When we distributed a call for applications for an Early Career Workshop last Spring, none of us at the Center for Women’s History imagined how powerfully the workshop would affect participants’ work as individual scholars, or our sense of pride and belonging in the field of women’s and gender history overall. The brilliant scholarship produced this year by the inaugural cohort represents how very far our field has come since Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sorrowfully observed in 1976, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” Some of our work finds women’s stories hidden in plain sight, among oft-studied documents such as the writings of Black Panthers or the letters of eighteenth century Philadelphia capitalists. Other participants mined far-flung corners of archives to find women’s history in makeup advertisements and the letters of nineteenth century Filipino missionaries. Separately and together, our workshop contributed to building new knowledge and a vibrant scholarly community committed to discovering the experiences and perspectives of a wide range of women.
The workshop’s genesis stemmed from my own experiences as a pre-doctoral fellow at the Center and doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center, CUNY. As a fellow, I was star-struck by the Center’s Scholarly Advisory Committee, chaired and convened by women’s history “dean” Alice Kessler-Harris, and representing many of the pioneers in the fields of women’s and gender history. I wanted the opportunity to learn from and with them, to see how they approached the unique challenges of research and writing women’s history, and to hear what advice they would give to new scholars like me.
Further, as anyone who has attempted a PhD will tell you, the beginning phase of writing a dissertation is daunting and lonely. After devoting years of my life to clearing the hurdles of coursework, exams, and writing a prospectus, I found myself paralyzed by the expectation that I would toil in isolation for a few years and somehow emerge with an original book-length manuscript that would pass muster with experts and admit me to professional status in the field. With the input and support of the Center for Women’s History Director, Valerie Paley, and Alice Kessler-Harris, I conceived of a writing workshop for a small, dedicated cohort of emerging scholars who would read and critique each other’s early drafts of dissertations and book chapters, joined by rotating pairs of senior scholars drawn from the Center’s Advisory Board.
In advance of each session, two workshop participants would circulate a digital draft and the participants would submit written comments. At the two-hour monthly meeting at the New-York Historical Society, the visiting Senior Scholars would provide oral feedback, and the group would build on the conversation they’d started online to help the writer (re)direct her efforts. There would be wine and cheese and a focus on process. And I hoped the result would be a community that would help each other—and me– to stay motivated, focused, and in tune with the larger themes of the field.
The tremendously talented applicant pool and enthusiastic responses from the Advisory Committee suggested right away that we were on to something. In the end, every member of our Advisory Committee participated at least once. Our inaugural cohort of sixteen participants included tenure-track professors and doctoral candidates representing eleven public and private universities and research centers from across the country, at many stages of life and career. You can read the bios and abstracts they submitted at the start of the workshop last summer here. Though we tried to match each participant with senior scholars whose interests and expertise overlapped with her work, there were a few truly remarkable cases of alignment in which the senior scholar was herself a featured character in the participant’s chapter or was present for the events described. These powerful moments cultivated a deep sense of pride and belonging to a scholarly legacy and community that reaches far beyond the bounds of our discrete research areas.
Perhaps the most remarkable and gratifying aspect of the workshop was that each participant and Senior Scholar brought her whole self to the table. Each of us knew it would be our turn to occupy the “hot seat” and receive comments from the senior scholars and one another. So we passionately presented, and respectfully, rigorously critiqued each piece.
The Senior Scholars read our drafts closely, and the shared experience of receiving their honest feedback helped us to build a powerful, supportive scholarly community. We shared our struggles, celebrated our successes, and offered up suggestions of sources, scholars, and opportunities. To those of us accustomed to the self-promotion and competition rife in academic environments, we remarked early and often that our space was “generous,” “inspiring,” and “encouraging” and helped us to build confidence that we did in fact belong as scholars in this field.
Following our final workshop, several members of the Early Career Workshop went out for a celebratory drink. Twelve are pictured here, gathered around a short table at a bar. In the coming year, we plan to schedule more opportunities for informal socializing.
As we look ahead to the coming year, we invite applicants for a second cohort of the Early Career Workshop, which will be closely modeled on this year’s experiment. We also plan to build out the workshop in a few key ways, in response to the feedback from this year’s cohort. We’ll plan to schedule more optional informal and social time to build more opportunities for participants to benefit from this close-knit community and the Senior Scholars. Additionally, we’ll offer several focused professional development sessions on publishing articles, converting a dissertation to a book, and preparing for job talks. If you are a doctoral candidate or newly-minted scholar in Women’s and Gender History and what you read here interests you, please consider applying to join us! Applications are due by July 15th, and more information is available on the Center for Women’s History website.
– Sarah Litvin, Center for Women’s History.
For more information about the Early Career Workshop, contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top image credits: (left to right) Anna Danziger-Halperin (Columbia University), Mary Phillips (Lehman College), and Deidre Flower (William Patterson University) participate in the inaugural Early Career Workshop at the New-York Historical Society, May 9, 2018.