Category Archives: Graduate School

2 Conferences, 2 Cities, 1 Week in Puerto Rico

After packing for almost every conceivable contingency and getting a few hours of restless sleep, my alarm startled me awake at 3:00am Sunday morning. It was time to shower, throw in the last few toiletries, and head to the airport for a packed week in Puerto Rico.  Adrenaline really does a lot for a person; panicking about arriving late for my flight fueled my last minute packing and kept me awake through my first flight to Chicago. A couple of cups of coffee in Chicago, and I found energy enough to write my last blog post and read a bit for pleasure.

Once in San Juan, I gathered my checked luggage and went in search of my carpooling companions.  Elizabeth had just picked up the car and met me almost as soon as I went through baggage claim. A couple hours and one lost bag later, three other colleagues arrived, and we crammed our gear into the trunk and headed out in search of a good Puerto Rican meal.  My first taste of mofongo convinced me that I was going to enjoy the cuisine on this trip.  However, a few days later, I must admit to missing vegetables – a lot.

My first conference, or rather “un-conference” – THAT Camp Caribe – a series of technology workshops and sessions in the digital humanities, met at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez at the other end of the island.   An uneventful two and half-hour drive brought us to Mayagüez, but we had difficulty finding my hotel. After driving to the wrong location, but the correct address according to the hotel’s website and Google maps, Alex, in a very Jason Bourne sort of way, suggested we turn left then left again and about half-way down the block, we would find five or six guys playing dominoes. He had somehow seen them in the dark from the other side of the block. They misunderstood what we were asking for though and gave us directions to the Colonial apartments rather than Hotel Coloniale.  Thank goodness for electronic maps! Schuyler found the university and then searched for the Howard Johnson since the Colonial Hotel wasn’t far from it. We eventually found it, and after traveling for nearly 20 hours, I arrived at my destination, exhausted, hot, sticky, and ready for bed. The accommodations were very simple but sufficient.

THAT Camp workshops began the next day and the un-conference took place Tuesday and Wednesday.  For more details on THAT Camp, check out my twitter feed (@throughthe_veil) and my upcoming blog post on the Cultural Heritage Informatics site. Before I left home, I had printed out a map of how to get to the university (which turned out to be quite unhelpful), and I picked up a map from the front desk at the hotel, but I forgot how close all of the European-style streets are and walked several blocks too far in the afternoon sun and had to backtrack.  I finally reached UPR and discovered it was deserted! It was a university holiday. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I had also printed out a campus map or if my phone was working, but it decided to be contrary at precisely that moment. Fortunately, one lone student was studying nearby and patiently responded to my query in rusty high school Spanish with a funny French accent. I made it just in time for the start of the workshops, and a good thing too!  I didn’t want to miss anything.

Monday night, everyone convened in the HoJo parking lot and caravanned to Rincón.  Well, we mostly followed. I was fortunate enough to find myself in the car with a graduate student who is originally from Mayagüez, so we took a number of back roads through the hills down to the coast.  Our driver, German and Marta were two of the un-conference organizers and kept us laughing with crazy tales of life and biking in Puerto Rico. I laughed so much my cheeks hurt by the time we reached the restaurant, and the night had only begun.  Some of the conversation was serious – discussion of our research topics, how we used the digital humanities in our work, and what our current projects were – but a good portion of it was tongue-in-cheek and silliness.

Quotes of a night:

  • “Disney’s going to lock you in a teacup!” (in reference to “borrowing” Disney icons for a presentation)
  • “It’s like dry bobbing for apples upside down.” (Describing the process of coconut harvesting.)

Tuesday was a full day, beginning with a sunrise run through Mayagüez followed by a brainstorming meeting and sessions until about 5:30, after which everyone met up at Siglo XX for more excellent Puerto Rican food, conversation, and laughter.

Wednesday we finished our sessions around 12:30 and met for lunch – our last social gathering before everyone left for San Juan for the ASA conference or flew home. That afternoon, I wandered around Mayagüez, taking pictures, perusing local shops, and then settled in with a coffee and WiFi at the café in the Howard Johnson. Three hours of programming and experimenting with Mapbox later, Madelyn, one of the other THAT Camp participants asked if I’d like to grab dinner together. We had a wonderful conversation that also served as a debriefing since we hadn’t had the opportunity at the end of the sessions today.  It was the perfect way to end the camp and think about what else we would like to discuss next time.  And it was delightful to get to know her better.  She is a professional flautist and singer who has performed all over the world and is now in library and information sciences but considering further graduate work in ethnomusicology. We talked for three hours! By then, our brains had been on overdrive for three days, and we were exhausted, so we each returned to our rooms and prepared to head out to San Juan for the ASA conference the next day.

A quick lunch at a popular local café, German, Alex, and I set out on our long drive back to San Juan. Along the way German enlightened me on Puerto Rican politics, the countryside, and economy.  The three of us also had a chance to debrief on sessions we weren’t able to attend at the THAT Camp and discuss my current project with MapBox.

As soon as we arrived in San Juan, I decided to head to the beach to enjoy the last bit of sunshine.  I had been in Puerto Rico for four days at that point and had nothing to show for it since I had been inside almost the entire time.  Shortly after I settled into my lounge chair and began to relax, taking in the beautiful scenery, Ryan and Marcel (the other two presenters on my panel) arrived and suggested a swim. The water was just cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough that I didn’t freeze after ten minutes (which is saying something). As the sun set, we dried off and made plans to meet for drinks in the lobby and dinner at a nearby restaurant with some of their friends.

I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but the location was amazing – a patio, right next to the Caribbean, the waves splashing against the rocks just below us. It was a beautiful night – still warm, but not stifling – just right for an evening stroll and dinner.  Marcel and Ryan’s friends were amiable and interesting, which made conversation easy and enjoyable. Over dinner, a couple regaled us with stories of a recent trip to Malawi and Kenya for non-profit work. It was an early night since three of us had to present at 8am the next morning.

The sun rises early in San Juan, and so did we Friday morning. Since the conference was held at a convention center rather than the hotel, we had to catch the first shuttle to make it in time to set up for our panel.  Despite the hour, we had a decent turnout, and the presentations and subsequent conversation went well. If you’re interested, my paper and PowerPoint are available on my academic blog:  Before we knew it, the two hours had passed, and it was time to clear the room for the next panel.

Following a busy day at the convention center and some time enjoying the Caribbean sun, Denise, a friend I had met in the archives in Aix, picked us up for a tour of old San Juan, dinner, and salsa (music and dancing, not the dip).  After sampling the delectable but heavy Puerto Rican cuisine at Raice’s, we definitely needed to at least walk off dinner.  Our trek to a local celebration, complete with carnival rides and live music was the perfect solution. The salsa dancers were incredible, and the party atmosphere electric. I joined one of Denise’s friends on 1001 Nachts (Nights), a carnival ride that swings its occupants up in a wide arc and finally full circle. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and while Denise’s friend, who shall remain anonymous, turned a little green, he survived the ride and returned triumphantly to solid ground.  After visiting several local hangouts, we finally called it a night.

Saturday brought more conferencing and beach time before heading out for another dinner and more live music with Denise. This time, we headed out to local lunch favorite in the Santurce or workers’ district. It was like stepping into someone’s cozy dining room from the 1950s with ancient TV’s, old photographs, paintings, and knickknacks.  Dinner was excellent once again and much of it was complementary from drinks to appetizers.  A bit of coffee revived us after dinner, and we set off for a park in the Condado district and more live music – this time Bomba. This percussive, Afro-Caribbean fusion is actually Christmas music on the island, and the Puerto Rican version of “caroling” would be completely unrecognizable as such to many Americans.  In Puerto Rico caroling is called an “assault” and happens at about midnight after gathering at least 20 people and instruments to play the lively, dance-worthy music in front of someone’s house, who is then expected to provide a feast for the crew who interrupted their sleep. Being a night owl, it sounds like a great deal of fun to me, but I’m sure many would disagree. 🙂

Finally, Sunday arrived and so did our planes to fly us home. The guys headed back to Yale on an early flight, while I met Denise for brunch and flew back in the afternoon.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 24, 2012 in Graduate School, Travels


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

On Academic and Other Writing

I had hoped to post this this weekend, but a back injury waylaid my plans.  Funnily enough, after I spent almost the entire day Saturday finishing my dissertation proposal, I wanted to write more afterward. I felt like writing for me. What flowed through my fingers was not a great work fiction or anything particularly interesting, but it was liberating to put the thoughts and emotions that accompanied this accomplishment into words. They’re probably not what one would expect. They are certainly not what I thought I would write, which is why it was important to take the time…

I just finished my dissertation proposal, which is an enormous relief on the one hand. There were many times I didn’t think I would ever be done. I began calling it the never-ending task. On the other, I must confess I’m disappointed and disillusioned. I had wanted to finish it so much sooner, and if I’m honest, I feel like it robbed me of the life I had wanted while in Aix. (I’m glad I get to come back for another month to finish research in August and hope to make up for lost time then.) I don’t know what I could have done differently this spring and summer, but I still can’t shake the feelings of disappointment and discouragement.

I know it’s not my best writing sample.  I wrote it because I had to, not because I wanted to, and that makes an enormous difference. The writing is functional; it conveys what it’s supposed to, but it’s lifeless, flat – exactly how I felt when writing it. The only joy I found in the process was when the pieces began to come together (and that was mostly because of my research, not actually working on the proposal). At least I find the actual research, digging through dusty old manuscripts more engaging. I am excited to truly begin to research now – not just finding the documents I think will be useful but actually analyzing them and determining how the puzzle pieces fit together. I’m also apprehensive that it may not live up to my hopes, and I worry that I will find writing my dissertation the same soul-sucking process that the proposal has been. For me, writing without passion is not writing at all, much like life. I love writing, and if I do not love what I’m doing, then even though I’m putting words on a page, it cannot be writing.

I need something that will inspire me again, something that reignites my passion. Right now, I am just a jaded grad student who finds academic writing quite meaningless.  All too often it seems to devolve into intellectuals arguing over things that matter very little in the grand scheme of life. The proposal did inspire one thing – an almost daily existential crisis. I want to do something meaningful with my life and with my writing, but I’m at a loss for how to do either at the moment.

I believe that the projects that will build on my dissertation have potential. The purpose of one study in particular is not just to understand the past, but also to make a difference for people in the present.  Studies that may produce tangible and positive outcomes for people in present now inspire me more than purely intellectual pursuits. I have always wanted my work to matter more than just to a few scholars,  but it seems imperative now. While I think this is a good goal to have, I feel like I’ve lost an important part of me, the part of me that was curious, questing, hungry to learn more, which drove me to reach for my full potential. Perhaps I just need the opportunity to discuss interesting ideas with like-minded people to be re-inspired and to rediscover the mental gymnastics I used to enjoy so much.

I had planned to start my academic blog months ago, but life intervened. Maybe that will begin to inspire the intellectual in me again. However, it needs to be more than just a space where I can process what I’m learning; I want it to spark a wider conversation. Academia, especially disciplines such as history, where so much of our work is done in isolation can be quite lonely. Hopefully, launching the other and meeting more researchers at the archives will alleviate some of that. I need other people to bounce ideas around to maintain enthusiasm for what I’m doing, but after this past year, it is very difficult to put myself out there in academic writing – probably another reason my academic prose falls stillborn on the page. I’ve crawled into a protective shell, and I’m finding it difficult to crawl back out.

One thing I know with certainty: I am a writer at heart. It has always been my preferred method of self-expression. If I can find my heart in academic writing again, I will become the scholar I wanted to be from the beginning.

See Also:


Tags: , , , , , ,

Through the Clouds

“Sisyphus,” Peter Vinton,
For more of his work, see

On an usual cloudy day in Aix, I see light. I realize it’s cliche, but the word picture always conjures up a vivid image for me.  The last couple of years have been a long, dark tunnel of stress, ill-health, and to say that the times were challenging is an understatement.  These have been two of the most difficult years of my life, but the time of intense struggle seems to be nearing an end.

The hardest thing about such moments is that they generally arrive unexpected. In this life, there are no free-rides. Life is difficult in a variety of ways for everyone, and we cannot expect it to be otherwise or we will be blindsided. As Wesley tells Buttercup in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.” However, I want to clarify that I’m not advocating a doomsday perspective on life, simply a realistic expectation that there will be times of struggle and profound challenges. The thing is to not lose hope, to understand that life sometimes takes twists and turns we never expected, and to find beauty, positive outcomes, and yes, even joy in all circumstances.  Certainly, we all want to be happy, but even when life does not make us happy, we may be joyful. By joy, I mean a deep sense of peace under the turbulent waves that spring up as we travel through storms on our journey.

This week has been especially challenging.  I am now 3+ weeks into my new diet and had hoped to feel immensely better by now.  While I continue to see positive changes and incremental improvements, I’m not where I thought I would be, and I have had to come to terms with the fact that this may be a long road back to full health. Despite everything, I now look back on the week and see how much I actually accomplished and, quite frankly, am rather amazed because the whole time I felt like I was stuck in waist-high mud, straining but unable to move forward.  To the contrary, I found several apartment options for my Paris stay in September and contacted the owners, began my job search for a spring teaching position, wrote several drafts of a cover letter and contacted career services and my advisor to review it, figured out how to work around the problems I was having with the installation of the Windows Pro upgrade and note-taking software (Nota Bene), and am nearing the end of proposal writing. I also created a new-to-me raw food recipe, which I’ve shared below. Moral of the story: When I thought God was ignoring me, he was actually carrying me through these difficult times. By now, this should not surprise me, but when everything one does feels like a Sisyphusian struggle, it is difficult to see beyond the boulder one is trying to roll up the hill.

Now on to lighter topics…

Each week I am trying out at least one new raw food recipe – either someone else’s or experimenting with my own. This week it was making my own Mediterranean salad with what I had on hand. I am sure I am not the first to combine these ingredients, but here is what I threw in:

Peeled, sliced and chopped cucumber
Chopped Red Pepper
Chopped and seeded Cherry Tomatoes
Chick Peas
Olive Oil
Sea Salt
Fresh ground black pepper

*Additional Ingredients (not shown):
Black Olives
Feta Cheese (which I cannot eat right now and is most likely not raw but would nevertheless add a lot of flavor)

This has quickly become a favorite.  It takes minutes to prepare, is delicious, healthy, and filling.

This week the archives are closed, allowing me to complete my proposal, catch up on cataloging and analyzing my research, and enjoy a bit of culture in Aix-en-Provence.  The festival of opera has just, which features the music of Mozart this year. My new roommate, Sarah (also a scholar of Algeria!) and I plan to attend at least one opera together, probably “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro). I also bought a guide to the “unusual and secret” around Aix that I’ve been dying to check out.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to take a least a couple of self-guided walking tours this week as well, and yes, I will post pictures after.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Short-Circuiting Lit Review Paralysis

I was going to entitle this post “Adventures in Eating” and share some of the raw food recipes I’ve been trying.  However, as I sat down to write, another idea presented itself and demanded attention.

Not that I haven’t been working and making productive use of my time all morning, but I am just now settling in to work on my main objective today: finishing a draft of my dissertation proposal.  I have to admit that I’m terrified.  There, I’ve said it. I’m sweating, and I know it’s not just the Provençal heat.  I simply have to merge the section on sources and methodology and finish my brief lit review, which I’ve been slowly working on when I have not been in the archives.  My committee is on board with my project.  All I have to do to complete the paperwork.  And yet, I’m completely stressed out about it. Why? Because I haven’t fully let go of the stress and anxiety I have come to associate with such writing.  It’s not quite as paralyzing as it was when I was preparing for my last comprehensive exams, so that is progress. Even though I know that it will become easier as I continue to write material that other academics will see and critique, it is still not enough to motivate me to begin putting sentences together. So what to do…?

Lunch! It’s lunch time… Perfect!  I need a little break between this morning’s activities to transition into proposal writing, to change gears, so to speak.  As a side note, I prepared the following “raw” dish and even attempted to eat mindfully for a few minutes. (Sliced cucumbers, baby carrots, red bell peppers, and avocado boats with cucumbers, red peppers and salsa.)

“Raw” Lunch

The problem was that I took those few minutes (to eat mindfully) after reading a GradHacker post, entitled “7 Ways to Survive a Lit Review” by Andrea Zellner (which, by the way, is fantastic!) Just reading, of course, meant that I wasn’t focusing on the sweet bell peppers or the crunchiness of the carrots.  The real problem, however, was the realization, once again, that so many of the suggestions were things I should have started doing several years ago but didn’t know then to do them or how to do them.  So by the time I arrived at my much-anticipated avocado boats, my mind had taken flight and was doing barrel rolls while I tried to figure out how in an afternoon (or even a couple of days) I could pull together everything I had learned over the past few years that is relevant to my research. Alas! I stared off into space, occasionally remembering that I should be focusing on the creamy texture of the avocado and the spiciness of the salsa. I tried to calm the rising panic that now sets in just before I begin a historiography (literature review). Have I read enough? Have I read the right sources? Can I make a good argument out of what I read and took notes on? (Related question: Can I find my notes since I haven’t migrated them all into Zotero yet, let alone into Nota Bene?) Will I be told that it’s not good enough?

The last question haunts me, but I shove it aside, remembering the feeling of accomplishment I experienced just this morning as I finished a draft cover letter for a position as a university history instructor.  For the first time, when I sent it to family for the initial review, I didn’t feel the urge to apologize that “it’s really rough” or something to that effect, nor did I worry about my writing style or the content. As a first draft, I know I will need to make some changes, but I also know that it is a good first draft, and that is saying something.

Writing is cathartic, at least this type of writing is.  It provides a way to release tension, to unburden myself in black and white. I feel at least marginally better now, so it’s time to “just do it” – to just write.  I inhale and exhale slowly a couple of times and take the plunge…

Image from


Tags: , , , , , ,

Weary Warrior Returns Home

Tonight, I feel like a warrior. Not the knight in shining armor kind, but the kind who drags his tired, bruised body back to his tent to recuperate as much as possible before the battle begins the next day. However, my battle is not against people, or even something interesting like ideas or philosophies, but rather against an inanimate object without thought or feeling that scrambles my brain and makes me question my eyesight. What, you ask, provokes such a struggle and such weariness? A machine. Specifically a microfilm machine. And, I must add, poor handwriting, and blurry images of said poor handwriting.

And after a hard-fought battle, the day ended in a draw. I remained at my post, doing my duty until the final call, only breaking for a lunch half as long as usual. Today, no profound thoughts struck me as I squinted at the hieroglyphs that appeared to laugh at my attempts to form French words out of them. In the past, I have contemplated the metaphor of blurry words: how just when I bring one side of the screen into focus, the other becomes fuzzy, much like bringing certain priorities to the fore makes others fade into the background. I have considered how sitting in the microfilm cave develops perseverance for other activities, like running. And then I went off on a tangent on all the lessons I’ve learned from running…

Not today though. However, I did take a break to consider what I had found so far and how it fit into my larger project. Even though it was still a cognitive task, just getting out of the dark room, grabbing some water, and taking a moment to reflect woke me up enough to return to my station and finish the afternoon.  It wasn’t my strongest finish ever.  I walked out of the archives, bleary eyed, and fuzzy-headed, but I finished, nevertheless.

Tomorrow is a new day and a new battle; I will return to my post, energized by a morning run and armed with an optometrist’s number in my pocket.

Top Image: Wilhelm Lehmbruck, “Seated Youth (The Bowed Figure, The Friend, The Thinker, The Weary One, Tired Warrior).” 1916/17. Cast imitation Stone. Inv. No. SGP 28. 104 cm.

Last two images: Indiana University, “Chapter 2- Graduate Student Guide: Hardware, Software, and E-Nightmare.”

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Graduate School, Research


Tags: , , , ,

Vision worth capturing

I’m in the middle of taking notes on a source for my dissertation and was just struck by a vision I haven’t had in many many months. It was not a vision like that of an oracle or a prophet, just an image, an idea of what life as a scholar can be like, what I hope it will be like in the future. For just a brief moment and without consciously conjuring the image, I visualized myself in front of a warm fire on a winter evening, sipping tea, reading either for research or teaching, jotting down notes, and recalling with a smile the stimulating conversations I’d had earlier in the day on campus. That’s how I used to think about my time in grad school and what I hoped to create in the future as an academic. This past year has made it very difficult to attach any positive meanings to the idea of being a scholar, but this fleeting mental picture has given me renewed hope for the joy to be found in intellectual pursuits.

The picture above represents the mental picture I just described. Just for fun… here’s what winter reading at home actually looks like:

I’ll have several new blog posts up shortly on my recent adventures in the archives, the market in Aix-en-Provence, and Barcelona!


Tags: , , ,

Lilacs and Soul Searching

Lilacs and conversation, even in a foreign language, are good for the soul. Sunshine and fresh air don’t hurt either!

This morning I received some rather discouraging news just before I headed out to the market, which prompted one of those existential crises that seem common among grad students: Daily Routine

Instead of panicking this time, I decided to go about my day, enjoy the sunshine, and mull over life while doing so.  I meandered down to the market near City Hall and was so proud of myself for finding it even when I missed one of my turns – without pulling out my map I might add! (I even found my way back to my apartment by a different route sans map!)

After living in Chicago for six months and walking in heels too often (read: always), my feet have made it clear that I need a little more variety in my footwear.  I decided to look for an inexpensive pair of comfortable, flat leather sandals and found just what I was looking for at the first shop I explored.  My feet thanked me as I wore them out of the store, and I congratulated myself on escaping with only one awkward moment as I navigated the language.  I continued to follow the winding roads heading toward the market and couldn’t help but feeling relieved and excited that everything looked familiar.

Recognizing a number of shops and cafes, I knew I was getting close, and before too long, the scents of lavender, spices, freshly baked bread, cheese, and fresh seafood announced that I had arrived.  The fish were exactly where I remembered them, as were the sachets of lavender, the vegetables, and flowers; it seemed as if no time had passed since my last visit.  However, my French has improved since then, and I was able to convey what I needed to and carry on simple conversations and transactions.  The language is beginning to feel more familiar, and my mind no longer goes blank when someone starts talking to me. I have much to learn, but it is coming back and will get easier with time and practice. Everyone makes mistakes, and I will make my fair share as I learn, but that is the way of things.

My last stop was the flower market in the square right next to city hall.  My room is almost entirely white, accented with a black office chair and black and white desk, so it desperately needs some color and life.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but I continued to browse until a vender said good morning to me, and I took a closer look at her flowers.  They were beautiful and were very reasonably priced.  When I found the lilacs – the least expensive, most fragrant and gorgeous, I knew they would be perfect.  I was right.  On the way home, an elderly women declared that they are the king of the flowers and even paid me a complement as well. They are beautiful and make me smile every time I look at them.

I arrived back at the apartment feeling much better about life in general and mine in particular.  My conversation (all in French) with one of my roommates – a professor of Spanish history – improved my mood even more.  He noticed how much my French had improved over the past few days, and we passed the time amicably, comparing the foods we could eat, where we found them, and laughing at French bakers’ horror when asked about sugar-free cakes.

Things will sort themselves out. I know that I am doing what I am meant to right now, and that is what matters. The future is in God’s hands.  Now… back to work! 😉


Tags: , , ,

%d bloggers like this: