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.

Things that you appreciate more at the end of an Undergraduate Degree

I feel bad that I’ve gone through another 6 month blogging hiatus. However, in that time I have written 18,000 words of assessed essays, sat 3 exams constituting 20% of my degree within 3 days… and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Warwick. Cut me some slack! Still, I wanted to get back on the blogging wagon, so here I am, even if it has taken me a few weeks of hitting the reset switch since my final exam to get around to doing it. This post is all about things which I have come to appreciate more now that my undergraduate degree is over. They are either things I missed because I was away at university, or, long for now that I am back home in Norfolk and removed from The Bubble. Personally, I have been glad to have certain things back in my life. But, simultaneously, I feel there are things I enjoyed at university, perhaps without realising it, that I am missing already. As I said, they are all things I appreciate more at the end of my degree. Things I appreciate having back

  • Reading for pleasure 

When you’re in the study zone, revising for hours of the day, trudging through notes and scribbling onto flashcards indefinitely, is it surprising when reading for pleasure takes a backseat? For me it certainly did. I’d been pouring over words all day, I didn’t want to add more onto my plate for these past few months! Moreover, it isn’t just the weariness of reading all day that put me off the pursuit of fiction in my spare time… it’s the way you think about what you read which put me off as well. Studying for humanities essays and exams, you critically analyse sources as a fundamental part of your higher education. At the end of my exams, I tried reading to wind down soon after. But I found no enjoyment or relaxation therein. I was over-thinking and critically interpreting the novels. My brain hadn’t switched back from exam/essay mode. And it sucked. It killed the reading experience for me. Gradually reading for pleasure came back to me. I don’t know what triggered it, but it probably came with activities which helped put a distance between me and my exams: watching crap TV, heading to the pub, going on long bike rides and eagerly returning to exercise. Since the end of my exams I have read hungrily, and it has felt amazing to read for pleasure once again.

  • Access to a dishwasher

Living with 12 people and sharing a kitchen with them hasn’t changed much since first year (I lived in the same campus accommodation in final year as I did as a fresher… made for some very strange deja vu moments). People don’t clean up after themselves, leave dirty dishes in the sink for days on end, and shared spaces deteriorate very quickly with only 2/3 inconsiderate people in a group of 12. As a bit of a clean freak, I found this particularly hard. But whatever- it’s over now, and I feel that I kept myself (relatively) in check… Although some of my housemates may disagree. Borderline psychotic Facebook group posts aside… I think I kept it together pretty well! Anyway, getting back home and having access to that magical machine known as a dishwasher was fantastic. No dreading the end of a meal because you have to stand and wash all the utensils, pots and pans. Honestly, they make life so much simpler and it’s easy to take this everyday appliance for granted.

  • Being back in the countryside

This is a matter of personal taste, of course. But as a guy from the sticks, I certainly missed big open spaces, rural quiet, and being so close to the beach. I know rural life isn’t for everyone, and living nearer to urban areas has its benefits as well… But at several times during my final year at Warwick I longed for the big skies, fresh air, scenery, and quiet that comes with living in rural East Norfolk. Even in Norwich, you’re never more than 10-15 minutes from fields and countryside! Best of both worlds if you ask me. And the beaches. Seriously, Norfolk’s beaches are so underrated. Holkham, Wells, Winterton, Sea Palling all have golden soft sand, beautiful dunes and all the makings of a sterling beach holiday destination. I think coming back from uni after my final exams made me appreciate home even more. Side note: The Telegraph recently named Noroflk the classiest county to live in! I’m glad my home county is being taken a bit more seriously, and receiving more positive, balanced press. I may be biased but I think it’s deserved!

  • Access to a car

When studying at Warwick, it was impractical and unnecessary for me to have a car. I share my Mum’s car anyway (haven’t needed my own, so never saw the point in buying one for the sake of it), so couldn’t bring it even if I desperately wanted to. However, linked to the above point about being back in the countryside, you certainly need a vehicle here to get around and enjoy things. But the ability to head off and visit friends, places or the city, in private transport, on your own time, is great to have back. I don’t really mind buses, but you have to plan your time better, and it isn’t as flexible. Moreover, especially in Noroflk, there are just some places you cannot get to because there are no public transport options which reach them! Or, they exist, but they’re so convoluted and time-consuming the impracticality makes them nigh on impossible anyway.

Things I miss having 

  • Omnipresent coffee vendors

Instant coffee does a job. But then again, so does ITV’s coverage of the World Cup… But it’s not the real mccoy. Give me coffees based on espressos and the glory of the BBC any day of the week. On campus, I was never more than a 5 minute walk from a cafe which sold proper coffee. In the foray of dissertation writing and exam revision, I came to depend slightly on the boost a strong cup of coffee in one form or another. Still, I took it for granted. Now I am back home, in a village with no coffee shops of any description, and there is an espresso cup-shaped hole in my life. Admittedly, where there’s a will there’s a way, and some of the nearby pubs or cafes must serve proper coffee. But, with the ease and low cost of campus coffee, they don’t really compare.

  • Gym access

I need fitness in my life in one form or another, and the gym is my preferred outlet for physical exercise by a long stretch. On campus I lived within sight of a very decent gym facility, had access at an extremely reasonable student rate, and enjoyed a diverse range of equipment and free weights to support whatever fitness regime I chose. Now I am back home, I do so miss the equipment required for squats, deadlifts, bench presses and so on. I looked into gym membership here but I balked at £25-40 monthly membership fees, limited equipment, and up to 40 minute drives to even reach them. I most definitely took the university gym for granted, and miss having access to it. The silver lining is I have altered my workout routine, and I am focusing on classic bodyweight exercises like pushups, pullups and dips. It’s very beneficial to change it up with exercise routines every few weeks, so in a way the lack of a gym has forced my hand here, but to my own benefit. I will be writing a separate post all about this shortly, because I really have felt the bodyweight shift has been a positive change.

  • Student Immersion

I love my family and friends back home, and the following does not detract from that at all. BUT, as a student you get used to living and working on campus, surrounded by thousands of people who are working towards similar goals as you, that are like-minded and approach life in comparable ways to you. This is not to say that there are not people like this back home, of course there are. There just isn’t a comparable concentration or volume of these people. Again, this is possibly due to living in the sticks. But as a student, I love being surrounded by other students. Being able to drift unexpectedly to a pub on a Tuesday afternoon, and for it to still have a decent amount of people and hubub going on despite the random timing makes the experience that much better. Bumping into a classmate in Tesco’s and nattering as you do your grocery shopping makes the essential but dull activity much more bearable. I’m ever so grateful to be home, but I do miss the student community.

All is not lost…. Overall, there are several things that I have come to appreciate more now that I have finished my undergraduate degree. I’m sure there are many more that I could talk about, but these were the things which came to my mind first. But, as to the things I miss having as part of student life… I’m not losing them completely, just because I’m done at Warwick. Since my last blog post I applied for post graduate study and funding in the USA. I am very pleased and excited to be undertaking an MA in Public History at New Mexico State University! This is subject to a Visa meeting at the US embassy but hopefully that will go smoothly. Otherwise everything else is pretty much in place! I cannot wait to undertake this next step, further my education, get to know a new area and new people, and study abroad all over again.

Prepare yourself USA, the Wandering Canary is coming back!

(^ Visa pending, haha!!!)