4-H and mentoring.

Earlier this week, I got put in touch with Karen Carter at the Smithsonian’s Office of Fellowships and Internships, about appearing on a panel about the importance of mentoring for a group of around 90 young people participating in 4-H’s National Mentoring Program. I ended up joining the panel, which turned out to be an excellent chance to reflect on my personal experiences, as well as my research on 4-H, in a different way than I usually do.

I felt that the exercise of having to come up with 5-7 minutes of material on the importance of mentoring in my life was incredibly valuable, and made me reflect on experiences and events in my life that I haven’t thought about in a while. I’m including here the basis for my remarks, and a few comments I added in on the fly. Thanks so much to Karen Carter, Adam Silvey, Erika Ferrin, Kelly Baird, Anne Harper, and all the young people who listened and asked us so many good and thoughtful questions on a sweltering day in D.C. You made the event a huge success, one I was proud to be a part of.

Some Thoughts on Mentoring
Amrys O. Williams, 19 July 2013

First off, I just want to say how pleased I am to have the chance to appear on this panel today, so thanks to Karen for working so quickly to put it together. As a historian, I spend a lot of time by myself in libraries and archives, looking at documents, reading, thinking, and writing, so it’s always a welcome change of pace to speak with people not just about my work but about my experiences.

As someone who’s done a lot of thinking about 4-H, I just want to offer a quick observation before I begin, something that came to mind while I was listening to the other panelists. I think that, in many ways, the genius of 4-H as an organization has been the way it has sought to connect the more formal knowledge of experts and the experiential knowledge of adults to the curiosities and interests of young people. In this way, mentoring has been central to how 4-H has operated for a century, and it’s no surprise then that all of you are here as a part of a 4-H mentoring program.

I spent the past week reflecting on the role of mentors in my life and career. I came up with a long list of people who had advised me at different times in my life, as well as instances in which mentorship was critical in helping me figure out what path to take. Like my fellow panelists, I could probably talk for hours about how mentorship has shaped me, but instead I’ll just draw out a few main observations and stories from my own experience.

But first, as a historian, I have to do the nerdy thing here and explain the origins of the term “mentor.” It’s a term from Greek mythology, and comes from Homer’s 8th-century-BC epic poem the Odyssey, about the journey of the hero Odysseus after the Trojan War. Mentor is a wise old man that Odysseus puts in change of his household and family—particularly his son, Telemachus—when Odysseus goes off to fight. So our modern-day understanding of this term draws from this story: a mentor as a trusted advisor, someone who gives guidance to the young in a parental sort of way.

But here’s where it gets interesting. When Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, and justice, wants to help out Odysseus and Telemachus, she sometimes appears to them disguised as Mentor, their trusted advisor. Of course, we’re not so lucky—the goddess of knowledge is not often swooping down to give us a leg up—but I think the idea that wisdom and mentoring are closely linked deserves some attention. It helps us see that mentorship is not just an older person advising a younger person, but rather a more fundamental sharing of knowledge among people that pervades our lives. This means that mentors can be anyone from teachers and advisors and coaches and pastors to parents, siblings, peers, friends, and co-workers. We can be mentors ourselves as well; in fact, the mentoring relationship is not unidirectional, but mutual, so whenever you are being mentored, you are also, in a sense, mentoring. This mutuality, this back-and-forth, characterizes all fruitful human relationships; good mentorship teaches us not only to be better people, but to be better friends, colleagues, community members, and citizens.

I want to offer two main observations about mentorship to you today: one about perceptions, one about responsibilities.

A relationship with a mentor helps you see yourself in new ways that broaden your field of vision, and consequently your opportunities. As individuals, we often limit ourselves by thinking that there are certain things we are good at and other things that we are not so good at, and we allow our peers’ or society’s perceptions of us to influence the way we see ourselves. We put ourselves in boxes, and we discount our ability to succeed outside of those boxes—perhaps in areas where we feel we don’t have an innate talent. The problem with this is that, as a result, we foreclose a whole set of possibilities for ourselves before even trying.

The story of how I ended up at MIT for college is a case in point. When I was a kid, I loved reading and music, but didn’t have the same innate enjoyment of math or science, even though I did fine in these subjects. As a result, I never seriously considered STEM fields for a career. It wasn’t until high school, when my guidance counselor suggested I consider applying to some engineering schools that I even entertained such a notion.

My guidance counselor didn’t say anything grand or life-changing, but that small suggestion made a big impact on me. It forced me to see that I had been putting myself in a box, and not looking beyond that square bit of space.

This simple suggestion forced me to ask myself, well, why not? You do well in these subjects. You are capable. Why would you limit yourself to liberal arts schools, when there are many other kinds of experiences that are open to you? Why do you assume there is just one path you can follow?

My preconceptions, both of myself and of what technical schools were like and who they wanted, were narrowing my options in ways I hadn’t recognized. To my surprise, MIT accepted me—ME, a writer of poetry and singer in the school chorus—and after visiting I decided that I wanted to accept that challenge and see where it would take me. That choice has defined my life, because it opened my eyes to a set of fields and careers and paths I had never seen before. MIT is where I discovered there was a field called the history of science that would allow me to combine my passion for storytelling and writing with my interest in technical subjects. That discovery led me to graduate school, and eventually here to the Smithsonian.

Sometimes it’s as simple as someone believing in your potential that helps you see your abilities in a new light—one that opens up possibilities you didn’t know existed. Mentorship helps you see yourself through someone else’s eyes, and that exercise—of seeing yourself in new ways—is often the first step towards imagining all the things you might be capable of.

One of the things you’ll notice about the story I’ve just told is that my guidance counselor didn’t say to me: you should go to MIT and study science. She made an observation about me and a suggestion about something I might consider doing, but she didn’t tell me what to do. This brings me to my second point, which is that mentoring isn’t something that you receive passively, something that happens to you. Rather, it is something that requires you to actively engage in your own personal development. You are the only person who can rightly make decisions about your life, and good mentoring will always be open-ended, conducted as a conversation, an invitation to participate in making sound decisions about your life. Mentoring of this sort is always empowering, because it requires you to take responsibility for yourself and to own your decisions.

This doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t make mistakes, but that, in the context of a good mentoring relationship, any missteps you do make will become educational and helpful rather than debilitating. You’ll be able to step back and learn from them, because they will have been your choices, not things that were forced upon you. This is not to say that you won’t feel frustrated or bound by the strictures of society, or by others’ perceptions, but that, with a good mentor at your side, you will be able to chart a course that supports you and your goals.

Mentoring thus teaches you resilience, self-knowledge, and how to be understanding of yourself and of others in times of difficulty. In its best form, it teaches us that, while we are each responsible for ourselves as individuals, we are also members of a larger human community, and we have responsibilities to one another as well. The mutual support of mentoring reminds us of these broader connections to one another.

An AHA moment.

After attending Bill Cronon’s presidential address on “Storytelling” at the American Historical Association conference a couple of weeks ago, I decided it would be worth my while to go back and read all his presidential columns from the newsletter in 2012. I’m posting links to them here for anyone else who wishes to do the same.

The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age (January 2012)
Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World (February 2012)
Professional Boredom (March 2012)
Loving History (April 2012)
Breaking Apart, Putting Together (May 2012)
Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History (September 2012)
How Long Will People Read History Books? (October 2012)
Recollecting My Library… and My Self (November 2012)
And Gladly Teach (December 2012)

More to come on storytelling, public history, digital humanities, the future of the long-form narrative, and a host of ideas that are swimming around in my head in the wake of the meeting.

[ADDENDUM: As soon as I had posted this, I was perusing Bill’s web site and noticed that, of course, he has all his columns collected there as well. The AHA has links to ’em up too, they’re just at the bottom of a very long page of presidential addresses going back to Andrew Dickson White.]

Why you should LaTeX your dissertation; or, why you don’t have to write your dissertation in Word.

If given the choice, I choose not to use Microsoft Word. My experience with the program over many decades now has been that, despite its almost complete dominance of the word-processing sphere, Word is a program that does not handle long-form scholarly writing well. It is, like its kin in the MS Office Suite family, a program designed with businesspeople in mind: people writing letters and reports, making presentations, processing financial data, and communicating within a rather narrow band of kinds of documents. While this is all well and good, and probably covers a significant proportion of the electronic documents out there, it has not met my needs as a reliable program for typesetting long papers, dealing with footnotes and bibliographic information, handling images, captions, tables, and cross-references, and doing this all in a flexible, intelligent, and, not least of all, aesthetically pleasing manner.

Most importantly, I hate wrangling with software that I am forced to use not because it is designed for what I am doing or is the best fit for my needs, but because it enjoys an inexplicably huge market share, and, also presumably, because people in the humanities are not, by and large, writing their own software to meet their needs. I watched many colleagues in graduate school pulling their hair out towards the end of their Ph.D.s because Word would continually crash while they were putting the finishing touches on a 60-page chapter, or as they tried to generate a table of contents, or when they finally were attempting to put all their completed chapters into one long document. I myself had moved away from Word before I began my postgrad; all of this, plus my continual frustration with Word while working a job, convinced me that I would only use it to typeset my dissertation if I absolutely had to.

Fortunately, one of the best and most useful things I learned in college was a markup language called LaTeX. LaTeX and its variants were designed with the needs of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers in mind — TeX is particularly excellent at handling mathematical expressions, equations, tables, figures, and the like — and was pretty much the unofficial standard mode of typesetting at MIT. Every problem set I ever received during my undergraduate years had been formatted in TeX (or a variant thereof), and, like pretty much anyone with some exposure to the hard sciences, I quickly began to be able to recognize TeXed documents when I encountered them. (The default Computer Modern font is the first dead giveaway; although TeX is highly customizable in the fonts department; read on.)

And, like many MIT undergrads (at least in the nineties), I learned to use LaTeX to typeset my own documents: at first particularly term papers, because of the powerful bibliographic-handling powers of its counterpart, BibTeX, but also letters, meeting agendas and lists, short writing assignments, and, eventually, my resume. Like HTML, TeX is a markup language that gives instructions for how to format text; it’s not coding per se, but style-guiding. It is incredibly powerful, highly customizable, pretty easy to get the hang of in its most basic form, and unsurpassed in creating documents of beauty and simplicity.

Over the years, I have tried to convince other humanists who may never have encountered LaTeX that they should consider learning it; and I have rejoiced when I have run across others in history and allied fields who also use TeX to do their writing and typesetting. (Philologists, linguists, and people who deal with a lot of non-Roman alphabets tend to be familiar with LaTeX. And, of course, apostate scientists and engineers like me and a few of my colleagues.) This post is an attempt to enumerate as well as understand in greater depth my reasons for doing my own work in LaTeX, and to perhaps convince others that learning an unfamiliar markup language is worth their while. In the process, I also want to consider some of the benefits and challenges of using TeX typesetting in the humanities, and discuss why it is that more of my colleagues in history remain unfamiliar with it, despite its enormous strengths for anyone working on long manuscripts with lots of complex bibliographic information.

Why LaTeX?

There are a host of reasons — technical, aesthetic, psychological, educational, and practical — for choosing LaTeX as your typesetting environment. Here are my main justifications for why I have chosen and stuck with TeX, and why I think it’s worth considering, even if you’ve never heard of such a thing before.

LaTeX is Open Source.

Because LaTeX is an open-source means of typesetting, it is both free to you, and supported by a vibrant community of users who are constantly improving and adding to its functionality. You do not have to buy LaTeX, or any programs associated with it. This is particularly good news for graduate students: no more having to shell out tons of money to Microsoft just to write your seminar papers, for LaTeX is free. It works on all the major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, Unix/Linux), and, what is more, has very user-friendly standard installs of the TeX distribution for each of these environments. I run TeXLive on MacOS. If you’re working in Windows, you’ll probably want to get a perl interpreter (why perl does not come packaged with Windows is completely beyond me!); beyond that, a standard Windows install and package manager like MikTeX is all you’ll need.

The TeX user community at tug.org and beyond is an incredible resource as well. When you run into problems — and you will — you will almost always be able to solve them with a quick web search for your issue and a perusal of the bulletin boards and blogs devoted to LaTeX and fixing common problems. Chances are, someone else has run into the same problem you are having, and has posted how to solve it, or had their question answered by an expert on a message board. There is no LaTeX problem I have ever run into that I couldn’t solve in pretty short order by consulting the web. I have never even had to create a new posting about an issue — everything has always been solved before me, or I have found enough guidance out there to solve the problem myself.

LaTeX is designed for scholarly writing, and handles everything you can throw at it intelligently and with aplomb.

Whether you are producing a cover letter, a C.V., an article, a manual, a seminar paper, a dissertation, a book manuscript, or just about anything else you can think of, LaTeX has a package or a style for it. It is the original “there’s an app for that.” Need to change your style of page numbering midway through a document, or reset a counter for figures, notes, or pages? Easy. Want to play around with how all your headings are displayed? No problem. Want to product an incredibly long and complicated document with chapters, headings and subheadings, a title page, hundreds of footnotes, a bibliography, a list of archives consulted, a table of contents, and more? LaTeX was born to do it. As the woman who did the prechecks on my dissertation at the UW grad school said to me, “There’s nothing LaTeX can’t do.” “I agree!” I responded, knowing at that moment that everything was going to be just fine.

It is true: LaTeX has been able to handle everything I have thrown at it, and to do it in an elegant fashion, both technically and aesthetically. What is more, each time I have tried to do something new, I have learned something useful, enjoyed the process of figuring it out, and felt extremely proud of the results. Contrast this with how you tend to feel when you’re trying to get Word to stop forcing a page break when all the white space says it shouldn’t, or something else particularly frustrating that you’ve encountered in your tangles with that program. No contest there.

LaTeX allows you to write from your sources, and build highly modular documents.

When you’re working on a writing project that’s more than a couple of pages, you usually have bits and scraps that you want to hang on to, but that you’re not sure you want to appear in the final version. When you work in a word processor like Word, you usually have to cut and paste these onto a separate page at the end of the document, or into a new document altogether. This can be a huge pain in the butt, since it usually means scrolling around to different parts of your document, or switching back and forth between two documents, to find and grab the thoughts, ideas, notes, or other structuring information that you’re using as a writer, but which shouldn’t appear in the version the reader sees.

Separating editing and processing through a program like LaTeX means you can hang on to your work in the raw source, but have it not display in the typeset output. You can simply comment out the words by placing a “%” at the beginning of the line, sentence, paragraph, quotation, or note-to-self you don’t want to reader to see, and POOF! it’s gone, visible only to you as the source editor. This allows you to write in an incredibly modular way if you so desire, moving things around, commenting them out or putting them back in as your project evolves and as the argument demands. Everything is in one place: no more “excerpts” or “notes” files lying around, muddying the waters. It’s all in the source, ready to be brought to light.

This is particularly useful as a writing aid, especially when I am starting a new piece of writing. Often, I like to get all my quotes and sources in one place, and use them to build my argument. But, as I’m writing, I want to see how everything is displaying, and how long the finished document is, without those quotes and sources being included in the word or page count. If you input all your quotes and evidence, and comment it out, you can write around your sources and then add them in as you decide which ones are best for your argument. No more searching around for that quotation — it’s right there!

The ability to comment out parts of your source document is also quite useful when you’re playing with formatting. It means you can save one setting that you like on a commented-out line, replacing it with a line that calls for a different kind of formatting, but which you could always toggle-off and toggle back on if you want to switch back to the way it was before. Handy for the document preamble, especially if you write good comments about what each different setting will do.

The separation of editing and processing is also good if you want to collaborate on documents using a versioning control system. Google Docs can do this to some extent, but there’s nothing like a good old reliable CVS for really making sure that you’re not overwriting someone else’s work. Of course, the chances of finding someone in the humanities who knows what the heck I’m taking about here is so small that this point is pretty unimportant in the whole scheme of things. Still. It’s the truth.

BibTeX is the most powerful, customizable, and robust bibliographic management tool out there.

Probably the main reason I have stuck with LaTeX throughout graduate school, despite at least one professor’s complaints about not being able to “track changes” in a Word document to give me feedback, is not LaTeX itself, but its allied bibliographic management protocol, BibTeX. I have used many kinds of bibliographic software that are standard in academia — EndNote, RefWorks, and the honestly pretty awesome Zotero — but I have yet to find one that would make me switch from BibTeX. BibTeX is incredibly robust and flexible, handles cross-references and other complicated aspects of your database queries impeccably, and integrates seamlessly with LaTeX. It has at least one great GUI frontend, BibDesk, and the option of letting you really fool around in the raw DB text if you so desire. What should convince historians that LaTeX/BibTeX is for them is actually a slightly newer implementation of BibTeX called biblatex and its counterpart engine biber, particularly the historian style, which hews to Chicago/Turabian and — the thing I’ve not found in any other bibliography management system — handles archival sources absolutely perfectly. You can generate bibliographies that automatically separate unpublished and published sources, that generate a list of archival abbreviations for your reader, and that exclude certain types of sources you might not want to appear in your final list of references. Its power is unmatched in my experience, and it was completely critical in making my footnotes and bibliography a relative breeze when it came down to the wire.

LaTeX is a thing of beauty, and produces things of beauty.

Using LaTeX is an aesthetic experience on two levels. It is an elegant program in its design, implementation, and functionality; and the documents it produces are themselves extremely aesthetically pleasing. If you care about fonts, kerning, and proper text handling, LaTeX is definitely for you. But LaTeX is also for you if you like your software to work reliably and intelligently. It is not bloated or over-engineered. It is infinitely customizable with packages, styles, fonts, and other add-ons. It works beautifully; and when it doesn’t work, you as a user are able to fix it.

The difference again stems from the separation of editing and processing. Word is processing your text on the fly as you edit: it can’t see the whole you imagine, and it is making its adjustments based on the immediate surroundings, and what it can imagine you want to do is limited by that (hence its often hideous output). Because in LaTeX you edit your text, then process it, the compiler has a look at everything before it decides how it’s going to lay everything out. As a result, its “instincts” about how to format text, images, references, notes, and everything else are usually more correct (or better designed) than Word’s, which are situational, rather than holistic.

Why not Word?

My reasons for sticking to LaTeX have almost as much to do with my dissatisfactions with Word as they do the joys of working to master LaTeX. This is not to say that I will never use Word, or that I don’t know how to do all the things I’ve described above using Word — Word can do them, and will, albeit in an incredibly glitchy and frustrating way which drives me bonkers — it’s just that, if given the choice, I prefer to work in a typesetting environment that makes me feel like I am mastering something useful and well designed, rather than banging my head against a wall repeatedly for little reward. Does this sound familiar to you? It doesn’t have to be that way.

You are not a cubicle drone: you have a choice in how you typeset your work, and you can choose to use software that was designed for you, rather than without your needs in mind.

My main complaint about Word is that it’s a program designed almost entirely for business people: writers of reports, memoranda, letters, and other short-form documents that do not require the kind of complicated typesetting that scholarly writing consistently demands. And when you work in Word, you feel this constantly: this program was not designed for me and my needs. It makes you feel like you’re at war with your software, constantly trying to force it to do things they way you want it to, and constantly being stymied by its endless layers of supposedly helpful settings that put abstraction barrier after abstraction barrier between you and your work. It is technically true that Word can do all the stuff we as historians want it to do; but I ask you, does it do all of this smoothly, uncomplainingly, and with minimal frustration to you? If your experience has been anything like mine, the answer is a resounding “no.” Oh, you want that text to flow around this image in a sensible manner? Oh, you’d like me to position this page break in a place that doesn’t create enormous amounts of white space? Oh, you’d like to play with your styles and formatting without screwing up the whole document? Sorry, that will cost you several hours of annoyance. Please, read on.

When you work in LaTeX, you are working in an environment that was designed with the needs of scholars in mind. Once you get the hang of TeX, you will understand just how poor a fit Word is for the kind of work you do. You will realize that you can do more, more easily, more robustly, more powerfully, and with a smaller kilobyte footprint than you could possibly do in Word. And when things break, you’ll learn how to fix them.

Wrangling with LaTeX is more rewarding than wrangling with Word.

Okay, I’ve been painting TeX as this masterpiece, when the reality is that nothing is perfect: you will definitely experience frustrations with LaTeX, just as you will with any software. (I promise you that at some point you will have a serious breakdown over margins or document layout, something you think about almost never in Word.) But I want to suggest that your experiences wrangling with LaTeX to get something to display the way you want it to will be rewarding to you in ways that they can never be in Word. (And I promise you also that you will solve your margin problem, possibly with something as simple as a quick web search or a helpful message-board posting or, more involvedly, learning a bit about a new package, and you will feel so good about having done so that you will take yourself out for ice cream thereafter and try to explain to your friends why you’re so happy. Finally, I promise you that they will think you are insane.)

As I’ve been writing this post, wanting to make this argument about the comparative rewards of troubleshooting in TeX versus Word, I have been asking myself, is this really true? Don’t you learn things when you figure out how to do something in Word too? Aren’t those tricks useful later on? To be sure, the more you use any software or tool, the more familiar you are with its workings, and the better you get at bending them to your will as a user. You asymptotically approach mastery. This happens in Word, just as it does in LaTeX.

The difference is something I haven’t been able to articulate well thus far, partly because I don’t want to simply fall back on an argument that is in form equivalent to “it’s better to know how your car works at least on some level than to treat it as a black box.” (I believe this, but I’m not sure it’s sufficient, and I don’t think everyone feels this way.) But it has something to do with the level at which you’re interacting with the program: in the case of Word, the surface, where what is possible is limited by what the software designers imagined you might want to do, and is therefore premised on assumptions about who users are, which I think is pretty clear (businesspeople, admin assistants, writers of reports and memos). When you work in LaTeX, you are working more on the inside of things, and what you can change and modify to meet your needs is enlarged. More options are open to you because you participate in the design of the program, in a way.

I’m still not satisfied with this answer, and I hope commenters will help me sort out what I am trying to get at here; but I will say this: When I get something to work in Word, I feel frustration at the existence of the problem, anger and my inability to find out what is causing it, exhaustion with my inability to solve it elegantly, boredom at my attempts to work around it, and relief when it’s finally sorted. When I get something to work in LaTeX, I feel confusion, a desire to know what’s happening, interest and a desire to solve the problem, enlarged knowledge once I’ve figured it out, and pride in my resulting handiwork. Two very different experiences. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Why not LaTeX?

To be fair, there are plenty of arguments for not journeying too far down the rabbit hole. The first and most important one is publication: I have not thus far run across a major journal in my field that proclaims on its web site that it will accept manuscripts in TeX. I find this a bit sad, since many journals in the sciences expect to receive documents in LaTeX, and provide TeX stylesheets or templates for those submitting manuscripts, which I think would make the whole process easier for everyone, not least of all the editors and typesetters at those journals. But I have the sinking feeling that most history journals would be a bit befuddled, or annoyed, if I tried to get them to accept my TeX source. There are some okay LaTeX-to-RTF converters, but it is true that this is one major problem that stands in the way of wider adoption of TeX outside the sciences. The DOC’s dominance in the humanities remains unchallenged, and individuals are not going to do it. This is a big structural roadblock that should be an enormous caveat for people considering following my advice in the above paragraphs, and I won’t try to deny its importance.

Alongside the issue of publication is that of collaboration: as I am embarking on a couple of article projects with colleagues, I am realizing that a lot of time with Word is in my future. That’s okay — articles are short, and Word can handle them pretty well — but there’s a nerdy part of me that wishes I could just collaborate with people using a versioning system and the raw TeX source. That is a dream that will certainly remain unfulfilled.

There are other obvious reasons not to move to LaTeX as well: having to learn a markup language that most people in the field have never encountered, working in a text-based environment rather than a GUI (although people who like to work WYSIWYG should consider LyX), having a steep learning curve before you become comfortable with the vagaries of LaTeX, and having people complain when you don’t send them DOCs to track changes on. But, despite these cons, I remain convinced that, for scholars working on large complex manuscripts, LaTeX really is the gold standard.

I harbor no illusions about this, though: the pressures to hew to Word are enormous, and the rewards of doing work in LaTeX are largely personal rather than social. No one in the humanities will pat you on the back for TeXing your dissertation, and there aren’t any prizes to be had for “best TeX source” or “most beautiful manuscript.” (It’s too bad — that’s an award I could really compete for in my field.) Your labors will be largely invisible to your colleagues, and only your friends in the sciences or from back in college will look at the finished product as a masterpiece of markup as well as of scholarship. You will have to be content with the knowledge that you really did a good job, and the satisfaction that comes from that job well done. (And you may impress some scientists down the road at some point. If you tell them, they will be impressed.)

I also will say that I do not think that TeX is good for everything. But what it is good for — typesetting complex and/or lengthy manuscripts, dealing with references, notes, and counters, and other allied challenges of word processing — it really is best for, I think. Even just knowing such things are possible and out there should be enough to get any scholar who works in Word to ask herself whether she really is working in the best possible way.

The rewards of making something.

For me, in the end, the issue comes down to temperament and disposition. I enjoy the challenge of solving a problem when I know that doing so will teach me something that I will use in the future. I also enjoy feeling like the products of my labors are just that, not solely in terms of their intellectual content, but in terms of how they are presented, formatted, and laid out. I want to produce something I can be proud of as both a work of scholarship and a work of the printed word. LaTeX allows me to do that all the time; with Word, those rewards are harder-won.

If you do not garner any satisfaction from making something from scratch, from tinkering and getting something right, from learning a bit about what’s going on inside the black box of your word-processing, LaTeX is probably not for you. But if you like to do things right, and elegantly, and beautifully; if it matters to you how your document is produced; if you take a certain amount of perhaps unspoken pride in the process of crafting your document alongside your words; then you should consider learning LaTeX. It’s one of the most valuable skills I have ever taught myself, and it involves me in a continuous process of learning and developing those skills while I practice my scholarship. Doing the two together is enormously rewarding for me, and I hope others find reasons to do so as well. (I know that I am not alone here!) I hope that this post at the very least opens more people’s eyes to the options that are available to them, so that they do not assume that they have to do everything in Word if they’d prefer not to. Perhaps most importantly, the more humanists who use LaTeX, the more and better tools there will be for us to do our work well.

History on the move and in place.

One of the great joys of train travel (something I’ve been doing a lot of lately, given my location on a major stop of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Service) is the opportunity to catch up on small pleasures I don’t have the chance to indulge in most of the rest of the time in my busy life. The long stretch of time, in a library-type atmosphere, with a constantly changing view out the window, is a wonderful gift, as a recent Sunday Review piece pointed out, one which devotees of the quiet car guard quite fiercely.

I have a list of things that I tend to do on my train trips, but it usually consists of a mix of reading, breaking for a meal of food I’ve brought along, crocheting, writing, doing work that doesn’t require reliable internet service, and gazing out the window, thinking about the landscape and the industrial history of the Eastern Seaboard. My recent trip to Boston was the first time I had traveled the length of the corridor in many years, and the combination of crumbling heavy industry and breathtaking coastal scenery was inspiring.

What made the trip particularly memorable, apart from the late afternoon sun hitting the bays and estuaries of the Connecticut coast in blazes of orange and pink, was listening to one of the best bits of radio I’ve heard in a very long time, in the form of a podcast of this recent episode of This American Life, about the U.S.-Dakota war, whose denouement was the hanging of 38 Dakota tribesmen in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862. The episode, narrated and assembled by John Biewen of the amazing Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, turns personal histories into national ones. Biewen follows the lives of two people to recover the largely unspoken story of a bloody conflict between white settlers and Dakota Sioux that took place around the time of the Civil War: his own journey back to his hometown of Mankato, to understand why no one ever spoke of the event when he was growing up; and that of Gwen Westerman, a Dakota woman and English professor at MSU-Mankato, whose career path brought her back to the site of a tragedy she, too, had hardly known about. Biewen establishes these two individual stories of discovery and connection to place as the warp that anchors his narrative, allowing him to combine historical research and interviews with experts into a compelling narrative that grapples with questions of history and memory at the personal and group levels. He does an amazing job of telling a very complicated historical tale full of scholarly rigor in a way that is tremendously engaging, moving, and thought-provoking. What exactly happened in Mankato in the mid-19th century? Who were involved? Why is it that, despite the fact that the names of these individuals are inscribed across the landscape of his upbringing, he never learned of the event as a youngster? The place-basedness of his two central stories gives them enormous power, for what landscapes move us more than those of our youth?

Elsewhere I have commented on narrative style and its relationship to how we, as scholars and members of the public, approach works of popular history broadly construed. Biewen’s program seems to me to be another tick in the box for using personal histories to enrich and illuminate broader historical issues — even very thorny ones dealing with such explosive subjects as the conquest, extermination, and displacement of Native American tribes. Biewen proves that facing up to the troubling events in our history is where the really interesting stuff happens, not in reifying triumphalist narratives or ignoring unpleasant episodes. When we complicate the story, we get closer to the heart of things; and people are complicated, so when those personal connections are there, we as listeners can more readily come along for the ride, and become open to unconventional accounts of our past.

This has been a subject I’ve been contemplating a lot recently, as I spend time among staff at the National Museum of American History, who use individual objects and the stories of their owners to open up larger stories in our nation’s past. One exhibit at the museum (currently in a wing under renovation) uses one house to tell a multi-generational story about home life in the U.S. over three centuries. The house is the constant character, but the visitor gets to follow the stories of several families along the way. There are things both familiar and foreign, surprising and reassuring. It is, on a smaller and far less controversial scale, the same experience that makes the Mankato episode so thrilling: this is something I understand from my own experience and which I recognize; this is something that shocks me and that makes me question the things I thought I knew. It is, in short, the true pleasure of history, of getting to know the past as both a familiar territory and a foreign country. “Little War on the Prairie” proves that this can be done in ways that are at once rigorously historical, personally captivating, and enormously moving and thought-provoking. And beautiful. Please go listen. In a year marked by more conventional anniversaries — the Morrill Act, the creation of the USDA — this sesquicentennial is important to remember also, for, indeed, they are so very closely linked, and the U.S.-Dakota War should remind us of a less attractive side of these national achievements.

Quiet, almost.

I keep coming up with small things to say. It is dark here, very, but the lights are still on, for now at least. There is a sound like rustling pages outside, and the intermittent tapping of rain as gusts pick it up and hurl it at the windows and walls. I imagine what it would be like under the roof in Maine (deafening, scary) and wonder why I should feel any safer here with drywall between me and the water (I do). With fingers of wind lashing through the weatherstripping, it almost feels like Maine. The house still breathes. The heat switches on, the air through the vent erasing the sounds of rain with rushing white noise. Candles have appeared on several of the tables, reminding me that there is still a long way to go.

LaTeXed and lovely.

Well, I’ve now sent a draft of the whole dissertation off to my committee. I spent a goodly portion of the last couple of days before the deadline learning TeX stuff I have never had the pleasure of applying before: making more complex title pages, compiling tables of contents, resetting footnote and page counters, and using the \chapter{} heading. (This page on document structure has been particularly useful.) Things are looking beautiful, of course. Maybe now I will do some optional awesomeness like generating a list of figures. LaTeX, I love you.

Now comes the real drudgery: edits, revisions, fixing notes and citations, and learning more of the biblatex and biblatex-historian customizations that will allow me to format the bibliography in proper historian format, with archival collections separated out, and with appropriate abbreviations for those collections in the notes themselves. But it will be good to read the whole thing through from beginning to end once or twice. I did enjoy writing it most of the time, so reading it should be interesting as well.

Defense in two weeks. It’s the final countdown. Wish me luck!

The final push.

Just finished work on the last chapter of my dissertation. Now it’s time to print everything out and figure out what this whole thing is all about so I can write the intro and conclusion! Good times.