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I tweeted earlier tonight “The further I get in my PhD program, the riskier it feels to publish a blog post.”

This is entirely true. When I was writing for class, I not only had readily provided topics to blog about, but I had a deadline and the illusion of a limited audience. Before September 2011, blog posts were a way of chewing on thoughts that didn’t fit within the scope of my job as Research Database and Records Manager. These days, however, I have so many other things taking up my time: I now work full time at RRCHNM, I’m writing my dissertation prospectus while also trying to do some secondary research, I plan to do my comprehensive oral exams in April, and I also have a life beyond work and school.

I can come up with ideas for posts, but I have trouble making the time to smooth out the ideas from a few rough sentences into something that feels safe to put out into the world. It is, as a I tweeted, an odd combination of being aware of how wide an audience my posts might now have and the impostor syndrome which is apparently all too common in graduate school. And apparently I’m not alone in my anxiety: thus far, that tweet has 12 favorites and 2 retweets, along with a whole host of responses.

The responses were more than just “me too.” There was sympathy, empathy, examinations of why we all feel such stumbling blocks about blogging. They have kept coming as a I started to write this post, which is part of why I’m still writing it.

I was going to try and sit down to write about this past weekend, when I went to the Southern in the person of Megan Brett, Graduate Student Representative of the Southern Association for Women Historians. How I attended a panel titled “Mentoring Women” and listened to professors talk about trying to help young women find their place in the academy, realizing as I listened that I’ve never doubted that place. My mother was a professor, my advisers at the BA, MSc, and PhD level are all women, and there has always been a host of intelligent, witty women in my life who have encouraged me, even by their mere presence. I have, in that regard, been very lucky.

And as I tweeted, I am lucky to have a supportive community (of persons of all gender identities) online and in person who reach out when I doubt myself, to say “I’ve been there” and “You can do it.” Knowing those people are out there makes a huge difference. The communities we have are a huge resource in doing what we love, whether that’s getting a PhD, being a historian, teaching, or running a shop.

Thanks y’all.

The Man Behind the Curtain

In case you don’t recognize the source of the post title, it’s from the Wizard of Oz (the film). All four travelers are in the Emerald City, awed by the Wizard, and then Toto pulls aside a little curtain to reveal an ordinary person. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” says the Wizard, a little desperately. But they don’t.

I love that quote. It’s partly about magic, which is based on misdirection, but rather than misdirect it somehow draws attention to what you’re not supposed to see. I love seeing how things work, whether a car engine or a museum. I also like being part of the world behind the curtain.

I’ve been aware of the world behind the curtain for years. When I was four or five years old, I started ballet and theatre classes, both of which culminated in productions. I’ve known about green rooms and lighting technicians and all the work which goes into a show for almost my entire life. My mother was, for my entire childhood, a professor, and so I never wondered where teachers went at night. I knew that, like my mother, they went home to families. When I was in high school, I volunteered at the museum I had frequented as a child, and for the first time experienced the delicious pleasure of walking through a door labeled “STAFF ONLY”.  I have always known that there was a backstage, and enjoyed working there.

One of the startling realizations for me, working as I do behind a curtain at a museum, is how many people don’t seem to know that the curtain is even there. A number of people, when I tell them where I work, ask if I’m a guide, and are surprised that there’s anything else to do at a museum. Some visitors are likewise surprised to find that there are buildings not open to the public; I can see them thinking “but what do they do in there?” And there was the one volunteer who interrogated me about our operations, apparently unwilling to believe that a non-profit museum still operated like many other organizations, with financial and administrative departments (but then, he also assumed the entire curatorial department were volunteers).

I am not entirely sure how to change this, or if it should be changed. At my institution, we are in the process of furnishing a historic house, and our guides talk about the work that goes into this effort. This is a start, and hopefully gives people an idea of what curators and museum researchers do. I wonder if there is more I could do, individually, or if just explaining my job at coffee hour at church and such places is enough.

Have other people encountered this lack of understanding, of awareness of the backstage at museums and historic sites etc.? Are there better or worse ways of explaining, of opening the Staff Only door (figuratively, anyway)?

The concept of personal space

I have never studied this formally, either from the perspective of a sociologist or historian, but I often find myself thinking about how quickly we (generic Americans and Europeans) have come to believe that our concept of “personal space” and housing are absolute, when in fact the way we live has changed in the past, say, 100 years.

I first really started to think about this in the context of historical reenacment, specifically creating historic costuming. It is very easy to say that all working women must have worn front-lacing dresses (16th c.) because it’s hard to lace yourself into something that’s on your back! Besides the fact that spiral lacing makes this much easier, the simple fact is that (most) working women would not have been getting dressed alone. They would have lived all their lives with other people around them – parents, siblings, spouses, children. There would have been someone to help them with the fiddly bits of getting in and out of clothing which laces and pins together.  Realizing that was an Aha! moment for me, but as I continue to research and build historical clothing (when you get it right, it’s clothes, not costumes), I see that a lot of people do not realize how very different the day-to-day life was in the period they are recreating.

The lack of private residence in history was also prominent in my mind this time last year, when I had just started my job and was looking for housing. I have never in my life lived all on my own. I lived with my parents, my sister, with people in a dorm, or with housemates; last year I thought that this was somehow a failing on my part. Moving out on your own is a sort of rite of passage for middle-class American kids, proof that we have achieved some form of adulthood. And yet, I realized, that’s a fairly new concept. Not moving out of your parent’s house, but the idea that it has to be somewhere that you are the only person eating, sleeping, and paying rent.

These thoughts are still bulding in my mind. I still make front-lacing dresses (there are some pictoral examples), and I think it might be nice to have a place which is just mine (but in a rowhouse or apartment building). Somehow, however, in this world where people increasingly text faraway friends instead of talking to the friends nearby, where people seem to be getting more connected and more isolated, I think it is helpful to remind them (us) that we used to live a lot closer together. If nothing else, it might explain why we sometimes get lonely in our shiny one-person apartments.