Lost in the Archives, Found on Castro Street

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This post comes to you from a hotel room in San Francisco, where I’ve spent the past ten days doing archival work. I’ve been here for ten days now, and—thank goodness—will be returning home tomorrow. In the past month, I think I slept in my own bed four times… the rest of the time has been spent living out of suitcases at various and sundry points across the United States. It’s been a very long month.

This research trip was incredibly productive. I’m leaving tomorrow with thousands of pages of material.  I’m also leaving in an acute state of information overwhelm. The quantity of information I found in the archives, and the limited time frame within which I have been working, has meant I’ve only been able to actually read about 1/5 of the material I collected in the past ten days. Even so, I know there are at least two more archives that I should have hit up while here. It’s actually pretty amazing; folks in SF have done an amazing job collecting and preserving the history of the AIDS crisis.

Panicking over the amount of material at my disposal, and trying to figure out the logistics of a return trip, are great problems for an historian to have. Trust me: I’ve had the experience of coming up empty, and it’s the worst. Nevertheless, the position I find myself in right now is… uncomfortable. I’m not fun when I’m overwhelmed.

Overwhelm sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. Earlier this week, I was utterly unmoored. That wasn’t the end of the world either, but try telling that to an unmoored-Andrea. Try telling that to any academic, actually.

Much of the past week and a half has been spent in a fog, trying to wrap my head around the outlines, the ethos of the archive, as opposed to thinking through individual documents. In my case, that’s a dangerous place to be… a slippery slope of insecurity. What does it all mean? What kind of conclusions can I make based on these kind of archival materials? Can I really construct an argument on the basis of documents like this? Do I need to change my dissertation topic to accommodate the archive? Could it be that nobody’s done this kind of research before because it’s not actually interesting? Could I have just wasted a ton of time and money? Is it possible I just collected thousands of pages of material I’ll never use? Did I lose my iPhone charger? I DID! Holy crap! What am I even doing here?!

One day this week, my research anxiety got so bad that I was either going to vent, or have a mini-breakdown. I did what I always do when I’m in trouble: I called my mom. She listened quietly as I rambled for about ten minutes, jumping wildly from “I’m seeing this interesting trend…” to “I don’t think I can write a dissertation,” from “I think I’m going to need to do oral histories” to “I can’t deal with all the street harassment in San Francisco!” She then proceeded to tell me exactly what I needed to hear:

“Go home. You could have everything you need in front of you, but there’s no way you’re going to see it right now. Walk away.”

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I was only able to take half of that advice, given the time constraints within which I’m working. I spent a couple more hours taking photo after photo after photo, and then I went home, and fell into bed. At, like, 5 PM. I got a (very) good night’s sleep. The next morning—instead of running to archive A for a couple hours before my appointment at archive B, the original plan—I got on a cable car, went to the Castro, stopped by Hot Cookie, and bought a bunch of food I have no business eating, including a cookie shaped like a certain part of the male anatomy… because it’s the Castro.

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I wandered the streets, stared in shop windows, and imagined what it was like living there in the early eighties, the late eighties, the nineties. I thought about the people I met through my research: the archivists, who told me about their experiences; the dead, whose voices live on in the sources; friends, colleagues, and mentors who once walked the same streets; and those people who, if very much alive, still only exist for me on papers tucked away in folders and boxes.

I wandered the streets of the Castro, and I remembered why I came to San Francisco to begin with, why I decided to go to graduate school, and why I want to be an historian.I also realized why I was so scared.

Rummaging through archives is a wonderful experience, one I wish everybody had at least once in their life, but it’s a space in which one is easily unmoored. Sometimes that means that the people you read about become hopelessly abstracted, other times you lose track of your research question, or realize that question is utterly unanswerable. Still other times, you lose track of yourself. In my case, I think all of those things happened.

CASTRO1The sheer volume of information I encountered in my archive forced me to recognize how little I know. Meeting people who lived the experiences I’m interested in historicizing—while inspiring—left me questioning my ability to tell their story. I realized that my dissertation needed to be radically restructured; some topics were far better documented than I’d anticipated, and others proved to be total dead ends. I realized that the archive is slowly but surely forcing me into work that strays from both my intended path, and the path I’ve prepared myself to travel. I began to feel incredibly small in comparison to the big, big, big task ahead of me.

Once I got myself out of the old musty rooms and into the streets, I remembered why I’d entered those musty rooms to begin with. I remembered that all the amazing people I’d encountered want me to do this work, have encouraged me to do this work. They built these archives so I could do this work. The task before me is very large, and yes, I feel a bit small in comparison, but the answer is to GROW, not shrink. If I became unmoored in the archive, I dropped my anchor in the Castro.

And so here I am, sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco. I’m physically, emotionally, and intellectually exhausted. I’m totally overwhelmed. I’m also very thankful that my anchor has been recast, and really, I couldn’t have chosen a much nicer place to do 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.

Forced Fun is Still Fun

I’ve been scheduling fun since my freshman year of college, because I’m neurotic and thrive on work-related stress. I guess in some ways I respect deadlines more than I respect myself? I don’t know. The fact of the matter is, I have two natural speeds: two miles an hour, and 200 miles an hour. At both speeds, I’m pretty much incapable of enjoying myself. Accordingly, I put a lot of time and effort into finding balance. Those effort have taken different forms over the years, with varying results. This blog post is about a technique I’ve used over the past year that’s actually worked: forced fun.

My adoptive niece!

My adoptive niece!

This past year, a dear friend of mine had her first child. At the time, I was teaching my first course on my own (146H: Sex in U.S. History) and hadn’t found a good work rhythm. In practical terms, I doubt I was working more than the average instructor, but I was worrying about the class constantly. I was basically leading my students on a guided tour of my wheelhouse, but I found myself in a state of constant doubt. Instead of doing my own research, I kept, for example, reading books that I might, one day, assign to future students. “Applied imposter syndrome” was taking up all of my time, and the psychic stress it caused was seriously harshing the mellow that is summer in sunny Southern California.

Lucky for me, babies are magic. My friend called: did I want to meet her daughter? She’d delivered less than twelve hours previous. I walked into the hospital with a gift bag full of stuff, and—after a couple hours spent getting to know this amazing miniature person—walked out with a new perspective on things.

Instead of trying to find ways in which my syllabus was deficient, I started thinking about how I could schedule myself to see her more often. I started to believe that my best had to be good enough, because life is too short, and I never wanted my adoptive niece to forget what I looked like. I wanted to be an amazing teacher, but I also wanted to have a life defined first and foremost by love.

And I wanted to knit.

It had been years since I last picked up a set of needles. My beloved grandmother (who I wrote about extensively in a previous post) taught me how to knit in my teen years. Thing is, we were really casual about my “lessons,” and I was easily discouraged. I got to the point where I could do a basic knit stitch in my sleep, but the purl stitch (essentially the next level up) gave me fits. It was enough to make me throw my needles down in frustration. I was content with knitting 101 for the time being. Then my grandmother unexpectedly passed away.

When Granny died, I stopped knitting. Of course, that’s the opposite of what she would have wanted, but it somehow felt wrong to me to go on learning without my teacher. Every once in a while I’d knit a scarf or something—something that neither challenged me nor enhanced my skill set—but by and large my grandmother’s old knitting bag sat unused in my closet.

Thing is, babies don’t appreciate imaginary blankies.

My niece wearing the onesie I brought to the hospital on the day she was born. She grew into it devastatingly fast. Luckily, my pile of knitted squares has been growing right along with her.

My niece wearing the onesie I brought to the hospital on the day she was born. She grew into it devastatingly fast. Luckily, my pile of knitted squares has been growing right along with her.

I picked up knitting again, and discovered that (now that it was really important) I actually did know how to purl. I could do it… well enough, in fact, that I should be able to make something really lovely.

I wanted this blanket to be high quality—no experiments here—so, while it’s not terribly creative, I decided to replicate the same square over and over again. It would provide me the kind of practice I needed to get back in the game, and, realistically, the tiny baby wouldn’t know the difference.

I told myself that I would have a big baby quilt done by my adoptive niece’s first birthday. That deadline meant I was going to have to start knitting on the regular. And knit I have. I’m finishing the quilt this week, and sending it off to be put together (I’m not ready to attempt crochet yet). The next time I see the little angel, she’ll be both one AND the proud owner of a baby blanket.

Months later, the two of us blew off a Superbowl party to take a selfie in the kitchen and debate the merits of naptime.

Months later, the two of us blew off a Superbowl party to take a selfie in the kitchen and debate the merits of nap time.

Knitting is both relaxing and enjoyable for me. As a PhD student, I rarely come home at the end of the day with something concrete to show for the time and effort I’m putting in, so being able to sit down with some yarn and quietly create something is incredibly rewarding. Up until now, however, it’s also always been the first thing to go when I get busy.

Setting the first birthday deadline was not unlike scheduling fun. I made a promise to my friend and her infant daughter, and I keep my promises. I essentially forced myself to have a lot of fun this year, even when it didn’t feel like I had the time for it. The result? Not only have I finished my first truly major knitting project—a feat I’ve attempted several times since high school—I’ve gotten over the mental block that told me I could never improve without my grandmother here to teach me. I’ve made time in my life for personal enrichment, and learned how to use my neuroticism for good.

This picture happened almost a full two months ago now, which makes me sad, because the last time I saw her, she didn't have teeth! Another good reason to get back to California.

This picture happened almost a full two months ago now, which makes me sad, because the last time I saw her, she didn’t have teeth! Another good reason to get back to California.

What’s next? I’m going to teach myself a new stitch, and immediately set to work on a new blanket. I found a group that will assemble and donate what I send them. If there’s better motivation than knowing that somewhere out there a baby is cold, I don’t think I want to know about it.

So there you have it. I’m using my fear of letting people down to force myself into activities that I enjoy and wouldn’t otherwise make a priority. Because babies are magic.

“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 Six Million Dollar Scholar

Those who know me know I’m not short on confidence, but—like so many female academics—I’ve recently been finding myself struggling with imposter syndrome for the first time in my intellectual life. Before this year, I was that rare breed of graduate student who never looked back. I knew I’d made the right decision in coming to UC Irvine. At a broader level, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I belonged in academia. I felt it in my bones. It’s funny, because I didn’t feel that way at all when I applied to grad school, but the same experiences that eroded the confidence of my peers during those early years pumped me up. “Are you not entertained?” I’d shout throughout the halls of ivory tower. I was Spartacus, but with books and articles, not blood and sand.

Then I began the dissertation stage of my career. More accurately, the dissertation stage of my career started me: started me questioning my intellect, my research, my goals… everything. (It’s worth mentioning at this point that my poor little dissertation doesn’t deserve all the blame, I was also weathering a major family tragedy that both brought on a wave of depression and at the exact same moment forced me to take stock of my life. Not a particularly unusual cocktail, but certainly not a desirable one either. In my limited experience, depressed people aren’t the best at self-evaluation). For the first time in my life, my scholarship began to suffer. The self-doubt in which I was mired was bleeding onto the pages I wrote. I have some wonderful cheerleaders in the UCI History Department faculty, and knowing that, for the first time (at least to my knowledge), I was disappointing them, helped me realize that I needed to reset. But how? How do I leave my “grad student imposter” identity behind and become the “Six Million Dollar Scholar”?

I’m not 100% sure yet, but I do know this:

I can rebuild myself. I have the technology. I can make myself better than I was. Better, stronger, faster.

I’ll add “happier” to that list. I’ve realized that the key to a productive and fulfilling scholarly life comes—at least partially—from being content with one’s life outside academia. And so, starting December 31st of 2013, I began making multiple incremental changes to my life. Those changes—which I’ll discuss in detail in future posts—are really beginning to add up. By practicing radical self-care of the Audre Lorde variety, I’m finding it much easier to live a life of the mind. I’m happier, more resilient, and more committed than ever to getting my Ph.D. and landing the job of my dreams.

This blog is one of the more drastic changes I’m making in my life this year, which explains why this first post is coming in July, not January. I really needed to psych myself up to launch this particular project. I’ve wanted to blog for the longest time, but something’s always held me back: I’m not interesting enough, I won’t have the time, I might make a huge mistake and nuke all my job prospects, I don’t know how to use a computer, etc.

I may well be boring, and yes, sometimes blogging is going to take time away from other more valuable things, but guess what? I have both good judgment AND a content management system! I’m just going to do this already. If other people read it, that’s fantastic. If they don’t, that’s cool too.

So there you have it. I’m laying the foundation and starting to rebuild. I’m well on my way to being the Six Million Dollar Scholar.