Finding Home: An Equality Lab Virtual Conference

The Equality Lab has been keeping busy this semester with various remote activities. In September, Ravynn K. Stringfield hosted a workshop on cultivating a professional identity on Twitter. Just this past Friday, October 23, we hosted “Finding Home: Placemaking in the Spatial Humanities,” the first of a series of online mini-conferences we’ll be hosting throughout the year. Today I’d like to take a closer look at this most recent event.

Poster designed by Mel Horan.

We started talking about the idea of doing an online symposium addressing the theme of home in late spring, when sheltering at home policies were still actively in place. During an online happy hour with other Equality Lab affiliates, we all discussed what it meant to be at home during this time, and what the idea of home itself connotes to different people, whether it’s a place of shelter, repose, or danger. From there, we started thinking about what a series of online conferences around the home might look like in terms of potential themes, speakers, connections to the digital humanities, and other logistics. Eventually, we decided to settle on three events, one happening in the fall, and two in the spring.

For this first conference, we decided to focus on the idea of home as explored through the spatial humanities. We chose the spatial humanities because we thought this would offer an opportunity to showcase a wide variety of digital projects, and potentially attract people who might be interested in DH but aren’t really familiar with all it can do. As the name implies, basically the spatial humanities apply to anyone whose research explores the concept of space, whether they’re working in archaeology, art history, architectural history, or something else. From virtual recreations of physical spaces to imaginary interiors to alternative approaches to thinking about extant spaces, the spatial humanities allow for a lot of flexibility in terms of what it means to engage the areas around us.

Since we only had about a month to put this together, our supervisor, Elizabeth Losh, did most of the heavy lifting in terms of contacting potential speakers. Once she had gotten confirmations, my fellow graduate cohort Laura and I did the follow-up work of gathering bios, abstracts, and headshots for the Equality Lab’s event page, as well as circulating the event through various listservs and other forms of publicity.

The final conference was divided into three hour-long sessions; we started at 3 pm Eastern Time and wrapped up at 6. To prevent Zoom fatigue, we kept each presentation to about 15 minutes, with time at the end of each session for discussion. Rather than group the speakers by digital platform, we opted for thematic clusters such as status and display or queer spaces, as we thought this would better promote conversation across the three sessions. Since we plan on having the other two conferences speak to themes of access, indigenous spaces, and other intersectional themes, we thought this grouping fit in with the overall interests of both the conference series and the Equality Lab itself.

Here’s the summary of the conference:

The home evokes a range of emotional responses, from security and comfort to confinement and danger. Yet how does space contribute to a sense of home? How do buildings, textiles, and other objects in the built environment create a domestic sense of place? What emotional and intellectual responses emerge when we critically examine the home as space and concept? This symposium will explore the concept of “home” through the multidisciplinary lens of spatial and digital humanities. Bringing together perspectives from art history, archeology, architecture, gender studies, and fashion studies, this event will explore how the spatial humanities complicate and enrich our understanding of home through digital and analog projects.

And here’s the schedule list of sessions, speakers, and their respective projects:

Session 1: Status and Display

Jessica Sewell (University of Virginia): Gender politics and fantasies as rendered through the midcentury bachelor pad.

David Denton (Architect and Virtual World Designer): Sharing homes he’s designed through Second Life, and describing how virtual reality augments and extends the physical world.

Lindsay Garcia (Ringling College of Art and Design): Reconsidering pest control and perceived binaries of human/non-human life through feminist approaches to pest management.

Session 2: Secrecy, Violence, and Queer Spaces

Nonny de la Pena (Emblematic Group): using 3D modeling and virtual simulation to create new journalism highlighting queer and other underrepresented voices.

Angel David Nieves (Northeastern University): Examining anti-apartheid activism in South Africa by recreating specific physical spaces through 3D modeling on Scalar.

Alexis Bard Johnson (ONE Archives at USC Libraries): Reconsidering home in the COVID-19 era through a real-time Scalar exhibition called Safer at Home, which highlights works from the largest LGBTQ archive in the country.

Session 3: Material and Imagined Spaces

Jeff Klee (Classical American Homes Preservation Trust): Exploring the potential and limitations of virtual recreations of historical spaces in Colonial Williamsburg.

Steven E. Jones (University of South Florida): Recreating the physical spaces of Roberto Busa’s Centro per L’Automazione dell’Analisi Letteraria, which used IBM punch-card machines to perform quantitative readings on the works of Thomas Aquinas.

Chris Swan (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation): Sharing the intersections between analog and digital research through an exploration of his work as a furniture conservator.

We covered a lot of material in only three hours, and the projects varied considerably in subject matter, methods, and digital approaches. Although the conference was eclectic in its topics, several unifying themes did reappear throughout the presentations, such as the tension between real spaces and fantasy, the ways that virtual spaces can bring new insights to physical ones, and the ongoing importance of analog materials to digital approaches. Indeed, a recurrent idea through the symposium was the ongoing challenge of rendering dirt and other impracticalities of physical existence in the virtual world, with 3D models and other media often presenting a sanitized, streamlined version of reality that overlooks the messiness of sensory experience, whether it manifests through different smells, dirt, and other detritus.

Overall, I think it was a successful event. We had a wonderful group of speakers, and it was inspiring to learn about all their projects. On the technological side, everyone’s presentations worked, and we had a good turnout of attendees. Looking back, I think the only thing we agreed we would do differently in the future is to have the presentations be even shorter to allow more time for discussion, as well as to schedule more breaks. Considering that this was our first virtual event though, I think it went well, and everyone who participated seemed to have a good time.

We’re planning more events like this next semester, so you’ll continue getting updates about the Equality Lab on this blog in the future. We’ll also be hosting more workshops, including one from Laura about using Instagram for academic work on November 5, so stay tuned!

Taos Center for the Arts Talk

A few weeks ago I shared some of my recent experiences with virtual conferencing. Today, I’ll talk about another virtual event that I just participated in last week, a conversation about the Community Art Center Project in New Mexico.

The poster from last week’s event.

This event was hosted on Zoom by the Taos Center for the Arts. What was especially cool about this conversation was that you were able to hear from two of the Roswell Museum’s curators: Aubrey Hobart, current Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, and myself. Aubrey and I met in person before I left, and we’ve remained in touch intermittently since then, so it was an easy and natural conversation between two people who care a lot about this institution.

Compared to a conference or symposium, this was a more informal talk. To prevent Zoom fatigue we keep the event to fifty minutes. About forty minutes or so of that time was spent talking, with the final ten minutes being reserved for questions. I spoke during the first half, where I discussed the history of the Federal Art Project, the Community Art Center Project, and finally the three different community art center sites in New Mexico at Gallup, Melrose, and Roswell. During this part of the talk, I played a slide show featuring historical images of the Roswell Museum and other sites.

Looking into the main gallery at the Roswell Museum, 1938. This is one of the pictures I showed during my part of the talk.

We then transitioned over to Aubrey, who talked about the Museum’s current layout, upcoming events and activities, and the importance of supporting this institution during what is proving to be a challenging moment in its history. COVID-19 has adversely affected the economy in southeastern New Mexico, so the Museum’s staff and funding have both been reduced. Frankly, I don’t know what the Museum’s long-term prognosis looks like, which was one of the reasons why it was important to have a current staff member speak on its behalf. Aubrey’s presence and presentation reminded viewers that the Roswell Museum is still around and serving the community, but it could use some support right now.

They say in a lot of professions that it’s not necessarily what you know that counts, but who you know, and that definitely influenced this event. The Director of the Taos Center for the Arts, Colette LaBouff (who is also a published poet and writer), was one of my coworkers at the Roswell Museum before she landed her current position. She’s been following my blog since then, and based on my previous experiences in New Mexico, thought I would be a good fit for an informal talk. When she asked me if I could think of anyone who’d like to participate with me, in turn, I immediately thought of Aubrey, as I thought it’d be a nice way to spotlight current happenings at the Roswell Museum. I may not work there anymore, but I still like to think of ways to highlight that institution.

Overall this was a fun event. While the energy I often get from live audiences wasn’t there in the same way, I still found myself getting excited and enthusiastic once I got going. It was also cool to be able to participate from across the country, and to interact with audience members despite being 2,000 miles away. Similar to my observations on virtual conferencing, Zoom conversations like this one can also enable institutions to host a variety of speakers without worrying about the cost of travel, which could be cost-prohibitive depending on the distance or schedule. Likewise, I appreciated that I was able to fit this one-hour commitment at the end of a regular workday, whereas before I would have had to set aside a day or two for travel. As nice as it would be to see these places in person (especially Taos), it’s also good to be able to work on my William & Mary commitments without compromising my schedule.

Overall, I had a good time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these kinds of events remain commonplace, at least for the immediate future.

So What Exactly is a Dissertation Prospectus, Anyway?

At the beginning of this year, a time that feels like a million years ago now, I wrote a post called “So How Exactly Do You Get a Ph.D., Anyway?” In that post, I described the basic steps you go through to get a degree in American Studies at William & Mary. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at step three on that list, the prospectus.

What is a prospectus? Essentially it’s a roadmap for a larger project such as a book, or in the case of a Ph.D. program, a dissertation. Over the course of 15-20 or so pages, you discuss what you want to write about, what chapters or organizing themes you plan to draft, which authors or methodologies you intend to use, which archival sources you’ll rely on, if applicable, and most importantly, the argument or intervention you want to make in your fields of choice. While it’s understood that the dissertation will change and evolve as you get a better grasp on the subject, the prospectus is there to demonstrate to your committee that you’re not delving into the process completely clueless about what you’re doing.

This is where I’m at right now. Over the next few months, I’ll put together my own prospectus, and plan on having my colloquium next semester.

So how do you go about writing a prospectus? On the advice of several of my more advanced cohorts, the first thing I did was get myself a dissertation journal, a place where I can write down any questions, organizing ideas, and other thoughts relating to this project. Admittedly I’ve never been a consistent journal-keeper outside of special trips, but then again I’ve never written a dissertation, so this seemed like as good a time as any to start a new habit. I ordered my journal online from Jenni Bick, a locally-owned stationer based in Washington, DC.

My new dissertation journal. I got the Leutturm 1917 Master Notebook (A4+) in red, basically the biggest journal in the boldest color for big, bold ideas. The pen is a Lamy fountain pen, as I’d read they require less pressure for writing than a ballpoint, which I figured would be good for long-term hand health. So far, so good.

Journaling aside, I’ve been doing more reading.

More reading? Didn’t you just read 200 books for exams? Yes, but those readings were primarily intended to get a broad understanding of the academic fields that engage my interests and work. With prospectus readings, your aims are a bit more focused. Rather than aim for a broad understanding of a field, you’re seeking out the authors whose methods or areas of research closely engage your own work, and decide how their work could inform yours. All scholarship is inspired by other scholarship, after all, and a big part of the dissertation is demonstrating that you’re familiar with current research and can dialogue with other authors. So I’ve been reading about museums, New Deal art, and current events, as they all engage my interests in art access, public education, and the role of the state in culture.

Just as I moved 2,000 miles away from Roswell to seek out new intellectual opportunities at William & Mary, my goal with the prospectus is to craft an outline for a project that goes well beyond the Roswell Museum to address other places, time periods, and subjects.

Two issues in particular have been preoccupying me since I started this process, based on feedback from both my exam committee and personal reflection. First, I want to take my dissertation beyond the Roswell Museum. RMAC has been a recurrent case study in a lot of my term papers and projects because I was already familiar with the materials, but I’ve never envisioned the dissertation being a New Mexico-centric project. At most, I see Roswell forming a chapter, but moving forward, I don’t see it being my primary focus.

The second idea is to link my interests in the Community Art Center Project, and more broadly museums, to the cultural crises of the present moment. As many scholars have observed, there are a lot of uncanny, often uncomfortable parallels between the current moment and the Great Depression in terms of economic difficulties and social unrest. Yet the way in which the current administration has approached culture is markedly different from the New Deal era, with museums and other cultural institutions struggling to remain financially solvent in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. At the same time, museums have also been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy, colonialism, and other infrastructures of inequality, with many people asking whether museums are equipped to encourage radical social change. Given my own experience working in museums, I’m familiar with how daily operations, donor relations, and institutional policies, can often detract museum workers from addressing social change, and the dissertation could be a good opportunity to discuss some of these systemic issues.

In short, my goal over the next few months is to take my various interests and coalesce them in a bigger project that can sustain my interests for the next few years. Whether it focuses solely on the Community Art Center Project and its descendants, or more broadly looks at museums, public education, state culture, or something else, whatever I write should be multifaceted, engaging, and beneficial to those who read it.

The journal is a place to write down ideas, questions, and anything else that comes to mind as I make my way toward the prospectus.

It’s a tall order, but then again, that’s why I got myself a big journal.

Just Go Vote

Note: if you want to skip ahead to the voter information, because that’s the most important part of today’s post, scroll down until you see bold text.

Today’s post was originally going to be about a lot of different things.

Initially, I was going to write a response piece to the 1776 commission and its call for patriotic interpretations of history that instill pride rather than hated for one’s country, to paraphrase Trump. I was going to talk about the importance of confronting histories of genocide, exploitation, and ecological degradation, among other things, not only as a starting point for healing, to summarize Amy Lonetree, but also because these atrocities are still happening.

Then Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away and Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett. So I thought I should write a piece that centered my own experiences with voluntary sterilization to demonstrate how having the freedom to make choices about my reproductive health has benefitted my life. I wanted to tell my story to both normalize exercising autonomy over one’s body, and to bring back some of the nuance that gets lost when choice, and by extension reproductive health, is reduced to a question of abortion.

Then the debate happened, and…I’ve got nothing. Well, nothing that hasn’t already been articulated in other essays and articles.

Then Trump got diagnosed with Covid, and in the wake of his publicity stunts, I thought about writing a piece expressing how angry I feel most of the time living in this pandemic. Angry that Brandon and I and countless others have been following protocols to keep everyone safe while others disregard those precautions, extending the overall duration of the pandemic for everybody. Angry for Brandon because he couldn’t go to Florida to meet his niece, who was born in May. Angry for all the museums, archives, and other cultural institutions that have suffered in the wake of the pandemic. Angry for essential workers, teachers, and others who risk their lives every day. Angry for living with an administration that has failed to address the virus effectively. Angry for the normalization of pandemic anxiety. For all of the people who have died. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. ICE. The list goes on, and on, and on.

And it was around this time I realized it’d be at least November before I got back to sharing my life and research as a Ph.D. candidate. You know, the reason why I set up this website in the first place.

So rather than tell these stories right now, because let’s be honest, if you’ve gotten this far without skipping you probably already agree with me at least in part, and if you don’t, one blog post isn’t going to change your mind, I’m sharing voting information:

For national information, including registration, click here.

If you’re a Virginia voter, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

If you’re a James City County voter, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

If you live in the City of Williamsburg, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

Important dates:

October 13: Last day to register to vote. That means you have one week from today, October 6, to register if you haven’t already.

October 23: Last day to request a ballot to be mailed to you

October 31: Last day to vote absentee

November 3: All polling places open 6 am – 7pm.

I voted and got my sticker; where’s yours?

Maybe I’ll tell those stories in the future, but not today. Go cast your ballot. Vote as if your life, and the lives of those you love, depend on it, because they very likely do.