Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Bitchy and Yet Good Day; or, I Give Myself Gold Stars

I haven't written this week; or, rather, I haven't written on this blog this week because all of the words that I write seem either too personal, or too whining, or too bitchy (believe it or not, I do have limits in all three areas), or too something that made them not quite right for consumption even as a blog post. Those words went into the journal. Today, however, there is a sort of balance: I'm having a very bitchy day, and yet it is turning out to be a pretty good day, so my words aren't so messy.

I'm feeling frustration about many things in my life. That frustration creates the chaos in my writing. Today, the frustration came from two sources, both of which made me grumpy. The first involves this college fellowship in which I am involved. While the program seemed very exciting, I think I expected something more scholarly both from the fellowship participants and from the presenters at our meetings. Instead, I'm getting The Discovery Channel. When they asked for feedback from us in order to improve the fellowship, I gave mine -- nicely! -- and got a snippy retort in front of the whole group. The retort went something like this, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all; and if you feel the need to say something not nice, then it's all your fault." All of my powers of self-control kept me from responding, "So, when you asked for feedback, you really meant praise." I give myself a gold star for keeping that to myself.
In any case, this fellowship has wrought havoc on my schedule, and causes me a great deal of stress in getting from it to my class afterward. I wouldn't be so critical of the content if I didn't have that stress. After all, it isn't completely excruciating, and they are paying us for our time; but, because of that stress and because I'm not really getting anything out of the fellowship, I'm feeling that the time (and sanity) is more valuable to me than the paycheck.

While I stewed on the "if you don't have anything nice to say" retort, I had to lead a discussion on women's history and Catherine Clinton's new book Mrs. Lincoln (I tell you, I was done with Lincoln a long time ago, but you have to keep the masses happy, so I tried a new tactic through his wife). This is a sort of community outreach thing that the college does, and usually consists of college staff and retirees. They are overall quite fun and engaging. If only all of our students were so willing to discuss and debate! Still, I forget how rarified my existence can be in relation to history until I walk into these discussions.

Before I finished my embarassingly superficial overview of the study of women's history, one of the men could not contain his objection. "Why does it have to be called 'women's history'?" he asked. "Isn't it all JUST history?" I'm sure if you study any specialized field, you've met with this reaction. My canned response is that doctors specialize in cardiothoracic surgery or oncology and it is all medicine, so all that historians are doing is specializing in the same way. He didn't buy it, and then he wanted to talk about "truth." The only truth that I have found about "truth" is that everyone is seeking it and everyone has a different version of it.

No matter how often you explain the concept of specialization and interpretation, most people still think that historians are all generalists and that we all just make shit up when it comes to interpretation. I've learned to handle these discussions, and have taken into account that I was dealing with a generation much older than myself. Still, it was hard to ignore that all of the men at the table have this old 19th century Whiggish interpretation of history, and this concept that there is a "truth" out there (and historians are somehow concealing it), while all of the women were amenable to the concept of interpretation and to the history of women. I give myself a gold star for dealing with these questions rationally, and with the intent to instruct, even if I did not suceed.

I relate these complaints because last night, in preparation for my talk at this discussion, I watched the video of Mary Ryan's talk at the OAH and read through some of the online discussion of Judith Bennett's book. I kept thinking, "was my education ever deficient!" (partly my own fault) and "wow, am I out of date!" and "I just don't have the intellectual steam to do this sort of work!" Which is to say, I was feeling very non-academic. Then, I had these two encounters and I began feeling all too academic. Put these two feelings together, and you have a grown woman feeling like an adolescent who doesn't fit in anywhere. (We will be taking that to analysis next week.)

Of course, this is the story of my life: puttering between two extremes.

Good news came anyway. I was accepted to an NEH summer institute. Furthermore, this institute is in the next city over. No flying commercial airlines! I didn't see this as a validation of my own academic credentials. Instead, I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to talk about a fascinating subject in complex ways with people who are smarter and more informed about it than I am. My brain felt that it would be fed and engaged, rather than frustrated and annoyed. I give myself gold stars for for the acceptance and for the healthy response.


Ink said...

Flinging more gold stars your way. I can't believe someone would be so snippy, especially in that situation. You were a model of patience and self-control.

Whenever someone says that line, I always think of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's pillow, stitched with "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit by me." :)

Ann said...

I'm with Ink. I wouldn't have held my tongue, so I admire your restraint and your commitment to keeping things on an intellectual plane.

As for your troublesome interlocutor--he's like a RL version of some of the creeps who have shown up in the Bennett discussions to lecture us about "ghettoization," to shame me in particular about my "tone" and my "language," and to generally interrupt a serious conversation among feminists. I don't want to make you any angrier, but I seriously doubt that this guy would have presumed to lecture you about what real history is and what the "truth" is if you were one of your male colleagues leading a discussion of a book on environmental history, political history, or some other subfield of history. (That is to say that I don't think that other subfields get called into question nearly as much as women's history does. Nothing else seems nearly as exasperating to some mindsets!)

And--you haven't filled us in on Clinton's book: is it good? What did you like/not like/etc.? I've considered reading it this summer, since a high school history teacher of mine who was usually very sensible was one of those Lincoln fans that hate Mary Todd and never failed to say that she was unbalanced, crazy, a shrew, a witch, etc.

Susan said...

This discussion of interpretation/opinion mirrors a conversation I had with a student yesterday. He's writing a thesis (a requirement) and he'd got all confused about the difference between analyzing and making judgments and having opinions. It was a little scary. I finally said to him, Well, if you read this speech, and you write that the most important thing in this speech is X, that's interpretation. And presumably you could explain why it's the most important idea. Etc. But he really wanted to write about his hero worship of Bobby Kennedy. Sigh.

Rea P said...

Kudos to you for dealing civilly with the Overbearing Gentleman. I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but you're right - they are very 19th c. Whiggish, aren't they?

When you live and work in one language (academics, non-profits, museums), it is very easy to forget that not everyone speaks the language, and fret over your own apparent lack of fluency. Every now and then it's nice to be reminded that we know more and less than we think.

Hahn at Home said...

I'm just thinking it's good you don't have to fly.



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