archival work: like a virgin

Peeking into this blog to write some about my first archival trip to France.

As a student of early music, it doesn’t take long before one is confronted with the mysterious world of archives. It begins by references to them in secondary literature, footnotes full of mysterious document numbers. Then one finds oneself asking questions that only the archive can answer. Learning how to get from that point to actually sitting down in a reading room in Europe is a massive learning curve in and of itself (which I’ve already written about). So I learned how to find French archive inventories, I made a travel plan, got a place to stay, bought a plane ticket, and ended up in a small town in the middle of France. I didn’t know anything. I had one call number of one document and a small <i>Guide des Archives</i> with general inventory information. I spent the better part of two weeks calling dossier after dossier, never quite knowing what I going to get. Sometimes it would be massive sheets of vellum with nearly illegible church fondations. Sometimes it would be scraps of paper from the 17th c with one 15th c document thrown in for good measure. I sat in the reading room of the archive, surrounded by grumpy old, white, male French scholars, or an old couple coming in to look up genealogical information.

Everything about the experience felt like a mystifying rite of passage. While the archivists were very helpful and friendly, sometimes I didn’t know what to do. It took me a few days before I realized how to call up a document; the first day, they just brought me stuff, and then later they explained how to call up things. And then later they explained how I’d have to look at this one series in a separate office. And then my crappy French speaking skills made every interaction all the more fraught. Just getting out the door, to the archive and back, finding meals–all of these, the simply daily things–made every day feel like an Everest. (though, to my credit, my comprehension skills improved dramatically while I was there.) I have traveled some in my college years, but I’m not a highly experienced world traveler.

I didn’t find anything awesome in the archives. I didn’t expect to, but there was a part of me half-hoping that I’d find another document with Ockeghem in it. I enjoyed the actual work of looking through pile after pile of document. When I was in work mode, the rest of the frustrating life was shut out. I was in my own world. I actually listened to some music on headphones, to block out the noisy silence or the French chitchat that would waft over to me, finding myself less capable of tuning out the language sounds I was less accustomed to hearing. Having the music on helped to create a more familiar work space (especially since I have a sort of general “worky” playlist that already felt familiar).

As I neared the end of the list of relevant documents, I realized that there wasn’t going to be anything of major awesomeness to musicologists. It was disappointing a little. I have some good things and interesting things, to be sure. But nothing that will make me famous. This is okay. And probably more realistic. The archive did have a good library, which I made use of, and as I began reading secondary literature, for the first time in weeks, I began to be able to truly see how archival documents undergird historical writing. It is something I’ve known in the abstract for a long time, but never have quite seen until now. It is kind of an emotional experience—of vulnerability, of awe—understanding with new reverence what it means to write history.

Rivers know this

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” —Winnie-the-Pooh

Over the past several months I’ve drafted and deleted several posts, most of them mental posts. And I delete them, because they feel lame. But I think that I will write it down, because I think it will be cathartic and stop impeding my productivity if I do.

I’ve come to the realization that my life as a graduate student has to develop through a natural order of things and that I just have to go through the stages in order. Much like all people, in order to learn to write, no matter how old they are, have to go through certain development of scribble techniques. (There’s a very interesting book about that, by the way.)

So this is where I am: you know how three and four-year-olds want to do things but they can’t quite really, but they almost can? Like pouring some orange juice for instance: my 4yo can get a cup out of his drawer, go to the fridge, get out the orange juice, attempt to pour his own juice, put the juice back in the fridge, and drink his juice. If this is all done successfully, he feels a great sense of accomplishment; however, if not everything is in the right place, his task is impeded. His success is dependent on their being clean cups in the kids’ dishes drawer that he can reach. Also if the juice is too full, it will likely result in spillage, and sad frustration. He is a pendulum of exuberance and despair.

And that is where I am. Sometimes, what I do works; it’s exhilarating. Most of the time, I’m grasping for an independence that is so close, yet so far. On the one hand, I want to feel more confident as a well-functioning adult in her mid-30’s, mother of two. On the other, I realize that there is so much to know before I can start drawing lines between, that I feel like a child. These discordances are disconcerting.


How do I know that what I’m doing is valuable? Or that I’m on track? There are plenty of people to tell you when you’re wrong or off track. Why should I care to know? Is it a “girl” thing? I start using the details of my life as measures of value: conference acceptance? plus one. Not funded? take away…a lot. Even if I know that these things are far more complicated than just measures of value. The thing is that *I* value what I’m doing, so I want to feel valued. But it’s all so arbitrary and unmeasurable.

I wonder, staring at the lacuna of What There is Yet to Know, how I can make a contribution.

I’m sorry for the self-obsessiveness. What I usually do, and what I will do when I finish this post, is just get to work. Because someday, pouring the juice will not be an occasion for triumph or despair, but will just be something I’m confident that I can do and won’t think anything of it.

Year 2

About three weeks ago, I started year two of my program. I’m so tired I hardly know what to post.

I’m not teaching this year. Just TAing. I was a little sad about that. But, honestly, I’m so glad to not have preps this year and can really focus on my two seminars and preparing a couple of articles.

My work is challenging me a lot. Field work is a brand new research tool for me. I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate what I’ve learned from the trips I’ve made to meet with these Deaf musicians into a scholarly article. And I’m reading stuff that is blowing my mind…phenomenology of sound!?

And I’m still trying to figure out a dissertation topic. And keep getting faced with disappointments about work I’m interested in or have already invested in in my primary field of Who the Hell Cares.

And that is the state of the union at the moment.

Dear Abby, Love Confused

I’m confused about my career. (Welcome to academia, please join every other graduate student on the bench.)

I have two areas of specialization right now: Who the Hell Cares is my primary field and Change the World is my secondary field. This is how they end up being caricatured in my brain. The answer to Who the Hell Cares is easy enough, I do. I’m sure it’s something every medievalist faces at some point. Change the World is seeing the most action right now. I’m presenting, researching, writing about Change the World. I’m not sure what’s happening with Change the World, it’s a crazy ride that I can’t quite control yet. I keep trying to set it aside so that I can focus on Who the Hell Cares, but like I said, I am currently being swept along on the current of Change the World, and I’m digging around in the boat for the oars. This topic is happening to me. It is not a topic that “I’m pursuing.” I’m starting to wonder what I’m supposed to do with it. Should I throw in all my energy and focus on Change the World?

The problem is, I actually really do love Who the Hell Cares. It’s been the focus of my work, interests, and energies for almost fifteen years. Unfortunately, my hiatus tripped up my momentum, and I’ve been trying to stand back up in this field ever since. I had hoped to regain my footing over this past year, but Change the World kept getting in the way. And now what I had hoped to be my dissertation topic probably won’t be a possibility, leaving me even more afloat. Who the Hell Cares has been my dream, has been what got me back into grad school. The faculty/advising situation in my department is a dream team for Who the Hell Cares; nonexistent for Change the World.

On the one hand, I shouldn’t have to panic about what to specialize in so early in my graduate career. On the other, I do. I need to get funding for things. I need to write a dissertation, get a job. It’s different for grad students these days–there’s not a lot of time for letting things simmer. I think of my dissertation as the opportunity to gain skills and begin networking my academic community. I’m more interested in making that investment into Who the Hell Cares.

Change the World is taking me so far outside of my comfort zone that i don’t even know what’s going on. And, to be honest, I think I’m more employable if Who the Hell Cares is my primary field, because I’ll be able to teach the canon, with Change the World providing some nice side show electives. If I were to specialize in Change the World, the kinds of places I could get a job may be places with hyper-specialized study centers.

So what do I write my dissertation on? And how do I tame the wild ride that is Change the World?

the Garden of your Mind

Since I spend most of the summer reveling in agriculture, this video was not only incredibly nostalgic (shout out to the ol’ ‘hood!) but delightfully a propos.

What a simple, yet deeply evocative, metaphor: letting ideas grow in the garden of your mind.

I’m gardening a lot these days, so I think about all the things that go into growing plants–good soil, fertilizer, watering, training. I am challenged to think about how I’m tending the garden of my mind. Especially since I’m working to be a professional scholar, where my mind is the foundation of my job, inasmuch as a farmer’s field is. As a grad student, I always feel like I’m cramming stuff into my mind as frantically as possible. But maybe my ideas will grow into healthier plants if I step back and tend them more carefully. Yet, at the same time, practical considerations also overwhelm. Do I feel ready to get that conference paper? If I don’t give x number of papers and meet y number of people, will I get a job? It’s tough. But, for now, I feel inspired by the ultimate cheerleader to the least of us, Mr. Rogers.

Campus is still there

In case anyone was wondering after my last post, campus is still there. I spent all day there today, probably the last time I can do that as the kids’ school schedules are wrapping up. I got work done; it was quiet. I visited with a colleague and bumped into another in the library. Just what I needed.

I live so far away from campus that it is very easy to feel disconnected here in the Boston countryside surrounded by farms. I do love living out in a small town nestled between CSA farms. It is so soul-nourishing to me.

And then I feel like a wimp for wanting the connection of a physical space. Shouldn’t I just want to do my work because it’s interesting and awesome? I think it also has to do with community. It’s not just work. Academia doesn’t make sense if it’s not a conversation.


dare I eat a peach?

Hopefully this summer will include a beach.

For my monthly post, I feel like I need to say a word of wrap-up about my first year and a word about the upcoming summer. I don’t necessarily plan to have my posting frequency only once a month, but it turns out this way. I also wonder if such a post isn’t too banal? But in my many years of blogging, I’ve learned that to blog is to not forget.

In some ways, I don’t really need to summarize all that was my first year, because the story has kind of woven itself in previous entries. But as I sit here in the year’s aftermath, only a few weeks since the door closed on the semester, it already seems like a fuzzy reality. The most distinct impressions I have are of being frantic, frazzled, excited, and stressed out about money. And I settle back into the familiar reality of stay-at-home-mom, I sometimes wonder if Aimai-je un rêve?, did I love a dream? Did I really get to do all that cool stuff?

This is part of why I hate summer. I always have. It messes with my mojo. I have a huge to-do list for the summer, but it seems fake. I am having a hard time focusing. I plotted out my to-do list on a calendar of the next 13 weeks ’til the semester starts again. Thirteen weeks of feeling fake.

I’m planning a trip to campus in a couple of days. It requires Herculean effort for the whole family for me to spend the day in town. I don’t really need to be on campus for any particular reason, but I’ll get some campus busy work done while I’m at it. I’m partly going to make sure that campus still exists. I’m also going so that I can work from 9-5 in an office and hopefully chip away at my to-do list. I hope that as I mature as a scholar, the Home Me and the School Me won’t live at such odds. The School Me feels energized and productive. The Home Me feels oppressed by piles of laundry and distracted by my awesome garden and dreams of owning chickens and a Jersey cow named Sylvia.

The elephant in the room, though, is definitely the kids. Oh wait, it just sounds like a herd of elephants. (Or maybe it’s Elmer the Elephant). Sure, there’s the difficulty of finding time to get stuff done. My husband and I work this out. The public library has study rooms and wifi. I can walk there. We have a work room with a door that closes. I can find time and places, carved out of the nooks and crannies of summer. I’m having a hard time with the mental aspect. I felt like I deeply developed as a person over this past year, and I haven’t quite figured out how to jive this development with the mom who takes her kids to little league and the beach in the summer. In some sense, I’m bothered by this, did I miss something by not taking everyone along on this personal development path? How could I even have found the space or the energy? In another sense, I’m kind of fascinated by myself as a kind of anthropological artifact: how exhibit Mother navigates identity in a personal space and family space and tries to smush them together. (does the word identity even mean anything anymore?)

I’d like to think more about the way I construct my life to blend some of the boundaries that I have mentally constructed. I’d also like to accomplish my summer to-do list: studying for 2 language exams, an edition, a conference paper, another draft of an article, and one online class. I will try not to be distracted by my other dream career of sustainable agriculture. (Though, I must say, farming and academia have a lot in common.)

jodler: when there are no words

This week I learned of a new (to me) song form: the jodler. A friend of mine in my department, who is from Bavaria, brought out her book of jodler when we students wished to collectively express admiration, respect, and love to a professor. But it’s hard to put those things adequately into words.  My friend describes the experience of singing jodler as a communal event when words would not suffice. The voices create a resonance which bonds the group, who keeps singing until what the community needs to feel has been expressed.

The Grove Dictionary classifies the jodler as an Alpine song form, whose primary concern is “acoustic communication: signals between people, between people and animals, or between people and gods.” The kind of jodler we sang last night was a signal between people. To communicate something that sounds one-dimensional if an individual says the few words that are available in a spoken language. Perhaps my experience with a sign language has opened my mind to other language possibilities than spoken words. Singing a jodler was a way to experience community, reverence, and joy without words.

This is the one we sang last night (even though it was an Adventjodler).

there and back again

A friend of mine is going back to grad school. She has three kids. She is where I was this time last year. Head spinning, excited, wondering how it will work, believing that it will work. Her situation is somewhat different. She is a scholar, but not going for a professional academic career. Nevertheless, our situations are somewhat analogous. We belong to class of women otherwise known as “Mama, PhD.” A category of women who find themselves at the same time in the academy and mothers.

Negotiating the balance is difficult. How could it not be? But I want to focus on one aspect of this experience: the reentry. I’m writing this for my friend.

It all starts when you have the bug that won’t stop buzzing. The thought that won’t stop thinking. Despite the fact that there are these wonderful little people in your life who could easily take every ounce of your attention and energy and for whom you would give your life, the voices of dead people whisper in your ears from the pages of books where they are immortalized. Then the stars align and temporal space joins the mental space. You have an idea and then an event gives you a time. Now all you need is a place. So, with an encouraging husband and unsuspecting children who probably assume that you will be there to play playdough with them forever, you fill out an application, try to remember all the institutions you once studied at, collect transcripts, write “remember me?” emails to potential references. This is a tough step, because you have to write these personal statements, in which you have to sound mentally together. When the essay prompt tacitly asks you why you want to go to graduate school, you want to tacitly respond, “because I’m going crazy at home!” But if you say that, on the one hand you sound like traitor-mom who doesn’t love her kids (and that’s not true), and, on the other, well, that’s not really a scholarly reason. So tacit questions and answers aside, you try to pick up thoughts that were left off ten years ago, and try to mesh them with the person you’ve become since those ten years. Not easy.

But then it comes. “You have been accepted…” That’s when life really begins to reel–as you have to move the dream into reality mode. In some ways you’ve been preparing for this, mentally moving in over and over and over again. And then it all works out, you have a place to live, schools for the kids, a schedule. You are almost there, my friend.

What I want to write to you about is the next step.

Then there’s the first day of school. It should be exciting, right? It’s not. It’s terrifying. I couldn’t remember so much. Yes, I could get myself out the door to a certain place on time. I did think to pack a lunch and a backpack–remember I am a veteran park-goer. But I couldn’t think of what to put in the backpack in the place of diapers. It wasn’t that I was trying to think of what to put in; it didn’t occur to me to think of packing school supplies for myself until I was nearly out the door, and I thought, “oh, I’ll probably need a pen and paper.” So I grabbed a half-used mini-legal pad and whatever pen that worked. Lesson Number One: get yourself some school supplies.

But then you get to a graduate seminar, and you have to sit and think and say smart stuff for three hours!!! Let me tell you, I don’t think I have focused my attention for that long at all since having kids. It took me a good six weeks to get used to this. I just felt smashed at the end of a seminar. I didn’t know what the professor was talking about. I had this vague idea. But it was like he was talking through a fog. I couldn’t even think to write notes; I didn’t understand enough to write anything down. I would leave a seminar feeling shaky and exhausted. Like leaving the gym after your out-of-shape body tried to do a massive aerobic workout. I sat on the train on the way home and stared. It took me a good six weeks to feel like I could think, to start remembering stuff, to figure out how to participate in class again. Lesson Number Two: go really easy on yourself; don’t expect to jump right back in.

By the end of the semester I felt like I was getting my groove back. There’s still these small details I remember here and there. But things were clicking well; I was an active contributor in my classes; and I was reading and writing interesting things. I thought I was “back.” I did need a Christmas break, but with the stress of the end of the semester and the pile of grading, I was working right up to the holiday. We visited with our families, and then I had an insane amount of extra work over the break due by the beginning of the semester. It was like Never ending end of semester mode. I began this second semester exhausted and wrung out. And due to the nature of my work, I felt alone and vulnerable. Several weeks into the semester, I had an encounter with one professor who asked about how my work was going, and as I began to explain all I was doing, he said, “um, come talk to me–let’s find you some support.” I have a lot on my shoulders, but I’m in a community. Lesson Number Three: don’t go it alone.

It’s this last lesson that has struck me most profoundly. I’ve had to make some unusual sacrifices to be part of my current department. But I knew it was a special place and that is why I decided to come. I was right. Not every department will support you the ways mine does (and I’m not talking dollar signs here). The mental drain I felt at the beginning of the semester has been rejuvenated by the encouragement of the community of scholars I’m in–my fellow graduate students and many of the professors in my department, not just the ones who are close to my areas of research. Not every graduate student has this blessing, as academia is full of its own quirky dysfunctions and politics. But I do, and there are some things money can’t buy. Lesson Number Four: find mentorship.

And so, my friend, I wish you Godspeed. You will find your way. I just wish our coffee cups were about 262 miles closer. (Yes, I checked the mileage.)

the way of things

These past few weeks have been tough. It is the way of grad school. Exhaustion, insecurity, panic, exhilaration, success–around the cycle goes. Add to it a bit of a cold and “real life” problems, it is enough to feel overwhelmed.

I’m struggling with the balance. Finding the time to do what I need to do, while taking care of a home, two kids, a husband, and a resident sister. Finding the time to teach the class I’m teaching.

I feel insecure. How will I ever make it? Can I do the work in front of me? Panic.

Exhilaration when I can do it. Enough adrenalin from the success to send me back into the cycle.

Trying not to feel too despairingly that after a nearly seven year hiatus, I’m struggling to remember all the in’s and out’s of early 15th c notation. (Sure would be nice if the songs at least had a mensuration sign, though. sigh.–at least there’s a staff: perspective)