Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Note to Well-to-Do Quakers on Glorifying Poverty

For several years when I was a child, we lived in a rural county in Upstate New York. Although beautiful, it is also impoverished. Some of the kids in my school came to school stinking and dirty. One boy arrived at school in the dead of a New York winter without a coat boasting that he was so tough he didn't need a jacket. When I told my mother about it, she explained to me that some parents couldn't afford running water or warm coats for their children. This was a revelation to me. I grew up in a comfortable, warm house in the more affluent village.  Although I remember my parents' money-worries, and though I worried about money quite a bit myself even as a small child, I never worried that we would not have enough for food or heat or running water. The poorest kids lived way out in the country on roads that only social workers like my mother often travel. In her job as an advocate and counselor of crime victims, especially of rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, and incest she was out on those roads every day. When she told me that some kids' parents didn't have the means to care for them, she never hinted that their children would be better off somewhere else just because they were poor. She and Dad made it clear that poor people do not choose poverty nor are they lazy or lesser in any way (although I did grow up thinking maybe rich people had questionable ethics and a touch of laziness.) She made me understand that people love their children and that children love their parents even in the worst situations. Sometimes a family became so injured, so isolated and so desperate that horrible things begin to happen. When the human heart is shattered badly enough, it lacerates the soul. My mother's job was to stand up for the rights of women and children whose families were caught in cycles of poverty, violence, and isolation. Her job was to empower and protect survivors of crime and if possible, to assist them in making the steps necessary to transcend those vicious cycles. Sometimes that meant families could no longer live together. Usually it meant that people needed help. They needed guidance, and service and protection. They needed money. My folks taught me that poverty does not, by itself, result in scenarios in which men abuse the physically weaker members of their family. It doesn't necessarily lead to drug addiction and alcoholism, to fighting and prostitution and child abuse. But it doesn't help. It never helps.

I have heard and read Friends discussing "the poor" as if they were a laudable group of simple, faithful souls we can all emulate. Whenever I read such a comment, I admit that I assume that the writer or speaker has never had close contact for an extended period of time with "the poor" or else they wouldn't say something so stupid.  Maybe saying those things helps them deal with their guilt over having so much more material wealth than they actually need.  Being impoverished doesn't turn you into Bob Cratchett.  Not by a long shot.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing romantic about poverty. There is nothing so honorable or noble or virtuous in poverty. Poverty is dirty and inhumane. It is degrading and exhausting. Oh sure, you can always find examples of those great souls whose light cannot be dimmed no matter what misery they suffer but for the most part, poverty hurts and it twists and it maims those who live in it. Perhaps it makes wealthy folks feel better to think of the poor as noble but I tell you there is nothing noble about going hungry. There is nothing valiant about sending your child to school with shoes that don't fit or with no warm coat in the freezing cold. Tell me how unemployment or work in oppressive settings leads to spiritual enlightenment. Tell me how it uplifts the spirit to know that when your peers go off to college, you will go off to work at some low-paying, dirty job (if you are lucky.)

Tell me why it is alright that among the most brilliant people I know are women who have no money to fix broken teeth in their mouths let alone get the graduate degree they clearly deserve. Tell me why it is fair that we continue to look the other way as women and children continue to be raped and abused by their own husbands, boyfriends and fathers who are themselves dehumanized by their bosses and other men.  Tell me how the loss of unions and the pollution of working class communities does anything to help the American worker. Tell me why there are still people living in the country with no doors on their houses, no water running for their toilets and tubs and no food in their cupboards? Tell me why children die for want of health and dental care, for want of good nutrition? What is so f*cking good about any of that?

I have not seen this famous faithful resignation and special virtue in the poor.   I have seen rage and resentment. I've seen violence and sorrow so intense it festers and stinks. And why the hell not? Why the hell are the poor supposed to be the angels of virtue who save the rich from their arrogance? Screw that. Let the rich save themselves. Give the rest of us food, medical care, housing, childcare, and educations. See how many of us are willing to play the role of "simple folk" when we have the means to feed our kids without worrying if we'll lose our homes.  For many years now, I've lived on the softest edge of poverty and I can tell you that even the mild poverty in which I live has made me more bitter, more angry, and more resentful than I ever thought I could be.  It isn't just the worry about having enough money each month for food and other essentials but the thought that I have been cut off from any real influence as a thinker or a writer or a worker.  It is the shame I hide that I can't invite people to my home or that despite my academic degree I'm not welcome at functions with the rich folk who hire me (or use my services for nothing).  It is the anger I feel when I am told that a good Quaker provides financial support to their meeting.  It is losing almost every battle in which I am engaged whether it is with an employer, a phone company or a doctor.

Having no money has made me more aware of injustice but it has not helped me fight it because having no money makes me a loser.  If you don't have money you lose.   That's the reality.  What I've learned from my life with my husband who is a truck driver is this: They can take your lunch break.  They can charge you for services you didn't buy.  They can ignore your phone calls.  They can deny you medical care.  They can make you work overtime and then they can refuse to pay you.  They can fire you for no reason.  They can threaten you, yell at you and harass you.  They can even deny you time to take a piss.  And there ain't nothing you can do about it because they have money and lawyers and time and you don't.  And we're lucky.  We're fricking rolling in it compared to others in our community.  I'm using every ounce of "capital" I have as a writer, teacher, voter, and mother to fight but after so many years and so many defeats I'm tired.  I'm tired and angry and cynical.

 I've gone hungry because I had no money to buy food.  Like not a penny in the bank and not a penny in my pocket and debt on top of all that. I've gone without health care because I had no insurance.   I slept on folded quilts on the floor of my old trailer because I couldn't afford a mattress. I've had to rely on relatives to put a roof over my head because I could not afford my own place but I could escape it because I had middle-class and affluent friends and relatives who have kept my body and soul together. I'm lucky. Whenever I have been in need, even if I don't complain (and even when I've tried to hide it), my folks have seen my need and they have addressed it.  They bought me that mattress.  They've given me money.  They made sure I had a home and taken my children and me on vacations we could never afford on our own.  They've made the calls to officious pricks who wouldn't talk to me but who would listen to my more powerful parents. But what if they couldn't? What if my parents were as divorced from sources of societal power as I am?

Even though I don't make much money myself, I've had all kinds of luxuries just because I was reared in a middle-class home but I've never had the luxury of believing that poor choose their poverty. I've never had the luxury of believing that there was something God-ordained or beautiful about need. For those of you who characterize "the poor" as models of good Christianity, let me tell you about what I learned as a kid. Sometimes women have abortions because they are raped by their fathers. Sometimes people take drugs because reality hurts so much. Sometimes people drink themselves to death. Sometimes mommies are beaten up or even killed by daddies. Sometimes bosses steal money from their workers. Sometimes people give up their dreams for a job at a factory. Sometimes kids go to school without coats in the winter then lie that they are tough to save themselves from shame.

And this is what I know of the rich. Listen up.  Their poverty is not a mark of their goodness (though good they may be) but a mark of your shame and your failure to live up to your obligations as a human being.  You have no right to your extra income, to your extra homes, to your extra cars, to your fancy clothes and your jewelry until no child has to lie that terrible lie. You have no right to your boats or your vacations or your air travel until no one's has to walk in broken, ill-fitting shoes. You have no right to your plastic surgery and your yoga classes and your health gurus until no one has to watch their child die of a tooth abscess. You have no right to glorify the poor until you have lived among them.

Why I use a pseudonym.

Over on Liz Opp's blog, The Good Raised Up  , she comments about blog etiquette and advises that Quaker bloggers use their "real names".  While I am sympathetic to her rationale for this advisement, I will continue to use my pseudonym rather than my legal name.  Here are my reasons.

1.  While I feel called to maintain an online presence, I do not feel safe on the internet.  Locally, I have a public role that draws some negative attention from individuals who are opposed to my research, teaching, and politics.  Some of these people are scary.  I don't want them to see my blog.   Luckily, most of the people who are allowed to come into contact with me now are those who attend my classes or my events.  Thankfully, with only a few alarming exceptions, most of these folks are sympathetic to my views or are at least sane.  I also do my public speaking in places with fairly liberal membership or in venues with security thus increasing my sense of safety.  Although I can't control all elements of my profile and safety as a public speaker, I am reasonably confident that I am unlikely to have difficulties because hateful conservative lunatic trouble-makers are unlikely to go through the bother of attending historical presentations on nineteenth century religious reform and suffrage or to sign up for college classes. On the other hand, I've found that all kinds of wing-nuts will make comments on my blogs who would be very unlikely to attend my presentations. (Don't worry.  I'm not talking about you guys who normally read my blog.  This is why I screen my comments).   Therefore, I'm not likely to open my personal identity and family to a larger, less-controlled and possibly violent audience.  It is one thing to get creepy comments from people who know me only as "Hystery" and quite another to get creepy comments from people who know who I am and how to find my family.  What is even more scary is the fact that most people who read my blog never say a word.  God only knows what the lurkers are thinking.  Scary.

2.  Other relatives sharing my last name are also in the public view much of the time and frequently appear in the local news.  One of these close relatives has already been targeted by a local cable host for her supportive views on homosexuality.  I do not need to increase the danger to her from him or his viewers.  My blog would unquestionably provide further fodder for this malicious individual's homophobic attacks.  I don't think I have the right to take that chance.  I'd like to go on feeling free to write whatever I damn well please without fear that some crazy person will try to sabotage the careers and well-being of my family.  To share my real name means to surrender my authentic voice.

3.  Both my first and last name and their shortened forms are uncommon enough that it would not be very difficult for an individual reading my blog to figure out who I was in "real life."  I suppose that I could decrease the likelihood of this occurring by removing other identifying information about myself (in what region I live, what I teach and research, my religious affiliations) but I feel that those things are much more important for my sympathetic and sane readers to know than my name.

4.  A name is a noise people make when they want to get my attention.  It is not the same as identity.  I am "Hystery" as much as I am the name on my birth certificate.  There are a few friends who know me both as "Hystery" and by my legal name.  I prefer that they think of me more as "Hystery."  It is the identity I have chosen.  It is the identity that has brought forth the thoughts you see on this blog.  I have two other names I use every day apart from "Hystery."  One is for my professional life and one is for my family.  Although there is one person and one personality, each name is associated with different personae.  I just think and respond better when I am "in character".  I would not expect my students to call me by the name I use with my childhood friends and family.  That persona is too goofy, emotional,vulnerable, and socially inappropriate to be a good college professor.  Likewise, it would make me uncomfortable if my family used my professional name.  That persona is too analytical, authoritative, and theatrical to be a good daughter, mother or friend.  "Hystery" is a different persona who allows me a depth my other two names would not allow.  I like her.  Although she merely says the very same things I say to my family and my students, she says them in a way that is unique to her.  Her insights illuminate my beliefs and fears in a way my other personae cannot and her voice has helped flesh out the rest of my life.  I'd hate to lose that.

4.  I never go to Quaker functions beyond meeting because I can't afford them.  But if I did, I could very easily introduce myself using both my legal and my blogger names.  I could wear one of those god-awful stupid sticky name tags with my name and then ("Hystery") written in parentheses.  Anyone who wanted to connect with me regarding my blog work could easily do so.  (Although I think you'd be very surprised.  "Hystery" isn't remotely like the persona I use at Friends' meetings which is too bad.  When with Friends, I do not feel comfortable enough to be the person my family loves nor confident enough to be the person my students respect so I end up being the person who stands close to my husband and hopes like hell no one will make eye contact with me.  That person is a waste of time.)  For the most part, I do not think this is important in my case for anyone to know my Clark Kent personality.  Why bother?  I am marginal enough among Friends both online and in the "real world" that I seriously doubt that there will be any great demand of my time, thoughts, or skills in formal Quaker settings.

5.  I am unlikely to be featured on Quaker Quaker.  I'm always surprised and sometimes even annoyed when I find my blog featured there without so much as a head's up so I'm not sure that I belong to any online Quaker community or that I should be concerned with following their standards.  It became clear some time ago that I'm just the wrong kind of Friend to be a going concern on the Quaker blogosphere.  But when I do make an appearance, I am consistently "Hystery" whenever I am on the internet and this has been the case for some years.  (A notable exception was when I signed up for a web group for Pagans and didn't have enough savvy to keep my real name from appearing with my posts.  This was a major reason why I left that group.)

So that's it.  Maybe I'm paranoid.  I also will not ever put my picture on the internet (although others have without my permission.)  The problem with the internet is that while all of you are lovely people, others who read my blog and my comments on other blogs are creepy as hell.  I'd prefer the creepy folks not know how to find me.  My ability to share myself without having to look over my shoulder all the time trumps any of my discomfort with violating etiquette.  When online, I am most honest and most myself when I am "Hystery".  To disclose my legal name would do nothing more to help Friends understand who I am and what I believe but would instead push me toward greater emotional and philsophical secrecy and silence.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

What is essential for this Quaker Pagan

Robin M. over at What Canst Thou Say has asked an interesting question about the essentials of Quakerism. I responded to her blog and then found that what I wrote was really much more important to me than I realized. It kind of crept up on me how important this response was to me and how I had accidentally stumbled into what may very well be a central truth in my spiritual life. So I've copied it from there and reposted it here. The words aren't nearly good enough and I don't expect it is a very good answer to what is essential for Friends. But here it is for what it's worth.

1. Attendance to the Inner Light.

(to the divine, the sublime, the tender, the beautiful, the wise, the true that resides in each of us and which binds all of the universe together).

2. Attendance to our brothers and sisters

(regardless of color, caste, class, sex, ability, religion, creed, age, or even species.)

It is my Quaker Pagan variation of the following:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Mt 22:37-40

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Reluctant Historian- on teaching and being taught

Normally I wear jeans and a sweater. With three children, the object is to choose an outfit that will resist stains and allow one to move rapidly from one potential disaster to the next. But on some days I wear my “professor costume," and slip into my other identity complete with absurd high heels and a bag of books as heavy as my youngest child.

I started teaching several years ago to satisfy the internship component of my doctoral program and I continued it beyond the program's requirements because I found I could use the money. I'm not a teacher. At least, that's not how I define myself. But now I stand in a suit and heels in front of thirty-odd students who refer to me as “Professor” and trust that I know what I am doing. So I put on my game face. Although always uncomfortable in large complicated groups of people, subject to anxiety attacks and chest pain in crowds, I am strangely comfortable when I get to be the focus of attention. I began giving costumed historical presentations before I started teaching, amusing myself with the elderly ladies who approach me after my lectures to peer under my bonnet at me as if I were a giant automated history doll.

But teaching is different. With historical presentations, one performs in front of a group of mostly eager listeners who want to know something about an historical topic of collective interest. In teaching community college students, the audience is often reluctant, if not hostile to the process. They are required to take my class to graduate. Often their former experience in history classes has been negative, and they often lack critical thinking skills. They want to get the damn thing over to get back to their nursing and criminal justice classes.

So there I stand at the beginning of every semester, a mother, teacher and researcher in ridiculous high heels poised to turn a group of disparate, working class, reluctant students into historians, if only for the eight to fifteen weeks I have them. The relationship between the researcher, the research question, and the research method is particularly important in these moments. Without it, my class becomes meaningless. Without it, I am wasting their time. They will not remember even half of the material I impart to them unless I can make them believe it matters. They have to believe that history matters to me. They have to believe that they matter to me or they will work only for the grade and walk away empty-handed.

Why History Sucks

At the beginning of every semester, I write the topic “Why History Sucks” on the chalkboard and ask my students to brainstorm answers to this hypothetical essay topic. Their answers are always the same: history is boring, history is always about dead white guys, it is hard to remember names and dates, and (this is my favorite response) "history is over". Our first task as a class is to reclaim history, to make it ours. I point out that there are power dynamics at play. I’m the one who gives the grades and makes decisions regarding the syllabus and lesson plans. I’m the one with the big desk and the twirly chair on wheels while they are cramped into horrible little desks in horrible little rows. All history, including the history of history, is the story of power. Our job is to make visible those invisible power dynamics so that we can learn to challenge them. I let them know that they may speak up, move around and challenge me in class. “I work for you,” I remind them, “not the other way around. You are paying me for this and it is up to you to decide what you want out of this and what you need from me.” I want them to know that this is their class, not mine. Taking responsibility for what you know and how you come to know it is a first step in ethical scholarship.

I then explain that all histories and all historians are biased, including me. I give them a brief overview of historiography with a focus on the significant changes from Leopold von Ranke’s “objectivitat” history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” through Marxism and the culturally sensitive feminist historical approaches of the 1960’s and 1970’s through the postmodernist challenges of the ‘1980’s and ‘90’s. Within this discussion, I address their concerns that history is irrelevant, boring, and “over.” I do not suggest that because all history is biased that it is all of equal value. Far from understanding the premise that we cannot approach any topic except through the lens of our own personalities, cultures and experiences as an excuse for sloppiness, such awareness means that we must be all the more disciplined in our approaches. Knowing our limitations makes us more honest researchers, less prone to misrepresentations and errors born of arrogance. My insistence on this principle comes from my position as student of thealogy, a subject in which, as Carol Christ maintains, our limitations are viewed not as failures but as welcome voices in a diverse community of learners. When we accept our vantage points as unique, we are more likely to be open to other voices, to more complex truths, and less likely to subsume other realities into our own for the sake of tidy theories.

In teaching history, I am not concerned with old, rich, white dead guys except as they interact with “us.” There are no rich people in my classes. Although most of my students are white, they are also from working class, rural families with little or no access to formal power in their communities. Many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They do not recognize themselves in the history they took in high school or in the documentaries on great men they see on television. They cannot easily see how any of that is relevant to their own struggles to pay the bills, manage their financial aid, raise their children, finish their homework, and hold down their jobs. Lectures and readings in my class focus on the so-called underside of history, women and minorities instead of white men, working-class and middle-class families instead of the rich, and rural life more often than city life. To challenge their notion that history is “over” we draw parallels between historical events and contemporary concerns. Instead of focusing on a textbook, the students often break into groups to discuss collections of primary sources. We try to learn about our subject matter as compassionate critics, viewing them as human beings similar in many ways to us, subject to our judgments, worthy of our compassion.

I agree with my students that there are too many names and dates to memorize in history, but it is not really the names and dates that I resent as much as the imposition of someone else’s value system. Which names and which dates must we remember? The questions on a test imply that those particular names and dates are somehow more important than other names and other dates. After my first semester, I ceased giving tests. For me, it was a poor pedagogical tool that ignored critical thinking skills in favor of rote memorization. Like other “Goddess feminists” I am not comfortable with arbitrary authority and believe that since all knowledge is relative, no knowledge should be enforced as superior to any other. To enforce my own historical preferences upon my students denied them the right to discover their own path through history. My job is not to tell them what to know, but to nurture them into the ability to discover the stories on their own. Like a mother, I feel I must teach by example and by encouraging them to grow as unique individuals with unique needs.

This belief causes me to downplay content in favor of methodology. I provide them with the tools of my profession, the questions and the controversies that shape my discipline. If I can get them to think like historians, I do not need to force them to memorize facts. If they develop the historian’s passion, the facts will fall into place on their own. Most importantly, I wish them to develop what Christ calls “empathetic scholarship” a process that values disciplined data collection, criticism, and analysis but which exposes the bias and interest inherent in all scholarship, including our own.

To that end, I engage them in lectures and discussions designed to showcase the diversity of the historical field within our subject matter, to show them how one acquires and organizes historical data, and most importantly, how I, as a historian, find joy in the process. They are not responsible for regurgitating that which I teach them. “Should I take notes?” they ask, skeptical of a process in which there is so much discussion but no test. “The information I share with you is all out there,” I answer. “You just have to learn how to access it.” I explain that the authors of their texts, their professors, and all other professional historians are not born with historical knowledge. My hope is that my students learn that instead of taking any expert’s word as their final source of authority, they can look in the books, carefully choose and critique secondary sources and go directly to the primary sources to challenge other historians’ (even my own) interpretations. I have tried to teach them to be much more interested in the questions than in the answers.

The Assignments

I’ve developed several assignments designed to promote their awareness of themselves as researchers and to assist them in the process of owning and utilizing their unique perspectives. With each assignment I emphasize that it is process and not product that interests me. I encourage creativity, insist upon honest engagement, and offer lots and lots of help. They email me at home. I help them untangle their papers, direct their first faltering steps in the library (many of them are unfamiliar with libraries and some have difficulty with reading), and give them moral support and cheer leading when they feel unsure of themselves.

The first thing I insist upon is that they choose topics that matter to them. Many students have a difficult time with this because they are unused to having so much freedom to decide the entire course of their project. Some have given little thought to what is important to them, what interests them, what sparks their imagination. A few even get angry with me when they sense that I am being intentionally vague in my expectations. For these students, being asked to choose a topic and design their own research is, at first, an unwelcome freedom. Some of these reluctant scholars have told me later that they thought I was crazy at first but that they later appreciated having meaningful creative ownership of their own projects.

I give the students several writing assignments. These include reviewing and analyzing historical documentaries and films, primary sources, biographies or autobiographies, and scholarly journal articles all of which they choose for themselves. I ask them to become aware of the different perspectives they encounter, to learn how the authors, artists and filmmakers manifest their perspectives through their media and how those perspectives may be understood as rich conversations of varying perspectives. In the historical marker project, I ask them to first transcribe, then to add to the information on a local historical marker. By speaking to caretakers, curators, historians, grandparents, and by consulting the internet and books, they discover the historical depth of their home towns. Students, initially annoyed that they have to stomp out in several feet of snow to write down the boring information on some ubiquitous blue and yellow New York State historical marker later tell me that once they started looking for historical sites, they began not only to see them everywhere but actually began to wonder what they said. My students and I have learned amazing things about our community from this project, but the ADP project is my favorite.

The ADP Project

The ADP (Adopt a Dead Person) project begins when I ask them to walk into a cemetery to find the gravestone of someone they do not know who lived and died in the historical period we are studying. Some of them choose randomly. Others have felt drawn to particular stones. I encourage them to go ahead and embrace the mystical nature of this project. Over the next several weeks, the students try to learn about their adoptee. They usually begin by gathering other information on the stones surrounding their dead person trying to learn about their person by seeing what family was buried around them. From there, they move on to internet searches to try to find genealogical data, marriage, birth, and death notices, obituaries, and biographical sketches. Some students have interviewed local historians and have combed through archives in museums and libraries. They begin reading nineteenth-century county histories, old archived newspapers, and exploring old photographs.

As the weeks progress, we share the stories of our process. Often they are frustrated, particularly if they are trying to resurrect the memory of a woman or child about whom little if anything is written. I explain that we may never learn anything definitively about such people. When they ask to choose an easier name, I tell them not to give up on their person. "Who else will help revive their memory?" “Who else cares about her now?” I ask. And so my students soldier on. Some of them find marvelous details while others hit one dead end after another. I explain that historians often go on wild goose chases and take wrong turns. It is the searching that matters.

Their papers do not, indeed in many cases, cannot, give specific details about their adopted person’s life. This is expected and perfectly fine. I tell them to write about their journey as they develop a relationship with this person through the research process. Every little detail lovingly gathered becomes a precious revelation. Their “dead people” become real to them. I have watched the students grow fiercely protective of their people, indignant on their behalf. What begins as an assignment can become an obsession. They email or call me excitedly as they discover something new. They learn to contextualize their data (or lack thereof) in the appropriate secondary sources, to discover what life might have been like for their people by studying the politics, culture, gender relations, child rearing, educational and medical histories of the time.

By the time they are done, they may not know nearly as much about their person as they wanted. But they surprise themselves with how much they want to know. They have surprised themselves with how far they were willing to push themselves to gather the information and at how difficult and satisfying it is to piece it together, to create a narrative, to carefully conjecture, to reconstruct, to envision this person, this dead person, once a stranger and now someone with whom they have a living relationship. They learn about their communities, about the past, and about themselves in this process. In the process, we work as a group, and they have encountered as individuals, issues of social justice as they learn what people history has valued and what people it has not.

I suppose it would be easier to assign topics and accept papers at the end of the semester but then I would miss out on all that my students have to teach me not only about themselves but about the research process itself. The issues they face are the same issues I face, whether I have admitted them to myself or not. How does one access information when one is too shy to speak to archivists and curators? Which materials are reliable and which should be avoided? When is it appropriate to judge, or even to condemn the characters we meet in our historical journeys and how do we know whom we have met and whom we have created out of our needs and desires? What can we learn from what remains undiscovered, unsaid, and unwritten? Who are we, and why does this topic, in this time interest us? Who do we serve in our work? Who benefits and who is diminished by our curiosity?

The finished projects often have little in common since they reflect the stories not only of those souls’ whose names are inscribed in our cemeteries but also of my students. Some are highly analytical and formal. Others are more creative, fictionalized letters or journals based on the data the student has gathered. Some students, finding nothing, have written about the historical period in which their person lived and died while others’ have written movingly about the search itself, the frustrations, the controversies, and the injustice of a life forgotten. These papers about finding nothing are often the most fruitful. One student was almost tearful in her indignation. A woman lived. She worked and had a child and yet no one bothered to record even the barest facts of her life. I believe her research honored that forgotten woman in a way few other tributes to her memory could have.

With this assignment, I betray myself as a feminist researcher for whom relativism, far from being a dirty word, is sacred to the search for knowledge. In “Have You Seen This Child?” Victoria Rosner discusses historical obsession as a tool of feminist history writing. While “good history writing” is supposed to value evidence above imagination and avoids historical transference in which the author conflates his/her own feelings and concerns with those of his/her subject, Rosner describes the work of feminist historians whose work has become an act of love. For these historians, their subjective passion for their topics creates a relationship with their (often female) subject matter that Rosner describes as “maternal.”

Fantasy motherhood can produce a range of behaviors salutary for the life-writer, including
care, precision, dedication, commitment, and a sense of responsibility to the subject that goes beyond concern with one’s scholarly reputation.

Of course, the potential pitfalls of this approach are obvious: one can too easily conflate one’s opinions with the imagined contours of the life of the historical subject one has come to love. For me, this is of lesser concern than the danger of falsely portraying oneself as a completely objective arbiter of the past. Such approaches, in my opinion, are arrogant and even dangerous as they create a powerful dichotomy of knower and known, author and audience in which one is learned and the other merely learner, one is judge and the other judged. It is a power dynamic that I, as a feminist scholar find immoral from a social justice perspective and untenable from a pedagogical perspective. At the end of the day, I know too much about my own incomplete learning process to pretend complete mastery to my students.

For me the relationship between researcher, research project and research method is, in the end, not unlike motherhood. As I exchange my suit and heels for jam-stained jeans to write this blog, the same principles must apply. I rejoice in the details and live for the questions. Justice matters. Compassion matters. Discipline matters. But no amount of careful planning, diligence and hard work guarantees predictable outcomes. Historians work with memories like artists work with paints, and the way I see it, memories are merely the impressions left by souls. Working with souls is a tricky, inexact business. I distrust historians who pretend otherwise. For me, work with research projects, children and students requires the willingness to maintain one’s identity even as one loses oneself in the process and to be open to the possibility that the closer one looks and the deeper one loves, the more surprising may be the results.

Garbage Day

A windy day.  I saw my husband off as he headed to work.  Minutes later, the sound of aluminum cat food cans tumbling into the streets aler...