Monday, December 14, 2009

In which I warm up for Tuesday's job interview by writing about rabbits

Dear academic job interview committee,

So. . . I've been cramming preparing for my 45-minute videoconference with you tomorrow. There's a giant pile of public history books next to me on the dining room table--the end of which has become over the past year an extension of my desk, which itself sits in a corner of my dining room. See, I need the table--which is ridiculously large, really--because my ideas are so big that I need to spread them out across many square feet of horizontal space. It's a bit messy, but what can I say? I'm a visual thinker. (Ask me about different learning styles--ooh, and disabilities---and how I plan for them in the classroom!) Also on the table: books on museums, women in science, history of medicine, and the optimistically titled (at the bottom of an unwieldy stack) Unclutter Your Life in One Week!! Those two exclamation points bother me, but I include them because they are in the original source. (Ask me about how I'm really a historian! Ask me about teaching writing!)

Why I'm writing to you tonight, really, is to point out that, if I'm to believe what I read on the interwebs, the list of questions-I-should-be-prepared-to-answer is very long. And many of the questions are not really that interesting. Do you really want to know what text I'd use to anchor an introduction to public history course? Oh, let's say Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies After J. B. Jackson because it's already on my shelf, it's interesting to me, accessible (and perhaps even engaging) to undergraduates, and it has photos, great photos, like the one on page 230 of a rabbit drive in southern Idaho, circa 1900. The jackrabbits are blurry and headed in every which direction, but they are bounded by fences. As I prepare for a job interview that crosses many fields, I'm feeling that way right now. I don't want to know what happened to the rabbits, which, the book tells me, "migrated irrespective of property boundaries." The book also tells me that "at such moments [as a rabbit drive], farmers often behaved less as individualists and more as communitarians as they banded together to confront the biota that threatened their collective landscape."

Did you see on my CV that I'm both an English major and have a Master's in writing poetry? So you can see this metaphor coming, yes? Because I've been reading a report about the crisis in liberal arts at your university (sorry about the Phi Beta Kappa application rejection!), and I'm realizing maybe the liberal arts disciplines--and here I'm talking about everywhere they're in crisis, not just at your institution--need to stop acting like cornered jackrabbits and more like communitarian farmers.

Let me explain. When you're talking about the importance of interdisciplinarity in this report-on-the-crisis, you seem to really be talking about multidisciplinarity, about housing disciplines side-by-side so that faculty can, well, talk to each other. That's like letting all the herb farmers plant their crops in adjacent plots. Those plots are still going to be savaged by rabbits. (I'll let you imagine who the rabbits might be, but here's an example--increased funding for science labs at the expense of, oh, the language lab.) Adjacent herb farming is multidisciplinary. After all, everyone needs herbs, but in small amounts. They're kind of a boutique thing, an afterthought consumers pick up at the farmer's market.

What you really want is interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is when you plant marigolds, garlic, and onions among the herbs. I know--maybe you don't want my marigolds (cultural studies) in your lemon basil (military history), and maybe I'm not that crazy about lemon basil, either. But who knows what wonderful, beneficial insects the combination of basil and marigolds might attract? What cross-pollination might occur that we wouldn't get if we had only rows of lemon basil, lime basil, Thai basil, African blue basil. . .ad nauseum with the basil. So let's invite the soybean farmers and the mushroom cultivators and the wheat growers and the cashew guys and the tomato folks. And when it comes time to harvest--what salads! What terrific pasta dishes! What great Thai food! (Do you have Thai food in your city? Because we have five Thai restaurants in my tiny downtown, and I find I need at least three to be fully myself.) And yes, I know the cashew guys are scientists, but to be truly interdisciplinary, we'll need them because science is essential to a liberal arts education.

But back to those questions: Have I answered the book question satisfactorily? Does it matter which book I choose, or are you more interested in what I say about it? Is it a litmus test or an opportunity to share some teaching philosophy? If the latter, why not just ask about my teaching philosophy? Because hoo boy, I could go on about that. And you would be mightily entertained and say to yourselves, lo, after reading CVs until our eyes crossed, we have at last found a wise and convivial colleague.

Oh, my dissertation? Yawn. That's like so three years ago. It's practically a book now. Let me tell you about it. There are no photos of rabbits, but part of one chapter features the woman who ran the San Diego Zoo for many years, and another showcases the professional savvy of Alice Eastwood, who was curator of botany for several decades at the California Academy of Sciences (yes, that Eastwood, the one who climbed six stories of iron banister to save the Academy's botanical type specimens in the hours between the earthquake and fire in 1906. The Eastwood whose account of said escapade I read in her own handwriting in a letter in the Smithsonian Institution archives, just as any real historian would!).

Maybe you'll wonder if I'm an historian of science, then, not really a public historian or a women's historian. Guess what? I'm all of the above. I know--isn't it great?

Here's where I explain how you're getting a great package deal when you hire me. You want a gender person. You want a U.S. history person. You want a public history person. My research into U.S. women scientists' lives and work led me to some really quite profound (IMHO) understandings of what it means to create knowledge and how that knowledge comes to be valued--or, too frequently, not valued, by various publics. I understand what play of forces allows for certain thinking and speaking subjects to emerge. I know how Eastwood's success required as much the adoration of the Bay Area flower enthusiasts as the respect of male botanists. Eastwood succeeded--many of the women scientists succeeded--because she was a public botanist, a public scientist. She democratized knowledge, and it paid off for her. Big time.

Are you seeing the parallels with public history? Networks of amateur historians/botanists, connected through complex webs to professional historians/botanists, all of whom value one another's knowledge as they collaborate on projects that neither group could complete on their own? I'm ready to propose public history collaborations--or maybe even digital humanities projects--with your local museums, cultural centers, and historical societies, which of course I can name because I'm just that terrific with the background research. (Ask me about their exhibition spaces' square footage!)

Let's talk interdisciplinary liberal arts pedagogy. In addition to developing my own graduate and undergraduate courses in five disciplines (literature, writing, American studies, museum studies, and education), I've spent the past three years assisting faculty from across the disciplines (yes, even in the sciences, because I'm just that open-minded) be more thoughtful about teaching. And even about teaching with technology. (Did you note those tech-in-teaching/teaching-in-tech conference presentations--nay, cross-institutional collaborations--on my CV?) If you want anecdotes, you're going to have to ask for them at the interview, but let's just say I have a really fantastic example from my classroom that in a single project considers digital archives, curatorship, material culture, museum exhibits, diverse publics, September 11, Muslim Americans, and a London Tube stop.

I'm interdisciplinary, an experienced researcher, and enthusiastic about teaching; I write well and consider teaching writing a core part of any course; and (because you may ask me about my greatest flaw) I've been criticized for being "democratic (small d) to the core." What more do you want in a colleague who does U.S. public history?

But wait--if you act now, you'll also get my thoughts and expertise on first-year seminars; my experience advising faculty on student learning outcomes and assessment at the course, departmental, and institutional level; and an insane willingness to serve on committees. (Again, check out that CV.)

Oh, and if you want to slyly let me know that you've been doing some sleuthing and have read this blog, simply work into your questions the phrase "Tell me about the rabbits." (Only this time, I promise a happy ending; I'll bring the marigolds.)



Yours in interdisciplinary collegiality and mixed metaphor,

Leslie M-B

9 comments:

Laura said...

They're crazy if they don't hire you! This is so awesome, I love it!

Bardiac said...

Wishing you well on the interview!

susan said...

Wishing you well, definitely!

Scrivener said...

I agree with Laura.

Karina said...

What a great post! It sounds like you're ready to kick some ass in that interview.

I also like to spread stuff over a big space when I think big, and I especially like to have a big dry erase board to draw on when I brainstorm. :-)

ArticulateDad said...

L, you're so damn charming, and just bustling with a plate full of hors d'oevres. I don't know if the interview went great, or like so many of my own ended in the disappointing realization that yes, in fact, they were interested in all those boring, off-the-point questions.

In the end, what I hope for you, is that you find that fertile ground to plant the seeds of your ideas. They are so worthy of blossoming, alongside the marigolds, garlic, and cashews. Damn the rabbits... full steam ahead!

Wishing you all the richest compost, with only the smallest helping of manure.

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grumpyabdadjunct said...

You rock, you inspiring interdisciplinarian you!

Anonymous said...

See you soon!