Sunday, April 27, 2008


In chess, when your king goes down at the hand of your opponent's knight because your own men have you trapped, it's what they call "smothered mate." The tragedy of smothered mate isn't simply that you have lost the game, the tragedy is that you've lost the game at your own hand. You've trapped yourself in a corner with all that's going for you blocking you in.

Emerson once said, "As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way." I've known Emerson's wisdom, just as I have known the tragedy of smothered mate, but I've never felt it the way I feel it right now.

Nearly two and a half years ago I signed on to process, catalog, and prepare for researchers the papers of former congressman Richard Stallings. Actually, two and a half years ago I didn't know what I had signed on for. Two and a half years ago I asked for the library's permission to conduct research within the papers of Mr. Stallings, at his suggestion, as the papers had remained closed since he donated them in December of 1992. I wanted an independent study project that allowed me to analyze primary source materials. I was curious about the papers and I was looking for a challenge. A challenge, the thought makes me chuckle at this moment.

All of the spring semester of 2006, I spent day in and day out looking through all two hundred and sixty-six original boxes of the Stallings Collection. I spent an entire semester digging for something that wasn't there. No polling data in the Stallings Collection, in case anybody is wondering. I learned that the hard way. By that April it was becoming obvious to me that somebody needed to process these papers. Completely. I'm not an archivist and I'm an amateur historian. I didn't have the skills necessary, but that didn't stop me. I applied for some funding via a presidential internship and by August I was starting the long process of cataloging a collection of materials spanning Stallings' entire congressional career and his service as U.S. Nuclear Waste Negotiator.

According to the deed of gift (a procedural document that comes with all donations to the university library), the Stallings Collection had to open in January of 2008. I won't go into the particulars here, the ones that would clearly outline why this was a false assumption and that the papers were not required to remain closed from the public until 2008, but I will say beginning a project in 2006 and expecting to finish it in 2008 is a reasonable assumption. Unless you work in an archive.

This past February, the papers opened to the public and they are, as of now, still not completely processed. I'm shooting for this August, though that may be an unreachable goal.

The reason I give you all of this history once again is because while all of this was happening, I was supposedly working toward my Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science. Somewhere along the way I dropped the double major, mostly because ISU offers a BS in Political Science that would require an extra math class (one I wouldn't have been able to pass if my life depended on it) and because I just didn't have the time. My degree goal became the BA in History with a minor in Political Science.

My goals were all well and good until I realized that I would be done with my BA long before I would be finished with the Stallings Collection. My attachment to the Stallings Collection can't be emphasized enough here. No part of me wanted to leave ISU until the collection was done. So, the next hoop to jump through was finding a graduate program here that I could be get admitted to while I finished up the collection. ISU doesn't have a traditional History graduate program and though I appreciation Political Science, I wanted nothing to do with their MA program. After meeting with the president of the university, the chairmen of both History and Political Science, and the dean of my college, I applied to a very sketchy interdisciplinary graduate program here. Sketchy as in the graduate school that oversees in doesn't even know how it works and there are maybe six students that have attempted the program and none of them had History listed as their primary field of study. Let's just say this path was going to be a learning experience for me, my advisors, and all parties involved.

If you had asked me two weeks ago what my plan was, I would have said first, finish the Stallings Collection, two, write my masters thesis, and three, apply to a PhD program somewhere for when I graduate with my MA in May of '09.

Today my number one priority remains to complete the Stallings Collection. However, the things that used to fall into place behind that goal have taken a crazy turn.

For every day I've spent on the Stallings Collection, I've taken a step backward with my academic progress. This project that has saved me in so many ways and has been a wonderful gift in terms of the extra-curricular experience I am gaining here, has become like my oponent's knight to my king on the chess board, something that is blocking me in.

I like to say that Biology and my inability to pass it is what is keeping me at ISU, but that isn't really the case. A few poor academic decisions, one of which was hanging on to an academic advisor who didn't exactly advise, and the amount of time it has taken to process the Stallings Collection have left me at a dead end.

Maybe recognizing this now is a blessing. Maybe in feeling smothered I am finally forced to recognize the opportunities that are out there for me, the opportunities ISU simply couldn't offer. The past week made me realize how unhappy I have been for over a year with my academic situation. The past week made me realize how unhappy I would continue to be in an interdisciplinary program that I never was sold on. I just wish I didn't have to leave Idaho to get the degree I want.

All in all the moral of this story--even in chess when the king is smothered, he gets knocked down, the board is cleared, and not long after, he gets back up to play another game.

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