Tuesday, November 30, 2010


That's how many words I wrote outside of work in November. I ditched the idea of writing a novel in favor of working on some stuff for the relaunch of Fang's freelance operations. That word count includes a couple of ebooks in different drafty stages, the blog posts at that link, and the posts at The Clutter Museum. It's an unconventional way to participate in NaNoWriMo, but I know I'm not alone in attempting to write 50,000 nonfiction words.

When I verified my word count with NaNoWriMo tonight, I was given the opportunity to download this little banner.

Yay me.

On winter fashion

Brrrrrrrrrr! It's been cold here; a few days ago it was hovering in the single digits. It's back up to 30 degrees now, but there's more snow coming down. With the snow already on the ground, we'll probably wake up to 7 or 8 inches of snow tomorrow morning. It'll make for a white-knuckle, icy drive down the hill to preschool and campus.

Is it any wonder, then, that a pair of these Timberland boots, which arrived in the mail yesterday, are among my new favorite things?

I adore them.

They're a lot more practical than the peep-toe stilettos I saw a woman wearing today on campus when it was snowing and about 25 degrees. And they keep my legs warm, unlike the leggings I keep seeing women students wear without pants or skirts. This look, I might point out, is much appreciated by some of the 50- through 70-something men on campus; I've seen them turn around or cock their heads to leer at undergraduate ass on half a dozen occasions since it became cold and the leggings made their debut.

And so, a couple of public service messages for the local undergrads:

Again: Idaho, you're welcome.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Faith

BrightStar blogged recently about wanting to re-embrace her faith. She wrote, "the very idea of trying and trying and not finding what I am seeking scares me."

Her short post resonated with me. I haven't written much here about faith because it's a hugely difficult thing for me to talk about. It's like several skeins of yarn all tangled together, each strand representing some years-long line of thought.

Among the strands:

- My early experiences with religion. When I was a small child, my parents attended with some regularity a Presbyterian church whose Sunday school teachings were largely inscrutable to me. When I was in the middle of elementary school, we began attending a local Congregational (later UCC) church. The Christian ed there made more sense to me, but the theology still didn't jibe with my understanding of the world. So in junior high I stopped attending church, and I considered myself an atheist. Maybe my conception of God was too narrow, but I just couldn't see the workings of a divine being in the world.

- Politics. The loudest Christian voices in this country are absolutely repellent to me. The homophobia in particular is unconscionable. (Note: I know there are plenty of queer Christians and queer allies among Christians. I'm talking here about the usual suspects we see in the mainstream media, OK?)

- My own long-term commitment to pacifism, plus a frustration with the American conflation of god with country and the resulting unthinking patriotism and jingoism.

And yet, despite my distaste for religion and my lack of belief in anything resembling the Christian god, I have retained some confidence in what might be called the soul--by which I mean not something that goes to heaven or hell once we shuffle off this mortal coil, but rather something profoundly human that at the same time transcends our everyday humanity--the essence that drives the best art, makes love possible, and allows us to empathize with people very unlike ourselves.

I am, it appears, an atheist with an abiding belief in the soul.

As you might imagine, there's not a lot of room for someone with my beliefs in the religious practices, and especially the Christian denominations, most common among Americans.

And yet I feel moved at this time to write something about my search for a welcoming spiritual practice.

* * *

In the fall of 2004, I was a graduate fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, and I found housing that was affordable, safe, and within walking distance of the National Mall in the form of the Young Women's Christian Home, a (theoretically) nonsectarian residence. I learned a lot about conservative American Christianity from my dorm mates during my three months there, and I had a lot of interesting conversations about faith and politics.

Sometimes "interesting" also meant troubling. At one new friend's invitation, I attended Baptist Bible study on Wednesday nights, an experience that underscored for me the delusions of fundamentalism based on "close readings" of the Bible. Let's just say that polysemy never occurred to these folks, and questions that suggested the possibility of multiple interpretations were not exactly welcome.

On Sunday mornings, the YWCH emptied as most of the women went to church, and frankly, after all of my nodding during dinner conversations with young conservatives and listening to one particular Baptist minister persuade his flock that the second coming of Christ will look like an atomic bomb blast and seeing the congregants imagine the schadenfreude the newly raptured would feel when that day finally arrived, I needed to cleanse.

My childhood best friend was Quaker, so when I was looking for someplace to be on Sunday morning, perhaps it's not surprising that I found myself walking from the Metro station in Dupont Circle, up Connecticut Avenue toward the neighborhood of ambassadorial residences that surrounded the Washington, D.C. Friends meetinghouse.

* * *

I had been reading a couple of books by Shelby Spong, who writes in Why Christianity Must Change or Die, "Institutional Christianity seems fearful of inquiry, fearful of freedom, fearful of knowledge--indeed, fearful of anything except its own repetitious propaganda, which has its origins in a world that none of us any longer inhabits." This really resonated with me, as did Spong's explanation in A New Christianity for a New World of his own beliefs. Spong is a former Episcopal bishop who, according to the first chapter of this book, is a Christian. Yet, as he writes,
I do not define God as a supernatural being. I do not believe in a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a loved one's sickness, allow a particular athletic team to defeat its opponent, or affect the weather for anyone's benefit. I do not think it is appropriate for me to pretend that those things are possible when everything I know about the natural order of the world I inhabit proclaims they are not.
Spong writes that because he does not see God as a supernatural being, he cannot claim the divinity of Jesus, nor his virgin birth, miracles, or resurrection. He continues,
I do not believe that this Jesus founded a church or that he established an ecclesiastical hierarchy beginning with the twelve apostles and enduring to this day. I do not believe that he created sacraments as a special means of grace or that these means of grace are, or can be, somehow controlled by the church, and thus are to be presided over only by the ordained. All of these things represent to me attempts on the part of human beings to accrue power for themselves and their particular religious institution.
As I read on, and learned that Spong espouses feminist, antiracist, and queer-friendly stances on civil and human rights, I uttered an involuntary amen.

One more bit from Spong:
The primary question I seek to raise in this book is this: Can a person claim with integrity to be a Christian and at the same time dismiss, as I have done, so much of what has traditionally defined the content of the Christian faith? Would I be wiser and more honest if I were to do what so many others in my generation have done--namely , resign from my membership in this faith-system of my forebears? . . . . In the eyes of many, both in the Christian church and in the secular society, it would. . .have represented an act of integrity. It would not, however, have been honest, nor would it have been true to my deepest convictions. My problem has never been my faith. It has always been the literal way that human beings have chosen to articulate that faith.
Dude was an Episcopal bishop. He knows whereof he speaks, and I suspect he knows to whom he speaks, that his audience is a very large one.

I'm definitely a member of that audience. I'm open to Christian philosophies of empathy (walking a mile in another person's shoes), forgiveness and nonviolence (turn the other cheek), and deep caring for people who are unlike oneself. I don't see sufficient embrace or application of such philosophies in the many, many church services I have attended across the Christian spectrum.

So I wouldn't call myself a Christian. Maybe Christianish, though even that makes me uneasy because I find nauseating what passes for Christian discourse in the American political sphere.

* * *

Back in the fall of 2004, I found myself spending increasing amounts of time on the Friends General Conference website. The overview I found there of Quaker belief was reassuring. I don't remember if the website had the same content then as it does now, but these questions in particular interested me:
  • Are you seeking haven in a world which may not be in pace with your needs?
  • Do you wish to join with us to help in finding ways to implement the historic peace testimony of Friends "to oppose all wars and preparation for wars? "
  • Do you wish to discover how you, as an individual, can help to create a better world?
  • Do you seek a religious home, without creeds or required statements of belief?
  • Do you desire to wait upon God in an expectant silence without the presence of intermediaries?
  • Are you looking for meaningful spiritual community?
Aside from the primary testimonies of the Friends—simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and care for the earth—perhaps what most attracts me to Friends is their willingness not to always have an answer at hand. I've found other Christians and pseudo-Christians, when asked a question they cannot answer, turn to the Bible, a book that has never really spoken to me. Friends, on the other hand, will sit with something for a while, individually and communally, listening to the wisps of God within themselves and reflecting on what they hear. I also appreciate that, at least in the strand of Quaker practice that most appeals to me, they don't have a theology of heaven or hell; instead, they focus on this life, on this world. Theirs is a faith, it seems to me, rooted in contemporary concerns and with practices that allow for dynamic engagement with the world rather than judgment of it based on static creeds.

* * *

At the moment, I have many things I'd just like to sit with in silence.

* * *
This past Sunday I attended the local unprogrammed Friends meeting. There were only nine of us in the room, which is a bit small for my taste, but we just about filled the room at the local literary center where the meeting gathers. The meeting last Sunday was a completely silent one, and afterward, instead of people shaking hands as I've seen elsewhere, we joined hands in a circle and shared our thoughts on the previous week.

I met some very interesting people, and I intend to go back, but since there weren't any other kids there, I'm not sure how I'll handle the Lucas situation. I do want to raise Lucas with Quaker values, and establish his dedication to the peace testimony--assuming he chooses to embrace it--so that if there's a time when he needs to be a conscientious objector, he'll have a long personal history to draw upon.

I haven't said anything here about Fang, but he's shown some interest in Quaker values, but I know that he and I don't always tune into the same faith wavelength, so we'll see if he joins me in my latest experimentation with faith.

I'm still uneasy writing about faith in this space, because as I said, I'm an atheist, and I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking I'm opening my heart to their particular conception of Jesus, or that I'm open to proselytizing or evangelism. I wouldn't say I feel as if there's something missing in my life so much as I feel there's something there that I haven't adequately addressed.

What about you? What are the things you're uncomfortable writing about? And how did you find yourself where you are in your particular faith journey?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Corrupting Idaho's preschoolers, one classroom at a time

Lucas has gotten waaaay into spelling lately. Since the letters of the week at his preschool are "O" and "Q," on the way into school this morning, he was asking me how to spell "Q" words. We spelled "queen," and then Lucas spelled "queer."

"Mommy, what does 'queer' mean?"

I explained that queer has a couple meanings he should know and provided the definitions, emphasizing once again that some men love men, and some women love women, and that some kids have two mommies and some have two daddies.

Fast-forward 9 hours. I walk into his preschool classroom to find Lucas sitting at a table with two other little boys and a classroom aide. One of the little boys flashes a peace sign at me.

"Some dudes," he says excitedly, "love dudes, and that's OK."

My work is done here. I can move back to California now, yes?

You're welcome, Idaho.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


My therapists have never liked it when I used the word "manic" to describe my better moods. I don't mean it in the clinical way they understand it, though; I suppose a better term for what I experience is "project-manic." It's a state where, for a week to a couple of months, I am intensely focused on getting things done in a particular aspect of my life--maybe it's a creative project, maybe it's work stuff, and too infrequently it's cleaning and organizing the house.

This time my project-manic phase is centered around work. After years of not submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal (see: full-time staff job, adjuncting, and motherhood), I've submitted two in the past month, both distillations of stuff from my dissertation. So I'm feeling pretty good about that. And I have most of the material I need, I think, for the next article, but it's probably going to take me a couple of months to write it. Still, submitting three articles in a year is pretty damn miraculous for me. Fingers crossed that they meet with sufficient acceptance.

My application was also just was accepted to participate in a program about teaching and learning with mobile devices. I proposed a project for my applied history grad course next semester, and I'm excited to see how that works out.

In other news:
  • Lucas is learning to spell. He's been writing and typing his classmates' names, and every day he comes home able to spell more of them from memory. He's also been drawing a ton of fun stuff. Here's one Fang and I have dubbed "Fat Elvis":
  • Jake the puppy (9 months old) now weighs at least 100 pounds. Here's a photo of him from about a month ago (photo by Lucas!), as well as a picture that puts his paws in scale--I have pretty big hands for a woman.

  • I'm glad I bought that extra ice scraper last week.
  • Good god even small oak trees have a lot of leaves, as do whatever kind of trees those two in the front yard are.
  • Living indoors too much, and wearing scarves when I'm outside, turns my skin back into a teenager's--and not in a good way. As I've pointed out before, developing wrinkles and battling acne simultaneously is not fucking fair.
  • Lucas is going through a pink stage. He frequently comments on what a pretty color it is, and he's declared he doesn't want to wear his black knit cap with the silver Spider-Man logo on it because he wants to get a multicolored hat that is mostly pink. On the one hand, I'm glad he hasn't yet been swayed by some of the most basic gender norming processes, but I also worry what the other kids will say to him if he wears a hot pink hat to preschool. (I have memories of one particular day in my own kindergarten experience when a boy and I wore the same style of red shorts with white stripes down the side, and I was told repeatedly by the boys that I was wearing "boy shorts." Such comments were really tough for 5-year-old me to handle, and Lucas is that age now.)
  • I'm helping Fang reestablish his freelancing practice, which means much projectizing at home (after Lucas falls asleep) on top of my work-work. With the pay cut I took to come here, I should probably pick up some freelancing or consulting work, too.
  • I changed my NaNoWriMo project to writing a couple ebooks for Fang and the biz; the cheesy Jefferson time-travel project will have the wait until at least the summer.
  • It appears most of my lower-division students can't write a research question to save their lives, even after much coaching about what makes a good question. My faves are all along the lines of "Did the Civil War have a good or bad effect on the United States?" and "How did the California gold rush change life in the entire U.S. from then until today?" Needless to say, tomorrow's class will include more coaching so that I don't have to read 50 really really really really REALLY lousy papers.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Uncomfortable, and aspirational, conferencing

I'm attending a regional women's history conference right now. It resembles pretty closely many of the conferences I've attended. As a women's historian and feminist, it's pretty common for me to find myself at conferences where 85 to 90 percent of the participants are women, and even a higher percentage are white, with a majority (or nearly so) nearing retirement age or older.

I have a great deal of affection for such women—perhaps because I expect to be one of them in 30 years.

Yet there's something about these conferences that always leaves me a little bit cold. I often feel as if I've stepped back in time 20 or 25 years, as these conferences are very second-wave feminist—and it's not just because the women attending cut their feminist teeth in the 60s and 70s. It's because these conferences remind me that so much second-wave work has yet to be done in K-16 history education (and yet I'm beyond ready to move on). Many of my U.S. history survey students say they never had to consider women's history or black history or Chicano history in their K-12 years, and education-focused panels at this conference have reminded me that it's not just Idaho students who aren't engaging with women's history—students in much more progressive states are still getting mostly privileged-white-male history.

At the same time, if you drop me down into a more third-wave conference packed with feminists of color or with a more queer sensibility, I'd be equally uncomfortable. The cultural studies Ph.D. in me thinks they're fighting the good fight and that American society is waaaaay behind the curve in terms of civil rights, but my inner second-wave, white woman history educator also realizes that, in education at least, we haven't adequately set the foundation for such work.

So, for example, on my midterm for my U.S. history survey a couple weeks ago, I told the students they would have an opportunity to answer a question about the three greatest challenges to women's advancement in colonial and early federal America. We had just read Clarence Walker's book Mongrel Nation, and we had watched bits of documentaries addressing Jefferson and slavery. I even pointed out that slavery was a barrier to advancement for all American women. And yet fewer than half the students who addressed that question placed slavery in their top three challenges. Black women weren't even on their radar when they answered the question—even when the question itself asked them to be sure to consider women of color.

* * *

I don't mean to criticize conferences of the second-wave or third-wave persuasion. Rather, I'm trying to express my discomfort with both of them.

I'm also trying to find a way to articulate—in the sense of bones and joints, as well as of language—my own theoretical and methodological and physical space in the field of American women's history. And I need to do so in the next, oh, six hours, as I'm stepping in for a more senior colleague from another institution when I sit on a roundtable this afternoon. And hoo boy, do I ever have a sense of impostor syndrome.

When I agreed to participate in the roundtable, I didn't look closely enough at the timing and the participants. I didn't realize it was the closing plenary with a couple hundred women's historians in the audience, and I certainly didn't realize that some giants of women's history in the U.S. west would be sitting on the panel. I also didn't realize the focus would be primarily on women's history in Washington state, which is a topic with which I'm only passingly familiar. When I saw the long list of questions the moderator suggested we might address in the panel, I had a tiny panic attack.

But someone has to be the most junior person on the panel, so why not me?

I'm thinking, therefore, that my small contribution to the roundtable is likely to be methodological. I suspect if I can stave off further panic attacks on the dais, I'll be pushing (gently) for a democratization of public history, specifically for more innovative and participatory digital history projects. The subjects of public history projects are becoming more populist—for example, yesterday an architectural historian discussed attempts to get National Historic Landmark status for sites of queer struggle or sites significant in labor history. However, I'm not seeing—and maybe I'm just not looking in the right places—projects in which historians are, borrowing a couple of pedagogical terms, guides on the side rather than sages on the stage. Even many oral history projects make me uneasy on this account. I'll have more to say on this topic, I suspect, in the coming months and years, but for now I'll end with this question: How do you think we ought to go about increasing public interest in, engagement with, and initiation of history projects? Which is more important, broadly speaking, in increasing engagement—a project's subject or its methods?

Monday, November 01, 2010

NaNoWriMo, Day 1

This NaNoWriMo stuff is fun, folks. Crazy fun. I wrote 1824 words tonight.

Here's an excerpt from chapter 1 of what I'm terming my shitty first draft*:
She never expected to find herself here. Raised in an unfashionable part of Long Beach—and, really, wasn’t that most of the city? she asked herself now—she was the first person in her family to go to college, and she surprised everyone by moving across the country to write a dissertation on federal America. She had interned at Colonial Williamsburg and regularly played the part of a Spanish visitor to Virginia’s first capital. Her first book, on the intersection of race and gender at Jefferson’s Monticello, had been published only a year ago, but Dr. Bryant had called her two days after Amazon began shipping the text. A fellowship, Bryant promised. A year or two in California, near Jane’s aging parents and her darling nieces and nephews—most importantly, a year or two away from Pocatello, where the roulette wheel of the tenure-track job market had landed Jane seven years earlier. Jane thought of the job market as more like the Peace Corps, really—you go where you’re needed, even if that’s Tulsa or Vermillion or Fresno or Pocatello.

Again her poorly metered limerick ran through her head:
There once was a prof from Pocatello
Who had to subsist on orange Jell-O.
She had to slim down
to fit in that gown
to meet the sage of. . .
Ugh, the rhythm was terrible. She had been an English major before veering into the even less employable field of history, so when the anapests didn’t scan, she felt as if she had just raked her teeth across the dry skin of a pear—it set her teeth on edge and sent pins and needles down her spine.

And now she was headed toward that final rhyme. . . or so she hoped. Sort of. How could she know, really? She had make the mistake of recently watching Galaxy Quest, and so had seen the space pig teleported to the ship inside out, a steaming pile of quivering ribs. Eliza had assured her that with Bryant’s funding and her team’s brilliance, their journey would be completely safe. But still. . .

Jane shoved her hands in her pockets. The clonozepam jiggled reassuringly in its smooth plastic bottle.

* Many participants in NaNoWriMo recommend not doing any editing at all. I'm taking their advice to heart, so please excuse the mess.