Monday, February 25, 2008

Putting on my historian's hat again, and shrugging off impostor syndrome

It's been too long since I've looked at my dissertation (requiescat in pace). If I'm going to get it revised and submitted to Interested University Press this spring, I must go back into the archives this week because the Cal Academy library is closing its doors for the museum's move to Golden Gate Park and it may not reopen until the fall.

It will be my first trip to the archives since I was pregnant with Lucas. Aside from my university's special collections, the Cal Academy archives were the first where I worked on "my" women scientists, and I had a bit of impostor syndrome to overcome. After all, I was getting a degree in cultural studies in a program very much oriented toward the contemporary era--what did I know about archival research? Who the hell did I think I was?

Fortunately, Fantastic Mentor gave me some tips on archival research* and some proposal-writing pointers--and shortly after starting my research at Cal Academy I was off to the Smithsonian Institutional Archives for three months. My mentor at SIA made my feel comfortable there, and I grew more confident as a researcher.

I finished my dissertation in 2006. I embarked on round 2 of a fruitless academic job search. Who was going to hire me, since I fell so neatly into the giant gaps between departments and disciplines? I turned instead to the staff side of academia, where I've been mostly content.

But I miss my women scientists. They were funny and sad and frustrated and kind. I miss their handwriting, their letters, the scraps of papers they saved. I miss Alice Eastwood's quips (to his face) about Jepson being an idiot. I even miss trying to read the ridiculously tiny Old German script in which Doris Holmes Blake wrote most of her diary entries.

I'm beginning to feel an impostor in the sense of has-been, even though I have never really been. It's an odd feeling. In my ideal-yet-vaguely-realistic world, I'd have my happy little staff job but with more time for really thoughtful writing, be it academic or in a more public history vein. Right now I don't have the time or energy for ambitious academic projects, but I'd like to redouble my efforts.

Tomorrow I shrug off this increasing sense of imposterdom and let myself be, if only for a few hours, a historian again. I'm hoping I find not only interesting old correspondence but new inspiration.

* My own top tips after a sojourn through many an American archive and library: Bring a pencil and a laptop, cash for copies, and a sweater. And know the manuscript box numbers when you walk in--it impresses the archivists and librarians. :)


Anonymous said...

I think we put far too much pressure on ourselves to feel authentic about what we're doing.

A few years ago, when I thought that maybe I could pass for a historian, I went to some lectures in environmental history at MIT. I definitely felt out of place, but in the end no one really caught on that I wasn't a historian.

So, just own it, and you'll be fine -- as always.

What Now? said...

I've probably asked you this before, but is this essentially a group biography of these women? It all just sounds so interesting! Renee Bergland has a book coming out next month on an antebellum woman astronomer that you might be interested in; I'm hoping to read it when it comes out as a model for what the biography I'm ostensibly writing might look like.