What I’ve Learned from My Classes

A couple of weeks ago I turned in my last paper for the semester. While finishing the semester isn’t a new experience for me, this time it felt a little more momentous than usual.

You see, with this final submission, I finished my coursework.

Of course, I’m far from finished at William and Mary, but completing my coursework is a big first step in the program. Today then, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned from the classes I’ve taken here as I get ready for phase two of my work, reading for comprehensive exams.

Coming from an art history background, taking courses at William and Mary was pretty different in terms of subject matter, as I didn’t actually take any art courses. Instead, I took classes in history, literature, digital humanities, and other topics. Many of these courses were interdisciplinary in nature, combining anthropology, history, and other topics. It was definitely a change in pace with what I had taken before, but I had fun getting out of my comfort zone a bit and exploring different topics.

A lot of what I learned was specific to the course materials. Digital Humanities was a great introduction to a field I’ve long heard about but hadn’t engaged for example, and gave me the opportunity to build my own project. American Capitalisms encouraged me to think more critically about museums through the lens of consumerism. Movement, Migration, and Mobility introduced me to some theoretical frameworks, such as emplacement and nomadism, for thinking about how art moves around. Modern America bolstered my historical background of the United States while also providing an overview of major trends in its historiography. In terms of subject matter, I learned a lot that will enrich my future research on the Community Art Center Project.

The most important lessons I learned though, were less about specific course materials and more about general approaches to my academic life. So here are a few of my biggest takeaways:

  1. There is no monolithic American Studies as a discipline: When I was in art history, there was a canon of readings we were expected to get through. You went over different methodological approaches such as iconography, phenomenology, and deconstruction. With American Studies it’s more free form. You decide which disciplines work best for your work, and which traditions you wish to follow or challenge. This would have terrified me as a younger grad student. These days I appreciate the open-endedness of it, though I’m glad I have a grounding in another academic discipline like art history.
  2. You don’t have to be the expert in everything: because you aren’t. Contrary to popular images of the isolated scholar, a lot of academic work occurs in collaboration. I’ve shared reading lists and given Scalar tutorials, while my colleagues have offered reading suggestions and new research angles. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather your willingness to work with others.
  3. Be open to trying out new things: Over the course of my time here, I’ve read early 20th-century literature and applied its close-reading techniques to my own research, learned basic coding in Anaconda, and read about the development of highways. All of this was new to me, but I’ve enjoyed all of it. More importantly, being willing to try new subjects or academic angles will help with my ongoing research.
  4. Experience can be an advantage: When our website manager at the Roswell Museum left in 2015 without a replacement, I taught myself to use WordPress in order to keep it updated (the museum has since upgraded to a different platform). At the time, I considered it a drain on my time and resources, but the experience I got from tinking around with that program came in handy during my Digital Humanities class. Thanks to the hours I spent working around code and uploading pictures, I was willing to play around with Scalar and other digital platforms, eventually creating a fairly elaborate project for my own work. In short, don’t dismiss your previous experiences, no matter how unrelated they may seem to your interests.
  5. You don’t have to give 100% all the time: This is probably the most important thing I’ve learned since being back in school. At Williams, I habitually stayed up until 1 am or later working on papers because I thought I had to give everything I had all the time. If you give that much of yourself all the time, you’re setting yourself up for burnout. Not every paper is going to be brilliant, not every observation is going to be mind-shattering. The important thing is to show up and do something consistently, however small, however mundane. Cumulatively, those small efforts will build into something momentous.

So those are the main takeaways from three semesters of coursework. After being out of academia for several years, it was nice to get back in a classroom again, but I’m also happy to be finished with classes. After all, I came here to write a dissertation, so I’m eager to get one step closer toward that goal.

So here’s to lessons learned and a productive 2020 for everyone!

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