Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Notorious Book Club reminder

Just a reminder: if you want to take part in the discussion of Tony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History, I'll be hosting it here sometime around Sept. 30. So get your copy, read up, and tune in!

Monday, September 12, 2016

It's not you, it's me. (Or is it?)

"Don't be afraid to get it wrong," I tell my students all. the. time. "It's how we learn."

I'm usually prompted to tell students this in some private meeting to discuss their sinking grades in discussion (undergraduate) or seminar (graduate) participation. The same students who are so passionate and interested in my office hours, so articulate in their papers, are quiet as mice at a Quaker meeting when it comes time to bring those ideas up in class. Usually what happens is that someone says something in class, and that becomes the consensus for the class as a whole. Now, everyone is afraid to speak an opinion that runs counter to what that first person said. In some cases, they don't want to be disagreeable. But in others, they just don't want to get it wrong in public.

I've often wondered how we get students past this fear of being ignorant in public. That's not "stupid", mind you. It's just publicly exposing yourself as not knowing something. Or maybe as misunderstanding something. In the past, I have likened this to my mistakes while learning my first foreign language. I landed in Frankfurt at age 19 armed with two years of high school German, and decided that I couldn't stay in the hostel forever. I needed go out and fearlessly mangle the language and wait for someone to correct me; only this way, I reasoned, would I learn.

I'm starting to reconsider this, and I'm doing so because of a book review that I'm currently writing.

When I was a graduate student, I wrote cautious book reviews, ones that mostly summarized the book and its arguments, and made some statements as to how it fit in with/contributed to the current literature on the subject. My evaluations were always kept to a bare minimum: Who am I, I thought, to pass judgement on a scholar's work when I haven't even finished my dissertation?

This changed a bit after I had published my first book. I had come to think that I knew enough to judge. I knew how to make connections between a book and its progenitors. I knew the difference between incremental contributions (most books) and the truly pathbreaking (rare), and how to praise both. I knew what was a legitimate criticism, and felt expert enough to level those, though I like to think I did so fairly.

But this book...

This book that I'm currently writing a review for has me out of my depth again. There are many things I understand, in terms of time, place, and context. But the approach is something that I'm wholly unfamiliar with. And frankly, that I find myself confused by. And this has me feeling like one of my undergraduates again: Are other people confused by this? Does the emperor have scanty clothing in some places? Or is this just my inexperience in this area, and everyone else who reads this book will immediately understand these things that I find confusing? Is the author eliding terminology? Or am I just not grasping the distinction?

I already feel myself retreating into that "cautious book reviewer" pose. But I'm going to give myself one more chance to try to understand what is going on here, to figure out who is responsible for the confusion. And then I'll write my book review as bravely as I can. But that may not be very much.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Medieval Mammal of the Week

Meet the "least weasel." This, apparently, is the little guy or gal you want to get if you have mice on board your medieval ship.

And trust me: you DO have mice on board your medieval ship. Be smart: get a least weasel now, before it's too late.

Monday, August 29, 2016

On the other hand, it's not NOT political history.

The history social webs are all abuzz today about the recent op-ed in the New York Times, asking the question "Why did we stop teaching political history?" And while I'm sure others will write about this (Tenured Radical is already on it, for example), I'm going to focus on how this op-ed helps to illustrate one of my pet peeves (and they are legion) in the field of English usage: this is the correct example of what's meant by "begging the question."

The phrase "begging the question" is most commonly used incorrectly: "Candidate X's sudden shift in position on a key issue begs the question of whether s/he ever actually intended to follow through with the original position." Here, it means "raises the question." In fact, it's used so much more often this way than the correct way (see below), that descriptivists/living language proponents might be justified in saying that this is now a fully correct use of the phrase.

But the phrase, in its original sense, is an a priori assumption, a trick to claim as a fundamental proposition the thing that is to be proven. And in that sense, the op-ed in question is a beautiful demonstration of this fallacy: "Why did X happen," when he has not proven that X did happen.

To put it more simply: the answer is that we haven't stopped teaching political history.

What have we stopped (or at least radically pulled back on) teaching and researching? Political history divorced from social, cultural, religious, economic, environmental, global, gender histories. Currently practicing historians realize that our fields were illusions that the boundaries were fuzzy, and that that was, actually, a good thing. Our courses (and research) may not be labeled "political history" because we are looking at the productive spaces where politics collides with race, or environment, or gender, or globalism, or, or, or.

illustrative anecdote: I am a medievalist who teaches a course on the crusades. I introduce the big outline of events in the first couple weeks, and then we move into theme weeks: gender and crusading, theologies of Just War; images of the Other; crusade and colonization. I explain to them on the first day that "this is not a military history course." And every time, a few pair of shoulders sag. But then I explain to them that it's not not military history. It's just that we're not doing 15 weeks of battles and generals and comparative trebuchets. The military dimension is present, but it doesn't operate in isolation.

And I guess that's what I'd tell the authors of this piece: that a job ad or research trajectory or course description might not be "political history"... but it's not not political history. And if the political is now infused with everything, then the flip side of that coin is that most other topics can no longer pretend to exist in isolation from the political.

All better now?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Unassigned Reading Club: The Footnote

For most academics, there are two types of reading we do: Books we have to read, and books we read to relax. For me, "have to reads" include things for both teaching and research. "Relaxation reads" are real brain-in-power-down-mode novels, more often than not in one of the speculative fiction or fantasy subgenres, with an occasional award-winner thrown in there. Point is, I'm either working, or I'm off the clock.

But then there's that other list: the things that are smart, written by scholars for a popular audience, or journalists for a smart audience. Books that make you think, but that manage to do so without feeling like work. 

Often, what visually differentiates these books from the "have to reads" is a lack (or paucity) of footnotes. Which is what makes my choice for September particularly ironic: it's Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History. It's a book about the way knowledge is presented in written and visual form. I think. I haven't read it yet. And yes -- it does have footnotes.

In any case, my friend J and I were planning on reading this during the month of September, and then talking about it. So if anyone would like to join in, grab a copy (did I mention it's a slim volume, perfect for a quick-but-smart read?), get reading, and let's meet back here around September 30th.

Who's in?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Qualms About Being Qualified, or What the Hell Am *I* Doing Pretending to Teach Paleography?

Today, my friends, was convocation at my college. This can only mean one thing: the semester is actually going to begin. On Monday. Will a year have left me rested and rejuvenated? Or will it have rendered me utterly unable to cope? Only time will tell.

But... other than stupidly deciding that this was the year to Revise! All! The! Courses!, I've taken on an extra quasi-prep: for my two excellent grad students (truly, they are) I am organizing a paleography workshop. Just six weeks, I told them. You should not think this will prepare you for the archives, I told them. But it might, just might, prepare them to take a real paleography course from someone who's actually qualified.

Query now: I wonder if anyone is really qualified to teach a medieval paleography course. I mean, someone whose field is Manuscript Studies, perhaps. But a working medieval historian? Most of us work with one century, at most. We tend to specialize in two or three hands at first, maybe expanding that over the course of a career. But a paleography course runs the whole gamut. Who among us is specialist in Merovingian chancery script:

...and blackletter book hands:

...and whatever the hell this is:

(Oh. Wait. That's one of mine.)

Anyway, the point is that I need to realize that most people who have ever taught paleography have been in the same situation I'm in: confident in a handful of hands, vaguely competent in a few others, and ready to admit ignorance in some places. I guess I can live with that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Welcome to the Beehive

I need to start this story with the Bungal-ette. I moved into it in 2003. Imagine a wood-frame bungalow, built in the late 30s. Imagine wood floors and tile in the bathroom and kitchen and windows everywhere. Imagine it shrunk down to 500 square feet. Imagine it convenient to bike lanes, bus routes, coffee shops, and a body of water. It was a little piece of rental perfection, and was thus my home for the dozen or so years between when I was hired at Grit City and when I went off to my divine year at Fancy-Pants U. And though the owner and I got along famously, "no sublets" was a hard and fast rule. Thus, I knew that I would have to find someplace to live upon my return. And I was pretty sure that I'd get less and pay more -- prices are high here, and Bungalettes are hard to come by.

I am here to tell you that I had no idea.

In the scant year I was away, rental prices went up about 15%. In a single year. And the vacancy rate fell to below 3%. I looked and looked. One place wanted a two-year lease. Another didn't come with a refrigerator. Another was a whopping twenty-five percent more than I had paid only a year ago, for a smaller and less desirable place. And just about everything already had five applications in.

And then I found the Beehive.[1]

Here's how it went: my former Pilates instructor asked the owner of the studio who had a friend who was moving from one unit to another in a subdivided house, and so the small upstairs unit would be available, and might I be interested? Well, it was indeed small -- 410 square feet, including the closet. And certainly a little more chaotic than my previous place, what with everbody living on top of each other. And there were a few things that Did Not Work that I knew I would have to fix myself or just learn to live with. And the previous tenant had done only a desultory job cleaning. It was not promising at first. But... it was next to the neighborhood I was hoping for. And both the co-owners (one of whom lives in a back unit) seemed pretty cool, and happy to have someone mostly self-sufficient and quiet, as well as to knock off over half of the deposit in exchange for the full day of pre-move-in cleaning I did. And though the unit kitchen can only accommodate one butt at a time (and that only if said butt is not dancing), and a living/dining room that could not fit an actual dining table, it also had a little corner nook under the eaves for an office and my bike. It was still biking distance from work,if in a neighborhood a bit less well maintained. There were wood floors. The other tenants were friendly, and the resident co-owner built conceptual art out of reclaimed wood in the backyard, and was the kind of person who would eventually offer to swap her preserved meyer lemons for my cranberry-apple chutney. The bedroom got tons of morning sunlight. It had a little working gas fireplace in the corner to provide the heat in winter. It rented for 50% below market, enabling me to put well over a third of my take-home pay towards my ever-optimistic house fund. And it was available.

Reader, I rented it.

[1] "Why 'The Beehive?'," you may well ask. Well, in large part because, with four units in the house plus two stand-alones and the owner's workshop/studio -- did I mention she's a conceptual artist? -- in the backyard and half of the units taken up by people who either are related to each other or have known each other for ages, all kind of on top of each other, it's a hive of seemingly chaotic but perfectly cheerful activity. And also, because there is an actual colony of bees that has taken up residence in the exterior wall just below the gorgeous bay window in my miniscule living room. The screens, fortunately, are sound. I checked.