Category Archives: Personal Observations

Long time, no see.

I am terrible at blogging.

I’m great at twitter engagement, and at keeping up with email, and at staying on top of journals (mostly).  I’m a pretty organised grad student, which I think is necessary, but I am dreadful at blogging.  Some of this is the realities of living with chronic illness: I have a smaller reserve of energy than healthy, able-bodied people, and since my diagnosis is new to this semester, trying to balance all facets of my life with my precarious health often means non-critical tasks hit the bottom of the priority list.  Currently, that’s meant this blog and some household tasks.  And while my husband will do the household tasks, he can’t write my blog for me.  Alas.

It’s the end of semester here in DC.  Today was the last day of classes, and finals week now begins.  I’m balancing the demands of TAing — grading, managing student concerns, grading, proctoring exams, did I mention grading? — with being in the last gasps of the classwork phase of the PhD, which means producing papers of my own.  I gave my first formal lecture this past week, and did it on a severely dislocated ankle to boot.  It’s tough.  But I’ve realised a few small things that I thought worth sharing.

Students will surprise you — in the good ways and the bad.  This should be no surprise to seasoned veterans of the classroom, but for me, it was very much a revelation.  My previous TA experience was in a giant 80-student lecture section.  This semester has been in a small, 20-student seminar.  It’s been a far more intimate setting, and I’ve been able to build relationships with students that have been rewarding.  Students come to me for advice, they want to talk about the class topics (Buddhism in China and Japan, for the record), they’re really engaged with the class and with ways to maximise their success.  Being willing to talk and being accessible over email has meant students have been open when they’re having troubles, and opens the channels for good feedback.  I’ve had more emails from students complimenting me on my lecture this week as well thanking me for TAing the class and being supportive of them.  I’ve had emails from students telling me where they were hitting roadblocks with their final paper and looking for advice.  When I’ve demonstrated a willingness to be flexible, they have responded with excellence.  In my previous MA program, which was student-directed and largely unstructured, our advisors often said that when you let students set the bar for what mastery and rigor means, they will always go further than you would.  I think that’s true.

But of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses.  I had a student blatantly cheat this semester, the first time I’ve ever dealt with it.  The accusations about the incident were unpleasant, and at one point, the student insinuated that I was too sensitive and I was exaggerating the problem.  Another student went to the lead instructor with complaints that my failure to mark the letter grade on her exam with the points earned meant I was sabotaging her and out to get her.  Students are under incredible stress, especially at a competitive school like mine.  Often, they rise and shine.  And sometimes, they stumble and fall, trying to drag anyone around them down with them.  The importance of being believed and supported by my lead instructor, of us being a unified front, cannot be overstated in these instances.  I’ve been really lucky here and I’ve learned the value of having a good mentor, too.

Students are under more pressure than I was when I was in undergrad.  I really think this one is a consequence of the economy, really.  The cost of college has gone up, family incomes have stagnated, and college degrees are treated like some kind of magic talisman to make gainful employment appear after graduation, as if doing everything “right” will make the job happen, no matter the odds.  This seems especially true with students who are first generation college students.  I’ve had students who are trying not to crumble under the pressure, spread way too thin with classes, jobs, internships, student organisations, all a bid to make sure they have the “right” credentials when they graduate.  The Chinese students in particular are grade driven in a way I have rarely seen.  I cannot tell you the amount of emails I’ve received from my Chinese students, agonising over how to get their A- up to an A, how many points one absence will cost them, what they can do to get from an unacceptable 93 to the coveted 94.  Their anxiety is palpable.  And it doesn’t matter what I tell them, how many times I assure them that an A- is really quite good for an upper level class like this one.  It’s all about that perfect score, no matter what it takes to get there.

Clearly stating expectations is crucial for getting consistent quality.  I knew this one going in, but it’s more obvious to me than ever before.  Communicating what you expect and how you expect it done helps students do what it takes to get the grades they’re willing to work for.  I’m also really convinced of the merits of assigning a style guide as an assigned text in the syllabus.  Turabian was mine when I started grad school way back in 2007, required for my intro class.  It was a godsend.  Having only skimmed the papers I need to grade this weekend and all the inconsistencies in style, formality, formatting, and presentation, assigning a style guide and expecting its use might’ve made my life for the next 48 hours that much easier.  Students don’t always know how to write, even at the 300 level.  If the writing buck has been passed along to you, you’ve got to double down and make it stop at your desk.  It sucks, but it’s easier to insist on a style guide then deal with students flailing around when you mark down their writing.

In the same vein, having clearly stated policies for stuff like makeup tests, extra credit, and all those sorts of fiddly things makes for such an easier semester.  Even if students zone out in the “let’s go over the syllabus” section of the first class, at least you have a consistent reference that is implicitly agreed upon by your students.  Unstated policies are easy to argue about, after all.

What things have you learned about teaching this year?

9 Years Out: Hurricane Katrina

It was 9 years ago today that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, going on to kill at least 1833 people in Gulf South and cause $108 billion in damage.  She proved to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history and changed New Orleans forever.

You cannot be a person invested in New Orleans and not pause on this day, on this stretch of days, and think back to that August 2005.  I am not a New Orleans native; I was outside the city that summer, ensconced in my parents’ house in Maryland, safely watching horror unfold on the television, sitting numbly next to my father, a sailor who knew New Orleans well, unable to look away.  I was lucky, phenomenally lucky.  I didn’t realise that day what the storm would mean to me years later.  I just remember listening to my father argue with Brian Williams, I remember bristling when people suggested that New Orleans should be abandoned, that it was too expensive to rebuild, too expensive to protect, why did we need a city in a flood plain, anyway?  (Newsflash: nearly every major port city in the US is in a flood plain, and 60% of the cargo leaving or entering the US goes through the New Orleans-Baton Rouge ports.  That’s why we need it.  Ignoring history, ignoring people, focusing solely on dollars, that’s why we need New Orleans and her flood plain.)

As a rule, I avoid disaster tourism.  I think it shows the worst of human nature: our vulture-like tendency to stare at others’ personal horrors and feel relief that it is not us, all the while consuming their sorrow and loss and reducing it to a curiosity instead of a call to moral action.  The HBO show Treme caught the tone of it rightly: As a group of Mardi Gras Indians gather in the rubble of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward to mourn one of their own, who perished in the storm.  And in the middle of a spiritual, rousing moment as they sing Mardi Gras Indian songs in celebration and lament, a tour bus full of Wisconsin tourists pulls up, snapping pictures in clueless, viscerally awful fascination.  The objectification and voyeurism cannot be made more clear.

And yet, two things come out of this: one, New Orleans is a city that runs on tourism and knows it, commodifying her food, heritage, history, and oddities in order to bring those tourists in; two, Katrina looms so large on the landscape that people who know nothing else about New Orleans save jazz, Bourbon Street, and Cajun food not only know about it but want to see what it meant.

When I first went down to New Orleans as an adult, it was December 2008, three years AK — after Katrina.  I was working on the research for my first MA, a decision prompted in many ways by the storm.  I knew my health didn’t permit me to do rescue work or rebuilding, and my financial situation didn’t leave me much room for charity.  But I knew I could do a thing that was critical: preserving the history and culture of New Orleans, documenting it, and sharing it through my academic work as a topic worthy of serious study and engagement.  So I set to work on my first love, the cemeteries of New Orleans.  Yet whenever I mentioned my topic, everyone asked, “What about Katrina?”

So I got in touch with a contact, trying to avoid the Disaster Tourism angle, and asked if they knew some places out on Lake Ponchartrain where the levees had broke.  And I tried not to feel like scum as I snapped pictures, trying to communicate something incommunicable to my audience back up on the East Coast: that the X of the search and rescue teams was a symbol, a monument, a marker of trauma so intense as to be nearly ineffable, an inbreaking of the sacred rendered mundane in spray paint.  It was, in its way, the crucifix of the storm, marking sites of loss, death, martyrdom, and destruction so senseless, so needless that it has taken on proportions unimagined.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.  Taken December 2008 by author.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. Taken December 2008 by author.

I don’t flatter myself by imagining my experiences in AK New Orleans are important.  But for me, the storm marks a moment where I made the conscious choice to do academic work that had real world value and meaning.  It marks the moment where academics had to be more than just feasible and fundable.  It made me look at what I was doing and ask, how can I do more than just follow my own bliss?  How can I reflect my values into the world and have a moral response to unimaginable tragedy?  It marked the beginning of my nearly decade-long love affair with a city that’s easy to love and difficult to know.  Katrina changed me, at a distance.  Perhaps that’s what disaster and loss and suffering should do.  It should change us, make us consider how to make our actions reflect the world that needs to be, rather than the world around us.

Nine years out, it’s easy to think this way, especially sitting comfortably in a climate-controlled student union in DC, far and away from the realities of recovery.  It’s easy to trot out data and numbers (78% of the population returned, poverty level of nearly 25%, childhood poverty rate of 41%, increased disparity between rich and poor, lack of affordable housing in the city, etc).  It’s easy to think of this as a continuum of disaster, disease, and death that has plagued New Orleans from her founding to today.  It’s easy to ignore Katrina and her legacy up here.  It’s easy to let it go.  But I can’t.  And as a society, as a country, we cannot. August 29th demands that we stop and think and remember all the human failure that created such unimaginable human loss, and remember how easy it is to let it happen again.  All it takes is apathy.

Remember that all of this happened nine years ago, in the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world.  Remember that we, as a country, watched this happen to our own people.  Remember that this happened, that these 1800+ lives were lost.  And remember that this, too, is New Orleans.

Wrestling with Scarlett O’Hara

Part and parcel of graduate work is reading. Reading takes up the bulk of my time, and I average about 3-500 pages a week when I’m not in crunch time (and can manage about 1000 a week when I’m really pressed). Suffice to say, I have devoured a lot of books and articles on American History. This semester, in my focus on the American South, and on women in the antebellum South in particular, I have come to encounter one name more consistently than any other:

Scarlett O’Hara.

Scarlett being laced into her 17 inch corset by Mammy in the 1939 MGM film, “Gone With the Wind.”

Scarlett has appeared in nearly every book I’ve read thus far this semester.  She came up in Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History.  She came up in Catherine Clinton’s The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South.  I’ve seen her in Kristen Olsen’s Chronology of Women’s History.  She’s mentioned in Bridget Heneghan’s Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination.  I’m pretty sure I saw her come up in Walter McDougall’s Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era, 1829-1877.  She’s come up so frequently that I have a tally going on my desk, ticking off how many times her name comes up — and how many times I reference her myself!  (This post is upping that count substantially.)

Pretty impressive for a fictional character written in the 1930s.

Scarlett O’Hara has become, for better or for worse, a symbol of antebellum womanhood, the prototypical Southern Belle — ironic, when one considers that Scarlett, with her temper, her manipulative streak, and her iron will, flies in the face of the 19th century ideal woman.  She embodies the moonlight and magnolias vision of the South that has been projected backwards by white imagination into history.  She is the visual symbol of cavalier culture, and she has more currency culturally, I would argue, than the image of the Southern cavaliers themselves.

(A piece of anecdotal data: When walking into the local grocery store here in Charlottesville, a sign welcomed back the University of Virginia Cavaliers.  My partner, a Virginia transplant, asked, “Wouldn’t the cavaliers be a more fitting mascot for William and Mary?  That school was at least around closer to the English Civil War.”  After a moment of gobsmacked silence, I had to explain the image of the Southern cavalier, and its socio-cultural currency in the South, which would lead UVA to have the cavalier for their mascot.  Ironically enough, my partner is a medievalist who studies Normans, and had never heard the connection of Southern cavaliers with the knightly ideal so popular in the South.)

Every Southern historian, it seems, deals with Scarlett.  They mention her, reference her, and use her as an acceptable starting point for the uninitiated into the world of Southern history and culture.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about plantation belles.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about Southern fashion and corsets, her 17 inch waist being assumed as the immediate benchmark for antebellum ladies.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about white mistresses and slaves.  Scarlett is the image of the South, and we cannot escape her.  And through our ongoing willingness to embed Scarlett into our serious history texts, we begin to give Scarlett a life of her own that Mitchell could have never foreseen.

I suspect I sound overly critical of Gone With the Wind.  I rail about its inaccuracies when I talk to people about my work.  I get frustrated when people ask after hearing about my topic, “So you must really love Scarlett O’Hara, huh?”  The truth of it is, I do love Scarlett.  Scarlett was a role model for me as a girl, and I wandered into my love of the Civil War through routine re-watchings of Gone With the Wind and Ken Burns’ documentary.  But as I move on, I get increasingly frustrated that the image of the Southern woman is not a real Southern woman, but rather, a fictional construct made in the 30s, seeped in the post-war racism that characterized the early twentieth century.  Where, I want to ask, are the images of real women, women with names and histories and places that we can look to and see something real?  Why is fiction the dominant standard for all Southern women, be it Gone With the WindSteel Magnolias, Jezebel, or Designing Women?  Are the real women not interesting enough, not fiery enough, not visible enough?  Is fictional racism more comfortable than real racism?  Or are we unwilling to let history get in the way of our vision of the romantic South and the spitfire Southern belle, be she Scarlett O’Hara or Julia Sugarbaker?

I’m not sure.  I suspect that fiction resonates with us and stays with us in ways that history often doesn’t in a wider cultural sense, largely because of how Americans are taught their history.  (Hint: its usually poorly.)  To watch these films and read these novels is to connect with a romanticized  plot-convenient vision of the past, and to have a narrative arc that is designed to be emotional and satisfying, giving it the staying power that history, with its inconveniences and heartbreaks and rough narratives rarely has.  We wrestle with Scarlett O’Hara, I think, because Scarlett is the gateway drug to the rest of what is waiting in the South, be it the good, the bad, or the frequently ugly.  Scarlett is a white vision of an idealized white past, and she’s more comfortable for white folks than the truth.  Culturally, white America has never dealt well with uncomfortable realities when fiction is much more convenient and lovely, after all.

Suffice to say, my Scarlett O’Hara Watch tally isn’t going anywhere.  Because, I suspect, neither is Scarlett.  Scarlett is the vision of the modern woman projected into the past, and with racial issues largely sidestepped or avoided on a larger scale.  She’s the image of one woman doing it all on her own, and getting what she wants, even if the guy issue is complicated (and in this day and age of divorce, who doesn’t sympathise with her holding onto the house and losing the husband?) and her life is a walking tragedy at times.  Her clothes are good, she’s gorgeous, and she’s got ambition to spare.  Mitchell, despite writing Scarlett in the past, was looking forward in some very prescient ways.  And so Scarlett stays with us, the epitome of the imaginary South, eclipsing the cavalier and garnering more name recognition than most of the Southerners who made the Confederacy what it was and what it ever failed to be.

Travel!

I’ve just come back from a week in Louisiana, and it has been a fantastic trip.  I’m always completely in love with Louisiana, and with New Orleans in particular (though the heat, not so much — I think I’ve been infected with Midwestern preferences for climate), but this trip was really special.  Not only did I present at the Louisiana Studies Conference this past weekend at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA (pronounced NACK-uh-tish, honestly), I got the phenomenal opportunity to spend a morning in the Louisiana State Museum‘s textile archives in New Orleans.  The curator, Wayne Phillips, showed me their extensive collection of hair and mourning jewellery, as well as an early 1850s gown that may have been mourning.

Hair jewellery is not really my speciality, and honestly, I had forgotten about it until Wayne brought it out to show me.  The museum’s collection is extensive, largely because unlike other jewellery, hair pieces went out of fashion abruptly and were retired into people’s attics and cupboards rather than being thrown away.  (I suspect people felt rather bad about the idea of throwing out a literal piece of Great Aunt Marie!)  The museum started collecting the hair jewellery pieces from its early days in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and they vary from simple brooches without much provenance to elaborate pieces tied to important people in Louisiana history.  Some are very plain or small, and some, like a French piece worked with gold, hair, and garnets, are incredibly elaborate.  But all have the same purpose: to at once remember (if not mourn) one’s loved ones, and to carry a piece of them on your person.  While some pieces were not mourning, many were, including sometimes dates of death, or images of mourning worked in hair, most commonly urns, weeping willows, acorns, or forget-me-nots.  They were all stunning, if some of them struck me as a little creepy, most particularly a ring made of woven hair that would have been worn directly next to the skin.  That’s a level of commitment I can’t really imagine, personally.

However, the dress was a highlight.  The gown lacked a good provenance, but it was useful for me in looking at construction details and the complexity of the dress.  It’s a silk taffeta piece, very light-weight (as I suspected would be common in Louisiana), but in poor, poor condition.  It does show some period repairs, suggesting that this gown was worn and re-worn rather than being thrown away, and it hints to me that perhaps this was a more bourgeois garment than one belonging to the Louisiana social aristocracy.  The skirt is slim, suggesting early 1850s, and rather than pleating at the waist, the skirt is made of shaped panels.  The hem shows wear and re-lining, and the cuffs are hand-stitched.  But let’s face it, you want pictures, don’t you?

Here’s the dress in its entirety. Notice the subtle floral pattern woven into the taffeta. Really stunning in the light. And yes, it is as small as it looks.

The hem shows wear and repair, as can be seen here, and was obviously hand-basted. The lining is cotton, and was once dyed black, but has faded to this coffee colour, as all natural dyes on cotton are prone to do.

This shows a repair to the skirt of the dress. The colour has been lightened to show detail. The cotton thread has faded to that familiar brown colour as well.

The bodice closes up to the neck with tiny hook-and-eye closures, and shows beautiful decorative pleating. The fan shape is lovely, but very simple, and the sloping, dropped shoulders are bang-on for the early 1850s.

 

Here is the hand-turned cuff, showing more faded thread. I found it interesting that the sleeves were so fitted and so simple, another suggestion of mourning.

 

A self-fabric belt meant to go over the waist of the dress, really simple, and it shows just how small the waist was!

I can’t express how exciting it was to work with this garment and to really have the chance to examine it.  The dress isn’t in the Museum’s permanent collection — quite frankly, with its sketchy provenance and in such a terrible condition, it’s unlikely to become an acquisition.  The cost of restoring the gown would be astronomical.  However, it is one of the only antebellum gowns they have, aside from some early 1800s pieces, and it might very well be mourning, another point in its favour.  I suspect it was indeed mourning, given its simplicity and the evidence of re-wear, but it’s a theory, not a concrete fact.  Still, isn’t it a lovely old thing?

I’ll probably be talking a lot more about my trip and some of the things I saw while there — especially the 1850 House Museum and the woman who built the structure in which it resides, the Baroness de Pontalba — but I had to share the most exciting bits first.

Why the South?

I get asked this question a great deal — it’s pretty much standard in any discussion of my career, such as it is.  Why the South, people ask me, be it in admissions or advising discussions, or in more informal situations.

(People rarely ask why I study women, or why I study mourning culture.  I’m obviously feminine and my goth days still hang on with my preference for a darker colour palette, so I suppose both of those speak for themselves!)

It is a hard question.  Not because it’s particularly difficult to answer, but rather, because the answer is longer than a soundbite.  And also, because there are so many assumed bad answers hanging in the air around the question that to proceed is to tred very, very lightly, indeed.  There is a lot of racism and longing for the Old South that goes on in some corners of Southern studies, especially when undertaken by people with agendas.  I remember seeing much of it in Confederate reenactors I knew.  Most of them were lovely human beings with an appreciation for and an interest in the experience and suffering of the average soldier in a conflict much bigger than he could have ever imagined.  But there was a thread of Unreconstructed Confederates who seemed to think they could change the outcome of the war this time around, at this reenactment, rewrite history so that their guys win.  There’s a great deal of Confederate apologia out there as well, still being written, determined to show the Southern Cause as just, slave masters as kind and benevolent Christians, and Federal forces as unjustified aggressors who engaged in terrorism against their own citizens.  It’s scary stuff, and the so-called “heritage groups” that engage in it are loud and intimidating.  (The Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out the problem of “heritage groups” and neo-Confederate ideology in the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2002, an intelligence report worth reading.)

That’s the stuff floating out there — racist, ugly answers about why study the South.  And those aren’t my answers.  Those answers horrify me.  I’m not here to glorify the Old South or re-envision Gone With the Wind (there will never be another Vivien Leigh, anyway) or argue about the nobility of Southern gentlemen and ladies.  Mary Chestnut spoke truly about the underpinnings of all those white fantasies: “ours is a monstrous system.”  So how to reconcile the clear knowledge that beyond the petticoats and dashing gentlemen was genocidal violations of human rights based on pure, virulent racism, misogyny of the first water, and a host of other sins made all the more hypocritical by the profession of Southern elites to believe in the American vision of liberty and freedom?

I begin where my work captured me: with a city.

New Orleans.

I’d always been interested in the 19th century, especially in the Civil War, but after Hurricane Katrina, my interest in Louisiana became marked.  What was the city that so many pundits and talking heads on television said we should let go to rot?  What was it like?  Was it like Anne Rice made it seem, thick with elegance and mystery and gothic sensibilities?  And where did the party time reputation come from?

They weren’t elegant questions.  They weren’t even particularly intelligent ones.  But they started me down this road, some seven years ago.  They got me into my first graduate programs, and sustained me in the effort to try again when those first attempts at a PhD didn’t work.  Because, you see, those questions took me to Louisiana as an adult, and when I stepped outside in New Orleans one chilly, humid morning in December 2008, I fell utterly in love.  I fell in love with the architecture, with the people, with the food, with the intertwined Atlantic histories that wove their ways through the city.  I loved the cemeteries, the street cars, the churches.  (And the coffee is sublime.  This is a fact that cannot be undersold, here.)  I fell in love.  And, like any girl with a new crush, I had to know everything.  I had to know the history, the way people made this city, the conflicting visions of the city, the tension between American expansion and European heritage, the conflict between Anglo ideas of race and Franco-Caribbean ones, the horrors and hardships and hellholes that made a swampy patch on a beautiful curve of the Mississippi become one of the most sublime and unique cities in the entire United States, if not the world.

You see, I am utterly enchanted with this city, and in some spiritual, emotional sense, I feel as if it is my city, mine to understand and study and evangelise.  To paraphrase Mr Darcy, it has bewitched me, body and soul.  So I look at it, at the 19th century, at the years before war changed everything and the idea of New Orleans as an American city was still just that — just an idea, not realised, not embraced — and I look for someone much like me.  Middle class, educated, female, in the phase of life where marriage and children and loss are visible parts of existence.  I look for French and Spanish Creole women, because I am profoundly aware of my own roots in Europe, not that many generations removed on my father’s side.  I look for white American women, because I am profoundly aware of my own identity as an American.  I look for Catholics, because I remember Mass and incense with my mother as a child.  I look for Jews, because I light candles every Shabbat as an adult.

In short, I look for reflections of myself, in order to understand how people like me, people who were educated and sensitive and moral could allow slavery and abuse and a host of other evils not only to flourish, but to support their daily lives, intimately and directly.  Northern white women in cities allowing slavery to go on is one question.  Southern planter’s wives who had no voice and few options to buck the system allowing slavery to go on without protest is another question, one scholars like Catherine Clinton and Elizabeth Fox-Genevese have begun to answer well.  But women in New Orleans did not lack for social connections or the support networks that allowed Northern women to form an anti-slavery identity.  So why did it go on, in the forms that it did?  What did the tripartite racial caste system in New Orleans mean for the women who participated in it and were victimised by it?  What did plaçage mean for the woman whose husband kept a mixed-race mistress and whose will would pay for her child when he died?  What did those wills look like, and how did white women react to them?  What did all these social problems and ills mean for an average middle class woman?  What was her life like?  And why, at times of greatest grief and pain, did middle class women enforce the social strictures around mourning, creating isolation, emotional burdens, and ultimately, a code of conduct that was oppressive?

The South is my home.  I was born below the Mason-Dixon line, and I live in the South currently.  But New Orleans is my obsession.  Let other scholars have planters and their wives, let other scholars have plantations and the struggle over the myth of happy slaves.  I want the urban world, the world where women’s connections and mobility and social roles should be the most evident.  I want New Orleans, and her conflicting French-Spanish-Caribbean-American identity.  I want the tensions and the horrors and the delightful surprises.  I want to present to the world the fact that the South had one of the most important port cities in the world when the Confederacy formed, and challenge the idea of Northern women being the only ones with the benefit of urban life in important cities to give them social power.

Why the South?  Because I love it here, even when it is ugly and brutal and monstrous.  Because I love my city, and I know what it means to miss New Orleans.  And because I take no satisfaction in understanding people who history has vindicated.  Give me the losers and the ones history has left behind in the dust bin, consigned to a way of life that was unsustainable and oppressive and ugly.  In it, there lies the tell-tale signs of progress for the future, when we can cast off all that we hold as normal and given despite it being unsustainable and ugly.  Give me the gritty past, and I will find hope for a better future.  And there is nowhere grittier, nowhere more fraught, than the South.

Guilty confession time

I haven’t started sewing yet.

I haven’t ordered a pattern yet.

I haven’t even really settled on a pattern yet.

This is the part in every project where inertia and procrastination settle in.  Over my many years as an academic, I have noticed my work patterns go in a similar route every time something large and difficult is looming:

1. Initial enthusiasm.  Do all the things, make lots of lists, get all my resources lined up.

2. Trouble ahead.  Get distracted, read at a slower pace than expected, put things off.

3. Panic and worry.  Despite having time until the deadline, begin to feel as if nothing will ever be accomplished and I’m a terrible person for trying to do things, and hide from the project.

4. Buckle down and flagellate.  Work like a mad fiend, all the while mentally yelling at myself for not being more efficient in those early weeks.  Usually, at this stage, I manage to pull out something useful, if not brilliant.

5. Finish.  Get everything done by the deadline, turn it in on time, and have some kind of emotional breakdown thereafter usually requiring copious amounts of children’s shows to recover (this is where my obsession with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comes from).

This is not a healthy pattern.  I know it’s not.  I suffer from a lot of anxiety and depression, and it makes it hard to work continuously and efficiently, using my time and resources to their maximum benefit.  The more anxious I get about a project, the more depressed I become, and as I avoid it, I tend not to use the resources out there in the word world because I can’t motivate myself to put on pants that don’t belong in a yoga studio.  When you start avoiding libraries because you feel judged, this is perhaps a problem.

I’ve been trying to overcome this pattern.  The system my program at Goddard College uses is a distance model, with packets of work, usually around 30 pages or so, going in every 3 weeks.  Ideally, I should be writing ten pages a week to keep on track.  It never works that way, and somewhere around the middle/end of week 2, I start to panic and feel as if nothing I do will ever be good enough and I am a terrible joke of a person for even trying.

(I said I had a lot of issues.  I meant it.)

Ideally, I should have a pattern in hand by now.  I don’t.  I have an eyeball at a pattern I want to make, and am doing estimates for fabric and boning.  The Laughing Moon Silverado corset pattern looks to be about where I want to be, and corsetmaking.com has a corset kit which has boning, busk, boning casing, and grommets for the project, with the option to buy the pattern and fabric from them as well.  This is probably the way I’m going to go.  I just have to get over my feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing, that this is a waste of time and money, and shouldn’t I just stick to books, which is the really important academic work, anyway?

That’s what a lot of this boils down to.  It’s hard to believe in one’s own work.  It’s hard to really own the odd stuff one does in the academy, because clearly, the serious scholars are out there, translating obscure languages and making dazzling insights into the human condition, probably at Harvard or Oxford or somewhere else important.  And I, a silly little baby scholar, at a small school, who is also a woman and took a non-traditional track to get here, my work won’t count because I am doing something weird about women and playing with fabric.  And I know all of that isn’t true.  I know it’s the academic’s version of the jerkbrain, the part of our brains that tells us all the nasty, hateful things that we believe, despite the fact that if our worst enemy said them to us, we’d punch them in the face.  We are capable of being so much nastier to ourselves than we’d ever tolerate someone being to us.  And combine that with the sort of inferiority complex that grad school breeds like bunnies, and it’s a one-way ticket to neurotic overdrive with a guilt complex to make a Jewish mother proud.

It’s hard to believe in the work.  It’s hard to believe that the clothes middle-class women wore in urban centers in the South matters.  It’s hard to believe that antiquated ideas about gender and mourning and the social world of the Gulf South has any impact outside my own interest.  It’s harder still to believe that any self-respecting PhD program will take me on to do this stuff.  But I have to.  Because this is what I’m doing, and if I don’t believe in it, no-one will (except my partner and my mother, because they have to).

So I’m forgiving myself for not ordering the pattern yet.  I’m even giving myself a break, and telling myself it’s okay to work on the papers for the packet, and to fuss over the Louisiana Studies conference I’m headed to in two weeks.  Because I still believe this all matters.  And if it matters, then not only do I have to buckle down and do it, I have to also take care of my mental health in the process.  If the work matters, then so does the person doing it.  And that means being gentle with myself, and being careful with my expectations.  No-one expects me to be a corset-sewing, paper-writing superstar all the time.  And that’s okay.  I just have to stop expecting superstardom from myself, too.

But I’m still going to order the pattern and kit next week.