Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Short Pause while I Reboot My Brain in Style

Yes, I know I promised a follow-up to the previous post.  But here's the thing:

In half an hour, I am getting on a bus to get on a train to get on another train to get on another (shuttle) bus to get on one airplane, and then another.  And at the end of all this?

I'll be in Rio.

See you in a week!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I don’t recall

I have a confession to make. It’s something I share with my students, but only rarely with my colleagues: I have almost no recall.

What I mean by that is not that I have no memory – that would be an ironic problem for a historian, would it not?  No, it’s just the mechanism of recall that doesn’t seem to work well.  Imagine my brain like a big filing cabinet. Really big, like a wall full of drawers, and lots of files in each drawer. I read something, and into the file cabinet it goes. It’s there, and it’s not going anywhere.  The problem arises only when I want to get it back out again.  All the information is there, and once I find the drawer where I put it, out it comes, full and complete, and I even make tons of connections to other stuff that’s in that same drawer that I had forgotten I’d put in there, maybe years ago.  But the process of finding the right drawer in the first place?  That’s what seems to be missing.

This was particularly crippling in seminars in grad school.  I sat there, watching colleagues remember this and that other book that we’d discussed weeks ago, and all I could think was, “Was that the blue one”?  And also: “If I can’t remember the way these people do, does this mean that I’m not cut out for this?”  And of course: “How long until my professors figure it out?”

So, terrified, I began to compensate by becoming an obsessive note-taker.  I even rigged myself up a set of interlocking Filemaker Pro databases (the commercial software at the time was good for bibliographies, but you couldn’t use it to take detailed notes) for notes on every damn thing I read, complete with meticulously correct Chicago Style citations.  I’d come to seminar armed with my sheaf of notes. I’m not sure my participation was all that much better, but at least I wasn’t a total blank.

I’ve now switched from Filemaker Pro to Zotero, but I still do it.  ‘Cause otherwise, I’ll forget.

Anyway, that’s my… would you call it a “learning disability”? Or maybe a “processing disability”? I dislike pathologizing it, because I think that probably everyone has a little brain quirk like this. The question of why this came to me just now is the subject for the next post.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Deep Breath

The grading is done.  The semester from hell is over.

What made this a semester from hell (with its attendant light blogging)?  Well, here was my teaching load:
  • One undergrad medieval survey -- 25 students.  Two short papers, two exams, two individual conferences per student for the major paper. On the positive side, I had most of my lectures and presentations and discussion notes ready to go.
  • One combination undergrad/grad seminar for the World History field -- 18 undergrad and 7 grad students.  Lots of reading, lots of weekly grading (5 short reading responses per student), plus a draft and a final version of the big paper.
  • One brand-new prep as an emergency fill-in for an undergrad course for the Early Modern field --which I last studied in 1999. 25 students. Constant reading and lecture-writing just to keep up. Two short papers, two exams, two conferences and two drafts per student for the major paper.  Made it even harder for myself by getting "creative" (= "self-destructive") with the major assignment. To be scrupulously fair: I volunteered for this course, as it appeared to be the least of three evils. And it probably was.
  • Two grad independent studies for comprehensive exams.  Two entirely different sets of readings. Meetings every three weeks with students, plus for one of them, I had to do most of the reading myself from scratch. (On the plus side, for this last one, the readings were mostly things that I had long wanted/needed to do.  So it was good for me.)
  • One grad independent study to prep for a thesis prospectus and defense of same.  Meetings every three weeks. Medieval stuff, but other than that, about as far from my own research interests as you can get.  Intriguing topic, but rough, because I felt like I didn't really know enough to direct her to the good stuff. But this is how thesis supervision goes when you're the one faculty member in a field that covers 1000 years of history.

Add to that the constant low-grade stress of repeated budget cutbacks, plus the usual committee work, and trying to get even one little conference paper done, and you've got a recipe for exhaustion. Is it any wonder that I'm still not over the flu I came down with at the beginning of finals week?

But... all semesters end.  Pretty much everyone got the grades that I expected.  All three grad students did just fine, and two of them are graduating.  Hooray!  And now I've got some recovery to do.  I'm leaving for a week-long vacation (with just one short work duty in there) on Sunday.  Between now and then, it's all about cleaning the clutter in the house and on the computer, so I can be ready to go for summer.

There will be more news, but I thought I'd catch you all up on what's been going on.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


No, I'm not talking about some version of "Senioritis," in which closing in towards the end of something makes you just stop giving a damn. I'm talking about the regular illness I get at the end of every semester.

I'm a person with a pretty strong immune system.  I manage to avoid most of the colds and stuff going around most of the time. But when we start heading into the last few weeks of the semester,  I get too little sleep, poor nutrition, no exercise except my bike ride to campus.  My immune system, now weakened, is largely propped up by caffeine and adrenaline.

And then, like clockwork, somewhere between 24 and 48 hours after the last grades are turned in, I get sick as a dog for about three days.

This happens to other people, right?

The problem this semester is that the illness hasn't waited: last night, in the middle of my evening final, a dry, itchy cough started up.  I still have two stacks of papers and two stacks of bluebooks to get through before I'm done.  And because of this, my body doesn't seem to want to let me take the extra sleep it needs.

That's it: nothing clever or pithy today.  Just an observation.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Even for Kalamazoo, this was weird.

I'm back from Kalamazoo.  The paper went well.  I regret not having spent more time with my fellow bloggers, as I got in after the meetup this year (and Vaulting and Vellum, if you're reading this, my deepest apologies for being vague and scattered every time I saw you -- my brain was simply not working correctly).

But, this year produced one truly memorable incident, probably the most memorable of my many Kalamazoo experiences to date, and so it bears sharing:

I was giving my paper, and we had a good roomful of people in the audience.  Now, for those of you who have never been, one of the things I like about the Medieval Congress is its lack of exclusivity.  Graduate students and independent scholars mix with tenured Ivy League professors, and everyone gets to show off what they're doing.  Interested amateurs also are welcome at the conference, so long as they pay the registration fee.  I don't think there are a huge number of these in attendance, but since there are a lot of medieval history buffs out there, we probably get more than your average conference.

One such interested amateur was in attendance at the panel I presented at.  He was somewhere in his 50s or so, somewhat stout, with a big gray beard.  Afterwards, he made a point of coming up to tell me he had enjoyed my paper, which was nice.  I knew he was not a professional historian, because the upshot of what he wanted to say (after his general appreciation) was a bit of advice for me.  You see, his wife had been a historian (it was unclear whether they were divorced, or she was deceased, or retired), and she had told him that the best material for writing history wasn't found in the public library; you had to go look at things like tax records and such.  Really, I'd be amazed at how much you could figure out from these things.

I responded with several polite versions of "That's absolutely true," because really, the comments were well meant.  But here's the thing:

He was dressed as a pirate.

Well, maybe "musketeer" would be a better description: He was wearing a leather hat with a big ol' feather in it, a leather vest over white shirt with puffy sleeves, and tall boots with big cuffs.  And face it: without a ship in evidence or a parrot on one's shoulder, it's hard to tell whether the swashbuckler that one is facing is land-based or sea-based, right?

Either way, though, this was one for the books.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

So THAT'S how they do it.

From one of our first-year grad students -- in week thirteen of the semester, mind you:

"Yeah, Professor [X] hasn't gotten back any of our work to us, or assigned us any grades for any of it.  So we've all just figured that either we're doing okay, or we're not, and we'll find out when he gives out the final grades... I guess he's working on his next book."

Ah.  So that's the key to productivity.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

My brain needs a backup drive

The semester is drawing to a close here, and I've got so many things that my brain can no longer hold them all.  I just focus on the next task, an the one after that, and hope that my brain reminds me of what's next, once a slot opens.

So far, the next things for tomorrow are:
  1. work on that paper that I have to present in a little over a week (yes, this is embarrassing to admit that I don't yet have a complete draft)
  2. see a grad student through her thesis prospectus defense
  3. read/grade four paper drafts
  4. try to locate a few things for grading that I can't remember where I put
  5. order a plane ticket for Mr. B.'s visit in August.
That's just the tip of the iceberg.  But it's certainly enough to keep me busy for the day.