31. a historian's sketchbook
thinking about growing ideas
Hi there! 👋 I’m Ida, and this is tiny driver, a newsletter about research, pedagogy, culture and their intersections. Thank you for being here. Reach out anytime by just hitting reply, I love hearing from you.
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Hello and happy Monday! This week seemed to just fly by for me. At Northwestern (which is on the quarter system), we are in the middle of mid-term season. At the beginning of class, I always do an anonymous check-in poll over zoom, where I ask the following question: On a scale of 1 to 5 (1=pretty good, considering the circumstances; 5=not good at all), how are you feeling today?
I ask because I care, but I also ask so that I can gauge the energy that students are bringing into the classroom. So much of the joy of being in person with students is feeling the energy that students are bringing to a particular week, a particular reading, a particular activity. In person, I'm able to get a sense of this energy, and can make micro-adjustments as necessary to how we are considering the week's readings. But on zoom, this ability to read energy is at times lost on me. I struggle to know whether students are feeling engaged or not. The poll gives me a chance to see where they're coming from right off the bat.
It's usually a bell curve that skews toward the numbers 2 & 3. But this past week, in one of my courses, there were many students that responded with 4 & 5. It's always concerning to see those numbers show up. I try to validate and let them know that if they are struggling, I'm always happy to connect them to resources on campus that might be able to help. And then I proceed gently.
I hope that you all are at a 1 or 2. It's hard out there.
What I write.
For all the circles of hell that YouTube has created, there's also some pretty magical stuff. Recently, I've been drawn to the artists' corner of YouTube—studio tours, online shop vlogs, draw with me's, etc. etc. Their artistic styles match their day-to-day in a way that I wouldn't even know how to emulate. By far, my favorite type of content to watch from these visual artists & illustrators are sketchbook tours.
Essentially, these tours range anywhere from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours and are shot at a bird's eye view of the sketchbook. The artist takes us through their pages and contextualizes their work. It's absolutely mesmerizing—not only because of their talent but also because they are able to articulate what makes that particular page important to their craft.
Now, I've seen a lot of these over the past few weeks. But one that has continued to stick out in my mind has been from NYC-based Desi illustrator Radhia Rahman, who just graduated this past Spring from the School of Visual Arts.
Her sketchbook & her illustrations are absolutely beautiful and show such a sharp and interesting perspective. I love the way that she integrates her Bengali heritage in the subjects she chooses to represent and how it shapes her point of view. But the real thing that gave me pause was the small disclaimer she gives at the beginning of her tour:
I know there are a lot of artists that have these beautiful, amazing sketchbooks with finished illustrations. I am not that person. I use my sketchbook exclusively as a sketchbook. It's pretty messy, it's all over the place, and it's how I get my creativity kind of put down onto paper.
With this sentiment, I felt immediately at home. So much of the stuff that we see—whether it's online or in journals or books or even these sorts of blog posts & newsletters—are the final products of what is usually a very long path of thinking and re-thinking. By seeing how Radhia used her sketchbook as sort of a "warm up" for larger projects & working through ideas, I felt immediately inspired. Her sketchbook was something that didn't seem so "precious."
Rather, I likened it to a garden. It was a little dirty & rough, but it was where ideas could take root and grow with time & tending.
Soon, I realized that as a person doing research & teaching, I also had a space like this. A little notebook that I always have nearby & that contains the roughest of thoughts and the most vulnerable of ideas. It's probably something that I'll throw away sooner or later. But for now, it's my little garden that contains the seeds of projects that I am currently tending to. I call it my "historian's sketchbook."
So, I thought for today's newsletter, I'd take you all on a tour of my little sketchbook-garden hybrid and show you all the half-thoughts and ideas that are mish-mashed in the nooks and crannies of this notebook. They are by no means beautiful ideas or thoughts, but they are my ideas and thoughts.
I hope that by opening up this space to you all (many of whom I'm assuming don't have a day job as "arteests extrodanaire"), you'll also be inspired to re-frame your own bits and bobs, and truly take stock in your creativity in whatever ways it comes. I'm sure that we all have finished products that we are proud of, but I want to shed light on and give gratitude to the physical space that allowed me to realize those final products.
So, without further ado, here is the cover of my "sketchbook":
I got this notebook for free at one of the most gratifying conference & community experiences I have ever been to: the "40 Years & More" Iranian Diaspora Studies Conference. I met so many amazing colleagues that I am now working with, I was able to present a paper that I was really proud of, and I got to do it in the Bay Area, which is inhabited by people & pets that I love dearly.
This notebook is by no means "precious" to me—it is a tool in the most practical of senses. On its own, it's not something that I would "covet" as I do a leather-bound journal from one of my favorite stationary shops. But it's something I hold dear because of how I have absolutely destroyed it with my scribbles, cross-outs, dog ears and post-its.
These pages are back from when I was writing my dissertation, in the winter of 2020. Interestingly enough, I began writing my dissertation with my fifth chapter (out of five chapters) and ended with my first. This was my first attempt at trying to figure out what I wanted the different sections to be and which pieces of evidence excited me the most.
1: This "brainstorm" was probably one of my more legible ones. I was interested in having both top-down and bottom-up perspectives in my dissertation because I thought they complicated each other in a way that speaks to the larger messiness of Iranian representation in the United States before 1979. I was most excited by what was happening in California public universities, particularly at UCLA. You can see I start to jot down some short-hands for archival documents (e.g. IPAF-B1.104) that I wanted to remember to include in my dissertation.
2: Sometimes, I wrote things that I honestly cannot recall now. This is one of those times. What was I thinking?? Ahh, the joys of looking back...
3: I was especially excited about the work that I was doing about the Iranian Students Association before the Revolution. These are some thoughts I had while reading the archival documents that I was incorporating into my chapter.
4: While I do very much care (!!) about cultural context, I think I wrote this because I was getting too caught up in the weeds of establishing the background of my case studies. I would write so much about the larger context of the program I was thinking about, that I would end up without any space to get into what I really wanted to discuss. So, this note was left for me as a way of saying, in a very emphatic way, "Hey!!! Stop caring so much about this!! AHhhhhh!"
5A & 5B: I love writing lists because they help me keep track of all the things in my head, including the scholars that I am thinking alongside. There are many pages in my sketchbook that just are lists of scholars' names who I am thinking about while I'm writing a section or when I was revising a larger chapter. I remember this page—particularly the right one—as a moment when I was getting frustrated with my myself while I was writing the introduction to my first chapter. I just kept thinking to myself, "Who am I talking to!?" So, I wrote them all down and ended up integrating most. (Don't worry—Ellen Wu shows up later in the dissertation!! She is much more suited to the dynamics I talk about later on. Just in case you were concerned!! 😅)
6: Another moment where I was writing the introduction of the chapter and I had to stop for the day and wanted to remind myself what I had to do the next day. I find that ending my writing sessions with a few phrases or sentences on what I need to get done in the next session mades me feel a little less resistant to starting writing the day after.
7: I think this was just a reminder to myself as I was writing. I wanted to make sure to mention methodology in the dissertation intro, so I put it here.
These pages are from when I was just starting at Northwestern.
8: My sketchbook is not just filled with thoughts about my research. There are Target shopping lists, weekend to-dos, and questions for my department coordinator. Here, you can see that when I first started, I had a lot of questions about the logistics of funding and the institution that I needed to ask my lovely department coordinator, and I'm so glad that it seems like I got them all answered!
9: Sometimes I get productivity newsletters in my inbox. I guess this is one of the days where I really wanted to remember a way of keeping organized. I think that part of this might be called the "Second Brain" form of archiving knowledge, but you can probably tell by my uncertainty that I don't use this system now.
10: In September, I gave a talk in the MENA department on Iranian student activism in 1970s Northern California. (You can see it here if you want! ☺️) This was my draft for creating the power point for the talk.
11: This quarter, I am having a partial book manuscript workshop where fellow faculty members will give me comments on my book proposal and two of my chapters. In anticipation of turning in the documents, I wrote myself a little checklist, that I apparently did not end up using! (And that's ok too. I have many abandoned lists & checklists in this sketchbook.)
12: I wrote & recited these sentences in the thirty minutes before my first class this quarter. I was getting really nervous about teaching over zoom, especially because I had never been the "host" of a zoom before, so I wrote this to calm myself down and set realistic expectations for myself. Even though there were some little fumbles along the way, I got through it alright. 😎 I have come back to these sentences occasionally as a little "mantra" if I am doing an activity that I am unsure of in a certain class session.
13: This was me drafting what I wanted my first synchronous class to look like over zoom. As you can see, I charted out the rough timeframe of each activity and tried to get amped over what the students had written in the initial survey about what interested them about the class (Transnational Asian American Activism).
14: More reminders!! Reminders to email my students, and notes from the activism course when a group was facilitating discussion. It was a great facilitation, which is why I have so few notes written down—I was riveted by the conversation & class activities that my students had come up with!
15: These notes were taken for when I was brainstorming what to do for my other class, Race & Nation in the US. I had them read about legal constructions of whiteness through Nina Farnia & Sarah Gualtieri's work, but realized that I wanted to also contextualize their projects with Ian Haney-Lopez's arguments in White By Law before getting into the session's main activities.
Well, that concludes my mini-tour of my "historian's sketchbook." I hope you enjoyed!! And if you want to share your own "sketchbook"—whatever that may mean for you—feel free to leave a comment or tweet me an image @idyalz! 💞
What I consume.
Item(s) of note.
As any "arteest" can tell you, we have preferred instruments for conducting our **craft**. 🤓 Here are my ride or dies:
Notebook: Leuchtturm 1917 (A5)
Not Precious Notebook: This Caliber one from CVS
Keyboard: Logitech G915 (CLICKY!!!!!!)
Mouse: Logitech MX Master 3
Desktop Display: Dell Monitor (27")
Girlie got to go to the woods this weekend. She was very excited to smell all the moss and jump on rocks.
As always, thanks so much for reading through, and I'll see you in the next one!