I introduce to you the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Media Strategist . . . Me! This is a new position in the newly-created division of Digital Media and Publications at the Library and it should offer lots of exciting opportunities to explore how the Folger’s digital resources develop. Those of you who have been following this blog and my twitter feed will know that I’ve had an ongoing interest in how digital tools might enable new ways of interacting with special collections, ranging from online publications (like the research blog I created for the Library, The Collation) and social media (like @FolgerResearch) to imagining not-yet-realized possibilities like topographies of books and smell-o-meters and virtual vaults. I can’t say yet what directions this new position will take me in, but I am excited to explore what I can do to make the Folger’s digital presence and offerings as inspiring and revolutionary as their physical holdings. Continue reading
What follows is a presentation I gave at the 2013 convention of the Modern Language Association (known fondly by many of us as #mla13) in the session “How Did I Get Here? Our “Altac” Jobs.” The session was a roundtable discussion, with pecha kucha presentations, about “alternative academic” careers. You can watch the slides with my audio, or read the presentation and look at the slides on your own. My thanks to Brenda Bethman and Shaun Longstreet for organizing the panel and to my fellow panelists and to the audience for a great conversation.
“Make your own luck” (MLA 2013)
I am the Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a position I’ve held for six years. It’s a job that combines working in one of the premier special collections of early modern literature and culture with teaching a small number of highly motivated and curious students. This is the story of how I got here.
I did a PhD in English, researching modern feminist performances of Shakespeare. After finishing, I was fortunate to get a two-year teaching postdoc, and after that, a one-year research postdoc. At the end of that, I got married to someone who had a job lined up in a Washington DC law firm, and so we moved and I started my life as an independent scholar.
I spent the next year writing my book at the Folger. During that time, I became friends with a local Shakespearean who told me that her department was looking for someone as a leave replacement. So I spent the next year teaching drama and composition at The George Washington University and the following year as an adjunct at George Mason, a job I found again through my Shakespeare friend.
Then I heard from my friend that the head of the Folger Institute wanted to take a year off. And so Gail recommended me to Kathleen, Kathleen went to write her book, and I ran the Institute for a year. At the end of that gig, another contact asked if I’d adjunct at Georgetown, covering his Shakespeare classes, and so my George-trifecta was complete.
At the end of my year at Georgetown I gave birth to my second child (I’d had the first one after my GW stint) and I spent the following year trying to catch my breath and work out how to mother two children with a spouse who was frequently traveling and parents who were aging more rapidly than I was ready to admit. The lesson I learned was that I was not cut out to stay at home.
Luckily, at that point my friend Gail, by now the Folger’s Director, hired me as a consultant on a planning grant for developing undergraduate programming in book history at the Library. So I became an independent contractor, put together an implentation plan, and then became the inaugural Folger Undergraduate Program Director, a job that I love.
I’ve used the word “luckily” to describe how I got to this place, and I certainly benefitted from luck. I live in a town rich in possibilities for Shakespeare scholarship, and I know people who led me to temporary jobs and to my current career. And for a long time I thought of how I got here as a product of luck.
But another way to think about luck is to see it as the residue of design. I wasn’t simply lucky. I worked hard—persistently and creatively—to be in a position to take advantage of opportunities that might come my way. I didn’t always know what it was that I was working toward, but I was working nonetheless. So here’s another version of the story of how I got my job.
While I was turning my dissertation into a book, I submitted an excerpt to Shakespeare Quarterly. My article wasn’t accepted, but I had a nice correspondence with the editor and our paths later crossed at the Shakespeare Association conference. That editor was Gail Kern Paster, and when I moved down to Washington DC, we were both regulars at the Folger and we would chat about our research.
Because she knew my work, she recommended me to fill in at GW. Because I knew the Folger as a reader and program participant, had administrative experience from grad school, and was an active scholar in Shakespeare circles, I was a good fit for the Institute. By this point, I’d come to know the Folger’s culture and resources and that of faculty, students, and administrators at three of the area’s largest schools.
I’d built a network of colleagues across Washington DC and across the Shakespeare community. When the Folger needed to hire someone who knew the Library and local schools, who had the administrative skills and the intellectual breadth to set up a new program, I met those needs. It wasn’t luck that I got my job, it was years of hard work.
Despite what I’ve just said—what I firmly believe about how I came to this #altac career—it took me a long time to believe that I hadn’t just accidentally lucked into it. I’d never intended to do this line of work. I’d intended to be a tenured faculty member; I spent years on the job market trying to get a job like that. But I didn’t.
Because of that history, among other things, it was hard for me to see the planning that had gone into my good fortune. Because I didn’t get what I thought I wanted, I didn’t think I deserved the thing I’d gotten. As some of you no doubt know, it’s really hard to come out of an unsuccessful job search without feeling like you’ve failed, that you’ve fallen short.
In my case, that feeling was exacerbated by the shape my family life had taken. My low-paying jobs were made possible by my spouse’s high-paying job, and while I was grateful, I also felt like a kept woman. Add to that the problem that his career wasn’t highly relocatable, and that once we had kids, it was not going to be practical for me to live apart from them.
With only part-time work coming my way and small children to raise, I squeezed my teaching and my writing into the hours I had childcare and spent the rest of my time playing and teaching and coaxing my kids to eat and nap and use the toilet and make friends and give me kisses, and while I loved my family, I was exhausted.
How grateful I was, then, to have a real job! How fortunate to be dealt such good luck! Gail Collins, in mulling over Hillary Clinton’s wide-ranging and impressive career to date, with its twists and turns from despised to beloved, wrote that she has played the cards she’s dealt. That’s one way to look at it. But I prefer Hillary’s answer:
“I choose my cards. I choose them. I play them to the best of my ability. Move on to the next hand.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with seeing yourself as the beneficiary of good fortune, except for its flip side: if you got where you are by luck and then your luck dries up? You’ll never get anywhere again. You’ll never be more than your spouse’s appendage.
My point here is that I might not have been actively planning my #altac career, but I was keeping my eye open for opportunities to learn new skills and to meet potential colleagues. The years I thought I was nothing but lucky were the years I was unhappy and insecure. Once I realized my own strengths, I knew I could succeed at other things I wanted to do.
Here’s one thing I went on to do: I knew the Folger needed to do a better job explaining the scholarship we do in publicly accessible terms, and I knew that I could do this. Since my job with the Undergraduate Program was ¾ time, I had ¼ of my time I was willing to use to start a new blog for the Library. And I so convinced them to hire me to start The Collation.
Whether you’re looking for an #altac career or you’re not, my biggest piece of advice to you is not to wait for a giant hand to point you in the right direction. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to see signposts leading you there. You need to make your own luck and trust that you’ll recognize your place when you arrive.
When I was a kid, my father wrote a weekly column for the student newspaper at Michigan State University, where he taught. “The Doctor’s Bag” ran in the State News for six years, from 1969 through 1975. It was eventually syndicated and ran in 50 campus newspapers, with a circulation of around 600,000. What this means, in part, is that when I was little people used to ask me if my dad was “The Doctor’s Bag.” (That’s how they used to phrase it: Is your dad “The Doctor’s Bag?”) I had no idea what the column was; I just knew he wrote it. At some point, I gathered that it was a medical advice column answering students’ questions about all things health related. It wasn’t until I was an adult and Dad sent me copies of the entire run of the column that I sat down and read them.
I can hardly begin to describe how much I love those columns. I love them for what they reveal about college life in America in the early 70s. The questions students asked! They’re what you imagine—a lot of questions about sex and drinking and drugs. But there’s more to them, too, like the struggle of living in a dorm that has more people than your home town. The overwhelming impression you get, reading them all through, is how much they didn’t know, and the pent-up longing to ask someone who will take them seriously and give them real answers. I suppose if I’d read them as a kid I would have been horrified that my dad talked about this stuff, but you know, he was a psychiatrist, so it’s hardly like I didn’t expect him to talk about everything under the sun. As an adult, I’m impressed with how deftly he answers their questions.
I love them, too, for the window into my father’s personality. They are both funny and earnest, just like he was. They lecture sometimes and joke at other times.
And they’re amazing for the controversies they raised. Honestly, reading the columns now, it’s hard to appreciate what the scandal is. But people wrote letters in complaining about them. The head of Albany’s Student Health Services complained:
In June 1970, a couple of Michigan legislators attacked his columns on the House and Senate floors for being “almost indescribable filth” and were outraged that they were being published at a public university. Think of the taxpayers! In 1973 the editor of a student paper was suspended for having printed both disrespectful pictures of Santa Claus and for running my dad’s column. Apparently a mother of a student once sent a letter to my dad chiding him to “think of your own mother before you put these letters in;” little did she realize that Dad did think of his mother and often mailed his column to my grandparents. (They were only disapproving when he appeared in the National Enquirer.)
Today is the 5th anniversary of my father’s death. I miss him. I’ve written before, glancingly, about him in a post on the intangibles of books. I have some of his childhood books, complete with his name carefully inscribed on the inside cover, and I cherish those books, even when I have no desire to read them. Those books are a connection to him. And when someone you love is gone, you need to find connections.
The last years of his life were not good ones. He had cerebral palsy, and while it didn’t really interfere with the bulk of his life—he was an avid biker, faithfully doing the DALMAC ride from Lansing to Mackinaw, even once as 4 days of 100-mile trips—it made his old age miserable. Well, I say old age, but I really mean his 60s, which is not very old. He was only 68 when he did, both much too young and after too much pain and suffering.
I am glad his death has receded enough that I can remember the joy of his life rather than the pain of its end. And I am glad that there are traces of some of that life still online. The digitization of college newspapers means that some of my dad’s columns are available for all to see, along with this Parade magazine piece about the youth of 1974, and, weirdly, a 1996 Weekly World News piece on “how to blow your stack without looking like a butthead!” I’m glad, too, that you can find some of the results that came out of a workshop on cerebral palsy and aging that we held in his honor. There’s a piece from Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology and, if that’s too long, a slide set on the subject.
There’s much of his life that isn’t out there—his photography, his hobby of rebuilding old cars, his bicycling, his woodworking. And his other psychiatric work, the stuff that got published in academic journals, is locked up in their hands (though your library might have a copy of the psychiatric glossary he edited for the APA in 1980). His columns, too, are probably still owned by the syndication company (someday I’ll retrieve his papers from the lawyers and see what his contract stipulated). The bits and pieces of the online traces of my dad add up to someone who is kind of him, but who isn’t all of him. And there was so much of him when he was alive.
It wasn’t until he died that I began to appreciate the staggering challenges of all the stuff we leave behind. There are his newspaper columns, thousands of photographs and negatives, the records of his life. Dad was a pack rat, which makes the task more challenging. And he was enough of a public figure that it’s hard to resist the feeling that someone somewhere might find this material interesting. Not for what it says about him, but for what it says about the times he lived through. Those Doctor’s Bag columns are full of nuggets. At some point, I’ll do something about that. If I was a researcher in the history of medicine, or the culture of mid-twentieth-century America, I’d find useful material in there. And there’s more, too. Maybe someone would want to know this story: My dad volunteered for the Vietnam War after he’d completed med school, but the army wouldn’t take him because of the cerebral palsy—he limped and certainly couldn’t run. And what happened a few years later? They tried to draft him, but he said no: you didn’t want me then, you can’t have me now. I have all that documentation, because that’s the kind of thing he saved. What do I do with that? Is that just family history, or does that mean something to someone else?
I don’t know what the answers to those questions are. Maybe I’ll just hang onto everything until it’s my kids’ turn to deal with it. Is that what happened to all those old books we have in libraries? The immediate family couldn’t bear to get rid of them and so they hung onto them until finally they because old enough to be wanted beyond the family? Maybe. At some point, I suppose, these things either won’t mean anything to anyone, and they can be tossed, or they will be become interesting through sheer survival through the ages. Maybe it doesn’t matter which.
I’m grateful that he wrote these columns and that I can still read them. I’m grateful that he had enough pride in them to save them and to pass them on to his daughters. I’m grateful that he loved us as much as he did, and that when it was time for him to die, that we were there by his side. He taught me how to write, how to use a camera, develop negatives, and print film. We argued about my curfew, butted heads because we were both stubborn, and watched Battleship Potemkin together. I loved him dearly. And I miss him a little bit less when I come across the traces of his life that have been scattered across the world.