Well, that just sounds dumb…

Hi. My name is Rebecca Gale and I like to study old scrapbooks.

I’m pretty embarrassed about that…I feel self-conscious every time I have to bring it up. But I can’t seem to let go of my desire to look at these musty collections of random crap that I once described as “compressed trash bins.” They’re so strange and personal and cryptic and beautiful. They tell stories of people who didn’t get to invent gunpowder or write a best-selling novel or marry someone famous.

I love untangling those stories from the web of junk pasted onto crumbling paper and literally letting them see the light of day again. I love the sense of fulfillment that comes from giving voice to someone who has been overlooked. I love the fun discoveries that come when you open an envelope and find a love affair or a half-eaten cookie, the layers and layers of meaning, the little mysteries that will never be solved.

Beyond that, I think a little part of me is afraid that I’ll never make it into the history textbooks either, so I like to think maybe one day someone will open up the acid free archival boxes containing my own carefully constructed creations and give them a second glance. I like the thought of giving forgotten people a second life, a chance for their stories and secrets to see the light of day. Because I, too, one day will probably just be a box collecting dust on the shelf of some historical society shelf (if I’m lucky enough to even end up there.)

I know my reasons for loving scrapbooks are legitimate. I firmly believe deep down that they are treasure troves of historical knowledge worthy of attention and study. But I’m still embarrassed to admit I like researching something as girly, messy, silly and sentimental as scrapbooks, something associated with $7.99/pack Martha Stewart stickers, middle-aged moms, and glitter. Even using the term “research” to refer to them seems like a stretch. When I try to describe why I think they’re important to other people, I just get bashful and tongue-tied.

I was talking recently with my professor about how easy it is to feel insecure as a student. This summer, I participated in a fellowship program, learning about material culture studies, something I’m passionate about, but quickly realized I knew much less about than I thought. I spent a lot of the summer grappling with self-doubt, feeling dumb because I gave a wrong answer in a seminar or frustrated because I didn’t speak up when I did know the answer. I felt inferior to my colleagues who had a much more extensive knowledge of decorative arts and art history. I even occasionally felt angry, perceiving that I was belittled or underappreciated. (As a side note, I also think my teeth got even more crooked this summer, and I’d like someone to please contact my middle school orthodontist and demand a complete refund at this point.)

As I shared all this with my professor, I tried to counter-balance some of my ranting with the lessons I had learned along the way, in spite of how frustrated I had sometimes been. Mostly I was thankful for the clarity that the program brought to some of my goals for future study and my career. But at one point I also mentioned to her that maybe it was good for me to realize that I need to start finding value of my own academic abilities and scholarly worth within myself, rather than relying on external affirmation or letting myself be swayed by situations not going as I hoped or people criticizing my efforts.

My professor responded to this by telling about how she herself up until recently had constantly questioned her ability as an academic, all through the process of getting her PhD and even afterwards as she worked on writing a book. Then suddenly she realized that if she was passionate about her topic, others would see its value too. It was amazing to me that someone so obviously intelligent and capable, working in a legitimate, established, respected field of research could feel so insecure. But the more I get to know people, the more I realize that something most humans have in common is insecurity.

I’ve come across a lot of cocky people, especially in academics, who are constantly trying to name drop or network or make clear that they know just what or who it is you’re talking about. As annoyed as I get with these people, on a certain level, I feel bad for them, because I think that they’re the most insecure of us all. I could be wrong, but I think the constant efforts to prove themselves to people, even when nobody has asked them to, stem from some some need deep down to impress, which in turn comes from a fear that they are not enough.

I’ve been guilty of bragging and trying to prove myself too though most of the time my insecurity manifests itself as timidity or silent self-doubt. Either way it isn’t healthy. Insecurity in any form, about anything, eats away at us and distracts us from dedicating ourselves to whatever work or cause is our purpose in life. We drop classes, don’t turn in applications, put projects away in drawers, keep quiet instead of engaging in exploration of a topic, play it safe when we should take risks, don’t ask questions for fear of seeming ignorant, and don’t speak up for our cause or passion for fear of judgment, thus minimizing the impact we could have on the world.

Own your cause. Pursue your passion. Talk back to your doubt. Let go – bit by bit – of your insecurity. Move forward in spite of your anxiety. Speak out in spite of the fear of judgment. Continue to speak even when judgment – or perhaps worse, silence – comes. You were given certain interests and loves for a reason, so you could bring awareness to them. Unfortunately, not everyone will see the importance of your passion because not everyone is passionate about the same thing.

And sadly some people, because of their insecurity, feel the need to put down others’ passions in an attempt to validate their own. This is awful behavior, but also probably the sign that they are, deep down, a broken human being with their own self-doubt. But look for the people who are what Anne of Green Gables (another love of mine I’m always ashamed to admit) called “kindred spirits” – those who share your love. Or those who are allies, who can appreciate and support you and your love, even if it’s not theirs personally.

Cultivate relationships with those people. Take a risk and open up to them when you experience doubt about your work or even your value and ability as an academic. This is an act of strength that any good friend will respect you for and be happy to tell you not to be ridiculous, you are one of the smartest people they know, etc. And do the world a favor by being an ally, even to those who love something you just can’t get excited about, listening to their point of view, giving their work your time and attention, and letting them know that you respect their work and encouraging them to continue to pursue their passion.

Whoever you are, wherever you study, whatever you love, go for it. Do the best work that you can do. Practice articulating why what you love is worth studying. Write or speak about it for a non-academic audience to gain experience communicating your topic’s importance to the layman (no offense to non-academics – you are normal and wonderful.)

Love what you love and your passion will shine through as you speak and write about it. Others will be convinced and made to appreciate it too. Maybe not everyone, but some people. There is great power in doing work well and in doing what it is you were meant to do. Someone was meant to bring light to your topic, and that person may very well be you.

My name is Rebecca Gale, and I really love scrapbooks. (And, yes, I do make them too, okay.)

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Humble pie

Working and studying in the field of history, I’ve slowly realized how important it is to approach the process of creating history with a healthy dose of humility. I guess that’s true of any area of study, actually, but I’ll stick with history for now. It’s a field where it can be very easy to fall into the mindset of trying to impress people with your knowledge, put forward a confident face, and emphasize what you do know, glossing over what you don’t. People may think this will get them a job – and maybe it will – but ultimately the ability to be a historian comes in the moments where you know that you don’t know…instead you have to find out.

Beyond that, you need to have a gratefulness for the people around you who make it possible for you to do your work – the business people in your museum, the custodians, the people whose history you capitalize on. You have to be willing to sometimes say, “I don’t know…Can you tell me more?” As I’ve been working on this fellowship, it’s been tough to step outside of my comfort bubble and share half-formed thoughts or guess at the use of bits of ceramics sitting on a table in front of me. I’ve felt stupid. Then I’ve realized that this is not about knowing everything, it’s about being willing to learn. And to learn, you have to take risks and sometimes end up humbled.

You have to listen as much as you talk. You have to be willing to sit and listen to long stories and source the public for their knowledge, because ultimately you’re telling this story for them and from their past. You can’t have the attitude that you’re above people because at the end of the day you depend on them. Historians only exist because there are people to write history about, and we need to have a sense of gratefulness to and appreciation for those people who we use to create our academic and professional careers. Writing my senior thesis was humbling in that I realized that the paper was not about me impressing my peers or a grad school program – it was about bringing to light and giving a voice to people who previously didn’t have one, letting them be as much a part of the historical narrative as the famous people who have dominated it for so long.

I guess I wish we approached history the way I wish we approached parties: instead of showing off and getting wrapped up in peacocking and telling our own stories, we would better serve the world by seeking out those not included in the conversation and asking them to share their own experiences. We should realize it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do what we do – there are so many factors that have enabled us to be doing whatever we are doing. Not everyone gets the chance to pursue their passion as a career. Lots of amateur historians and history lovers who by some turn of fate or another didn’t get to pursue a career in history would love to be where we are, delving into archives and seeing behind the scenes.

I was humbled the other day to see a comment from a community member on a photo of my fellowship class asking whether the program accepts people 55 and older. It made me realize that while I’ve been whining about my schedule, other people would be more than happy to take my place. Since then, it’s reminded me to be grateful for the chance to be here. When working in and studying history are exasperating, I wish we would remember how privileged we are. And I wish we would remember how many people have stories we still need to tell.

How to be a Better Human: Food for Thought About Friendship

This is a longer version of a post I wrote for “Around the Grove,” the student blog of the Unviersities at Shady Grove. I’m also considering writing a series of posts called “How to be a Better Human” with my unsolicited advice about being a kinder, more compassionate member of human society who gives back, and this will be a precursor to that.

If you’ve logged onto your Facebook recently, you might have noticed that Facebook is celebrating their “birthday” with a holiday they created called “Friend Day.” Now, personally, I don’t have a great track record with having good friendships in the last few years, so I thought it might be interesting to reflect a bit on friendship in my first blog post this spring semester. A lot of people say, after all, that the friendships you make in college are part of what makes your experience so meaningful. The flip side of this, of course, is that bad friendships or a lack of strong friendships can make a college experience really difficult.

The beginning of the semester tends to be a time when people have friendship on their minds: getting to see friends from last semester again, trying to make new friends if you just transferred, meeting new people in your classes, etc. I figured I would offer a few unsolicited pieces of advice that I’ve learned from experience of the years on the subject, particularly as they relate to starting back at school:

  1. Be open to making new friends (even if you’re a senior.) I’ve heard seniors tell friends they don’t want to bother with meeting new people because they’re about to leave anyways. You never know when great opportunities will come your way, and you might be surprised how many friends will drop out of your life once you move on to a new place. So be careful about writing people off or closing yourself off to the potential of forging new friendships. If you’re not a senior, it can be easy to get comfortable with your friend group and neglect making new friends. There are lots of interesting people in the world who are worth getting to know and who might expand your horizons and enrich your life.
  2. Be open to being friends with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with. Some of the most unexpected people have ended up being my best, most loyal friends over the years, so don’t write people off as not your type too quickly. Also, be aware that some people take a longer time to warm up to people and open up to others and show their true personality (like yours truly!) We all have a tendency to be attracted to the loudest person in the room, but consider trying to get to know the quiet people on the periphery; I’ve come to learn they can make great friends and have a lot to offer (though maybe I’m a little biased!)
  3. Welcome new students. All of us undergrads at USG have experienced being a transfer student. Maybe it went well for you or maybe it was really lonely and stressful. Either way, have some empathy for those who are just arriving and welcome them: introduce yourself, include them in conversation, and just be open to getting to know them. It’s sadly not unheard of for some people to look down on newbies, but we’ve all been the new person…Do you really want to be the jerk who forms a clique and excludes others?
  4. Cut off toxic friendships. This doesn’t directly relate to school life, but I think new years and fresh beginnings can be a great reminder to clean out toxic habits, thoughts, and people from our lives. A lot of us at USG have moved from other schools or places, and I’m sure many have experienced the frustration of friendships we cherished fizzling out. It’s helpful to remember that some relationships are just meant for a certain part of our lives; people come and go. If someone isn’t invested in you and prioritizing your friendship at the same level that you are and you find yourself more hurt than uplifted by that relationship maybe it’s time to let go.
  5. Even though you’re busy, remember to let people know you’re invested in them. Nothing kills a relationship like an unresponsive friend. So even though you have a lot on your plate, remember to take a moment here and there to do these things for friends and loved ones:
    1. Ask them how they’re doing
    2. Tell them why you appreciate them
    3. Leave them a note or send an encouraging text
    4. Let them know you are thinking of them
    5. Respond to their emails, texts, etc. in a timely manner (or let them know you will get back when you have the time)
  6. Respect others’ points of view and be a good listener. Obviously, our political and social climate right now is very tense and full of harsh words. As a community of scholars, I think it’s crucial for us to continue to respect the opinions of others, listen to their point of view, and try to be understanding rather than just dismissing or insulting whatever we don’t agree with. A lot of people feel powerless right now, but, as corny as it sounds, I think the communities we create in the little worlds we each inhabit can have ripple effects into the world around us. And we can make a huge impact on the people around us – for better or for worse – in our daily interactions.

Well, with that, I think I’ve said more than my fair share, but I hope that you all will enter this semester open to new relationships and that you’ll be able to find some kindred spirits to brighten your life among the swamp of papers, projects, and textbook readings!

Best of luck with this new semester!

You’ve got a friend in me

This was posted on the Universities at Shady Grove‘s student blog Around the Grove on February 3, 2017. You can read my other posts here.

If you’ve logged onto your Facebook recently, you might have noticed that Facebook is celebrating their “birthday” with a holiday they created called “Friend Day.” I thought it might be interesting to reflect a bit on friendship in my first blog post this spring semester. A lot of people say, after all, that friendships are the best, most lasting part of the college experience. The flip side of this, of course, is that bad friendships or a lack of strong friendships can make a college experience really difficult.

The beginning of the semester tends to be a time when people have relationships on their minds: getting to see old friends again, trying to make new ones, meeting new people in your classes, etc. I figured I would offer a few unsolicited pieces of advice that I’ve learned over the years that might be helpful as you start your semester:

  1. Be open to making new friends (even if you’re a senior.) I’ve heard seniors tell friends they don’t want to bother with meeting new people because they’re about to leave anyways. Even if you’re not a senior, it can be easy to get comfortable with your friend group and close yourself off to new friendships. However, there are lots of interesting people in the world who are worth getting to know and who might expand your horizons and enrich your life…You never know what’s around the bend!
  2. Be open to being friends with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with. Some of the most unexpected people have ended up being my best, most loyal friends over the years, so don’t write people off as not your type too quickly. Also, be aware that some people take a longer time to warm up to people and show their true personality. We all have a tendency to be attracted to the loudest person in the room, but consider trying to get to know the quiet people on the periphery; I’ve come to learn they can make great friends and have a lot to offer.

    20161010_102155

    Friends of a feather flock together 😉

  3. Welcome new students. All of us undergrads at USG have experienced being a transfer student. Have some sympathy for those who are just arriving and welcome them: introduce yourself, include them in conversation, and just be open to getting to know them.
  4. Cut off toxic friendships. I’m sure many have experienced the frustration of friendships we cherished fizzling out. It’s helpful to remember that some relationships might just meant for a certain part of your life; people come and go. If someone isn’t invested in you and prioritizing your friendship at the same level that you are and you find yourself more hurt than uplifted by that relationship, maybe it’s time to let go.

    ccnlogo_2015_transparent1

    USG believes in promoting a culture of care (photo courtesy of USG)

  5. Even though you’re busy, remember to let people know you’re invested in them. Nothing kills a relationship like an unresponsive friend. So even though you have a lot on your plate, remember to take a moment here and there to ask friends and loved ones how they are or remind them that you appreciate them.
  6. Respect others’ points of view and be a good listener, inside and outside of friendships. Obviously, our political and social climate right now is very tense and full of harsh words. As a community of scholars, I think it’s crucial for us to continue to respect the opinions of others, listen to their point of view, and try to be understanding rather than just dismissing or insulting whatever we don’t agree with.

A lot of people feel powerless to make change right now, but, as corny as it sounds, I think the communities we create in the little worlds we each inhabit can have ripple effects into the world around us. And we can make a huge impact on the people around us – for better or for worse – in our daily interactions and relationships.

Best of luck with this new semester, Shady Grovers!

Having trouble making friends or want to be more involved on campus? Sign up for USG’s weekly newsletter for on-campus events, and check out these other great campus resources:

And, of course, keep checking Around the Grove for news on campus events and student lfie!