Saturday, April 18, 2009

Resolving Frustration through Bitching.

I've been quite frustrated lately. Some of it relates to the crap that gets dug up in analysis (that's another story for another time). Some of it is a by-product of stress, and a lot of that stress comes from how my time gets used or abused, both by myself and by other sources.

One of the sources of my frustration is an internal fellowship offered by my college. Participation in this fellowship is absolutely an honor and a privilege because the applications were quite competitive and because we meet with some world famous curators of museums that you have heard of -- that everyone has heard of. Yet, I'm not feeling so honored and privileged. In fact, I'm losing respect for some of these curators, not so much for their ability to put together an exhibit -- all of the exhibits are naturally world-class -- as for their complete ignorance history and of the goals of our fellowship. In fact, this fellowship, which I was so looking forward to for nearly a year, has not really met up with my expectation (which were probably too high) nor their descriptions (which, on reflection, were sort of vague).

The organizers of this fellowship had decided that the theme this year should be "social justice." Such a theme would fit with all of my classes, and I had hoped that this fellowship would show me new and creative ways to look at exhibits that would then help me to focus and refine my current assignments. They also promised us "behind the scenes" tours of museums.

I confess that, on that last point, I had visions of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. No one could maintain those high standards, and I knew it. Still, at the very least, I expected the "curator's tour" of an exhibit, which was explicitly listed as one of the activities of the fellowship. With the exception of the smallest and most neglected museum of the fellowship, we did not get any behind the scenes tours.

Nor did we get a curator's tour of any exhibit. We sometimes did not even have time to go through the exhibits without a guide. "Oh, you can do that on your own time," came the response to complaints. "This isn't about seeing the exhibits, this is about the discussions with the curators." Actually, we don't discuss until the last 15 or 20 minutes of the 3 hour gathering, and the problems with that will become apparent in a moment.

As for the theme of "social justice," only one of the museums offered up their best exhibits for that subject. All of the others opted instead to give us the rotary club presentation of their newest and coolest exhibit. In once case, they gave us the rotary presentation for two exhibits that haven't been up for 5 and 10 years respectively. Furthermore, when asked about social justice in relation to the featured exhibit or even the museum as a whole, most of the curators were completely unprepared for the questions.

One curator, who came in second on pissing me off, explicitly dismissed the subject from his exhibit, and therefore discussion. When one fellow asked if he could recommend other exhibits that might be helpful in teaching about social justice, he replied, "oh, you'll just have to look around." (To completely brag on myself, I later gave about five or ten examples of places in the museum where that fellow could find the subject either discussed or implied in the exhibits. She was thrilled and told me that was the most useful part of that day's seminar.)

By the way, the curator who pissed me off the most said that historians lump all Native Americans into one category, making no distinction between tribes, and describing them all as "savages." Has he not read a book published in the past 30 years on the subject? Furthermore, that museum hadn't even got the memo for the "social justice" theme.

So, I voiced my concerns. Some of the other fellows chimed in. We then received long responses about how we were expecting to be "spoon fed," that we shouldn't expect the curators to be "experts in social justice," that we need to look at what "is absent" from the exhibits, and that we need to look at the absence as an opportunity for discussion. That is one approach; but that was not the approach that was offered up to us at the beginning of the fellowship.

None of us expect the curators to be experts in social justice, but we do expect them to have thought about the subject in relation to their exhibit or museum since they are participating as a sort of "faculty" member in a fellowship that has been geared toward the subject. If, as we were told, "they have to grapple with issues of social justice every day," we expect them to be able to speak to that. Furthermore, we do ask about the absence of this theme in some exhibits, and the curators are again unprepared.

I had started to complain about the problem, but decided that a more productive way to engage would be through suggestions of ways that the fellowship could be improved. When I suggested that the fellowship organizers include people from the museums' education departments to address teaching tools, I was told, "oh, they only do K-12 and wouldn't be any help." I suggested collections management staff so that we could discuss how materials are collected and the political implications of collection or lack of collection. The response was, "oh, they wouldn't be help either." Then, I suggested that they dump such a theme as "social justice" and focus on something more general like "museums as a tool in college education" or something more complicated like "museums as culture-making institutions." I was told that a more general theme would be too boring, and I haven't heard back about the second suggestion.

See, I was trying to give them feedback, which they ask for constantly, "because we want to know what you think so we can improve." I was voicing a frustration that was shared by other fellows, and rather than just bitching about it, I gave suggestions. All of thiss was dismissed, then followed by a lecture on how the fellows weren't approaching the fellowship in the correct way. I took this as, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, and the fact that you don't have anything nice to say is all your fault."

I later learned from someone, who had her own set of frustrations in the same fellowship a few years back, that she got the same impression as well. "They ask for input," she told me, "but I think what they mean is praise."

This all bothers me for a variety of reasons. First, as a historian, I'm really disgusted that two curators in charge of major historical exhibits seen by thousands of people in a single day are either ignorant of research into their subject or are creating exhibits that rely upon and perpetuate myths. Second, I'm worried that I'm now considered a trouble maker, a malcontent, someone who is not grateful for this opportunity, and "not a team player," and that this could adversely affect me down the line. I know that I will no longer be the person asked to promote this fellowship on my campus. This is not at all the path that I want to follow.

Finally, I'm wondering if I could have handled my frustration in more constructive ways. What link in this "feedback" chain am I missing that causes them to become so defensive? What about me causes me to become defensive? Am I not creating that "criticism sandwich"* well enough to be heard constructively? Am I interpreting some of the discussion on the problems of the fellowship as being more hostile than they are and reacting to that? Am I too stressed in general to be positive about anything? Am I simply really a perpetual malcontent?

Did I have too high expectations, thinking that this fellowship would be more challenging, more scholarly, and include more pedagogy than it does; and so was destined to be disappointed? Do I already know too much about museums, too much about some of the content covered in these museums, and too much pedagogy on using these museums for assignments for this fellowship to be useful to me; and again was I destined for disappointment?

Am I too terrified of being perceived as rude or directly challenging the curator if I voice some of my critique of the exhibits during the discussion period? Is that, as a result, a failure on my part to bring my experience to bear on the discussion and therefore move it forward?

Also, I suppose another question here is, "how does a person survive a bad fit in a good way"?

I'm trying to work out my frustration here through bitching. It's sort of like a big tangled knot that I'm trying to unravel without making it any worse. I tend to make such knots worse or just walk away from them. Neither approach is particularly useful in this case, so I'm trying to figure out a third alternative that is not yet among my resources for conflict resolution.

*Criticism sandwich: First you say something complimentary, then you give your criticism, then you say something complimentary again.


John Russell said...

I find it troubling that a curator at a major museum couldn't even bullshit his or her way through a social justice question, even if there wasn't notice that this would be talked about. Social justice is so broad that they should be able to chat about it for at least 20 minutes, or at least turn the question around and make the fellows talk about it for longer. I would guess that many of the other fellows took away from the experience that "curators aren't scholars," "our museums are run by incompetents," or worse, "public history is not good history."

I liked your suggestions and they would have made for really interesting discussions: there are many important conversations to be had about museum education (even if they "only do K-12") and a talk about collections/collecting would also be great. Maybe we're biased since we've had to think about these things in library or quasi-library settings.

I'm not sure what you might have done differently to make the situation more useful, other than to forgo providing input and just co-opt the whole process by starting your own conversations. Maybe institutions that don't want to change should be ignored (at least in this context).

Belle said...

I don't think it's you. I think, based on my own similar experience, that there are such weird and diverse expectations that the people handling the fellowship are defensive because they got caught. As for the curators, they were likely not told what was coming and weren't prepared for real scholars.

What a drag.

dykewife said...

territoriality...damn, that sucks. and ever worse when you feel hog tied from giving recommendations that might make things better.

i can't think of a thing to suggest to you. being on the absolute tag end of my last semester of classes i'm finding myself somewhat short of diplomacy and tact (redundant, i know, but that's the way i roll right now). personally, i'd just let loose, but i don't have an academic career to think about. i'm too crass for that kind of subtlety.

Ann said...

I'm a little unclear on the scope and purpose of this fellowship program based on your description, but whatever the details, I really wonder why those curators and institutions bothered to participate at all. If they were going to give you the same tour they'd give to 8th graders, and/or not bother to prepare any materials or answers for any of the fellowship's stated purposes, then really--why? What do they get out of it?

"Teaching American History" grant money? A line on their CV about "education" and "community outreach?"

Our first-year public history graduate students could have run the show much more competently than these $m!t8$0n!@n "scholars." (Just a wild guess.) And as to that comment about historians "making no distinction between tribes, and describing them all as 'savages'"--this may also reflect the prejudice of anthropology, as much as ignorance of ethnohistory. That doesn't excuse it of course, but it may help contextualize the slam.

Clio Bluestocking said...

John: Yeah, you would think after all of their years in the business, they would be able to bullshit better! I'd like to think that collecting as an important part in preserving and interpreting history could be interesting to the other fellows. They may not all be historians, but they are intelligent people. You are also right that this experience is frustrating at least one or two others who are beginning to doubt the effectiveness of museums for education.

Belle: That's good to know that others have had similar experiences. There are several different disciplines represented in the fellowship both among the fellows and the museums. We are going to the Zoo next week, would you beleive? How they thought that would be a good fit for "social justice" is beyond me. I'm not really sure what the curators expected, or how they were prepared. I shudder to think that they heard "community college teachers" and thought "grade 13 teachers," or were told "teachers" and automatically assumed "grade school teachers," or got a memo and just put the talk on their calendar without a second thought about their audience.

Dykewife: I've noticed, from my limited experience, that there is a lot of territoriality in museums for some reason. I think dwindling resources and fear of being laid off and replaced by an intern.

Do you have the t.v. show "House" up there? (Do you have a t.v.?) I was watching that yesterday and had such fantasies about being as obnoxiously direct as the character House. No tact, no diplomacy, just cut through the bullshit.

You are rolling into the home stretch on school, now, aren't you? Good luck!

Historiann: With any luck, perhaps your public history students will end up at these museums and provide better programs!

Thanks for mentioning the anthropology/history divide. I think the curator in question was probably an anthropologist, based on some of his presentation. I also think that his slam on historians was part of his schtick for the general public.

You do have to wonder what they are getting out of this. I think the museum system here (begins with S and ends with -onian, if you catch my drift) wants to build up a museum-going base with college students -- kind of an extension of the programs for grade schools. Our school can meet these "general education competencies" in creative ways that accreditors just LURVE.

The fellowship itself is funded with private money from a donor who flings a lot of cash toward these museums and internships within the museum system, which is pretty cool, but could also be part of the motivation for both museums and college.

The curators here seem to be the weak link. They might get a c.v. line out of it, but at their level, how much can that matter? They also get to show off something on which they worked for a considerable amount of time, which must be nice. Otherwise, we aren't that high on their list of priorities.

Bavardess said...

FWIW, it sounds like you took all the right steps to voice your concerns. Very frustrating for you, as the fellowship in its current form sounds like it's a big waste of everyone's time. Is it possible for you and your fellows (fellow-fellows? co-fellows?) to put together some formal written feedback for the organisers, noting the positive outcomes but also respectfully and constructively pointing out the weaknesses (both in terms of what you were led to expect and what was delivered)? It probably won't help you at this point, but may lead to improvements in the future.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Bavardess, welcome! I'm hoping that you are right, that my feedback as well as the others will help improve the program.

Since I have been the most vocal in my frustrations, I now have to meet with the fellowship coordinator. With any luck, they want to talk with me about ways that I see for the fellowship to improve. I, of course, feel as if I've been summoned to the principal's office for disruptive behavior. Other, similar meetings of this sort have usually felt like, "so, you are disatisfied. What are YOU going to do about it?" Less and less do I buy that "you get out of it what you put into it" crap.

Babu said...

This sounds like a lame ass conference for junior college faculty the OAH put on last summer. They had a couple of explanations for there suckitude. One was that the grant that funded the program required it to work the way it did, which may or may not apply to your situation. The other was that in the past junior college faculty complained when that got something like a seminar instead of a passive lecture. Junior college is funny like that. Some are college faculty who keep up with their fields, others are basically 13th grade teachers. I don't know if your lame program was because of feedback from lamewads in the past, but it's possible. It would also explain why you're going to the zoo for social justice.

As to the curators being unaware of history, to be honest I don't think that's all that unexpected from them. At the OAH thing, they took us on a tour of the restored 19th century courthouse in Dallas. They made a big deal in the tour of how they made all the little details of the courthouse correct. In the Q&A, I asked them how black people got into the place, whether they used the main door or had a separate entrance. They didn't know and apparently never thought to ask while they were getting all the little details right.

Hahn at Home said...

I can't speak to museum curators, but I can speak to the growing culture of "no." Those unwilling or unable through lack of gifts to see outside of their small purview, to stretch beyond the myopic world in which they live.

I deal with it almost every day. It's frustrating and annoying. I'm sorry you had to go through this and will continue to go through such a time.

I reach back to some saying some dude attached to social justice said a long time ago, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

I think his name was Martin Luther King, Jr.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Lori: Ow! That must be so frustrating to deal with the money people. On the one hand, you are so happy and grateful that they are helping out. On the other, they want way more control over the project than perhaps they should be entitled. It's like they are buying your services rather than helping you meet a goal. In this fellowship, I learned that one of the exhibits that we visited was funded by some significant oil money. The exhibit was on oceanography, and had a tiny bit about the carbon footprint of humans on the oceans. It deal with how individual people pollute, but ignored the ways that industries muck up our waters.

I like that MLK quote.

Babu: On your first point, I think that might be some of what is going on here. Many of the people in the fellowship are writing instructors with master's degrees in education. (I feel like I'm sounding snobby in saying that.) So, they wouldn't be keyed into the historical questions that I ask (and sometimes they do raise my hackles with the "I read a history book/saw a program on the history channel so now I know as much as you with your PhD" attitude). They also haven't been in the museum business, so they are a little more impressed with the curators on principle than I am. This lead them to be less critical of the fellowship.

Until this week. Suddenly they find their own critical voices, and the criticism in one or two cases was downright bitchy. The museum was "too out of the way," the curators "weren't dynamic speakers," the exhbits "weren't of the same quality as the other museums," and the staff "wasn't doing anything." Well, yes, the museum wasn't on the Mall or within walking distance of a Metro station (but a bus would drop you off at its door -- that's the route I was taking). The curators weren't any more or less dynamic than the others, and they in fact engaged us as if we were a more scholarly group than the others. The staff were doing their jobs, it's just that behind-the-scenes museum work isn't all Indiana Jones all the time. As for the exhibit, this museum receives less funding than the others in the system, they don't have a permanent collection on exhibit as the others do, and their items weren't as sexy as in the other collections. This was a community museum in a downtrodden community, and they actually dealt with our social justice theme.

I probably wouldn't be as sensitive on this as I am, except that this has been the only museum or exhibit in our fellowship that is dedicated to African Americans. 18 out of 20 of our fellows are white. About fifteen of those teach out in the suburban campuses. So, you can see the dots that I was connecting.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, this point really hit home for me for a few reasons.

First, I had a very similar experience in grad school. I knew WAY more of my subject area than most of my peers and, apparently was WAY more forward-thinking than any of the so-called professors in my program.

I was completely unprepared for this. I was angry and completely blindsided by what happened next.

I took the same route- trying to suggest improvements. On my own, this did not work and backfired on me. At the time, there was really no blogging yet, so I didn't have anyone to talk to about any of it.

A few years later, the program was improved somewhat, thanks to the efforts of a class of students that had more ideas similar to mine (but with no help from me). So I would second the suggestion that if you could get several (ideally many or all) other students to put forward a proposal, that would be more likely to have an impact. You might have to wait or search for other students of like-mind.

You sound so much like I did in grad school, and I really admire your anger and devotion to your subject. I have lost most of that now, thanks to being beaten down by the system and unable to find other like-minds.

On another note, I think you sound like a visionary who is thinking of museums and curators as they should be, and not as they are now. I have the same problem in my field. It's incredibly frustrating not to have an outlet for these things, or to be told (as I was recently on the blog DrugMonkey) that I need to quit daydreaming.

At the crossroads of these topics, I went to an exhibit recently on a science-related topic and was flabbergasted at how inaccurate, out of date, and sexist it was. It was really disappointing, but I'm not sure whether writing to the curators would make any difference?

I worry that most academic pursuits, not just universities but also museums and zoos, are stuck and stagnating and in dire need of revolution.

I'm not sure what to do about it besides trying to find more like-minded types and, I don't know, start a revolution?


Unless noted otherwise, copyright for all written content held by Clio Bluestocking.