I Have A New Job!

new job ahead

Way back in 2014, I wrote a blog post about this history podcast I’d recently discovered called The Memory Palace. In that blog post I described the show as “is all the reminder one needs that history can be not just fun, not just accessible, but freakin’ lyrical.”

In the time since I wrote that post, a good bit has changed at The Memory Palace. The show is now hosted by a different podcasting network, RadioTopia. Radiotopia in turn is run by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, which—per the highest of authorities, Wikipedia—is the largest on-demand catalog of public radio programs available for broadcast and Internet use. So, that’s pretty exciting.

The show is also now released every other week. So, that’s pretty exciting.

The show also now has a Research Assistant. So that’s pretty exciting.

That Research Assistant is me.

So, that’s pretty exciting.


I am of the opinion that things happen for a reason, which is why I couldn’t stop thinking about a recent episode of The Memory Palace, which ended with a call for applications. The show’s host, Nate DiMeo, was looking for somebody to help him out. Shockingly, putting together narrative history podcasts based on archival work is kind of a lot of work, and he’d been doing it all by himself for all these years (which explains why, in the early days, the show didn’t come out very often). Now that he has an actual production schedule, he needed somebody to help him speed the process up a bit.

The announcement he made on the podcast specifically asked for a Ph.D. student studying history in the LA-area.

I am that thing.

I half-heartedly tweeted at Nate, and then promptly went back to the mountain of work under which I was buried at the time. I’m writing a dissertation, teaching two courses of my own in the next six months, and already do a pretty significant amount of extracurricular work—service to the department and the profession, public writing, and intensive pedagogical training. Adding another thing—even a really cool thing—to that list seemed, well, bat-shit insane.

4.1.2016 2.jpgBut I couldn’t get the damned job out of my head. I finally did the thing I always do when I need to be talked out of a bad decision: I called my mother.

She told me I’d be an idiot if I didn’t go after the job. It was… unexpected.

After that, the process went fairly quickly. I sent in my C.V., and wrote up my various and sundry journalism credentials. I also fangirled out just the tiniest bit… and who could blame me? Not only had I listened to every episode of the podcast (going so far as to post about how much I enjoyed it on my blog), I’d gone to the most recent LA live show. I get the impression that even Nate was a little surprised by how freakishly well I fit the job description he’d put out. Short story shorter, I got the job, and now my name appears in the credits of a podcast I love.

I’d be lying if I said taking on a part-time job is easy, even when—like this one—you can make your own hours. It’s also not a choice for which a graduate student is likely to be commended. My advisor is quite possibly the best human on the planet, and she shares a great many of my political commitments. When I told her, her response was, “I’m of the opinion that’s it’s none of my business what you do with your personal life. If you’re happy, I’m happy for you. Just finish your dissertation.” And here’s the thing: I literally can’t imagine a nicer reaction coming from a graduate advisor, which is, to my mind, utterly hilarious. Ph.D. Comics, take note!


It’s not easy taking on part-time work in the home stretch of my graduate career, but I’m loving every minute of it. So, from here on out, in addition to posting about my academic work, and the trials and travails of graduate school, I’m also going to be posting episodes of The Memory Palace. My first episode, “Episode 85 (AKA Leo)” came out last week. Give it a listen if you want to learn about the incredibly bizarre, and dubiously fortunate life of Jackie, the second MGM Lion. And let me know if you have any questions about the work I’m doing! I’ll definitely post about MP again, so I’ll tailor my writing to your interests insofar as I possibly can.


“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.






Hello From the Other Side


Hello. It’s me. How are you?

It’s been a long time since I last posted on this page, but I have a lot to show for my time away, including my first-ever blog post for the African-American Intellectual History Society (of which I’m a huge fan), my first-ever article for the Coordinating Council for Women in History newsletter (CCWH Newsletter), and a brand-spankin’-new post for Nursing Clio. Add to that four or five fellowship applications, accepted CFPs for two national conferences (fingers crossed for a third!), and two nearly-finished chapters of my dissertation. With a list like that, I’ve got myself a hiatus for which no apology need be offered… she typed halfheartedly.

Just because I’m not particularly inclined to apologize for my time away doesn’t mean I want to stay away any longer. As some of you know, I’m a big fan of New Year’s resolutions—and “Academic New Year’s” resolutions, for that matter. So here’s my resolution: I’m going to write for SMDS at least once a month (and twice this month, since I already missed January). This goal is born of the realization that there’s only one person I routinely fail to accommodate in my writing schedule: myself. I don’t miss deadlines for anybody else. It’s not uncommon to talk about writing as a form of exercise, and I’m finding that fitness, be it physical, emotional, or artistic—is not a high enough priority in my life.

I’ve got a list of topics I want to write about that’s about as long as my arm, and I look forward to digging into that list over the coming year. Until then, though, I want to thank your all for bearing with me, supporting my non-SMDS ventures as much as you have, and understanding that, to a certain extent, this—posts like this, where I point out the conjoined nature of my successes and failures as a grad student—is what SMDS is about.


“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 “Suggested Reading” List

I have to apologize to those of you who’ve joined the SMDS RSS feed over the past week or so, because your (much-appreciated) interest in my blog happens to coincide with my needing to step away. A dissertation deadline beckons, so I need to hoard all of my creative juices, gremlin style, until Tuesday, October 23.

Until then, dear reader, I thought I would pass along a “Suggested Reading” list for those of you who are new to the website. These are some of my favorite posts so far, and hopefully offer a little insight into what The Six Million Dollar Scholar is all about.

My grandmother being nutty as she was wont to do.

Nude Models, Pot Brownies, and Frankenfoot: A Tribute to My Grandmother

I wrote this post on what would have been my grandmother’s eighty first birthday. It’s my favorite post because it’s about one of my favorite people; you’ll enjoy it because it’s a reminder that sometimes we don’t need to look very far to find a hero. In my case, I realized I grew up with a brilliant, hardcore feminist in my basement, a woman whose improbable life deserves to be the stuff of books.

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.

What I’m Learning from A Giant Stack of Obituaries

I came home from my most recent research trip with literally hundreds of obituaries, and no immediate use for them. I’ve since discovered that they may indeed have a home in my dissertation. Even if that turns out not to be the case, they were worth the money I spent printing them, because they taught me a lot about myself, about the research process, and about the fiction that is the personal/professional binary.

Dear Diary

This post has a special place in my heart, because it’s probably the single most effective life hack I’ve implemented since starting The Six Million Dollar Scholar. At the time I wrote the post, I’d only been journaling for six days, but today I can report that, for the first time in my life, I have a daily journaling practice. it’s now been almost two months, and I’m still going strong. It’s incredibly rewarding, and—for an historian, anyway—a great reminder that not all archives are brick and mortar.

Taken yesterday.

The Human Thundershirt

Quite possibly the strangest proof-of-concept blog post ever, I demonstrate that my newfound ability to calm the world’s most disturbed canine is a sign that the world needs more blogs like mine. Plus, there’s an abundance of pictures of a sweet baby puppy dog face girl.

When One Door Closes, Make Lemonade

My summer session course ended up being cancelled, a highly improbable scenario realized by a perfect storm of utter lameitude. When I wrote this post, I thought I’d done a pretty great job polishing a gnarly turd of a moment in my teaching career. In hindsight though, it’s nothing short of amazing how everything worked out. After all, while I didn’t anticipate being out of a teaching job, I neither did I anticipate running into medical problems this summer that would have made teaching a damned-near Herculean task. Maybe, just maybe, the universe was looking out for me?

That oughta keep you busy! See y’all again soon!

“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 Benefits of Blogging in Graduate School


I’ve been blogging for a little over two months now, so I think it’s about time I—and, by extension, so-inclined readers—take a step back and analyze this project.

When I started SDMS, my primary goal was to stimulate my scholarly writing. If for no other reason, this is the reason that this blog will live to see another month. And another, and another…

I honestly believe that most graduate students, but especially those graduate students who have a genuine passion for writing, should have a blog, even if they only post to it bi-monthly.

When I blog, my overall productivity goes up. Writing about something that isn’t AIDS or corpses puts me in a “work” headspace without also starting my day off in (let’s face it) the most depressing way possible.

Blogging takes time, but in its own curious way, it’s also a time saver. If I’ve been active on SMDS during the week I sit down to work on, say, an application essay, my sense of overwhelm around said essay diminishes.

The minute I feel dread setting in, all I have to say to myself is “Dude, it’s a two page essay… that’s, like, ONE blog post. I write those things every freaking day, and I do them in an hour. Chill.”

Now, does an application essay actually take me an hour to write? Not a chance. But that’s not the point. The point is that producing creative content on a daily basis is helping me get over the initial psychological barriers that I—that we all—face when justifying our work to others.

I’ll confess, I didn’t go into this little experiment entirely blind. I spent all four of my college years writing and running Bryn Mawr and Haverford College’s shared newspaper of record, The Bi-College News.

The website's changed a bit, and I don't know any of the writers anymore, but I'll always have a soft spot for "The Bi-College News."

The website’s changed a bit, and I don’t know any of the writers anymore, but I’ll always have a soft spot for “The Bi-College News.”

The Bi-Co News was a big commitment. Originally I’d only planned to write the occasional opinion piece, but by second semester of my sophomore year I the Managing Editor (read: second in command) of the whole enchilada. After a year and a half in that position, I did a brief stint as Editor in Chief, a run cut short in part by medical issues, and in part by my discovery that I really didn’t like being Editor in Chief. During my two year reign at the top of the totem poll I was putting anywhere from twenty to forty hours of every week (unpaid, mind you) into that newspaper.

Was I a walking, talking bucket of stress? Yes, yes I was. But I was also, much to my surprise, a better historian. No longer did I pride myself on being obtuse, or spending more time on an essay assignment than my friends had. The long hours spent working on The Bi-Co forced me to strip away at least some of the pretense, and make an argument, already. The clock was ticking. I had to learn how to think fast.

I took a five-year break from literary journalism (which I had come to think of as more self-indulgent than practical) to focus on becoming a fancy academic who produces fancy academic writing.

I now wonder how much better my academic prose—and my blogging—would be if I had budgeted the time to be a complete writer.

SMDS is essentially The Bi-College News 2.0, only with a much smaller staff, a non-existent budget, and self-imposed deadlines. Sometimes the little voice in my head tells me I’m being more self-indulgent than practical. The me that’s actually matured in the past five years knows, however, that the time I put into blogging is time I’m investing not only into my mental health and creative side, but also into the craft of writing history.

The medium itself might not work for everybody—I certainly know those for whom an epic Facebook post probably does what SMDS does for me—but I think we need to see more graduate students writing for public consumption on a regular basis. Now that I’m two months in, and non-academic writing has become a daily habit, I don’t know what I’d do without it.

If you love writing, you need to be writing… even if nobody’s reading.

Lucky for me, some of you ARE reading. I’m thrilled to have your support, and want to keep it!

Since SMDS isn’t going anywhere any time soon, I’d really like to hear from my readers. What kind of posts do you most enjoy? What could you do without? Are there any topics you wish I’d cover that I’ve not yet touched on? Hit up the comments section and let me know what you want, and I’ll do my best to provide 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.





The Archive is Open

Secret archives of the Vatican

I walk a difficult tightrope on this blog. I want to be as authentic as humanly possible, but I’m also a professor-in-training; I don’t want to put anything out into the world that I would have trouble explaining to a hiring committee, to my colleagues, or to my students. So I often find myself debating the merits of a post. The problem with this particular brand of censorship is that it’s entirely too fuzzy. That’s because I haven’t articulated to myself what constitutes fair game.

Just now I found myself sitting in front of my computer for a good ten minutes, contemplating the merits of writing a deeply personal post. While this kind of introspection is a good thing generally, SMDS is first and foremost a personal blog. My logic is simple: teaching difficult material is often the best way to learn that material. I blog about becoming the best scholar and person one possibly can because it’s something I want for myself, something that requires daily work and a willingness to open oneself up to new possibilities.

That’s why—after much hemming and hawing—I’ve decided to talk about what’s happening tomorrow. It’s a routine procedure, but as with most medical procedures, there’s nothing routine about it for me, the patient.

Tomorrow I am going to go to an imaging center, where a complete stranger is going to jab a very large needle into my hip, large enough that it needs to be guided by an X-ray. She or he will then inject contrast fluid into said hip, which—in addition to making abnormalities in the tissue easier to see—will actually push the ball and socket further apart. This is good for imaging purposes, but it feels pretty darned uncomfortable. Imagine a basketball getting filled with air… in your groin. It feels about as odd as that simile reads.

Since the giant needle’s is already positioned, and my mobility has been been seriously compromised by pain over the past few months, my surgeon’s decided that the dye injected into my leg should be followed by a cortisone chaser. He hasn’t diagnosed me yet (he needs to gaze deep into my basketball groin to do that) so we don’t know that cortisone will actually make a difference. It’s worth a shot. It also means, however, that by the time I waddle into the room with the MRI, I’ll be a human water balloon.

That, friends, is all considered “prep.” But take it from me, after that kind of prep, an MRI is decidedly anti-climactic. A claustrophobic metal tube that yells it’s strange language at you for an hour? Yawn.

I was seventeen the first time I had an MRI Arthrogram. I cried after the doctors injected the contrast not because I was in pain (which I was) but because I felt violated.

Not only had my personal space been invaded in a pretty epic way, with an equally epic needle, but in a matter of a minute or so I experienced a new and foreign kind of pain, in a part of my body where pain had never before existed. I’ve had two MRAs in my life, and as best I can tell, that extreme sense of dislocation from one’s own body is something that one only experiences once in their life. After that, your relationship with your body changes. I can’t quite articulate how it changes, but it does.

Tonight, I’m scared. It’s a very routine procedure, I’ve been through much worse, and I’ll be completely fine once I’m on the table, but tonight, I’m scared. I know exactly what’s going to happen to me, and I know that, in a couple of days, the chances are good I’ll feel a little better. But—because I know exactly what’s going to happen to me—I also know that it’s going to feel worse before it feels better. My hip hurts more today than it has in weeks; I can almost feel the basketball inflating.

I’ve long suggested, as have others, that the body is an archive that historians can, and should, read. This is not a unique opinion. In moments like this, though, I realize the body’s archival potential anew. Certainly part of the fear I’m experiencing comes from anticipating pain, from knowing all the ways the procedure could potentially go wrong, and from the fact that ahead of me lies a diagnosis and treatment plan that, for once, I can’t discern ahead of time. While I can’t conquer those fears, I can suppress them, because my rational self is aware that nothing that happens to me now will be as difficult or as painful as the surgeries I’ve already endured.

What I can’t do is close the archive. I became an historian of patient advocacy because it was the best and most fulfilling way to instrumentalize difficult memories, to use them as tools to better our understanding of the human condition. Pain is not so easily harnessed. Narcotic medication is no match for the narrative unfurling inside of me at this moment. Tonight, I have no choice but to bear witness to sensations I filed away years and years ago, hoping never to revisit again. For these few short hours, my archive gets to speak.

I am an historian, and so—to the best of my ability—I’m listening.


“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.


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.

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.