Friday, December 31, 2010

Cleaning House (NOT a New Year's Metaphor, I Promise)

As the parenthetical subtitle says: this is NOT a New Year's post about metaphorical housecleaning. This is a post about real housecleaning as a single person, a woman, and an ostensibly upper-middle-class person.

This post was inspired by an offhand comment overheard in the coffee shop I'm currently sitting in: one of the baristas, as she went out to clean the condiment counter, noted that she'd "called the maid about doing it." This was by way of a funny: we, the comment said, are the ones who do the cleaning-up. Household help is something so utterly foreign as to be silly. The foreign-ness comes partly from being a 20-something working in a coffee shop, but also, I suspect, from being a person living in this particular neighborhood in this particular city. Since this is the city and the neighborhood I grew up in, I felt myself included in the unspoken "we."

I thought most people in my peer group were like me. And here in Puddletown, they are. But do you know what? The four academic women I am closest to in my department all have someone clean their houses** once every one to two weeks. Granted, one of them only has a housecleaner because her husband had one, and when she moved in with him, the housekeeper was already installed. But honestly, I was shocked. Because all of a sudden, the thing I thought was a joke had become normal. I found myself an "us" on the "them" side of the line (or the other way around, depending on your point of view).

Now, "Why do people have housekeepers?" is a question with many answers. "Why do professional women have housekeepers?" is one I can answer myself: Because they'd rather be doing something else, and no one else is going to do it for them. And I can certainly appreciate that on an intellectual level, and don't begrudge any woman the choice of what to do with her own hard-earned money. If my friend is using her money to buy her way out of scrubbing the toilet, I can totally get behind that.

So, at this point, the question is: "Why don't I, when other people do?" Here's what I've come up with -- admittedly off the top of my head while on the second cup of coffee:
  • I can't afford it.
  • Okay, so maybe I could, but I'd have to give up something else that I value more than paid domestic labor.
  • The Gender Thing: I have a hard time paying women in particular to do things that I've always successfully done for myself. This is why I only rarely get pedicures; the image of a woman more or less on her knees for me just to earn a lousy couple of bucks makes me want to scream with outrage.
  • The Class Thing: I feel like I'd be exploiting the people I came from. Yes, I'd be providing employment, and any work is good work in these times. And I could pay a real living wage and tip generously. Yet somehow, it just feels wrong.
  • The Race Thing: See both "class" and "gender" reasons, above. Since most "house help" in the Grit City area are immigrant women, all the above reasons apply here.
  • I rent 500 square feet. Really, doesn't hiring someone to clean a teeny-tiny space that I don't even own seem like overkill?
  • I'm the kind of person who takes perhaps unreasonable pride in doing for herself whenever possible. I can change my own bicycle tire; I can navigate my way solo around a foreign city's bus system; I can damn well sweep my own floors.
  • I can't live in disorder, clutter, or filth, but do I really need floors I could eat off of at any given moment? If my bathtub or kitchen floors are only really thoroughly cleaned every two to three weeks, will something bad happen? Does anyone really look at the baseboards? The answer to all three, I've concluded, is: Probably not.
So, I guess that's kind of it. For me, personally, it's a list compelling enough to ensure that I will keep on doing my own half-assed housecleaning. So come on over to Casa Notorious, help yourself to what's in the kitchen... and keep your line of sight well above the level of the baseboards, okay?

Happy New Year, everyone.

**For what it's worth: 1 full-sized house, 2 two-bedroom condos, 1 two-bedroom apartment; all are women living with their spouses, no children, and no pets. If that makes a difference.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Miricale (Academic Version)

Here's the cool thing that happened today:

After four days of very intense family activity in which I'd had no time to myself, I arranged to have an afternoon off. I met up with a good friend who also happened to be in town for the holidays, and we headed to Puddletown Books, which is a wonderful place to be at any time of the year.

Another reason to love Puddletown: longer lines at the bookstore than at the mall.

Good friend was wonderful, in that she gets where I'm coming from with the holidays.** We sat and had coffee and talked, and then spent an hour browsing the stacks, where I picked up a discounted copy of a book written by an early modernist I knew from back in grad school.

After we finished up, I struck out on my own to grab one last present and then rewarded myself with a slice of pizza (pepperocini and feta -- yum) and started reading the introduction to the book I had picked up. And lo and behold, three pages into it, I came across an unexpected bit of background information that I think explains a connection I had wondered about between two documents (one from the 14th century, one from the 16th) that chronicled a certain 14th-century event that is part of my current research. I had wondered at the time if there was a specific reason that these accounts were so different; now, thanks to some serendipitous reading, I think I can explain it. Better yet: I think I'm the first person to figure out how explain it (or even that it needs to be explained!), because so few people (myself included, up until today) read across that medieval/early modern divide to explain events like the one I'm focusing on here.

And so, over pizza, I got an idea for an article -- one that feeds into my current book project, and one that I've got an ideal journal to place it in.

Maybe it's not the most typical of Christmas miracles, but I'll take it.

**For example: when we parted for the evening, rather than wishing me "Merry Christmas," she hugged me and saw me off with a cheery "Good luck!"

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Checked off

I've done the grading.

I've given the apartment at least a superficial cleaning, in preparation for the people who will be staying here.

I've taken out the garbage and cleaned out the fridge; checked the alarm clock, stove, coffee pot, and thermostat to make sure they're off.

I'm about to water the plants.

I've packed a suitcase (full to bursting), a carry-on, and a purse.

And I'm off to my beloved Puddletown -- incidentally, for my longest stay there since I left for grad school over 15 years ago. More pictures to come.

fig. 1: I don't call it "Puddletown" for nothing.

Friday, December 17, 2010

After Angst, A Happy Ending

An epilogue to my epilogue:

This morning, on the last day of finals week, at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m., I gave my last final exam. I've just started on the bluebooks, and have about 24 hours to finish them before heading off to Puddletown. But that's not what this post is about. It's about two good things that happened today to take the edge off my teaching angst.

First thing: I sat down with Master Teacher, and she offered reassurance, but then asked good questions about what I was doing, and told me that I was doing most everything right, but then actually offered a suggestion for improving, with examples from her own courses, and a reason why a small change could make a big difference. She then shared some materials with me. I'm going to think about how to implement the change. I won't do it exactly like she does, because my goals are slightly different, but she's given me something that I can do.

Second thing: at the end of the final exam, one of the last students to turn in her exam was E. E., like all of the students in this 100-level class, is a non-major, taking this course to fill a Gen Ed requirement. She's also been one of the strongest students: her papers have been in the B+/A- range, and her work in discussion shows her to be thinking hard about the material, even if her conclusions aren't always completely on-target. Anyway, E. turns in her exam, then asks, "So, what courses in [medieval stuff] are you teaching next semester? Because I always thought it would be boring, but it actually sounds really interesting now, and I'd like to take a course in it."

Now, you'll just have to take my word for it that E. is not a suck-up. After a semester, it's pretty clear who does or does not fall into that category. No, what seems to have happened is that a strong student, a non-major but in a related field, got interested in something that I talked about for three weeks out of an entire course, and now wants to learn more about it -- from me.

She. Wants. To. Learn. More.

Thank you, E. On the last day of the semester, just when I was getting ready to chalk it all up as a bad job, or at best a "learning experience," you made it all worth it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Better Teacher, Hah, Hah, Hah! or: Learning to Ask for Help

This post is a sort of an epilogue to my "better teacher" series (see here, here, and here). Unfortunately, it's not the happy ending that I had hoped for. You see, despite having done more advance preparation for the semester than ever, and despite totally revamping my teaching to offer more mentoring, more scaffolding, more one-on-one conferences, and letting go of where I thought my students already ought to be in favor of working with where they actually were, the final papers and the first final exam have showed that they, on average, have spectacularly tanked this semester. Not just "they're not improving like I expected them to"; they've actually gotten worse -- much worse.

I am, needless to say, feeling discouraged. I've worked harder this semester than ever before, and gone into it more prepared than ever, and the results have been... well, bad. And I've been at a loss as to what to do about it.

Fortunately, I remembered a bit of advice that I am constantly giving my students: "If you're lost, I will do whatever I can, but I may not know unless you tell me. So ask for help."

So I did something I haven't done since I was a rookie teacher: I reached out to a superior teacher in my department (demanding of her students, and they rise to the occasion; won a university-wide teaching award a couple of years ago), told her about the problems I was having, and asked her if she'd take a look at what I was doing and offer me honest feedback and whatever constructive suggestions she had. Her first response was to reassure me that this may not be my fault at all; that our students lately had been less than stellar. But then, generous soul that she is, she went beyond mere reassurance and said, yes, let's meet for coffee and really see if there's something you can be doing better. Not "more" -- she's a firm believer in efficiency of effort and understands where there's a point of diminishing returns -- just better.

We are meeting on Friday. I'll report back then. But whatever happens, I'm grateful to have such a generous colleague, and happy that I remembered the simple rule: If you're struggling, ask for help.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

'Tis the season for grading

Yes, indeed.

Just a short post: while normal people may be out shopping for gifts, the proffies are all locked away from the world, trying to get those final papers graded so we can have our desks cleared for grading the final exams. My schedule:

This past Monday-Friday: Grade 30 papers from lower-division survey class (@ 3-4 pp.)

Saturday & Sunday: Grade 24 final research papers from upper-division class (@ 5-6 pp.); write final exam for same class

Monday: Administer final exam for upper-division class; collect papers from grad class (6 papers @ 18-20 pp.)

Tuesday-Thursday: Grade all of the above; write exam for lower-division class

Friday: administer above final exam; begin grading

Saturday: finish grading exams, because...

Sunday: leave for holiday visit to relatives.

It's best not to think about it all at once.

UPDATE: below, in the comments, a new discussion topic, regarding how much writing we assign in our courses in the Humanities.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Welcome to another installment of what is rapidly becoming "Girl Scholar's recipe blog." Today: Ginger-Molasses cookies! This is a pretty standard recipe, I think, adapted from one of my mom's. Let us count its virtues (besides yumminess):
  1. It has only a few ingredients, most of which you may already have on hand
  2. It takes only 45 minutes to whip up a batch (the recipe below makes about 3 dozen), start to finish
  3. Because the molasses provides so much moisture, you need very little butter. This will allow you to convince yourself that the cookies are healthy.
  4. The recipe can be made vegan-friendly by using soy milk (I like vanilla-flavored), margarine, and whatever egg substitute you like.
  5. The cookies are soft, with lovely winter spices. It's basically gingerbread in cookie form.
Convinced? Of course you are. so let's get going.

fig. 1: Internet-supplied cookie photo; actual cookies
did not sit still long enough to be photographed

A few hours before you start, you should set out half a stick of butter to soften at room temperature. New to baking? Then don't make the rookie mistake of rushing things by melting the butter. This won't turn out well. If you get a spur-of-the-moment craving for these cookies and happen to have a gas oven, you can put the butter in a dish in the oven with the heat off, occasionally flipping the thing over. The ambient heat in the oven will soften it in about 20 minutes.

Right. So once your butter is soft (but should be holding its shape until you prod it), heat the oven to 350, and get started:
  1. Cream together the half-stick (1/4 cup) of butter with 3/4 cup white sugar until smooth. (I use a food processor, but you can use a mixer, a whisk [takes a mite longer], or even a Swift Whip!).
  2. If you've used a mixer or food processor, then transfer the butter/sugar mix to a large bowl and add 1 egg, 1/4 c. of warmed milk (30 second in the microwave oughta do ya'), 1/2 c. of molasses, 1-2 Tbsp. fresh grated ginger, and 1 t. mixed pie spices (usually marked as “pumpkin pie spice”, but a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, etc. will work fine). Stir it up good.
  3. Now add the dry ingredients: 1/8 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking soda, and 2 c. flour, and mix well. I usually add the flour a bit at a time so it all gets well blended. You may find you want to add a bit more flour at this point, depending on the dough's consistency: by the end, you want a dough that's not going to be as stiff or completely hold its shape like a chocolate-chip cookie dough, but that isn't so thin that it splooshes into a puddle when you drop it by rounded teaspoonsful onto a lightly greased cookie sheet.
  4. In fact, do that now, and pop it into the oven for 9 minutes. Remove, and pop in the next one. Let the finished cookies cool for 1 minute, then transfer them by spatula onto a cooling rack and get the next one going.
  5. Once the cookies are mostly cool, you can dust them lightly with powdered sugar if you like, or make a sugar glaze, or decorate them to resemble the faces of your favorite gender theorists, or just eat them plain.

So. Very. Tasty.

Monday, December 6, 2010

This is not a post about my romantic misadventures

...because there haven't been any. It's merely a small conversational vignette on the topic of hypothetical romantic misadventures.

background: a conversation that happened to touch on the most recent two people I've been involved with.

Other Person: So, you only date academics?

Me: No, no -- I only meet academics. (pause for thought) I suppose I'd be more likely to date non-academics if I ever went anywhere other than my office.

Seriously, the last relationship I was in only happened because the person kept stopping by my office. And put like that, it might look sad. But to me, it's actually kind of amusing: I'm probably only ever going to date again if a potential romantic partner is delivered to my door like a pizza that I didn't actually order.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Better Teacher, Part III: What I did

Finally, a third part to my post on what my students actually need from me. I think it will likely feel more unfinished than the previous two posts in the series, but that's because it is unfinished. There is another week in the regular semester as papers are getting finished, and then a week of finals. So making any assertions that I know what they need now, before I've seen the final results, involves a bit of guesswork. But this is likely the last chance I'll have to do an involved post before the grading storm really hits, so I thought I'd try it now.

In my previous post on What I Think They Need vs. What They Need, I said the following: "The answer, no matter what level, seems to be threefold: detailed guidance, a chance to learn from their mistakes, and potential rewards for making the extra effort to do so."

This semester, rather than my usual groaning at all the things that I think my students ought to know by now (or maybe it's better to say, along with my usual groaning), I started from the assumption that the didn't know anything that I hadn't personally taught them,** and that if I wanted them to end the semester at point Z, then it was my personal responsibility to take them there, beginning at point A. This required two major shifts in how I approached my undergraduate courses.

First I reworked my undergraduate assignments so that each one presented a step in the process. Do I want them writing original research papers based on their own interpretations of the primary sources? Great. So, assignment #1 was a sheet of ten analytical questions, progressing in complexity, that they had to answer about two primary sources I assigned them. Assignments 2 & 3 had them writing source-based essays on a question that I came up with, based on sources I provided (and they could rewrite the first of these if they found that they didn't get it the first go-round). Finally, I gave them assignment 4, which had them proposing their own topics, looking for their own sources (with some light guidance from me), designing their own research question, drafting two proposals, and finally writing a paper with their own original argument.

Second, I required two 20-minute individual conferences, one for the original proposal, and one for the revised proposal, where they're about to sit down and write. My job here was to help them see where the problems were, to explain the process of research in the discipline using examples from their own paper, and to nudge them back in the right direction. If they wanted to do a rewrite of their first paper, that, too, involved a conference, where they were to present me with their plan for revision. This week, leading up to the final submission of the major paper, I've been sending out guidelines for daily tasks ("Today's project is to organize your ideas, so here's how you write a good outline…"), showing them how to break down the paper into small, manageable chunks.

There have been two consequences to this plan of action. The first is that I'm in the office almost constantly. I have a lot of students. And yes, a couple of those students made their appointments, then didn't show up, then begged for another appointment, then didn't show up for that one either. And yes, that was even more frustrating this time around, given the work I'd put in. And yes, this has slowed down my research output considerably.

But here's the other consequence: In those conferences, I got to really talk with all of my students -- even the very quiet ones who don't say a peep in class. One student -- a junior -- admitted to me that this was the first time she'd ever talked with a professor outside of class, because she was too scared to. Others told me that they were convinced that everyone else in the class was smarter than they were. They talked with me about their research. They told me about what they were interested in, and I suggested ways they could research it. They came back for their second appointments, and talked a bit about what they'd found, and many of them actually seemed excited about it – and I was able to encourage that excitement. The ones who didn't know how to formulate a good question? Them, I walked through it, explaining the same thing in as many different ways as I could, and then I got to see the light go on as it clicked for them. "Do you think you can answer that question, based on the sources you've read?" "Yes, I think I can."

And then, sometimes, they smiled. And if that smile was mostly relief that they were not completely lost in the woods anymore, even for only ten minutes, then that's okay, too.

As I said, I'm not at the end. I don't know if I'm just deluding myself that this is working, and that all the extra effort is worth it. I'm still a merciless badass with the grading. And I'm kind of exhausted, and cranky that I let my writing slide. But I do think I'm closer to understanding what my students need for the short time that I have them.

**This is a depressing thing if you think about it deeply, so I don’t.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Headdesk: A Timeline

T-minus 6 months: As part of an overly ambitious post-tenure career plan, agree to take on major project for outside organization: I am to Revise the Thing, a process that involves a new format, new content, new mechanism for dissemination -- and, like most academic projects, no budget or staff (though other organization members have been generous in making sure I have whatever materials and guidance they can provide).

T-minus 4 - 2 months: Figure out content for the Thing. Worry that I don't have enough, or that it potentially sucks. For the first time in the history of academia, receive promised contributions from outside contributors well ahead of schedule. [?!?] Lapse into false sense of security.

T-minus 2 months: Realize that I need to figure out a design for the Thing. Find software to make it work. Figure out software. Sink back into sloth.

T-minus 2 weeks: Realize that deadline is approaching and, in a burst of activity, get the Thing three-quarters done, then procrastinate for several weeks, letting the guilt build up to critical mass, until...

Liftoff!: Finally finish the Thing (about a month behind schedule) and make it available to organization people.

2 hrs later: Read and respond to two notices (out of 400 recipients) reporting the same minor technical glitch that appears to have occurred in the dissemination phase.** Deduce from the evidence that the problem is likely technology-related, user's end (since the issue appears to have only affected a few individuals rather than everyone), and provide a one-click solution.

24 hrs later: Receive terse one-line e-mail from one of the two correspondents (the other had no problem viewing the Thing once I resolved the issue) explaining that since s/he still can't view the Thing, s/he will be forced to cancel hir organization membership.


**to be fair to myself, this was balanced out by half a dozen e-mails received in the first 24 hours, congratulating me on what a good job I'd done with The Thing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Another Recipe for Thanksgiving

My mom can bake like crazy: seriously, if you saw a family portrait, you'd say, "Now there's a bunch of people who know how to whip up a batch of butter and sugar." But cooking? No, other than a few house specialties (mom's pot roast with roasted vegetables was one that always turned out well), mom was a baker, not a cook.

This is not entirely mom's fault. Looking back, I think my mom really wanted to be a good cook. But it was the 70s, when there wasn't much variety in the grocery stores, and processed foods and lots of meat were the thing. And we had a lower middle-class income. And though mom tried mightily to get us interested in vegetable gardening, we just couldn't be bothered. So I suppose that mom is to be congratulated for cooking a decent variety of relatively nutritious meals for a family of five on very little money. But try culinary experiments on three kids and a husband who grew up on a meat-and-potatoes German/Irish diet? Then have one daughter after the other go vegetarian in high school? Mom played it safe. There was a great deal of "-helper" and "roni" in our diet, and as a young person, I was just fine with that -- what kid doesn't like an extra helping of fat, sugar, and salt? But as an adult, I'd never say "I must have mom's recipe for X" (Except maybe the cookies -- and canning: did I mention that mom knows how to can? Note to self: have mom teach you to can).

My sister, now: she can cook up a storm. Even her seven year-old says, "Yep, mom sure is a good cook." And I do pretty well myself. I love food. I love fall food especially. Root vegetables, butternut squash, cranberries, rice, nuts, soups...

So Thanksgiving is great for me, in spite of the fact that the two main things -- turkey and stuffing -- are off my menu. And because I usually get taken in as someone's stray kitten, it's an occasion for me to do some serious cooking. A couple of years ago, I made butternut squash lasagnae. Probably the best Thanksgiving entrée I've ever made, it's delicious, and has the added advantage of adding 5-8 pounds per serving, to help you stave off the cold.

This year, since I'm walking to the home where I'm invited, I'm going with something that I can carry more easily, and that won't need to be reheated before serving: brown/wild rice and cranberry salad. It's easy, it's a nice texture (and fiber) counterpoint to the typical dishes on the Thanksgiving table, and it's best served at room temperature, so there's one thing you don't have to worry about timing just right (not that your true friends will mind what temperature the food gets served at -- they're just happy to be with you). So, here's the recipe. It's a super-easy, dash-of-this, dollop-of-that kind of recipe, which can be adjusted to taste.

Rice Salad, Girl Scholar Style

Get this stuff:
  • a wild/brown rice blend (I like "Lundberg's wild blend", but grab what looks tasty to you) -- you'll need about 2 cups dry measure
  • dried cranberries
  • pecans
  • parsley
  • orange juice (I actually like to use an orange-pomegranate blend)
  • prepared balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing (the non-emulsified kind; reduced-fat is fine, if you like)
Do this with it:
  1. Prepare the rice a bit in advance, and let it cool to room temperature. With two cups of dry rice, you should end up with about six cups cooked.**
  2. Chop the pecans & parsley, and get the cranberries at the ready. You'll want about 1/3 cup of parsley, and maybe 2/3 cup each of chopped pecans and dried cranberries -- give or take.
  3. Get a little tupperware container and put in a quarter cup of juice and a quarter cup of prepared dressing; cover tightly and shake vigorously to blend.

In a big bowl, start with about 4 c. of the cooked rice mix. Stir in about half the dressing (shake well immediately before adding), parsley, cranberries, and pecans. Now you use the remainder of all your ingredients to adjust to your own particular taste. You don't have to use them up if you don't want to -- make this to your taste. Remember that the flavors will intensify slightly as it sits (and you're going to let it sit, refrigerated, at least an hour), but not a whole lot, since there's nothing like onion or garlic in there.

After it's to your liking, refrigerate at least an hour. Serve at room temperature or so, perhaps garnishing the dish with a bit of the cranberries, nuts, or parsley right before placing on the table.

Enjoy! And if you don't already, why not try Girl Scholar's traditional morning-after-Thanksgiving breakfast: leftover pie (pumpkin or pecan) and strong black coffee. Yum.

**If you're unfamiliar with brown rice preparation, then it goes like this: twice as much (minus a skosh) water as rice; bring to a boil, add salt (or substitute), add rice and return to boil; cover tightly and reduce heat to one click above simmer & cook there for 10 minutes, then without lifting the lid, reduce heat that last click and simmer another 35 minutes; turn the heat off and let sit, covered, for 10 min. Larger amounts (like making up 6 cups cooked for this recipe) will require larger pans (I use my big stockpot for this) to make sure the rice cooks evenly, and may require slight temperature/time adjustments.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Office of One's Own

All right, folks. Since most of my readers seem to have found my last post earnest enough to induce a diabetic coma (I yam what I yam, people, and make no apologies for it), I thought I'd post something brief in the more typical woe-is-me vein. So here it is: I'm fucking tired of sharing an office.

Now, office-sharing is typical when we're graduate TAs. Not great, but typical. My 10-by-10 grad office was shared with two other TAs, in the sub-basement of a "sick building" complete with asbestos, exploding plumbing, wildly canted floors and ceilings, and, ominously, a health survey sent out by campus lawyers a few years ago asking if any of us had experienced certain cancers or respiratory conditions. But at the risk of invoking the old "rank hath its privileges" thing, I assumed that I would have my own office when I got a tenure-track job.

Not so. I have shared my 8-by-12 office every year since I've been here.** None of my office-mates has been obnoxious, but one was a compulsive hoarder, and one semester I shared with two people, rather than the normal one. This year, my office-mate has a class schedule exactly the same as mine. So, with his mandatory student conferences this week, I find myself typing this post from an on-campus coffee shop, where I'm holding my regularly scheduled office hours. And the asbestos and capricious plumbing are still a part of my life -- though at least I have a window now. What makes it worse is that there are serious inequities in this respect. I'm not the only one sharing an office, but the way that the solo-office privilege is distributed seems to be utterly random, and sometimes downright weird.

Was I hopelessly naïve to think I'd get a room of my own once I hit the big time (that is, the tenure track)? How common is this?

And yes, I have mentioned it to my chair. And there have been noises, but nothing happens. On the other hand, part of the reason that it doesn't happen is me. For example, my chair offered to move my office-mate, but only when it was already the middle of the semester. I thought this would have been was unnecessarily burdensome to both instructor and students, so I gave it a pass. I think that was the right call, but I also think it may have given Chair the impression that, since that, I wasn't willing to evict my office-mate mid-semester, it wasn't that big a deal.

But it kind of is a big deal. If I could have an office of my own, it wouldn't solve all my problems. But it would be a start.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go: the coffee shop is filling up, and several students are eyeing my table.

**The only year I've had my own office was the year I was on fellowship leave. In other words, I had to get another university to give me an office. And let me tell you, it was amazing how much more work I got done.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's a Wonderful (Academic) Life

Yes, I know I owe everybody a part III for my post on teaching. And maybe that'll happen sometime this weekend, since (mirabile dictu!) I seem to be caught up on grading.

But this morning, I bounced over to In the Middle, where Karl put up a very thoughtful post, complete with New! Video!, with regards to how we, as faculty, might be reinforcing our own cynicism. As I mentioned sometime earlier, one of my goals for this semester was to try to avoid negativity about my work. I mean, really, I could complain, but when both my siblings have been either un- or underemployed this year, and when I am close friends with a professional woman who may be on the brink of losing her home through no fault of her own, and when I know so many putatively successful adults in jobs they dislike, it seems graceless to do so.

And then some student comes along and wants a life like mine... well, why shouldn't they? I mean, it's far from perfect, but depending on your priorities, it can be very good. Nice work if you can get it, as they say. I do still think that it is our responsibility as faculty to alert potential grad students to the overall crappiness of the job market, and to sacrifices that our life choices entail if and when we do manage to land jobs, but why are we so reluctant to balance that out by talking about the positive? Are we perhaps afraid to admit that our sporadic bitching about our jobs may at times be unwarranted, and so we project it onto our students who are guilty only of being as idealistic as we once were?

And if we did dare to talk with students about the good things about our jobs -- heck, even the good things about grad school! -- might that contribute to our own happiness?

Oh, nevermind. Just watch the video. It's not the one you've seen before.**

**And yes, before someone tells me: I know that those other videos were in large part snarking on utterly unprepared students. But a not-insignificant portion of the ridicule was also directed at student idealism, which is something I think I (a self-declared idealist who still, at times, romanticizes her job) needed to be called up short on.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Better Teacher, Part II: What I Think They Need, and What They Need

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the great things about a sabbatical is the opportunity to think about teaching. When we're in the thick of it, we tend to be reactive teachers, even though most of us have often thought about tearing down one or more of our courses so we could build it up into something… well, something better. But things just get so busy that we don't have time to reflect what that "better" would look like.

But during my sabbatical and the summer afterwards, I started reflecting more. Part of this was inspired by my visit to my friend Dr. S., who recently won a college-wide award for her teaching. Her institution is different from mine – different students, different work allocation – but one basic point remains the same: what we think our students need may not be what they actually need.

As it happens, this semester's courseload is the perfect laboratory to experiment, as I have the entire range of courses:
  • 100-level gen-ed course, 50-ish students, mostly non-majors. Goals: teach them the basic content; make them decent writers; get them to think analytically and critically (and to understand why this last thing is important more generally).
  • 300-level survey course in Medieval Stuff, 25-ish students, mostly majors (though not necessarily medievalists). Goals: basic content; better writing; higher-level analysis; basic independent research skills.
  • Grad historiography course, 7 students, medievalists all. Goals: introduce them to some of the classics of the discipline, get them to understand the nature of historiography, and how each of the works are situated in the history of the discipline; move their writing from acceptable to elegant, and their analysis from superficial to incisive; advanced independent research.
But that's what I think they need. What do they need? The answer, no matter what level, seems to be threefold: detailed guidance, a chance to learn from their mistakes, and potential rewards for making the extra effort to do so.

What I decided to do, coming in part III.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Better Teacher, Part I: Body on Sabbatical, Brain in the Classroom

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't been posting much in the past few weeks. That's because I have been buried in a neverending stream of grading and student conferences. And it's all because I decided to become a better teacher. So in lieu of anything going on in my actual life, here's part one of a three-part post on that topic.

I like to think that I'm naturally pretty good in the classroom. Of course, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a university professor who doesn't think that they're pretty good in the classroom (or lab or studio or whatever), even though they may assign more or less priority to it, depending on their relative emphasis on research and service. There may be someone out there who says, "You know, I'm really a crap teacher, and who cares?" but I have yet to meet them. From the award-winning SLAC professor (I'm looking at you, Dr. S) to the to the harried freeway flier, I'd wager that we all think we're doing pretty well at what we do, given our various circumstances.

But being good in the classroom isn't necessarily the same as being a good teacher. For the purposes of this post, I'm using the former to mean, "Am I doing well?" and the latter to mean, "Are they doing well?" And I recently started thinking more about the latter than the former.

I started having these thoughts on my one-semester sabbatical, by the way, and if anyone in your general vicinity ever starts blathering about how sabbaticals are evidence that we don't give a shit about teaching, you can tell them this: Most of us who spend time in the classroom are so busy that we don't get a chance to be anything but reactive teachers. We may think about totally gutting our syllabi and building them from the ground up, but chances are that we just don't have time to do anything more intensive than maybe rewrite a few lectures, experiment with a new assignment, or assign a new book or two. If you're anything like me, you will probably do three to four of the following five things when your semester break rolls around: (1) Immediately fall incredibly ill as your adrenaline-boosted immune system collapses once you stop rushing around like a meth-addled chipmunk; (2) cross-country visit your family who don't understand why you don't come more often (bonus points for shopping for all your Christmas presents in four days!); (3) poke at your research (in a desultory fashion if it's winter break, more intensively if it's summer – perhaps even a trip to the archives); (4) finally clean your living space, your laundry, and yourself; (5) recharge your battered brain by spending entire days – often several on end – overloading on sleep/fluffy fiction reading/TV. Whichever of these options you choose, I can pretty much guarantee that it ends the same way: panic because you realize that the semester is starting in a week and you haven't even thought about the syllabus yet.

Like I said: reactive teaching. Even if you're good at it, it's not conducive to much of anything.

But when you're on sabbatical, you switch from reactive to reflective. You wonder what you've been doing in the classroom, and how you might do it better. You dream up new assignments and think more deeply about overall learning goals. You replay student reactions (the reasonable ones) and think about why something did or didn't work.

And in between digging through various archives in Exotic Research City, that's precisely what I did. More on the result in part II.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Random Bullets of "Yes, I'm Still Alive"

I knew I hadn't posted for a while, but when Comrade PhysioProf sends you a one-line e-mail inquiring as to your continued non-deadness, it's probably time to post, even if you can't do so in flowing prose. So, here's me the past few weeks, in bullet form:
  • I thought the pace would slow after tenure. Instead, what I find is that my work allocation now consists almost entirely of scheduling meetings, attending (or chairing) meetings, and filling out and submitting paperwork (often itself meeting-related). Teaching and research get whatever's left over.
  • Actually, now that I think of it, a chunk of my meetings are teaching-related: I decided that, in both my undergraduate classes, I gave students the opportunity to rewrite the first paper, but only if they met with me and present me with their plan for revisions. And my graduate students need to meet with me about their paper proposals.
  • Last night, I finished a draft of a five-weeks-overdue guilt-inducing project for a professional organization. I feel much better now. I also feel like I should have gone with my instincts and said "no." I did, in fact, say no to an outside thing I'd really like to do, but have no time for.
  • After almost two years, I may be ready to date again, but I have no idea how one goes about it.
  • I haven't been doing daily writing or yoga, and I feel stiff in both cases. But it seems like my spare home minutes are about grading.
  • Although I did take an entire work-free weekend to myself two weeks ago. It was nice. Put me behind, but it was nice.
  • I'm headed to Puddletown tonight! For four days! There may or may not be family drama.
  • Holy crap, I'm tired.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In Which Girl Scholar Ponders the Road Not Taken

Lately I've been thinking more about this whole research/teaching/life balance thing, and no more than yesterday, when I was having a conversation with a friend and junior colleague. We were just walking to another part of campus to grab a cup of coffee to take back to the office, and the subject turned to teaching, and our recently increased teaching load. We're up to a 3-4 now. That four-course semester is rough, but it's even rougher on some of my junior colleagues, many of whom have been protected from even three-course semesters.

So, this colleague was talking about how he was dealing with it, and was making noises about how he was not going to be able to publish with the extra course load. At first, I was inwardly incredulous -- after all, many of us have been teaching the "increased" load for most of our time there. But then I had two thoughts:

First thought: it's only partly how much you're teaching; the real shock comes with adding a course to what you're used to handling, regardless of the absolute numbers. Whether you're being increased from a 1-2 to a 2-2, or a 3-3 to a 4-4, it's going to feel like the world is coming crashing down on you head. So it's not really fair that my first, fleeting thought was "sack up, man!" Thought banished.

Second thought: As I was trying to make encouraging noises ("Hey, I think you can do it -- it just takes some getting used to." "If you want a writing partner to keep you going, let me know. I'm happy to have someone to work with."), I found myself doubling back. Because I realized what I'd given up to maintain even a semblance of productivity under increased teaching loads: when I'm keeping on top of both teaching and writing, I have no life outside work. None at all.

You may think I'm exaggerating. I'm really not, or at least not much. If I socialize here in Grit City, it's with work colleagues. I don't have "vacations" so much as work trips to places that sometimes offer interesting scenery while I'm there. I haven't been on anything resembling a date in almost two years. I haven't taken the camera out in weeks. Nada. And still, I only seem to have time for six hours of sleep a night. Meanwhile, my colleague has a happy marriage in which he and his husband spend time together, cook, see friends, go on trips. Doesn't that sound nice?

It occurs to me that I may have made a bad bargain.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"The World within Reach" (*some restrictions apply)

This is going to be a hellaciously busy week. I made it so by taking a day off work Saturday, so now I'm facing 50 papers to grade, a committee meeting to chair, reports from said committee to write up, an assessment presentation to prepare and present, and then Thursday I leave for a weekend workshop.

And if I wasn't so busy, I'd blog about how SUNY-Albany (motto: "The World within Reach") has just told all of its professors of French, Italian, German, and Latin to retire or look for work elsewhere, because said university is eliminating those programs, leaving Spanish as the only language taught at this 18,000-student, Ph.D.-granting university. I'm sure I'd rant and rave, and perhaps have at least one intelligent observation in there.

But it's past 8 a.m., meaning that I'm late leaving for work and the beginning of my Very Busy Week. So I'll just link to the story as reported in Inside Higher Ed, and leave the comments to others.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Undergraduate History Bloggers?

Time to ask my knowledgeable and web-literate readers out there: can anyone suggest some really good undergraduate history bloggers? I'm faculty advisor for our undergrad history club, and I'd love to put them onto some of these voices out there, if they exist.

So: suggestions of thoughtful undergraduate writers on either particular historical topics, or on the undergraduate experience as a history student -- I'd love to hear about these.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Open letter to the student who takes his lunch every day in the main quad near my office

Dear Student,

For the record, I appreciate guerrilla art in which public spaces are transformed into performance spaces.

Your 80s-style boom box is not that. It's just loud. Really, really loud. I'm inside with my windows closed, and I still can't focus on anything more mentally taxing than blogging.

If it were a single day of this, I'd love it. Here's a guy who has found a way to challenge the way this space is used. Even the music itself -- old-school hip-hop -- is an interesting and even appealing choice (although right now you're spinning "Ghostbusters," so I'm not sure what to think about that).

But the fact that you're doing it every day has taken it out of the realm of the interesting and into a pathological need for attention (which you do not seem to be getting). Either that, or you're conducting a long-term psychology experiment to see how long people will pretend some social convention is not being transgressed when it actually is. In which case, I guess we're potentially back to interesting again.

In short, I can't decide if you're being unthinkingly obnoxious or deliberately provocative. I guess, for the moment, I'm going to treat you like I treat trolls on my blogs and figure that you feed on attention, making the best reaction none at all.** That's the approach that everyone anywhere near your vicinity seems to have adopted over the weeks: give this guy a wide berth.

But sweetie-pie, if the day ever comes when you do want someone to sit next to you -- or even within 30 feet of you -- when you eat lunch, you should really turn it down, or invest in a pair of headphones.

Keeping it real in my own way,


**This is actually my policy, and one I recommend for my readers/commenters: Do not feed the trolls.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Can somebody please explain this to me?

Here are the facts:
  1. I am caught up on my grading, with the exception of half a dozen short papers I took in from my grad students tonight.
  2. My bills are paid, and I will have enough money (barely, but whatever) to make it to payday on Friday. My credit card debt is going down, rather than up.
  3. There are no current family crises, other than the usual background chaos.
  4. My committee work is fine and solid until Friday, when more stuff comes in.
  5. I have a presentation a week from Wednesday that I feel prepared for.
  6. My travel to an upcoming one-day symposium does not require me to present anything.
  7. My session organizer paperwork for Kalamazoo is turned in.
  8. Ditto on my travel authorization forms and applications for travel funding.
  9. I have bits and pieces to finish on two projects due by the end of the month, but I can get them done by this weekend, no problem.
  10. I have eaten decently today, though I probably could have had a little less sugar and a little more vegetable and/or whole grains, and I got a moderate amount of exercise (two 15-minute bike rides), though I've been short on sleep for a couple of nights now.
So can somebody please explain why I've been suffering from low-grade but constant anxiety for the past two hours, as if there were something important that I haven't done? I mean, I think I'll probably feel better when #9 is done, and there's a little worry that one of those two projects is going to be half-assed, but really -- what's up here?

Argh. I hate feeling like this.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Academic Couch-Surfing

I have reached a new milestone in the ongoing tug-of-war between my desire to maintain a research profile in my field, and the ever-shrinking support for research-related activity (archive trips, conferences, symposia) at my non-Research University.

I am couch-surfing.

Here's the way faculty funding has worked in the past: the individual colleges have had pools of money to help partially support faculty conference travel and the like. The individual departments also have pools, though much smaller. Junior faculty are prioritized over those with tenure; actual presentations are prioritized over chairing sessions; simple attendance is only funded if there's something left over in the pot at the end (so, very rarely). All this strikes me as reasonable.

Unfortunately, as our overall budget has shrunk, so has the pool for travel funding. We used to be able to count on partial funding once a semester. Then it was once per academic year. Then the funding ceiling for that once-a-year funding was cut by 25%, which usually still covers airfare and registration, though not food or lodging. So I've been watching myself, trying not to go to too many conferences or focusing on nearby ones. If there's a specialist seminar within a day's drive, I made sure to attend, to keep myself in the game on the cheap.

And then, an opportunity: A one-day seminar about 500 miles away. The topic fits with a particular teaching specialty that my department wants me to take the lead on. It also fits with the new direction my research has been taking, and so would allow me to dive into the new field. They've got Big International Name as the keynote speaker. It's even held on a day where neither seminar itself nor the two travel days would conflict with my teaching schedule at all. And there is no registration fee.

How could I not go?

And yet... I would not be presenting anything. I'd be sitting there, listening, and learning. An important opportunity for me, but not something that I could get funding for under the current circumstances and guidelines -- guidelines that I, in principle, agree with.

So, how am I pulling this off without going $600 into debt? Simple: I have a friend from Puddletown who has temporarily relocated to a city about 35 miles from Seminar Location. Her city is also the location of the nearest airport. So she, blessed woman, has joyfully agreed to put me up for two nights, and has even offered to lend me her car for the round-trip commute. My price for this? Round-trip airfare on a budget carrier, and I pick up the tab for two dinners out with friend and her son (who have simple tastes).

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I wish it didn't come to this. "If I didn't have to subsidize my own job, maybe I could pay off my damn credit cards! AAARRGH!!"

But the more I think about it, the more absurdly pleased I am with the way this has shaken out. I'm looking forward to seeing my friend before and after a day of heavy academia. And as a person who grew up hunting for her school clothes at the Goodwill, I'm still proud of getting something really great for almost no money. And I'm reciprocating by hosting professor and grad student friends whose research & conference travel brings them into Grit City's orbit. So my karmic balance is cool.

But I do hope that this is not the shape of things to come. Because I don't yet have good friends in every major university town.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Service Blues

A while ago, I wrote about taking on a greater service load after tenure. Now, all that seems to be coming true.

In our department, junior faculty are generally given light service loads. The idea is that pre-tenure faculty need to concentrate on getting their courses up and running, and getting some publications out -- a couple of peer-reviewed articles and a book MS has been the standard lately. That leaves time only for a departmental committee or two a year, plus maybe a few years on a college- or university-level committee. This, in my opinion, is right and good.

With tenure, the expectations change. Oh sure, we still need to publish, and the teaching needs to be strong. But now it appears to be the time for service. Lots of it.

Which is just background for me to sigh deeply, and say that so far this semester, my life seems to be composed of little more than meetings. As a Very Disorganized Person, this is causing me undue stress. So I've become a better calendar-keeper. Every morning, I wake up, look at the calendar, and remind myself of where I'm supposed to be, and when. Do I have another graduate student meeting? Do I need to send out an e-mail for that committee to meet? Is there a paperwork deadline I've almost missed? And what about all that "service to the profession" -- do I say yes to serve on the board of that organization I think is really neat? Have I got all the materials for that other organization? Did I forget to turn something in for that panel I'm organizing?

If I thought about it all at once, I'd wail with despair. So I just take it one day at a time, and hope nothing slips through the cracks.

Thank god I'm not trying to date or have a social life.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Big, Fat, Fake Conferences

This morning, I received three versions of the same e-mail about a certain academic conference, informing me that the deadline for the CFP had been extended. One of these three versions, distressingly, was forwarded from a member of my university's administration. I say "distressingly," because this particular conference seems clearly (to me, at least) to be a big, fat, fake conference.**

Real conferences have a few main goals (not necessarily in the following order): to disseminate researchers' new findings, to allow researchers to get feedback on ideas in progress, and to bring scholars together more informally to get the creative juices flowing. (Some would also say to have an excuse to get blotto and hit on people you'll never see again, but we'll leave that to one side for now.)

Fake conferences' goals are two: to make money for the organizers, and to give cash-strapped academics a way to get their universities to pay for travel to an exotic locale.

Now, depending on your own personal bent, your university's available funds, and the climate of your university's locale compared with that of the conference venue, you may indeed feel it worthwhile to apply to a fake conference. I won't presume to judge. But you almost certainly don't want it ever to show up on your CV. So here's your handy guide to telling if something is a fake conference. If you answer "yes" to only one of the following, that doesn't necessarily mean you're dealing with a fake conference. But two or more, and you may need to think about it:
  • Is the conference location somewhere that a non-academic might plan a once-in-a-lifetime vacation?
  • Does the conference venue have the word "resort" or "spa" in its name?
  • Does the conference invoke "interdisciplinarity" to allow them to accept papers from over a dozen different disciplines, but with no central organizing principle or theme?
  • Is the registration fee (not counting hotel and transportation) unusually high for an academic conference?
  • Does the organizer appear to be an individual or a commercial business, rather than an academic or creative organization or a university-related entity?
  • Do they appear to accept all papers?
  • Does the publication venue (if there is one) make the main criteria payment of registration fee rather than quality of the paper?

As I said, one or two of these things doesn't necessarily mean that it's a fake conference. Some very good conferences may be held in nice locations, are interdisciplinary in nature, or have financial support from businesses who want to use some of their profits to support culture, or are under government mandate to do so. Go, have fun, take some pictures -- but know what's legit and what's not.

**UPDATE: Historiann makes a good point in the comments. Technically, these conferences aren't "fake": academics go to them, give papers, and even attend other people's sessions. "Bogus," as she suggests, is probably more accurate (and more fun to say). But since I've already titled the post using "fake," I'm going to leave it, and figure that my meaning will be understood.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I am, this year, faculty advisor to two groups I care a great deal about: the undergraduate History Students' Association, and the UG/Grad interdepartmental Medieval Studies group. These groups are mostly self-directed, but I also step in with ideas. This year, it's going to be a career workshop, for both.

I also advise my own grad students. I advise them on how to approach projects. I tell them when they're in trouble. I advise them to learn more languages. If they are Ph.D.-bound, I advise them what programs to apply to to suit their own interests and career aspirations. Sometimes they even listen to me.

But in these situations, I actually know what's going on. What am I, a random pseudonymous blogger, to do with a perfectly polite but oddly specific request like this?
Dear Notorious, I’ve read some of your posts in your blog where I also found your email address. I’m interested in studying medieval history with focus on [X] history. Unfortunately, I couldn’t found any faculty in [city redacted to protect anonymity] that has such a program. I’ll be grateful for your advice about universities in [city] that have dedicated programs in this area. Any hint will be helpful. Thanks in advance!
I do give out advice on the blog now and then, but only when I damn well feel like it, and usually it's utterly unsolicited. But I can't figure out why the correspondent in this case would think I'd know the answer to his or her question. I do have areas of expertise that I'm more than happy to pronounce on, and sometimes at great length. Sadly, no one ever asks me about the best bike routes around town in Grit City,** or the best way to cook tofu without it falling apart in the pan,*** or how to deal with curly hair.**** These are things I know a great deal about.

Which is all to say that, as usual, I don't have an actual answer. Fortunately, what the correspondent actually asked for was a "hint," and I have three of those:
  1. I have no way of knowing. I don't live in your city; have never even set foot there, except for its airport. Your best bet is to talk with your current professors (assuming that they and you live in or near to your target city). They will have a better idea about the strengths and weaknesses of nearby programs. Listen to what they say.
  2. If your university experience is not current or recent, there are other options. When I was applying to grad programs, I went to the local university library, started with authors who had written books in my geographic subspecialty, found out where they were teaching, and then leafed through the microfiche catalogs for their institutions. That's still possible now, except steps 2 & 3 can be done on a computer. How great is that? Alternatively, you could pull up the web pages for all the history departments in the major universities in City X (a large city, granted, but surely there can't be more than 8-10, right?) and browse through them.
  3. But why city X? Must you stay there? Do you have a spouse or family member or some other reason why you can't possibly leave, or is it a matter of geographic preference? City X, I've heard, is very nice, sure. But if your geographic limitations are based on preference, rather than actual necessity, you need to reexamine your priorities, especially if you're looking at graduate programs and beyond. I left my beloved Puddletown to go to grad school in a place that I considered the end of the earth (for the record, I ended up loving it, though only after two years of resenting it for not being Puddletown), then got a job here in Grit City, in a part of the country that I never, ever thought I'd live in (again, a lovely surprise). Control over location is an early thing we have to give up. I'm not saying it's right -- I miss Puddletown still, 15 years later. But that's the way it is. There may indeed be programs in your area of interest in city X. Putting my hints 1 & 2 into practice will tell. But give this last bit some thought, too.

**1st & 6th streets are both good, and if you have to ride in heavy traffic, get out into the middle of the lane and claim your spot on the pavement so people don't try to squeeze around you.

***Slice and gently and evenly but firmly press by hand between many layers of paper towels -- twice -- before cubing and cooking.

****Deva "One Condition," and dump the shampoo. UPDATE: people seem more interested in this than in the actual post (which is fine), so check out the comments for ideas, if you care.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

In Praise of the Binder Clip

A little bit of weekend fluff for y'all:

If you're an academic, or have a home office, chances are you have a supply of these items. One friend of mine refers to them as "barbie purses," and it's easy to see why:

I have a little jar at home full of them, in various sizes. They are, of course designed to hold together stacks of papers larger than can be handled by their more plebeian cousin, the humble paper clip. But they're handy for other things, too. Some of my off-label uses for binder clips have included:
  • a clip for outgoing mail on my vertical mailbox
  • a closure for opened bags of food in my refrigerator and cupboards
  • hanging a Christmas wreath

Binder clips! A million and one uses! And the fun never ends...

Happy Labor Day weekend, everyone!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Life of the Mind

There's been this weird thing going around the academic blogosphere lately. We're all, all of a sudden, looking inwards.** And this shift seems to be happening at around the same time.

For the few years that I've been blogging, some of my favorite bloggers have been in the same space that I have: get a job, write a book, do a conference, find a publisher, do those edits. Or, to break it down: go, go, GO!

Now, it seems, we have all independently, but oddly simultaneously, decided that go-time is over, and now is the time to stop.

It seems like at least once a week, I pull up someone's blog post and she (usually it's a she) is writing about my life. Here are what my colleagues are doing:
  • morning meditations, to quiet the chatter in the mind, and to remind us that it's okay to be slow now and then
  • yoga, or other forms of physical exercise, for both mental and physical benefits
  • realizing that we don't have to care what other people think about us, and that if they try to tell us we're no damn good, it may be that they're wrong; certainly, we don't have to stand there and take it
  • attempting to regain a more positive attitude in a sea of negativity; not getting sucked into a culture of complaint (I've actually made a pact with three of my colleagues on this one; we're going to see if we can make it spread). There's plenty to complain about, and we undoubtedly will from time to time, but we don't have to live there.
Why is all this going around now? Is it because we have or are approaching tenure? Is it because we are or are approaching 40? Is it the time to think afforded by sabbaticals? Is it because we're just plain worn out? Whatever it is, I think we may be headed for a better life this way.

**viz: my "omphaloskepsis" label has been getting a serious workout for the last 4 months.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tech for Writers (A "random bullets" post)

  • I've been using Zotero for about a year now to organize my bibliography, as well as notes on stuff I have already read. I like the interface, and am slowly (manually) migrating my massive database that I created in grad school in Filemaker Pro. So far, I use it to organize bibliography (including a place to store and organize references to books and articles I haven't read), and attach notes on things I have read, as well as copies of articles. Haven't posted it all to the cloud yet, but I will. But I can't help thinking that there are other things I'm missing.
  • After several years of Mac fanatics (I'm a fan, but not a fanatic) urging me to get iWork, I did. This, after a really bad experience in grad school with Mac's first office suite, the odious "Apple Works." I like keynote fine, and pages has a nifty layout or two for newsletters & the like. I can even understand numbers, which is much more intuitive than Excel, in my opinion. But I can't imagine why some of my academic friends are singing the praises of a word-processing software that has no button to insert a footnote.
  • Scrivener. I've been hearing lots about this, and since I'm at the beginning of a project, now would be the time. Also, since I'm at the beginning of a semester. It looks cool, and I'll probably download the free trial to check it out. Anyone out there using this? Thoughts?
  • Also thinking about downloading MacFreedom, which will shut off my internet access at prearranged times. I hate to pay 10 bucks for something I should be able to do myself, but apparently I'm incapable.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gratuitous (but hilarious) time-wasting

My friend Piper Ph.D. thinks I am too productive.

She's never come out and said so, but it's the only conclusion I can draw after she passed me a link to the truly hilarious cartoon-blog "Hyperbole and a Half." She doesn't want me to publish, or get my classes prepped. She wants me to sit in front of the computer all day, laughing like a loon.

And then, I stumbled upon this older post on said blog, and I realized that perhaps it's not all my friend's fault after all.

Don't forget: if you have a kalamazoo abstract that you want to get the word out on, post it here!

Monday, August 23, 2010

CFP, or: In Which This Blog Temporarily Becomes a Bulletin Board

Hi all!

You know what? I'm organizing a session for Kalamazoo 2011. And wouldn't it be cool if I could harness the awesome power of the blognets to get submissions and abstracts? But I can't, because I'm friggin' anonymous! Aaarrrrgh!!!


So, here's my idea. Surely, some of my readers out there (even normally pseudonymous ones) are sponsoring sessions. And some of them would probably like to use their blogs to get the word out. So I thought I'd put this post up as a bulletin board. Log in to the comments and post your panel title, organizer name, and contact info. A few words about it if you like, but please no full abstracts (though links to those abstracts are ok). If you're an pseudonymous blogger, log on without your normal sign-in, and get the word out.

Medievalist nuns, Kalamazoo, ca. 2008 C.E.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Yoga of the Second Book

(...or of any new research/writing project, for that matter.)

I just got off the phone with a friend who, like me, just finished her first book and is starting on her second. Unlike me, she's bagged a full-year fellowship to work on it in its early stages. And she just asked me -- me! -- what she ought to know about beginning work on the new project.

A second book, or any new project, is a voyage into the unknown. You just finish one project where you knew everything, and all of a sudden you know nothing again. It's easy to get bogged down in fear and despair of ever again having a book-worthy idea. I spent most of June and July that way. I will probably get stuck there again at some point.

Anyway, while I was talking to my friend, I realized that a lot of the things I've learned about working on a book project beyond your dissertation-based book are things I've figured out in the past month. This is, perhaps not coincidentally, about a month or two since I've started doing yoga more regularly.

And before you panic or prepare for a new-agey sermon: I'm not going to say, "Yoga will help you write your book." Just bear with me a moment, and I'll explain.

Now, I must explain a couple of things about my yoga practice. First of all, it isn't a "practice." Don't imagine me serenely standing on my head. Don't imagine me in a fancy set of coordinated yoga togs, or hitting the studio five times a week or even being able to sit up completely straight with my legs out in front of me. I'm. Not. Athletic. Or flexible. Or dedicated. And I'm very far from serene, most days. I have precisely one pair of yoga pants that I bought at Target a few years back, and wear them with whatever paint-spattered t-shirt is cleanest. I usually do yoga at home with a DVD or a free podcast. I am awkward.

But lately I've been doing more of it, and I think that some of the principles behind the practice** apply very well to tackling the second book. I don't think you have to practice yoga to get these, but it's the metaphor I have, so here goes:

Be present: We usually think of "focus", but it's kind of an active, forceful, scary word. When you're trying to hold a balance pose or write three paragraphs on a particular topic, the demand to !!FOCUS!! can lead to you to doing anything but ("Am I focusing now?... How about now? Yep, focusing... oh, shit! I lost it again!") On the other hand, you do have to get your head and your body in the same place. A few deep breaths, and just doing what you were meant to be doing in that moment. E-mail can wait. Facebook can wait. Making a mental shopping list can wait. This is sacred time. (And this is, by the way, also the hardest principle for me to put into practice, in any area of my life.)

Non-attachment: I can't bend myself double. Nor do I know what my second book is about yet. I don't have a thesis statement or even a central question. I should know from experience by now that, even if I did know these things, the project will take several twists and turns before I'm done. So why let "where I think I should be" paralyze me? I am, right now, doing the best writing and thinking I can with the materials at my disposal.

Stay on your own mat: My inability to drop into a perfect triangle pose when everyone else in the class seems to be having no problem does not mean I'm hopeless. The fact that I don't write as fluidly or as prolifically as Award-Winning Historian doesn't mean I should just give up.

Daily practice: If you do any sort of physical exercise, the benefits tend to accrue with regular practice. If I do yoga once every two weeks or once a month, then I'm probably going to find it stiff and difficult every time. If I do it several times a week or even every day -- even for a little while -- I will gradually see progress. Some days I'm less mentally limber than others. But it's not about a single day.

Grace: Sometimes, in yoga, there comes a moment when you just "get" a pose, and it feels like a new world (or at least a new part of your body) has opened up. Same with thinking about your project. These moments are rare, and you can't make them happen. That moment of inspiration is out of your hands. My job is simply to be there, doing the thing I'm supposed to be doing, so it knows where to find me when it arrives.

That's all I have for the moment. That, and faith that things will happen, and probably not when or how I expect them to.

**These are not official or canonical yoga principles, nor do they have nifty sanskrit names. It's just some stuff that I've heard over and over in classes.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Right after I post this, I will be dropping off my laptop for repairs.

It is my only computer.

Let's see how an academic gets along without her computer during the last couple of weeks before the semester. Should be entertaining, no?

(And yes, I did take the precaution of backing everything up just an hour ago.)

...or... maybe not. It seems that the part still hasn't arrived. Now what am I going to do with all this separation trauma I got ready?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Hedgehogs, Unite!

Can you stand one last post on the whole fox-and-hedgehog thing?


What if I promise you that it isn't by me?

See, I'd tried on several occasions to compose a "defense of the hedgehog" post to balance out all the fox-y stuff I'd been posting. Yet every time I tried, what I kept coming back to was "Yes, but hedgehogs are so useful." Which struck me as self-centered and patronizing, and I just didn't want to go down that road.

fig. 1: Dang, but hedgehogs are cute.

Fortunately, one of the regular commenters here, Clio's Disciple, is a self-avowed hedgehog, and graciously agreed to share her own views and experiences. Her post, "On Being a Hedgehog", is up over at her place, and I hope some of the people who have commented on the previous posts (or maybe some hedgehogs who hesitated to jump in?) will weigh in with their opinions.

Thanks, CeeDee!

A Letter of Protest

(another unrelated photo)

[see UPDATE, below]

Over at Dr. Virago's place, there is a beautifully worded letter from her friend the General, explaining why she was more than just disappointed in the Medieval Academy's decision to keep the conference in Tempe.

I've posted about this before, but the General's letter deserves wide reading.

UPDATE: three members of the program committee, all ASU professors, have resigned from the program committee in protest; read their open letter here.

(And before someone says something: yes, I know that the most objectionable provisions of the law -- the "show your papers" thing -- were suspended for now. But the MA made their decision before that happened, so the General's concern about how the Academy views her and people like her is, in my opinion, completely valid. Same for our Latina/o friends in the ASEH.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Writing My Way In

Just so you know: after weeks and months of angsting about not knowing what my current book project (still in search of a pseudonym; maybe "The Tuna-Herder's Lament"?) was about, I did something that I've been doing more and more often: I just sat down and wrote. Shitty First Draft-level writing, for sure, full of square bracketed notes-to-self ["get some information on tuna-herding before the c13 tuna mortality..."], sentences that go on and on, and questions and avenues for exploration.

Let me tell you, it works. I still don't have any central question, but I have forward momentum. I have faith that I can do this.

Best yet: I have over 5,000 words.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Fox and the Hedgehog, part 3: Should Feminist Scholars be Hedgehogs?

(point of irony: Blogger's spell-check function does not recognize the possessive "women's".)

When I began to post about the fox and hedgehog thing, it was a post that had been brewing for a few months, but that was most proximately inspired by this post at Historiann's. I mentioned this before, but never explained why.

Historiann asks, among other things, whether anyone would notice if women's history stopped being written. My passive voice formulation is intentional here, because "if women's historians stopped writing women's history" is circular and confusing and possibly tautological. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Authorial intent aside (we're all postmodernists now - wheee!), my reading of this post suggested two implications: the importance to the profession of doing women's history, and the fact that those with a vested interest in women's history (particularly but not exclusively feminist historians) should keep on keepin' on because -- lip service and an occasional grad seminar book aside -- no one else is going to step up and do it. Likely the same can be said for queer history, though I know less about that field's dynamics.

Each of these implications is fairly clear, but when viewed through the lens of my recent protestations about personal choice on the whole fox/hedgehog thing, combined with the recent post by Tenured Radical on the gendered dimensions of setting boundaries in our jobs, I end up in a nasty double-bind: we all choose whether to be foxes or hedgehogs, but women's/gender/feminist(/queer/?) historians who want to be foxes may feel that there is a moral obligation to be a hedgehog. If we don't do this very important work, who will?

!!TWEEEET!! Time Out: Let's all pause for a moment and think about that last sentence: what a girl thing to say. "Yes, we all agree that it's important, and I understand that no one else wants to do it, and I have written about it in the past, after all, so sure, I'll do it, even though I'd like to be moving in different directions, just like the rest of you. Better I give up on that ambition that anyone else."

Now, I know that there are plenty of women's historians (and in other fields too, of course) out there who are joyful hedgehogs by choice; we owe them a great deal as both scholars and feminists. And I also know that women's history is a subfield big enough that you can be a fox within it. But I'm not talking about them -- I'm talking about the feminist fox who feels pressured to be a hedgehog, to continue working in a field that is politically and/or personally important to her, when she'd rather be off writing about municipal institutions or poison or siege techniques of the Hundred-Years' War.

So, about a year too late, here's my "Lesson for Girls (academic version)": Just because you can, doesn't mean you have to. You're not a bad feminist if you write about stuff other than women. You're not a bad feminist if you selfishly follow your own scholarly interests of the moment. You may actually be committing a real feminist action by refusing to let yourself be defined by others' expectations, especially when those expectations allow your more misogynist colleagues to safely ignore or dismiss you. You can support woman-focused studies by buying the books, and assigning them in your classes, not just as tokenism, but as a way of teaching what you were taught: that the study of women fucking transformed the profession. You may choose to be a hedgehog because you have a career's worth of questions about women or gender in your field -- hedgehog away, sister! But that needs to be your choice, and if you choose to be a fox, it's really okay that you let yourself walk off and play somewhere else for a while. The boys get to do it, after all.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Fox and the Hedgehog, part 2: The Problem with Other People

In my previous post, I talked about how starting project #2 saw me changing from a hedgehog to a fox. A few commenters noted that, on our first projects, we all are hedgehogs. Well, perhaps, but that's really by default. After that, there's a choice, and that choice brings me to part 2 of this post.

There are scholars in every field who specialize thematically. They might spend a career exploring the different aspects of the history of medieval towns, or the Transcendentalists, or what have you. By the time their third book and a handful of articles come out, they are acknowledged experts in that field. My own dissertation advisor was (and continues to be) just such a scholar.**

Then there are scholars who move from one topic to the next as their interest dictates. Another one of my graduate mentors was like this: her first and second books, both well-regarded, were on radically different topics, with only a geographic area and broad chronological sweep tying them together. Her most recent book sees her leaving even those two commonalities behind so she can examine a broader phenomenon (tangentially related to her first book, but only a bit) in transhistorical perspective.

Again, I say that both of these approaches have their merits. No matter what, I think we should all make our choices dependent on what our interests are as we launch into a new project. If we continue to have new and interesting questions about the topic we started out with, that's great; if we decide to go off playing deep in the tall grass again, also good. In the end, we are the ones who must be satisfied with our work at the end of the day.

But there's a problem with being a fox, one that goes beyond having to learn a whole new field, and that problem is Other People. Other People become invested in What You Do, and breaking out of that is difficult. I've heard reports from foxes that, for years and years after their first book comes out, they are invited to speaking engagements, or to contribute to volumes on "their" topic, and have a very difficult time explaining that they just don't do that anymore. ("Professor Jones wrote that great book on Cistercian nuns, but her talk today is on crusader medicine? What's up with that?")

My experience with this phenomenon came during my most recent stay in Exotic Research Country. Over the years, I've made a number of friends there, many of them other junior academics. Yet when my new topic came up, they were puzzled: "But what does that have to do with gender?" Well, nothing specifically. It's a different project. "But it will eventually be on gender. Or [other thematic focus of book 1]." Well, no. "Oh, I'm sure it will."

I learned to stop trying to convince other people. Perhaps they'll believe me if and when the next project begins to emerge. Hell, perhaps, by the end of things, the project will circle back around to gender -- who knows? But isn't it odd how invested other people get in our scholarly identities, and how eager they -- and we -- are to fix them in place somehow?

Even if it's only to try to define ourselves as a fox or a hedgehog, I suppose.

Stay tuned for part 3: a defense of the hedgehog, and gender studies!

**Well, sort of. He never published from his dissertation, which was a meticulous study the account books of a particular institution that had nothing whatsoever to do with the thematic area that he devoted the rest of his career to. He once referred ruefully to the time he spent "counting barrels of pickled eels," and claimed that he never even considered revising it for publication "because I hated that thing."

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Fox and the Hedgehog, part 1: A Hedgehog Contemplates Change

"The fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog knows only one, but he does it well."

I can't remember the first time I was introduced to the fox and the hedgehog as metaphors for scholarship; likely it was some time early in graduate school, in some conversation on a list-serv (yes, I'm just that old). The idea was that there were scholars who spent their careers becoming experts on a single topic, and those who moved from one topic to the next. The foxes knew a little about a lot, while the hedgehogs knew a lot about a little.

I always idealized the hedgehog in this story. I wanted my knowledge to be deep. Maybe I was insecure with anything less.

But I've been thinking about this a lot over the past few months, sparked first by my own consideration of my research agenda, then by conversations with fellow scholars in Exotic Research Country, and most recently by a tangent on a discussion over at Historiann's on the topic of whether anyone would care if people stopped writing women's history. Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time will not be surprised that one of my thematic areas of study is women and gender. My first book was on women and gender, combined with another thematic area (say, for the sake of argument, urban history) and a specific geographic area that I'm interested in. I think it's a good book, though not without its flaws. I also think that I've said what I want to say on the subject -- for now.

And as I started thinking of what I'd do next, my mind turned first to ways I could build on the knowledge I'd acquired in researching and writing the first book. I had an impressive body of knowledge built up on women's history and gender studies, not to mention a good sense of where the sources were and weren't. I also knew the literature on area #2, urban history, both in my own region of study and in the broader region. How could I go from there?

Yet no idea that came to the surface caught my interest. I saw a couple of projects that were certainly doable -- but did I want to be the one to do them? Try as I might, I just couldn't get excited.

And then, in the corner of my eye, something sparkly and shiny: two project ideas! One was the one I've referred to as Shiny New Project, something that would take somewhere in the 5 to 10-year range to complete, and that might incorporate both my thematic interests, but without them being central. And there was a second one, a bit less sparkly, a lot less well-defined, but with a phrase, a concept, something that glittered for a moment when the sun caught it just right, suggesting possibilities, even though the path was unclear. And this second one had nothing to do with gender or urban history.

I was, in short, contemplating the leap from hedgehog to fox.

And then, all hell broke loose.

To be continued...