New! Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia article

I’m pleased to share an article I recently wrote for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia on the history of civil defense in the Delaware Valley. Read more here.

Adlai Stevenson’s Nuclear Test Ban Campaign

A few weeks ago, the Reel Mudd, Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library’s media blog, published a piece I wrote about a recently-digitized campaign film. The 1956 film is a product of Adlai Stevenson’s second bid for the presidency, in which he took a firm – and then unpopular – stand against nuclear weapons testing. Click on over to the Reel Mudd to check it out!

Teaching While Human

This morning, my dear friend Melanie Newport posted a blog article by PrawfsBlog author Mehrsa Baradaran that touches on something I’ve been committing Deep Thoughts to over the past few years: the intersection of identity, experience, and authority in the university classroom. 

Full disclosure: I have been away from teaching for almost a year now, since beginning my time at the Smithsonian. However, even among my museum colleagues, our conversations frequently turn toward the college classroom. One thing that unites us across age, sex, background, and discipline, it seems, is that the first few semesters of being an instructor are hard. Beyond that, every new instructor faces a unique set of challenges related to specific circumstances: course content, class size, workload expectations, and of course, identity politics. 

Are you male or female? Are you a person of color? Are you short or tall? But also: Do you have an accent? Are you good at projecting and enunciating? How do you dress? Do you have visible tattoos or piercings? Do you wear your long hair tied back? Do you go by Ms. Robey, Sarah, or Professor?

When I first became a recitation instructor – 3 groups of 30 students, each taught for an hour at a time, once a week – I was acutely aware of how I appeared to my students. At the ripe age of 23, more than a few of my students were my age or older. I dressed conservatively, I consciously avoided slang in my speech, I made detailed and structured lesson plans, and I tried to rule with an iron fist. It didn’t work. I struggled to maintain control of the classes, and for the life of me, I could not facilitate meaningful discussion.

Things have gotten better since then. Among other things, I’ve gotten good at waiting for answers when no one volunteers at first. I meet my students half way and mix up classroom activities. Most of my students address me respectfully. But I still cringe when my evaluations reveal that a student loved my “trendy outfits,”* or that another student noticed that I never put my coffee mug down while lecturing (both of which actually happened). Yes, I can control these behaviors, but should I change them? I certainly don’t like that they attract attention – even when I don’t suspect it was at the detriment of the students’ learning experience.

While I do not necessarily agree with post’s author on all points (law school courses are sometimes a different ballgame), she raises a number of strong points about what you can control in the classroom and what you cannot. Moreover, as Melanie pointed out, the article spurred an unusually productive, respectful, and civilized debate in the comments section. Or at least it was still civilized at the time of this post.

One point that perhaps should be addressed more frankly is the lack of formal (or informal) mentoring in higher education instruction. I make this claim based exclusively on anecdotal evidence among my cohort of graduate students and new faculty, but it deserves to be said. Many new instructors experience trial by fire in the classroom. A few of us have had encouraging, committed teaching mentors, but many more of us have not. Perhaps learning by doing is a model worth using, but the stress of those first few semesters takes a lot of the sweetness and fulfillment out of being an educator.

As departments rely more and more on graduate, adjunct, or “gradjunct” instructors, I suspect it is wishful thinking that we place a higher premium on teaching graduate students how to be teachers?

Anyway, the article is worth a read for new instructors, old instructors, mentors, mentees, and maybe even some undergrads.

*If being a walking ad for LOFT is “trendy,” I am set for the rest of forever!


Within an hour of posting this, another colleague of mine linked me to this article about what to call your instructor. The conversation continues…

Running This Town

A few years ago I stumbled across a brief newsletter blurb written by my then-professor, Lila Corwin Berman, about adjusting to a new place by running through/in/around it. Back then, I was a begrudging 10k-er who definitely wasn’t in it for the scenery. My joie de running has changed much since then,* but something about Lila’s post stuck with me.

Running really has been a really great way of learning Washington. I’m not talking about the 4-mile Mall loop or the Tidal Basin loop. I did those back when I lived here in 2008. They’re great and all, but downtown is where Washingtonians go to promenade-run. Fancy tech everything, 6-minute-mile guys sprinting around on their lunch hour, makeup and designer sunglasses. You know. Those people. Not exactly my crowd.

Instead, I roam around upper Northwest DC, playing fun mental games such as:

  • How Many Times Can I Cross the MD/DC Border in One Run? (at least 6)
  • Maybe I’ll Be Able to See the White House Over the Next Hill (the answer forever, always is No. Ugh.)
  • My current favorite, How Many Embassies Will I Pass? (today’s answer: 3. Sub-Saharan Africa is pretty well represented up here)
  • Or, of course, the perennial question asked of me: How Much Daylight Do I Require to Run in Rock Creek Park? (answer: all of the daylight + a whistle and, depending on who you ask, a can of mace and/or a large dog)

All this I do at roughly 10 minutes per mile. Laughing all the way when I am making my way up a hill on 16th Street faster than the cars sitting in rush hour traffic.

Last summer I spent a lot of time on the road for research. As anyone who has traveled to archives can tell you, the evenings can be a bit grim. Contrary to what your family/roommates/cats might think, you’re definitely not on vacation. Instead, you’ve spent 8-10 hours in a freezing cold room, hunched over slowly-decaying paper, furiously working through a mountain of boxes. When finally you emerge at the end of the day, the sunlight kind of burns (assuming there is any daylight left). The simple act of deciding what to eat for dinner can be a monumental challenge,** and all you have to look forward to is an exhilarating evening of hotel television. This level of brain-mush can be great, however, because I typically don’t have the capacity to reason my way out of going for a run. A run tends to be just the right amount of mind reset, and as an added bonus, it makes me feel like maybe I might manage to die less quickly in the process.

Some of my favorite moments this summer were trail runs in Kansas and Maryland, a run through rural Wisconsin (after gobbling up a good portion of one of these), and really fantastic downtown runs in Kansas City, Missouri, Madison, Wisconsin, and Portland, Maine. Seeing a place from a pedestrian vantage point gives you a feel for the residents, the geography, the local businesses, and other hidden gems. It lets you be a tourist without blowing your research budget or thinking too hard about sightseeing. And, although I hate to put down my home town, runners from just about everywhere are friendlier than runners in Philadelphia. Call me a Midwesterner, but all I’m asking for is a nod in response as I wheeze “hi” to a comrade at some ungodly hour in ungodly weather. Philadelphians are jerks.

On that note, I’m going to go eat some cookies.

*For one of the best, most twisted overviews of the inner psyche of distance runners, please see this wonderful series from The Oatmeal. I relate to this on an embarrassing number of levels. Just add running in stupidly cold weather just because you can to the list. I am not proud of the fact that I was majorly disappointed that I couldn’t wear my brand new merino base layer today (my only Black Friday purchase).

**True story: dinner in Abilene, Kansas one night consisted of a fries and a root beer float from Sonic. In my defense, Abilene doesn’t have a ton of options. On the other hand, ugh.

A (Classical?) Revival

Well. Much has changed since abandoning this blog project back in January. The typical lame excuses apply: graduate school is hard, writing is hard, sitting in front of a computer is hard. But the truth is that I’ve never had much success as a consistent blogger. I tend to have an idea for a great blog post every few days, and sometimes I even jot down a few quick notes on my phone to remind me later. I have a lot of unread notes.

All that aside, there’s no time like the present. I am currently living in Washington, D.C. as a predoctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History. It’s a sweet gig in a sweet town.

I have lived in Washington before, but I feel like I am living and breathing much more of city than I did back in 2008. For one thing, I work at the Smithsonian and I have a fancy badge. But also: my lunch breaks involve walks up and down the National Mall. Happy hour means hanging out with a crowd of veteran historians. I nerd out about behind-the-scenes tours at the Library of Congress. I ride Metro with Hill staffers, whom I both envy and pity. In a pretty short time, I have become deeply invested in city politics. I get lost on foot (intentionally) downtown just to see what turns up. I have run out of business cards at least twice.

Everyone says that this place eventually loses its luster. That may be so. But for now, D.C. has taught me the benefits of leaving my personal and professional comfort zone. Moreover, it’s the kind of town that demands engagement. It makes you think, and it makes you want to be engaged. There is big work to be done in D.C., and I am pretty lucky to be part of it for a fleeting moment.

As I finish up my fellowship, I hope to share some of that world.

You know when you’ve been living in the big city too long…

… when you are blown away that there is a perk to hitting a deer with your vehicle: keeping the meat.

Blown away. It’s almost as if I didn’t grow up in the Midwest.

By the way, I did not hit a deer. But I’m sure you all will be relieved that my new auto insurance policy covers my future deer-killing. And then there will be venison stew for all!

Day 12: Reality, PA

Wow. Today was… a very heavy dose of back-to-reality. Let’s just say that almost a month away from home makes for a very busy first day back in town. I did manage to get some important school stuff done today in addition to restocking the fridge, etc.,  but I’m pooped.

In any event, the site got a face-lift tonight to facilitate better photo-viewing. While I’m not totally satisfied with it yet, I’ve put together a bunch of my favorite photos from the trip below. The Southwest is pretty over-represented, but I’m not sure the rest of the country can compete. Now that I’m back to working on my big iMac, I’m realizing I should have been cleaning my lenses more frequently – it’s killing me that so many of these sky shots have big ol’ blobs floating around. Oh well. Enjoy!

Day 11: Philadelphia, PA(!!!)

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Home. Home home home.

Opened mail, started laundry, paid bills, snuggled cats. About to crawl into bed and sleep for a few days.

Today was both exciting and tedious. We drove from West Virginia through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, making stops all over northern Maryland to revisit old Robey haunts. Between a failed attempt at visiting Cunningham Falls, stopping for lunch in Cozy Village of Camp David fame, doing a drive-by of my family’s old house in Woodsboro, dropping in to see my very first babysitter (hi, Kim!), getting slightly lost on the way back to I-83, and hitting the usual stupidity on the Schuylkill Expressway, today was long. It was really great to see that part of the world and (mostly) fun to hear about all my mom’s old memories of the area, but I wanted to get home so badly. Whether it was just that the end of the trip was finally in sight or that I had finally reached my threshold for number of days in the car, I’m not sure. Either way, today’s 7+ hours of driving seemed longer.

That being said, home is great. It has been an exciting 11 days, but I’m happy to be back.

See you tomorrow for a trip summary and photos!

Day 10: Are We There Yet?, WV

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Hi all – we’re almost there! Tonight we are in Bridgeport, West Virginia.

We had a very long day of driving today. I was going to cop out with a photos-only post, but the web connection here is just a bit too weak and unreliable to get anything from my DSLR onto the site.

That being said, West Virginia did not disappoint today. As my mom puts it, every once in a while I insist on pulling off the highway to see some of the country. Today’s excursion took us to the New River Gorge National River (hey, new stamps in my passport!), and through a series of small towns along the Kanawha River south of Charleston. This was serious coal country, and not in the bombed-out style of so many of Pennsylvania’s former coal regions. Mists rising from the river gave everything an eerie, disembodied feel, but the conveyor belts hummed down from the mountains, train cars moved alongside the road, and lights glowed from the riverside plants. In the moments where I could put my environmental politics aside, the scenes were quite striking. The river towns these plants supported were thriving – tiny but full of life.

These moments have made the trip worth it, even when we are just driving through.

We should be back in Philadelphia tomorrow night and I am getting antsy. I haven’t been back home since December 20th, and it’s time to get back to normal.* Tomorrow, we’ll be heading through Maryland until Hagerstown and then up into Pennsylvania. See you tomorrow, Philadelphia!


*Furthermore, I am getting reports of mutiny on the home front – I think my cats are testing Nate and Brenden’s patience. Thanks, you guys, for being such life-savers!

Day 9: “Car Trouble,” TN

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Hi again, this time from Knoxville!

Here’s an abbreviated version of today’s events:

  • Torrential rain in Memphis – the longest driving hour of my life. More agreeable weather followed us for the rest of the day.
  • Cracker Barrel employee asking me if I would like to try a bacon vinaigrette on my salad that already involved bacon – declined, but tempting.
  • Impromptu wine tasting in Baxter, TN – sweet, but actually pretty decent. Between this and the December Sonoma trip, it brings the total bottles of wine being trucked back to Philadelphia (and carried into the hotel each night) to five. Don’t tell the PLCB.
  • Confluence of the Tennessee and Clinch Rivers at Fort Southwest Point, viewed from atop a bluff – one of the more underwhelming parts of this trip (sorry, Kingston).
  • Automobile Crisis 2013 – check engine light + fluid leaking under the car + 8:45pm trip to Autozone = loose gas cap + defroster condensation. So much shame.
  • Fellowship applications on the road – really, really hate word counts. Really, really love this lap desk the Best Western provides in their hotel rooms.

Onward to West Virginia! May they have wine, too.