Like last year, I spent a few weeks jumping around a few places in Europe for conferences/workshops and a little bit of holiday. This time, I was in the Netherlands for work, Finland for a holiday with a dear friend, and Switzerland for work. It was an exhausting trip that coincided with midsummer in the Nordic countries, so my final overnight layover in Stockholm meant that most everything was closed.
One of my favorite things about traveling in general is when places are so fully realized versions of what they are. Almost fulfilling their stereotypes, but in a charming way rather than catering to tourists.
Utrecht, Netherlands, was one such place, as were Helsinki and Turku (and the archipelago) in Finland. Partially because the weather was so sunny and warm, which meant that everyone was eating and drinking at outdoor cafes with the late sunsets, but largely because the cities took pride in themselves and in their distinct culture and heritage.
While I also spent a short time in Zurich and Vienna (the visit to Geneva was not my first) and would of course return to explore more, they didn’t charm me as much as Utrecht, Helsinki, and Turku.
The end of a semester, a year, a job. At the end of this month, I’ll be done with my visiting position at Pomona College.
As I’ve written before, teaching is fun but tiring – like putting on a performance. I also felt that I had to be an expert of everything, like taking a quiz every day. My intro to IR class this spring was so dynamic and curious, but that meant that I always had to be on. Nuclear physics one day, immigration law the next.
The Claremont Colleges have a great Center for Teaching and Learning, where I took advantage of a book club, a diversity discussion group, and a few other workshops. These were potentially my favorite part of the job – learning from novice and experienced professors from all kinds of disciplines how they deal with some of the classroom challenges that I thought only I had.
I had been worried throughout the fall semester, my first time teaching full-time, that injecting too much of my personality and particularly my motivations behind my political stances and teaching style would be inappropriate. But I realized (with the help of the reading group) that not only do students want to know their instructors’ feelings, my own teaching motivation is much stronger when I am a professional version of myself.
A quick version of this: in intro to IR, we were covering international security and shifts in weapons types and technologies after the end of the Cold War. This is not something I know well, and in fact, I am ethically opposed to the creation and use of weapons for national security purposes. Instead of declaring this to my class, however, I showed footage from the 1992 Gulf War, which was really the first time that video had been a part of the weapons themselves, broadcast immediately, and shown on television. I was in middle school at the time, and I believe that watching missiles, through the eyes of the missile itself, guide itself down a chimney and to other exact targets shocked me so much that it shaped my core beliefs and most likely my career.
I showed a few of these videos to my class and explained about how these weapons changed how modern war is fought, as well as how they have changed how Americans understand our own foreign policy. We also talked about how shocking these videos were at the time and how they still are, now that there are few images from guided missiles shown to the public any longer. Showing the class my own history and identity as it came out of a political event I think was one of the most effective lessons I’ve learned myself this year.
Well, that’s a thing. A terrible, terrible thing. Everyone tells you how terrible it is, and you think you know, but you don’t know.
First, the numbers: This was my second year on the political science/international studies job market, and total, I applied to probably 100 positions overall (including postdocs), had eight or ten phone or skype interviews (including the one for my current visiting position at Pomona College), three campus interviews, and one job offer.
Now, I only know what it’s like for me, but when people say fit is important, they are so right, at least for those of us from non-elite institutions. Especially for me, researching a non-mainstream topic with a non-mainstream methodology, even though I applied to general IR positions, I probably didn’t get a second look from most of those hiring committees.
What I did get was a job, doing exactly what I want to do. Starting July 1, I’ll be an assistant professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. It’s a liberal arts college with a cool history and is in an area I’m looking forward to moving back to. I even get to teach things I’m really excited about, like African politics, gender and conflict, and even IPE (as long as I can give it a development focus). And I’m certain I got this job on fit. Not only did I fit their requirements and they fit mine, but there’s a general sense of fitting in with the culture of the place and the personalities of the other faculty.
It’s a joy right now to be done with the dissertation and feeling secure that I should have employment for the next few years. I feel extremely fortunate that the right thing came up at the right time for me – it isn’t the case for a lot of people in my position – so I’m trying to honor it by working smart and hard.
Because so much stuff has happened in the past year and the only time I’ve had to reflect on it all is during my 2-plus-hour-a-day commute or just before I’m falling asleep, I’ve decided to write and backdate some posts that I didn’t get a chance to write before. So here’s the first: a contemplation of my first semester of full-time teaching.
As I wrote over the summer, I enjoyed teaching more than I thought I would, not least because I kept learning things. But even though everyone tells you how hard the first year of teaching is and says that you should really finish your dissertation before you start, you don’t really absorb that lesson.
Heed my warning.
It wasn’t even so much the teaching – I taught three classes this fall, two undergraduate at my VAP position at Pomona College and one masters-level at Chapman University as an adjunct. They were all brand-new preps, and I particularly underestimated the students at Pomona, who are exceptionally well-prepared for college and expected a great deal out of me. When I knew the material really well, I was relaxed and things were fine. On other subjects, I was intimidated, which showed in my teaching. Overall, the students were great and generally kind to me, but I do feel pretty bad for them. Sorry, guys!
What I didn’t expect was how the last few months of dissertation writing, editing, and defending are all-consuming. I’ll go into this process in a later post, but my mind had next-to-zero space for anything else, including a bit of creativity in teaching. It was all I could do to write a lecture and ask questions in class.
Additionally, I was on the job market for the second time this fall (again, a later post), which was, of course, a bit smoother than last year, but my stress was still high while teaching and dissertating and driving.
The best thing about teaching this fall was that I couldn’t think about anything else during class. So even though teaching was stressful, I had to focus on it and not dwell on anxiety about my dissertation or the job market.
I guess I owe my students a giant thank you in addition to the apology!
Defended a couple of weeks ago, did some revisions, submitted the paperwork on Friday. What a relief.
My savior from unstructured time this summer has been teaching Intro to IR three mornings a week. The students have all been genuinely curious, asking perceptive questions and helping each other in discussions. Because UC Irvine has such an ethnically diverse student population, several of the students have been helpful to me and the rest of the class by giving context from regions of the world that I am less familiar with (including East and Southeast Asia, but lots of other knowledge too!).
Explaining new theoretical concepts has also helped me finish up my dissertation. I remind students to always remember what is at the center of the main theories we're studying: power-seeking is central to realism, cooperation is the essence of liberalism, economy is the core of Marxism, etc. Yet when I'm writing, I lose focus, getting lost in the context of West Africa.
After a conversation with my advisor when I was in the weeds, she reminded me to always relate it back to the WPS agenda, the object of my study, to remember how whatever I am writing about at any moment relates to—explains, questions, nuances—the agenda and its implementation. And I remembered this as what I'm telling my own students to focus on when they become overwhelmed with the details.
I've often heard that teaching a subject helps you master it. And it's true that reviewing material for the class has reminded me of concepts that I've never used once I learned them (appeasement, anyone?). But I didn't expect to reinforce my own learning processes and to remember what it's like to be an amateur.
All through grad school we surround ourselves with experts, ideal examples of scholars and scholarship, to model ourselves after and to show us what we should be working toward. Yet at this moment, near the very end of my own student-ness, it is my students, most of whom are new to politics and international relations, who are re-teaching me how to accept the contingency of my knowledge and what it means to grow as an academic.
I realize that I'm fortunate with this group of students as well as to be teaching a class that I am familiar with, so I don't expect every class to be like this every term. But if my next year at Pomona College and the (inshallah) years of teaching after that are similar, I'll be very thankful indeed. Now back to writing.
In two words: it sucks. After nearly two years of adventure, of traveling and trying to figure things out in new places, in multiple languages (most of which I don’t speak), meeting people, and learning tons and tons of new things, the time has arrived (since January, in fact) to sort out what I have learned, to make sense of it all.
BUT THAT'S NOT NEARLY AS MUCH FUN AS HAVING FUN WITH NEW PEOPLE IN NEW PLACES!
I did write a chapter last summer, and I have lots of notes and a few presentations, so it’s not like I was starting from complete scratch. But putting your data to your ideas, even though you’ve been thinking about the connections for years, is nigh impossible some days. It’s exciting when something comes together, but those days don’t come often.
However, I am finding some joy in the little things, like revisiting interviews and realizing the little connections between what an Ivorian woman has told me and a theoretical concept. And when I can take a few moments to step back and look at what I'm doing, I can see a bigger picture, pinpoint where my tiny contribution fits in, and feel a bit proud of myself.
This drag will end soon, inshallah, as soon as I take care of a bit of conference travel. (I did not fly for more than two months, which is some kind of record for me recently!) As I type, I’m on my way to Lund, Sweden, for the Feminist Peace Research Network workshop, then next week to Long Island for the Berkshire Conference, then the European Conference on Politics and Gender in Geneva, a short stop in Berlin for fun, and finally Brighton, UK, for the British International Studies Association. Several of these are places I’ve never been, and between the travel and the productive conversations, I’ll be looking forward to wrapping up this long slog of writing and moving on …
Like most researchers who use semi-structured interviews, I start off with a fairly routine set of questions – tell me about your organization; what aspect of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda do you focus on; what are your successes so far and what are the challenges you face – though we inevitably get very specific to the organization, their donors, and their target population.
After one interview, the president of the organization I was visiting introduced me to one of her assistants who, as part of a women’s empowerment project supported by her employer, makes organic soap in her home to be sold in the markets.
She invited me to her house to see the project and quickly made some sample soap with the assistance of her son and a couple other neighborhood boys. I don’t even remember the whole process, but the chemistry of the thing and the quality of the soap was amazing!
And now I have the product for myself and for gifts. I don’t want to give platitudes about helping poor women in Mali or that this could completely change her life or whatever, but I’m quite pleased that I got to directly support one of the women I met personally through my work – and that I have such a practical, quality souvenir from Mali.
Edited 27 December 2016:
I wrapped them with brown paper and some Japanese paper that I had stashed away from a few years ago to give away as New Year's gifts!
I love doing fieldwork. Love meeting people and learning about their lives and where they live and how they work. And I love traveling to conferences, again meeting new people and learning about their research and thinking more about mine, plus visiting new cities.
Last month, I got the opportunity to travel to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, to attend, present at, and assist at a conference sponsored by The CIHA Blog, for which I am an editorial assistant. Once again, the conference was wonderful, a place to catch up with old colleagues and meet new ones. Please read more about the conference and the broad swatch of issues related to religion, humanitarianism, and governance that we discussed.
Then, because it was my first time in South Africa and since I was already there, I took 10 days to drive from Durban to Cape Town – along the Wild Coast, the Garden Route, and into Wine Country. I was so impressed by the diversity of the landscape and the beauty of the coastline especially.
No major stories happened, good or bad, just a relaxing vacation where I got to meet new people, see new things, and learn new lessons about culture, race, gender, and politics.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts. And now ... Teaching!