Dissertation Work, January Update

As promised in last week’s post, here’s my first update on my dissertation work for 2021. Since we’re covering what I’ve been up to since finishing comps, today’s post will be a bit longer.

Since starting this prospectus process I’ve been journaling my thoughts for future reference.

At this point, I’ve been doing more thinking than finished writing. While I do have a growing repository of free-write sessions and mock prospectus samples in my dissertation folder, the main thing I’ve been working on is figuring out what my core research interests actually are beyond whatever I find interesting within the context of a specific seminar or exhibition.

As I’ve mentioned since starting this blog, what I want to write about are federal community art centers, but what I’ve been trying to figure out since finishing comps is the context in which to write about them. After all, what’s the point in having a great research topic if you don’t have any engaging questions for it? So for the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what my framework actually is, and ultimately, what my core research interests are beyond any specific topic like the CACP.

I know I want to write about federal community art centers, but what questions do I want to ask about them? And in which overarching framework do I want to situate them?

This means that I’ve been reading about various subjects and discussing potential theoretical frameworks with the dissertation writing group I joined last fall. Given the connection between museums and art centers, I’ve been reading a lot of museum theory in terms of power relations and the way museums maintain the status quo through their collecting, exhibition, and labor practices. This has included classics such as Tony Bennett’s The Birth of the Museum, which draws heavily on Foucault, as well as more recent publications such as Joan Baldwin’s and Anne W. Ackerson’s Women in the Museum, which considers how museums both empower and constrict women through their professional cultures. As I mentioned in my previous post on SECAC, I’ve also been interested in cataloging and archival practices and how they shape the art canon, particularly through a lack of documentation or visibility.

From an archival standpoint, I also finally went through and organized some research I did on the Mildred Holzhauer Baker papers at the Archives of American Art, which I visited in the fall of 2019. Baker was the director of the FAP’s Exhibition Section and assembled all of the traveling exhibitions for the CACP (which, considering that the total was over 500 shows, is impressive at the very least), so she played a major role in the program’s educational trajectory. Since the CACP was a Depression-era project, I’ve also been perusing works that explore the material and visual culture of that time. Jani Scandura’s Down in the Dumps has been a particularly engaging read, given its somewhat personal approach to the archive, and its geographic variety in terms of case studies offers a model for my own work, as the CACP was not restricted to one specific state or region.

The other subject I’ve been reading into is art amateurism. Not necessarily folk art or outsider art, per se, but art made by nonprofessionals or people who didn’t get their training from the academy. So I’ve been reading about forums such as Etsy where people share or sell their work, celebrity art teachers such as Bob Ross and other icons of art populism, the paint-by-number fad of the 1950s, and even the emergence of chain art supply stores or mail-order suppliers like Michaels or Blick. What I’ve been focusing on is not so much what people actually make, but how they access the education and supplies needed to create this stuff.

Not to sound cynical, but any book that has a chapter on someone as beloved as Bob Ross is likely to attract more readers and get my ideas out to a greater number of people.

What I’ve been learning from all this is that as a scholar, I’m interested in questions of art access, particularly for nonprofessional art practitioners. What engages me aren’t so much the careers and works of professional artists, the people associated with the art world as defined by curators, gallerists, and collectors, but rather than millions of people who make art without ever being recognized in a formal capacity. I’m not even talking about so-called outsider artists or folk artists, people who have been identified by specialists as being worthy of the canon due to what they consider their untainted creativity. I’m talking about the millions of people who, like me, make art but not professionally. Maybe they’ve taken a few classes; maybe they learned to draw from a book or watching tutorials. Maybe they even manage to make a living outside of the gallery circuit, whether through selling on Etsy or by the roadside. Or maybe they make pieces for their family and no one else.

This brings me back to the CACP. Initially, I became interested in this program because of its national travel infrastructures and the mobility underpinning its operations. As a curator who often transported exhibition materials myself, either in my own car or in a rented Uhaul, the idea of a national traveling exhibition program that brought art materials to different places by train really intrigued me. This still interests me, but it also ties back into the question of access, because what made this program unusual (to me at least) was that it catered to nonprofessionals. Unlike the workshops, murals, and other projects associated with the FAP, which hired professional artists, community art centers were designed with amateurs in mind. Sure, the staff who taught at them might be professionally-trained artists, but the students they imagined taking their classes, both adults and children, were not. Indeed, FAP administrators continually stressed that community art centers were not intended as professional schools, but as places where people could learn to appreciate the arts through looking and doing. And I think that’s worth exploring more deeply.

Student with artwork made in a class offered through the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center. The FAP anticipated that the majority of students who took art center classes would not become professional artists. Instead, the intent was to create art appreciators, people who understood art as an important part of daily life.

Why? First off, by focusing exclusively on artists who have been deemed worthy of the canon, we’re ignoring a lot of creative output. Maybe it’s not the most original or innovative material out there, or maybe it is, but so long as we only focus on the artists who show their works in museums or galleries, we’re always going to have a limited understanding of what people make when they envision themselves as artists. Second, taking a closer look at how people working outside of public schools or academies access art resources could help us better understand the state of art accessibility in the United States. We tend to lean on the narrative of art access being dismal in this country, but what if we’re using the wrongs metrics to gauge it? I’m not saying that formal art enrichment programs aren’t necessary or important, but they might be more effective if we study how different communities or individuals learn to make art without the benefit of a school or similar organization. This, in turn, leads to my third point: how museums can better engage their audiences. As ongoing critiques have pointed out, museums often uphold rather than challenge inequality and other social norms through the art they collect, the artists they show, and the classes they offer. What would happen if museums shifted their emphasis away from defining canonical art and instead focused on art-making as a creative practice performed by all members of a society, community, or culture? What would that look like?

These are all huge questions that go way beyond what any dissertation can cover, but thinking about these big-picture inquiries has helped me get a better understanding of what interests me as a scholar beyond the specificity of the CACP itself. The next step is to narrow this down to something manageable.

Admittedly, this has been a new experience for me. When you take classes in the semester format, you usually have to figure out your paper or project topics fairly early on so that you finish on time. Especially for someone like me who spends a lot of time revising my writing, this means going with the first or second idea. Similarly, when I was curating full-time, the logistical demands of the exhibition schedule meant that I had to pull together concepts fairly quickly so that there would be enough time to print labels, check artworks for conservation needs, prep galleries for installation, and so on. Even my undergraduate thesis had to be written within a year, so I only had a couple of months to nail down what I was going to write about. All of this is to say that my projects have generally emphasized results over ideas, so I’ve tended to spend little time in the conceptual phase.

In some ways, it’s been liberating. Over the last few months, I’ve had to start reframing my understanding of progress and to recognize that not every accomplishment can be measured by the number of words written or edited. Some days I write a lot; other days I go for long walks and talk out different ideas or scenarios with myself. Some days I research; other times I completely switch gears and work on my art. I’ll admit, I often feel like I don’t have much to show for all this thinking. Yet by giving myself the space to think through different ideas or scenarios, I’m ultimately coming up with a more innovative dissertation while discovering new topics and questions that will fuel my research for years to come.

At the same time, it’s been overwhelming. Over the past few months, I’ve probably imagined at least half a dozen potential iterations of the dissertation. Some versions concentrate solely on the New Deal era. Some versions are more focused on exhibition practices. Others look away from museums altogether and explore the commercial side of art accessibility through the expansion of chain supply stores. With so many different ways to approach the question of art access, it’s admittedly been a bit overwhelming to realize just how many ways I can go about answering it.

Remember, if you can’t put it in the dissertation, save it for your next book project.

But the key is to remember that I don’t have to pursue all of these directions. On the contrary, I can’t, because the resulting tome would be far too long for anyone to want to read, let alone write. Not all of these potential directions interest me equally, so the next task is to figure out my focus. After all, the best dissertation is the finished one, the one that gets me my degree, and in that respect, the one that works for my needs is the one that I’ll actually want to write.

Besides, all these other ideas mean future book projects, right?

SECAC 2020

I’ve rarely left the immediate vicinity of my home since March, but I’ve been staying involved with different academic communities thanks to online conferences. Back in September, I presented my first virtual conference paper. Last week, I presented my second virtual paper, and participated in my first conference with the regional art organization SECAC.

Formerly known as the Southeast College Art Conference, SECAC is an annual event where artists, art historians, curators, and other art professionals based in the American Southeast come together to share their work. I’ve been hoping to present at SECAC since at least 2019 to take advantage of the networking opportunities, so I was excited that my abstract was accepted. The conference was originally going to happen in Richmond, but due to Covid was transformed into a virtual experience. Conference papers were prerecorded and presented over Zoom at scheduled sessions, much like an in-person conference.

My presentation looked at FAP prints that were exhibited in federal community art centers. More specifically, I looked at how prints exhibited in federal community art centers promoted modern American printmaking to different audiences. In addition to considering their historical significance, I also dipped into archival theory by considering how these objects offer insight into collections management practices. To do this, I examined a group of print exhibitions assembled by the FAP specifically for community art centers, specifically the Roswell Museum since I have access to those checklists. I then used these prints to begin a critical examination of museum cataloging and collections management, practices that receive less public attention than exhibitions or special programs but remain seminal to our understanding of museums as institutions.

There were a lot of engaging sessions at SECAC. There were three sessions on American art history, included the session that featured my video. Another session looked at the writing of art history itself, particularly the logistical and ethical complexities of archival research, which naturally spoke to my own interests. Yet another panel looked at mapping as an artistic practice, which I appreciated given the local character of my own drawing habits. In short, there are a lot of art professionals doing engaging work in this region, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to learn more about it.

I also have to give credit to SECAC for facilitating this online experience. I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to take what was supposed to be an in-person conference and convert it into a virtual one. Not to mention this was going on while people continued other obligations such as teaching, writing, taking classes, and so on. This all entailed a lot of labor and it needs to be recognized.

Overall though, as much as I appreciated having the opportunity to attend this conference, in terms of format I preferred the experience I had earlier this year at “Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures,” for three main reasons:

  1. Personal preference for asynchronous format: I tend to participate more at asynchronous conferences because I can take the time to think over my comments, both when I’m asking questions and when I’m responding to inquiries. At SECAC, between glitches in Zoom and a finite time for questioning, I didn’t feel like I had enough time to mull over thoughtful questions. SECAC did try to compensate for this limited commenting time with live social events, essentially recreating in-person experiences like coffee breaks and other spaces that encourage spontaneous conversation, but it was contingent on the quality of one’s internet access.
  2. Glitches: While the conference organizers worked hard to make SECAC 2020 a smooth experience, there were glitches. A lot of presentations had to be given live, for example, because the moderators couldn’t get the videos to work. Sometimes the sound didn’t come through, the visuals wouldn’t sync properly, or a moderator’s Zoom connection would get cut off.
  3. Converted versus born digital: Ultimately, SECAC was an in-person conference retrofitted as a digital event. Museum Exhibition Design, by contrast, was born-digital and operated as such, from the paper format to the pacing to the resources page. If SECAC was an in-person conference that adapted to digital conditions, Museum Exhibition Design was crafted from its inception as a digital experience. As such, it was better able to take advantage of the possibilites of online interaction.

The lesson here is that when it comes to conference planning, organizers should be deliberate about the format from the onset, whether in-person, digital, or hybrid. Not everything can be anticipated of course, and there will be times when versatility is crucial, as SECAC demonstrated. Yet each format has its advantages and disadvantages, and they do not necessarily translate easily into one another. Given the effectiveness of digital conferences in terms of enabling accessibility by decreasing travel costs, I can see them becoming a more regular figure of conference culture in general. What I hope doesn’t happen is that virtual opportunities are tagged onto in-person experiences as afterthoughts. They take a lot of labor, but virtual conferences offer a lot of potential when it comes to academic sharing.

In the meantime, I have to commend all the organizers for facilitating this online experience. I know it wasn’t easy, but I’m sure all the participants are as grateful as I am for going through the effort to make this conference possible. And here’s to hopefully being able to participate at the next SECAC event in-person.

Confronting My Fear of Theory

Sometime during my first year of my Master’s program I decided I was “not a theory person.” I don’t remember exactly when or why this happened. Maybe it was because my classmates seemed so much more assured of the readings than I did. Perhaps it was the way I struggled to write about theory. Or maybe it was when I started wondering why most of the theorists we were reading could get away with penning page-long sentences and I couldn’t.

Regardless, by the end of my first year, I decided that theory was not my forte, and that I was a no-nonsense, practicum-based scholar. That perception would shape my work for years to come, from my decision to work in museums, especially smaller institutions that demanded a hands-on role in exhibition installations and other activities, right down to my research interests when I decided to return to graduate school. After all, in my personal statement, I emphasized that my interest in art and infrastructure developed from my museum work, specifically my experiences with exhibition transport. In the parlance of digital humanities, I was a hacker rather than a yacker.

But here’s the thing: you need theoretical frameworks for the dissertation because scholarship isn’t neutral. Every piece out there, whether it’s a scientific experiment or a history of cardboard, has a point of view, and as a scholar it’s your responsibility to make your perspectives evident to your reader. Theory enables you to do that because it provides the framework or lens through which you’ll be expressing your particular interests, whether your focus is on race, gender, class, ecocriticism, all of the above, or something else.

That doesn’t mean embracing theory is easy though, and it’s one of the things I’ve been working through with this prospectus. Indeed, it’s only recently that I’ve finally started to understand the usefulness of theory. As a Master’s student, I thought theory was primarily for showing off, a way of using big words and concepts. In actuality, when employed well, theory becomes helps articulate different observations or phenomena, whether it’s the use of critical race theory when addressing urban poverty, or gender studies when exploring workplace inequality and the division of labor. At its best, theory helps to clarify rather than obscure our observations or ideas.

This may sound obvious, but I really didn’t begin to understand the usefulness of theory until I came to William & Mary, and even now I’m still working to push myself to use it more. One thing that has helped has been the quality of new scholarship. Scholars and activists, particularly women and BIPOC writers like Roopika Risam or Marisa J. Fuentes, use complex theoretical frameworks in their writing, but emphasize clarity as a form of activism. For them, intentionally long, virtuosic sentences or paragraphs serve as a form of academic gatekeeping, meant to intimidate and detract rather than enlighten or inspire, so they make a point in writing with clear, accessible language so that a wide variety of readers can access their ideas. Seeing scholarship that is both theoretically engaging and accessible helps me better envision myself as a writer working with these complex ideas.

Talking with others about theory also helps. One of the most beneficial things I’ve done for myself is to join a dissertation writing group, where we talk about what we’re working on and suggest different approaches or texts to each other. I’ll admit, it’s always been challenging to me to share my work in an unfinished state or barely-even-started state, but that is exactly what I do with this group every week, and it’s already benefitting my research. Because my colleagues work on different projects and have different interests, they bring perspectives to my work outside of my own, and help me think about my work in new ways. Hopefully, I do the same for them.

Reminding myself that I’ve already worked with theory is also important. During my written exams I engaged a wide range of writers and perspectives, from Derrida to Foucault, and managed to write something coherent. Even at Williams, I discussed Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, and other theorists, even if I didn’t think I was doing it very well at the time. Probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done academically is present W.J.T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want? while he sat in on our class right across from me (in all fairness I didn’t think he was going to show up when I volunteered to discuss his work that week), and I survived that, so I can probably stand incorporating theory into my own work.

This doesn’t mean that my fear of theory will dispel overnight. Rather, it will likely be an ongoing process, with my colleagues and advisors encouraging me to push myself further. But academia is as much about the process as it is the finished product, so I’ll continue thinking and engaging theory as I move forward.

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 allows 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 Aquainas

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 on two more events like this next semester, so you’ll be hearing more 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.

This Year’s Assistantship: The Equality Lab

A new academic year means a new assistantship at William & Mary, and while conditions are very different from previous semesters, I’ve still got plenty to do for the College. Today then, I’d like to talk about my assistantship with the Equality Lab.

Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities | ASA

The Equality Lab, as the name implies, is an organization on campus focused on providing equitable opportunities for students of all backgrounds and interests. It encourages collaboration and interdisciplinary research through the digital humanities, and explores questions of representation, intersectionality, and the nature of equality as a concept. It’s open to both undergraduate and graduate researchers, and hosts various symposia, workshops, and other opportunities throughout the year.

I first got involved with the Equality Lab during my first year at William & Mary. Elizabeth Losh, the professor teaching my digital humanities seminar, encouraged me to start attending events and activities because she thought my interests in representation and labor as rendered through my archival research resonated with the overarching objectives of the Lab. Over the past couple of years, I’ve attended various workshops and talks, and have had the opportunity to meet such seminal digital scholars as Amy Earhart and Lauren Klein, among others. Since I was still in coursework, I didn’t get to attend everything, but I knew I’d want to get more involved once I was finished with classes and comps. When it came time to pick a new assistantship then, I put the Equality Lab as my first choice.

The Equality Lab typically has two graduate fellows per year. My cohort is Laura Beltran-Rubio, who also started W&M’s American Studies Program in 2018. She’s a fashion scholar researching colonial dress in 18th-century Latin America, specifically Colombia, and is interested in questions of labor, maker-based modes of academic research, representation, and ethical practices. She’s a highly engaged scholar participating in seminars, podcasts, the digital humanities, and other media, and you should definitely check out her work on her website.

Naturally, the pandemic has changed the way we do things, at least for the fall semester. As a graduate fellow, one of my duties pre-Covid would have been to hold office hours at the Equality Lab’s space in Morton Hall, a place where students can come to work or projects, study, or ask questions, but that’s unavailable for the foreseeable future. In-person workshops and seminars are also out of the question for the sake of safety and public health. Instead, we’re organizing virtual symposia and workshops for at least the fall semester, and possibly into the spring. So instead of working in Morton Hall, I’m at home, but there’s still plenty to do in terms of reaching out to potential speakers, organizing workshops, updating the website, and all-around thinking of ways to be available to students.

The pandemic has also informed the underlying themes and questions of the events we’re organizing this year. The flagship event is a series of symposia centered on the concept of home and its many connotations, from a sanctuary or shelter to a place of confinement or violence. We’ve got at least three events planned. The fall will focus on home as explored in the spatial humanities, while the spring will delve into questions of representation through disability studies, indigenous studies, and other critical frameworks. In addition to the symposia, we’re also planning different workshops throughout the year. We recently had Ravynn K. Stringfield give an excellent presentation on crafting an academic presence through Twitter, for instance, and Laura is planning on doing a similar session with Instagram in November. Given my experience with virtual conferences, I plan on putting together a workshop on conference videos in the spring.

Even though things are different this year, I’m excited to be working at the Equality Lab. I appreciate that the American Studies program endeavors to diversify the professional experiences of its students, and as much as I enjoyed TAing last year, I’m glad to be trying something new. Especially given how easy it is to isolate these days, I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to meet and interact with other students and scholars, virtually or otherwise, and to continue working on expanding my network. Most of all, I’m happy to help foster an environment of safety, acceptance, and intellectual curiosity for students, which is more important than ever now.

Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures

COVID-19 has changed the way we do a lot of things, or at least think about how we do things, from working remotely to providing education. Academic conferences are no exception. While some organizations like the American Studies Association or the Space Between Society have opted to postpone their gatherings until next year, others have been experimenting with virtual conferencing. I recently presented at one of these virtual forums, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures, which I’d like to talk about today.

Selections from the Index of American Design exhibited at the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center alongside local antiques, January 1938. Image courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

As the name suggests, virtual conferencing means that you convene online instead of in-person. Conferences can happen in real-time, with viewers logging in at a scheduled time to view specific videos or presentations, or in the case of Museum Exhibition Design, asynchronously. This means that presenters upload videos of their presentations ahead of time, and then attendees can watch the videos at their convenience. In lieu of live Q&A’s, participants type their questions in a comments forum, and presenters respond when they get the chance. I got to experience an asynchronous conference earlier this summer when I participated in DH2020, an international digital humanities conference. I wasn’t a presenter, but watching the different presentations and commenting in the forum helped me get acquainted with the virtual conferencing format. The advantage of asynchronous presenting is that participants can attend the conference from anywhere in the world regardless of time zone, so long as they have an internet connection (as other scholars have pointed out, Internet connectivity is yet another signifier of systemic inequality and access, especially when it comes to education).

Hosted by the University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures aimed to create a nearly carbon-neutral conference experience. Scheduled from September 1-11, the conference hosted 500 participants from around the world, and dozens of presenters ranging from Ph.D. students and professors, to curators and exhibition designers. As you can imagine, enabling a virtual experience hosting so many different presentations and participants is a heady logistical undertaking. Its three primary organizers, Dr. Claire Wintle, Hajra Williams, and Kate Guy all did a fantastic job crafting a website that was easily navigable, stylish, and accommodating to various computer interfaces.

Beyond the conference itself, what really made this experience special is its ongoing life as a repository for exhibition design scholarship. Prior to the launch of the conference, attendees were invited to submit links to publications, projects, and other resources relating to their research, and these sources were made accessible to all conference attendees. What’s more, while the conference itself is over, these resources, along with videos that have had their image copyrights cleared, will remain online, rendering the scholarship of all the different participants available for future research. As far as virtual conferences go, Museum Exhibition Design offers a strong case study on how to run such an undertaking effectively, as well as facilitate ongoing access to different scholarly resources.

As with my previous conference experiences at the University of Michigan and the Space Between Society, I discussed the Community Art Center Project (CACP) in my presentation, but this time I focused on the influence of labor networks in exhibition design. More specifically, I explored how freight transport, quick installation times, varying architectural spaces, and staff experience all likely contributed to the standardized aesthetic of CACP shows. Additionally, I suggested that the standardization mandated by the format of the CACP itself likely contributed to an overall preference for small-to-medium-sized, two-dimensional works that could be transported easily and installed in a variety of spaces. I also speculated how this could have informed the development of the modern art canon itself, or at least public perceptions of what art should look like. For an individual case study, I focused on questions of labor within the Roswell Museum by considering the work experiences of one of its gallery attendants, Rainey Woolsey, and the issues she encountered regarding the recognition of her work. Based on the reception I got in the comments section, viewers found this particular take on the CACP engaging. Given my own interest in recognizing the labor of all museum workers, this could be a very fruitful direction for me moving forward.

As for the video itself, I ultimately went with the simplest option in that I made a PowerPoint and recorded it with a voiceover, though I originally planned to film a full video of myself narrating the text and splicing in images. Aside from personalizing the video, I wanted to show myself to make my identity as a white woman and all the privilege that entails transparent to viewers (this is also why I’ve added a picture of myself to my website’s homepage). I soon realized, however, that the video editing software required was beyond the capabilities of my laptop. Editing a full video also demands a significant amount of time to do it well, and since I was about to take my qualifying exams, I decided to opt for the simpler option. Despite scaling back my initial ambitions, I did manage to record a brief introduction and conclusion of myself, so while the majority of the video was a PowerPoint with narration, the beginning and the end featured me talking to the camera. Additionally, at the request of the conference organizers, I added closed captions by putting the video on YouTube, uploading a copy of my transcript, and synchronizing them.

The introduction I recorded for my video, which I filmed with my smartphone mounted to a tripod. Now you know what my voice sounds like.

While the video did its job in conveying information about the CACP to viewers, virtual conferencing has also been a learning experience, and watching the other presentations helped me identify several things I can do better in the future. While I included citations in the transcript of my talk, for instance, from now on I’m going to include bibliography slides at the end of my presentations so that viewers can consult any sources that interested them. I’m also going to add separate slides for direct quotations and their sources, again so that viewers can note exactly which sources I’m using in case they want to look them up. A lot of the videos I watched also included a more dynamic use of images, video, and text, which have inspired me to experiment with my own use of media. In short, this conference reiterated to me that presentations are an important scholarly resource, and should be made as accessible as possible to researchers.

The conference also emphasized the importance of investing in technology if I want to start making videos seriously. I learned through this experience that if I want to do videos well, I should invest in equipment like reflecting glasses for teleprompters. I’d also need to switch from working on a laptop to a desktop capable of handling video editing software. Luckily for me, my partner Brandon has a desktop for his gaming and we recently created an account on it for me, so if I decide to pursue that route, I at least have the computer at hand.

So what’s my overall take on in-person vs. virtual conferences? Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to each. In-person conferences definitely have a certain energy to them, and you’re more likely to be focused on the event itself because everything is concentrated in a finite period. There’s also the spontaneity of being able to approach speakers during breaks or after their talks, which you don’t experience in the same way with virtual forums. As someone who enjoys traveling, I also like being able to visit new places when I go to conferences.

All that said, there are a lot of advantages to virtual conferences. Since they’re often asynchronous, I can take my time thinking of questions to presentations, and I’ve noticed that I participate in Q&A’s a lot more as a result. As fun as conferences can be, they’re also pretty draining because of all the presenting, listening, and networking going on, so I do like being able to space out presentations over a longer time. And while the spontaneous coffee chat may not be possible, I still had several meaningful discussions in the forums, and even had an outside meeting on Zoom with a speaker whose work I especially enjoyed. Most significantly perhaps, virtual conferences offer another means of accessing scholarship, especially for graduate students. Not everyone has the budget or the generous time blocks to travel to conferences (or in the case of travelers from the United States like myself, we’re not really wanted anywhere right now), so having these virtual options can enable other scholars to participate who might not have been able to attend otherwise, and that’s important.

Overall, I had a great experience at the Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures Conference, and it should serve as a model for other experiences like it. After all, virtual conferences are likely to be the norm for the immediate future, and perhaps beyond, so we should embrace their potential as scholarly resources.

New Digital Project: Facemask Drawings

I’ve been in a holding pattern since finishing my written exams on August 27 because I still need to complete the oral component, which is happening this Wednesday. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on nonacademic projects that I’d sidelined while reading for comps. My main website, for instance, now features a brand-new page about my curatorial and academic writing in the main menu. On this page, I’ve not only included links to open-access materials published online, but also provided downloadable PDFs for all my exhibit brochures and other print-only materials.

Another important project that I’ve recently made available is more personal. This is the online exhibit Facemasks: Drawings of COVID-19 Face Coverings, the latest addition to my Digital Projects page, and it’s what I’d like to talk about today.

This exhibit is a collection of drawings I’ve made depicting various COVID-19 facemasks. I initially started making these drawings because sketching has always been an important way for me to process my thoughts and emotions. I initially had little desire to draw because I felt overwhelmed, but I finally took an interest in sketching again when I began taking a closer look at the facemasks in our house. Brandon had brought home several cloth facemasks made by employees working in the textiles department at Colonial Williamsburg, and over time, I became interested in their visual qualities. One day, I draped one of the masks over some pushpins I’d applied to the wall in my study, and started sketching. I liked this display method because it mimicked the effect of them being worn while also suggesting the appearance of pinned butterflies and other natural history displays. In keeping with those presentations, I decided to draw the masks in a naturalistic way, with an emphasis on their physical presence as conveyed through modeling and cast shadows.

I drew the masks using pen and ink with ink wash and paint, arguably my favorite way to sketch. In drawing the masks, I thought about them primarily as sites of labor and expression. I wondered about the choices made in fabric selection, the time needed to complete them, the labor that I had been spared by having these masks available for use, and whether I would ever find out who made them. I also thought about facemasks within contemporary American visual culture, and their associations with public health, individual freedom, distrust of authority, and personal expression. Through these drawings, in other words, I began to process my feelings about the pandemic.

The first mask I drew once I got the idea to start sketching them. This is Brandon’s alternate facemask. He doesn’t use this one as much because the material is thick and itchy, but I liked the marbling effect on the fabric.

Around the time I started drawing facemasks, I came up with the idea of an online exhibit. As a curator, I’ve been following how museums have reconfigured their collections through online exhibits, and while I’m currently not working in a museum environment, I wanted to use my previous experiences as a museum professional to explore new ways of sharing material. Since I knew there would be an online component to the project, I also decided to expand my collection by inviting my contacts on social media to send photos of their masks. I also encouraged participants to send any text they wanted to include about their mask in the form that worked best for them, whether as a caption, poem, short story, or something else. The captions that you see come directly from the users who submitted these images, and is used with their permission. 

This mask was sent to me over social media by Karen Strange, Brandon’s aunt. Since I was working from a photograph, the ties took on a more dynamic quality in jeeping with the original image.

Admittedly this took longer than anticipated. Soon after I conceptualized the project I developed tendonitis in my dominant hand and had to halt all creative activity for several weeks. As much as I wanted to get on with the exhibit, I knew working through the injury would only make it worse, so I reluctantly put the project on hold until my hand healed (for blog posts and comps notes, I actually switched to voice typing). I’ve since been able to resume my usual activities, albeit with greater attention to rest and stretching.

Once I finished my drawings, I turned them into high-quality JPGs using a fantastic portable scanner that Brandon had gotten me for Christmas a couple years ago (I also used it to create the PDFs on my writing page). I created the actual exhibit on Omeka because it’s a popular platform that I’ve been wanting to learn how to use. During a few afternoons, I figured out how to add items, create collections, and from those repositories, form exhibits. Like a lot of digital platforms I’ve used, I learned through trial and error, but between my own tinkering and the online tutorials available, I figured it out enough to create this project.

Facemasks in its current form is an intimate project with eight different masks and stories on view. I had initially hoped for more submissions, but I’ve also come to appreciate its small scale, given the importance of intimacy in digital humanities projects. As digital scholars such as Roopika Risam and Jacqueline Wernimont argue, small projects provide a crucial counterpoint to large-scale undertakings because they remind us that quantity alone is not the sole measure of quality or significance. Given the emphasis on big numbers with pandemic research, it’s important to counterbalance those statistics with more intimate data that highlight the humanity of the pandemic.

This mask, with its rainbow stripes, reminds me of a Morris Louis painting.

Not that the project has to end here. On the contrary, new submissions are always welcome. If you would like to participate, all you need to do is take a picture of your mask and email it to scwoodbury@gmail.com, along with any text you’d like to see featured alongside your mask. Submit your thoughts as a caption, a short story, a poem, a song, or any other form that suits you. You may also include any information you feel comfortable sharing about yourself, or remain anonymous. I’ll draw the photo you send me and add it to the site, along with any other information you choose to include.

I initially made this project to work through my own feelings, but as a space for sharing, I hope that it will also benefit other people.

Rethinking the New Deal

Last week’s post explored some recent texts that examine the growth of the federal state. Today, I’d like to take a look at some works that address the period frequently credited with the development of the modern State: the New Deal.

The driving questions underpinning these texts is assessing the historical impact of the New Deal, a question that’s as historically specific as the WPA itself. During the 1960s, for instance, many assessments were positive, reflecting the optimism of the proposed reforms associated with the Great Society. During the 1970s, in the wake of stagnating wages and the oil crisis, scholars associated with the Marxism of the New Left took a more critical position, arguing that the New Deal didn’t so much transform society as maintain extant capitalist structures. During the 1980s, the New Deal’s influence was further questioned in light of President Reagan’s neoliberal policies and the resurgence of free-market advocacy. 

Today, the results continue to remain mixed. On the one hand, scholars working through feminist, critical race, and other lenses have rightly pointed out that the New Deal supported white male workers over all other populations, reflecting the nation’s white supremacy.  As a result, the questions have shifted somewhat from asking whether the New Deal was effective, to asking what kinds of structural preferences or inequalities shaped its outcomes. At the same time, the New Deal remains a paragon for the government as service provider and security net because its the most extensive American example we have. Democratic politicians in particular continue to invoke the New Deal when seeking to provide government aid to citizens, a phenomenon that we’ve seen most recently with the Green New Deal as well as Government stimulus checks.

One of my readings, Beyond the New Deal: Politics from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, is itself a response to an earlier volume, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, published in 1989. Edited by Gary Gerstle (the same person behind one of last week’s books, Liberty and Coercion), this book offers a very different outlook on the New Deal than its 1989 predecessor. Whereas that earlier volume argued that the New Deal era ended as a result of the political and social unrest surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, Gertsle now argues that the conservatism associated with today’s political moment has had a much stronger presence historically than previously believed. In short, the conservatism we see nowadays is a legacy of the New Deal, because there was resistance to it from the beginning.

This seems to be the angle Jefferson Cowie takes in The Great Exception. He posits that the New Deal didn’t signal the onset of a new political era, but rather represents an anomaly within an otherwise conservative political and social history. He argues that the only reason the New Deal worked at all was that the working-class population was more homogenous than usual. This in itself stemmed from restrictions on immigration, policies that favored white male working people, and the continuation of systemic racism in light of FDR’s willingness to ignore the Jim Crow policies of Southern Democrats. As a result, the working class was more open to progressive, labor-focused policies because white men were the primary benefactors. As soon as you started introducing other demographics, the population became fragmented and less willing to agree on different issues. 

Other works are decidedly more optimistic about the New Deal, particularly Nick Taylor’s American Made. Published in 2009, the book appeared in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Whether he anticipated the recession while writing the book or not, I always find it interesting that the New Deal gets brought up whenever we entered a new economic crisis. The Green New Deal, for example, has been a lot of attention for the last couple of years, and I have no doubt that the New Deal will get renewed attention in the wake of COVID-19.

Most of the texts I’ve read take a more ambivalent stance, reflecting the complexities that intersectional scholarship seeks to underscore. While a lot of scholars know that the New Deal did accomplish things, they also argue that it was systemically flawed due to policies that favored white men over other populations. As a result, the long-term impacts of the New Deal were always going to be limited because its reforms maintained the social status quo. 

At the same time, we still live with the ongoing effects of the New Deal, even if a lot of the social programs associated with it have been dismantled. Typically we think of Social Security when we think of ongoing New Deal legacies, but Jason Scott Smith takes a more concretized approach in Building New Deal Liberalism, which focuses on the actual infrastructure that was developed during this time. He argues that we continue to live with, and rely on, New Deal infrastructure, including roads, dams, and other projects, for better or worse. As somebody interested in traveling to structures and their role in the production and consumption of our, I found Smith’s book particularly interesting.

In terms of recent scholarship the most interesting work doesn’t address the New Deal itself directly, per se, but rather the response of conservatives. As scholars such as Angus Burgin observe in works like The Great Persuasion, the conservative strain in American politics was not a radical outlier during the New Deal and Great Society eras. On the contrary, it remained a prominent part of American politics throughout these eras of reform and government expansion.

So why study the New Deal then? In terms of urgency, a lot of historians continue to look to this era, and the conservative response, for the roots of Trump and his policies. Trumpism, they argue, is not anomalous, but has developed from decades of conservative mobilization in terms of advocating free market, neoliberal policies and courting a disenfranchised white male population. Looking at The New Deal and the Great Society through the lens of conservatism reveals that this approach has been an underlying current throughout America’s political, cultural, and economic history. In this regard, the emphasis in recent scholarship is not so much the growth of big government (although that is still a prominent aspect) but rather the growing conservative reaction against such expansion. It’s not so much an abandonment of one topic for another as it is a shift in perspective from the New Deal’s supporters to its opponents.

As someone interested in the New Deal era, I naturally found these readings interesting, even if my own focus is on the arts rather than politics per se. Nevertheless, it is important to understand these political arguments because they impacted the Community Art Center Project. The broader arguments about political reforms, big government, and individual liberties, moreover, continue to affect the current cultural landscape, something that I’ve been following through the museum world in particular.

As a lot of smaller museums and cultural institutions struggle financially in the wake of COVID-19, difficult questions are being asked regarding whether some museums will ever reopen. On the one hand, the idea that a museum should be able to sustain itself financially reflects classical liberal ideas of the free market taking its natural course. Museums that cannot support themselves, according to this line of thought, should be phased out so that better, more efficient institutions can take their place. Conversely,  non-profit museums require a substantial donor base in order to subsist, and such donor bases usually only exist in larger cities. Consequently then, allowing smaller museums, especially those in rural or otherwise underserved areas, implies that poorer populations don’t deserve museums, an attitude that runs counter to the philosophies of the Community Art Center Project. To complicate things further, museums themselves are problematic institutions (art museums are particularly complicit in white supremacy, given their collections), so we need to have some difficult conversations before we scramble to save them. In short, like everything in our society, the issue is complicated and raises all kinds of questions about what kinds of institutions we need.

Ultimately this narrative is still ongoing, but having a better sense of the political background of the New Deal, and especially the conservative reaction to it, will provide context for my future research.