The Atlantic Slave Trade in History: Jeremy Black

Though the title would lead you to believe this book focuses on the Atlantic slave trade, this slim volume does not neglect to pay at least some attention to slavery on a global scale. It is a strong introduction to the slave trade, and less so to the nature and conditions of slavery. I would happily assign it for an undergraduate course on slavery – it would also serve as a good review for a graduate student who has little to no experience with the subject. I will be teaching an undergraduate course this semester and plan to use this book as a framing device for my lecture on slavery. Can’t recommend highly enough

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Eagle and the Dragon: Globalization and European Dreams of Conquest in China and America in the Sixteenth Century: Serge Gruzinski

This book is a very interesting comparison of the simultaneous Iberian encounters with Mexico and China during the age of European exploration. Gruzinski seeks to explore why the Iberians were able to conquer the Mexicans but failed to even make headway in China, and he does this by exploring the perspective from both sides of the coin, though there is a bit more information on the Chinese than the Mexican, most likely because of a scarcity of sources. This is a great book on which to base a world history class that, while shaped in pat by European actions, equally presents the viewpoint of non-Western actors. Can’t wait to bring the arguments and information in this book before my students and see how they react.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Atlantic Africa and Spanish Caribbean, 1570 -1640: David Wheat

Unfortunately I did not find this book very engaging. It reads just as a description of the sources Wheat used to complete his book. I keep waiting for a narrative or analysis and not much was coming. If you’re looking for what reads close to a primary source on the topics covered, this book will well supplement your reading, but as a history it’s very thin, which is unfortunate because I think it’s a great topic.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Super Wonder Princess of Power Woman

She-ra, Princess of Power
Wonder Woman

Lots of similarities between these two (down to the outfits), especially the (eventual) understanding that the world exists in gray but humans are still worth saving because you believe in their ability to choose good. One of the major differences is that She-ra has the power to heal, a traditionally feminine trait that sets her apart from her brother. Wonder Woman does not have this feminine power – she is all force and strength and, unlike She-ra, she will kill. But, like She-ra, she eventually chooses the feminine traits of compassion and empathy as two of her defining characteristics. While these are also traditionally feminine traits, here they are seen as a source of core strength from which all other power flows.

Both woman are both super beings and the question of who is more human is begged. She-ra can literally transform herself into a human, but still retains her qualities of leadership and virtue. She struggles with her double identity, trying to define how she values herself and how others value her in light of her roles as both Adora and She-ra. Wonder Woman, however, makes no real effort to hide her identity except at the request of Steve Trevor, but she still has to reconcile who she thinks she is (an Amazon warrior) with the super power that lives inside her and which emotions will ultimately drive her actions.

As feminist icons they’re both difficult to parse. Both are strong women in leadership roles dedicated to fighting for what is right and good. Both wear skimpy outfits that Gal Gadot pointed out are not un-feminist – feminists wear what they want to, even though it may not be practical to fight in high heels. These women are super so, their powers are not hampered by clothes. She-ra (and Adora) and Wonder Woman are allowed to shine through against the men who surround them both through their senses of compassion and empathy (traditionally female traits) and also their bravery and ability to, quite simply, kick ass (traditional male trait).

Wonder Woman self-consciously explores Diana’s feminine consciousness and refuses to lose her identity in the masculine world that she finds herself immersed in. Diana leads the action but also works as part of a team. She-ra is also part of a team. Both characters value their teammates, but are often thrust into leadership roles.

I would say Diana is both on equal footing and also of elevated status relative to her male companions, and this to me is empowering. The men she work with recognize her superior ability and they value it, seeing her as part of a team just as she sees them as part of a team. This seems pretty revolutionary to me. The male characters are not threatened by her and once they realize her strength and ability they encourage her to use it instead of trying to protect or marginalize her. In effect, this movie is just as much about how the male characters deal with an empowered, self-assured woman as it is about Diana learning to navigate the world of the 1910s. Similar things could be said about She-ra and the men in her life, though the team she fights with is dominated by women.

I don’t want to give too much away but this film was really great at exploring gender roles without feeling heavy handed. There were big revelations of character and there were also little personal moments between characters that explored gender. Clearly the movie has a feminist subtext, but I think it presents this ideology in such a way that is digestible and acceptable to an audience that may not have envisioned themselves as receptive to such a thing. It’s a great introduction into female empowerment and negotiating power relationships between the sexes.

It’s also a well-written movie with, for an action movie, with an interesting enough plot. Kind of simple good and bad, but part of the movie is about moving away from binary oppositions to a world where identity and human relationships are more gray. Who is worth saving? The action sequences were also pretty good. Usually action movies bore me, but the slow cuts were really great because they highlighted the beautiful fight choreography and really let Wonder Woman shine. But she is not a caricature of a hero, she is a person with incredible abilities. That’s feminist

Also, Chris Pine stole every scene he was in. He has great comedic timing. And his character treated Diana with respect, always viewing her as an equal to gradually recognizing her incredible emotional and physical strength and celebrating it instead of feeling threatened by it. He openly and eagerly connects with her emotionally, taking on the traditionally feminine role of emotional guide. That is feminism too.

While I doubt we’ll ever see a She-ra movie, Wonder Woman continues the thread of the cartoon made in the 1980s where women were powerful, well-respected, well-rounded characters who connected with those around them and always saved the day.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Take a Breath: Dystopia and the American Family in HBO’s The Leftovers

Earlier this year I wrote an essay about HBO’s The Leftovers. I’ve decided not to take the original essay down, but to rewrite it completely and create a new blog post as a result. It’s not that my opinion of the show has changed outside a deepening appreciation for its superlative writing and riveting acting. What has changed is my opinion of the essay I wrote – in retrospect to me it is an inadequate literary and historical document, and in order to adequately analyze the show’s impact on me and its dialog with culture at large, I need to reassess my reaction and write my analysis anew.

From the days of paper and ink, we’re used the finality of published work, and I think there’s this idea that what we commit to writing and then publish is somehow permanent. While it is true that my essay is now permanently part of the internet memory database, and while I can’t erase the existence of what I wrote, new mediums of digital publishing raise questions about the nature of documents as living entities. Historians and other scholars can now edit their digital publications in real time. And while I don’t think that means scholars should try to remove previous writing from the record, I do think it means that now we can have more honest and immediate conversation about the ways in which our thought processes and ideas grow and change. Dialogs are living things – why can’t the source material be as well? As long as we are honest about the original intent of our work and the changes we are making, to me it stands to reason that the academic community can take advantage of the malleable and present nature of the digital medium to produce more fluid and adapted products without having to wait for the paper and ink publication of new books and scholarly articles.

Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst work to form a new family unit.

That said, let’s re-evaluate The Leftovers, which, for me, means starting at a beginning with a brief synopsis of the HBO drama, now in its third and final season. The Leftovers is a program that adds a new chapter to the dystopian subculture that has so captivated American culture for at least the last ten years. In what might be termed a secular twist on Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind books, a series about The Rapture, The Leftovers takes place in a world where, on October 14th in a year contemporary to our own, 2% of the Earth’s population vanished without a trace or explanation. The lack of definitive answer about the event throws humankind into a species-wide existential crisis in a world where neither science nor religion can offer even the most minor relief.

But, though the Departure, as it is called, was a global event, The Leftovers is a show about the loss of self and family in the Western world, most notably (as forcefully pointed out by my husband) the middle class, (initially) white, Western world. American suburbia to be most exact. And because of the way the Departure destabilizes social systems already threatened by changing global conditions, the show acts as an inverted mirror for those ideals in America we claim to hold most dear, most specifically the heteronormative middle-class, suburban family system. And while this demographic has been over-exploited by cultural producers for literally decades, if not centuries, The Leftovers is unique as a post-Cold War, post-September 11th examination of what it means to be an individual as part of the American family system.

To understand the loss experienced in The Leftovers, it is necessary to understand what, exactly, the characters believe they lost. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that the audience needs to understand what it perceives the characters to have lost. That entity increasingly throughout the show becomes defined as the nuclear family, in this case the heteronormative white nuclear family (the show has no LGBT characters and so it is does not explore the effects of the Departure on what are initially non-traditional family structures or individuals).

The Leftovers finally added POC in Season 2.

For much, if not all, of its history, America has viewed itself as a country whose core values are vested in and upheld by the white, heteronormative, middle-class nuclear family (that is a long string of adjectives to repeat so frequently, but precision is required in our examination of the cultural artifact under examination, attack, and rebirth in the show). While I could discuss the construction of Victorian family values on which so-called “traditional” notions of American families are based, or could discuss the history of family formation in minority groups, most notably American slaves, who came to define the right to form and control their own families as fundamental, I am a historian of 20th century America, so my best understanding of “traditional” families comes from a viewpoint more contemporary to that of The Leftovers.

When I think of the formation of the white, middle-class, heteronormative American family I think of Elaine Tyler May’s 1988 classic Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. I have four copies of this book, which has now in its 3rd edition. Why the multiples? Because I’ve had to read the book so many times due to its extreme influence and importance on our understanding of the domestic ideal in the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s that each copy became increasingly worn and marked-up, necessitating a new edition up to and including when it was on my Comprehensive Oral Exams. Though perhaps dated in some ways, it still stands as one of the best explanations for where the idea of “traditional” American family in the 1950s and 60s came from.

For May, the twin forces of communism and fear of nuclear annihilation drove the creation of the American domestic ideal in the 1950s and 60s. The use of the word “ideal” as a descriptor is particularly important because this vision of domestic bliss never really came true but instead was something to strive for or pretend you had achieved. To spell it out, perhaps repetitively, the domestic ideal involved a heteronormative marriage between a (white) middle-class man and woman with the addition of two to three (white) children who, as a unit, lived together in suburban American and acted as the foundation of American patriotism and played their part as American citizens by enacting their roles as dutiful consumers in order to fuel the bonanza of prosperity for this social and economic group in the post-WWII economy.

Destablizing and terrifying forces threatened the American family in this time period in the form of communism and possible nuclear annihilation. While many books have been to written to analyze how Americans responded to these fears, May’s contribution is to explain that Americans sought safety in the home, believing that if they achieved the domestic ideal they would defeat the untraditional social system of communism and would escape destruction by nuclear weapons through turning their homes into literal fortresses by the use of civil defense. The government encouraged these beliefs, particularly through use of the civil defense program, which never gained much traction as an actuated movement but did embed itself so deep in the American psyche that it is still seen as one of the key totems of the Cold War.

What, then, do we take away from May’s book? To me one of the most important messages is that when Americans feel threatened, one of their favorite tactics is to (using another American trope) circle the wagons around the family and find faith in this structure that they can survive the crisis. The family is seen by many as the most important building block of American society, which is why such phenomena as gay marriage seem so threatening to a large segment of the American population – to them altering the American family can send the whole house of cards tumbling down. And that fear is precisely what The Leftovers plays upon – what happens to Americans as individuals, and society as a whole, when the family system is suddenly, inexplicably, and seemingly irrevocably dismantled?

The Leftovers’ title sequence visualizes absence.

It is easy to say that The Leftovers is one of the most disturbing shows on television, precisely because it rubs up against what we see to be one of the key organizational units of our society and of our lives. For families who have lost members to the Departure, there are no explanations, no reassurances that the vanished are fine, no way to confirm meaning in the loss, and the terrible, physical void that cannot be filled. For the Garvey family, who lost no one to the Departure, the crisis aggravates existing tensions that causes a rift in the family anyway. For the characters of the show, finding new meaning in a life after the Departure means finding new families and new family systems, and the show painfully details how each character confronts this reality and does or does not choose to accept it. Even for those who do form new family units, the mundanity of life, which tortuously does not just go away because 2% of the world’s popular disappeared, insists on interfering and damaging or straining new social connections.

After September 11th, it could be argued that Americans responded to the trauma of the terrorist attacks by ramping up an already burgeoning security state and lashing out at supposed perpetrators aboard. But the Departure is a phenomenon that lends itself to no identifiable enemy; it is the very definition of senselessness. Further, in the case of the Departure, the turmoil and destablization comes from within the family, making it incredibly hard to find safety in existing family structures. In a world after the Departure, the characters react mostly by lashing out at individual and personal levels, though the resultant cult the Guilty Remnant works tirelessly to remind people of the fragility of family structures, positing that all personal connections are meaningless and should be destroyed on the path to embracing a deep nihilism that The Leftovers almost casually drifts into time and time again in a way that no other popular show has been quite as comfortable doing. When you’re fighting against an enemy you don’t understand, do you give up, do you attempt compassion, do you ignore the problem, or do you lash out and destroy?

Kevin Garvey as Mapleton’s Chief of Police

Though The Leftovers operates at a local level, its characters stand in as archetypes for American family members, often time with characters playing the same archetypical role reflecting different character traits to present the conflicting way families actually operate as opposed to the idealized way the domestic ideal would have us believe they should. Kevin Garvey, the show’s main character, begins the show as the middle-aged Chief of Police in fictional Mapleton, NY, which could also be called Everytown, USA. Kevin is the show’s patriarch, a replacement for his own father who had a psychotic break of unexplained origins following the Departure. Kevin’s job is to shepherd the town as well as his own traumatized family through the time after. Just as Kevin can’t control the town, he cannot control his own family. His wife has joined the Guilty Remnant for reasons that do not become apparent until the penultimate episode of the first season, and therefore she is a member of the main antagonizing force seeking to interrupt the grieving process of the town and its families.

Laurie dressed in the white of the Guilty Remnant

Kevin struggles between protecting the rights of the cult, whom he still sees as individuals, and attempting to stop them from sowing discord and unhappiness against the town’s other inhabitants. Simultaneously, Kevin is challenged with accepting that his wife has left the collective of his family to join the collective of the Guilty Remnant. Somewhere Kevin still has hope for humanity, whereas his wife, Laurie, and the group’s leader, Patti Levin, have interpreted the Departure as a rude awakening meant to trumpet to humankind that family is meaningless. If there is no safety in your family, there is no safety anywhere.

Interestingly, most of the villains (or deviants) of The Leftovers are women who take on a matriarchal role, and even Nora Durst, a protagonist who lost her whole family to the Departure, is defined by her failure as a mother, as assumed by her inability to protect her children from seeming disaster. While Kevin steadfastly fights for his community’s right to grieve and reform families, Nora drifts between wishing to end her life to finding meaning in the reformation of a new family. But when this new family is destabilized she reverts to her traumatized state, desperately trying to solve the mystery of the Departure and reunite with her children and becoming emotionally unstable when she is denied this reconciliation. As a result, she, perhaps unwittingly, destroys the other new family connections she has made, leaving her alone in what Kevin calls her victimhood, and what might also be called her martyrdom.

Kevin Garvey and Patti Levin have different views of family.

Contrary to Nora’s vacillation between sinner and saint, Patti Levin, the leader of the Guilty Remnant in Mapleton, is bent on actively destroying the family. Her cult lives in constant silence and smoke cigarettes without cessation as a declaration that life is not worth valuing enough to practice self-care or to expend energy on. “Stop wasting your breath,” their sign declares as they crash the celebration of the third anniversary of the Departure on the town green, an action that leads to a violent confrontation that finds Kevin in his role as Chief of Police protecting a cult that has stolen his wife from him and caused pain to every citizen of his town. As if he is a dutiful father trying to separate and discipline two young siblings, Kevin must struggle to confront and subdue the real troublemakers, Patti Levin and the Guilty Remnant.

The Guilty Remnant is the most blatant manifestation of the show’s nihilism.

Why are women failures in this show? It’s not as if men aren’t either. But women are the ones railing against family, abandoning their children, and refusing to grow up. Though characters like Laurie change over time, and even Patti is given a more sympathetic examination, it is hard to ignore this show’s ambivalence about the saintliness of motherhood. The male characters are deeply flawed as well, but one wonders what leads the show to present such complicated and sometimes negative portraits of mothers and mother figures. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough family history to trace a line in the sand from past to present, but it seems to me that The Leftovers values most a world in which mothers are assiduously dedicated to upholding the home and the family, and when women step outside that role they are punished at best and become active antagonists doomed for elimination by Kevin the White Knight at worst.

Easily one of the best scenes in the show takes place at the end of Season 2.

The Leftovers is a show so complex that it is hard to know both where to start and when to stop talking about it. It’s most crucial service is that it painstakingly picks apart our ideas of what family is and what it should be. It experiments with the formation of new families in the face of the loss of old ones, and again and again reminds us that no family or relationship is ever static or idyllic but must constantly be cultivated. Like another brilliantly written show, Mad Men, it takes the much nostalgized domestic ideal of the 1950s and rips it apart to demonstrate all its inherent flaws and fragility. But in another way The Leftovers is deeply conservative, because despite all the shit that the show throws at the characters, and it can be a real shit show, they all keep trying to form families, demonstrating the deep tenacity of this social structure in American social and cultural consciousness. The show allows us moments to cherish these new families, but only does so briefly because snatching them away and upending order again. Perhaps this what makes it most appealing and most lifelike: in whatever era, families are groups based on trust and negotiation. They are living entities, and members come and go, sometimes again and again. Treating families as if they are static will knock you on your ass when the dynamic changes. So cherish what stable moments you can, and accept change and the need to do so when it comes. It is this idea that most challenges the rigidity of the domestic ideal without devaluing the family system. There are a lot of social formations left unexplored in The Leftovers, but when examining the core of one of our most cherished institutions, it encourages us to indulge our fear of loss and destabilization and embrace the ability to adapt and form new systems without giving up or wasting our breath.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Whimper of the World’s End: Family and the Mundanity of Dystopia in HBO’s The Leftovers

Apocalyptic fiction is everywhere. It suffuses popular enough to have become its own burgeoning subgenre of both science fiction and speculative fiction at large. The impulse to explore how a world ends and what arises in its place is not new, but the burgeoning and seemingly endless interest in dystopias has hijacked primetime and the box office. In a post-9/11 world, where terrorist attacks on our home soil jolted normalcy to its very core, it makes sense that people focus on fictional empts to comprehend responses to epoch ending catastrophe. Books like The Hunger Games and Station Eleven, and shows like The Walking Dead are all less concerned with the events that destroy their fictional settings than they are with what comes afterward. Rebellion, preserving culture and history, and finding stable human relationships amidst violent and unpredictable chaos thread their way through disturbing imagery that can only be described as torture porn.

Despite the massive success of franchises like The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead, I would like to submit to you that there is another, better, far more l_the_leftovers_s02-ingestedcompelling depiction of our dystopian future being presented by The Leftovers, HBO’s Peabody award- winning show that shakes the meaning of normalcy to its very core and expertly examines human relationships within the unsettling mundanity of a world trying to find meaning in the wake of inexplicable disaster.

The Leftovers has a simple enough premise, one not unfamiliar to those who have heard of the Christian fiction Left Behind series. On October 14th of an unnamed year presumed contemporary to our own, 2% of the world’s population disappears without and trace, and with no explanation as to why and where they may have gone. This may seem like a small number, but it is high enough that no person, no family, a social unit at the core of the show’s mythos, is left untouched.

Kevin Garvey in his role as Mapleton’s Chief of Police and patriarch-at-large.

The first season is set in the fictional town of Mapletown, New York, a synecdoche for Everytown USA. The show follows the trials and tribulations of the Garvey clan. Kevin Garvey, made Chief of Police after his father has a psychotic break, stands in as patriarch for both the traumatized town and his shattered family. His wife has left him and his daughter to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose main purpose is to force everyone in the town to confront the disaster of what is termed the “Sudden Departure.” His son has disappeared, a member of a different cult dedicated to protecting the series’ literal magical Negro, a mysterious black man named Holy Wayne who claims he can hug the pain caused by the Departure away. One of two foils t to Laurie Garvey’s failed matriarch is Nora Durst, held up as divine symbol of motherhood and sacrifice as a result of the fact that both her husband and two children, her entire family, disappeared in the Departure. During the first season, Nora’s character arch revolves around her struggle to redefine herself in the face of this tragic loss.

The striking thing about The Leftovers is that something terrifying, inexplicable, and traumatic has happened, something that has touched everyone’s lives whether their loved ones have departed or not, but in the face of this the world goes on as it did before. Watching the show, the most fascinating and uncomfortable aspect is the struggle for normalcy all the characters must still endure years after the Departure. The Guilty Remnant works toward a radically new normalcy, continuously reminding the town of their ruptured families and the pain of the Departure; that things are not normal and the only way to exist in the wake of disaster is to embrace the nihilism that is at the show’s core.

The Guilty Remnant's philosophy is built around remembering the trauma of the Departure.
The Guilty Remnant’s philosophy is built around remembering the trauma of the Departure, especially the way it destroyed family systems.

The “never forget” rhetoric of the Guilty Remnant is a clear reminder of the way life went on after September 11th, when the government told us to go about our lives as if nothing had happened, that going shopping was the best way to strengthen the nation and prevent another attack. In a message at least as old as the 1950s, if not stretching back to the Victorian age, the American government and that of The Leftovers urges its citizens and the characters to find safety in family life, even when family bonds have been shattered and perhaps even proved illusory. But a duel narrative, represented by the Guilty Remnant, emerged, urging us all to be always afraid of what might be waiting around the corner. Terrorism works not because it comes armed with modern weapons and traditional armies but because it subtly co-opts our daily lives, because it targets the most scared parts of who we are and violently destroying them to communicate that no one is ever safe, especially in the places that we hold to be the most secure.

The Leftovers is about the struggle to reconcile that sense of violation, that unknown attack on perhaps our most vaunted institution, family, and the desire for normalcy. What makes The Leftovers such a terrifying show is not the Departure itself, but the way the Departure destroys human relationships and renders even our most holy places as unsafe. Like terrorists, the Departure is an enemy the characters of the show could not see until it was too late, and divining a meaning from a seemingly senseless act tests every individual’s sense of self, family, and community. Watching this struggle is deeply unsettling to the viewer because the show continually refuses to allow either the characters or the viewer any sense of relief. Brief moments of intimacy or reconciliation are always met with the reminder of the loss the town, and humanity as a whole, has suffered.

Untangling the show’s cultural messages beyond its focus on despair, if there is one, can be difficult, as every character’s point of reference is that despair. The Garvey family lost no one to the Departure, but Laurie’s abandonment of her family rejection of her daughter, son, and husband; her family role altogether, and defiance of her husband’s role as patriarch demonstrates the fragility of the family system. Kevin struggles to atone for his wife’s abandonment by embracing his role as Chief of Police and working tirelessly to protect the town from the Guilty Remnant’s attempts to remind town folk that life is meaningless and family not only stands powerless to stop terror but is in and of itself an imagined institution that must be abandoned in the light of the Departure. Patti Levin, the group’s leader, is the second matriarchal foil to Kevin’s machismo and aggressive rage, championing physical non-violence but still devising her own acts of terror to traumatize the town and prey on those still attempting to find meaning in the Departure. Her terrorism serves as a prod to keep the Departure ever present. She is woman who defies the institution of family instead of working to sustain it.

Holy Wayne offers to take people's pain away.
Holy Wayne offers to take people’s pain away.

The show constantly attacks and reevaluates the meaning of the traditional family. Kevin cannot reconcile with Laurie and Tommy, and his teenage daughter Jill constantly acts out against his authority. But the end of the first seasons finds Kevin finally rebuilding what he has lost, along with Nora Durst, when they form a new domestic partnership around Holy Wayne’s child, of African American and Asian parentage, left at Kevin’s doorstep anonymously by Tommy. A new age calls for a new kind of family, just as feminist, gay and lesbian, and minority groups create new family structures attempting integrate themselves into our own world and reap associated benefits. Of course, reconciliation requires acceptance too.

But if 9/11 provided a chance to reevaluate ourselves and our relationship to the world, how far might we have come if different decisions were made? In the world of The Leftovers, the answer is not very far at all. Shopping failed to bind our wounds but we keep doing it in hopes that eventually it will. We turn a blind eye to our government’s violent actions overseas. Some choose to fight the formation of new family systems that question the foundation of heteronormativity on which traditional marriage is based.  In The Leftovers, reconceptualizing the meaning of family and letting go of old ideas about proper gender roles tangles with the search for normalcy always promised by the family, an idea that goes back to Elaine Tyler May’s domestic containment of the Cold War born in the 1950s.

Elaine Tyler May’s seminal work on “American families in the Cold War era.”

In Homeward Bound, historian Elaine Tyler May describes domestic containment as America’s reaction to the looming threat of nuclear apocalypse brought on by the dawning of the Cold War. According to this ideology, the family served as the bastion of safety by domesticating the twin threats of nuclear war and communist subversion. If each family member followed their prescribed gender roles (father as breadwinner, mother as happy homemaker) then American society could repel any physical or ideological attack made upon its citizens the Soviet Union. In fact, the ideology of civil defense rested firmly upon each family member strictly adhering to their gender rolls in the face of nuclear attack. Before the attack the father was to build the bomb shelter that the mother would then not only stock with survival goods, but would decorate so as to make it so comforting that it might be used as an extension of the home during peace time. In the event of a nuclear attack, strengthening the family unit by continue to adhere to gender roles would prevent the apocalypse from overcoming the country and would allow America to rebuild in its own domestic image. Unlike in The Leftovers, the family would emerge the founding institution upon which a renewed America could be based. In The Leftovers, by contrast, the Departure strikes at the very heart of the institution of family, blatantly questioning the American ideal that family can survive and even thrive in the face of catastrophe.

The Guilty Remnant is the most blatant manifestation of the show's nihilism.
The Guilty Remnant is the most blatant manifestation of the show’s nihilism.

Of all the dystopian fiction that has emerged over the past decade and a half, I submit that The Leftovers is perhaps the most “realistic” depiction of a future dystopia yet, or at least the most realistic response to a calamity like the Departure. We have experienced our own jolt to reality on 9/11, and though it seemed the world would never be the same again, yet somehow it both is and isn’t. The Leftovers characters attempt to build a new normal, one that both accommodates loss and celebrates the devising of new social systems meant to address the pain and fear engendered by that loss. It is about the meaning of human relationships in the face of something that destroys them. At its heart, dystopia is about our fear of surviving loss. The Leftovers is a depiction of a world shaken by collective and individual loss, but it is also a story about not forgetting that loss, but accommodating it. And always at its heart, as with most modern dystopia, it is about the fragility of human relationships, and how only by adopting new ideas about how relationships and social systems work can we move on from something that shakes us to our core. In this way, the Leftovers is both mundane and awesome, and constantly it asks us, “What happens if the world doesn’t change after it ends?” Perhaps normal is the most disturbing dystopia of all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How to Get Past a Job Screener as Written by a Job Screener

Recently I took a job as an Administrative Assistant at a small government contracting firm located in the DC/Metro Area. None of the duties this job requires are explicitly related to my PhD in History (in-progress), however, I was able to massage my resume so that my skill set spoke to the position my company ultimately hired me to fill. I’ve learned even more about resumes and job hunting in my role as an applicant screener for my company. This position entails searching online resume databases such as or to find applicants whose resumes match the job descriptions for our open positions.

Almost all companies searching for and accepting applicants employ some sort of job screening to evaluate resumes before they are passed on to the hiring manager. Many companies have cut the human element out of the process and use computer programs to sift through resumes. My job does not differ much from the content of these programs, as I am scanning for the same keywords and basic qualifications necessary to pass on resumes to my hiring manager, who will then decide if we reach out to the applicant. Because of these cursory examinations, it is crucial that your resume communicates the best possible picture of you while quickly informing computer or human readers of your qualifications. Your resume is most often the very first impression a company has of you, and as such it must work as a powerful advertisement of your competence in many skills, including your ability to create an attractive and informative resume.

What follows is advice on what makes a good resume as seen from my role as a screener. If your resume can get past me or my automated counterparts, your chances of getting an interview increase, while an unattractive and untailored resume will consistently leave you in the trash pile. The advice I offer here does not pertain to landing a job in academia; however, it does include hints on how to shape your academic resume to fit an academic job. You can find more detailed information about that process in my more detailed post on the subject.

  • Appearances Matter. Just as in person, a screener’s first impression of you is captured through how your resume appears. Fonts, colors, and layouts all matter. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend whether plain or colorful resumes are better – this is often a personal preference depending on the screener – but I can tell you that no matter what your level of proficiency with Word, your resume must be both visually appealing and easy to read at first glance. This means staying away from ornate and obfuscating design schemes that you may think show-case your design abilities when they’re really just getting in the way of communicating very important information. Plain black and white resumes carefully arranged with tactful use of formatting and web fonts go a long way. Have someone else look briefly at your resume. If they can’t find the most basic information necessary (qualifications, experience, education) in that first glance, you need to re-design.
  • Qualifications. When I’m looking at a resume the first things I’m looking for are the base qualifications as related to the job descriptions (if you can’t meet those, I can’t hire you). Know these qualifications and make sure they are easy to find when giving a cursory glance over your resume. You can do this through a combination of resume design and intelligent use of keywords reiterated throughout your resume.
    • Security Clearance. This is a note that is especially important to DC job seekers, where so many jobs are with the federal government or reliant upon it. If you have a security clearance, always make it easy to locate on your resume with minimal searching involved. When I’m screening resumes, if someone doesn’t list a clearance, the resume goes in the trash pile 9 times out of 10. This may sound harsh, but in the positions we staff for, you need an active security clearance or the customer (i.e. the government) will not accept you, no matter how wonderful your qualifications are. If you have a security clearance, do not risk having your resume passed on because you hid it or failed to mention it on your resume. It should be at the top of your resume and easy to find. Otherwise you may be missing out on some great opportunities.
  • Tailor Your Resume. Sometimes I screen over 100 resumes a day, and who knows how many more a computer program can race through. When I’m screening I’m not giving your resume a thorough read. Instead, I’m looking for keywords and qualifications that demonstrate you may be a fit for the position. Therefore, however annoying it may seem, you must tailor your resume to the position you’re applying for. Make sure the qualifications of the position are listed clearly in your resume, and make sure you relate your experience to the job description through the use of keywords. Tailoring your resume in this way exponentially increases your chances of being passed to the hiring manager. For example, if the job description calls for POA&M and you have that experience, list that in your resume, by name. For those of you who are simply submitting your resume to a resume database, like, know the keywords for your field when writing your job experience, and include a short goals section at the top of your resume detailing the kind of position you wish to achieve, using keywords describing both your experience and the type of job you’re looking for.
  • Write Just Enough. While we’re on the subject of resume design and writing experience, nothing looks worse, both visually and contextually, than a thin resume. Every bullet point on your resume describing prior positions should be a full sentence. And if you don’t have at least 5 bullet points for each position, you have not written enough to give a job seeker an adequate idea of your experience. Bullet points with one word or phrase do nothing to demonstrate your understanding of your position, whereas a full sentence will explain to the job seeker how your duties related to your position and, if written well, will reveal how those duties will relate to the position you’re applying for. From the position of a job screener, thin resumes never get passed on to the hiring manager. And I can see a thin resume at a glance. They are very easy to discard.
    • In regards to length, there’s also the old stand-by that two pages is your maximum limit, but my experience suggests that, unless a job description specifically states a page limit, more is better. But, older positions that don’t relate to the one you’re applying for can probably be dropped. For example, I started working in 2003 but my resume starts in 2008. This is because, prior to 2008, I worked exclusively in retail. That kind of experience no longer applies. I did, however, leave it on my resume for many years because it demonstrated my customer service skills, something many jobs in varying fields value. You can always add or subtract experience as you like. Just make sure you can spin everything to relate to the current position you’re applying for and be careful to account for gaps in your employment.
  • Hobbies and Interests. When I read a resume, I always think it’s fun to see people include a brief line on their hobbies and interests. It makes their resume stand out. At the same time, many of them are either disappointingly general and/or have nothing to do with the position they’re applying for. If you’re going to include a hobby or volunteer service, make sure it links to the position you’re applying for. For example, I include my time as volunteer at the Point Reyes National Seashore Historic Morgan Horse Ranch on my resume because it reflects both my customer service and public history skills, and I can explain this to an employer in an interview. It demonstrates that my interest in those fields continues outside of work. If you have a hobby or interest that you can use to make connections between your work and personal life, wonderful. If not, it may be fun to know you can ski, but at best it won’t affect if I pass your resume, and at worst it will get you thrown in the trash (as some screeners thing these things are frivolous turn-offs).
  • Spell Check. I know this one seems self-evident, but bad spelling and grammar really will prevent me from passing you on to my hiring manager. You’d think people would know this rule by now but I’ve seen people misspell their own names. If your resume is a company’s first impression of you, then bad spelling and grammar are the equivalent of showing up to the interview wearing sweat pants and a dirty t-shirt. It undermines your competency – no one is going to take you seriously looking like that/if your resume looks like that – and it also demonstrates that you did not care enough to put your time and effort into producing an attractive, legible document. If you care so little about your resume, why would I think you’d care any more about the job you want me to hire you for?
  • Cover Letter. If you are required to write a cover letter, not only should it be spell checked and grammar checked, it should be tailored to the position you’re applying for, just like your resume should be. Remember, you want screeners like me and my digital counterparts to be able to hone in on your qualifications immediately, and a cover letter is a great way to put them up front on the first page. Always write a cover letter if you have the opportunity. If you’re posting your resume to a database, a generic cover letter highlighting the skills you think are most marketable or important to the field you’re interested in is completely appropriate and even encouraged. Writing a cover letter demonstrates that you care about the position you’re applying for and how you think you’ll fit into the company (another hint: research the company before applying). It also shows you care about making a good first impression, and that goes a long way.

The biggest take away here is that you want your resume to be both visually appealing and easy to read, with qualifications and experience highlighted through the use of keywords. The more you can describe your experience the better. And always make sure you tailor everything included on your resume and in your cover letter to the job description. Making it past a screener like me is one of the biggest hurdles you’re going to face. If you can make it past me, then you are that much closer to getting the job that you want.

I will add, for my part as a human screener, we are cheering for you to pass my test because we want to hire good people. Nothing disappoints more than a perfect resume without a security clearance or one so poorly formatted that I can’t find any of the information I need. Do me a favor and make your resume as strong as possible. I love passing candidates to my boss – it’s exciting for us and for you. I hope these tips will help you beat the system so we can get you that job you know you want.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book Review: Michael Swanwick’s “Not So Much” Said the Cat

tumblr_inline_o9lgm3jFN71s0669x_1280In “The Woman Who Shook the World Tree,” one of the entries in Michael Swanwick’s new collection of short stories, a brilliant scientist working to understand the mysteries of space-time says to his colleague and lover following their revolutionary discoveries, “The world’s the same as ever. The only thing that’ll be different is our understanding of it.” This quotation, reiterated repeatedly in various iterations throughout the collection, could stand in as a summation of the whole book. With stories that bend the genre conventions of science fiction and fantasy, moving from imaginary worlds to those that look much like our own, Swanwick constantly asks the reader to set aside the conventional notions of what is real and what is not to explore the complexities of our perceptions of every day existence.

The book starts out with “The Man in Grey,” a story that posits life is merely a stage, with its inhabitants being tightly controlled by a fleet of individuals guided by an unknown force to maintain the charade for the actors moving through their predestined lives. When one of the men in grey steps in to save a woman from a death that does not fit the script, questions not only of the nature of reality but of free will come to the fore in a story that is only a few pages long. Swanwick’s stories are peppered with explorations of the nature of death, and, in “The Man in Grey,” death is the surprising and even delightful release from a world controlled by unseen forces.

While “The Man in Grey,” hovers on the border of futuristic fantasy, “Passage of Earth” finds Swanwick more squarely in the world of science fiction, on an Earth that has been curiously invaded by a mysterious race of giant worms. While the mortician at the center of the story initially thinks his autopsy is finally shedding light on the nature of the worms, he soon finds himself imprisoned in a hell on earth consisting of his own memories of a tortured past with his ex-wife. The meaning of memory and our tendency to become entrapped in its clutches leads the reader to question how we let memories shape our own reality, and if it is possible to live outside of them. The worms act as a cipher for human memory, and their collective identity posits a way of existence both foreign and familiar to our own.

In “Of Finest Scarlet was Her Gown,” Swanwick similarly explores the nature of hell but this time deploys the powers of female sexuality to both give his character agency and restrict her choices. Swanwick has a long history of giving his female characters power almost exclusively through sexuality (in the “The Woman Who Shook the World Tree,” the plain looking main character finds agency only through a sexually charged romantic relationship with a man). In “Of Finest Scarlet was Her Gown,” the devil is a beautiful temptress and Si-Yun is a (disturbingly) 15 year old girl hoping to free her father from Hell. At the devil’s behest, she becomes a sexual plaything to any man that comes calling, while meeting the stipulation that she must always abstain from copulation itself. This gives her power over almost all the men she meets, but in the end the Devil uses Si-Yun’s newfound and confused sexuality against her. While sexual liberation may seem like a door to power for Swanwick’s female characters, the agency that these roles seem to represent is usually lacking in the actual outcome.

In his lengthy introduction, Swanwick boasts of and waxes on about his love for the medium of the short story, and of his books that I’ve read, I’d have to agree with him that it is in short fiction that he really hits his stride. Problematic elements remain – Swanwick loves female characters and has no problem placing them at the center of his narratives, but they are often reduced to being victims of their circumstances, only occasionally, as in “The Man in Grey,” (a story devoid of sex) literally dictating the terms of the narrative. That said, Swanwick’s consistent willingness to challenge our perceptions of reality puts him in the same category as Philip K. Dick and provides the mindful science fiction reader with a wonderful litany of questions to ponder long after the book has been put back on the shelf.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How Space Can Save the Environment

jacket1024 (1)
A white, middle-class woman tends her space garden.

One of the main factors driving space colonists to advocate for human settlement off Earth was their concern for the environmental degradation that increasingly drove many Americans to call for reform, if not a solution as drastic as the colonizing of space. Space colonists believed that moving a large segment of the Earth’s population to space would not only ease environmental degradation but would also halt and ultimately reverse its concomitant resource depletion, specifically that of energy resources. The Club of Rome’s publication in 1972 of their notorious book, The Limits to Growth, further drove space colonists’ sense of impending doom. They sought refuge in space, a new frontier they believed to be populated with endless resources that would enable human life to flourish, and also permit every human to enjoy an American standard of living. This standard crucially included access to green space, as depicted repeatedly in descriptions and drawings of the proposed space colonies.

Because space colonists harbored such overarching concerns about Earth’s limits, I have been reading histories of the environmental movement in the United States that crested on Earth Day, April 20, 1970, at the same time that Gerard K O’Neill and others began to imagine ways space colonies might solve problems facing the human race on Earth. Like environmentalism, space colonies purported to be a universal solution that would not only preserve middle-class American standards of living but that would also uplift those in the developing world both figuratively and literally into the privileged confines of space.

51RHW3JvnWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Space colonists’ concern with environmentalism runs parallel to the issue of population control and the eugenics movement, which did not die out following the Holocaust of World War II. In The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism, Thomas Robertson attempts to link the movement for population control in the 20th century to the burgeoning environmental movement. What he calls Malthusian Environmentalists found both attention and legitimacy for their cause by linking it to growing concerns about Earth’s limited resources as depleted by Earth’s growing population.

Malthusian Environmentalists all believed that population needed to be limited, but they differed on whether or not it should be done with coercive tactics or through programs of incentive and education. Though he spends little time talking about Malthus himself, Robertson makes a compelling argument that his Malthusian Environmentalists often practiced a classist and racist agenda, viewing the developing world (particularly India) as the greatest threat to mankind’s continued prosperity. Therefore, population control experts expressed more willingness to perpetrate or support coercive measures in developing countries. It is important to note that racism and classism also played a role in population control policies at home, as America also carried out a program of forced sterilization that led many African Americans to view any efforts at birth control or family planning as a plot to exercise targeted population control.

Like space colonists, Malthusian Environmentalists believed technology could solve Earth’s population problems, from new technologies like the IUD and the birth control pill to the forced sterilizations that many endured around the world. Though both groups sought to uphold a middle-class, American standard of living, space colonists did not believe coercion to be a necessary tactic (who wouldn’t want to improve their standard of living?) and offered space colonies in opposition to population control, as a way to ameliorate the population problem without interfering with anyone’s perceived natural right to reproduce and form families as they wanted.

Perhaps Robertson’s greatest flaw, which is also a critique that could be applied to histories of space colonists, is that his book focuses exclusively on the writings of elite white men. He pays little more than lip service to the massive role grassroots organizing played in the American environmental movement, though brief sections on the role of feminist and African American activists provide tantalizing glimpses into what non-elite Americans may have thought of these elite population control tactics. Because he focuses so little on the grassroots movement, the story of environmentalism takes a back seat to that of the development of mid-twentieth century population control ideology. Environmental concerns serve as little more than a  justification for the family planning and population control measures recommended and pursued by Malthusian Environmentalists. Robertson’s characters are more concerned with preventing the Earth from surpassing its limits to growth than they are with being custodians of nature.

Crabgrass Crucible coverChristopher C. Sellers’ Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America provides a poignant counterpoint to Robertson’s work and also conveys a much for satisfying history of the environmental movement, focusing on grassroots origins and organizing over the writings of the elite (men).

Sellers’ central argument is that the modern environmental movement emerged in suburbia as new suburban residents sought and then worked to preserve the nature around them. Though this nature did include the more stereotypical “wild” nature, most often a concern of conservationists, Sellers argues that suburban residents found nature in the built environment around them, from their lawns to their trees to the air they breathed and the water they drank. Pollution and development forced suburban residents to transcend the urban/rural dichotomy and see themselves as part of a holistic ecosystem where urban and industrial pollution could invade their property and their homes to despoil even the managed nature around them. This realization galvanized them to form grassroots organizations and pursue class action lawsuits meant to preserve their living space. This movement also raised environmental awareness around the country and eventually culminated in a more holistic environmental movement that agitated for laws meant to protect this newly understood integrated ecosystem.

Relocating environmentalism in the suburbs forces us to acknowledge that not only is the built environment part of nature but, as Sellers points out, our human bodies are as well. Space colonists recognized the importance of nature to the human condition and constantly stressed the verdant composition of the built space that would make up space colonies. In fact, recreating nature was necessary to create an environment in space not alien and inhospitable but familiar and natural. Visions of space colonies did not invite alternate imaginings of the suburban ideal but instead viewed its recreation to be imperative to the success of the venture.

Of course, space colonies made a very general assumption when they presumed that everyone seeking to better themselves, including those emigrating to space colonies, would want to recreate the pastoral suburban American life espoused in their visions of the future. Similarly, Sellers is careful to point out that the environmental movement often worked to preserve a version of suburbia that omitted those found in lower class and ethnic neighborhoods. This left those of different races and classes, often more likely to suffer from pollution and lack of green spaces, on their own to fight for better standards of living. Though space colonists imagined ameliorating these groups’ living conditions, they did not provide for any alternate vision of built space besides middle-class suburban paradise. In this way it is possible to see that space colonists shared an important similarity to the environmental movement they sought to perpetuate in their visions of the future.

Overall, Sellers work is more effective in supporting his argument, through drawn out case studies of individual environmentalists draw questions about representation that similarly plagued Robertson. What both books demonstrate, however, is that the environmental movement struggled to find a cohesive language of protection, even though many parties fetishized middle-class, suburban American life. In these narratives, well-off Americans benefited most from environmental politics, whether concerned with family planning or ensuring the potability of a community’s water supply. The most famous space colonists, almost all white, elite men, perhaps could not help espousing similar views about what to preserve and what to leave behind.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How to Prepare for Comps (at George Mason University)

So it’s finally upon you, time to take your comprehensive oral exams! Ahh! First thing’s first – take a deep breath. You are going to make it through this ordeal alive. But you still probably want (and need) some advice on how to prepare and then how the exams will go once you’re taking them. I am happy to pass on some of the things I found to be most useful when I was preparing for and taking my comps. I will note that, as I took my comps at George Mason University, some of my advice may only apply to the culture of comps at that institution. That being said, I definitely believe a lot of the advice I’m about to give you is universal.


You Are Going to Freak Out

This is inevitable. At some point it is going to happen. And, quite honestly, don’t fight it. Don’t beat yourself up because then you will freeze. Admit to yourself that you’re freaking out and that it’s okay and totally normal. And, importantly, talk about it with others. I recommend talking to a peer preparing for or who has taken their comps. I chose to talk to one of my committee members. Just admitting to her how terrified I was made me feel better. She reassured me that it was okay to feel scared and that conversation finally allowed me to move past my fear. It feels like your whole life is riding on this exam, but as my committee chair said of my exam (scheduled at two), four o’clock will come no matter what. Either way you live, at worst you take the exam again. So go ahead, have your moment of total insanity, get it out of your system, accept the nerves that inevitably remain, and move on (or have a bunch of mini-freak outs, whatever works for you). Get it out of your system. Don’t let it paralyze you.

Know Your Learning Style

This may seem counter-intuitive to include on a list where I am telling you how to study, but it is very important to only adopt study strategies that only work for you. It’s okay to try different methods, but don’t force yourself to adopt one strategy just because someone else tells you to. You know best how you learn, and you should nurture that. Having said that, don’t be afraid to try out new learning styles. You may find one that really works for you. But if something doesn’t work, ditch it. You don’t want someone else’s rules slowing you down or freaking you out. And don’t try to change last minute. Know ahead of time what works best for you.

Be Organized

You are going to be ingesting a lot of information in what is a comparatively short period of time. Therefore, you need a system. Keep everything in order and always keep your booklist up-to-date and well curated. You’ll also need to create a file system for notes, wherever you take them. One of the most important things I did was type a separate paragraph for each book summarizing each authors’ argument. These paragraphs became a reference while I studied and didn’t want to go through all my notes. I also created individual binders for each time period and filed book reviews in them along with my notes, which I organized according to my book lists. This system may sound like overkill to you, but it’s how I needed to prepare. You’ll also need to devise a way to compile and stay on top of your schedule or you’ll never be able to move forward or study.

Have a Plan of Action

Another title for this section might be: get good at scheduling. Once you’ve figured out how to organize the material you’ll be dealing with and the best way to absorb it, you need to divide your time so that you can take notes, study, and then you need to bring your advisors on board and schedule practice sessions with them. I was coincidentally and it turns out fortuitously unemployed in the months leading up to my comps, so I was able to structure my time completely around studying. I had a routine I went through every day. I needed this structure to prevent me from goofing off, hence the importance of time management. I studied at the same times every day, I had a set order for the books I worked on, note-taking, and review. A schedule will create routine, and routine will make studying feel natural. Structuring your time is crucial to feeling and being prepared.

Find the Right Place to Study

It is really important to find someplace where you’re comfortable but still able to focus and avoid distractions. If you’re having trouble getting yourself to study in your regular spots, try out some new ones. A good study spot can make the difference between procrastination and hard work. It’s that simple.

Take Notes by Hand

At Mason, so heavily focused toward digital media, this tip may seem like a big no-no. What if I lose my notes? The solution to that is to type them up after you write them, which is a great exercise because it forces you to review and allows you to reorganize things. Because there is something about writing things down by hand that your brain really likes. I found that writing my notes by hand forced me to slow down and think about the information I was filtering from the book to my own words. Writing by hand also encouraged me to take notes in my own words, which further forced me to process and articulate what I had read. Even if you type your notes, always do them in your own words whenever possible.

Reward Yourself, Both During Your Studying and After Your Comps

Devising some sort of reward system will encourage you to finish your task. These rewards can be little or they can be big. I’ll share mine with you. I had all my books in a six foot bookcase (organized by time period and author, of course) and before I started studying I put a green sticky on the spine of each book to represent that I hadn’t worked on them yet. Every time I finished working on a book, I switched the green sticky for a pink one. It was so rewarding to see my bookshelf go from green to pink. This system was a visual manifestation of my hard work. Your tracking or reward system may be different from mine, but it’s important to mark your progress with positive reinforcement to keep yourself from feeling bogged down or discouraged. Similarly, it’s important to plan a celebration for after your comps, if only to remind you that there is an after your comps. Emphasize progress at every step, and reward yourself along the way to remind yourself of that progress, no matter how small.

Your Booklists Are Living Documents

Like it or not, your booklists are living documents. In my case, this meant adding and subtracting books to and from certain lists even in the final months before my comps. I dealt with these changes by telling myself I was simply improving my knowledge of American history and immediately determining how my new books fit in with the rest of my lists. This is the second way your lists are living documents: you need to organize them in a way that emphasizes how the books are connected, and in that regard possibilities are endless, which means you should always be thinking of new ways to organize your lists. Organizing your booklists is one of the best ways to prepare for comps, when you’ll have to repeatedly discuss books that have common themes. Anticipating thematic questions will help you prepare answers beforehand. Further, you get to take your pre-organized booklists into comps with you to preserve the connections you’ve made beforehand if you get stumped.

Trust Your Advisors

This section may apply more to the faculty at GMU – the culture of comps there is an incredibly supportive one. No one at Mason is going to mislead your or ask you’re a gotcha question, at least not on purpose. You advisors are there to help you succeed because they want to see you succeed. They will give you honest feedback but they’re not going to crush your soul. Everything they say and do is meant to help you do better. They don’t want you fail. Firstly, that would mean you’d have to take your comps again, and no one wants to go through that high stress process a second time. More than that, your advisors take genuine joy in seeing you do well. Let their belief in you give you confidence.

Practice with Your Advisors and Write Down Their Questions

Again, here I can only speak to GMU’s comps culture, but if you are a Mason PhD student preparing for your comps, practice with your advisors. This is basically a requirement, as your advisor will use your practice sessions to determine if you’re ready to test. It will also give you a chance to hone your responses and receive feedback on your skills. Most importantly, your advisors will ask you practice questions that you will likely hear again (sometimes word for word) on your comps. For that reason, write down all the questions they ask you in your practice sessions and make sure you have good answers prepared for your actual testing session. Questions will most likely be tailored to your interests, so pay close attentions to the themes in the questions you are asked, too. These themes will appear again in your comps. If you follow these steps you’ll walk into the room facing fewer surprises.

Clear your Calendar of Anything Stressful on Examine Day

For those of you that have full-time jobs, this may be hard, but trust me when I say that you want everything on the day of your exam to be easy-breezey. Give yourself time to get enough sleep (if you can sleep). Try to eat something – have your favorite or least threatening foods at hand. Take a shower or bath. Don’t try to cram – watch a T.V. show, do some crosswords, something mindless and relaxing. The whole point is to relax so that you walk into the exam confident, calm, and not feeling frozen and overwhelmed. You’ve worked so hard – use these last moments of preparation to pamper yourself and reinforce that you’ve got this. Don’t do anything to increase your apprehension or that will make you feel less confident. Do things to reinforce how prepared you are and to calm your mind and body. Let go of your fear!

During Comps

Talk About Books You Like

This piece of advice was given in a colloquium before my comps and I found it to be very useful. I also wish I’d followed it. If you are going to criticize a book, be ready to defend your point of view. Certainly be honest, but know these books are on your list for a reason and you have to be able to identify and explain their strengths as well as their weaknesses. It’s also easier to talk about books you like because you’ll enjoy talking about them, which makes the whole conversation less stressful. Positive arguments are sometimes easier to make than negative ones, and most questions will be so open-ended that you’ll be able to steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go.

It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know”

It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” All saying “I don’t know means” is redirecting the conversation toward something you do know. This situation is why making note of inter-book themes and connections as part of your studying is so important. So you blanked on a specific book. Demonstrate you can still answer the question with your knowledge of different books. You can still talk about gender or race or consumerism or suffering in war time (I’m sorry I blanked on you, Sparrow). You can make connections across time to show larger trends in history. Your committee is willing to let you draw a blank if you can demonstrate a different way to answer the question and willingness to try. There is also a degree of respect that comes with admitting you don’t know something. True scholars aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know, especially if they can do it in the classroom setting you’re preparing for.

Enjoy Yourself

Before I took my comps, advisors and peers told me to think of comps as a chance to have an intelligent conversation about history with scholars as their peer instead of as their student. This was exactly my experience, and I loved it. The tone stayed conversational, we laughed, and we engaged in debates about some of the best books written about one of the most wonderful subjects ever. There aren’t exactly right answers, just your willingness to make a point and defend it with the reading, all with a certain about of flexibility. You may be challenged, but you are an intellectual – relish the challenge. This love of challenges, more than anything, is the best trait you can carry with you into your career, whatever it may be. Think of comps as an official entry into the inner circle of scholars that you’ve been training to become a part of for the past few years. You love history. You want to talk about it for the rest of your life. This is just the first of many great conversations.

And there you have it! These are my greatest hits for preparing for comps. The only other thing I’ll say is make sure to give yourself plenty of time, and if you can, take your comps right after your 803s. That way your memory is fresh. And, most importantly, you are going to be fine. No matter what, four o’clock will come. You are a superstar, you are ready for this, and you should embrace the first day of the rest of your history career.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment