Friday, March 26, 2010

Here we go again. . .

I'm visiting my family in Long Beach, and Fang knew there was a giant hole in my heart because of Obi's absence. So he got me an insanely adorable band-aid:

And yes, I know it's mildly insane. But. . . is he not delectable? You're looking at 10 cute weeks of Golden Retriever/Lab mix. He came with the name "Jacob," and since we're LOST fans, we may just keep it.

It's driving me crazy that I won't be able to meet him until Sunday evening.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Very Personal Ad: The Next Dog

I. Background

If you have been following Fang's and my posts about returning our dog of almost two years to the SPCA, you can imagine that Fang and I are pretty damn torn up right now.

We both miss Obi terribly, as we did love the dog; as Fang says, Obi is 7/8 a good dog. It's the 1/8 we couldn't abide. Intellectually, we know we made the right decision, as we couldn't keep a dog with a bite history in the house with our four-year-old. And Obi will benefit from being in a situation with someone who has experience dealing with troubled dogs. But emotionally, well, let's just say we've cried a river, separately and together.

I explained to Fang that I'm having an especially hard time with losing Obi not only because I feel we failed him in some fundamental way, but also because my grief clock for dogs is set at 10- to 15-year intervals. And Woody left us less than two years ago. To lose two dogs in less than two years is more than I can bear right now, when so much else in my life is in flux.

That said, Fang and I are dog people. We've both always had dogs around, from the time we were born--though I took a hiatus during college and early grad school, I was always thrilled to return home to my parents' dog. Until Obi, we had both had nothing but good experiences with raising and caring for dogs.

Between the time we decided to return Obi to the SPCA and the day Fang actually signed the frightened dog over to the volunteers there, I asked Fang to be open to the idea of us getting another dog before we move to Boise during the summer. I said I would be more open to letting Obi go if we were open to having another rescue dog come into our lives. I feel we have built up some karma that we need to work off by making a lifelong commitment to another dog as soon as possible.

Fang was hesitant. But yesterday he admitted that he's having a hard time living with the latest dog-shaped hole shadowing us around the house.

We're not rushing out to get another dog. We're still grieving. But we're open to the possibility of another rescue dog.

That said, we realized we went about adopting Obi in just the wrong way. Adopting a dog when you have a small child is entirely different from adopting a dog if your kids are older or if you're living alone or as a couple. We fell in love with Obi's sweetness and cuteness and then focused on persuading the SPCA folks that we would be a terrific home for the dog. And we totally thought we would be great doggy parents to him--we answered everything truthfully on the application.

What we now know is that we need to approach adoption differently. We need to explain to rescue organizations that we are an ideal home for a particular kind of dog and be very clear about exactly what kind of dog we're looking for. In other words, we need the rescue organization to sell us on the dog rather than sell ourselves to the organization.

Undoubtedly many of you are saying duuuuuuhhhhhhh.

Lesson learned. Paradigm shifted.

II. A Very Personal Ad

Havi Brooks has a ritual of posting "very personal ads" (VPAs) as a way of letting the universe know she's open to good things happening--and helping herself think through how the things she wants might come to pass. She explains it like this:’s time to make a regular practice of trying to feel okay asking for stuff.

Even when the asking thing feels weird and conflicted.

To get everything clear in my mind about our next dog--to be sure we aren't making the same kind of mistakes that hurt us and a sensitive animal--I'm writing my own VPA here.

Here’s what I want:

A medium-large, friendly dog without a bite history. I'm open to many breeds, but because we plan to rent in Boise and because many rental companies and landlords are biased against certain breeds, we can't at this time take in any dog that looks as if it's of pit bull, Rottweiler, Chow Chow, or Shar Pei stock, nor a purebred German Shepherd (though I love me some German Shepherd). I know these aren't necessarily the most violent or bite-prone breeds of dog, but I do know they show up regularly on lists of banned pets in rentals.

My ideal dog--while I'm asking--would inhabit an intersection among Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, Golden Retriever, Standard Poodle, and maybe even Gordon Setter. These are crazy active and in some cases crazy smart dogs, but that's what we wanted in Obi--and what we got, except with a predisposition to bite, gained, we're guessing, from some incident(s) in his life in the year before we adopted him.

Because we went through the geriatric dog business relatively recently, we're looking for a younger dog. Fang would like a very young puppy so that we can be sure it hasn't been environmentally programmed in some unpleasant way, while I'm more open to juvenile and young adult dogs.

I want a dog who will grow up with Lucas. Fang wants a dog with whom he can go gray. I want a companion for long walks and--gasp!--maybe even jogging.

Ways this could work:

I could check Petfinder occasionally, scanning for dogs that fit the profile we're looking for, then contacting the rescue organizations to talk about what kind of dog we're looking for and about what kind of home we could provide.

Someone in the Sacramento region or Bay Area or, heck, even central or Southern California could read this post and contact me (trillwing -at- gmail -dot- com or @lesliemb on Twitter) about a dog they suspect would be good match for us.

My commitment:

To provide the next dog with the best possible care. Top-quality food (as we did with Woody and Obi). An excellent holistic vet, here and in Boise. A terrific kid to play with. Long walks, sometimes in open fields. Socialization with other dogs at local dog parks. Lots of toys, even if he or she is prone to tearing them apart. Training that focuses on reward instead of punishment. A bag of treats always on top of the fridge or in my pocket.

Sweet doggie, wherever you are, we'll be ready when you are.

Photo credits, all licensed under Creative Commons:
Himalayan Sheepdog by sir_watkyn
Australian Shepherd by Xan Lotta
Four dogs by Sarah Novak

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Doggy heartbreak, continued

I'm really struggling with giving up the dog.

My motives for wanting to keep the dog are almost entirely selfish and self-centered:

Obi is my dog. He's the first dog that someone (in this case Fang, who was fed up with Obi at the moment) declared to be entirely mine. I've always wanted a dog of my own--I've always come into situations where someone else is responsible for the dog--yet Fang has already said that the next dog will be Lucas's as the boy and the dog will grow up together.

I'm the one who failed Obi. I took him to obedience classes--where, as I said, even the trainer had difficulty controlling him--but I didn't follow through sufficiently. Had I been better about providing Obi with structured outlets for his energy and with more vigorous exercise, his psychological quirks might not have manifested themselves so readily.

I'm having a hard time, too, forgiving the people who brought Obi's aggression to our attention. He bit a friend when we first brought him home because he smelled her dog on her, and while I found that disturbing, I dismissed it when he didn't try to bite again for a year and a half. It's the more recent incidents--the woman whose glove he clamped down when she reached out to pet him when he was under a dog sitter's care; the stranger at whom Obi lunged and air snapped when he reached out to pet him while Fang was walking him; the neighbor whose dog bit Fang, leaving her scent on his hand and prompting Obi, too, to bite Fang. If these incidents hadn't occurred, we wouldn't be parting with the dog now. Intellectually, I know these are signs we must heed, and that the people aren't at fault, that Obi is and ultimately we are responsible for his behavior. But I still resent the intrusions of these well-meaning folks into Obi's narrative.

I love this dog, liabilities and all. Just as Woody was Fang's emotional barometer, Obi has come to be mine, coming to comfort and cuddle with me when I'm down or approaching me playfully when I'm in a good mood or if I seem bored.

I don't want to put Fang in the position of having to pry the dog from my arms at 2 p.m. Saturday, when we're scheduled to return Obi to the SPCA for another round of fostering and then, I hope, adoption to another home. But it's going to be incredibly difficult to let his fur slip from my fingers even though I know intellectually it's the right thing to do.

I've been in and out of tears all week, many of them shed directly into Obi's fur. So many what-ifs. So many missed opportunities. Such an uncertain future. A dog's hard-earned trust betrayed. So much love lost.

I'm going to miss you, dog.

We are not curators

There's been a ton of talk over the past year about how participating in social media—whether through blogging, social bookmarking, Twitter, Flickr, or whatever—can be a form of curatorial practice.

And I totally get the appeal of that particular metaphor. In fact, I understand that some people mean to use it in a very literal way, in the sense that they see themselves as imposing a welcome order or useful narrative on a very unwieldy collection of internet artifacts. I've seen some people I think are absolutely brilliant using the term this way.

Those who know me well know I don't roll out my Ph.D. lightly. But as an (OK, adjunct) professor of museum studies and soon-to-be assistant professor of public history, I have to call bullshit on this one. As a lover of metaphor and as a poet who embraces all the possibilities of metaphor, I completely expect commenters to tell me to loosen up in this case. In fact, I suspect I'll come across as a snob. But really, this distinction—what is curating, what very much isn't—matters tremendously.

Educators with some facility in social media have become particularly fond of the term. But education isn't curating. Curating isn't education. In fact, in many museums, curators and educators are, alas, at odds with one another. Traditionally, curators have developed a depth of expertise in a content area over years of study, while educators tend—and yes, I know I'm generalizing here—to be younger folks with less education and experience. Education positions have a ton of turnover, a ton of burnout; curatorial positions come with more prestige and a sense of ownership of a position, sort of like tenure. Curators have at least a master's degree and frequently a Ph.D. Educators have undergraduate degrees and increasingly, in this era of incredible competition for jobs, master's degrees.

I don't mean to imply that curators are above the fray, that they hold themselves at arm's length from education. But their function is different. Curation is not a process of choosing the best resources to help other people learn. It's much, much more, and to suggest that social bookmarking, sharing links via Twitter, or using an internet platform's algorithm to help you determine which songs belong on your internet radio station is curation is ridiculous. Differentiating among things you like and dislike, or resources that you think are good or bad, and then sharing those opinions with people as a collection of internet or educational resources, is not curation.

When people talk about "curating" via social media, they're really talking about filtering, and curators do so much more than filter. You can't, I'm afraid to inform Robert Scoble, just "click to curate." In fact, the absence of talented curators makes a given educational context degenerate, in newcurator's most excellent formulation, to reality television.

Educators also do more than filter. They translate the curator's research and expertise into small bites digestible by the general public or schoolchildren. This is a talent unto itself, and—speaking as a former museum educator and exhibition developer—it's not easy to develop because informal learning diverges so spectacularly from what we're all taught is supposed to happen in formal educational settings.

The conflation of a combination of sharing, digital resource connoisseurship, and online teaching and learning with a form of curation not only devalues the actual practice of curation—and by extension the time, effort, and passion it takes to develop sufficient expertise to become a curator—but also obscures the skills we hone as we navigate sharing on the social web.

We need a new term for folks who are developing (or who have already developed) the depth of expertise that marks curatorial work, but who also practice the distinctive forms of teaching and learning engendered by the social web. It's not exactly edupunk, and it's not museopunk.

In my mind, the people—and particularly academics—who occupy this space practice Keats's "negative capability": they are "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." By this I mean they get the tension—apparent to anyone who has planned a college course or an exhibition—between helping students or visitors develop content expertise and giving them opportunities to think critically and creatively. Doing both of these things simultaneously—cultivating expertise and promoting real intellectual development and discernment—is incredibly difficult to do from a lectern or via exhibition label. The social web, like a provocatively interactive museum exhibition, offers new possibilities for this kind of participation in, and service to, the world.

California Academy of Sciences botanical curator Alice Eastwood standing on the scarp of the San Andreas Fault, 1906. Eastwood was both a curator and an educator.

What we call that exciting—and dare I say disruptive?— role is open to discussion and debate. Kindly leave your witty neologisms in the comments.

Update: Just saw this article on the new curators in the New York Times, which in some ways undermines my argument and in other ways reinforces that curating is its own special skill set. An excerpt:

It is also a group plugged in to all areas of museum life. They don’t simply organize exhibitions, they also have a hand in fund-raising and public relations, catalog production and installation. “The old-fashioned notion of a curator was that of a connoisseur who made discoveries and attributions,” said Scott Rothkopf, 33, who is the latest full-time curator to join the Whitney Museum of American Art’s team. “A lot of that work has already been done. The younger generation is trained to think differently, to think more about ideas.”

Sunday, March 14, 2010

More doggy heartbreak

Of the countless topics I don't address in this space, there's one that should count more than others: the matter of the dog. After all, in July we will have had this dog for two years, and yet he hardly appears in these bloggy pages at all.

There's a big reason for that: he's a biter, or to be fair, more regularly an attempted biter. We've kept him in check, thank god, and we've tried our damndest to break him of this habit he brought with him from his former life. But I didn't want to write about it here because (a) it's embarrassing and (b) I didn't want to put anything in writing, lest he actually bite someone--I didn't want evidence that I had prior knowledge of his aggressive tendencies.

We've had some close calls. Because he looks so damn friendly, people try to pet him when we're out walking, and he inevitably lunges at them. On walks, I carry a muzzle in my back pocket for that exact reason. We worked for a while with a trainer whose advice helped quite a bit, but during obedience class even she had difficulty controlling him, once mentioning that he seemed to be "on crack" and telling us to drug him with Benadryl before training sessions. (We never did drug him, preferring to try to wear him out first.) When we have friends over, we have to crate Obi and put him in a room away from the action because he's both anxious and territorial.

Obi has come a long way, but not far enough. This past week Obi crossed a big, fat line: he bit my husband. You can read a first-person account at Fang's blog.

Accordingly, we're seeking a new home for Obi, one with someone who has more time and energy to devote to this crazy high-energy and clearly troubled dog--and more importantly, one without kids around. Preferably on a farm. Upstate. With rabbits. And no--I don't mean for that to be a euphemism for euthanasia. I looked up information about dog bites, and it appears dogs that produce the kind of bite Obi gave Fang can usually be rehabilitated. I really think this dog, who is bright but with a couple screws loose from being passed around (we are his third owners that we know of), would with some rigorous training make an excellent working dog. He's really well-behaved when I walk him off-leash in the fields and even is a gentleman when I've been brave enough to take him to the dog park.

But in the house? In the yard? On the leash? A totally different dog. Almost feral.

The good news is when we adopted him from the SPCA, the organization said we could return the dog at any time. I've e-mailed the folks there and asked them to contact me to discuss Obi's future. I want to be absolutely sure he doesn't go to a home with kids, and I may even mail a registered, notarized letter to that effect when we hand him back to the SPCA folks.

I feel terribly guilty and depressed, because in my experience with pets, adoption is a lifelong commitment, and I feel as if we've failed this dog. And despite his quirks and his destructiveness and how much he frustrates me, I do love the beast.

If we didn't have a four-year-0ld kid, we'd redouble our efforts, as after all we are dog people: We could do more obedience classes. Get him on calming drugs, maybe some Eastern medicine from our fabulous holistic veterinarian. Have more one-on-one sessions with a trainer. Exercise him for hours each day so that he's completely worn out when he's around the house and other people. But at this point in our lives, we can't have an unpredictable dog in the house.

It's absolutely breaking my heart.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Getting the job

I've been wanting to write something about process of landing the history job, to reflect a bit on my experiences over the past several years, both to make the narrative clear to myself and because maybe--though I know the job market is prone to brutal whimsy--doing so will help someone else seeking a tenure-track job.

I wince a bit as I write this, as I know some folks from my new university will read this post, and my accounting of events may seem really skewed and possibly inaccurate and narcissistic. But such concerns have never before stopped me, eh?

So, a quick accounting of my intellectual and professional life, in case you haven't bothered to piece together my life story by browsing the 4.5 years of posts in The Clutter Museum archives:
  • I earned a B.A. in English in 1997.
  • I earned an M.A. in English/creative writing (poetry!) in 1998.
  • I worked for a year outside academia.
  • I started dating Fang, and a week later moved to Iowa to pursue a Ph.D. in American Studies.
  • The following spring, Fang wooed me back to California, where I worked outside academia for another year, and I applied to one grad program, sort of on a lark.
  • I started a Ph.D. in cultural studies at UC Davis in 2001.
  • I finished my dissertation in 2006.
  • I went on the academic job market in four of the five years between being ABD and now. During that time, I applied for about 100 jobs, mostly in academia. The only interviews I had were on the edges of the academy: to manage the public history and public science programs for a city, to direct a new teaching center (a position that came with a tenure-track job), and to direct professional development opportunities for staff and volunteers at a consortium of 23 museums and cultural institutions. It was clear from the day I spent touring the city with the other candidates that I wasn't as qualified as they were for first job, the second job was closed due to lack of funding, and the third went to an internal candidate.
  • Meanwhile, I worked as a pedagogy consultant in academic technology and then transferred into my current job, where I am--I kid you not--"Assistant to the _______ I" in a teaching center. I've spent much of the past 3+ years consulting with faculty on teaching with and without technology.
So that's the standard narrative, the one you'd get if you looked at my CV or handed me a glass of wine and asked me about the academic job market for a Ph.D. in cultural studies.

But there's another narrative, one that is less obvious but, I think, more relevant. In this version of events, my graduate program did nothing to prepare me for the realities of the job market. Instead, a little intellectual and technological curiosity propelled me to the point I'm at today.

In fall 2005, I started this blog, and in January 2006, I became a contributing editor for research, academia, and education at BlogHer.

In 2006, I also attended the BlogHer conference in San José. There I met three women whose blogs I was already reading: Barbara Sawhill (of Oberlin), Barbara Ganley (then of Middlebury), and Laura Blankenship (then of Bryn Mawr). Individually, these women are amazing. Together, they are awesome. We hooked up with Martha Burtis from the University of Mary Washington (one of my erstwhile almost-almae matres) and began talking about teaching in technology, about the strictures of course management systems and the possibilities of social media. We took our show on the road, presenting moderating conversations and doodle fests at education and technology conferences. Inspired by the Barbaras, Martha, and Laura, I experimented with technology in my teaching and became, well, maybe a little too comfortable with it. But I definitely became more conversant in educational technology than most folks who teach undergrads, and it helped me tremendously in my professional development on both the academic and staff sides of my higher ed career.

Also in 2006, I started a blog about museums. It drew the attention of the director of a museum studies graduate program about an hour down the road. She remembered my name from a question I asked on a museum history listserv a few years earlier, and apparently she had been cyberstalking me until I finished my Ph.D. When I had the degree in hand, she contacted me and asked if I would teach the history and theory course. What I didn't tell her is that I was actually thinking about enrolling in the program. When she went on sabbatical in winter and spring quarters of 2009, I oversaw the students' Master's theses.

At the teaching center, I taught a nine-week seminar in college teaching once a year to grad students and postdocs. I consulted with faculty across the disciplines. I chaired committees for the teaching center and was invited to be on ones outside the center. I then began to receive invitations to chair those committees. I am not a natural networker, and all of these experiences have been invaluable in making me comfortable speaking with faculty and administrators (OK, being a print journalist for several months in 1999 also helped, because I had to learn to pick up the phone and call just about anyone).

I also continued to benefit from mentoring by my dissertation adviser and, later, from coaching by a history professor who was on my dissertation committee. Their generosity with their time and advice has been invaluable in more ways than I can enumerate here. The director of the museum studies program also passed a couple opportunities my way when she was too busy to handle them herself, which resulted in (and I know this sounds weird, but it's oddly true) a very well-placed encyclopedia article.

I also submitted an article to a journal that ended up being a pretty respectable venue, and it was published there this past summer. I must admit that once I had narrowed my choices to three journals, I went with the one whose citation system matched that of my dissertation. I had a toddler, a full-time job, and an adjunct gig, and I was looking for any possible way to save time. I was fortunate that in this case such a decision worked in my favor.

I've been thinking about my professional experience as falling on two tracks: the traditional path to the job market and the unconventional one.

Traditional path:
  • Ph.D. (but with a liability: mine is interdisciplinary, not within a discipline)
  • tons of teaching experience (required for humanities jobs, it seems)
  • fancy shmancy graduate research fellowship at the Smithsonian archives
  • publication
  • conference presentations
  • some minimal kind of service as a graduate student.
Unconventional path:
  • start a blog on academia and motherhood
  • contribute to another blog
  • start yet another blog
  • make fabulous connections via blogging
  • blog connections lead to conference presentations, an adjunct gig in museum studies, and the opportunity to mentor graduate students
  • parlay blogging experience into a job in academic technology
  • transfer academic technology experience to job at teaching center
  • get a ton of administrative and committee experience and be able to talk somewhat intelligently about how the bureaucratic university works.
All of the experiences on the unconventional path are not ones that the average humanities student acquires between starting a graduate program and going on the job market. But they have completely shaped who I am as a writer, a scholar, and a professional more broadly. Blogging has opened up so many opportunities for me, which in turn have led to increased confidence.

Yes, I still have impostor syndrome. I am, after all, embarking on a tenure-track job in a discipline in which I have no academic degrees, no discipline-specific teaching experience, and very little experience as a student myself. (I'm putting together a survey course on the U.S. to 1877, for example, and the last time I took a course that covered such a broad span of U.S. history was in 10th grade.)

But to bring us to the present, here's what I understand about how I snagged my new job:

There were 260 applicants; each member of the five-person search committee looked at 20% of the applications, each of which encompassed only a cover letter, a CV, and letters of rec. My application caught the eye of the person in whose pile my packet landed. So that was totally committee member roulette, as far as I'm concerned; it was more luck than strategy that landed me a videoconference interview.

I did my final prep for this interview--how else?--by writing a blog post. Which I then--stupidly, I thought at the time--mentioned during the interview. I later discovered that at least one search committee member read the blog post and was impressed by my sleuthing into the university's struggles with teaching the liberal arts.

I also let myself be funny during the interview--mostly to keep myself sane and because I was a bit sleep-deprived, but I think it worked to my advantage.

By the point of the campus interview, I had decided that I would squelch any impostor syndrome I was feeling and just let myself be, well, me. And so I talked with faculty and students about the things that interested me--my research, women in academic and museum science, students with disabilities, and local social justice issues--and pointed a couple faculty members to some resources that might be useful to them in teaching and writing grants. I also refused to lecture exclusively to the fifty or so students in the course I guest-taught, even though I knew that attempting an interactive and wide-ranging lesson on material culture, the 1893 world's fair, and technology with someone else's students in the third week of a survey course might be risky. My one capitulation to tradition was that I allowed myself to have the full text of my research talk on my computer screen when I presented it. I don't usually read my talks, but I was a bit nervous about the whole, you know, history thing.

And when one faculty member asked me who my people were, in terms of public history--was I an AASLH or NCPH person, or something else entirely?--I answered that my historians were those I followed on Twitter and via their blogs and podcasts, or whom I met via listservs on topics other than history, and that the conferences I attended were more focused on teaching and learning than on historical research. That was a risky conversation, but I'm glad I had it.

When the same professor asked after my research talk if it was autobiographical, I figured my cover had been blown, in that I was arguing that it was women from outside mainstream academic science who most contributed to the public understanding of natural science. And there I was, an interloper (in my mind), making the argument that I should be hired by a history department to do public history.

My point is this: the process of landing this job, from the time I finished my Ph.D. until I accepted their offer, was marked, it seemed to me at the time, by risk-taking. But the risks, I now see from the other side of the job market fence, were all about remaining authentic to my interests instead of pandering to what I believed theirs to be. In the case of this university, my interests and those of the faculty happened to match up pretty well. So I'm absolutely delighted because I'm starting a job from a position of authenticity; I didn't build up a façade that I'll need to maintain or very carefully disassemble.

I hope the recipe I've shared here--one part luck, two parts authenticity, and two parts unconventional professional development--proves useful to someone else frustrated with a more traditional approach to the job market.