Friday, October 18, 2013

And for my next trick....

For the better part of 20 years, I have worked to write like a historian.  For the last 7 or so, I've worked to write like a historian who wants academics in allied fields to read their work.  My interdisciplinary writing group has helped with this -- pushing me to reconsider some conventions in my field, to explain things that I wouldn't need to explain to an audience of historians, to adopt some new practices in presenting my research.  I think I've been somewhat successful in this.  I've published more interdisciplinary and multi-discipline journals than in traditional history journals since getting tenure.  But now I'm wondering if I have over-stepped my abilities.

Last year I started working on using one of my history projects (on gender-based harassment in public spaces) to connect to current policy and practice on public transit.  I submitted an abstract to the "Women's Issues in Transportation" conference and got encouraging responses from reviewers.  The questions they raised helped me draft a full paper, which my writing group then helped me work into something I could submit.  Now I am faced with three more sets of comments from conference reviewers, asking for revisions before the final round of papers is picked for the conference.

I've never been through this intense a process for being accepted to present at a conference.  I've never even had a full paper draft reviewed, let alone multiple reviews calling for revised drafts.  The reviewers' comments have been rolling around in my mind for weeks, but today is the day when I intend to roll up my sleeves and start the revision.  But I'm feeling a bit stuck, still finding myself feeling defensive in response to some of the comments.  The requests for a clearer definition of harassment is fine, a desire for more description of methodology is annoying but familiar (how do you write "I read everything can find, think about it, make lots of lists, and write until I think I have some insights to offer"?).  The one comment that gets me, though, is this: "It needs to be framed more like a scholarly paper."

Hackles up.

The implication that textual evidence is some how not real data, not scholarly, seeps through this reviewers' comments, even though they are trying to be supportive (they did say the background of the project is "interesting").  The reviewer then goes on to tell me what a "traditional" paper should look like (intro, theory and method, findings and interpretation, discussion...).  I've read my fair share of these kinds of papers.  I even written one, but they don't work well for qualitative research.  I've got an 8,000 word limit; I'm going to use the bulk of them to explore the evidence, not describing the process.  I'm going to show you what I found.  If you want to know how I found it, read the footnotes!  Gah.

I guess part of my frustration is that I was conscious that this conference is full of quant people and I intentionally "scientificized" my early drafts, but apparently not enough for some.  It is not currently a paper many history people would recognize as standard history writing (or topic).  For example, I actually make suggestions for new policy.  Gasp!  Historians never tell you what to do.  That is your job (after we've told you how we got to this place and what other people have done).  But, apparently, it is still not a fully social science paper.

I could follow the scientific paper structure, but I feel like a fraud.  This is not how I was trained to write or think.  More than that, this structure works against what history can bring to the table (the whole point of my paper!).  I'm trying to write about how we got here, bring lessons from earlier generations of activists to current issues, to fill in around and contextualize the numbers.  X women may report being groped on a subway car.  But what might those experiences mean to women, transit officials, or society?

So... here I go to try give them just enough that they will see me as "scholarly" while selling them on the idea that narrative-based arguments add value to their numbers.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bridging the Gap

I just returned from a hilarious and strange meeting.  An old guard feminist, one of the founders of one of the earliest local chapters, called all the county NOW members and commanded us to appear at her house to discuss the fate of the chapter.  She was a blast of energy on the phone -- saying "my goal is to choose a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer" (in social change organizing 101, one never tells people that if they show up they are going to be elected to formal position!) -- and she was basically an airhorn-in-a-library when I met her in person at the meetign.  It was fascinating to watch the other attendees (only a handful) maneuver around her as she pressed her own agenda and dismissed ideas/topics she didn't like.  In general, I found her amusing, but then her real agenda came through: sign people up for leadership roles but figure out how the inner circle can vett the new people first.  The message was, "young people need to step up and lead this organization -- but only if they do it precisely the way we want them to."  As a scholar who studies movements for social change, particularly women's leadership in such movements, I feel pretty confident in saying this is a sure-fire recipe for disaster!

This example will serve as a good representation of being in a meeting with this woman:  she read a quotation and asked people who it was from.  I happened to know, but she told people not to answer if they knew and instead made the others guess (ugh!).  When no one came up with it, I was then called upon.  I said, "Obama" (it was from his speech on the 50th anniversary of the MOW).  Her response? "Excuse me? That is President Barack Obama, the first half-black president of this country!"  Um, yep, that is the Obama to whom I was referring.  Yikes!

Anyway, of the 9 people at the meeting, we had an amazingly good representation of NOW's history -- all white, most in their 60s, small minority of working class women feeling somewhat out of place, all formally educated.  Even in this homogeneous group, though, we had many of the movement types -- the shy workhorse, the I-knew-Gloria-Steinem, the structure and policy person, the I'm-just-here-to-watch one, the action focused one, etc. etc.

My students and I have been doing a bunch of interviews with NOW members since April.  I went to this evening's 'entertainment' in part to gather more ideas for the research project and in part because I worry about a world where NOW can't manage to hold it together in a place like Ann Arbor.  I heard some important things:

1)The older generation (women in their 60s who have been doing active feminism for decades) are tired but they don't think there are any younger feminists who want to take on the work. (They are wrong, but we'll get to that another time.)

2)This group is pretty evenly split between those who trust young women to keep on fighting the good fight, but expect that they might want to do it through different tactics and organizations and those who think young women spend too much time on the computer to do any real organizing and dress like hookers.  (Yikes!)

3)The younger generations (and even my own sandwich generation) need to get it together and figure out a way to have real conversations with their elders -- despite the stuff I mentioned above -- or they/we will lose the opportunity to take over an organization that carries pretty substantial brand recognition.

4)There are many, many issues that reach easily across generations (reproductive justice -- don't doubt it for a minute, those post-menopausal women are FIERCE on this!, equal pay, sex trafficking, rape culture, political representation, etc.).  Once the formal meeting was ended by our host ("meetings must be exactly one hour!") and we could have real conversations about the issues and ideas that motivated us as individual activists, these connecting threads were so obvious.  It was heartening to see.

5)We need to listen to each other more and we need to assume that each group is going to say something stupid about the other.  We need to find a way to get past it and focus on the shared issues.

And that is the report from the "front lines" of feminism in Washtenaw county in the late summer of 2013!


Friday, June 7, 2013

Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

This post/letter passed in front of my eyes this morning.  It kind of knocked the wind out of me. I have a collection of images in my memory that mirror this author's in their clarity, message, and impact.  When I was 14 or so I was rooting around in the fridge and my mom came up behind me and said with a distinct sigh, "oh, I'm sorry, I guess you got my hips..."  It was no secret to me that my mom had body image issues.  It just hadn't occurred to me until that moment that I was going to/supposed to share them. What she felt like she should but could not fix in herself she had hoped she could fix in me -- and it that moment she admitted to both of us that she could not.

So... a 14 year old girl lives in my house with me.  And I am going to be very mindful of what I say about both of us.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Traveling on My Mind

I'm updating my calendar today and looking at the possibility of doing 4 conferences in the next 11 months.  That is pretty ambitious, especially since three of them are out of the country (okay, two are only in Toronto, but, last I looked, Canada was still a different country).  I'm looking forward to taking E with me to Paris in April (she can try out her French for real and help her poor language-challenged mama).  I'm also looking forward to being more engaged in scholarly communities connected directly to my research.  The last time I did this was in 2009 and I count that year as one of my very, very best.  It ended in chaos with the arrival of Hank (the cystic schwannoma in my spine), but up until that derailed me in late November, I was flying high and it was due in large part to being constantly and deeply in the research on many fronts, presenting it to many different groups, etc. etc.  I also had one of those magical groups of students who loved the history, loved me, and loved each other.... and they fed off of my own scholarly zing.  I think it is worth trying for that again!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

So, that happened....

I turned the blog off for a bit while I stuck my big toe in some new professional waters.  That adventure didn't pan out, but I suppose it was good to stretch myself a bit and think a bit more about where I am and where I'm going.

The process was ridiculously long, but I feel relatively good about how I handled it all.  I'm a bit annoyed at the investment of time and energy that has ultimately lead to naught, especially when I know that I am a really good candidate for this particular position, but I'm also a bit relieved that I don't have to make a big decision.  As a friend said, "at least you didn't quit your day job."  Indeed.

I will continue on as chair for another year and then I will happily go on sabbatical and come back a year after that as just a plain old professor of history.  And it will all be good.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Quandry that is Coming.... Hiring Teachers

This summer I joined the "High Quality Teaching" sub-group in the school district redesign planning sessions.  Now that the district consolidation is underway, I've stuck with that group as much as I can, working on the teacher qualifications we will use to hire all of the district's teachers.

Based on the recent superintendent debacle, here is my biggest concern going forward:

The unified school board has three members from the old boards and will have both superintendents from the old districts.  I fear that old loyalties will hamper a rigorous hiring process.  I suspect that we will see a goodly number of teachers hired because they've been around for years, they're known, maybe they're even comfortable to work with.  While I do believe loyalty and history matter, they could lead us to hire back teachers who are not prepared or willing to teach according to the values of the district.  Teachers on our subgroup tell me that many of the things we are asking for will be scary and new, particularly for veteran teachers.  I've decided that we do them a disservice to hire them back into an environmnet where they don't fit.  I'm okay with supporting those who are willing to try, but they need a defined period to prove progress or they need to be moved out.  If we can't do that, we will get our teachers but lose the vision.

The Wheels on the Bus...

The process of consolidating two small school districts is not an easy thing.  My dearest hope is that it will be like sausage when we are all done -- no one will want to see the process but an amazing result will come out of it.

The recent moves to find a superintendent for the district went poorly:  Instead of an open search, the board opted to privilege internal candidates.  This pitted the two supers of the old districts against each other and against a well-qualified and extremely well-supported HR director from one of the districts.  The school board put all three through a public interviewing process only to retreat to the position that they felt they needed to the two current supers because, by their contracts, we have to pay them anyway. Perhaps to mitigate the unrest keeping them would cause (there is great displeasure with one super in particular), the board intends to contract with the intermediate school district for a superintendent who then will hire the two current supers as associate supers...

I could say many things about this, but I'm going to restrict myself to three conculsions:

1) The unified school board screwed up in the process of making this decision but I don't think it was because they are evil.  In some ways they were set up to fail by the WISD (Washtenaw Intermediate School District) board who chose the school board for the new unified district.  The WISD put three members of the old school boards on this new board.  These people all had good working relationships with their superintendents and probably felt some loyalty toward them.  They certainly relied heavily on these two supers and firing someone on whom you have counted must suck.  FWIW, both superintendents did work hard for this consolidation.  Never once did they moan in public about it being the end of their jobs, though talk all along has been that there would be only one super for the new district...

2) The board should make a sincere and public apology to the three internal candidates.  They need to say that they went about this all wrong.  That they made a mistake in opening a search at all.  They should beg the HR candidate to stay and then accept it with grace (and guilt) when she does not.  The board should support our two current supers (as much as their individual record as administrators merits) in their search for the next job, because we all need to be clear that they are serving out their contracts and nothing more.  The bold, fresh leadership we were promised with this merger will have to come from WISD's Scott Menzel for now (I actually think he'll have some in him) but must come in a full and thorough OPEN search in 2014 or 2015.  And for what it is worth, I favor 2015, when we have an elected school board to run the search and make the choice.

3) There is lesson to be learned here and I hope the board and administration(s) show that they learned it with their actions.  I want to see a clear, detailed, and transparent plan for what decisions will be made when (and how) over the next six months, at least.  The plan the board voted on last night should have been proposed with the proposal to vote on consolidation back in August or in the moments following the November vote.  What has to be decided now?  What can wait?  How can we position ourselves to do the big things.  In other words, what do we need to do to take care of business for now but not tie us down so that we can't make the substantial changes we want once we have them planned out.  I suspect this will be particularly important to plan as we hire teachers for the coming year.  If we think the superintendent decision was painful, I can hardly imagine how hard the teacher decisions will be.

More on that soon...