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.

Rotterdam Case Study: Unique, High-Tech Immersion at the Maritime Museum

Let’s go back to Rotterdam, shall we?  Previously this summer, I wrote about interpreting damaged churches in the city and the Erasmus Experience exhibit in the Rotterdam Public Library.  Now, I want to talk about the Maritime Museum of Rotterdam, a museum visit that I crammed into a late afternoon after returning from Kinderdijk. (There will be no post about Kinderdijk because it would just be pictures and fawning, but the further and further away I get from it, the more thoughts I have about how the site was interpreted.)  The Maritime Museum gets rave reviews on travel guides, which is why I chose it over the city museum or other historic sites.  I’d already taken a boat tour of the industrial harbor and ridden a water taxi to Kinderdijk, but I wanted to learn more about how the shipping industry had evolved from what I knew about the Dutch Golden Age into the massive industrial power that the Rotterdam port is today.

So I raced to the Maritime Museum, with only about two and a half hours to go through it.  I say only because I found, upon my arrival, that the museum had a little mini-harbor behind it, an outdoor museum of boats in the actual water, that closed earlier than the rest of the museum. Some of the small boats could be boarded, while some primarily demonstrated types of exteriors or the industrial machinery visible on them.  All around me, kids skipped on and off of boats, and the signage reminded me more of an American science museum than a history museum. When I went inside, that perception continued to grow—they had whole exhibits geared specifically toward children and families with hands-on activities that seemed state-of-the-art in their execution.

Exterior of the Maritime Museum with part of the mini-harbor of boats and cranes. (My photo, 2018)

Exterior of the Maritime Museum with part of the mini-harbor of boats and cranes. (My photo, 2018)

Once inside, I hurried past the rest of the children’s exhibits and upstairs to the main exhibit, having no idea what would come next and only knowing its name: the Offshore Experience.  When I reached the top of the entry ramp, the museum employees told me that I needed to hurry because the “training” had already started. They ushered me into another room, past countdown clocks and increasingly industrial-looking décor. In the next room, I found a video screen and seating that reminded me of the Star Wars ride at Disney World—the one where you watch a video and the seats shake and sound effects come from all sides, but you never actually leave that one room until you exit on the other side.  In this case, the video explained that we were all training for work in the offshore energy industry and that, while the work may be hard and dangerous, it’s an increasingly important part of the worldwide shipping industry.  After the video ended, we stepped into the next room, where we found hard hats and fluorescent vests that we should wear throughout the rest of the exhibit. It was truly wild - you can see some of that in the video below.

The hard hats and vests turned out to be far more than just costumes—the rest of the exhibit was HIGHLY interactive.  Visitors moved from station to station trying out video game-style and augmented reality tasks that gave explanations of actual jobs on offshore rigs and tested the ability of the “trainee” to complete them.  Signs and the initial training video told us that we would need to complete three of these tasks to successfully complete our training, so I tried a few.  And they. were. HARD.  I flat-out failed one that involved waving a large shipping container dangling from a crane into place on the dock.  (This will likely come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen me play Mario Kart.) 

When I finished with these interactive activities, I was directed to an elevator, which took me down to another floor. Training was over, but it was now time to learn a little more about the business side of offshore activities and renewable energy. They had video screens with real (real?) entrepreneurs and scientists who proposed plans for finding, developing, and using energy across the planet—each video was in its own little booth, which made it feel as if these experts were pitching to me directly.  Before heading out of the exhibit and back into the museum, they asked you to vote for the one that seemed best. The rest of the museum was split between kid-friendly, immersive experiences and more traditional museum displays of exceptionally beautiful and unique artifacts from the shipping industry.

I’ve been wracking my brain since I returned from my trip to think of any exhibition or other experience that mimicked the Offshore Experience in its total synthesis of experiential learning principles.  Still, there are few comparisons I’ve remembered. There’s the Titanic Exhibition that has been touring for years and years, where you receive a boarding pass upon entering, walk through meticulous recreations of the rooms on board to learn about the history of the voyage, and then check the lists at the end to see if “you,” the name on your boarding pass, numbered among the dead. It productively asked you to get inside the mind of someone on the Titanic, including that person’s particular gender, ethnicity, and social class. Besides that, however, I can think of little else. It’s a salient difference that the Titanic exhibit does most of their immersion without the aid of technology, but few historical events hold so much sway on the American imagination.

With the Maritime Museum, I continue to feel enthusiastic about the Dutch museum world and the lessons that their efforts to interpret their art and history can teach us. Choosing a topic like offshore energy development for a permanent exhibition speaks volumes about how they view the capacity of museums to affect earth’s future. Asking people to engage with contemporary debates at the end of the exhibition applies and tests the material that visitors have just learned, and I suspect that that increases the likelihood they might still be thinking about it weeks later. Much like the Erasmus Experience, which used its technology to thoroughly engage visitors rather than supplement a primary analog experience, the Offshore Experience provides a model for high-tech exhibitions that do not sacrifice content to draw and educate audiences.

Summer of Proust and Public Humanities

Marcel Proust's reconstructed bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (My photo, ca. 2011.)

Marcel Proust's reconstructed bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (My photo, ca. 2011.)

Earlier this summer, I saw a writer on Twitter suggesting that she would hold a “Summer of Proust” – an organized effort to read (at least) the first 200 pages of Swann’s Way. Published in 1913, it's the first of seven books in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time saga. I jumped in, volunteering to organize a chapter for my city, twisting the arm of my best friend until she joined up and tried to recruit people as well. When we had a small but mighty cohort of people, we began to read and scheduled our first meeting.  Ok, great.

Choosing Proust is not exactly like choosing a friendly, mainstream book club book—witness the book choices of any public library system that tries to do a “one community, one read” program. They usually choose books that are more straightforward in structure and plot, whereas Proust is a dense pile of run-on sentences and ethereal prose that's hard to pin down, an exercise in extreme aestheticism bordering on phenomenological theory.  It's hard to follow even if you're invested in it. Reading it as a collective exercise intrigued me because I, a person with an actual French degree and an established specialization in French art history, managed to never read any of it prior to this summer.

At some point during this process, during a summer replete with my own occupational soul-searching, it occurred to me that exercises like Summer of Proust are, however, the very point of the public humanities—finding ways to bring people to great literature, or art, or music, or philosophy, so that they can experience it on their own terms.  Terms that, because they’re set by the participants with minimal guidance from the organizer, are even more valuable than whatever the supposed gospel truth of the cultural import of the text might be.

Related: I’ve been struggling for weeks to write a blog post about Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette comedy special on Netflix and how it uses art history.  Her jokes are deeply well-informed and glorious in their confrontation of dangerous suppositions about canonical artists. She clearly knows much factual information about art history, and will hopefully inspire more people to seek out clarifications and truths about their artistic idols. However, another piece of historical commentary struck me to my core.  With the frame narrative of this special being her threats to give up comedy, she asks what she’ll do if she does.  She says, even with an art history degree, she can’t get a job in a gallery or a museum because they’re “too high class,” and “look at me!"

When people think anything in related to art, art history, or the humanities is “too high class” for them, we’re all doing our jobs wrong. Full stop. The staffs of institutions that deal in presenting arts and humanities content to the public should mirror the public they want to serve, which should certainly apply to museums, if not commercial galleries. Any person should be able to pick up Proust if they want. Maybe, because of what I know of late nineteenth-century French culture, I might laugh a little harder than another person at the scene where the narrator, as a child, meets a Nana-style courtesan for the first time (see, I read Zola instead...) and has to process that through his little brain. But that doesn’t mean that the other person enjoys the text any less.

We should be vigilant of the fact that the humanities, when public-facing and democratic, can offer strength and solace and grounding.  Where people disagree on politics or religion, or whatever else, they may find useful discussion in a humanistic text. There’s a reason that thousands upon thousands of people who’ve never read Swann’s Way know that madeleines are synonymous with nostalgia and memories—everyone has had the experience of being triggered to remember something of their past by a smell, taste, sight, or sound. Since we started our Summer of Proust group, we've found one Proust reference in an article on condiment mascots used by the Cleveland Indians and another in a podcast hosted by MSNBC host Chris Hayes.

Much like Proust spun an entire world from the taste of a madeleine, we must put ourselves in the way of experiences that expand our world views.  We must resist gate-keeping of difficult and supposedly "elite" humanities content and offer it to all who would be interested.  And so, in our little Midwestern city, my friends and I meet in coffee shops and apartments to discuss the words of a long-dead French author and his conceptions of social class that are as deeply puzzling as our own society’s frequently are. 

Writing Fiction Instead

FreeImages.com/John Hughes

FreeImages.com/John Hughes

I haven’t written a blog post in the past couple of weeks, breaking my summer promise to myself to blog every week. There have absolutely been holidays that reordered my work week and project phone calls to plan and distractions entailing crossed fingers (whether the World Cup or otherwise).  But also, I spent some of that time, previously devoted to blogging, trying to write fiction instead.

Nothing big, or complicated, or even really good, probably.  But I had an idea that I thought would be great for a short story, and so I sat down to try to write it.  I wrote as hard as a could on real paper and in pen for the 30 minutes or so that I had at my disposal.  A few days later, I felt like typing, so I opened a new Word document, typed the sentence I had left off with, and continued on writing that way instead.  The story isn’t fully drafted yet, and I’m not sure where to go with it, but it matters to me that I had the idea.  A few days later, I had another idea for a story.  I haven’t started it yet, but the idea has stayed with me.

For me, losing the ability to have those ideas had become the most frustrating part of post-graduate school life. When I finished my dissertation, I felt empty of ideas.  No matter how much I read or what workshops I went to, I couldn’t find an idea I felt like I could pursue further. Any idea I did have disappeared from my memory quickly, which became especially frustrating because I had always been the person other people counted on to remember facts and scholars’ names and details of arguments.

I’m sure some people would argue that my idea loss has been symptomatic of something more serious than just blahs – whether that’s grief, a post-academic symptom that Lisa Munro has explained so clearly, or something else.  Maybe it was, but it also kept me from starting anything even as pieces of those workshops or readings made sense to me.  As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic:

“ideas spend eternity swirling around us… Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration… The idea will try to wave you down… but when it finally realizes that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else” (35-36). 

I think of that passage often. When I first read it, a few years ago, it gave me comfort because I knew exactly what she meant.

But now, this one idea that I made contact with has persisted to the tune of over 1000 words and counting. I have dipped in and out of this idea, writing more, or doing the labor of typing up the handwritten words and editing as I go. The period I’m in now feels like the familiar point of academic writing that came after I had read articles and books and pieced together what other people felt about a painting or a theory and everything has been poured into my brain to mingle and interact and finally (finally!) produce an argument of my own.

So when I have time, I write. I have much more to write for this space about my trip earlier this summer., but I also have a couple more ideas for fiction writing that seem like they might push through to the page. I’m not sure how my story will end, but it feels like such a monumental leap forward to have these ideas stick around and to work with them as I am able.

Before and After: Francophone World Cup

I write this as I watch a World Cup match between Poland vs. Senegal.  I’m rooting for Senegal, a Francophone African country whose literature and art I have been fortunate to study. When I majored in French in college, it seemed like a logical continuation of the French classes I took in high school, and I believed, perhaps, that it would be all Paris all the time. Luckily, I had a number of French professors, even ones who taught the “all Paris all the time” classes, who actively refuted that idea.

At my undergraduate university, most of the French professors regularly taught and even published on literature from French-speaking countries far beyond France.  In one class alone, I remember reading novels published by authors from France, Canada, Senegal, Egypt, and Guadaloupe.  In another class, focused on “women in developing countries,” we more broadly explored Francophone and non-Francophone parts of Africa and the Middle East through literature and nonfiction writing.  For these professors, it was never a matter of France or the French language being sacred for its Frenchness; they understood how the language connected all of these countries and their disparate cultures together.  They taught us that it was worth examining the consequences of French colonialism and how French influence fused with local practices, for better or worse.

When I went to graduate school, I took a course in West African Art. We were assigned a research project, and it was an easy choice for me to look deeper into Senegal for a topic. I quickly found a book about art that depicts Ahmadu Bamba (1853-1927), a mystic and prophet who founded a particular Senegalese sect of Sufi Islam. I looked further and found a painter named Alpha Wallid Diallo (1927-2000) who had trained in the École des Arts in Dakar but chose history painting over the popular modernism of the day. I became fascinated by a series of paintings he did to depict Bamba’s life—they seemed to use the idiom of history painting, which was so familiar to me from studying Jacques-Louis David and other French painters of a century and a half earlier, to craft a meaningful political statement for Senegalese Islam. Senegalese culture in the 1970s and 1980s proved to be a mesmerizing cocktail of post-colonialism, nationalism, and an emphasis on the arts as a means of expression.

I don’t follow soccer regularly, but there’s something about the World Cup that makes me love it even more and differently than an international competition like the Olympics. Dropping in to watch matches incessantly for a month every four years means that I don’t have the context for this sport the way I would for baseball or football in the United States. I don’t always know who led the league in scoring or recently signed a huge contract—except for a few superstar cases, I barely know which league many of these athletes play in during their regular club seasons. The leveling effect of everyone playing for their national team helps me to enjoy the sport.  Certainly, there are countries that field national teams full of stars in other leagues, but there are also teams, like Senegal and Egypt, where the stars, who play internationally, return home to do their part in attempting to lift their home country with a World Cup victory and maybe more.

I finish up this post long after Senegal’s win over Poland, writing as Egypt concludes their loss to Russia and almost certain elimination from the tournament. The grief of the Egyptian fans is remarkable, as strong and fierce as the unmitigated joy that Mexican fans felt after their team improbably defeated Germany a few days ago. I first became fascinated by the World Cup when I spent the summer of 2014 in France; I vividly remember being on a tram in Montpellier that passed a bar where people of Algerian descent were watching the Algerian team win and advance out of the group stage. That summer, I was also staying with a Chilean woman who was deeply, deeply engaged by how well the Chilean team was playing.  I began watching matches on my own, trying to understand the rules and dynamics of the sport, as well as the different styles and characters of each national team. 

What I learned in those Francophone literature classes about cultures very different from my own expanded, at the time, how I thought about cultural identity and the relationship between culture and daily life. As I have traveled more and studied more, my enjoyment of the World Cup has become an almost anthropological act—I find joy in these soccer matches where the fans arrive in their jerseys, carrying national symbols, and singing their particular songs. I love watching the fans as much as the matches, and I especially enjoy when they cut to a watch party in the biggest square or park in the capital city of the home country, where everyone loudly cheers as if they're in the stadium themselves. Americans have very little stake in this tournament, even when we qualify and probably even when we co-host in 2026, so the World Cup is a chance to pick a team that plays enthusiastically for a country whose population hangs their hopes on that team’s success.  I’ll be watching, keeping my fingers crossed for Senegal.