Archive for the ‘Academic Anecdotes’ category

Dispatches from Graduate School – Post 37

September 28, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
[Reposted by permission of *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

Last week I made my first (of many, I hope) public lectures for History to the People. When I first had the idea for the website, I connected with a local marketing agency for some direction on developing a brand. The agency’s managing director makes himself available for mentoring hours each week at their office, which happens to be a really cool collaborative workspace in Chandler, Arizona, called Gangplank. Gangplank helps to create a “new economic vision comprised of collaboration and community” through sharing workspace, resources, and most importantly ideas.

Fourteen small businesses occupy the space at Gangplank and co-work on a daily basis free of charge. In exchange for space, each anchor business (the marketing agency included) must commit to reinvest into the Gangplank community by planning events such as a weekly brownbag discussion.

After my mentor-session with the agency’s managing director, he suggested that I share my idea with the Gangplank community at a brownbag discussion. The next day I received an email from Gangplank’s Director of Community Outreach, and she put History to the People on the calendar for September 21st. I asked my classmate and co-founder to join me for the discussion. The thought of debuting the idea to the public by myself seemed a bit daunting. She agreed, and together we shared our vision with a group of individuals who work in entirely different industries. Most of our audience were “creative types”—web developers, graphic artists, and social media specialists. The marketing agency team and our graphic designer showed their support, as did my dad (I thought he might be the only one) and a friend who has close ties at Gangplank. Brianna and I were the only “academics” in the building.

Despite our fear of that we might put the crowd to sleep, everyone responded enthusiastically to History to the People. We received great feedback and people raised questions that are important to address as we continue to move forward with our vision. (One attendee even posted a response to the brownbag on her blog!) We learned a lot from the discussion, and most importantly, we discovered that there are people outside of academia who believe thinking historically is crucial to contemporary life.

Our time at Gangplank provided us with that extra impetus to press on. Last week we met with our web designer, and this week I complete our registration with the Arizona Corporation Commission. By the end of next week I will officially be the Director of History to the People. Once the designer finishes the logo I can finalize our executive summary and begin the laborious fundraising process. In the meantime my benefactors (i.e., my mom and dad) generously give of their resources to help me realize this goal.

I believe in the success of History to the People. Most Americans agree that history matters, but not all Americans understand the implications of ahistorical thinking. Through the website we will provide our audience with both the tools necessary to think historically and a plethora of accessibly written and rigorously researched historical material. One day HTTP will encourage thousands of people to think historically, and as a bonus, we might even be able to pay back my parents.

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On taking a break…

September 19, 2011

This weekend I went with some friends to see the Giant Pandas at the National Zoo. Okay, really I went to visit my friends, but seeing the pandas was awesome. It reminded me a bit of the old song lyric “all creatures great and small.”

It seemed silly, amidst a crazy semester, to throw away valuable time. In fact, I returned home both energized and tired. What happens, though, when we take breaks, is that we allow our brains some time to heal.

Take some time to work, but remember to rest too. There’s a reason for the seventh day (or a weekend away).

Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 36

September 16, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF [Used by permission of John Fea, *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

I continue to press forward with plans for History to the People. A friend referred me to a web developer and designer to help with the branding. The designer sent me an exhaustive questionnaire in order to get a feel for the experience I’d like to create. I have always appreciated graphic design, but I was struck by the similarities between a thoughtful designer and an astute historian.

The designer, rather than simply creating a logo according to a few superficial questions, operates according to a precise set of design principles. Good design is nuanced and complex—just like a good historical narrative. Her questionnaire included a section on the “global images” of the branding project. In other words, how do I want my brand presented to the customers (or in my case, community), through the use of various oppositional adjectives? Do I want the History to the People website to be fashionable or timeless? Discreet or aggressive? Contemporary or nostalgic?

I found this exercise far more difficult than I had first imagined. I thought that if I conveyed the mission of the website (to encourage historical thinking and to provide an aggregate of academically sourced historical information for a popular audience), that she’d have the tools necessary to complete my ideal design. This is just as erroneous as assuming that one source provides the material necessary to construct a historical narrative.

Often times I feel that because of what I do I am part of an exclusive club. I think to myself, “academically trained historians must be the only people who are conditioned to think critically and to evaluate a problem from a variety of angles.” This just isn’t true. There are a myriad of professions, including those in the arts (a genre from which many historians wish to distance themselves) that encourage analysis and careful attention to a multiplicity of questions.

When I talk to the designer about the website, I feel a sense of camaraderie. We both take what we do very seriously, and we both see critical thinking and complexity as essential to preforming the tasks expected of us. Our conversations as we hone the overall feeling and design of the website remind me that what I do is part of a larger community of intellectuals who labor to tell the most honest and effective stories—no matter the medium.

Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 35

August 29, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF [Entry taken from Prof. John Fea’s blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home by permission]

I just spent the last few minutes skimming the first several “Dispatches from Graduate School” entries from last fall. Just reading of my weak moments makes me anxious. But rather than deteriorating into a weepy mess at the prospect of another mountainous year of coursework, I remember that I have an entire year (and a summer full of reflection) under my belt. I am no longer a first-year PhD student! I can walk the hall with a greater sense of assurance. Instead of an outsider desperately trying to feel at home in what seemed like an inhospitable place, I consider myself part of the community.

Not that this year won’t be tough.

Over the course of the next two semesters I need to prepare my secondary field (which is now officially Urban History—perhaps more on this at another time); perform my History Graduate Student Association responsibilities (as Secretary); read for my Qualifying Exams; submit conference proposals and scholarly articles; ready History to the People for its February 1 launch; and again find that sensitive balance between school, family, and life. It’s hard to explain, but the tasks seem far less daunting, less intimidating.

The confidence that comes from successfully battling the insecurities and emotions of the first year will hopefully propel me into a strong second year. I’m especially excited for my coursework. Each of my courses will provide me the opportunity to produce work that will contribute to my thesis. Space and Place, a research seminar, will allow me to better understand and then to utilize space and place as categories of analysis. In Community History, I will analyze the central elements of American community life. I’m taking one comparative course, Modern European History, which will focus on the major European capitals (and on New York City) from the beginning of the nineteenth century through the mid twentieth century. The course will provide me an opportunity to read for my secondary field and spend more time engaging in the theoretical approaches to urban history.

In my very first Dispatch, I found the marathon to be a useful analogy for graduate school. This analogy has served me well and I must keep my own advice close as I embark on year two. I wrote that “I can commit to the next four-years with the intensity essential to not only tackle the hills, but to cross the finish line at a sprint.” As I begin the second leg of my four-part marathon I feel determined, but I am fully aware of the hills (there are plenty of examples of first-year hills on this blog). Nevertheless, I will continue protect myself from injury, fuel adequately, and move forward toward the finish line.

Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 32

June 7, 2011

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
(Cross-posted by permission of John Fea’s blog *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*)

I learned a valuable lesson this week: momentum should not drive your destiny. When I entered the PhD program, it seemed the natural choice. Upon completing my undergrad degree I immediately enrolled in an MA program. I took one year after the MA to apply to PhD programs because that too seemed the natural progression of my career in the history field.

I thought the skills I had developed and honed applied only to academia. Yet over the course of the past nine months I gained a greater grasp on what it means to pursue a career in higher education. Before the program started, I had no point of reference. I had romanticized the career path—one day I might sit behind a desk, situated between my overcrowded bookshelf and a tower stack of undergraduate essays. I’d sip my green tea, push my glasses from the bridge of my nose, and prepare my lesson plans. Of course, this scenario does not have to be a figment of my imagination, but with a year under my belt I also understand the realities associated with aspiring to such a life.

Further, I had never thought deliberately about my own giftedness and how it might fit into the academic world. I write. Writing brings me great joy. To tell a tale, to craft a well-written and thoughtful narrative, is to exercise my aptitude for storytelling. Of course I have much to learn. I can hone my skills. I can trim the fat—writing shorter, leaner, and clearer prose. I can expand my vocabulary and develop my syntax. I can gain a tighter grip on grammar.

But am I, or do I, want to be an historian? Is a fully funded opportunity always the right opportunity? Do others’ expectations shape my decision making? Should momentum, rather than insight and prayer, carry me toward a career? These questions force me to take pause.

My first two semesters, now behind me, functioned much like a mirror for me. Not only did they expose my immaturity and failings, they also revealed my strengths. In the first year I demonstrated my ability to offer a close reading of short passages and then provide a concise,coherent analysis. I also felt confident in my ability to weave together a historiography—to put books in conversation with one another.

But my ability to open up the hood of a book and to understand its mechanics, how the content informs the structure, and where the shortcomings present themselves, lags sorely behind. I understand that this skill develops over time. Few first-year students come to the table with the capacity to fully interrogate an author and his or her monograph. Most can point to the tragic flaws, but an eloquent examination comes only with time. Perhaps more problematic than my inability, however, is the fact that I have zero desire to gain this knack for dissection.

I embark on summer vacation fully aware of what I need to do in order to make myself a better graduate student. In addition to sharpening my skills, however, I must also reflect on the larger questions that emerged during the first year—the deeper questions, the ones that force me to consider why I do what I do and if this is the right path for me.

Paranoid Grad Students

April 25, 2011

Check out this story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about paranoia among graduate students.

Interesting. Any thoughts? Comments? Questions? Concerns?

The Archives

March 25, 2011

I just spent the last few days at the National Archives digging up documents that have not been touched in decades… some perhaps not since they were placed in their boxes a century ago. There’s something thrilling about the archives.

There’s also something quite bothersome about the monotony of research. Though we have moments of clarity and discovery, we have many more moments of drudgery, flipping page after page hoping for something “good,” only to find more minutiae.

As I worked, I kept thinking of the social responsibility of the historian, as expressed by several authors in the *Confessing History* book. Namely, I kept thinking “these soldiers were people… I cannot reduce them to numbers” as I compiled empirical evidence for my dissertation. I hope I do them justice. I hope I represent them honestly. I hope they, though not alive to defend their honor, would appreciate the way in which I express the complexity of their lives.

Another observation that I made while researching was the temporality of “generalizations.” No matter what conclusion I came to, I could think of a way around it. In other words, if I thought “all soldiers…” I could always think of an exception. If I thought “no soldiers…” I still yet thought of exceptions. So I decided to make qualified assessments, hoping that my ultimate conclusions in my larger argument hold water, yet are not over-reaching in their claims. When I say that a piece of information “complicates our understanding” my advisors always comment that I need to be more specific. Sometimes, though, that’s what I mean… it complicates it… in millions of different non-specific ways.

I guess there’s no neat moral to my story. There’s no easy conclusion to wrestling with history, I’ve learned. There’s no check A, B, or C. The answers are complicated and murky. The sources don’t answer exactly what I want. They are a bit like putting together a jigsaw with no reference picture and no certainty that all the pieces were in the box. Is it still worth assembling?

I think so.

Anyone else want to share their experiences from the archives? How are your classes this semester? Please submit ideas for book reviews or thinkpieces. Together we can make this organization exciting, but we all need to read, contribute, and engage.