Archive for the ‘dissertating’ Category

The longer it took me to get back into blog-writing, the more pressure I felt to write something really fabulous and meaningful, something of Great Importance. I ask you, is there any subject more important than pancakes?

After this long absence, it would serve me right if there were no longer any readers of this blog. I now see how easy it is to get out the habit!

This blog was conceived to help me contend with how rapidly my work-life was changing after finishing prelims and launching into dissertation research travel. But it was all that travel got the best of the blog this past year. (Really, how has it been a year‽‽)

Last spring, I returned from Braunschweig and Berlin for a couple more months in Minnesota. I officially moved out of my beloved Nordeast house in May and traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in the German Historical Institute Transatlantic Doctoral Seminar. The weekend was intense but rewarding, given the awfully smart work of the other participants and the exceptional organization of the conference (seriously, I’ve never attended a conference or workshop so thoughtfully designed). In June, supported by a travel grant from the Friends of the Princeton University Library, I spent a month at the incomparable Cotsen Children’s Library.

Travel does bring rewards: meeting dear friends' new baby

At the end of that month, I gave a paper on a panel I helped organized about “Representations of History for Children and Youth” for the Society for the History of Children & Youth conference, where there simply wasn’t enough time to revel in the experience of hundreds of people talking about the history of childhood.

July brought perhaps my most exciting trip of the year, to Beijing for a presentation at the World History Association with University of Minnesota professors & students (Mary Jo Maynes, Ann Waltner, Qin Fang, and Yueqin Chen). Not only was the location memorable, but exploring it with those friends was particularly special.

Peking University, where my family lived in 1996

Then it was back to Germany for late July and August, supported by a grant from the Conference Group for Central European History. This was my first experience in the south of Germany (Grüß Gott!), so I did some sightseeing in between reading some really intriguing family papers in several archives across Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.

Munich's International Youth Library

A few weeks at home in September while my parents prepared for their move from Illinois to Cape Cod also included a couple of trips back up to Minnesota.

But I’ve been settled now for four months here in Berlin, where I’m extremely lucky to be able to concentrate fully on my dissertation research with the support of a Research Grant from the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD). I’m definitely glad to be returning to this space while I work out new ideas, try to solve archive puzzles, and am alternately enchanted and perplexed by life in this exceptional city.

I may work up some backdated finds-of-the-day from collections in the Cotsen Library, the Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, the Germanisches National Museum, and here in Berlin. I also plan to write a little about Berlin’s fabulous Lange Nacht der Museen, as well as some posts on marginalia and my research technology. And of course, some more elephants are likely to turn up (for such large animals they can be surprisingly stealthy):

…on a tea set I saw in Germany last year…

…in typography….

Did you know that the Swedish word for the “at-sign” (@) is “snabel,” because the curl around the a looks like an elephant’s trunk?  This makes me excessively happy. Apparently @ is also a snabel in Danish, but Italians see it as a snail, the Chinese as a little mouse, and the Dutch as a monkey’s tail. So much for globalizing technologies erasing regional difference! See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_sign.

…at the elegant Hotel Elephant in Weimar, which prefers to be remembered for hosting Goethe and Schiller, rather than Hitler’s balcony appearances…


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My long absence was part lovely Thanksgiving with the Porter family, part the SSHA annual meeting in Chicago. So to ease my way back into the blog, how about a little elephant round-up?

1.   The brilliant Minjie Chen’s portfolio led me to Tagxedo, which I expect will be providing far too many hours of fun in the future.  To begin with, here’s one of the best results of my fall fellowship-writing so far, an elephant version of my dissertation description:

Dissertation Description Cloud

2.  Some elephants from the Überseemuseum Bremen (“The Overseas Museum”), which I visited with my friend Sujata while I was in Braunschweig last September:

Elephants in an exhibit on evolution

Elephants in the background of a primate diorama









3.  My fantastic friend Bryan sent this video along from the British kids’ cartoon, “Peppa Pig.

I love jumping up and down in puddles, too!  We’re virtually indistinguishable, though apparently this Emily’s brother is named Edmond.

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I’m back at school in Minneapolis and in the middle of setting a variety of goals (to run a 5K with my roommates Halloween weekend, to draft a dissertation chapter this month, and so on).  But my newest ambition is someday to write a book for which the following epigraph from the gospel of Douglas Adams would be appropriate:

The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases.

For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question, How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?

– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 35

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Why start a blog?

In the way of a more formal introduction than just rambling about elephants, I have a few comments about why I decided to begin this blog now.  A number of developments have conspired to make this a time in my life when I think I especially need a space to take stock of things and reflect. Plus, all the procrastinatory time I devote to reading other people’s blogs about history, politics, academic life, has made me itch to join the conversation.

  • This summer I taught a course as the sole instructor for the first time, and it was a whirlwind. Obviously I can’t write publicly about the details of this particular class, but the experience made the part of me already interested in pedagogical issues jump into overdrive, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to raise some general questions about teaching here.
  • In May, I passed my preliminary exams, which means that this fall I’m not attending classes for the first time since, well, nursery school. Minor identity crisis, meet blog. (See the gospel of xkcd for a related perspective.)
  • This year I’m “on fellowship,” that is, not teaching for pennies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the luxury of being able to focus on “my work,” but I’m a little worried about the lack of structure. One possible use of this blog will be to post regular updates about my central research question (this actually sounds really painful right now, but I’m told it will be good for me).
  • We always tell students that the best way to get better at writing is to do lots of it. I’m not completely sure a blog counts for improving my dissertation and I have a sneaking suspicion that it may be a new toy for NOT writing said dissertation. Nevertheless, I do find the idea of a “bird by bird,” spiritual element of regular writing practice appealing.

As I mentioned, this blog is partly inspired by a number of  marvelous models (many of which I’ve listed to the right on the blog roll, though I’m not sure of the etiquette there…) But while most blogs that I enjoy regularly are pseudonymous and range over a wide set of topics, after a small struggle I decided to go public with my own blog for a number of reasons. And as you might be able to tell from the list of above, the issues that are making my wheels spin these days are pretty self-serving.  So if you’ve made it through this post (hi mom and dad!), I have to admit that some of my posts here may be more narcissistic, *ahem* personal. But if it turns out that something I write interests you, that’s great!  I welcome comments on individual posts or email to emilyselephant [at] gmail [dot] com.

(For an overdetermined explanation of this blog’s title, see my first post.)

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A willow tree, a sloping lawn, a quiet country house.  An elephant?

Philippa Pearce: Emily's Own Elephant book cover

This blog’s title is inspired by Philippa Pearce’s marvelous Emily’s Own Elephant.  The story is one of the picture books I still remember clearly.  Emily visits the zoo with her family and discovers that Jumbo the elephant is about to be made homeless because he is too small to be a proper zoo attraction.  Naturally, Emily’s parents suggest they bring Jumbo home to live in their meadow (and sleep in their empty shed during winter, after Emily’s father installs central heating).  It all works out beautifully for Emily, and, I believe, the elephant.

There might be other elephants in the future of this blog, but here are three more to begin with:

  • During a research trip to Braunschweig, I discovered that German has a word for those little step stools found in library: Elefantenstuhl!  (Sadly, it did not look like this.)
  • A wise blogger has written about the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  This tale is not necessarily a simple warning against extrapolating from a partial reality, but also a reminder that any exploration of the world is always filtered through a particular perspective.  I hope that writing in this space will let me “feel out” some different perspectives on history and graduate study.
  • And of course, there is the large, looming elephant otherwise known as my dissertation.  Right now this project is really only a tiny baby elephant, or maybe even hypothetical (though, I hope, not as crazy as pink elephants on parade).  I’m trying to grow it into a great big, galumphing elephant, but for now I’m simply letting it romp around the back yard under the willow tree.  Thanks for joining me!

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