20 December 2007

Things Learned at the Archive

1. My digital camera is the single most useful, valuable, helpful and all-around awesome tool I could ever have purchased for grad school. The camera makes my research speed set permanently to “lightning.” The resolution of the document photos is flawless, like an enlarged version of the actual document, complete with authentic scribbles and highlighter marks, and I don’t have to spend the precious little time I have for archival "on-location" research actually reading through each document and scribbling down (or typing) random sentences or quotes that might be useful or pay tons of money to the copy machine gods. I can scan something, ascertain quickly enough that it may be helpful or that it likely won’t be, and then snap, snap, snap and it’s mine. I can read through everything more carefully when I’m back in my home office, rather than on the expensive travel dime. Awesome!

2. Some old men are incredibly helpful and courteous to me. Some act like I’m an idiot and assume (based on gender? Relative youth? Clothes? No idea.) that I must not be doing serious work or that I might not even know what the difference is between a Supreme Court case and a children's book. And nine times out of ten, the information they’re trying to boss me around with isn’t even accurate. Which I already knew, thanks to my law degree. Maybe I should just wear my HLS sweatshirt. But then I wouldn’t look “professional.” Maybe I should get a crimson necktie to identify my Ivy credentials and just start wearing men’s clothes to the archive in order to look professional. That’d be kind of hot.

3. I think I’ve heard before that you either love research or you don’t, and if you don’t, academia is probably not your bag. Since most of my previous research has been of the computerized variety (hello law students who can’t use a law library!) or some half-assed two-day pop-in, I wasn’t entirely sure how this would work for me. Turns out, well. Time totally stops when I’m in the archive. It’s pretty awesome, except when I leave, blinking like a mole person and suddenly realize I haven’t eaten in eight hours and I’m totally dehydrated, since you can’t bring a water bottle in the manuscript rooms. But in the moment, in the archive, I really am loving it. There’s something fantastic and fascinating about handling all these pieces of paper, letters, motions, arguments, agreements, momentous decisions and nonsensical rants – all these little slips of passion and pain and pettiness, boredom and bathos, the remnants of humanity left behind by the Big Events that swept these people along.

Among Justice Blackmun’s files, for example, were reams of hate mail for decisions on abortion and desegregation. Reading these did, for a time, solidify in me a desire to take political power out of the hands of the “people” – I’m back to being optimistic again, but it was a struggle for a while. There were also the notes, tiny 3x4 slips of paper, passed between justices while the Court was hearing oral arguments. Sports scores were well-represented on these notes, as were trivia questions on opera and U.S. geography, and several jokes and sexist comments that would make a 12-year-old’s sense of humor look mature. These solidified in me a desire to take political power out of the hands of the judiciary. I’m not sure I’m back to optimism on that score yet, though.

4. Finally, I’ve learned (through not being able to find the right sized envelopes – it’s been an ongoing, futile search for envelopes that are apparently only carried in Oregon) that I will not be sending out holiday cards this year. I usually try to be more on top of things than this, especially given my love of all things decorative and holidayesque. But between travel and research and some fun times catching up with fabulous folks not seen in many months, it just hasn’t gotten done. So the blog version will have to do. See, I did make the cards – silkscreened them my very own self. Just couldn’t get the rest of the scene together. Here they are, from me to all of you – happy holidays/break/vacation/prospectus writing/excuse to eat a lot! In my (dad's) family we eat panettone on Christmas morning, my stepmom and I do a ridiculously large jigsaw puzzle together, and the events with the extended family include a lot of drinking and Irishness and arguments about politics. Enjoy, eat, relax, rejuvenate, whatever your holiday traditions are I hope they are extra delightful and enjoyable this year, whether quiet and peaceful on your own or loud and raucous with long-lost relations. Peace and joy!

08 December 2007

Praise Be!

I am thankful for many things this week:

-- Birthdays of some of my favorite people: E, M, R, my sister-in-law. And, yes, the BCC made some delicious cakes, if I do say so myself, so I'm kind of thankful for sugar in general, because there's been a lot of it lately. Check out the cookies we made this week (thanks for the decorating help, E & M)!

-- Seeing many of my other favorite people very soon on the Atlantic side -- can't wait!

-- Passing my dissertation prospectus defense with minimal pain. The defense was fairly short and sweet, and the best part was the go-around, in which my bow-tied committee member started off with phrases about how amazing the prospectus was and important, and etc., etc., followed by two other committee members saying comparably (overly) glowy, love-festy things and not really even asking questions, or at least not hard ones. Followed, finally, by my adviser, who said "well, this is much better than the last draft I read." Ha! I love, love, love, that my adviser is not someone who will shine me on. As nice as it was to hear all the exaggerated compliments from the other faculty, I feel lucky to have an adviser that I can rely on for honesty and support, because in the end, I tend to not trust uncritically complimentary statements. And I left feeling good, proud, and also aware of how much work I have in front of me in the next two years, but super enthusiastic and excited to get to it. Which is, I think, how they probably intend students to leave the defense.

-- After the formal defense (such as it was) was over, I appreciated the beaming professors around me sending me off to do my research like they were dropping me off for my first day of college with a hamper full of new towels. Since I'm leaving Monday for a month in the archives, they were very cute and even seemed a little nostalgic about it. Like, "did you pack your laptop? did you get this program?" -- I think one of my profs was close to asking if I was packing a warm winter coat for DC. It was sweet, and I realized how much like a kid I still must be to them.* In the sense that they've been doing this all for so long, and I'm still, in their eyes, starting out. I felt a little like a toddler who'd used the potty for the first time. All the adults were proud and patting my head, but seriously, I'm still miles away from being where they are, we're on different planets in many ways. And I'm kind of OK with that, because I am in one of those rare times where I'm happy to be exactly where I am -- I'm excited to go start my research (ridiculously so, in fact), I get to see lots of friends, it's my favorite time of the year, and all my grading and other work from the fall is finally done!

-- I'm thankful for the students who work hard and truly get most, if not all, of the material and concepts we tried to communicate this quarter. Aside from that 10%, I'm thankful for the ones who are utterly entertaining in their misapplication of information. For example, one student talked about "the growth of the middle class (also known as the working class) in the 19th century." You know, the bourgeoisie, also known as the proletariat. Another discussed how Thomas Jefferson seemed Marxist, given his interest in equality. For white, land-owning farmers. Totally what Marx said. He must've stumbled across the lost copies of Marx/Engels' Yeoman Farmer's Manifesto. I also love the automatic conclusion that anyone who supports equality in any context is suspected of being a dirty commie. Hee.

*This sense was reinforced by walking to lunch with another professor this week, during which he actually said "C, don't walk through the mud, walk on the sidewalk, you'll ruin your shoes." Um, yeah. And yes, I did move to the sidewalk.