I look back every once in a while at this blog to recall some of the issues that I have faced throughout the grad school experience. I have had lots of encouraging experiences with awesome historians at conferences and in the classroom. I have benefited from an incredible advisor who is willing to invest in a non-traditional grad student. I have also however had to face the difficulties of writing on a topic that has been unfamiliar to begin with. I also have had a family to provide for during grad school.
Providing for a family is challenging enough, but during grad school it has meant significant changes in our lives. We go with less, but God has provided more than what we need.
This semester however, has proved the most challenging. As the economy has improved, less students are enrolled in school. This means conversely that there is less work for adjuncts. I was faced with the reality of not teaching any classes at the beginning of January. I could not rely on Nebraska Wesleyan University to help us get by. UNL has been great, but they too could not give me a position. I went from three classes to none. I was forced to look for a “real job.”
Fortunately, I have been able to work for a great small business that is using my computer and customer service skills. I haven’t done some of this for a while, but I am getting used to it.
I also know that there will be big changes in the future. I wish I could talk about them, but I can’t yet. We’ll see how God continues to provide for us through the realities of the end of the dissertation and grad school.
I find myself using digital tools in the classroom as much as I formerly used other resources to bolster my teaching and presentations. Just in this semester, I have used two different varieties of collaboration through digital methods within my undergraduate classrooms. When I have run these options, I instantly recognized that using digital tools in the class are tricky since there are limits to what I can do in a single period without enhancing the project to be unwieldy.
The first iteration came within the the first several weeks of History 101, Western Civilizations. I found myself droning on about explorers and the class (which is at 6 pm) was clearly not engaged in the material as I presented it. I reached into my teaching experience to have the class develop a list of explorers on a Google Spreadsheet. The spreadsheet was shared access with the class and editable by them. They had several minutes to collaborate and develop some cursory answers for who the explorers/conquistadors were and what they meant. The limitations to this exercise were severe, but it allowed groups of students to experience collaboration, sharing efforts, and for the class to collectively assess the value of the explorations.
The second iteration came with discussing the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers writ large, including those associated with the scientific revolution, reads as a long list, but when groups of three are told to assess the value of several thinkers and list their contributions, it becomes a learning experience through developing and sharing information. The second component of this exercise was to map the primary locations of each of these thinkers. With a quick overview, we could see that many thinkers lived in similar areas and it is clear the opportunities for collaboration and shared ideas. Inspiration drives inspiration – at least at a cursory overview. You can view the document here.
Digital history can be more than the long-lasting, architecture-intense, behemoths that can tax individual and university resources. Digital history can be short and intense and still yield positive results.
Actor Network Theory. The much discussed and often thrown around sociological conception of the interaction of people within societies proposed by Bruno Latour, John Law, and others is the most nuanced and conceptualized structure that the people and technology within the Indian Territory fits into. Native Americans were not just acted on by outside forces until they caved in and accepted railroads into the Indian Territory. Individuals like Peter Pitchlynn, a former Choctaw chief proposed railroads should come into the Choctaw region (and pay the Choctaw for the access). Others like Elias Boudinot, a Cherokee with wide social influence worked with the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad to ensure his farm would be adjacent to the track – and have access to the markets outside of Indian Territory. These and other Native Americans were not victims of railroad managers’ advances, but rather acted out of other motives and for their own reasons. Too often Native American history portrays them as victims as a whole. I propose that Native American agency needs to be restored, especially in an era of Plains Indians Wars and fighting; when whites spoke of the “Red Man” as if they were all the same.
Similarly, not all railroads acted the same way. Some railroads clearly endeavored to work with Native Americans and recognized their self-proclaimed rights to manage their own affairs. Other railroads completely ignored the will of Native Americans in the hope of future promises of land and other benefits.
Working to theorize the social and technological situation within the Indian Territory during the last 1/3 of the 19th century proves daunting. There is not a stark power relationship between the haves and the have-nots. There is not an equal structure of power-sharing either. Instead there is a series of changing relationships between people, technology, outsiders, and the land, only summed up by engaging Latour’s Actor Network Theory.
I feel like I have been writing about writing for so long – at least thinking about writing about writing – that it gets old (ironic for an historian). Dissertation directions have changed, or evolved, to frame the argument more coherently while adding depth to the characters discussed and encountered in the work. The current challenge to completion is not working on digital history, or being a teaching assistant, or being a dad. The current challenge is to write while I am employed full time. I have a regular, real job that I work at from 8-5. It is a huge blessing, but a real challenge to find the time to write. It is challenging for me to write also when I don’t think about history all day long, but in the off hours. Completion of the project means remaining engaged in the topic and the writing process – always a challenge, especially considering the length of time involved in the endeavor.
This semester I am very pleased to say, I submitted my complete first draft of my dissertation to my advisor. I have been solely focused on completing my dissertation, but not on the realities of life. That said, teaching this semester has been fantastic. Three classes, two of which at the graduate level, are very difficult to teach and very rewarding when everything comes together. I have been very fortunate to teach as long as I have without completing my dissertation. Next semester, I am looking for work. Classes have not maintained their enrollment and the demands of the program have shifted to areas I don’t specialize in, namely Women and Families. My colleague to teaches in this field has high demands on her classes, and rightly so.
The realities of Higher Education sunk in most recently through the pamphlet sent out by the O.A.H. The O.A.H. recognizes the difficulties for PhD’s to gain teaching positions and has partnered with The Versatile PhD, an organization designed to facilitate transitions from higher education into non-academic careers. While a noble organization with a good intention, it is nonetheless difficult to accept the reality of the job market. I would much rather have the demands be reversed so PhD’s can have their way with the employers, but that is not the case.
I recognize that I am writing this complaint in the middle of job searches. I am putting out applications and having my committee send out letters of recommendation, yet life outside of teaching is possible. I am eager to see what happens for next semester. I have not been on the job hunt for a very long time. I have worked in academia for the past fifteen years or more, so to have this change is intriguing to me.
This semester I am fortunate to be teaching a variety of classes. One of those classes, Civil War and Reconstruction, wanted to explore the relationships of causes of the Civil War over space and time. Using Neatline, we used the sandbox function to create a simple markup of eleven causes of the war. There are many different ways that I could have approached this, however, for the time and space constraints of the class, this was effective.
Some notes on the class dynamics: this class is made up of six current middle school teachers who have been reading a variety of sources leading up to this activity. The class plotted eleven events in space and time. We used part of two class meetings, altogether about three hours to work on this.
The results were very informative. The teachers who actively teach Civil War as part of their own curriculum were able to see the correlation of space to long-held causations of the war. Some asked the questions of validity of causes – for example, if Bleeding Kansas happened out “there”, why was it a cause for war elsewhere?
Other questions were raised about the value of plotting events in place and time, and rightly so. If the beating of Charles Sumner happened in D.C., how do you plot the event in time? Is it a single event or is it an initial event that resonates for considerable time?
As the instructor, I am convinced of the value of having students work on these types of projects in class. Small groups can decide on the importance, location and short summaries of several events at once. Students can then also decide on the historical value of events based on geography as well as personal interest, which reveals to me, as instructor, the areas of the courses that I need to emphasize or drop.
The next time I attempt to build digital history into the classroom, I will try Google Docs that allows for simultaneous editing within the class and incorporate it into a pre-deigned Simile page. I think that will allow undergraduates to use the product easier and yield a more robust outcome.