It was never my intention to leave academia. English departments had always been my home, the place where I found a community of people with shared interests, varying opinions, and a love of conversation. From freshmen year of undergrad, my professors had always been oddly like parents whom I struggled to please. I worked incredibly hard, and I stood out. And I assumed I always would. I was determined to beat the odds, land the job, and succeed where so many brilliant people had failed. That’s what I told myself to survive. I did everything I was supposed to do. I published. I taught. I presented at the major conferences in my field. But according to the one and only metric that matters in any humanities department, I failed.
To be fair, I was only really on the job market for one year, and I had one interview. That, I am told, should be seen as some measure of success, and a good sign that if I try again next year, maybe I’ll get two interviews. But I had to support myself; I didn’t have the option of adjuncting for a year or two in order to try my luck at the tenure-track lottery again and again. Instead, I struggled to come to terms with defeat. And then I struggled to come up with new terms altogether—not defeat or failure, or even success, but a language not built on the academy’s warped value system.
To my surprise, I found a job as a writer outside of the academy, and I’m still dumbfounded that PhD programs only actively prepare you for one professional path, and one you’re not likely to achieve. In academic circles, I’m considered “post-ac”—another value-laden, exclusionary term, one peg below alt-ac on the list of things no PhD candidate ever aspires to. “You are no longer one of us,” it says, “Take your things and go.” Your CV will be empty, and no one will ever hire you to teach again. It’s the professional equivalent to finding your old t-shirts burning on your ex’s lawn. There’s just no coming back from that.
Actually, leaving academia is alarmingly like a breakup. You struggle with feelings of rejection and just not being good enough. You have to figure out a new identity. Hearing that a former colleague got a job—no matter how much you respect them and their work—feels exactly like finding out that your ex is dating again. What does she have that I don’t?
Am I bitter? Of course. It’s impossible to make it through a PhD program without becoming bitter. And why shouldn’t I be? I was a great teacher and making valuable contributions to my field. It’s the academy’s loss, and I don’t mind saying so. But I’m not slow-driving by its house late at night, if you know what I mean. Instead, I get paid to write, and rather than languishing in a scholarly database where no one will ever read it, my work has a tangible impact on other people’s lives and livelihoods. I’m not going to lie, nine to five life is hard, but my evenings and weekends are my own for the first time in over a decade. I get to live in a city I love instead of being at the mercy of the market’s geography. In other words, I’m thrilled with how things turned out.
Still, one of the biggest problems with a term like “post- ac” is that once you’ve done your PhD, you can’t undo it. I’ll always be an academic. The way I think, the way I see the world and position myself within it, will always be informed by my doctorate. It’s part of my very identity—a comma and three letters tacked onto the end of my name.
But what I struggle with most is the lack of a post-ac community. I miss long, analytical discussions over coffee or wine. It’s hard to be a part of conversations when you’re no longer connected to the academy. And it’s partly because I don’t invest the time and energy that engagement requires. When I get home from work, I don’t feel like following hashtags for a conference I didn’t attend. Conference tweeting is like—and often literally is—a joke between old friends: you just had to be there. And since I read for 8-9 hours a day, I don’t spend much of my free time on scholarship. So you could say that the lack of community I feel is all on me and the choices I make. Or, you could see it as just another failure of the academy’s infrastructure—exclusion is inherent in academia’s DNA. After all, grad school is a great Sisyphusian effort to find a community, build one of you have to, and why should life after grad school be any different?
I don’t have a solution to offer. I can’t suggest alternative terminology, improved systems, or larger proverbial tents. But for everyone’s sake, the tenured, junior, adjunct, and especially the grad students who still live in a constant state of fear, we—or they –or you—(I’m not sure of my own positioning here)—must do a better job of deconstructing the language and value systems inherent in humanities departments, and instead, build spaces where students aren’t paralyzed by fear and where no one—post-ac, alt-ac, grad students, undergrads, and anyone else—is ever excluded.
It tastes like a sweaty farmyard animal in my mouth, but in a good way.
Sophia is a goat’s milk cheese produced by Indiana’s Capriole Farm. It looks like a small,wrinkled brick of mold, but when I cut into its soft center, Sophia is bright white except for the thin, bluish layer of vegetable ash running through it. Since it’s a fresh cheese, aged for only about a week, it has a fairly mild flavor, much like the more widely available (and my favorite) Humboldt Fog. But the longer it sits in the fridge or at the cheese shop, the more pungent it becomes. I take another thin slice, smearing it across a cracker until the line of ash loses its definition. I take a bite, pressing the cheese against the roof of my mouth, exhaling. There it is again: the distinct flavor of goat. When I was an undergrad I did a semester in France and visited a goat farm to see how cheese was made. They’re such docile, friendly creatures, like goofier-looking dogs. With every taste of Sophia, I’m back on that farm.
Harbison is a cow’s milk cheese from Vermont. You can’t cut it into slices or wedges because it’s too runny, so you can rarely buy it in small pieces. Instead, it’s usually sold in a round wooden box that you get to unwrap like a present. The surface of Harbison is straw-colored with a vaguely woven texture and a thin dusting of white mold. It’s like looking at a frosted mini-wheat under a magnifying glass. To cut into Harbison, you have to slide a cheese wire or small knife under the surface, peeling it back. The center looks like white queso, and is just as molten. You’re supposed to serve it with a spoon, or, amongst friends, just dip your bread right into it. My partner managed to find a half-wheel at a local cheese shop. It had been chilled and wrapped, disguising the runny center. When we unwrapped it, it spilled onto the plate, the fragile outer shell collapsing onto itself, and after the first taste, we abandoned the bread idea altogether and scooped it up with our fingers.
In order to hold Harbison’s shape, the skilled artisans of Jasper Hill Creamery in Vermont wrap a thin strip of wet spruce around the edge, then leave it to age for 6 to 13 weeks. During the aging process (affinage), the oozing cream absorbs the flavor of the spruce, so when Harbison touches your tongue, it tastes like the memory of a childhood Christmas.
According to Max McCalman, author of Mastering Cheese: Lessons in Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager, the best way to describe cheese is through simile. Cheese tastes like a barnyard, like feet, like any number of things that sound disgusting yet somehow are delicious…like heaven. But I wanted more than vague metaphor. I wanted specificity. I wanted to swirl cheese around my mouth like a sip of wine, catching hints of honey and notes of thyme. I wanted a vocabulary.
So I began June with a simple goal: to learn more about cheese, to learn to appreciate it, to understand it, and, perhaps most importantly, to talk about it. There’s a great documentary called Somm, about people training for the Master Sommelier test. There’s a lot of swishing and spitting, as you would expect, but also a lot of note cards and maps. The sommeliers interviewed talk about the nuances of a certain vintage from a particular vineyard, noting its blackberry or tobacco undertones, or, more bizarrely, describing the aroma as “a freshly opened can of tennis balls” or “a garden hose cut in half.” That’s what I wanted to learn to do with cheese: to abandon the fear of absurdity and embrace pretension in all its glory.
Sophia’s Flavor Wheel
As it turns out, there are quite a few easy identifiers when describing the taste, texture, and appearance of cheese. The first step was to get a cheese diary. One of our favorite local cheese shops, Righteous Cheese in Union Market, sells copies of the 33 Pieces of Cheese, which is kind of adorable, if a little precious. It has spaces for the cheese name, creamery, origin, rind (washed, bloomy, or natural), milk source, texture, and a flavor wheel. Each point on the flavor wheel marks a characteristic–sweet, grassy, caramel, nutty, stinky, lactic, crystalline, etc.–with 0 at the center of the wheel and 5 on the outer edge. Right off the bat, we went from knowing next to nothing about cheese, to having sixteen adjectives and a method of comparison. Once the dots are connected, the flavor profile forms a shape, and we began to notice patterns. Our least favorite cheeses, like Grayson, an unpasteurized cow’s milk, and a particularly over-ripened Pierre Robert, formed a perfect star, spiking the scales at salty, stinky, sharp, and grassy. Our favorite cheeses, tended to form little shapes, like an angel, a fighter jet, or a terrier.
The flavor of an individual cheese is influenced by the type of milk, what the animal ate, the moisture in the air, and the particular strains of bacteria native to the region. This is all part of the cheese’s terroir, a concept that is as important to cheese as it is to wine making. Even a change in season can produce a different flavor. For Alpine cheeses, cows have to graze on heartier plants with less moisture in the winter, while summer grazing includes more food supply to produce a sweeter cream. The formula for some cheese varieties are so specific that creameries use only morning milkings, rather than evening milkings, or vice versa. Every tiny factor makes a difference.
The Perfect Cheeseboard
A cheeseboard on our stoop. Courtesy of @fictionaljules (https://instagram.com/fictionaljules/)
The rule of thumb is variety–use different milk types and textures. If you’re going with three cheeses, try to get one of each: goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, cow’s milk. That’s typically the order in which you’d want to taste the cheese as well. The mildest and freshest cheeses tend to be made from goat’s milk, while cow’s milk cheeses tend to be the strongest flavors. This is a generalization, not a hard and fast rule. You can also find sweet cow’s milk cheese or goat’s milk cheese that’s so stinky it’ll burn your nose. The trick is in the order you taste them. If you try the sharper, more robust cheeses first, your tastebuds aren’t alert to the nuances of the milder cheeses. If you order a cheeseboard in a restaurant, they should be arranged mild to strong, running left to right. Blues are always last.
Taste each cheese twice, first by itself, then with a cracker or some other accompaniment or condiment. And it doesn’t have to be a cracker or a piece of bread. Certain pairings bring out more subtle notes, and often the cheese will taste drastically different with the right pairings. Chèvre and Brie are great with apple or pear. Triple crèmes work really well with honey. Cheddars are amazing with mustard. I recommend Flory’s Truckle Cheddar with a sweet-spicy brown mustard. As Remmy would put it, “Discoveries to be made!”
How to Do It on the Cheap
Unlike wine, whiskey, and other luxury items, learning about cheese doesn’t have to be expensive. Most cheese shops, even Whole Foods, have some kind of remainder bin where you can find tiny wedges of leftover cheese for $2-4. For less than $10 you can put together a decent cheeseboard. You can also walk into a cheese store and say “Can I sample the Gouda?” They let you do that. Free cheese, people. Free. $5 will buy a cheese tasting diary, or make one yourself. Either way, take notes. Data collection is your friend. It helps you remember what you liked and didn’t, and your palate actually does become more refined.
The number one tip for learning about cheese is just trying it. And remembering that taste is completely objective. Nobody can tell you which cheese tastes good to you. But if you want to follow me into the far regions of obsession, there are several completely free resources that I’d recommend. YouTube has an Australian series Channel Cheese, which includes visits to a lot of creameries and fromageries. There are also behind the scenes videos from Cypress Grove, makers of Humboldt Fog. For a super nerdy listening experience, Gastropod, a podcast about the history and science of food, has an episode which delves into how cheese changed our DNA (Humans used to be lactose intolerant, but I’ll let them tell you what happened next.), what’s wrong with mass production and those radio-active-orange blocks of byproduct (Hint: it’s not cheese), and lots of fun stories about bacteria.
For going really deep into the subject, McCalman’s Mastering Cheesehas more information than I could even get through, so I’d recommend jumping around in the book to sections that interest you. I checked it out from the local public library. They let you read books for free too.
Our cheeseboard from Sona Creamery, DC
If you’ve got a special occasion coming up, find a restaurant that serves a curated cheeseboard. If you’re in DC, Sona Creamery and Wine Bar offers one of the best selections by a knowledgeable and friendly staff. They also include a pat of house-made butter sprinkled with salty pop-rocks. Yes, pop-rocks. It’s something you never knew your grown-up mouth wanted. A variety of accompaniments are included with the cheeseboard, but wine pairings are extra. But don’t get too attached, the selection changes every month, but you can probably still buy your favorites from their shop. For a bit more of a splurge, they offer cheese-making classes and, coming up in August, a cheese tour of Ireland. No joke. A girl can dream, right?
After a month of oh-so-serious cheese study, I think finally earned some street cred among cheese mongers, and I sometimes hear the word affinage fly out of my mouth without the least hint of irony. Of all of the monthly experiments that I’ve done, this has definitely been the tastiest, and the one I’m least likely to give up any time soon.
Bonus: Favorite Cheese
Goat Cow Buffalo Sheep
Humboldt Fog Hummingbird Casatica Ovelha Amanteigado Mitica
Sophia Durrus La Morotte
Chèvre de cremiers St. Stephen Triple Crème
Crocodile tear Seven Sisters
Cana de Cabra Wilde Weid Gouda
Brabander Piave straveccio
‘Tis the season to make reading lists. Thrilled by the sudden warmth of the sun and the promise (or more likely, fantasy) of a few days on the beach, everyone starts making lists of books that we imagine gazing at over the salted rims of tropical drinks. The New Yorker‘s Out Loud Podcast recently interviewed Kathryn Shulz and James Wood on their summer reading lists, if you’re looking for a few suggestions. To make things easier, Amazon has combed my recent searches for “Beach Read Sale” items, which makes it clear that their algorithms have never been to a beach.
Honestly, though, I don’t feel much like reading. I’ve recently completed my PhD in English, and I’ve hit a slump. It’s not exactly that I hate reading, it’s just that I’ve completed the intellectual equivalent of ten consecutive Man Versus Food challenges, and I never want to see a steak again. Instead of forcing myself through another novel or theoretical text, I’m finding other pursuits to keep me inspired and fight the anxiety of applying to a thousand jobs.
Courtesy of @fictionaljules (https://instagram.com/fictionaljules/)
Unlike previous summers where I’ve set a full syllabus and worked my way through courses, this summer, I’m picking fun and interesting topics and letting myself plummet down rabbit holes. For June, I wanted to go easy on myself–really easy: learning as much as I can about cheese. As if following a daily diet of cheese weren’t motivation enough, my partner has enthusiastically joined this challenge, assembling cheese boards and visiting creameries with me.
Normally, I wouldn’t attempt 2 challenges at the same time, but earlier this month, Turner Classic Movies launched a free online course called Summer of Darkness: Investigating Film Noir. After half a dozen of my close friends started the course and joined the #NoirSummer conversation, I couldn’t resist throwing my fedora in the ring. Sharing a communal experience of old, inky detective films has been nearly as much fun as eating cheese every day.
While there is something very personal about 30-day challenges, having someone to share goals and accomplishments with makes it easier to stay on track. I could never have finished my dissertation without the support of my writing group, a fantastic group of scholars that keep each other honest about the work we’re doing and the time we’re wasting.
So I’m also looking for accountability buddies that want to work on the same project, or a completely different project altogether, as long as you’re wanting to accomplish goals and willing to check in regularly with progress updates. If there’s anything you want to do during June, or this summer, leave a comment or tweet me.
Tech geeks often use the term “early fail” to describe the positive side-effects of an idea that didn’t work. The philosophy is that you learn more from an “early fail” than you do from an “early success.” Talking about that process can also help others avoid similar mistakes. So here’s mine: I had a relatively simple goal–to embed images into texts. So I started with something I knew I could easily do: copy and paste an e-text into an html document, then add links to pictures. Relatively easy, yes, but if my overarching goal was to improve the reading experience, long, scrolling pages of unpaginated text wouldn’t work.
I then briefly considered adding hotspots to PDF files, then using an iframe to load them. This would be possible and have a lot of advantages–(1)I could use a PDF of Ruskin’s exact text, no copying and pasting required, (2) The original pagination would remain intact, (3) The original typography, white space, etc., would make for a more enjoyable, classic reading experience; and (4) PDF’s can be viewed as books with pages that turn. The big negative to this is: in order to embed hotspots in PDFs you need something like Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription service. From equal parts fiscal responsibility and DH ethics, I resolved early on not to use tools or technologies (besides hosting services) that are not free, publicly available, and, where possible, completely open source. So, from the list above, I set a couple of priorities: hotspots or links and pages that turn.
I began by experimenting with several different platforms. FlippingBook lets you upload PDFs and embed pulsing hotspot gifs that are linked to images. The problem, again, is that the free version of this software doesn’t let you share your PDFs. FlipPageMaker is a similar program (when I say similar, it was the same software package complete with the exact same download wizard), which lets you share the document, but it’s covered by a giant “watermark” icon that obscures most of the page. FlipSnackEdu is a free trial version of FlipSnack that is marketed towards elementary and middle school teachers to make their own textbooks. You can write your own text or upload PDFs then add photos onto the page. There are actually a lot of cool things about FlipSnack and how it can be used in the classroom, at any grade, really, but you cannot format the text if you upload pdfs. You have to lay your photo over text or in the margins. There are also premium FlipSnack services to make books more interactive. So if any of these packages sound appealing to you, and you have a budget for purchasing software, these all worked to varying degrees.
The flipping mechanism is there and links are easily embedded. It supports images as well, even with dynamic effects like the “hover side effect,” but I wanted to keep Ruskin looking somewhat traditional, rather than covering the page with so many images there would hardly be space for text. So I removed the images altogether and began the painstaking process of coping and pasting Mornings in Florence paragraph by paragraph into <p></p> tags. I added <br> tags between paragraphs to improve readability. This was, by far, the most time consuming part of the process, and it had to be done for every paragraph, and then, later, redone for every paragraph, but I’ll get to that later.
And of course, that font had to go.
The offending fonts were located in the “Cufon” and the “ChunkFive” js pages. Deleting all of these files made the page formatting go haywire, so I commented-out the bottom two font .js pages, and added Garamond to the CSS. It took a little experimenting, but it worked perfectly. Then, in the CSS, I removed the wavy line icon that Moleskin was using underneath chapter headings and simply replaced it with <hr> tags in the html.
You may have also noticed in the above screencap that I added Lightbox. I used Lokesh Dhakar’s simple version, minimum bells and whistles, but easy installation and use. If you’ve never added a js to a page before, it’s almost identical to adding a CSS page, at least in this case; just link inside before your end </head> tag.
I finished the hard work of reading the chapter, finding images, and embedding lightbox links, and the much harder work of formatting the paragraphs to fit the page. The next step was to make sure it was responsive on tablets and phones. Guess what.
I had three choices at this point: (1) To make the booklet responsive at the code level. (2) Make the booklet bigger. If you have any suggestions for either of these options, please let me know. I tried a few things, and it wasn’t pretty. The final option was (3) Look on every page of the booklet on a mobile device, figure out where the text has reached the bottom margin, and then rearranging the html for each and every page. That’s what I’ve done, but it was extremely tedious.
Definitely check for responsiveness before you have tagged the entire book. The impulse is to get as much online as quickly as possible to show it off and get constructive feedback, but if you do that before you’ve checked for responsiveness, you’ll end up redoing a lot of work that has already consumed a few days.
To Do List
(1) I’m concerned that if students or researchers are using my edition of Mornings in Florence, the pagination isn’t complete. You cannot easily and professional cite my project in any efficient, MLA-compliant way. So one step for the near future is to add notations of the original pagination so that if you are citing Ruskin, it will be easy to find the original page and publication information.
(2) There are a few more Lightboxes to add for cross references to other works, particularly from early versions of A Room with a View. These drafts, known as The Lucy Novels, have significantly more references to Ruskin. I still need to add and tag those.
(3) Build other mornings. There are a total of six mornings in Florence. I began with the First Morning in Santa Croce because that’s the morning most closely related to by dissertation. Other chapters will deal more with Henry James’s love-hate relationship with Ruskin.
That’s the process so far. There may be additional process/tutorial posts as the book continues to grow. If you’re working with Moleskin or another booklet program, let me know!
John Ruskin, reaching for a ruler with which to strike your palms.
Someday in the future, engineers may be able to create a fully interactive John Ruskin audioanimatronic that walks, talks, and thinks exactly like Ruskin. Then he can tell us what we don’t understand about art, how badly we behave as tourists, how to best study our Bibles, and inform us of the detrimental effects to our souls from “bi-,tri-, and 4-5-6 or 7 cycles, and every other contrivance and invention for superseding human feet on God’s ground” (Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin 617). Until that glorious day, I am doing my part to help readers, tourists, and scholars have a more immersive experience of reading Ruskin’s 1875 travel guide, Mornings in Florence.
Ruskin’s preface to Mornings in Florence reads, in part: “The following letters are written as I would write to any friends who asked me what they ought preferably to study in limited time; and I hope they may be found of use if read in the places which they describe, or before the pictures to which they refer.” Putting aside for a moment that Ruskin had many friends that indulged his cantankerous behaviors, there are few tourists today carrying Ruskin in their pockets, though I don’t doubt that tiny fragments and casual references still exist in popular “guidebook” apps available on smart-phones. Most of us who continue to read and enjoy Ruskin are not, sadly, “in the places which [he] describes.” Without knowing exactly which painting Ruskin is discussing or precisely which chapel to the left he would like us to turn towards, we tend to skim right over these passages. I hope that this Mornings in Florence project will allow readers to make connections between text and place.
As an advocate of the digital humanities, I find that I am constantly defending myself, my colleagues, and our research against accusations of abandoning traditional humanities (We’re not.) or destroying close-reading practices (Again, no.) because we use technology and phrases like “distant-reading.” These methodologies are not incompatible. While I do find value in big data and topic modeling, I am also someone who prefers holding a book in my hands. I enjoy the intimacy, the “carnal love,” Anne Fadiman calls it, of writing in margins and dog-earing corners. But sometimes technology allows us not just a more convenient, less expensive option (i.e. Kindle and other tablets), but also a closer reading experience.
A little something extra
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to embed photos of the places Ruskin describes, but if I was going to present this as part of a larger digital companion to my dissertation, I felt that I needed to also make the project reflect some of the interactions that I examine in my own writing. At the most basic level, the first chapter of my dissertation is about travel guides, including Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers, which Ruskin was particularly interested in disparaging. The second chapter is about travelogues and memoirs, many of which counter Ruskin’s authority and opinions. My third chapter is about novels that deal with tourism or tourists, including E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, which also has quite a lot to say about Ruskin. So, rather than just embedding photos of sites mentioned by Ruskin, I have also embedded quotes from Murray and Forster. Intertextuality, even hypertextuality, to use Gérard Genette’s term, is at the heart of my dissertation, but it is also essential to understanding Ruskin’s production and reception. By including these other texts, I think the project gives a more contextual representation both to my dissertation and to Ruskin’s text.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the viability and best practices of writing a digital dissertation. One notable example is Amanda Visconti, who, among others, has an interesting, dynamic project as well as the skills to build it into something sustainable. However, most of us are still pretty far off from having digital projects widely accepted in lieu of written dissertations. My own committee/ department would never accept it; there’s just no infrastructure for evaluation.
But the truth is, I wouldn’t want to build a digital dissertation anyway, for a number of reasons, chief of which is that I wouldn’t want my own forays into digital humanities to be put through the ringer of DEFENSE. I really enjoy learning and innovating, and coding, and, right now at least, there’s no one telling me “This isn’t good enough, go back and rebuild it.”
We often bemoan the fact that there’s still little in the way of peer-review for digital projects, and even less for traditional models of hiring, tenure, and promotion. The flip side of that is that we’re fairly liberated. We have a collaborative and enthusiastic community that says “wow” when we do something that, let’s face is, is pretty cool. Even if our projects are only just kinda-sorta cool, fellow DHers’ eyes light up at the possibilities of an otherwise unimpressive model.
So, while I didn’t want to write a digital dissertation myself, I kept seeing potential projects lurking on every other page of my dissertation. Some of these ideas are pretty massive and would require grants, institutional support, full-time programmers, worker bees, etc.; in other words, too much for me to even attempt at this stage, when finishing the traditional dissertation remains my top priority.
Instead of writing a digital dissertation, I’m taking the research I’ve done for my old-timey, analog dissertation (Let’s face it; your kids call it that.) and building a digital companion of micro-projects to support each chapter.
Additionally, my abstract and chapter synopsis will be available for each chapter, as well as my works cited/bibliography, which I hope will be of some use to others scholars working in my field or related subject areas.
Some of the projects will be small–just a way of dipping my toes into a particular tool or methodology; others will include sources from my dissertation or just right outside of the scope of my dissertation–i.e. books I didn’t have the time or space to write about. The first of these is a dynamic map project featuring luggage labels and ephemera of tourism. The second is an interactive, digital edition of John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence. You can see an early prototype of the project here. Both of these are still in the rudimentary stage, and I welcome feedback or advice.
Along the way, I’ll be blogging about the process because I truly believe that information should be open source, and that learning should be public. I’ve spoken to many scholars who warn against blogging your work–it’s too easy to steal ideas, they say. At the same time, presenting ideas and papers at workshops and conferences is an integral part of our academic life and intellectual community. Everything I have learned so far about building, programming, and digital humanities, I’ve learned for free. However I can, I am obligated to pass it on.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was a consummate collector of photographs, books, priceless works of art, and famous friends. Henry James loosely (and not entirely favorably) based at least a couple of characters on her. John Singer Sargent painted her, so did Anders Zorn. Whistler was also a friend, as was Vernon Lee. If you really want to feel as though you’re listening on all the gossip of late nineteenth-century Venice, read Gondola Days, a collection of essays about the social circle of the Palazzo Barbaro.
She and her husband Jack began travelling extensively after the death of their infant son. Seeing the world was a way of escaping memories of the past, as well as the conservative society of Boston. With the help of Bernard Berenson, one of the most influential art historians of the late nineteenth century, the Gardners began acquiring works by the old masters of European art and shipping them to Boston. Jack passed away in 1898, but five years later, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened near Fenway. The next year, 1904, Henry James published The Golden Bowl which features a character named Adam Verver, a wealthy and controversial American who buys up all the art in Europe to open his own museum in “American City.” And nearly 90 years later, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum became the site of the most notorious art heist in history.
Venetian Courtyard of the Gardner Museum
Gardner’s museum continues to attract visitors to its priceless exhibits, but when I visited the museum last August, I went to see a collection that very few people even known about and even fewer get to see. Throughout Mrs. Gardner’s travels, she collected postcards of cities she visited and art she saw, pasting them into her scrapbook, and scrawling the date, her itinerary, and occasionally quotes from poets in the margins. I looked through her scrapbooks and read a few of her visitor’s books, which is filled with notes, drawings, and even scraps of sheet music from some of the most notable figures of the nineteenth century. Many of these scrapbooks have been digitized and as I finish the final chapter of my dissertation, I have spent the last week meticulously looking at every page, collecting data and finding patterns.
Before I left, I purchased a postcard to add to my own collection. This photograph of the Gardners–Isabella is the woman in the gondola on the right–in Venice now hangs above my desk at home.
I began the Accountability Journal almost ten years
ago. At the time, I was in a grad student at a prestigious, highly competitive university in the UK and desperately trying to finish my dissertation. If you’ve ever worked independently, whether for school, self-employment, or any kind of project where you can’t simply “clock-out,” then you know how quickly the job becomes your life, and everything else gets pushed to the wayside: friends, partners, health, personal hygiene, you name it. If you remember learning about gases from elementary school, you know that one of the defining properties of gas is that it will expand to fill any given container. When you’re working without direct supervision, writing acts exactly like a gas: it will expand until it takes up all of the space in your life.
I was terribly unhappy, but there were so many reasons why I shouldn’t have been. I grew up in a rural community in the southern US, where people rarely left the state and very few travelled abroad. And there I was living in a breathtakingly beautiful part of England, surrounded by history and culture, but I was glued to a desk from dawn till midnight trying to prove that I could keep up in the British university system.
I was miserable and couldn’t take any more. So I sat down and I began to write what I referred to as The Accountability Manifesto.
Manifesto sounds overly melodramatic, as if I hoped to start a socialist revolution or neo-Dadaism, but I’m drawn to the theatrical, and it captures the sense of passion and commitment I needed to turn things around.
I began by making a list of every area of my life that I felt was being neglected or left undeveloped. I thought I’d have four, maybe five big things I wanted to change, but when I really started thinking, there were nine. I wanted to be athletic and active, despite spending 12 hours a day on a computer. I wanted to live in a clean space like a normal human being. I wanted to go out and explore this beautiful country and appreciate the amazing opportunity that I had to live there. The list went on and on and on. The list keeps going on. At any given time, I have nine to twelve areas or projects that I’m focused on.
Did you ever see the movie What About Bob? In the film, Richard Dreyfus plays a psychiatrist who explains to his patient (Bill Murray) that you can accomplish anything, if you just take baby steps. It becomes a recurring joke in the movie, but it’s actually kind of true. I decided that each day I was going to spend just a little bit of time working towards those nine goals. Maybe I didn’t have time to do all the dishes in the sink, but I could set aside 10 minutes once or twice a day to wash a few plates. Even if I couldn’t make time to go to the gym, 20-30 push-ups or sit-ups weren’t going to hurt. It was just a way to get started. Baby steps.
At the end of every day, I opened up a Word doc, and I explained what I did and what I didn’t do. I described how I felt and what I learned. Taking the time to think through my day and emotions was the hardest part of the entire project because it took time and focus, but it was also the most beneficial. The journal was simultaneously my therapist and my boss. I knew I had to report to somebody. Somebody was going to hold me accountable. Even if it was only the blinking vertical line, and that damn animated paper clip.
Over the years, I’ve given up on the Accountability Journal, picked it back up, gone on vacations, picked it back up, took a hiatus, picked it back up. You get the idea. Each time, I tried to identify what had made me put the journal aside. Hint: It was almost always a vacation. The Accountability Journal works best for when you have a lot of priorities and/or zero motivation. When you have less stress, you don’t need someone holding you accountable. Yet each time I find myself overwhelmed, I come back to the Accountability Journal, and without fail, I immediately begin to live a more active, fulfilled, accomplished life. Stick with it.
Over the years, I’ve had to adapt to new situations and interests, rethinking my areas or focus or setting smaller goals. If something isn’t working efficiently, it often helps to make a schedule, i.e. I’ll run every other day. I’ll practice guitar on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I’ve even adapted the ways I keep my Accountability Journal. Once or twice a week, I write out long, self-reflective entries. For all the other days I just make notes or what I call a “To-Done” list. (But maybe that’s a post for another day.)
As they used to say on MTV Cribs, in an entirely different context, of course, “This is where the magic happens.” Even though you’re taking out 15-30 minutes for each of your goals and side projects, the time you spend working on your dissertation, revising an article, or finishing that report seems twice as productive. Your focus is better because your day is more enjoyable. You actually get more work done.
If you want to try it for yourself, here are the five easy steps.
1. Make a list of focus areas: things you want to change , accomplish, or learn.
2. Baby steps: break down each area into 2-3 mini-goals.
3. Journal it. Really think about what you’re doing. Ask yourself the hard questions. Be your own therapist every once in a while.
4. Stick with it, but adapt it.
5. Be proud of everything you’ve accomplished.
Hey, you’ve already read this whole post, so you’ve really already started. Baby steps.
If you’re like me, you’ve struggled to find balance between all the competing areas of your life–your work, your family, your interests, your health, that new hobby you always wanted to pick up. Every day a new priority reshifts your focus, and as soon as that task is complete, another one falls into your lap. It feels like a never ending cycle of not finding the time to cope with the stress, let alone work towards your goals or, that most illusive of tasks, pursuing your dreams.
Every year I’d make resolutions; every month I’d renew them, but nothing ever changed. I’d get organized and energized only to watch the to-do list grow exponentially, as all my motivation shrank in inverse proportion. All I wanted was a drill sergeant to get me on track and keep me in line.
But I kept trying, kept fighting, until I realized that, without noticing it, I had stumbled across a secret. Well it wasn’t really a stumble so much as a series of high jumps followed by low falls, and it wasn’t so much a secret as a skillset and toolbox. The truth is we do need someone to keep us in line and help us stay motivated. Studies show that people who diet or exercise with friends or groups have significantly better results than those who go it alone or can’t find a fitness buddy. They keep us accountable. And a little competition never hurts.
While it would be great if you had a friend, colleague, or partner who shared all of your aspirations and goals, the truth is that we all want different things in life, and we can’t depend on others to make sure we get out of bed early enough for a run. Your mom isn’t there to remind you to practice piano. The only person that can help you is you, and chances are…you’ve probably disappointed yourself a few times before.
I’m not saying that I’ve found some breakthrough miracle that is guaranteed to change your life forever. I’m only saying that I know how you feel. I’ve been there. But I’ve gotten through it. And then I’ve been there again. And again. I’ve learned to think of it less as a struggle of ups and downs, and more like a cycle, a tide. Sometimes you’re riding the waves; sometimes you’re crashing against the rocks. Along the way, I’ve developed a set of simple, common-sense techniques for getting through the slumps and riding the waves for as long as I can.
I’m a scholar, a grad student, an intellectual–a whole list of labels that mean that I’m not supposed to show vulnerability. What will potential employers think if they see me publicly struggle with motivation? What will colleagues and scholars whom I admire think if they see my posts that are not about theory, digital humanities, or the state of the academy? What will my friends secretly say to themselves or when I’m not around about how I’m starting to sound like a crazy person, or worse, a self-help book? I really can’t answer those questions, nor can I keep myself from asking them. But the truth is, we all struggle with motivation, and we all have knowledge to share.
So if you’re interested in sticking around, in turning the proverbial digital pages, if you will, I’ll share with you a few things I’ve learned–that I’m continuing to learn–along the way. But I need your help too. How do you stay motivated? How do you find balance? How do you pick yourself up after a couple of days when all you’ve accomplished is getting your money’s worth out of Netflix?
Gustave Le Gray is undoubtedly one of the most important photographers of the nineteenth century. Born outside of Paris in 1820, his early training was in painting; therefore, it’s not surprising that Le Gray favored the grand scale of landscapes and seascapes. However, much of his fame came in the early 1850s when he was chosen to participate in the Mission Héliographique, a project to document French monuments and architecture before restoration could begin.
Central Portal of the Church of Saint-Jacques, 1851
The irony of restoration, as John Ruskin frequently lamented/stormed, is that it often involved destroying original masonry and sculptures, replacing them with modern reproductions.While no technology (and certainly no technique available in the mid-nineteenth century) could respectfully restore ancient monuments, Le Gray’s photographs went a long way towards preserving them, orat least images of the original for future generations to admire.
Le Gray was not only an active photographer, but an innovator as well, experimenting with techniques and technologies to improve photography. Louis Degeurre’s silver-plate process allowed for sharp details, but it was expensive, cumbersome to transport, required long exposures, and involved hazardous chemicals. Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype process used a paper negative, which was not only easier and less expensive, but also had the advantage of producing multiple prints from a single negative. One significant disadvantage of the calotype process, however, is that the paper was more vulnerable to absorption, unlike daguerreoytpe’s glass plates, leaving blurred edges with fewer crisp details. Le Gray’s solution was to treat the paper negative with wax, resulting in much more vivid photographs.
Le Gray was also an early innovator of “combination printing,” in which multiple negatives are used to print a single photograph. Bateaux quittant le Port du Havre (Boats leaving the Port of Havre), 1856, shown above, is one of Le Gray’s many seascapes produced using this process. Because of the different exposures required to capture the dark shades of the sea and the bright light of the sky, Le Gray took two photographs and combined the negatives. The result is a deeply evocative chiaroscuro effect, in which the soft ripples of the sea, the clean lines of the ships, and the rich light shining through the clouds are all visible in a single print. Soon, Le Gray began teaching this and other photographic processes in his Paris studio, and though it later proved financially disastrous, his pupils, including Nadar and Maxime du Camp, became the leading figures in nineteenth-century French photography.
The Beech Tree, one of the most expensive photographs ever sold at auction.
Le Gray frequently wrote about his experiments, as well as his philosophies on art. One question that dominated the discourse around photography was whether or not the camera was a scientific apparatus to accurately and objectively document “truth,” or whether photography was an art form in its own right, embracing creativity and subjectivity as part of its own particular aesthetic. Despite his frequent experiments and his involvement with the Mission Héliographique–which above all else was an endeavor to scientifically catalog and categorize French tourist sites–Le Gray was most interested in the aesthetics of photography. In his 1852 treatise, Le Gray wrote, “It is my deepest wish that photography, instead of falling within the domain of industry, of commerce, will be included among the arts. That is its sole, true, place, and it is in that direction that I shall always endeavor to guide it” (qtd. in Daniels). Photography still straddles that odd middle-ground between technology and aesthetics, but while we might admire Le Gray’s contributions to the science of photography, it is his use of light and shadow that captures our eye and imaginations.