Op-Ed Piece on Cuba and BLM

By Guest Contributor Rozzmery Palenzuela

Opinion: Why Cubans on both sides of the political spectrum have united in opposition of Black Lives Matters Statement on current protests on the island

For the last year, the Cuban people have been forced to withstand the harsh realities of Cuba’s plummeting economy in addition to the depletion in resources and loss of lives caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era relaxation policies towards the island mirrors the Clinton administration’s tightening grip over the island’s economic affairs in the 1990’s and has made it more difficult for Cubans in the diaspora to travel to the island or send remittances to their friends and families. The demonstrations that we are seeing today did not occur in a vacuum. It was brought on by decades of censorship, neglectful distribution of food and resources, failure to invest in infrastructure by the Cuban government and plummeting diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington that has further divided the people on the island from the diaspora. On Thursday, July 15th, the Black Lives Matter organization released an official statement about the protests that are currently ongoing in Cuba. The statement itself began by denouncing the United States’ federal government for their inhumane acts towards the Cuban people and goes on to make very direct and uninformed assumptions about Cubans, Cuban history, and Cuban foreign policy.

While the 1962 embargo has been––and continues to be–– one of the biggest foreign policy failures in U.S. history, placing sole blame of the current social unrest on the island on the United States’ foreign policy not only deflects blame from the revolutionary government in Cuba, but it outright supports one if it’s most central grand narratives. 

For good reason, the statement made by the Black Lives Matter organization has received an enormous amount of backlash from Cubans and scholars of Cuba for taking a very clear side in this argument. While they paid particular attention to word choice and made sure to use “Cuba” and “Cubans” and not, directly, the “Cuban government,” their statement has angered Cubans on both sides of the political spectrum for its refusal to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the dictatorship.

To go further, the statement goes on to justify themselves by citing examples of the Cuban government’s support of black liberation movements across the world. It reads, “Cuba has historically demonstrated solidarity with oppressed peoples of African descent, from protecting Black revolutionaries like Assata Shakur through granting her asylum, to supporting Black liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and South Africa.”

To pull apart each and every single one of those examples would require a larger space than what I have available, and there is an existing scholarship that covers it much better than I ever could. Individuals and organizations like Black Lives Matter look to the revolutionary government’s grand narrative of “solidarity” with the Global South as justification, or redemption, for the internal atrocities that were committed by the Cuban government, are actively participating in the erasure, or at the very least ignorance, of the experiences of those people. While many question the extent, and intent, that motivated the Cuban government to involve itself so deeply in racial issues at home or abroad, there is no question that the conclusions are complicated, nuanced, and full of paradoxes and contradictions.

Race has played a central role in Cuban politics since the wars of independence and the abolition of slavery in 1886. Cuban state officials, physicians, intellectuals and policymakers struggled with navigating through the challenges and setbacks that resulted in the period following the abolition of slavery and independence. Modern states like Brazil and Cuba were taunted by the legacies of their colonial pasts in a number of ways, but none so vividly as with the task of creating a modern, racially democratic nation.

For the first half of the 20th century, increasing American intervention and Spanish immigration during the first republic further cemented racialized social norms that Cubans struggled with for the decades following abolition and, later, independence. As a result, 20th century Cuba produced and reproduced deeply racialized constructions of citizenship. These complex ways in which Cubans understood themselves and the nation through racial categories shifted dramatically as the island transitioned into a “post-racial” society after the Cuban revolutionary government “eradicated” racism on an institutional level and took on a more Marxist approach at understanding social categories. Nonetheless, race, and racism, did not remain a thing of the past for many Afro-Cubans––women in particular–– after the revolution.

As the revolutionary state began the large process of nationalization and aligned itself more closely with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, the leadership was pushed to promise more radical visions of labor, housing, and medical reform for Afro-Cubans. Although the language through which the state recognized these issues became less rooted in racial categories and took on a more Marxist-centered approach, new strategies and categories continued to be used to target Afro-Cuban families. For example, although Afro-Cuban women gained more access to healthcare during the revolutionary era, they continued to have less agency over their reproductive bodies and were often targeted for experimental procedures and treatments, like birth control (IUD’s) that were chosen to be conducted in areas with higher concentrations of Afro-Cubans. While Afro-Cuban women gained greater access to political spaces and institutions of social support, they continued to fall prey to state promises of gender and racial equity. This is supported in part by the work of anthropologists Oscar and Ruth Lewis’s on the 1960’s in Cuba. Lewis, famous for attributing his theory of “culture of poverty” to the failures of the capitalist system, was welcomed to Cuba, but later expelled for his findings that the socialist system did not, in fact, resolve these issues.

The economic crisis of the 1990’s strongly affected Afro-Cuban’s lived experiences as well. Most families had to depend on the black market and, for some men and women, engaging in income-generating activities such as prostitution and jineterismo –– or hustling –– was the only way to support their families. For Afro-Cuban women in particular, their sexual and reproductive bodies were once again considered to be contested sites where battles surrounding competing ideas about progress, reform, and morality were waged. Material shortages, especially those related to medicine, sanitation, public health, and nutrition, women’s sexual and reproductive choices and endangered the lives of mothers on a daily basis. My own mother, a mulatta, was pregnant with me during this time. She did not have access to proper medical care, pre-natal vitamins, nor did she have access to healthy foods. When she was induced and delivered me via c-section, the doctors tied her tubes without her knowledge or consent, at the suggestion of her mother. No paperwork, no signatures, no concern for what the patient wanted. They decided what she could do with her reproductive body for her.

I agree with the Black Lives Matter statement that the Cuban embargo is a failed, and dated, Cold-War political tactic that was meant to undermine the Cuban communist government. But while the embargo, and it’s various enforcements like the Toricelli Act in 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, is a failed policy and significant blame should be placed on the United States­­–– to give blanket immunity to the Cuban government based on their perception of how and why the revolutionary government involved itself in global movements, is a slap in the face to the many Cubans–– especially Afro-Cubans–– who have suffered through censorship, repression, and poverty under a six-decade long dictatorship. As a leftist, a scholar, a Cuban, and a supporter of Black Lives Matter, I am deeply saddened and disappointed by this statement. I understand that Black Lives Matter, the movement, and Black Lives Matter, the organization, are different and the views and opinions by those that crafted this statement do not reflect the views of all of its members, but this statement has intentionally ostracized, marginalized and hurt various members of the Cuban community. And, from a voting standpoint, this did not help make inroads to getting the support of Cuban voters, whose presence in South Florida especially, is significant.


Rozzmery Palenzuela Vicente is a fourth year Ph.D. student at Florida International University where she studies gender, family and childhood in Modern Latin America with an emphasis on Cuba. She is also interested in comparative communist cultures, black internationalism, and tackling heavy theoretical works – most notably, affect theory. In her spare time, she is an avid film buff, beach bum and actively engages into arguments with Miami-Cuban Republicans.

Learning A New Language

This week we explore learning a new language. Beyond meeting the language requirement for a program of study, learning a new language has a lot of benefits, but how do you know which one to choose?

Clayton: Depending on your specific area of study in a Graduate Program, the language requirements can either seem like a major asset to your studies or a necessary evil to meet graduation requirements. In some cases it can be both at the same time. While every program will be a little different, most will require you to take some form of a language test during your time within the program. In most cases these courses will relate directly to what field of history you are focusing on, since often the language will be a necessity to work in that field, such as knowing German to study German history. However, the decision on what major language to focus on will not always be so clear cut.

In my major field, American history, since the vast majority of the records are in English, deciding on what language to take becomes a lot more open ended. Again, however, this comes down to your particular areas of studies and interests. Different eras and events in American history have links to different countries (or often many different countries) which can make it difficult to narrow it down to only one language. Personally, I took French for Reading while I was in graduate school. I made this decision based on the areas that I focused on, the 19th century and the time period around World War I, since France was heavily involved in those eras. French was one of the top choices, but not the only one. There are many other options I could have taken. Knowing that there are actually many options when it comes to deciding on a language requirement can hopefully make it feel less like a chore and more like an asset.   

Kiri: Many graduate programs require their students to learn at least one additional language, sometimes more, to complete the program. Since much of my research focuses on Britain, my second language wasn’t set in stone. I had taken a few years of Spanish during my AA, so I wanted to broaden my horizons to a language I hadn’t studied yet. I was between either Italian or German, and it was hard to make a choice in any one direction. I studied abroad in Italy during my undergrad, and I was using Duolingo, but my studies were steadily moving away from Italy, and I wasn’t sure if Italian would ultimately fit my research needs. Then, Dragana, Chelsi, and I had the opportunity to study abroad in Germany and I thought that this would be the perfect place to start working on learning German. 

The biggest difference between learning a language for communication versus learning a language for academia is that there is a bigger emphasis on how to read the language than actually speaking it. While in Germany, we took German I and we learned the fundamentals of the German language. Once we were back, we (along with Stephen) asked one of our professors from our German trip to help us with a German for Reading DIS. In this class, rather than focusing on vocabulary, we leaned more into figuring out what a sentence meant and how to get the general sense of what a piece was saying. This was a fantastic way to think about language for understanding primary sources, especially because not all older sources are going to follow strict grammar rules or even adhere to the most modern version of the language. Though my speaking German has rusted, the skills I learned from a language reading class help me to still know how to translate German pieces (with the help of a dictionary). I hope to continue expanding my language skills as I continue my career, and I think language reading classes are one of the best ways to do so.

Dragana: As Clayton and Kiri have already stated, learning a language is fundamental to being a good scholar. Choosing which language to focus on is not as simple as saying ‘I will study French because I am focusing on the French Revolution.’ Sometimes, you have to think about where your sources are going to be–meaning which archives are you going to visit. Take for example me. I focus on 17th-18th century Southeastern Europe. Knowing BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) is a must, but I also have to think about my time period. During the 17th and 18th centuries most of Southeastern Europe was under the Ottoman Empire. If I were to look at any official state documents, I might need to know Turkish since that was the primary language of the empire in addition to BCS. Perhaps I’m looking at relationships between Serbia and the Hapsburg Empire. In this case Hungarian, French, Italian, and other languages might be helpful. 

Learning a language is so specific to what you are studying. While there are languages such as German, French, and Italian which might work for a majority of people, they are not the only options. Personally, I enjoy learning new languages because each word has its own story. I think that languages are a great tool to get to understand different peoples and cultures. Languages should not be seen as another obstacle in your journey, but a new lens through which you can better understand what you are studying.

Transitioning from Ph.D. Student to Ph.D. Candidate

By Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk

When I introduce myself to my undergraduate students or to prospective employers I say, “Hi my name is Tamala Malerk, and I am Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of South Florida. What that means is that the only thing standing between me and that fancy title is the completion of my dissertation.” I am officially ABD (all but dissertation). It has been just over a year since I have completed my coursework, passed my language tests and comprehensive exams, and here are some insights about making that transition from “student” to  “candidate.” Keep in mind that I am just one Ph.D. Candidate at one school with my own biases, so while I’ll try to keep it as broad as possible, your Candidacy experience may vary.

Shifting from “TA” to just “T”

         One of the most glaring transitions is that once you are a candidate, you are now considered an expert in your major and minor fields and are now qualified to teach. My own fields of expertise are British Imperial, Modern Europe, Women and Gender, and Public History. This has “qualified” me to instruct Global History Since 1750. However, I am also aware of the fact that I am also one of the few Candidates in my department that doesn’t solely focus on US History. So in reality, they all just get assigned the more popular lower-level US History courses and that leaves me as one of the few available for Global History. I have had my own course since Fall 2020 and that has come with some major changes. One option when I was a teaching assistant was to say “This is above my paygrade.” When I was assisting with courses, I could hand over the more difficult to grade assignments or miss a class here and there. Now it’s all me and very little is “above my paygrade.” But it also means I have autonomy over my class. While my class follows the USF guidelines for the course, it is ultimately MY class. I choose what is included, what gets graded, how it’s graded, how to communicate with students…etc. And, if I taught an upper-level course, rather than a Gen-Ed course, I would have even more autonomy and power, as I have seen with other Candidates in my department who have even gotten to help create and build specialized upper-level courses.

Shifting from TA to T(he) Everything

         You wear a lot of “hats” as a candidate. You have to research, write, teach, “publish or perish,” present at conferences, and most importantly, network. I am in a four-year program for my Ph.D. and currently at the tail-end of year three. The humanities are a competitive field as far as jobs go and this is the time to make connections. This has been especially difficult in the last year when many conferences have been cancelled or gone virtual. However, not all is lost. I’ve connected with people virtually not only through conferences but also through my network of mentors and committee members. With that said…

You’re Not Alone

         A lot of people think that candidacy means you slip into this empty void of research and writing only to emerge for department-sponsored pizza parties (which in the last year haven’t existed due to Covid). I’ve actually found that since becoming a candidate, I am closer to my committee members and that they view me as more of a peer rather than a student. And I still come to them with questions and concerns, but it has become more of an exchange of ideas when I talk to my committee and mentors rather than a student/teacher thing.

Okay… You’re Alone

         I mean the “void” theory didn’t come out of nowhere (pun intended). Candidacy is a lot of time spent with books, archives, journal articles, and your computer and not much else. There is no “due date” to keep you on track and the key phrase here is “intrinsic motivation.” You have to find it in you to write. Your advisor can request draft dates, but it is ultimately up to you to get it all done. I’ve found that sending my dissertation committee three emails a semester (beginning, middle, and end) with a projected timetable and short explanation of what got done and what is getting done helps to keep me in check.

And Finally…The Perks

         Let’s end on a high note. The perks are AWESOME. Since I became a candidate, so many opportunities have opened up for me. Last summer, I was paid to participate in a professional development hosted by University of Pittsburgh because I teach world history. Companies have sent me free textbooks because of my position because now I say what is used for my class. I have been solicited for book reviews. I have chaired panels for conferences with my newly gained “expertise.” I have more job opportunities open to me now. Local community colleges have reached out to me to offer me adjunct positions. Many professor positions are open to graduates but will also accept ABDs. I have looked at plenty of jobs on the H-Net Job Board, Inside Higher-Ed, and Indeed, that will accept ABDs assuming that the degree is completed in a certain time frame or other stipulations.

         Transitioning from Ph.D. student to candidate came with a lot of changes. Yet, change isn’t necessarily bad. If you are about to make that transition yourself, remember, the only thing between you and that fancy title will be completing your dissertation. 


Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of South Florida. Her focuses include British Imperialism, Modern Europe, Public History, and Women and Gender. Her dissertation is about a British Gandhian disciple and still does not have a catchy title. In her spare time, she does freelance content writing for websites and, now, humanities blogs. Find her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tamala-malerk-m-a-5749b999/

Our Summer Plans: 2021

Summer is finally here, and with the heat comes new projects, deadlines, goals, and plans. Whether you’re finishing out your first year as graduate students, preparing for Comprehensive exams, or graduated and making your way in the real world, we all have different agendas and objectives for the summer. Though sometimes summertime can be relaxing, we know that that’s not always the case, and it can be just as (or more) stressful than any other term. This week, we wanted to share with you some of the things we’re working on this summer, and give our readers a look into what the season means for us.

Clayton: The COVID pandemic upended most of the plans and ideas that people had over the course of 2020. Now approaching summer 2021, the world is slowly trying to regain some form of normalcy in most aspects of life. This means I can be a little more optimistic when it comes to making summer plans than during this time last year. Much like last year, I will be focusing on both my professional and academic paths forward. On the professional side, the last year has provided me with valuable experience in researching and applying for jobs and the general interview process for jobs related to historical fields. Luckily, I have been able to continue research internship at the Holocaust Museum (both remote and more recently in person) which allows me take part in different aspects of museum work. More on the academic side, with the cuts that programs have been forced to take due to COVID, it is more important than ever to properly review and consider all the possible programs I would want to attend and their costs vs. benefits. Again, I am lucky with this, since I have great connections with graduate students and professors that can help me navigate all these possibilities. Let’s all hope this summer will be much more productive and enjoyable for all of us!  

Dragana: As the first year of my program came to a close, I had some time to think about what I wanted to do over the summer. As our semester ended early—at the end of April—and the Fall semester does not start until August, I knew that I wanted to TA. Along with TA-ing I am also taking one online course on the history of Florida (which I am really enjoying) and two Directed Readings, as well as working on this blog. As the history of Florida course is six weeks it has been a little intense with work, but once I am done with it then my schedule will not be as packed. In the midst of all the work, I continue to make time for myself. Lately, I have been watching a drama with my sister and it has been nice to spend time with her and discuss our thoughts/theories. Earlier this week I went on a much-needed hike with Kiri—it got me out of the house and a chance to catch up with her since we have not seen each other in a while. Although I will be busy this summer, I am glad that I have something to occupy my time and make the days pass a little quicker. While it will not be the most spectacular summer, it will be one that is going to set me up for my comprehensive exams and the Fall semester. 

Kiri: With my Comprehensive Exams fast approaching in the Spring of next year, as well as the defense of my dissertation prospectus, this summer is going to be a busy one. My goal for this summer is to have most of my outlines for my comprehensive questions finished, as well as around 80% of my prospectus done and my applications for fellowships lined up. Because my funding package does not include a year off for research, it feels like I must work harder and quicker than many of my colleagues to secure enough funding, so that I can spend at least one semester between Britain and Jamaica. On top of this, I am also working as a Research Assistant for my advisor, and I will be starting a wonderful internship program at the State Archives at the start of June. Outside of my academic responsibilities, I am also helping my sister plan her wedding, which will occur in early September. All of this to say, this summer is going to be one of the most difficult academic terms I’ve had (so far, anyway). The things I want to accomplish this summer are going to help me have an easier time come the Spring semester… but having this huge to-do list and not a lot of structure elicits powerful feelings of anxiety.

Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful group of friends that are always there to help. They give me words of encouragement (shoutout to my roomie Rachel who listened to me rant just yesterday about all I had to do… and who told me she had absolutely zero doubts in my abilities to accomplish everything), distractions (hikes with Dragana, blowing off steam with Chelsi and Frank, goofing around with Stephen and Clayton), and constant words of love and affirmation (more shoutouts to my mom, loving boyfriend, and my other roomie Maddie for this one). This summer I feel like I need to accomplish so much just to feel like I’m on the same page as everyone else, and imposter syndrome is creeping in and making a home. With a solid support system, though, I think that, just maybe, everything is going to be okay. 

Stephen: Last summer the pandemic prevented me from travelling abroad and participating in multiple fieldwork opportunities. Even though I did not get to go out into the field the summer was still successful. I published my first article and passed my Italian exam. This summer the pandemic is still causing trouble. My initial hopes were to travel abroad to participate in different nautical archaeology projects, but the pandemic canceled at least the beginning of the summer field season. I still have hope that I may be able to travel abroad at the end of the summer before the fall term. In the meantime, I am writing another article, taking an intensive Latin language class, and preparing a project for the fall semester! After this summer I will be entering my third year as a PhD student. It is almost time to put the final touches on my dissertation proposal, finish my last two semesters of classes, and begin preparing for my preliminary exams. By next summer I should be a PhD Candidate and writing my dissertation! 

Reflections: One Year Later

This last year has been hard for the whole world. The pandemic and the sudden rise of Zoom helped push us all to the final step of creating this blog, which we hoped would be a bright spot in academia as jobs were being rescinded and funding was up in the air. Our goal has been to demystify graduate school, and we hope that over this year we have helped at least one person. This week, we just want to take a moment to reflect on the last year, both personally and professionally, as we look forward to another year for Handling the Humanities.

Kiri: It’s hard to believe that over an entire year has passed since we decided to create this blog. When we first started, our biggest goal was that we would help fellow graduate students in the same ways that others helped us in the past, while also fostering collaborations to cultivate a wider sense of community. Looking back at this year, there were a lot of ups and downs, in the world and in our own lives, and it’s meant a lot to us to have your continued support throughout it all. While we have always hoped that this blog would help others, it helped us in a lot of ways as well. It has offered us opportunities to reflect, and even take our own advice on a lot of things. Personally, this past year I’ve been working to develop my dissertation topic more fully, and it has been challenging to not conflate my status as an academic with my own self-worth. My anxiety reached new heights and my depression left me with all time lows—but having my friends to lean on and this blog to explore my feelings allowed me to get through the tough times and end the academic year on a relatively high note. I cannot wait to see what the year has brought everyone else who reads the blog, and I’m excited to see where the next year will take us. Thank you to everyone who has read, contributed, or even just thrown us the occasional like. It’s meant more than you could know. 

Clayton: How time flies! I can’t believe it’s already been a year since we started this blog, and honestly, I think that it’s gone pretty well! We’ve all been able to write amazing pieces, both as a group and on individual topics that we have each chosen. We have also been able to work with amazing people to bring outside works onto the blog. In such a crazy year, I like to think we were able to create something positive and helpful to those looking into graduate school, while also being somewhat entertaining. To everyone that’s stuck with us over this year, thanks for coming with us on this ride and I hope you enjoyed it so far! It’s only going to get better from here.   

Dragana: While this blog was something that we have discussed since our MA program, it was only last year that we set everything in motion. It is amazing to see how far we have come from 2018-2019 when we first started thinking about creating something for graduate students to help them navigate grad school. A lot of work has gone into starting this blog and maintaining it, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. I hope that we were able (and continue) to be helpful to any and all students in academia because we all share the same struggles. As we look back to what we have done so far, we are proud of what we have produced (from group posts to individual posts and our amazing contributors) and will continue to share more of our experiences and knowledge with you guys. On a more personal level, this blog has been like an anchor for me. Having biweekly posts and meetings has provided a sense of control and comfort during times where things in my personal life may have been difficult. It has also provided me with a way to see and talk to my fellow contributors and friends, even though it’s through Zoom. While we may be a few miles or states apart, this blog has kept the people I admire the most in my life and I look forward to what’s to come.

Stephen: One year! The blog is now a year older and so are we. It has been a challenge to maintain a weekly/bi-weekly blog while most of us are working on PhDs, navigating the workforce, and trying to stay alive during a global pandemic. I could not be prouder of my fellow bloggers and friends who have made this blog possible! They are a hard working group of people who, through a diverse set of skills and opinions, put together an astounding blog that helps guide graduate and potential graduate students through graduate school and beyond. There have been a few guest contributors to the blog whose insights have been greatly appreciated. I look forward to another year with the HTH team and putting out more diverse content for our readers. 

Chelsi: This blog is something that I think we were all unsure of in the beginning. I had grandiose dreams of having a nice medium sized following to interact with, but perhaps we did not reach quite that. We had some friends who wanted to write with us and join us on this journey, though, and people from our own programs say that what we were doing was interesting and good. That kept me going and writing more, even as we all got bogged down with our work in our respective programs. An unexpected part of this blog was how much it helped me. Handling the Humanities has served as a driving force in keeping me grounded. Even as my family was sick, I was sick, someone died, friends lost their funding, and nothing seemed to be going right, I could still come back to the blog and take a moment to reflect on both the good and bad of my life and share those experiences to our few followers. I am thankful to those who have read one post and Maddie’s mom who follows all our posts for interacting and sitting in this space with us. This blog set out to help others, but I have been helped by it as well.

Frank: It’s been a lot of fun working on the blog and hopefully helpful to our readers. After one year we’ve covered a number of relevant topics though we have barely scratched the surface on everything that could be discussed about graduate school or the different perspectives on how to approach it. Looking forward to another year of great discussion. 

Oh No, I Graduated! Now What?

By Clayton Richards

Graduating from a graduate program is something that is built up over the length of your time in a program. It’s constantly seen as both a goal and a benchmark, the thing that you spend all your time and effort working towards. However, there is something else that is always in the back of your mind, what comes next? What to do after graduation? For me at least, these questions became louder and louder as graduation came closer, even while I still had readings and essays to work on. I had some ideas on what would come next, but I was unsure of the exact details. I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go on into a PhD program or work in another field such as museums or government. Since I knew I wasn’t going on to PhD right away, I figured I had some time to get some work experience and decide on what I wanted to do. Then 2020 happened.

The craziness that has been the last year threw a wrench in my plans. Possibilities that were open before the pandemic would not be available for some time. Despite the somewhat extreme circumstances of the last year, there are some general ideas and plans that I have tried to keep to which can be helpful for anyone coming out of graduate school. One of the most important and impactful things you can do is keep up with contacts, they will be the ones to give you advice and leads as you are looking forward. Keeping in contact with my former professors and advisors has helped give me some direction and leads on opportunities after graduate school. They are also one of the main resources I go to when thinking about a PhD. I have also kept in contact with my supervisors at the Florida Holocaust Museum, and they have given me research to do from home and even brough me back into the museum to work. These contacts are always going to be useful to you.

Also, simply putting yourself out there is a major part of the post-grad process. I have applied for many jobs including everything from city government to state and federal agencies to companies. Even in normal times this would be a tough process, and COVID only makes it more difficult. But, going through these applications and interviews do help you gather experience in this process, and can help you get a taste of what a job might be and if you are actually interested in it. Another thing that I’ve been trying to do more post-grad (and because of COVID) is taking care of myself. Taking mental breaks, exercising more, and picking up some new hobbies can help keep the stress and frustration from overloading. I now try to go for 3 miles walks almost every day to just get some fresh air and listen to some music or podcasts, it helps refresh me. All of these tips and ideas help, but they do not make post-grad decisions any easier. COVID has also made this last year a bit of an extreme outlier. The main thing is having faith in yourself and what you want to be, and with some help, everything will fall into place eventually.

University Outreach

Introduction: This week we take a look at the various ways we were involved with university outreach and the benefits it has. From going to events to planning them, university outreach can be a great way to connect with fellow students and faculty, and have a fun time. 

Kiri: Once in graduate school, it can become difficult to engage in university programs because of the pressures that come hand-in-hand with starting such a rigorous program. Joining these programs can help you to stay connected with your fellow grad students, however, and offers a great way to learn how to successfully network. When I first joined FSU’s PhD program, I attended a lot of the events hosted by the History Graduate Student Association to try to meet new people in the program, and I really enjoyed all the work that the HGSA did for the people in the HGSA. When elections came around, I decided to run for secretary of the HGSA so that I could help to foster the same sense of community that the HGSA helped to instill in me the first year I was there. Even through the pandemic, the HGSA has still managed to hold semi-frequent meetings as well as fun events through zoom for students to attend. This was a great way to continue the connections between students already at FSU, as well as meet the students in the incoming cohort who we were unable to meet in person. Although busy schedules sometimes get in the way of continually attending events, or even joining as an officer, going to some events will help one to make deeper connections to others in their program, and also attend more social events that don’t pertain directly to academia. This can be a huge stress reliever as well because you’re able to connect with others that are in the same situation as you are. Through University programs like your Graduate Association, you can form bonds and make friends that can help to support you through your graduate career. 

Dragana: University outreach is a great way to be able to get involved in non-academic related activities. As graduate students it can be difficult to step away from academics and take a break. In the second year of my MA program I became an officer of our chapter of Phi Alpha Theta (PAT). As an officer, I was involved in planning events each month that were meant to bring students and professors of the History Department together in a laid-back environment. I was in charge of creating flyers for our events and maintaining our social media platforms. Being a part of PAT allowed me to get to know the professors outside of the classroom which is something that is difficult for students to do because there are rarely opportunities to talk with professors in a casual environment. Along with getting to know professors, PAT events brought undergrad and grad students together in one space. It allowed for us to get to know some of the students who we were grading for and meet those that we were not. We strived to be open and inviting to undergrads because we knew how scary it could be to go to events where you didn’t know anyone. Our university outreach allowed us to interact mainly with the people inside of our department, but we also had a few people from Art History who would come and join us. It was a great way to talk about what we were doing and have a space where we felt like there was no pressure to do work. 

Chelsi: At the end of my first year in the master’s program, I was in a panic. I had just been rejected for funding for my second year (My lovely advisor would later come up with some funding for me, but I did not know that at the moment), and I had little to add to my CV except some part time experience at a theme park and a movie theater. Being rejected for funding essentially dashed my hopes of being good enough for a PhD program, so I needed anything to make my CV job ready for the next year. In that sense I got very lucky.

The president of the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor’s Society had not put on many events and I felt that I could challenge her for the title. I won the election and in the next year, learned how to budget a hefty club grant, organize events, reach out to professors to give lectures and talks, and other valuable things that look great on a CV and boosted my job prospects. Although I became the president in order to help my CV, I also put in the work for the organization to thrive because the experience itself was truly fun and enjoyable. It allowed me to connect with the department in ways I hadn’t even been aware of before. When I started my PhD program (with one of the highest funding packages available) I immediately became an active member of the History Graduate Student Association and participated in two Conference Planning Committees. These opportunities to get involved were not only excellent ways to make myself look better on paper, but also to know how to have a little bit of fun in graduate school as well.

Clayton: While the main focus of any Graduate Program is the academic work, it is not the only aspect of being a Graduate student. Another aspect of the program which is equally as important is getting to know your graduate community and connecting with it. In many ways, this can be just as intimidating as your actual classes, but it is still a vital part of the graduate experience. Meeting with other students and professors in your department helps you form connections and bonds with the other people who are going through the same things you are. Also, from a more practical standpoint, making and maintaining these connections will provide you with colleagues who can support you in your work and help you advance your career goals. Attending events and meetings in your department are the perfect environment to establish these personal and professional relationships, since they will be attended and set up by your colleagues.

This was the case in my personal experience. Since I entered the department at USF not knowing anyone previously (which will be the case for many), attending these events/meetings helped me get to know the people who were working around me. Chelsi was my first officemate at USF and since she was heavily involved with these events, I was able to get to know many people right away. This helped me understand how an academic environment worked, and also helped me form many great personal relationships, including with the Handling the Humanities team! This blog is proof of the positive outcomes that result from getting involved within your graduate program. 

Should I Write A Thesis?

By Guest Contributor Steven Dunn

Cheese. Not Beaufort D’Ete or Caciocavallo Podolico, fancy cheese that hardly anyone knows. Ordinary cheese, a generic block of processed dairy. That was my unexpected yet oddly satisfying starting point for writing a Master’s thesis.

In my graduate program at the University of South Florida, writing a Master’s thesis was optional. We could chose our final torture for ourselves: endure additional coursework or write a chonky essay. But even if you were bold (or mad) enough to write the thesis, it came with a warning: if you wanted to finish on time, you essentially needed to know your topic from day one. This was a somewhat unreasonable expectation for budding historians, which is why the program made it optional. Most people don’t know which crumb in the vast bread-basket of history they want to focus on; and even if they do, they don’t always know how to approach researching it. Everyone in my cohort, including those of us who thought we knew what we wanted to study from the very beginning, grew into the historians we are now because of the experiences we had in that program. I may still be studying medieval Iceland, but I certainly didn’t ask the same questions nor look at evidence from the same perspective that I do now. I knew the ‘what,’ but not the ‘how.’

Either way, I was one of the fortunate people who knew which crumb was for me, and that’s all you really need to start writing a thesis. For me, that meant knowing I wanted to continue my undergraduate research on feud in medieval Icelandic saga literature. But don’t be fooled. That may sound specific, but it’s still too vague. I simply knew where to start looking, but I hadn’t found a question that needed answering—I hadn’t found my cheese just yet. A Master’s thesis needs…well, a thesis. What am I arguing? What’s my contribution? How should I approach this subject? That was much harder to figure out, so I spent my first semester familiarizing myself with the crumb I chose by writing a historiographic essay to learn what scholars in that field have been up to. This would eventually become my thesis’ introduction.

With that, I entered my second semester with better footing, but still lacked direction. Luckily, the answer came from a seminar called Material Matters on approaching history through the lens of material culture (hence the pun). That seminar taught me two important things: to let historical sources speak to you rather than forcing your ideas upon them, and to regard even the finest details with significance. So, after a chat with the professor who got me into Norse studies and a re-read of my favorite saga, I found my cheese. Instead of writing about feuds in general, I noticed seemingly insignificant objects were often central to those feuds and, in the context of literary narratives, gave them deeper meaning. They also said a lot about the women making and using those objects to engage in a seemingly male-exclusive activity.

Details aside, the final paper I wrote for that seminar eventually became the second chapter of my thesis; and then, in my third semester, I continued to use that methodology in other courses, which helped me write yet another thesis chapter in the guise of a final paper (this time on clothing). This meant that, by the end of my third semester, I had rough drafts of my thesis’ introduction, first chapter, and second chapter. All I needed to do was put them all together, polish them up, and write a conclusion! Simple right? Not quite…. For starters, I had to tweak (and often rewrite) the argument and conclusion of each paper. Then I was hit with hundreds—yes, hundreds—of annotations and corrections sent by my major professor. While most were minor grammatical errors, several were serious flaws in my argument or use of evidence that took time to correct. Despite all that, though, I still finished on time and passed my defense!

Despite my struggles, writing a thesis was the best way to get a taste of what writing a dissertation in a PhD program would be like, which helped me decide which course to take after completing my MA. But if you’re thinking of writing one yourself, I recommend you at least know what you want to write about as early as possible. Armed with that, your program, professors, and cohort will likely help you find the how as you engage with new methodologies in your seminars and papers. Just keep an open mind and work on that thesis one semester at a time. You may not end up with cheese like I did, but you will end up with a thesis that you can be proud of.

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Steven T. Dunn is an independent medievalist and the founder of Fjorn’s Hall (fjorns-hall.com), a website dedicated to helping people learn about Norse history, literature, and lore through inexpensive online courses. Outside of academia, he is creating a fantasy world inspired by the history he studies and hopes to write many books set in that world. All of these endeavors are powered almost exclusively by tea. Lots of tea.

Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Part Two

Clayton: In many graduate programs, the culmination of the years of work and studies are Comps, or the Comprehensive Exams. These are the exams given near the end of your time in graduate school in order for your professors to test all you have learned during your time in the program. While these exams can vary from program to program, at USF the main focus of the Comps was to test your knowledge of various historical subjects and your understanding of the general ideas and historiography. These subjects are chosen based on what you studied in your program, for example, mine were American Imperialism, and American History 1789-1865 and 1865 to 1945. Usually your committee members are very flexible when it comes to the categories and will work with you based on your knowledge and coursework to make them fit.

While the idea of Comps and even just getting all the material together to prepare for them can be an intimidating task, there are a lot of things that are working in your favor during this process. As I mentioned before, your committee members are generally pretty flexible and willing to work with you on your categories and subjects. Since most likely you have worked with these professors a lot in the past and taken their classes, they know what you do or don’t know in the historiography, and will help point you in the direction of books/authors that will be the most useful for you. These personal relationships also mean you can go to them for advice on how to prepare and with any other questions you may have during the Comps process. Comps is a long and challenging process, but there are aspects that help make it bearable.   

Kiri: Comprehensive exams can feel like a daunting process, especially when you’re in an MA program and still feel like you’ve just started really learning all the things you need to know to become an historian. For me, I was lucky in that the professors I had asked to be on my committee were very flexible and understanding about the strain that taking comps can put on a person. In my institution, MA comps lasted for 6 hours: we had to answer a total of three questions and we had two hours per question. I answered questions based on Britain, women and gender studies, and the Mediterranean. For my women and gender as well as Mediterranean fields, I received the questions beforehand and Dragana and I had an independent study with the professor where we mapped out our responses for each of the questions. For my other professor, I had a general idea about what my questions were going to be, but nothing was set in stone. For each of these fields, I made flash cards with the names of authors I wanted to talk about on one side, and their main arguments as well as the date they published their books on the other. Connecting the dates to the authors really helped me to organize my answers effectively, as each answer functioned pretty much like a historiography.

Comprehensive exams are intimidating because it seems like they were built as a way to test the limits of students. For many exams, students are expected to answer questions through little more than rouge memorization of historians and their books. Truly, it seems that no matter how quickly we devour various historiographies, there is still so much more to learn. As Geoffery Chaucer once said of courtly love in The Parliament of Fowles, but which seems apt for academia as well, ”The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” Although in my opinion this type of test is outdated, it seems that it still dominates the historical field and it’s important to know to engage effectively with a large corpus of text in order to answer broader questions about historical trends. 

Stephen: All the contributors of this blog went to the same MA program and had to take their comprehensive exams in the same format. The only difference between each one of us was the area of study, the amount of information needed to be studied, and questions that were going to be asked during our respective exams. Everyone is going to have a different comp experience, but there are some general guidelines that may be helpful in preparing for your final exams.

My first piece of advice is to collect your comps list early. Begin reading and taking notes as soon as possible. Chipping away an article or book chapter a day months before your comps date will ease your anxiety. This will make you better prepared for when the day comes. My second piece of advice is you should take mental breaks during the time you prepare for your exams. Constantly reading and writing is not productive. Burnout is real and it will happen to you! Try to fit in some activity or exercise between study sessions to reset and refocus both your mind and body on the tasks ahead. My final piece of advice is to relax. Comprehensive exams are going to be a challenge, but they are not the end of the world nor even an indicator of what a student truly knows on the subject.

Frank: Comprehensive exams are often considered an intimidating and daunting task, however, not overthinking them can be helpful towards your mental health and your success as a scholar. It is important to remember that your professors want you to pass the exams. They will start preparing you when they think it necessary, walking you through how the process will go and likely not putting you in a position to take them unless they think you are ready. Therefore, over-stressing about comps or stressing years in advance is not only misplaced, but can sap your mental energy for other important tasks such as individual research projects, publications, job searching and networking, and professional development. Indeed, your professors (hopefully) care more about your success in those other areas than in comps as well! As Stephen mentioned, burnout is real, and with enough academic, financial, and health pressures for graduate students, keeping comps in perspective is going to help in the long run.

Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Advice from a PhD

By Guest Contributor Rozzmery Palenzuela

Qualifying exams tend to be intentionally mystified and that often makes preparing for them an arduous experience. Typically, doctoral students begin prepping for their comprehensive exams in their final semester of coursework and the process takes anywhere from 6 months to a year.  The process is simple: identify your committee, make your lists, do the reading, study the material, and pre-write. But simple processes are not exempt from complications and are certainly not removed from stress. These are my tips and takeaways on how to advance to candidacy (relatively) stress free:

1.  Identify your committee early: for those who have stayed in their field of study for a long time, it’s more likely than not you go into the program having identified professors that you want to work with and fields you want to specialize in and that makes this process a lot easier. For those that are switching fields or face departmental hiccups –– i.e. professors leaving, retiring, or disputes over advisor status and who gets to chair) –– do your best to identify these people early on and get an informal committee set up for when you start prepping for exams.

2.  Bureaucratic work: Many universities require doctoral students to fulfill language requirements and submit a number of forms; identify the deadlines and always submit your paperwork at least 60 days before those deadlines (it can save you a lot of grief to get those things taken care of early on)

3.  Comps Lists: After preliminary conversations with your committee about what your field with them will look like, you will then start forming your Comps lists. Some professors have a strict list that they want you to use, while others allow you to use their lists as a guide but expect you to make your own list.

  • Pro-tip #1: if you have taken classes in any of your fields, do the best that you can to include books that you’ve already read. For example, if your field is Modern European History and you’ve taken a class on 20th century Consumer Culture, create thematic subfield and include the readings from that class.

Remember: Your lists are not fixed. They are very, very fluid and will change periodically as you make your way through each section. Usually, professors will “greenlight” a list and tell you to jump into reading, but will make modifications and suggestions for further reading as you have conversations about each subfield and your reading/research interests.

  • Pro-tip #2: Let your proposal inform your list. If you’re planning to write a dissertation on Gender in Early Modern Spain, make that a subfield, or subcategory in your list. Your readings for each field should help guide you in the way you structure your teaching and should serve as a foundation for your dissertation proposal and bibliography.

4.  Comps prepping: Your lists are “done” and it’s time to start reading. Starting is often the hardest part. Depending on your field/department requirements, talk with your advisor about which lists to tackle first especially if temporally, it makes sense to tackle one list before the others. The order, in the end, is up to you.

  • Pro-tip #3: By now you should know what kind of a note-taker you are from having taken years of graduate coursework; Comps prepping is about making that process more efficient and less time-consuming.
  • If you’re a person who types, find the best platform for storing your notes; if your preferred annotation style is to handwrite, find the best way to note-take that’s separate from the marginal notes that you write in the source (book, article, etc.). Whatever your style, just remember to digitize your notes. Having the ability to Ctrl (or Command) + F and search through your notes will save you so. much. time.
  • Pro-tip #4: Once you finish a subfield, get in the habit of writing a “Comps Question” for that section and doing a rough outline or writing a short paragraph about how you would answer that question (and what readings you’ll pull from). This is a good habit to get into as some professors will expect you to contribute largely to the formulation of your comps question.

5.  Proposal writing: Every university has different requirements for what the proposal should look like. Get a firm sense of what your requirements are and ask advanced PhD students/candidates to share their proposals with you for guidance and make sure that you are clear about deadlines.

  • Pro-tip #5: Begin thinking about your proposal early on and in your meetings with your committee; after you finish each subfield, think about how the readings in the subfield inform your approach to the proposal: do they force you to ask methodological questions? Do they help you narrow your proposal idea? Etc.
  • Remember: your lists should help you write your proposal.

Begin writing the proposal at least two months before the deadline to give you ample space for your committee to review and make suggestions for revisions.

Take away suggestions:

  • Have very open and candid conversations with your committee about their expectations for the meetings as well as the written or oral exam. You don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.
  • Think like a professor. Role play and flip the script. If you had a graduate student, what things/themes/arguments would YOU want them to know from the readings in the subfields/lists
  • Also get to know your professors: who trained them and who they’re friends with and collaborate with. Odds are that they know their work best and it will come back and bite you if you don’t understand or are not familiar with their work or approaches.
  • Know when to stop reading and when to start pre-writing. This is very important; stop reading 30 days before the exam and start pre-writing as soon as you have or relatively know what your questions are or could be. 
  • Remember that your professors are rooting for you. We all are. Imposter syndrome is unavoidable but have faith in yourself that you have done the work and you are capable of proving your mastery of the field. Your committee would not let you take exams unless they know that you’re ready. Stew in that and let that give you confidence as you take the written and/or oral exams.
  • Before the exams: Get a good night’s rest, eat well, drink lots of water and remember to breathe. Your body and mind will thank you and will take over from there.
  • After exams: go out and celebrate with friends. Distract yourself and take a much needed rest. You did it!


Rozzmery Palenzuela Vicente is a third year Ph.D. student at Florida International University where she studies gender, family and childhood in Modern Latin America with an emphasis on Cuba. She is also interested in comparative communist cultures, black internationalism, and tackling heavy theoretical works – most notably, affect theory. In her spare time, she is an avid film buff, beach bum and actively engages into arguments with Miami-Cuban Republicans.