Writing to Re-Learn to Write

I’ve finished revising my book manuscript, Building the Ivory Tower. It was a long time in coming and, for the last several months, it was just revising. I had a copyeditor go over the whole thing, then read the whole manuscript aloud and made prose edits, then went over the footnotes with a research assistant, then did captions for images. It was all pretty much fixing and tweaking, no real creativity or new writing. Now that it is turned in, I am back in the archives, and looking at a more or less blank page or screen. How to build a new project up? I’ll have to remember — and I’m returning to my blog, which hasn’t seen an update in 2 years, to aid in that process. Stay tuned to this space.

It Happened

During my college years I worked at two main jobs, a college dining hall at Michigan and a campus 7-Eleven at WMU. At Michigan I was part of a crew of working- to middle-class kids who kind of resented the affluent students who didn’t have to work, but everyone who worked there was fairly motivated and aspirational and viewed it as a necessary rung on the stepladder to an intellectual or professional career. At 7-Eleven, there was a rotating set of employees, some of whom attended WMU, many of whom did not, few of whom seemed to have much ambition. The day I stopped working there at the end of undergrad and realized I wouldn’t have to support myself through bottom-tier corporate customer service any more was a happy one for me.

That’s not to say there weren’t some enjoyable aspects to the job. Friends would sometimes swing by and say hi and it was a way of feeling in touch with my fellow college students though I didn’t party (I was an opinion columnist for the student newspaper and felt I was a voice for the student body in some fashion).

One of the best was two wacky professors who would come by somewhere between 8 and midnight on occasion. One was a geography professor who did some kind of satellite observations of China and had to be at his office at night. A little bit wacky but personable, and he bought big cups of our terrible coffee. Then there was the philosopher. He would come in and buy the craziest things — 6 pints of OJ or a box of raisin bran, 4 pints of milk and a loaf of bread. I once considered taking a class from him and stopped by his office — it was pretty clear he slept in there regularly and shaved only irregularly (and badly). I would get to talking with him now and again at the store, but would just as often mistake him for a homeless man because he was so disheveled. Dude was wacky.

Tonight I worked quite late and stopped at the Blacksburg campus 7-Eleven on my way home in my full professor’s getup. I realized I had become the weird late night professor. I made sure to buy a half-gallon of milk rather than several small cartons.

New Year, New Routine

This year I will be commuting to work by plane. I hate flying and feel as though I am taking my life into my hands on every flight. There is only one flight in my whole life I can ever remember really enjoying, and that was the first one on a family trip down to Florida when I was sixteen and flying was still full of wonder (see Louis CK). But it is a necessity for this year as my family undergoes a work transition.

The fear and logistics involved in this commuting pattern actually bode well for my blogging. The flight is fairly short and while I will be able to read, I won’t be able to get much writing done without a sustained period of concentration and boredom. However, I will be looking to distract myself, as I am at this very moment, from the specter of the menacing landscape below. So, blogging.

Fun for Historians

In an effort to relieve what can often seem like drudgery in the writing process, I sometimes take up little side projects. At one point during my graduate candidacy, I came across this thesis project by two U of M MArch students and loved the way they created the site map as part of the table top.

Since I have long been interested in integrating geographic knowledge into other realms of life, I fixed on doing a table project of my own. Fortunately, my wife had a plain pine table that was ripe for refinishing. The project ended up being the Ann Arbor neighborhood we lived in together after we got married.

This is a simple IKEA table and a wood burning knife (available at hobby and craft stores). The maps were Sanborn fire insurance maps of Ann Arbor from 1925, available from UMI (now proquest). After all was done, I gave it two coats of minwax polyurethane finish.

The finished version, complete with denim legs and stocking feet.

I started ambitiously in early 2007, then stalled out for several months as I took exams and traveled before I got to dissertation writing, finally finishing in a mad rush in late 2007.

Here is a detail of the Ann Arbor table.

My wife and I lived in the east half of this duplex on Ann Street (reputed to be the inspiration for Bob Seger's 'Main Street.')

Feeling good about my temporary city and having found another little table in need of refinishing, when I moved to Philly in the summer of 2010 I fixed upon another map project.

View after I sanded down the heavily pitted top.

I got a bit overwhelmed for about two years, but now I’m picking the project back up. I tell students all the time that historians have the firmest foundation for knowledge in the academy and we have nailed the production of text as a means of communication. But reading archival documents and writing all day often leaves me longing for alternate forms of intellectual consumption and knowledge production. The often-cited desire to work with my hands is another dimension — not only to shift formats, but a format that is more physical and durable. Sometimes working on my bicycle can slake this thirst, but not always, so I’m back to it. More to come.

Up North

This weekend I stole my wife from her lecture preparations and headed the rental car up north. Northern Michigan to Sault Sainte Marie, to be exact. My grandfather celebrated his 90th birthday on Thursday and his kids arranged a surprise party for Friday.

My grandfather, Ernest Winling, spent his youth in the Soo, enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and spent the war years overseas, then returned home to the Soo to marry his next-door neighbor, work as a painter at the Kincheloe Air Force Base and as a freelance house painter, have three kids with my grandmother, and has spent the last 35 years as an outdoorsman, fishing and hunting his way through the seasons.

Larry, Ernie, Ernest, LaDale

Four Winling Generations

The Soo is a quite small town (~14,000), but I always enjoy visiting. There are two main attractions and drivers to the economy, the Soo Locks, an Army Corps of Engineers project dating back to the 1850s to facilitate Great Lakes shipping through the St. Mary’s River falls, and Lake Superior State University, a 4-year college of 2500 students. Whenever I’m thinking about a site in the American landscape, I turn to the digital collections of the Library of Congress, and the LOC does not disappoint. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documented the hell out of the Locks in 2000 (probably before the latest lock was rebuilt) and has pretty much everything you could want for visual information.


Soo Locks

The Locks at Sault Ste. Marie

The Truth

Nothing kills your blogging like having a demanding job. I have not felt Nietzsche’s windless calm of boredom in quite some time.

What am I working on now? My main effort is revising a book chapter on Austin, Texas. I’ve got research assistants preparing two GIS projects that will be great when they are done. Then there’s an article on Philadelphia, urban renewal, and historic preservation. Almost ready to announce are two public history projects that are fairly exciting. More soon.

Getting Back

There’s just a few weeks left in our European trip. We have traveled to many great sites and stayed in some wonderful places. But since we’re heading back to the States, I’m thinking about what I have missed most and what I will most enjoy getting back to: (1) my cameras and film developing; and (2) GIS mapping. If there’s a third, it is the sit-and-work cafes Stateside.* I don’t prefer them outright to Italian caffe bars, but I do wish we could have a good mix of both in the U.S.

*It goes without saying that I miss my family and my cat.

Find the Shade

Prior to starting my position at Virginia Tech, I will be living in Italy and England for the next 6 months. I am very fortunate to have this wonderful opportunity and this period will not only provide me with material for teaching and research, but also for some digital media projects.

We arrived in Rome yesterday morning after an overnight transatlantic flight. A key feature of Rome (and other parts of Italy, from my experience) is that it is both warm and cool here, depending on whether you are in the shade or not. Because of the limited humidity in the Mediterranean, the air feels pretty moderate in temperature and the sun (or its absence) provides a real heating or cooling effect. Thus, walking around the city you are in a constant race to find the shade and walk or sit or stand in it in order to keep from sweating through your clothes. There is a several degree difference (I might venture to say 10 or more) and especially in really hot places like Sicily during the summer, the shade can be the difference between hot and unbearable.

How Much Does It Cost to Get a Tenure Track Job?

If you’re lucky, about $2300.

I finished my PhD last summer. Realizing that it was my last year of grad school, I spent a good chunk of time in the late fall and winter 09-10 filing job applications. I sent about 50 of these out and most of them required postage, as well as a fee for the reference letter service at Michigan. The fee averaged about 10 dollars per. Many were more, but a few only asked for limited materials by email. Of those 50, I got a phone interview and campus visit for a TT job; a phone interview (and campus visit invite) for a TT job; and an offer of a VAP (which I accepted). I did not get any AHA interviews, so I didn’t go and had no costs there — all the interest came later, in the spring. Once I scheduled the campus visit (in April) I had to go clothes shopping. I bought a decent but fairly cheap suit, shirt, tie, and a decent pair of shoes, all of which ran me about 400 dollars. I ran about 50 dollars of expenses on the trip not covered by or submitted to the institution. About $950 for a visiting position. (It cost about $3000 to move; this is tax deductible.)

This year I geared up for the job search again. Based on the response from last year I applied much more selectively — 6 applications, about 10 dollars cost per application. However, I got much more attention this year and so planned to go to the AHA (about $150 registration). I combined my conference trip with a research trip, so I’d say about 250 dollars for part of a sublet and plane ticket. My cheap spring suit from last year was no good, so I had to buy some nice slacks and a good new suit, shirt, and tie — 800 dollars all told. Another 100 dollars of incidentals. $1360 on the year and I got a TT offer I accepted, with the two-year total of about $2300 out of pocket. I get a moving allowance but haven’t moved yet, so we’ll see if it runs over.

Grad students, be forewarned that getting a job (if you’re that lucky) is not cheap.

UPDATED: My household has been packed up and moved into storage in Virginia while I am overseas with my family. I had a $2500 moving allowance, which did not cover all my expenses — about $3500. However, this wasn’t directly an expense of getting the job, so I won’t revise my total. I reiterate the advice of The Professor Is In, that if and when you receive an offer from an institution, you should think about what they are proposing and consider whether you should ask for more.

Once you receive these, decide what you’re going to come back with in negotiation. Because, you ALWAYS come back asking for more. You are entitled. It is expected. Do not miss this one-time-only opportunity to negotiate greater gain for yourself and your family.

I made other requests, but it would have been very reasonable for me to ask for a larger moving allowance.