Community History and Public Memory

Yesterday afternoon I stood outside my parish church (ECUSA) with other residents of our town to witness the dedication of a plaque. The text of the plaque reads:

With gratitude and repentance we honor the Enslaved People whose skills and labor helped build the Falls Church.

It sits next to the plaque honoring the architect, James Wren, an equal distance from the church. The effort to commemorate the unnamed people who built the church (for which the town is named) started with members of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation over a decade ago, and the celebration yesterday included members of the Foundation, the parish, other local churches, local reenactors, and city residents. The dedication even made the local news.

Within the city of Falls Church, the plaque is part of efforts to increase the visibility of the African American community. The new complex on Tinner Hill preserved the stone arch commemorating the first rural branch of the NAACP and inscribed a timeline, of sorts, into the sidewalk along Lee Highway leading up to the arch. Given that Falls Church city became an independent municipality in the late 1940s largely to gain control of the schools, these efforts for creating new sites of public memory are particularly important.

There are also currents within the Episcopal Church to recognize its involvement in the practice of racial slavery. The Diocese of Rhode Island, rather than closing a cathedral with declining attendance, has changed the space to a Center for Reconciliation, specifically acknowledging and exploring the involvement of the Diocese in the slave trade.

With much of the conversation about public monuments in the last few years dominated by questions of how to deal with memorials we may no longer celebrate, it is interesting to take a moment to think about how new memorials and monuments are created and how they, too, can shape public conversations about (community) history.

Writing Warm Ups

One of the challenges of working on a PhD while also working a full time job is the (self imposed) pressure to maximize your productivity during the time you have to write. In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard for me to just sit down and write, and I realized that I’m trying to start cold. When I go to the gym, I warm up; why not do the same for writing?

Woman running past a sign
The Great Run

So I’m going to try doing 5-10 minutes of “warm up writing” before I try to write anything I actually care about. Beyond that, however, I’m still figuring out just what these warm ups are going to look like. I am going to try both subject-relevant writing and more general “write everything you did in the last hour” or “a paragraph on something awesome research related you found this week.”

Have you tried writing warm ups? How do you get in the right mindset to write, especially when you know you only have an hour or two?

Reading Fiction in Grad School

During my first year in my PhD program, my mother bought me the first five books in a mystery series as a birthday gift. I was both pleased and frustrated. Pleased because it was a series I wanted to read and annoyed because I knew the books would sit on a shelf, unread, as I worked through readings for class (my birthday falls in the beginning of the Spring semester). And, indeed, three and a half years later I’ve only read three of the books. For someone who loves to read, graduate programs can be a mixed blessing, especially if the Shoulds and Ought-Tos of the grad student mindset make you feel guilty for reading anything that’s not directly related to your degree.

two shelves of books, a ukulele on the top shelf.
My books, my father’s ukulele.

I have, however, just found a solution which works for me. A few weeks ago, a friend posted an article on Facebook reiterating that it’s a bad idea to have screen time just before you fall asleep. This article states that the National Sleep Foundation suggests reading actual paper books as a relaxing activity. Hardly a new thought, at least for me. The number of bedtimes which were extended just long enough to “finish this chapter!” in my childhood probably exceeds the number which went as scheduled. Yet like many people my bedtime book had been replaced by bedtime apps, checking social media one last time before setting the alarm app and trying to sleep.

After reading the article, I decided to experiment. For the last three weeks I’ve kept a book on the nightstand. I read one or two chapters each night or, in the case of the current volume, one short story. Admittedly, I broke my “one or two” rule when I got down to the final four chapters of a mystery novel because I just had to find out what happened. I can’t say for certain that I’ve been sleeping more soundly, but I am enjoying the downtime. I don’t feel guilty for reading, because just before bed was never a time I did academic work anyway. Nor do I feel guilty for devouring a book in a single afternoon in an attempt to enjoy some fiction without taking up too much time. Although the Chapter Before Bed might not work for everyone, I know that I have found a sweet spot which lets me enjoy fiction without stressing about my reading habits.


I like to say that I am a second-generation digital humanist. My father, George H. Brett II, became interested in computers in the late 1970s, helped the University of North Carolina system evaluate computers/operating systems, was the first sysadmin of the Humanities listserv, and worked for decades in what was then humanities computing.

It was my Dad who introduced me to email, mu*s, html, terminal, servers, the internet, the world wide web, twitter, and THATCamp, along with countless other things which aren’t necessarily relevant to computers or the humanities. We had a conversation before my first THATCamp to establish whether he could say “that’s my daughter” (he could), and even with that it apparently took people a while to realize that he was my Dad.

There is so much I want to say about his life and what he did, not just for me but for so many people. So much, in fact, that I cannot seem to say any of it.

My father died this afternoon, after a fight with a brain tumor and, eventually, pneumonia. His family was with him, and I am grateful to everyone at RRCHNM and the Department of History and Art History at George Mason for not only making it easy for me to drop everything and come up to be here, but for telling me to do it and never letting me doubt I was making the right choice.

I have created an Omeka installation to collect people’s stories and pictures of my father. Even as he was in his final days, I discovered things he did and lives he touched I’d never known about. The site may be buggy at the moment – I only just installed contribution – but if you have something to share, please do.

More than 140 characters

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.

I (might) need a New Camera

I have two digital cameras, both of which came into my possession six years ago. I have a handy little Canon PowerShot SD700, a little thing which I bought before leaving for Scotland because it was the best camera in the store when it came to taking pictures of things through glass and I wanted something for use in museums. Later that year I was given a Canon PowerShot S3, which has a larger body and took better pictures.

Taken with the S3, 2006.

Sadly, the S3 has died (it only works if I hold the battery case very tightly shut, and even then it’s 50/50). The PowerShot works well enough, and has been traveling with me to archives this fall. However, I feel the need for a new camera (especially as my father and sister have DSLRs which take Such Nice Pictures!), and this leads me to a conundrum:

Do I continue to use the PowerShot in archives until it (eventually) dies and just buy a camera for taking out and about, or do I try and find a camera which will work in the archives and on the street (or at the parade)?

Taken with the SD700 at the National Archives (US) earlier this fall

Further, if anyone has advice about a particular camera they’ve used in archives that worked especially well, or a camera setup, please do share. Feel free to point me to some blog post which answers all my questions. I’m just looking for input.

Open Source Cookies

(Alternate title: and now for something completely different)

A common stress-relief activity among grad students is baking, apparently. I’m not much of a baker, but I do have one or two recipes I enjoy making. I am particularly fond of Will Shetterly’s Finest-Kind Cookies, which he describes as “an open source recipe.” (Shetterly is a novelist – his stories are as good as his cookies).  Therefore, in the spirit of open source, and because I’m in need of some advice, I present my variation on the theme. Continue reading “Open Source Cookies”

Old Haunts, New Views

This summer I’m working on a project which has to do with the history of the National Mall. It has been fun to learn more about a part of town with which I’m so familiar. Although I’m not a DC/Northern VA native, members of my family have lived in and around DC since the 1960s and we used to come visit at least once a year. I have fond memories of climbing on Uncle Beazley when he sat outside Natural History.

Today, despite the record-breaking heat, I ventured down to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It was the first time I’ve been down to the Mall since starting work on the Mall history project. Knowing what had come before made the very familiar landscape of flat, dying grass and beige gravel paths interesting again.

I metroed to Archives/Navy Memorial (to avoid crowds at Smithsonian and to get coffee at the Starbucks in the gold-domed insurance building on 7th) which obviously put me out near the National Archives. Or, in my new thinking, the site which once housed Center Market, where generations of Washingtonians bought produce, meat, and groceries. And, apparently, played billiards.

Then I wandered down the Mall towards 14th, passing construction just across from the sculpture garden which is, I think, roughly where there used to be temporary government office buildings.

I tend to see history wherever I go. Today I had more information and the memory of the many photos I’ve seen over the last month, making the past more vivid and certain than usual. I may have been to the Mall hundreds of times, but today it felt new.

How do we shuffle our cards?

Over the past few months I’ve had a quote, more of an idea really, rattling around in my head. The artist James C. Christensen wrote about how he thinks about creativity and new ideas using the metaphor of a library’s card catalog.

I never knew card catalogs, so in time the cards in the metaphor have gone from being library catalogs to the index cards I was taught to use to organize quotes and ideas when writing research papers. What follows is the first and last parts of the section where Christensen uses the metaphor (the whole discussion spreads out over two pages).

Card catalog drawer pulled out displaying card stack in profile
“Library of Congress Reading Room Open House 14” by Ted Eytan

“The way I see creativity and imagination is something like a library’s card catalog, except that the cards are made up of concepts, ideas, visions, pictures, all the faces of one’s personal life experiences …. The exercise comes about when one practices combining the cards and putting them together in new ways. All the Edisons, Einsteins, and da Vincis of the world were building upon stored information (cards they already had in their files), but they combined the cards in new ways. Their astonishing inspirations came about because they took what was known and saw it in a new light.” – James C. Christensen. A Journey of the Imagination: the art of James C. Christensen. With Renwick St. James. (Shelton, Connecticut: The Greenwich Workshop, 1994), 40-41.

Christensen means his metaphor to apply across fields, using the names of an inventor, a physicist, and an inventor-artist to describe the sorts of people who combine and rearrange their cards.

When I think about this metaphor in terms of the study and practice of history, the cards are facts or sources. Some of us rearrange the cards in new ways, to look at history from a previously unexplored perspective. Sometimes people try introducing new cards (race, gender, furniture, clothing, editorial cartoons) to change the way history is seen.

And sometimes we use the cards in completely new and different ways. We lay them out in a grid instead of in a stack, or build castles and houses, or make a long snake of cards overlapping. Digital history isn’t necessarily something completely new and different. We still have the old cards, but we’ve added new ones to the stack and we’re shuffling them in ways no one thought possible thirty, forty years ago. With so many people rearranging their cards, who knows what “astounding inspirations” will be brought to light.