The Return of the Professor

Cathedral in Bayeux

Cathedral in Bayeux

I pulled something in my neck the other day.  I didn’t notice the pain then, but now I am balanced in our cat hair-covered recliner with a heating pad behind my neck and my computer on my lap.  This is fine, for the moment, and I’m sure it will be better soon. Being still able to type is good because I certainly have a lot to do in the next week or so – in less than two weeks, I’ll be back in the classroom, teaching an art history survey class at a nearby community college.  I have a syllabus to finish off, some reading to do, and some lecture notes to write. 

I’m excited!  It’s fair to say that I didn’t realize how excited I would be to go back into the classroom until it began to seem like it would happen.  A friend put me in touch with the department—she heard they’d lost an adjunct lecturer to a sudden move, and she happened to know an Art History Ph.D. (me!) who could handle such a class.  This has little effect on my day job at the museum, for the most part, it’s additional and outside hours that I would not normally be working, so while I will soon number among the contingent faculty of the world, it’s not quite the same as relying on piecing classes together.

I finished my dissertation three and a half years ago.  After that, I took a FULL break, cut the cord, barely thought about my dissertation or trying to publish anything until last year when a call for papers came up that was too good to pass up, even if it meant finding the money for a trip to Europe.  I came home from the conference a little frustrated—it seemed like people were only just coming to conclusions that I had come to literal years ago now.  I had a greater sense of what it would mean to have my scholarship out in the world because I believe that it’s true that no one has replicated my work since.  As I think about that conference experience, and as new opportunities present themselves, I’ve been thinking more about trying to publish parts of my dissertation.  With a few years distance, I have better sense of what I want from academia and perhaps what it can give me in return. 

And with this distance, and the opportunity to return to the classroom, comes the hope that my years away from academia working directly with museums and nonprofits, places where humanities majors apply their skills, will help me be a better educator.  If I have a better sense of what my scholarship could mean, I am also more able to make case for why it’s important for students to study art history.  I know what skills they learn from art history because I have had to deconstruct those skills myself, repackaging my knowledge and experience over and over to get the jobs that I cobble together to get to the point of having a CAREER.  (I have thoughts about the recent Twitter feeds exploring the twists and turns of careers after leaving academic. I have thoughts about the notion of having careers.)

When I was in the classroom while I was still in grad school, especially when I was teaching expository writing, I tried to be deliberate in explaining why I demanded they do an exercise over again or why it was so important for them to see one thing or another in the text—there is always a reason. A lot of academics, especially, are bad at this. They replace the idea that people deserve a justification of how they spend their time with the belief that certain things are inherently worth knowing and require no justification.  That may be true.  It may also be true that knowing why they are supposed to learn something enables people to take it further into their minds and hearts.  So here’s to a new semester, my first proper semester in three and a half years, and here’s to art history!  Hopefully my neck heals enough, soon enough, to make those lecture notes as interesting as I know they can be.

The Zouave Watching Paris


In Paris, along the Pont de l’Alma, a sculpture of a Zouave soldier stands proudly at the base of one of the bridge’s supports. The Zouave was originally sculpted in the 1850s by Georges Diebolt as one of a set of four types of soldiers—a Zouave, but also a grenadier, a chasseur, and an artilleur. The bridge itself was first constructed in the 1850s, and then quickly named after the Battle of the Alma, which was a less than decisive French and British victory in the Crimean War. Now, only the Zouave has persevered, with the other three soldier statues repurposed as public art in other parts of France.

When the water level remains low, the Zouave marks the interstice between road level of the bridge and the flowing water of the Seine.  His blousy pants, coupled with the cape around his shoulders, distinguish his identity from more traditionally western soldiers seen on other war memorials and Napoleonic historical sites—he has not only survived a century and a half of exposure to the elements, but also our increasing understanding of the mechanisms of appropriation and control that resulted in the creation of colonial regiments like the Zouaves.  Formed near the beginning of France’s African conquests, the Zouaves were originally made up entirely of native Algerians, and then, over time, they recruited primarily native Frenchmen who still wore variations of the original uniform. They fought bravely in Crimea, during the Franco-Prussian War, and in World War I before being subsumed into the rest of the French army.  American Zouaves, adapting the French uniforms and reputation of fierceness, fought in the Civil War.

The Zouave on the Pont de l’Alma, vigilant and strong, also alerts Parisians to the rising water levels of the Seine.  A couple years ago, when the city experienced a moderate flood, the water rose to the Zouave’s waist—when I saw articles about parts of the Louvre being on stand-by and then temporarily closing, my first thought was to check to see where the water sat on the Zouave.  In early 1910, when an extreme winter flood crippled the city and caused 400 million francs in damage, the expanding waters of the Seine came up to his shoulders, the highest, to my knowledge, that it has ever reached.

June 2016. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

June 2016. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

I was thinking of the Zouave today, of all days, because I’ve been following closely as France has been shaken by the gilets jaunes protests that have occurred in the past few weeks and threatened major cultural institutions and monuments in the center of Paris that have come to mean so much to me in my years studying France and its art.  From the U.S., it has been hard to follow a series of events that American media is barely covering—we have our own perplexing, dangerous series of events at hand. I never picked up a fluency with French media beyond the nineteenth century, never enough to know which commentators or publications to trust.  Some of the most well-established publications have even more draconian paywalls than their American counterparts. It’s hard to know who, like the Zouave, stands as an reliable indicator of the impact of a political flood on French society. 

If these last months of shootings, bombings, and fiery protests in Paris have taught us, it’s that European cultural heritage isn’t as sacrosanct as we think.  The Zouave may not stand forever; it may even be poetic symmetry rather than outrage to see him disintegrate over time into the water and swept out to sea.  Today, in his address to the French people where he promised a higher minimum wage in the hopes of quelling the protests, Emmanuel Macron said, “When violence is unleashed, freedom ends.”  The nineteenth century showed over and over again that the exact opposite of Macron’s words can be true, especially in France. And so we wait to see what will happen, and we watch, like the Zouave guarding the Seine, hoping that the water will not overflow its banks again..

Mapping Out My Family's History

My dad (lower right), my uncle, my grandmother, my grandpa.

My dad (lower right), my uncle, my grandmother, my grandpa.

I’ve been thinking about family history a lot lately—both mine and other people’s, as well as how we practice family history in historical societies and as amateur genealogists.  If the stories I’ve heard over the years are true, on my dad’s side alone, my ancestors include:

  • A Belgian anarchist descended from French Huguenots who fled religious persecution;

  • A teetotaling temperance activist and Methodist minister who founded colleges out west, and his wife, who may or may not be a relative of Oliver Hazard Perry;

  • A Kentucky couple that used family ferry boats to bring people who had escaped from slavery across the Ohio River as part of the Underground Railroad.

My mom’s side does not quite have the same tall tales as my dad’s side does. Her tree, though, boasts veterans of both World Wars and immigrants from Italy, Germany, Sweden, and maybe Switzerland. 

Genealogy was the hobby that my mom took up when I went to college, and I know that she has done much of her side already.  She carefully scrapbooked out her lineage and gave copies to her siblings for their benefit. So I’ve spent my free moments in these past couple weeks digging through records on Family Search trying to confirm and extend what I already know about the people who make up my family tree, especially my dad’s side where the potential for excellent stories seems so great. Much of my experience with genealogical research is doing research into local history for the organizations I’ve helped in the past—genealogical resources can provide the most accurate information faster than any other source.  There’s probably an essay to be written about the democratic nature of these primary sources and the guarantee that so many people have had their names inscribed in documents for their ancestors to find.

It’s exhilarating to use the expertise I’ve honed professionally to discover more about my heritage, especially when it intersects with touchstones I have from research for work.  That prior knowledge helps me imagine the interior lives of my ancestors who spread across the true Midwest and the Great Plains in the middle of the nineteenth century.  For example, I spent two years serving as an AmeriCorps Member in Oberlin, Ohio, where religion and temperance activism went hand in hand throughout the city’s history.  This helps me see my ancestor, the minister and temperance activist, through their eyes because I understand why Oberlinians had signed on to the cause.  Coupled with my dad’s memory of my grandmother saying she had never found him to be that kind or attentive (despite that he was her grandfather!), I have learned much more about the ingredients that compose my people today.

The marriage record for my great-grandparents.

The marriage record for my great-grandparents.

Some caveats: it bothers me that you often cannot see the actual documents when you’re using a site like Family Search, and that means I cannot verify connections or spellings with the certainty that I would like as a historian.  Sometimes results don’t come up in searches, even when I know I spelled names right, because they were transcribed incorrectly—“Amna” instead of “Anna” in a census record.  Sometimes whole lines of family tree results come up incorrectly because another user has mapped a line based on their belief that they have the right information. For example, the father of the supposed Underground Railroad conductor’s wife currently has three contemporaneous wives listed. I am not currently sure which one is right, but the WASPy nature of the family tree makes certain that there can be only one.

I know I’m lucky to know so much about my family history already, and I am lucky to be able to apply my training and resources to finding out more.  It’s weird to know that some of my ancestors are all over the historic texts on Google books. Of course, other ancestors, ones that I would like to know so much more about, have barely left a trace—they left only what my parents can tell me now.

Old and New Projects, Engaging the Public

For the last two months, I’ve been working, working, working, and so that’s why I haven’t been writing here.  I’ve been working on contract projects, in both of my regular jobs, and in trying to figure out how to move forward with a research project I’ve been itching to launch. What is most important though is that, in the work I’ve been doing for the last few months, I’ve had a chance to interact with a number of members of the public in Ohio who are not art historians and not museum workers, but who are incredibly interested in supporting culture and maybe in making art or writing stories.  These are the people I left academia for.

The sky above Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Youngstown.

The sky above Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Youngstown.

One project found me in Youngstown, Ohio, leading an art and architecture tour of the city’s historic churches—many of which are stellar examples of their architectural styles and of what a city at the peak of its wealth and power can accomplish. Now, many of these churches rest potentially on their last legs as their congregations age and populations shift.  Even though Youngstown is experiencing a cultural renaissance of sorts and encouraging businesses and people to move back into the city, the churches are unlikely to be benefactors of that.  They were constructed along the old ethnic lines of the city, and the groups that once patronized them have long been gone, at least to the suburbs if not further away. The tour was incredibly moving because the people who participated seemed genuinely engaged by the treasures their city revealed.  I believe that when they left they understood the consequences of losing such historical structures, once pillars of the community.  

Another project that I worked on in the last month, one that I’ve been involved in for awhile now, asks people to respond to texts from the humanities as a means of reflecting on their own experience.  Most of these texts are chosen because they have inherent value—value that is not predicated on, for example, knowing that Charles Baudelaire was a poet and critic who produced most of his best stuff in mid-nineteenth century France.  The beautiful thing about this program is these texts do have value that is inherent; their words are words from which anyone can find strength or solace and through which anyone can grow as a person. Helping people have intelligent conversations about what they’re reading helps to increase the ability of those people to engage beyond a controlled discussion setting.

At my day job, I’ve been teaching more and taking more time to drill down on what it means when we teach students about primary vs. secondary sources, how bias and perspective function in historical documents and literary texts, and how to evaluate information they encounter.  All of these skills figure prominently in the state standards for education, but it’s important to show how they can be applied outside the classroom. After all, the goal is for students to carry these skills beyond school, into their college years or their career, and through their adult lives. Not everyone will go to college, but everyone will need to understand how to decide whether or not the information before them is true.

These projects and programs all, in one way or another, embrace and promote ideas and values that are important to me. They all suggest ways of moving forward in my career and types of projects to continue to seek out to promote my interests.  In each case, the project is, at its core, about civic engagement—about gaining the tools to look around you and read the world for what it is.

Cozy Mysteries and Careers Outside Academia

Cozy mysteries.jpg

Lately, I’ve been reading cozy mysteries in bulk. The ease of doing that is certainly part of the attraction.  My mom is an aficionado of the genre, going so far as to keep a little journal of authors she likes, which books of theirs she’s read, and which ones she’s bought and saved. This is no surprise, as she spent years assembling a collection of all the Nancy Drew books (both canon and sequel series), most in multiple editions. When I asked her if there’s a cozy series or two that she would especially recommend to me, she answered militantly and without hesitation, knowing that my interest came from the fact that a couple of popular cozy mystery writers are local to me and active in the local literary scene.  In both of the series I borrowed, though, the heroines/amateur detectives shared one trait I hadn’t expected: they’re both academics pursuing alt-ac careers. 

First: what is a cozy mystery, exactly, as opposed to an un-cozy one?  Think of TV shows like Murder, She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder—there’s usually a murder, but one with minimal violence or one that happens off-screen, and everything is wrapped up in an episode by a plucky detective who is not an investigator by trade. These TV versions are perfect examples because the tone and language are tame, suited to a prime-time network TV audience.  In the more recent book series that most deliberately fortify the stereotype of a “cozy mystery,” the investigator likely faces crimes that are themed after her line of work.  I know, and have always known, that many people find academics inherently interesting, but not usually so positively as to cast them as main characters in mainstream novels.

From what I gleaned from the descriptions of other books in my mom’s hoard, it seems like these female detectives often have the complicated lives of real people—they’ve returned home after a major failure, or they’ve been thrown into circumstances not of their choosing.  The first alt-ac detective I met was Violet Waverly in the Magical Bookshop Mystery series by Amanda Flower. Violet is an American Literature ABD (all but dissertation) student who has been tricked by her grandmother into returning to her very small hometown and assuming her destined role in running the magical bookstore that her family has run for decades. Though she picks up work as a professor at the local community college and never expresses any hint that she will not finish her dissertation, she regularly applies her academic knowledge and the core of who she is as a literary scholar in the service of helping the people who enter her shop as writers and readers.

The second alt-ac character I met, in the Haunted Home Renovation series by Juliet Blackwell, was Mel Turner, an anthropologist-turned-general contractor who applies her love of research and history to sussing out the pasts of the houses her company renovates. This is for the purposes of both accuracy in restoration and in knowing how to soothe the ghosts who begin to appear in these old structures.  All the history, emotional intelligence, and analysis prove key to solving the murder mystery of each novel. A big part of Mel’s past is her divorce from a fellow academic whose increasing success meant that her career came in second; she speaks at times about how it became harder to finish her dissertation and remain herself in the midst of trying to be a perfect faculty wife.  Her struggles to reassert her own identity, and even to figure out what that means, define her personal life and her interactions with each new person (and ghost) that she encounters.

I don’t think that either of the authors would deny that their detective’s academic qualifications set them up to be who they are and to solve these mysteries. There is shame (for Mel, mostly) about the state of their academic work, there is stress about whether or not they’ve made the right decisions, and there is angst about dreams deferred—but they both enact the transferable skills and the pursuit for learning and knowledge that any Ph.D.-focused career coach would emphasize as a message of hope for pursuing careers outside the academic field in which a person trained.  In the biography on her website, Juliet Blackwell notes that she has degrees in Latin American Studies, Social Work, and Anthropology—very similar to her main character—and that she then began running her own design studio in California.  A lot of people might dismiss these books as fluff, and I did for many, many years of watching my mom read them. And yet—at least these two series are tremendously cathartic fluff, perfectly calibrated for my mood and alt-ac moment.