tenure track and beyond it: the ferocity of academic politics, the constant jockeying for basic resources like the time and space to research and write, the ease with which people who dislike learning in the larger society can dismiss what is happening in such places as trivial, subversive, and corrupting of youth and business and culture. They know the price of admission and, if they’re teaching in a place like Madison, they have paid it. And then some. These are people worth joining one’s wagon to, I thought (then and now), and set about putting together the skills for teaching and doing research so I might become one of them. But life always has a zinger or two left up its ragged sleeves.

On the heels of my son’s unplanned brain tumor, which came on the heels of my first book being adapted into a movie just as I was moving toward prelims—all of which occurred in the year from hell or heaven alike, take your pick—with the quality of my work faltering, I took time off. I taught and got better at it; I wrote and got better at that; I saw both my children start their adult lives; and I met and married someone who wouldn’t hit or stalk me or harm my son or daughter if his own life depended on it (which was a real step up for my little brood). Everything—even the hard parts—was good. But I missed Madison.

I missed the libraries, I missed the earnest and brilliant people and their amazing projects, I missed history itself being served in the daily patterns of a community, I missed the pursuit of that big ol’ goal: the doctorate that would make me employable for life among similarly high-quality, thoughtful people . . . so that I could provide for my children’s futures and ensure that I could have health care and a living wage doing something I loved and could do well, fitting in somewhere and making a little, steady contribution to my own community for the last thirty years before I died. Maybe it’s a small way of looking at things, maybe I’ll always be from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, as one person put it, and thus have too narrow and pragmatic a perspective, but it made sense to my first-generation college head. So why not? I thought, clinging stubbornly to the faith that belonging to the world of scholarship and teaching was a viable future.

Returning in 2004 was nerve-wracking, but I was a better fit than before and the three hours of my preliminary exams were the high point of my graduate career—all that I find most invigorating about intellectual endeavor—and then I won a campus-wide award for excellence in undergrad teaching and, I kid you not, it looked as if all the hell was going to culminate in me belonging to a vocation I had chosen and prepared myself diligently for. And then two of my committee members died within months of each other, and I took a chance on another full-time job to fund my final research and writing.

Much of those final years passed in a blur, me a grief-stricken wreck, working more than full-time as always and trying to wrangle a dissertation into the corral while far away from Madison and the libraries on which I depended like a newling colt does on the milk that reliably comes after a good head-butting of its mother’s bag. Days after major surgery in February of 2012 and with my thesis due in less than two months, I looked at my draft and, hating it and all that it had become (predictable, safe, and addressing precisely none of the theoretical or ethical concerns that had so enlivened my work before), I undertook a 40-day round-the-clock rewrite from whole cloth (with the exception of two sections which I re-used), turned it in on time but massively too long and unwieldy and problematic as all-get-out in many ways, prepared for the defense (complete with music that I thought was needed to break the iron-fisted hold that written narratives have on historical analysis), did it (sans music!), and earned my degree. I adored the project still and loved the ms. for all the right and wrong reasons (including the simple fact that it was done), but I knew I was in trouble on the departure thing a couple weeks later when an administrator on campus happened upon At Sea in the course of his duties and contacted me to say how much he had enjoyed reading it and how it had drawn him in so much and how he hoped I would write it so a general audience could have access to it and so on.

I wept as this stranger spoke and long after, grateful for his take on the pages that were the culmination of all that effort (especially from someone outside the department who sees so many of these things every year), yet knowing how far from the mark that draft had actually landed and how much remained to be done, knowing that the job market was worsening by the day, knowing that I finally, really had to leave Madison and that maybe it would be for good and in all ways and that maybe after all I’d just taken too long to get through and it didn’t matter what kind of skills I had as a teacher or historian or colleague. Maybe there never would be a place like this one that would claim me as a colleague. Nothing else would slow down—student loans, living expenses, those big ol’ medical bills, finding some way to make some kind of steady living—but my scholarship most assuredly would.

My concerns proved prescient. The economic downturn provided a good excuse for more cost-cutting measures in a society that devalues education more every year I’m alive (and the bar was not very high when I was born either), and the bottom has fallen clear out of the academic job market in many fields. I did one intensive year of job searching and applied selectively the second year and then took the writing on the wall at face value: and met the same fate as thousands of other newly minted PhDs. I am now a part-time adjunct instructor of online courses for a good university, with no job security beyond the upcoming two semesters and earning an hourly wage that is less than what I earned as an answering service operator in Wyoming in 1984. In this I am luckier than most but by no means alone: 70 percent of all college classes now are taught by people like me who are considered (with good reason and data) to be among the new “working poor,” and many of them endure far worse working conditions than I do.

For one thing, I know that my department values my contribution—they are unfailingly collegial and supportive—but they cannot make my position permanent or stable. For another two (and these are huge, relevant factors), I know that the university values my work because staff and faculty members have taken the time to say so, and also because they have health insurance plans available for anyone who holds a half-time or higher position. (This is in sharp contrast to many of the buy-a-degree programs that politicians and educational ‘reformers’  are trying to steer us all toward, most of which pay considerably less and limit the number of courses adjuncts can teach so that they can’t qualify for ACA-required employer-provided healthcare plans!) I am merely one of the tens of thousands of highly skilled professional teachers and scholars who are casualties of the late capitalist corporatization/ privatization of not just the university but the society. It’s a war in all but name and the kindness and speed that actual bullets would provide, but all any of us have to offer is our best teaching and writing and serving when we get the chance. And even when we don’t.

For too long now that has been a bitter pill, not just for me personally, but because I believe that it means the end of the university as I knew it. This breaks my heart, and I feel it as a physical ache some days. So for too long now, too, I have been leaving Madison under duress, exiled from its libraries (or at least the access that on-campus students, staff, and faculty get) and its healthcare and the hope that one day I would fit into a community of scholars and teachers like this and get to work alongside them for the rest of my working life. For too long, I looked at the closing door and did not see all those that are open for me. Some have been standing so open and so wide for so long that their hinges have gone hank for lack of swinging.

And yet others are hank for continued overuse for, as I wrote in a recent post (“on obstinate devotion and dwelling in the lively arts”), I am luckier than most of us who leave for parts unknown, for I write and thus have potential income streams not available to many of my peers. Writing has long served me well, and I am now serving it more diligently than ever, making up for lost and squandered time, with some modest results. I am exceedingly fortunate, too, to still be able to teach some, for now anyway, and I find enormous satisfaction in creating a space where students can work alongside to make the past present live and listen to our questions now, hear our sometimes tone-deaf pleas, provide insights for our struggles and blind spots.

I understand better now, too, that belonging to a place is aided by being able to really be present in it, not simply scrabbling for a seat at the table on no sleep for the last 32 hours for years on end, and this helps me be of more assistance to my students, many of whom carry heavy course- and work-loads similar to my own and are amassing debts that will burden them for what may well be the rest of their lives (unless we adopt Elizabeth Warren’s plan to treat students at least as well as the banks who broke the economy on purpose get treated, with better interest rates and income-adjusted payments!). The security of employment once offered in the academy and businesses (large and small alike in my youth) belongs to fewer and fewer U.S. citizens, as the values of the decision-making classes turn ever more deliberately to “Me First” privatization schemes (gobbling up massive resources and exploiting ever more workers to turn profits for a very few) and lop-sided balances between administrative and faculty/staff sides of the houses. I wonder sometimes if anyone has a clue anymore about how to build a workable world. I wonder sometimes if higher ed is not intensifying inequalities—not on purpose, no, but as a side effect of losing sight of the core values of learning and building communities in favor of building stadiums and swanky buildings that may not have tall inner ice sheets in winter but that have gone to winter in their souls. I wonder about schools that pay administrators and coaches and consultants stunning salaries for less actual work than many of their lowest-paid support staff or adjuncts put in every day. I wonder about nearly everything at this point and know very little for sure. But I know this: I finally know how to leave Madison.

I will carry it—all of it, every last jot I can remember—not as ballast, but as cargo in my heart. For the people there give me reason to hope that all cannot be lost. Not yet. Not while they live and work.


 With deep gratitude to the UW-Madison Department of History and all of its people, but in particular that small core group who advised and worked with and alongside me: this little reckoning is for them in appreciation for all that each has taught me about being a better human and teacher: Bill Cronon, Jeanne Boydston, Judy Cochran, Jane Williams, Steve Stern, Florencia Mallon, Tom Spear,  Jean B. Lee, Susan Johnson, Jim Schlender, Leslie Abadie, Carrie Tobin, Scott Burkhardt, and Steve Hahn. And for Greg Dening, who—from all the way in Australia, by his own work and cheerful assistance and greetings (“Ka’oha, Hannah!” from the outset)—made the first years of my At Sea project feel both doable and worthwhile. As to my peers—both sets of cohorts, nearly all of whom (like my children) graduated before I did? You are far too numerous to name here, and naming’s a risky business as well, working from memory alone, since I might forget someone. If we took or taught a class together or met for study and prep or just crossed paths in the halls on our way somewhere else: thank you.




on obstinate devotion and dwelling in the ‘lively arts’

This morning a friend shared an article by Elizabeth Segran about people who earn PhD degrees, but then cannot find work in their chosen fields. I was struck by the wise, calm observations: how does one find meaning on leaving the place one expected to serve as a lifetime home? Academia, of course, is presently exploitative, shedding tenure-track jobs like lice leaving a kerosene-soaked head; most of the people who are earning PhDs will never obtain positions there (or will do so only as one of the underpaid adjuncts required to keep the unsustainable struts of the system above water); tuition and enrollment and grade inflation keep climbing, as do massive investments in the administrative and customer-service and college-sports sides of the industry alongside deep cuts for non-tenured faculty and teaching in general; whole disciplines are being axed or reduced to shambles; and the situation is in such a steep all-out freefall at present that it is hard to imagine what the university system will be in a decade or two.

My personal response to all this has been as much about grieving the loss of scholarly and learning traditions that I value as it is about the time, effort, and money I personally have expended to get a worthless credential and advanced skills that are no longer widely valued and thus cannot easily be turned to making a contribution. The grieving and the leaving, however, make way for a clearer-eyed perspective on not just academia, but life.

Segran gazed calmly at the state of things in her field and higher ed and, degree in hand, chose to leave for an entry-level position in a PR firm. She writes:

It is true that I do not feel the same obstinate devotion to my PR job that I once felt about academe, but perhaps that is a good thing: The fact that I am not wedded to my job means that my employer does not have the power to exploit me in ways that universities exploit their workers. Also, while people everywhere fuse their personal identity with their work, that tendency is much more pronounced inside of the academy than outside it. In my new life, I can leave my work at the office and pursue my other passions in my free time, an arrangement that gives my life more flexibility and balance.

Obstinate devotion: such a perilous milieu: in its maw and intermittently unaware, as happens to many of us in graduate school? It is so easy to sell out your whole life for a goal that was never possible anyway. Unlike Segran, I am free now to do precisely what I love—writing books and stories as I’ve done for years, continuing with memoir and fiction and moving now toward tackling historical subjects for general audiences (as both nonfiction and novels). I’m fortunate, too, to be able still to teach—as an online adjunct for a state university—and thus get the chance to hone my skills in teaching history as one of the ‘lively arts’, a living breathing practice that is not (and should not be) confined to the ivory tower nor dispensed solely by talking heads on documentaries or op-eds.


With the security of a tenure-track position, wage, and benefits, some of this could have been easier, perhaps. But given traditional academic disciplinary norms for publication, my writing would likely never have fit in. It is not insignificant here that when I published my first book, a memoir in 1997, I was warned both by professors and fellow graduate students that publication in such a “popular genre” would hurt me in the search for a tenure-track position. I would not appear, apparently, to be serious about scholarship. So be, I thought, imbued with my obstinate devotion to my fields (early US history and ethnography) and to preparing for my career—which I funded with a full-time night job, part-time teaching and on-campus positions, grants, and student loans—and went right on with both memoir and fiction, deepening my engagement with primary sources and beginning to work out an ethnographic approach to the archives and places I studied. I was sure that I could develop skills enough to counter such notions, to possibly even demonstrate that engagement with the public in different genres could be a valuable addition to the academic stables. When I won a campus-wide award for excellence in undergraduate teaching, my heart fairly sang because this meant I had a chance and maybe all their notions could be wrong-headed after all and I would one day have a home in the world (always one of the key perks of academia for me). But no, I was the wrong-headed one, off by leagues and fathoms uncountable!

For a year after completing my degree, I hit the wall of the academic job market with sustained will, facing the realities of this field: funding for research and conference travel is limited and those of us with the least ability to pay are the ones most likely to have to self-fund. Although fortunate to land an adjunct position in a department and university that values its part-time employees enough to provide benefits and true collegiality, there’s no job security (no matter how great a job I do!) and the pay isn’t sufficient to fund research or conference-going. Happy to connect with students, I scaled down my research plans and fired up two non-academic writing projects that had lain fallow due to both work and trauma, and—still cultivating a profoundly obstinate devotion to the craft—I continued working on a couple of academic journal articles as well. The latter made limited sense, because I believed their insights were valuable to my sub-fields since no one has made them before; and I figured that submitting them for publication might increase my job chances.

Then one day, abruptly and thanks solely to my students—many of whom will never take another history course or have access to university library resources to study history in their free time once they graduate—and to my grandparents (neither of whom went to college, but still bequeathed me their stories and histories and the small book pictured here), I woke up to my own obstinate devotion and understood at last how cockeyed it was. Why would someone like me who is not on a tenure track willingly publish behind a pay wall that most people can’t access? An article in the Journal of American History or Gender & History isn’t easy for a person on the street to access; most of them are geared for a tiny specialist audience at best; maybe some will shift the discipline(s) significantly enough to show up as required readings for students at some level, but maybe not: these writings serve the disciplines and people whose careers are in them. They serve the tenured and the tenure-tracked, a very few of whom may serve as talking heads or op-ed writers and thus reach a wider audience, but what about the histories that all the rest of us live and make every day? That single question—on the heels of nearly a quarter-century of my quest to be qualified to practice ethnographic history—led me to rethink my relationship to the academy, to my disciplines, to my writing, and to my career. I am far too serious about my writing to take on another full-time job to make up for the wage grade of adjuncting, as Elizabeth Segran did**; and I still love the give-and-take of teaching so much that I can’t turn down an opportunity to do it either: yet I, too, have come to a place of calm observation.

Now I view history as one of the ‘lively arts’—something we inhabit as minnows do water, something we take in through our gills every day without conscious effort or thought, something that embodies us before we are even born and outlasts us even after we die. Writing, too, is another of these ‘lively arts’, as is performance in any genre, but history is a great deep well of humanity that never ceases to slake my thirst for connecting in some small way with those who came before, those who will come long after us, and we who are here now (so often bereft of comfort, for we know not of our connections). I work daily to revitalize how I teach so that students can feel this liveliest of arts in their bones, inhale the stories and the worries and the struggles and the wonders of long-past times and peoples, and then come up able to dance and story and sail across the turbulent waves of being, with the fires of shared and unshared histories bright about them, no matter what careers they choose: so that they glimpse themselves not simply as people now, but as historical characters in the making, dwelling fully in not just this but all places and times. My days now are more sane and less capricious, and they turn on practical and philosophical questions that were valuable to me as an undergraduate and citizen and human being, which is a more capacious field of endeavor than are the more narrow lines of inquiry allowed to those who pursue advanced degrees for the purpose of finding employment in the formal academy. My questions for history and teaching are about usefulness and the in-spiriting of this work in the world.


How can I find sources and resources that will lure students in and whet their curiosity enough that they’ll want to track through the evidence with me or alone? How can I dismantle the read/regurgitate-on-test models so common to history education in the U.S. without frightening students accustomed only to those or wearing myself to a nubbin? (The student-to-teacher ratio at state universities inveighs hard against creativity in teaching, primarily because of the time and wage factors for adjuncts, but I’m finding a few tactics that seem to work.) How can I open up the ways in which students can demonstrate their increasing skills without forcing them all into the trusted modes that served the last century okay, but no longer suffice (heavy on written analysis, often timed on exams or for ‘research papers’)? How can I find the time to locate the best web and e-tools for enhancing learning and curiosity, while steering clear of those that deaden both? How can I give them tools that will help them challenge pundits and talking heads and ‘experts’ (even myself) alike? How can I create a non-hierarchical, collaborative learning environment that lets students have more control than they may be accustomed to having?

How can I use my writing and my understanding of how one story gets smithed into a play or a feature film or inspires a song to hear better the genres in which my students may wish to approach history proper? How can I help them to discover that history is personal, about not just ‘them’ but us, about not just back then but now, and thus deserves close scrutiny (far more than is required for any exam)? How, most of all, can I give them a truly high-quality experience that mirrors the best courses of my undergraduate years at the Claremont Colleges—so that wealth and social position play no role whatsoever in the quality of their coursework? For that is, indeed, the thing about the present freefall of academia that I grieve—even lament—the most anymore: education when industrialized may turn out workers, but to do so it has to service a privileged set and exploit others while denying that set of tactics pretty determinedly and systematically in practice, and so it drastically deepens inequalities and thus harms society across every last board. Changes are needed, my yes: transformation is needed, for these systems have been increasingly out of kilter for at least the last 20 years. I saw that firsthand while in graduate school and painstakingly (and at great expense!) prepared myself to work within the system to help change it. Now I’m outside and thus cannot do this, and grieving too long is a waste of my time on this planet. Obstinate devotion, however, is a worthy trait, and I intend to haul it aboard and re-bore its lenses and hone it in myself for good.

I’m focusing on smaller goals now, none of which offer me any institutional succor or welcome: becoming a better writer with each page, each sentence, each word, each comma and dash; studying my characters with the deep gaze of the ethnographer and library sailor and finding the perfect voice for each project; staying wide-open to the challenges of different genres, but gradually putting more of my ethnographic and historical passions into all of these stories; becoming a better, more compassionate teacher with each course, each week, each assignment, each response; becoming more open to the real diversity of my own personal history, my training, skills, and contributions, as well as that of my students; taking the time to volunteer and engage with my local communities and neighbors (both human and not); setting ‘work’ aside for some part of every day to rest and regroup or simply read or sew or knit or quilt or play music or tramp outside for the sheer fun of it. In short, I am dwelling fully in it all, rowing my little boat steadily into the standing waves of these lively arts I have been so fortunate to journey in while here. Every last jot of the lot is relevant to every other one; none stands apart, at loose ends: the waves are formed of droplets of singular energy both small and mighty yet immersed in the whole, and not the tiniest thing—not even a glance or a sigh—goes amiss. All that is or ever was rides alongside, noticed or not, reachable or not, and swells the seas of existence in which I—and all that ever was or will be—dwell.

I am, I see now, thoroughly well-companioned, though I often did not see this before. Whatever comes later? Comes. I am already at home in the world. How do I know? This little book (pictured above, inscribed in pencil by my mother’s father’s father as his “Book” in Sept. 1898), only recently found and yet to offer up any of its or his secrets or stories? For which I will need to plumb old newspapers and letters and archives; fire up my microfilm and micro-opaque readers; and most surely travel to “West, Miss.” for the first time ever (since this is how I do ‘history’)? Tells me it is so.

**I made an error in the sentence structure which suggests that Segran also pursued adjunct teaching alongside her PR job: this is incorrect.


on approaching the past through Katrina – a crowd-sourcing plea

This is straight copy of  a Facebook post I made just now (13 May 2014) , and I’m putting it here in hopes more people will see it. I know that commenting is much easier to do on Facebook than on WordPress, so if you want to weigh in but not here, please feel free to do so on that post. I will be compiling the list of resources by this fall and, if you’d like a copy, please let me know via the contact form on my Connect page (here on this blog) or via a backchannel Facebook message. [Link to my FB.]

TO Everybody (teachers of history, lovers or haters of history, anybody who’s ever had to deal with history and found it hard going): I’m going to be teaching the last half of the U.S. history survey online (part-time) again next year, and I’ve come up with an approach that I think might work, but I would love to hear any suggestions you might have on sources, readings, etc. 

My students are a diverse group: many first-years with a wide range of preparation, most of them work (some full-time), and majors/interests tend to cluster into natural sciences/resource management, criminal justice, music, elementary ed, and undecideds. I’ve taught the survey as a survey (chronological w/content lectures), but the online setting means students have very little patience for long lectures, and the class quickly breaks out into some really engaged students and some who are gone. I’ve tried it with a professional skills component attached to the survey and that worked pretty well, as did very short content lectures tied to readings and analysis of primary sources. I’ve also tried the uncoverage method (thematic approach) but found it unhelpful because students need a foundation in what actually happened across the period being studied first. So I’m mulling a hybrid course for the fall.

I’m planning to start with a mini unit on Hurricane Katrina: Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun and the documentary Trouble the Waters and asking students to interview one peer and one adult whom they already know about that storm. Most will not know much about Katrina or New Orleans (which can become part of the takeaway). Then we will tackle our survey at its normal departure point (Reconstruction) and come forward (using primary sources, mini content lectures, a text as a workbook, etc.), but they will work all semester to build an individual final project around New Orleans, the nation, and Katrina. My goal is to have history matter to them while they gain some skills in its manners of thinking and tunneling into a place and set of questions. Issues of race and class (which are typically so bloody difficult to teach in places that don’t ‘see’ it) will be central and unavoidable. The environment, public policy (from local to national levels incl. homeland ‘security’), and policing strategies will be critical; cultural practices (like music) can help lure them in as well.

To that end, I need to compile a really good list of sources for them to start with. Not just scholarly articles, but general audience readings like newspaper and magazine articles, music, etc. Anything that I can make available online is a bonus, but the key thing is to create a set of materials to which they can go to expand their present understanding of Katrina. Then over the course of the semester I’ll include in their weekly prep tiny case studies of what was going on in New Orleans at critical periods. I’ve got lots of material for that sort of thing *before* the Civil War (because that’s my period!), and I grew up about a hundred miles north of NOLA (which means I know quite a bit about the city in my lifetime), but I’ve not been systematic about this and so could really use any suggestions you might have. Any that have already worked well in the classroom, yes, but also any that just helped you to get a better bead on NOLA and Katrina. (It most definitively does NOT need to be ‘history’ or just ‘academic’!)

Crowd-sourcing, I believe they call this, and I’ll be happy to properly compile and share the list with everyone who responds when it’s ready to go (September). Pretty please? And thank you in advance!


on grading, purgatory, and what the space-time continuum needs

I dreamt I was dying, knew it, and was being sent to some special purgatory for grading. No matter how hard I try to turn this part of my job into something meaningful for both the students and me, no matter how many tactics I use to enliven the practice and fill it with compassion and my own thirst for non-hierarchical learning (which means students have significant control over their work and evaluations), no matter how determinedly I try to turn these fleeting opportunities to kindle curiosity and compassion toward the past present into moments of shared wonder at and openness to what little we can know of all that has come before us? I still find grading the equivalent of driving industrial-grade steel railroad ties through the eye sockets of my soul.


Perhaps it is how we use grades in my disciplines and too many others, as shields between the knowers and those who know not, deflecting wisdom and carrying right on anyhow? Perhaps it is the evanescent and glittering truth that what is most valuable about learning history or anthropology can never be captured in any test or essay. Perhaps it is that, in the humanities at least, we have the opportunity to be genuine companions on the many diverging roads to human knowledge, but then expertise and the power to wield grades—months of another person’s efforts distilled into one blissfully idiotic number or letter—rear their head and mock all that we do, all that we say we value, all that we could be if only we could find wiser ways to arrange ourselves around knowledge and learning.

I should quickly add: I’ve no problem whatsoever with grades in disciplines whose graduates eventually build things like bridges or cars or tractors or cut open live beings and sew them back up again to be let loose on our streets, but the humanities and social sciences transcend all that (or could, if we could only summon the courage to let them) and traipse willfully undeterred through the nightmarish and unbelievably lovely, ineffable spaces of the human animal and our terrifying capacities for great evil and great good alike, and for these fields—so necessary now, so nurturing of soul and broken societal spirits—grades are wholly unsuited for the fray. Grades in such fields are about managing the industry, running people through the intellectual abattoirs that pass for education in this world and sending them out to conquer the rest of it thus. And so I wrestle with the ethics of the practice and my conscience when I grade, and it is a mighty battle every time. But this is the first time I’ve dreamt—or even considered the possibility—of such an activity awaiting me in the afterlife.

I talk straight out to the universe when anything bestirs me deeply, just stare into the maw and speak up. It is a way of telling myself, of course, since I’ve no evidence that anything out there is listening. So this is what I have to say about this morning’s dream: if there is existence beyond this one, y’all need to let me skip grading purgatory. By many light years. I should be planted in a far, far corner from such doings and not allowed even a visit. It would be best not to let me remain conscious of such practices being made so normative that most people don’t even question them, too. If memory excision on this matter is available, I should probably have that procedure performed the very second I exit this planet as well. For if I wind up there after this one little life is over with any lingering consciousness and memories of grading purgatories here? I will circle my every last cell into a fury so great that the explosion rips the space-time continuum apart. Everywhere. On that side of being and this one and any others ever to come. And that is a promise. Y’all will be picking up pieces of soul dust from here to forever.

The idea of ultimate resistance, so improbable, so nutty, so utterly “Swing-something-at-all-the-windmills, y’all” cheers me up now as I turn to my last set of tasks on this year’s evaluations of student work. My heart is made lighter just to think of a world in which grading no longer exists as a cultural practice because somebody broke the space-time continuum in two on its account. That—like every other notion that ever comes to me when I am stuck in some societal pattern that’s long since served its unholy purpose—I will put straight into the service of leaching compassion and love for learning out of everything I do for these students as they leave. It’ll likely all still get lost in that one idiotic number and letter that comes on the heels of everything else that came before, yes, but it’s still going to be there.

Resistance to the machines of our societies is not futile. It only appears that way until somebody comes up with a better idea for how not to be so backward and mean and call it normal. I feel in my bones that, if humanity manages to survive itself over the next few decades, somebody’s going to have figured out how to restructure learning in the humanities so we don’t wind up with a single number or letter as the period on the whole endeavor. I feel it, I yearn to still be alive when it happens, I pray for it even (since this would be a much better use of my cells than splitting a continuum I know nought of!): and now I trundle off to finish my grading. Lighter of heart, for writing of anything (even one’s own complicities with long-broken systems) makes it easier to bear.


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