Sorry I haven’t posted recently — I finally took my graduation trip, and now it’s conference season.
So, here are some pretty photos from Japan:
And if you’re at the MESA conference this weekend, come say hi!
Publicly Engaged Historian & Scholar of the Middle East
This installment in the Grad School Survival Guide is brought to you by the letters P and Q (and if you’re old enough to get that joke…)
It’s actually inspired by two things that happened recently: first, a friend asked me to look over a draft dissertation proposal; and, second, I got a nastygram (which had nothing to do with that post that I’m tired of talking about now).
Both of them have to do with how we treat each other in academia. I know I’m not the only person to bring this up, but I’m going to say what I have to say about it anyway.
When I was early in my dissertation writing process, my advisor and I were having a meeting by Skype, and he made an observation that resonated with me. I don’t know why this was some sort of Transmitted From Yoda Secret that needed to be broadcast from On High; in fact, ever since he pointed it out it’s become something I’ve noticed a lot.
What he said was this: “You’re at that point we all find ourselves at while writing: the documentation isn’t giving you what you want, and you’re trying to figure out how to move forward. One of the things people do when they’re in that situation is that they start beating up the historiography; don’t do that. It tells everyone you’re not that confident in your own argument.”
There it is.
[Oh, for the record, if you find yourself in that situation, sit back, look at the documentation, and see what it’s telling you. Make it tell you where to go rather than trying to tell it where you want it to go. This may involve taking some time away from it.]
But since this conversation … I see it a lot. Cover letters. Proposals. Abstracts.
“I am the first…”
“I am the only…”
“Other scholars have failed to notice…”
“The scholarship has ignored…”
They’re all variants of the same thing: I did something no one else did.
Congratulations! That’s what academia is all about.
However, scholars of the new generation (every new generation) tend toward the enthusiastic, and want to trumpet their accomplishment, and they run afoul of the classic mistake of announcing that everyone has done it wrong, and that they have done it right.
Critiquing someone else’s scholarship for failing to come to the conclusions you have reached, or for not identifying an issue at the same level of importance that you’ve ascribed it, basically comes down to this: you’re criticizing them for not being you. They’re not you. They’re them.
You can’t ignore the existing historiography, or wave it all away by wishing it had been done differently. This goes back to the issue of intellectual genealogy that I discussed in my post about reading and taking notes for qualifying examinations.
Let me use myself as an example here.
The history of the 20th century Eastern Mediterranean tends to use the nation-state as its unit of analysis. In some cases, it uses nations that didn’t yet exist as the unit of analysis–for example, you can find histories of Israel that cover the first half of the 20th century even though it only existed for the last 18 months of the first half of the 20th century.
The reason that these histories are written this way is that scholars began grappling with the national histories that were constructed from the 1920s onward, and wanted to evaluate them (the most famous example of this is the “New Historians” movement in Israel, but each country in the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt all the way around to Turkey has their own such intellectual genealogy).
So, it’s easy for me to come in three intellectual generations later and say, “but no one has done the transnational”–that is to say, work that crosses borders to look at movements, connections, and cross-currents–but the fact is that I can do the transnational now because of what those who came before me have already done.
Their work makes mine possible, because they’ve gotten the national histories to the point where we can say, “Okay, we understand what’s going on inside these nations, now let’s look outside them.”
So, as you develop a prospectus, or a cover letter, or an abstract, pay attention to how the historiographical trends have developed, and the big questions that have been asked and sought to answer. Your intervention–your work–is part of this lineage whether you want it to be or not. You’ll get much further by explaining how what you’re doing is going to add further to the conversation than by suggesting that everyone else has been having the wrong conversation.
As I was warned during my oral qualifiers… after I did exactly that… “Don’t go after them. They know more than you.”
Or as I put it more crudely: make them want to read more. Not to read you aloud at the departmental holiday party to peals of laughter.
Moving on to the second half of this, I got a nastygram on my academia.edu profile from a retired Ivy League professor who read a historiographical essay I wrote years ago and apparently didn’t like the way I mentioned him in a footnote (I guess?). I’m not going to name him.
The message was probably supposed to be some sort of Maggie Smith-in-Downton Abbey-type burn but it really just confused me and I had to show it to several people before we collectively decided I was being chided.
The gist of the chide, near as I can tell, is that he felt that I, a scholar who hadn’t published as many books or had as many years of experience as he did, and therefore had no right to something something I don’t even know what. I will never entirely understand the impetus of a retired scholar to spend his free time trolling the internet looking for papers that mention himself and send nasty messages to people if he doesn’t like them.
So, in all fairness, I will acknowledge that my suggestion that the new generation should not be dismissive of the previous extends in both directions. I have seen too much of this. I once had a LinkedIn troll who — regardless of what this week’s episode of my podcast was about — had written about it years before and needed me to know. I finally blocked him.
But it’s also true that I see little encouragement by senior scholars of the next generation. Many of the conferences I attend have rooms full of Emerti who offer the dreaded “comment not a question” that seems basically intended to make sure everyone in the room knows they’re still alive.
This is not to say that it doesn’t happen. A few years ago, Suraiya Faroqhi, a distinguished scholar of Ottoman history whom I will name, came to a conference on Ottoman history here at Texas and made a point of offering very constructive–and kind–feedback to all of the graduate students and untenured panelists. It was so rare that I tell people about it. Suraiya Faroqhi did that. What a class act.
After all, folks, someday we’re going to be that generation … and it would be nice if people said they were conversing with us … and we should remember to converse back.
Full confession: this isn’t the next entry I planned for the Grad School Survival Guide, but I had a bit of writer’s block and decided to just jump around to the next subtopic that inspired me. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to include this, but ultimately decided “what the hell.” Let me tell you about my research “year.”
I am a historian of Egypt, and I had planned to do most of my research in Egypt, maybe with a visit to the British National Archives (as I work on Egypt during the colonial period) and/or one or two collections in France. I applied for a Fulbright Scholars grant to spend 2016-17 doing research in Cairo, and was elated when, right at the end of the fall 2015 semester, I got word that my name had been forwarded to the Fulbright office in Cairo for approval.
So elated, in fact, that it didn’t occur to me to have a plan B.
Two months later, an Italian graduate student from Cambridge University named Giulio Regeni was found murdered in Cairo. Things moved very quickly from there. In mid-March, I got notice that the Fulbright program in Egypt was being canceled over security concerns. There was no consolation prize; no offer of funding if I decided to do research elsewhere–it was just gone.
I tried for a bit to figure out if I could somehow do research independently in Cairo when a friend delivered the bad news that the Egyptian National Archives hadn’t been granting research clearances to foreign scholars–she’d been there for six months and hadn’t gotten approval. Not only that, but she described the atmosphere in Egypt as “tense” and said that she’d pretty much kept to herself the entire time she was there.
This is when I realized that all of my Plans B had involved what to do if the Fulbright didn’t come through and I needed to figure out how else to fund research in Egypt. None of my Plans B involved the idea that Egypt would go offline entirely and that I would need to both come up with a funding plan and an alternate research site.
London was a natural alternative work site: I knew there was material in the British National Archives as I’d been there before, so I began planning an independent, self-funded short (six-week) research trip for the fall of 2016. I also took a look at Geneva, where the League of Nations archives are housed (at the United Nations). I knew I wouldn’t need very long in Geneva–maybe a week or so.
My initial plan was to engage in a short trip up front and make a return trip–or additional trips–once I knew what I could gather in which place. I did this mainly because I had been planning for some time to step down from my full time job at the end of the year to facilitate research and writing, and I wanted to use up my vacation time — I figured if I wasn’t going to have a research stipend, I could at least still collect a paycheck while I was traveling. (I did have an insane amount of vacation time to use up.)
So, I used frequent flier miles to book a six week trip to London, and found a cheap ticket from London to Geneva sandwiched into the last ten days.
So, let me explain what I did wrong.
I scheduled the week in Geneva at the end of the trip.
I know why I did it. I had already booked an AirBnB in London (nonrefundable) and a plane ticket to and from London using frequent flier miles. I would fly to Geneva on a Sunday afternoon, be there for the week, and then … for reasons I am still not sure of … I decided to spend the weekend and following Monday in Geneva, fly back to London on Monday night, and then home to Austin on Tuesday. I’m sure there was a reason I scheduled it this way, but I can’t remember what it was.
Here’s why this was a bad idea.
I know London. I’m like London. I’m comfortable in London. I have friends in London. At the time, I had a niece living in London, and my husband made plans to come over for a week to visit. English is also my first language, so communication was a non-issue.
I had none of this in Geneva. I’d never been to Switzerland. I didn’t know anyone in Switzerland. No one planned to come visit me. I can’t speak French (I can read French, and I was still foolish enough to think that this would somehow help me understand the spoken language. It didn’t.).
I had no idea how unbelievably expensive Geneva was. I mean, I thought London was expensive. I had no idea. Geneva is more expensive than Tokyo, y’all. More expensive than Oslo. It’s ridiculously expensive. I spent $30 on dinner my first night: an entree at a Chinese restaurant (the only place open near where I was staying; everything is closed on Sundays) and two 100 cL glasses of their cheapest red wine–I know the measurements because the glass had a line on the side to indicate how much to pour.
So what it comes down to is that I had a little over a month in London, living a nice life where I had a support network, knew where things were, knew how things operated, things were familiar and then, after a month of this, I flew to a city where I knew no one, had no idea how things worked, and everything was in French (except the TV stations in my apartment, which were all in German for some reason). And I knew I wasn’t going to be there long enough to really want to put a lot of effort into changing that … and it sucked.
Had I put Geneva at the beginning of the trip, when I was still fresh and excited, I would have had a different mindset entirely. Then, slightly tired, I could have gone to London and settled into my comfort zone much easier than I had it working in the reverse order.
The other mistake that I made is that I had worked myself very hard in London. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m saying it as a cautionary tale.
Six days a week I was at an archive doing work. Usually from about the time they opened in the morning until the time they closed. I was there for almost two weeks before I left the apartment to go somewhere other than an archive or the grocery store around the corner.
One day, there was a power failure at the British National Archives, and they sent everyone home. I used the chance to go to a larger grocery store and stock up, then went home and decided to take a nap … and found myself feeling guilty.
I did this for almost five weeks. I allowed myself one day off when my husband came over but otherwise he hung out with his niece during the day and we met up when I was done in the evening.
Hence, by the time I got to Switzerland, I was exhausted.
Unlike the flat I had rented in London that was well located to a main shopping street, I’d found a place near the UN in Geneva that wasn’t convenient to much of anything else. The nearest supermarket was a 20 minute walk (a bit far when carrying heavy things in plastic bags). It was also very cold at night, and the heat in the apartment I rented for the week had two settings: on (sauna) and off (freezer). I sleep better when it’s cold, but there weren’t enough blankets to use, and, even sleeping in a hoodie and sweatpants, I froze at night.
By my last day there, I was clearly getting sick. This almost certainly impacted my impression of Geneva – lest anyone wonder, I know the issue here was me.
The last day I spent in Switzerland was torture. I’d booked a late afternoon flight back to London in case I wanted to have the day to do more research, which I didn’t. I had rented a car for the weekend (I tell people that the most fun I had in Switzerland was the day I went to France), so after checking out of the flat I literally drove around looking for things to do all day while popping medicine for the cold I was clearly developing.
I went to Lausanne and realized I had no interest in walking around the old city when I discovered that it involved hills and more physical energy than I had to spend. I spent $20 on a sandwich and Coke (I said Switzerland is expensive). Then, I finally gave up and drove back to Geneva and turned the car in.
I spent three hours in the British Airways lounge at Geneva Airport. Flew back to London. Got to my overpriced and microscopic airport hotel room around 10 pm. Didn’t have dinner, but I wasn’t hungry. Turned around and went back to Heathrow at 6 am. Flew home to Texas. I know these things happened because somehow I made it home, but I have little memory of it.
I was sick for the next several days.
The reason I wasn’t sure about posting this is that it does appear to be a long “my life sucks” post, which really isn’t what I wanted it to be.
So, here’s the thing. Self care is not “trivial.” Wanting to take a day off, or work five days a week instead of six or seven, is not only fine, it’s a matter of health.
If you don’t know anyone in town and your fellowship doesn’t give you a built in community, try meetup.org or one of the fancy apps the kids are using these days.
Go see a movie.
See what lectures are being given at a museum.
If you’re homesick and it makes you feel better, go to McDonald’s. No one has to know. (And it’s fun to see what they have in foreign McDonald’s.)
And most importantly: listen to your body.
If you need rest, rest.
If you just can’t, ask yourself what will happen if you don’t for a day.
Don’t be me. Don’t put so much energy into being productive that you forget to take care of yourself.
And you can quote me on that!