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.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

This is gonna sound really mean, but when people seek my advice, I am a believer in answering the question that should have been asked and not just the one that was asked. In this case, I find it troubling that in a six sentence professional e-mail, three of the sentences have grammar, usage, or idiom errors. Should someone who has this much trouble constructing a proper sentence really be considering graduate school in the humanities?

Notorious Ph.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Notorious Ph.D. said...

CPP, I'm willing to chalk up the errors to uncaught typos (I do the same thing) or a writer trying to strike a formal tone that he or she is unused to. There is a difference between small errors/typos and, say, apostrophe abuse.

That said, I'm thinking about modifying your approach, and giving advice about something I feel I know a lot about at any given moment, regardless of how well it addresses the question. I'd be a sort of random advice generator. For example:

Q: My advisor and I don't get along. Should I switch?

A: Coffee should be purchased whole bean, and may be stored in the freezer or fridge before being ground, but not afterward, as the the oils (which contain both flavor and caffeine) will dry out. Buy only what you think you can reasonably use in 2-3 weeks, if possible from the same place where it's roasted. A burr grinder is best for getting an even grind; repurpose your old blade grinder for grinding spices.

This way, although the advice might not be appropriate, I could 100% guarantee that it would be good.

Musey_Me said...

I totally agree with your advice on curly hair and totally lament that people only rarely ask me for that advice!

I am always reminded of a woman in one of my undergrad seminars (when I was an undergrad) who asked the professor how many trees she would have to cut down to build a solar home. I seriously snickered out loud (totally not like me). Your hints to the emailer are dead on, though.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This way, although the advice might not be appropriate, I could 100% guarantee that it would be good.

You would be like Hints From Heloise on Mescaline. DO ITTE!

dance said...

People *do* ask me for curly hair advice (even sometimes total strangers stopping me in a store), and I always recommend the DevaCurl system and products. Though at much greater length than NPhD, usually. Yay, DevaCult!

Dr. Virago said...

I will have to try Deva now! Though so far I'm liking Frederic Fekkai's Luscious Curls and Living Proof styling products.

But do tell on the skipping the shampoo part!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Oh, goody! Something I know something about.

Okay, if you have naturally curly hair, your hair is going to have less oil to it. So your job is to avoid adding products that will dry it out, and to add extra oil whenever possible. Shampoos are based on the idea that oil that collects on the hair needs to be broken down and carried away. You don't want this. So skip the shampoo, except in extreme conditions (say, if you've been exposed to campfire smoke, or if you're washing out the excess from a color treatment). If your hair is naturally curly, I promise you that you will be okay. If you freak out, you can always keep shampoo handy, but you really don't need it.

How will your hair (and head) get clean? Friction, and water. Get a really good-quality thick conditioner, and prepare to use *a lot* of it. Thoroughly wet your hair, then apply conditioner all around the hairline. Then, part your hair a couple of times vertically and horizontally and apply conditioner there, too. Now, starting at the hairline, massage/scrub your way in towards the crown of your head, from all around, several times, working your fingers out to the ends at the end of each time -- the massaging loosens any dirt on the scalp, the pull-through distributes conditioner along the hair shaft, and removes any loose hair. Once you've gone around your head several times, get the hair out of your way so the conditioner has at least three minutes to penetrate (though if you want, you can leave it in for half an hour, or even overnight, for deep conditioning). Rinse, again with that massaging, scrubbing motion. Squeeze dry with an old t-shirt. Apply your favorite product (or another tiny dab of conditioner), preferably while damp-dry.

There! Excellent advice!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

(This method will NOT work with most grocery-store conditioners, even those that claim to be designed for curly hair. Believe me, I've tried, because I'm all about saving money. But there is something sticky or waxy or something in them that attracts every particle of grime in the air. And then you really do have to shampoo to get it all out, and plus, your hair feels sticky/crunchy, rather than soft.)

Musey_Me said...

And don't forget - there is also No Poo and Low Poo! These are non-detergent "shampoos" for curly hair that clean them without stripping all the oil. (Also Devachan products.) I use No Poo maybe once a week to get the product out of my hair or anytime I've done something to get particularly dirty.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Just remember to check your cosmetics at! No -- this is really me, ADM -- I'm just trying to shift my buying habits to less stuff that is safer and more ethical and greener where I can. So less meat, but trying to buy at least organic, if not also free-range; safer cosmetics; no more liquid bath soaps and plastic poufs, because cake soap doesn't come in a big plastic bottle, and washcloths are gentle exfoliators...

As to the actual subject of the post -- YES!!! I do wonder if one of the reasons I sometimes feel so disconnected, but also am so able to make a home and find friends for myself anywhere I end up living is because I resigned myself to obligatory relocation before I went to grad school. I'm still having a hard time dealing with the whole 'OMG tenure and home ownership' thing!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm just going to lurk here and covet everyone's lovely curly hair (I can say that with confidence about Notorious, Dance, and Dr. Virago, but I'm sure the same is true about Musey. Because I really do covet the curls).

Interestingly, I know straight-haired people who do the condition-only wash, too (though often folks with really REALLY long hair). Personally, I've started using old-fashioned homemade soap as a shampoo (because it lacks the detergent in modern shampoos & so doesn't strip the oils), with great results. But this can be trickier with curly hair, because you don't get slip you get with modern conditioners, and so may run into greater problems with tangling (than my mostly-straight hair will).

The sticky feeling from regular conditioner probably comes from silicones, which coat the hair. Or possibly it's a reaction to too much protein.

(Yes, I read way too much beauty stuff on the internet, basically.)

The PhD Pimpernel said...

You are clearly a font of all knowledge - you must be! The email is kind of a compliment really.

I am also never planning on emailing CPP! Email is an informal medium and people often lapse into colloquialism or 'speech' writing ... I'd tend to cut that a little slack. :)

I also hope CPP never decides to read my blog - it's the least edited piece of writing I do - it's for fun! <<< that's a disclaimer ! ;)

the unknown said...

comrade physioprof:
lol u gotta learn to chill comrade. i guess in ur realm informal language is considered a crime but on earth, it's the everday medium.

in case u havent read gardner's work on multiple intelligence, linguistics intelligence is merely a part of it. hence the question ..

"Should someone who has this much trouble constructing a proper sentence really be considering graduate school in the humanities?"

is considered inane. it's like asking whether a prodigy in number theory should be thinkin bout doin phd in cryptography juz 'cause he couldn't multiply two by two digits. lol

the unknown said...

notorious phd :
juz wondering, what do u think would be a good research in humanities?

u know somethin' that's applicable in the modern world?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Unknown, I draw the line at "lol" and other text-speak. Academia might not be the "real world" (whatever that is), but we learn to speak the language of the country we're in.

As to your second question (and please, seriously, no more text-speak here): an education in the Humanities has at its very core the idea that there are some enduring themes that are applicable to the modern world. The challenge is to look for them everywhere -- think broadly.

the unknown said...

forgive me for this mild effrontery. i didnt realize that we were in a formal setting that demanded a strict standard of interaction to communicate.

"The challenge is to look for them everywhere -- think broadly."

i have attempted that, thinking broadly, but those tempting possibilities of research, seemed to have eluded me again and again.
perhaps, a touch of your insight can salvage me.

does being serious all the time tire you?

i did a little research on serious ppl during my undergraduate days.. they have trouble maintaining their zest and creativity. seems that when seriousness is contrived, people are more susceptible to stress. consequently, most of their psyche power is invested in thwarting stress as opposed to actual problem solving, making them less efficient.

what is your area of specialization?

now that my speech is nearing the end.
may i 'lol' just for the sake of diluting the inner *torsion* that im sensing right now?