A Year of Firsts

I’ve been in a blogging coma for almost a year. Apparently the first year of postgraduate studies, with a teaching assistantship, will do that to you. When I published my last post I was awaiting visa confirmation from the US embassy. This vital document has since allowed me to begin my journey as a public history graduate student at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. My initial year in grad school has been fantastic, with many new people, experiences, and challenges. Describing it in one blog post would be rambly and way too long. But, I thought I’d focus on the range of “firsts” I’ve had so far, which I hope will offer a glimpse into my postgrad life in the past year.

First Exhibition 

In my first semester, I took the “Museums of North America” class. Here, my fellow students and I co-curated two exhibits for the Branigan Cultural Center, a small local museum. The exhibitions focused on the history of the Branigan Cultural Center and insight into the career of a local agriculturalist, Fabián García. The research, drafting, editing, and presentation of our materials was a huge learning curve. We had to compromise and collaborate, within our own working groups and with a partner institution. Which images or artifacts would we use? How would we make the narratives interesting? How would we display the information?

I applied for public history rather than a “traditional” history programme for exactly these kind of experiences. I wanted to see what it meant to be a scholar on the ground, and gain a glimpse into the careers available to trained, professional public historians. My studies at NMSU so far have already exposed me to the potential of museums, archives, education, preservation, local history, digital technology, social media and many more fascinating prospects. I can’t wait to explore them further.

First Lecture and Seminar

Evidently I have attended lectures and seminars during my undergraduate degree. However, my teaching assistantship entails several roles helping two professors in my department. I grade papers, help them fact-check footnotes in their upcoming publications (see below!), hand out evaluations etc.

Perhaps the most interesting tasks have been to cover seminars or lectures if the professor cannot lead them. I’ve worked with education before, in the Norwich Castle Museum, but undergraduates are a whole different kettle of fish. Facilitating discussion is a fine art. You have to give information without dictating interpretation. You have to ask questions without bewildering students, but also ensure that you aren’t extracting obvious/yes/no/one-word responses. Also, heading over to the lecture hall or seminar room 20 minutes early and fumbling around with any technology you need to use is absolutely vital. Looking like a tech neanderthal doesn’t exactly inspire confidence with other students, especially if you’re only a year or two older than them, or, on the flip side, decades younger than them (there are a lot of “nontraditional” students here at NMSU).

First Mention in a (soon to be) Published Book

As I said above, I helped one of my professors, Dr. Peter Kopp, fact-check and comb through the footnotes in his book on the history of hops in the Pacific NW. My efforts mean that I will be mentioned in the acknowledgements section at the start of the book, and I feel proud to have contributed to an academic text. Dr. Kopp also drafted his ex-graduate assistant, Derek, to help towards the end we had so much to do. It was an eye-opening experience with challenging moments, but also lots of discussions and lessons that really helped me grow as a student scholar.

The process showed me how invested you have to be when starting to write in a given field, and the massive volume of solid primary research that should underpin it. It also reiterated the value of organized notes/evidence! When the sources are easy to access, it makes life a hell of a lot easier. There were times when Dr Kopp’s office looked like a tornado had hit it, but I like to think that the confirmations, alterations, and additions the process added made the text better and more comprehensive overall.

First Handegg Game

And by that, my dear American readers, I mean American football. Which really doesn’t use a ball, or feet, at all. Grrr.

At UCSB I never had the chance to see the ol’ pigskin tossed around, because they didn’t have a team. However, NMSU does- the Aggies. They may be terrible, but I was glad and pleasantly surprised to see them win TWICE at the beginning of their season. At this stage, I enjoyed the spectacle but didn’t really understand what was going on. American football seemed so disjointed, stop-start. And the worst part for me was that a terrible play looked exactly the same as a highly successful one. Whether you gained 1 or 11 yards, I’m sorry, but it still looked like a glorified bundle where some helmeted-lump falls over or smashes into another helmeted-lump. As you can tell, my first American football games didn’t exactly remove my disdain for the sport.

Now, I realise my initial judgments were a tad harsh. I wanted to understand a major all-American sport and its associated culture better. Another grad student, who I became very good friends with, started inviting me to Cleveland Browns games. I decided that watching it on television in a sports bar with a pint or eight might make the learning curve less steep. Over time I began to appreciate the tactics and complexity of the plays that went on behind the game. I did feel bad for my buddy though. It appears that the Browns don’t win that often… Which he seemed despairingly resigned to.

Playing American football games on consoles was more helpful than watching it in the bar though. When you have the ability to control players, pick plays, and ask questions of people who know the game MUCH better than you, you learn faster.

Eventually, I even began actively looking at news coverage for that damn Deflategate scandal with Tom Brady. Comparing sports cheating to perhaps one of the worst presidential exploitations of power is absurd, but I actually cared that he wasn’t getting enough punishment and had such a crappy attitude to what he did. Which is a major advance from my early forays into the world of handegg.

First Trip to Mexico

I took my first two trips south of the border to Ciudad Juárez in the past few weeks. I went with good friends I’ve come to know in the past year. The first trip was more touristy. We went to the cathedral, wandered around the plaza, browsed the stalls and shops. The second trip was a night out clubbing. As some of you may be aware, Juárez has been in the limelight in the past few years as a major narcotrafficking hotspot, with very high associated levels of crime and violence. However, gains have been made in the city, and gradual recovery is in progress.

My trips to Mexico capture two important aspects to my first year living in Las Cruces. Firstly, the people I’ve met here have really made my experience. Hanging out and going on adventures with a group of people who share the same interests (be that history, craft beer, or the self-induced torture associated with being passionate sport fans) makes adapting to a new environment immeasurably easier and more enjoyable. Secondly, living in the borderland is a rich experience. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by so many diverse cultures and groups. Understanding and appreciating this, by listening and learning, have been an important part of living in Las Cruces.

First Car

I lived throughout most of this year without wheels. It sucked. Hard. The USA is most definitely a car culture.  Luckily, students and professors within my department were very understanding. They readily offered lifts if I needed them, say for groceries or the ride over to social events. However, a few weeks ago, one of my professors sorted out another vehicle, so his 1995 Toyota Corolla became available, at a very reasonable price. It blows cold air and gets good miles per gallon, which were the two highest priorities for me (because I’m a student scraping by and I live in the desert, respectively).

I have chosen to name him Blaine. For any Stephen King fans that have read The Dark Tower Series (my favourite series of all time), you may be familiar with the psychotic, pink, demon-possessed train of the same name. Well, my car was once red, but the desert sun has not been kind to his skin, so he’s now faded to a reddy-pink. I felt the name Blaine was fitting!

Still, the lack of transport during my first year here was a real issue, especially in Las Cruces. It has pretty awful public transport. To make matters worse, its spread out and a large city, even if it has a small city mentality. Now I have the freedom to get groceries as and when I need them, rather than trying to buy smart and make the supplies last 2/3 weeks so I didn’t bug my kind lift-givers. I don’t have to pay delivery fees if I have a Fifa night with the lads, because one of the best pizza joints in town is within a 5 minute drive ($6.50 for a medium pizza with two toppings, great sauce and base?!?!).

I know many people my age have had their own cars for years and this probably sounds like a very delayed revelation. But the independence and convenience of a car is great. Even balancing the financial responsibilities a useful experience, because you have to budget well and maintain a significant investment sitting in your drive. Blaine may be a banger, but he’s my banger.

Other Honourable Mentions

I have enjoyed some other firsts that I feel deserve a brief mention.

  • First 50 cent taco: You will judge all other purchases against these magnificent abominations, and contemplate them by their equivalent cost in tacos. “$5 for a Starbucks coffee.”… “Mate, that’s ten tacos…”
  • First Co-habitation with Cockroaches: Because the desert is why. Become friends with the maintenance staff, file the work order, and suck it up buttercup.
  • First Drink of $300 whiskey: When the generous “Dad” figure within your group of friends decides to graduate with a smooth and silky bang.
  • First TV Purchase: Not quite as monumental as Blaine, but its still pretty sweet to have bought my own television. This of course led to an Xbox One and many, many lost hours.