The Personal Retreat

In the previous post on finding a topic, I mentioned the benefits of taking a personal retreat. As we approach the holidays that require we think on gratitude and giving, it is a good time for personal reflection and setting new goals. That can be hard to do – and really do well – without intention and structure. So today’s post reflects on the power of reflection. After the insanity that was the Fall 2014 semester, I wanted to take some time to really work on figuring out what was next. If you’re facing one big question in your life, no matter what that question might be, the personal retreat is one way to quiet your mind and productively search for answers. Continue reading

Choosing a topic

Every writer has a unique way of arriving at their subject matter. For me, American Athena was something of a surprise. There were more than a few raised eyebrows when I announced to friends and colleagues in January 2015 that I was embarking on a history of Midwestern women in the nineteenth century because it was so unlike anything I had ever done before. Today’s post is intended to give some background on how this project came to be and hopefully provide some insight for writers out there who are, as we say, “between projects.” Continue reading

Finding the meaning in sources: the diary of Laura Manier

Historians approach sources in two ways: first, what does the source say. Second, what does the source mean. As a historian with a dual interest in archives, I enjoy an unusual relationship with source materials. Unlike most researchers who visit distant repositories, I’m still the primary steward of the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives  at Illinois College (that is, until they hire an archivist in the next few months). This means that when I look at sources, they hold multiple meanings and responsibilities. I not only want to know what they say, but I have vested interest in their preservation and public use. One of the most insightful sources that has turned up in my research so far is  the diary of Laura Manier, who attended the Young Ladies’ Athenaeum in 1878 (if you click on the link, you can read the whole thing yourself). An account of the spring 1878 semester, Laura wrote about parties and friends, outings with young men, difficult professors who made her friends cry, violin lessons (for which she did not always practice), and the cultural events and concerts in Jacksonville.  Continue reading

A Fire in Her Bones

Phi Alpha00011

As its main selling point, this 1892 advertisement claims the JFA is the “oldest institution in the West for the education of young ladies.” My colleagues and I have often repeated this fact, but we have to ask: It this true? Is this really important? Why do they need to be first? Why to we need them to be first? If this isn’t true and they weren’t first, does that somehow devalue my research?

So let’s get one thing straight: the JFA was not first. But that’s okay because I’ve learned that this obsession over being at the front of the line obscures a much richer story about how women on the frontier created new communities.

Continue reading