Dear Diary

One of the key takeaways from my most recent research trip—a non-unique one, I’ll admit—was realizing how important it is to keep personal records.

In the course of two days I read approximately six years’ worth of film scholar and AIDS activist Vito Russo’s life. How much of it do I anticipate will make it into my dissertation? Frankly, not all that much.

Vito Russo

The ten-ish hours I spent pouring through Russo’s journals were nevertheless some of the most valuable that I’ve logged in my career thus far. Historians use primary and secondary sources in their work, but we also use intuition, emotion, and other intangibles we can’t fully account for in our footnotes (whether we like it or not). Russo’s journals steeped me in the ethos of the AIDS crisis in a unique way, and it’s left an imprint on both my mind and my heart that I know will follow me throughout the research process.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read somebody’s personal remembrances in an archival setting—every single time I do, though, I find myself sitting there wondering why there aren’t more historians in the world. It’s just so cool. The “intimate connections” that happen in the archive are a huge part of the reason I’m motivated to do this kind of work, and every time I encounter another life on paper, I start thinking about journaling, and the fact that I suck at it.

I am notorious for buying—nay, collecting—fancy notebooks in which I intend to write my life story, only to decide that writing in them would be a desecration. If I actually do write in them, I immediately re-read the content I’ve created and criticize everything from my handwriting to my sentence structure. In so doing, I determine that I’m the biggest jerk on the planet and who the hell would want to read about my life anyway so why don’t I just not and say I did? It’s intense.

At least, it was. I’ve been on the journaling wagon for a whopping six days now, and am happy to say that I think it’s going quite well.

There are two reasons I think I might be able to turn journaling into a habit this time around:

  1. I’m writing with a different goal in mind.
  2. I’ve changed the process by which I write a journal entry.

The former is largely a result of engaging with Vito Russo’s personal writing. I’m eventually going to devote an entire post to his journals, but for now I’ll just say this: while Russo a heroic figure in both LGBT and HIV advocacy, his journals reveal all of his deepest flaws. Every once in a while he’d write something that stopped me in my tracks, because it was so self-centered, or whiny, or arrogant, or etc. etc. etc. That was awesome. The stars, they’re just like us!

I used to imagine my great great grandchildren reading my journals and telling all their friends about what a great woman I was. After reading through Russo’s journals, though, I now imagine them gathering together to talk about the myriad ways in which I was kind of a jerk. We love the people we love not just despite their flaws, but because of them. This realization has helped me to stop worrying about the quality of what I put on the page.

My new technique for journal writing has helped me in this quest to uncensor myself, but there’s still the issue of carving out time to write yet another thing. Taking a cue from Greg McKeown, who advises that you should always write less than you’d like to, I decided that I would only allow myself to write for ten minutes. Can I plumb the depths of my soul in ten minutes? No. Can I give a basic account of my day and how I felt about it? Yeah. I certainly can’t claim that my journal has a wonderful voice, as it’s comprised of lots of super abbreviated sentences, but who cares? Writing is both my hobby and my job. If my great great grandchildren swing a dead cat and somehow don’t find my blog posts, articles, and (fingers crossed) dissertation, they just need a bigger dead cat.

Do you journal? Any suggestions for getting started/sticking with it?

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

Bringing Hauntology Home

I wrote a blog post almost a month ago in which I broke down the various life hacks that have helped me go from exerphobic to exerphilic (those probably aren’t words, but humor me). Near the end of that post, though, I revealed that I was currently sedentary, for reasons beyond my control:

[My fitness hacks] worked for a while. I even logged a hundred miles on my new bike! But then I started feeling some pain. I took a week off and it went away, so I got back to working out. Maybe I got too excited—I always feel good while I’m working out—or maybe I should have taken more days off. Point is, the pain returned… and it hasn’t gone away.

… I haven’t worked out at all in almost two weeks, and it still hurts to walk. I’d actually built up some visible muscle over the past month or so, but it’s now melting away before my eyes. And I can’t really do anything about it.

Travel plans being what they are, it’s going to be a while before I get to a doctor. The worst case scenario isn’t really that bad, all things considered, just inconvenient. Minimize your physical activity, they’ll tell me. Rest. Take pain medicine.

The whole thing kind of pisses me off. I guess the one thing you really can’t hack is your own body.

Well, a month has passed, and things have changed, but not for the better. Yesterday morning I finally accepted reality and broke out one of my old crutches. Despite a month and a half sans-exercise, my condition is worsening, and my mobility is increasingly compromised. I can walk unassisted, but it’s not a pleasant experience. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting this turn of events.

I remain optimistic that I’ll be running around causing trouble in the very near future, but the fact remains that I have a series of hurdles ahead of me in the coming weeks. Some of these hurdles are physical, some logistical, and some professional, but the biggest hurdles—and the ones over which I have the most control—are emotional. I get depressed when I feel limited. The pain is uncomfortable, yes, but its true power (at least in my case) comes from its ability to activate bad memories.

I’m hoping to have a diagnosis and treatment plan in place within a week or two, and even before that process begins I’m truly convinced that the worst of my mobility and health issues are in my past. So I’m not mustering the courage to go on another medical odyssey, not really. No, I’m a seasoned traveler. I’m steeling myself for a confrontation with my past. I’m coming face to face with ghosts. I’m being haunted not just by my own medical history, but by those of so many people I love who’s physical challenges I’ve been witness to, many of whom have passed away.

I won’t be posting medical updates on this blog, but—given my interest in increasing accessibility in both the academy and the world beyond—I suspect there will be many posts in the coming weeks inspired by the issues I’m currently facing.So, get excited for that, I guess?

There’s good reason for me to be optimistic in spite of the pain I’m currently in. I’m an historian of patient advocacy because of the time I spent as a patient. As hard as those years were—and they were very hard—I don’t regret them. Whether the journey I’m in for this time around is long or short, easy or hard, I know that I’ll be the better for it, as long as I stay positive, and continue living an intentional life.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

 

The SMDS Listening List: History Podcasts

PART TWO OF THREE:

The Memory Palace

Most episodes of The Memory Palace are ten minutes or less, but packed within that tiny space is poignant prose that often leaves me shaking my head in admiration.

Nate DiMeo, the show’s host and writer, is phenomenal. His work is all the reminder one needs that history can be not just fun, not just accessible, but freakin’ lyrical. Between his NPR voice (he’s done appearances on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace) and his gift for writing, DiMeo is storytelling incarnate.

Nate DiMeo looks literally nothing like the way  imagined him. Great putting a face to the voice!

Nate DiMeo looks literally nothing like the way imagined him. Great putting a face to the voice!

The vast majority of episodes are based in the US at the turn of the 20th century. DiMeo is especially captivated by scientific innovation, and—just like a good professor—he so skillfully communicates his passion that listeners can’t help but share in his awe. Seriously, he did a podcast on the invention of the elevator (a topic that, on its face, I consider exceedingly boring) and did it in such a way that I found it riveting.

If you have children and are interested in democratizing history, I strongly suggest playing an episode of The Memory Palace at bedtime. Nate DiMeo is the kind of writer who can get kids hooked on history.

The biggest problem with The Memory Palace (which, by the way, is part of the Maximum Fun family of podcasts).[1]

is that episodes are incredibly addictive, incredibly short, and released infrequently at best. DiMeo does all his own research and writng, and that takes time. I binge listened to the show during the course of a day devoted to doing all manner of housework, and The Memory Palace managed to make even that, well, memorable. I wish I’d had the discipline to listen slowly, and will probably go back and re-listen to every episode soon.

It’s time to raise the profile of this podcast. Give it a listen, and tell your friends. Art this good demands an audience.

[1] The Memory Palace has since left Maximum Fun. It is currently hosted by Radiotopia, PRX’s podcasting network.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

SMDS Listening List: History Podcasts

PART ONE OF THREE:

STUFF YOU MISSED IN HISTORY CLASS

I crawled out from under my rock and started listening to podcasts late in the game. When I decided to give podcasts a try a little over a year ago, Stuff You Missed in History Class was the first one I downloaded.

Hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey are truly prolific. They come out with two episodes every week, each of which never fails to reflect a tremendous amount of research. The geographic and temporal range their episodes offer is both remarkable and refreshing. Graduate school is about mastering an incredibly specific topic, and every once in a while it’s nice to climb out of the bubble and learn about a place and time that I’m not required to lecture on. Biography driven episodes are where SYMIHC truly shines, and I especially enjoy listening to the podcast around Halloween, when they delve into spookier fare… historical haunted houses and the like.

I think—as is the case with most of the blogs coming out of HowStuffWorks.com—most listeners only play episodes of SYMIHC on topics they suspect they’ll enjoy. I think that’s a wrongheaded approach, and would instead encourage you to weather episodes on subjects you aren’t immediately inclined to. The podcast has surprised me more than once.

Hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey. Learn more about them at missedinhistory.com!

Hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey. Learn more about them at missedinhistory.com!

Some reviewers have complained about the podcaster’s voices, which—in addition to being rude—doesn’t really resonate with me. I’m from the South (as are the hosts), so I actually find their voices quite soothing, and sometimes put on old episodes when I’m having trouble sleeping. The only downside re: performance is a result of the sheer volume of information the hosts communicate within a single podcast. They have to read their notes, and with any presentation that’s read aloud, that can get dull from time to time. It’s not a big problem for me, but I’m an historian, so I have a really high threshold for the “reading aloud” voice. I’ve also listened to these two ladies talk for long enough that I kind of feel like I know them. Which isn’t creepy at all.

Check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class website by clicking on this image!

Check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class website by clicking on this image!

At the level of content, I have mixed feelings about SYMIHC. The podcast has run for many years, and its quality has varied as a result. Some of the previous hosts had me throwing my iPhone against the wall, but Holly and Tracy seem hip to the cultural turn, and don’t devote a ton of time to worshipping America’s old dead white men. All I’m saying is listen to back episodes at your own risk.

Even with competent and engaging hosts like Holly and Tracy, professional historians might be turned off by exactly same elements that make the podcast appealing to others. It is true that exceptionally few of the topics the podcast covers make it into the average history class curriculum, but I don’t think that the actual approach to history is so radically different from what you’d see in high school: the hosts communicate facts and anecdotes, but don’t do a tremendous amount in the way of analysis. The topics are rarely of a subversive nature, and only rarely does historiography enter the discussion. But that’s okay; SYMIHC isn’t a podcast targeted towards professional historians; in fact, there are more than a couple of precocious young children listening. So yes, listeners sacrifice analysis for thick description but—especially given the medium—I think that’s a feature, not a bug.

In short, I highly recommend tuning in to SYMIHC; as long as you understand exactly what it is Holly and Tracy are selling, you’ll be a happy buyer. (Not that you have to pay for the podcast. You can download it for free. You know what I mean).

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The SMDS Listening List: History Podcasts

INTRODUCTION

This is almost exactly what I looked like when I figured out how to play podcasts on my  newfangled iPhone. Click to see the website the image came from.

This is almost exactly what I looked like when I figured out how to play podcasts on my newfangled iPhone. Click to see the website the image came from.

In a recent post I mentioned that I almost never watch TV anymore. What I didn’t mention is that podcasts have more than filled the television-shaped void in my schedule. I’m something of a Luddite, so it took me a long time to fully understand what a podcast was, and still longer to decide that they were worthwhile additions to the universe. I finally gave in and tried them a little over a year ago; at the time I was walking two to five miles a day, and getting increasingly tired of listening to music.

These days I tend to listen to audiobooks when working out, but that’s because audiobooks represent a break from the ordinary. Podcasts have become the soundtrack to my life. I listen to them in the morning walking to school, in the afternoon walking home, while cooking, while cleaning, even while trying to fall asleep. Thanks to this new habit of mine, I have party-friendly nuggets of information a plenty! (I guess that depends on the kinds of parties you go to.)

Over the next couple of days, I want to introduce you to three of the podcasts in my rotation. All three focus on history, but do so for very different perspectives, and with wildly different results. Not only do I consider myself a better historian for the time I spend listening to these podcasts, their very existence is a reminder that there is indeed a place in our culture for public history. Makes me feel relevant… nay, hip!

So get excited, and get your various and sundry podcast-listening-enabled technological platform devices set to “GO.”

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

When One Door Closes, Make Lemonade

My summer session course got cancelled a few days ago due to low enrollment. It was a pretty big disappointment to me, and—I imagine—to my department, which had anticipated that the class was going to be a big draw.

They had good anecdotal evidence to support that assumption. I taught the same course (“Sex in U.S. History”) last year as an upper division seminar, and it was not only really successful, it achieved full enrollment. My department chair and I decided that, given all the positive reviews of last year’s class, we’d capitalize on student interest, and offer the same class again, this time as a 15D (the GenEd-iest of general education courses). At the time it seemed like a slam dunk, but lo, the same course that was packed to the gills last year couldn’t attract more than 10 students this year.

“Sex in U.S. History” ended up being a victim of a perfect storm of sorts, one for which absolutely nobody is responsible. The success of the class was contingent on multiple factors above and beyond student interest, and it looks like we managed to lose every single mini-gamble we took in offering the course.

Am I disappointed? Of course. I genuinely love teaching, and I especially love teaching this subject. Several former students of mine had signed up to take the class, and I’d very much looked forward to showing them what I do when I’m not teaching composition. Being a course instructor is a veritable butt ton of work, but it’s also one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. So yes, losing my class was quite deflating.

Then there’s the money. I was kind of counting on that money. Woops.

Luckily, my department is unendingly supportive of me. They got me a position as a grader which, while not nearly as lucrative as an instructor position, means I won’t be eating cat food all summer. While it’s not the role I envisioned for myself, it’s going to give me the chance to work with students studying 19th century US history, something that my two year appointment in the First-Year Integrated Program meant I’ve not yet had the opportunity to do. I’m also going to be working with one of my dearest friends in the History Department, who—on account of being awesome—has already arranged for me to give a guest lecture in her class. The topic, death in the Civil War, is one I’ve wanted to lecture on for ages, so this is a fantastic opportunity.

The disappointment of having my class cancelled has been remediated somewhat by the fact that I’m not going home empty handed. It’s been remediated still further by my ability—when the occasion calls for it—to be rabidly optimistic.

For the first time in two years, I’m going to have a break from designing lesson plans, lecturing, and all the other time and energy commitments that come with teaching. I’d cut out my own heart if I thought it would help my students, so I tend (at times to my detriment) to think of teaching less as a job, and more as a way of life. I compare primary sources while trying to fall asleep, I read new books looking for fresh material… I get pretty absorbed in making sure I’m giving my students the best intellectual experience I possibly can. Sitting sidecar will free up my schedule to do research I would have certainly put off until the fall had I been teaching. At this stage in my career, that’s a really good thing.

This experience has taught me a lot about the dangers of chicken counting in academia (I can only imagine how crushing this same scenario would be as an adjunct). It’s also reminded me that, in this profession, you may run out of time, money, and patience, but you’ll never run out of worthwhile things to do. I’m exchanging the rewards of teaching for the rewards of archival research. That’s an incredible trade. There aren’t very many jobs out there where the glass is so consistently half full, and I feel lucky every day that I’m doing work that matters on so many different levels.

And there you have it… the borderline alchemical transformation of bad news into gratitude. When it comes to polishing turds, I’m a rock star.

But seriously, something’s wrong on a campus where a class about S.E.X. doesn’t fill. I mean… I used “twerking” in the course description! Get it together, anteaters.

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

What I’m Learning From A Giant Stack of Obituaries

This week of archival work has left me with a lot to process, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s going to take a long time to sort through everything that I found, both in the archives and within myself. Especially after reading other people’s diaries all day long, I feel a strong urge to follow in their footsteps, so if you aren’t into navel-gazing, you may want to skip this entry. Actually, just skip the whole blog.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you never know what you’re going to find when you do archival work. I went to the NYPL specifically looking for information about ACT UP’s political funerals, and I found surprisingly little on them. What I didn’t expect to find—or, more accurately, didn’t expect to spend much time or energy on—was obituaries, the vast majority of which were not published in newspapers.

Turns out, I’m bringing home hundreds of them. They don’t fit neatly into my dissertation as originally conceived, so I suspect they are going to become the foundation of a separate journal article. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to rationalize spending a full day (and a lot of my own money) printing obituaries I may never use.

I’m increasingly unconvinced of, and borderline hostile to, the idea that there is a boundary between the personal and the professional, and this trip—these obituaries—added a new dimension to my argument. Yes, these are incredible sources, and I think they’ve been underused. They are fascinating to me, and I think my work will benefit from analyzing them, but the fact is, I didn’t need to print every obituary in the archive. Examples would have been sufficient, but no, I just had to print them all.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

I could marshal up an argument that I need all the available evidence blah blah blah, but the fact is, there’s just something about these obituaries. They’re pieces of paper printed from microfilm, and the images are all far too blurry to use in an article, but they radiate pain and grief in a way that’s hard to describe. You have to hold them in your hands yourself. The truth is, I printed every obituary because I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

There’s nothing I can do for the men and women whose obituaries I’m flying home with—I have no illusions that my work will bring them back to life, or change the way we remember (or, in far too many cases, don’t remember) them. I’m completely aware that I only have access to the obits somebody cared enough to preserve, that there are thousands upon thousands of folks who died of AIDS during the same time period, in the exact same city, that didn’t get memorialized on microfilm. I know I’m nobody’s hero, and I like to think that I’m not in the business of writing recovery narratives (think “golden moment” history). Still. It’s about respect.

Historians have feelings, and this week has been a somber one for me. That’s a good thing. I study a horrendous moment in American history, and I chose perhaps the most depressing and gruesome aspect of that moment (the political uses of the dying and dead PWA body). Sometimes I worry that I must be seven different kinds of crazy to even be interested in such a morbid topic, and I frequently worry that there’s something borderline inhumane about being so fascinated by the topic. Trips like this one are important for me, because they remind me that I do in fact find this subject matter deeply upsetting.

I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can’t get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

That’s part of the reason I reject the personal/professional binary. Certainly there are those out there who claim to be “objective,” who pride themselves on their knack for dispassionate narratives, but theirs are never the books I enjoy reading. I want to read books by historians who care deeply about their subject, who respond viscerally to their sources, who are motivated by something greater than mere curiosity. You don’t need an extended autobiographical forward to know when somebody’s truly dedicated to their topic. That kind of passion leaps off the page. I want my words to leap off the page too, even though I know it’s going to make my academic AND personal life much more complicated. Making my word leap off the page means confronting death in a way I never anticipated, in a way that is equal parts gloomy and terrifying.

This wasn’t the plan going into graduate school.

So I’m bizarrely thrilled by my expensive collection of obituaries, because it is a tangible reminder that analytical distance is a choice I can make, not a facet of my personality. I’m leaving New York ecstatic about being sad, because it means that I have the heart to write this story. If I wasn’t feeling this way, I suspect it’d mean I was evil, a robot… or both.

I may still be an evil robot, but if I am, I’m an evil robot that’s been programmed to never leave anybody behind.