Cotton field in November
Last week on my way home from buying groceries, I passed a cotton field. It’s ready for harvest. The bolls are open and the plants look like they are covered with snow. Until I moved South, I didn’t realize cotton was harvested in the late fall and early winter. I teach about the role of King Cotton in the economy of the antebellum South. I tell my students about the invention of the cotton gin by a Yankee and show them pictures of slaves picking cotton, bags slung over their shoulders. In another class, we talk about what happened to agriculture in the South once slavery was abolished and tenant farming and sharecropping dominated. And when we discuss the New Deal, I show them pictures from the Farm Security Administration’s photography project that includes images of cotton pickers from the 1930s. And, maybe, as I rush toward the end of the semester, I mention in passing the increased use of pesticides and the mechanization and industrialization of farming after World War II, when I talk about the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
But I stop there. I have no real understanding of how cotton is picked and processed after about 1940, other than that machines are involved now in a way they weren’t in the past. I lose the thread. I can remedy this. I’m a historian. I know how to find that thread and finish the story. (Here’s a book that I think will help.) But the thing is, lots of threads get lost and nobody goes to find them. And that got me to thinking about the ways in which knowledge and skills are bequeathed from one generation to another:
Why do some skills get lost and others survive? Continue reading
A huge part of what I do in my job at a regional, state university is service–by which I mean the work I do for my department (history) my college (liberal arts) and my university (MTSU), the professional organizations to which I belong, and the larger Murfreesboro community. So I sit on committees–department, college, and university– advise and mentor students, both undergraduate and graduate, and, when the opportunity arises, give public lectures in the community. And somewhere in there I am supposed to teach and research.
I am not complaining. I love my job and I feel fortunate to have one. I am saying all of this as a preface to pointing out that sometimes it’s tough for me to keep all my ducks in a row. That’s why I am always on the lookout for ways to do my job more effectively or more efficiently.
One of the blogs that gives me lots to think about is Claire Potter’s Tenured Radical. The most recent post talked about the way letters of recommendation can help our graduate students who are in the midst of job searches in this very difficult market. And it prompted me to think about how I can improve the letters I write and about how I can be certain in all my flurry of activity, that I take the time to write a really careful and thorough letter. This was a good reminder that good letter writing is one of the most important things I can do for my students on the job market and that it should be a priority on my list of service obligations.
So I’m starting fresh here. Perhaps I’ll blog more regularly as a result? Ironically, according to the folks at WordPress this is national blogging month (NaBloPoMo). Perhaps that is a good omen.
We have reached the point in the semester where my students are about to begin taking notes for their semester projects. I require a research project in both my history survey and the upper division class I teach in cultural and intellectual history. Note taking is hard and I get a lot of resistance to it. The research culture is changing generally and people like to “clip” what they need from the Internet or make photocopies of their sources or use post-it notes to mark the pages in a book that are relevant. Then, when they are ready to write, they spread their sources around them and try to figure out what belongs and what doesn’t.
Here’s why I don’t think that’s a good idea for a historian:
|Presbyterian Church, Savannah, GA
So in February I presented a paper at the 7th Savannah Symposium sponsored by the Savannah College of Art & Design. The conference theme was the Spirituality of Place. In my ongoing professional identity crisis, I have claimed I am neither a religious historian nor an architectural historian and yet there I was presenting a paper that flirted with those very themes. I say flirted because the paper was really for a third audience that was not there–those interested in the literature of place. I talked about Natalie Goldberg‘s Long Quiet Highway, her memoir about how she came to the practice of Zen Buddhism and writing. Place (New Mexico and Minneapolis), space (the bigness of the Southwest), and the built environment (Santa Fe adobes and Minneapolis clapboards) played a key role in that journey.
So my book came out in February of 2009 and it has been an agonizingly slow process to choose another project. Of course, writing the book was agonizingly slow too. So many things I want to do. So many things to distract me from a new research and writing project.
Because research and writing are hard and it’s so much easier to let the demands of daily living eat up your time. I knew one thing for sure, though, I was NOT going to write about religion. I was fed up with it. It had, in the process of studying it, become foreign to me. I was puzzled by how narrow and exclusionary it seemed. How rigid. (And I was studying liberals.)
Why study it? Why blog about it? Why bother? Well, I read somewhere that you should blog about your passion and cultural history is mine. It’s hard to explain. I know, particularly in these difficult political times when so much is at stake, that cultural history can seem frivolous and too much like nostalgia. But cultural history is really about values and values inform our choices at every moment of every day and hence our politics–even when we don’t realize it.
I’ve tried a couple of other blogs that didn’t “take” partly because doing stuff and writing about it (i.e. a garden) takes a lot of time. But I write about cultural history for a living so some of that can spill over in to my blog. I’m hoping that reading a blog about cultural history will help my readers think about what they value and to make choices more consciously as a result. That would make blogging worth doing.