Thursday, December 17, 2015

Sister Notorious's Home for Wayward Medievalists


Does your end-of-semester grading have you in Babylonian captivity? Are you suffering a black plague of "medieval pheasants" in your essays? A great schism between the fun person you used to be and the jaded academic you've become? What seems like a hundred years of war between you and That One Colleague (let's call him "The Black Prince")?

Sister Notorious knows your pain. And she has a solution. A retreat center. Where we can all speak in Latin and drink unaged wine and let the serfs take care of all that pesky day-to-day living stuff.  Presenting the new site of our Home for Wayward Medievalists:

Friends don't let friends drink and decorate.

This is, I swear to you, is an actual property you can buy. And it's actually a bit of a steal. And located near a stretch of the Oregon coast, which is just the thing to recall the damp of England or Brittany.  On the down side, there is everything else.1 It's like a Renaissance Faire got drunk and took up interior decorating and forgot that there were such things as different historical eras between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries. This particular decorative mode might be described as "back in the day."

Which, I think, makes it just the place for medievalists suffering from end-of-semester loopiness to retreat to. Perhaps with a cask of artisanal hypocras.2

Scroll through the photos and see for yourself. But be warned: you can't un-see it.

Happy Holidays!

1 I will confess to loving the kitchen. Though I'm not sure that a faux-tapestry runner is the best food prep surface.

2 It's only an hour or two from Portland, and even closer to Eugene, and if there aren't hipsters there brewing up mead at the very least, I'll eat my fancy medieval headdress.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Large to Small, and Back Again

About a month ago, I switched tracks from the chapter I put to bed (ready or not) so I could distill a paper from it. Anyone who's been reading my agonized posts knows that this chapter has been giving me fits. It was chock full o' facts, and even finally had an argument, but it just felt... flat. No, worse: it was simultaneously flat and bloated. How does that happen?

In any case, a few weeks ago I made the decision to put the chapter to bed. It was a draft; it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I knew where the holes were, but I knew they could be filled later, and I didn't want to spend another month tinkering with it right now. Besides, I had a deadline: I had a paper to present at the Brain Ranch (not Hogwarts, but nearby) in three weeks, and I had to somehow condense something from the flat-yet-bloated chapter into 25-30 nice, tight, coherent minutes. Oh, and I had to make maps and genealogical charts.

I've always worked from small to large. I write a conference paper or two or three. Sometimes I expand them into articles. But probably a third of my first-book manuscript originated as conference papers. These gave me concrete deadlines and forced me to dig in and argue.

Here, I was trying to compress something big and sprawling into something short and compelling. And it was hard. I kept excising things. But here's what happened: that excision process forced me to think: "I've only got 12 pages. What's really important here?" 

And in the process of writing that short paper, I finally discovered my chapter.

(Oh. And the maps and charts turned out nice, too.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

History without Reflection

Historians are -- some of us anyway -- notoriously bad at names and dates. We know what came before and after and in the midst of what, so we can make some inferences about causality. But what makes a history major or a professional historian different from a history buff is that our main questions are not about  "what" or "who" or even "when," but "why." Why did this thing happen? We also like "so what?": Can our answer to the "why?" question make us understand the past and maybe even the present better?

This is how I encourage students to be history majors: because the study of history, done correctly, beyond being fun, makes you think about how various factors and impulses and circumstances and even chance encounters might add up to Something Important. Granted, not every bit of history is All About Us. Likewise, similarity is not identity: we are not living in the last days of the Roman Empire;1 no one is Hitler except Hitler. Looking for the lesson can sometimes distort what we see, if we try too hard to read the past through the lens of the present.

But when there is a lesson, we ought to pay attention.2 "There," we say, "was a moment where we, as a human race [or country or gender or whatever] were at our best." "There," we say, "is where we screwed up, and we need to take a long, hard look at that, not to beat our breasts, but to become better." We can look at the past and realize that there are factors out of our control, but there are often choices: moments where we, as individuals or groups or societies, have options with how to deal with the circumstances handed to us. And yes, history will judge us. It always does.

And what happens when we don't study history with an eye to the "why"? This:

"Anticipating the criticism [of his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country], Mr. Trump compared his plan with former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclamations during
World War II that labeled Germans, Italians and Japanese “enemy aliens” who could be detained in the United States.

"Mr. Trump referenced the proclamations specifically, noted that people were stripped of naturalization proceedings and not allowed to use radios and flashlights and praised Mr. Roosevelt in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. 'Look at what F.D.R. did many years ago,' Mr. Trump said, 'and he’s one of the most respected presidents.' ”

Having the facts of history without reflecting on what those facts mean makes us dangerous.

1 No matter how much Niall Ferguson thinks this is the case.
2 For example, I regularly teach courses on the encounter between medieval Christianity and Islam, and am forever trying to dismantle the whole "clash of civilizations" thing. Sometimes it even works.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What I Meant by "Don't Write What Bores You"

I'm rounding the corner on a conference paper culled from the chapter that had been fighting me for the past few months, and that I recently put to bed, even though it was by no means ready to go. It had a beginning, middle, and end, so I could walk away. But I wasn't satisfied.

And about a week ago, I realized that the problem was that the chapter as I had constructed it just didn't interest me. The facts were right, but the argument was forced, in general because I couldn't make myself care one little bit about the stuff I was writing about.

I was, in short, writing the chapter for the same reason that I put on pants in the morning: because I thought people would expect it. "Where's your chapter on X?", I imagined them saying. "How could you possibly write a book about Blerg City in this time and place without going in depth into this Very Important Issue?"

Well, yeah. I don't disagree. It's an important part of the larger story I want to tell. But I couldn't make myself care. And as a result, I had 20,000 flat, boring words that had taken me months to put together, and that no one could conceivably enjoy reading.

Once this realization dawned on me, I left my office took a walk around the Hogwarts grounds, which are lovely grounds for strolling. I muttered to myself[1] as I strolled -- "I don't care about that. What I'm really interested in is..." -- until I could finish that sentence.

Now, as heu mihi pointed out in the comments to my previous post, sometimes we do have to write boring-to-us stuff in order to get to the thing that interests us. True enough. But what I'm talking about is entire long stretches of writing -- a chapter, an article, god help us a book -- that we just don't give a damn about. The way I see it, if you don't decide to just trash it and walk away, and you don't want to publish something that just lies there like a dead fish, you have one choice: find the thing within the boring thing that actually interests you, and make that your center.

This is just what I did. I did it on a smaller scale: I have a conference paper in two weeks, so I need about 3500 words (it's a longer paper) on a nice, tight idea. So I'm writing this paper around that interesting idea. And I think -- I hope -- that this may save my chapter. But more on that later.

[1] As I did so, I tried not to worry that passers-by would think I was nuts. Hogwarts, I reasoned, is the kind of place where the first assumption might be to assume I was a mad genius. And anyway, I'll be leaving in a few months, so who cares what they think?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Some Advice for Writers Who Are Bored


If you are not interested in what you are writing, then there is no way in hell that your reader or listener will be interested. DO NOT WRITE WHAT BORES YOU.**

**There are, of course, caveats and addenda and a whole flippin' backstory to this involving me wondering why I spent almost three months on a chapter and was still thinking "so what?!?", but I did just figure it out and now I'm 150 words into my introduction to a conference paper and think I can knock off the whole damn thing (the intro, that is; not the whole paper) and best of all, I may just have something interesting to say. So I'm gonna go say it. But stay tuned...

Friday, November 13, 2015

My Book Chatper as Toddler

"We've had a long, busy day, haven't we?"

"yeah! we added words and looked things up and got lost but then got found kinda even though it wasn't where we were going and there was ice cream and coffee and..."

"Yes, honey. That's right. And now it's time to put you to bed."

"i'm not ready to go to bed!"

"Nevertheless. Grab your jammies."

"but... I want another drink of water. and to watch just one more show."

"No. It's bedtime. Don't worry though: tomorrow will be another day and we will watch a show together then. I'm sure of it. Just not tonight. For tonight, we're done."

"but i doan' wanna!"

"You've been up for way longer than I had planned already. Bed."

"but... you might not know this mommy: i didn't brush my teeth yet."

"That's okay, honey. Those baby teeth are going to fall out anyway."

"why do I have to go to bed when i'm not even tired!"

"Because mommy is tired. So that's the end of it. Bed. NOW."


Good night for now, sweet chapter. I know we've got loads more to do together, but mommy needs a break for a bit.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ghosts of Research Trips Past

How times have changed. I think this post is going to be a little invitation to story hour, for those of us old fogies (okay, technically I'm a middle-aged fogy) who have been doing archival research for over a decade. This is a sort of remember-when kind of thing, and I can't promise that comments won't devolve into "those kids don't know how easy they've got it!" But that's not the point. I'm feeling a bit nostalgic (in neither a good nor bad way) for a time not so long ago (1998, I think?), and it started with seeing the following image:

I remember traveling to Blerg City with a stack of these. Which I exchanged for the local currency, which was not yet the Euro.

I remember spending my first three-month research trip making notes for documents I would order copies of... on microfilm.

I remember receiving that microfilm six months later, by mail.

I remember the switchover from the local currency to the Euro, and how prices for everything were marked in two different currencies so locals could start thinking in Euros.

I remember stepping into the street for the first time every trip and smelling that perfume of diesel fuel, hot asphalt, and cigarette smoke, and thinking how I was "home."

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Best Advice I Can Give to Women in Academia

Yeah, there's lots of great advice out there about networking and how to navigate sexual harassment and women in academic leadership positions and work-life balance and long-distance marriages and feminist pedagogy and all this. There are special issues faced by women of color, trans women, lesbian women. And probably someday I'll touch on some of these. And if I don't, be assured that there is a cottage industry out there in advice columns (hand over heart for Ms. Mentor, probably our first adviser) and books. And it's all good. But if I had to give just one bit of gendered advice, it boils down to something pretty simple:

Build and treasure friendships -- real friendships -- with other female academics, especially those a few years further down the personal and professional road. [1]

[really large chunk cut out here because I realized in retrospect that I was lecturing, and thus burying the point in excess verbiage]

Of course you should have male friends and non-academic friends (as many of the latter as you can get). But other women in the biz know how the personal and the professional overlap and swallow each other and such in a very special way.
Why write about this today? Because in the past week, I have e-mailed back and forth with Historiann (who I've spend lots of F2F time with), and have spent an hour on the phone with former blogger Squadratomagico (thanks, internets!), and there are the others who don't have online personas so I won't presume to name them (but I hope they know who they are). But after each of these interactions -- ones that are mentorly but also personal and funny and irreverent and snarky and sometimes swear-filled (okay, that's mostly my contribution) -- I remember how profoundly grateful I am to have these wonderful women (among others) in my life, and how we have kept each other sane-ish through some trying professional and personal times.

So, I guess this is really a mash-note to the lifeline that is a circle of lady-friends, a thank you to all you glorious, fun, irreverent, and really intelligent academic women, and a hope for myself that I can be a part of making things better for other women in the way you have for me.

Yours in sisterhood,


[1] Corollary: be open to being that further-down-the-road friend to others.

Monday, November 2, 2015

We destroyed the village in order to save it

So, Higher Ed, inc. has been chugging along towards its preordained appointment with the precipice lately, what with proposals to put faculty salaries out for bid in Florida, and the ongoing nightmare that is the Wisconsin state system's loss of ability to protect tenure. And, of course, there's the fact that both of these thing decrease the power of an already powerless group (contingent faculty) while increasing their numbers.

But then there's this bit of fuckery: the new president of Rider University, who took office August 1, just eliminated 12 to 14 (depending on how you count) departments or programs, and is turning three other majors into minors. Sources close to yr correspondent additionally say (no confirmation available) that:
  • these cuts came in the wake of the new president running up against the faculty union's objections to his plan to freeze salaries, on the not-unreasonable grounds that they still had two years left on their most recent contract that he had to honor;
  • that some of the strongest voices in the union were also members of cut or demoted departments;
  • that the faculty smelled Something Rotten, but were never part of the discussions (other than the above-noted insistence that their current contract must be honored), and were thus completely blindsided by the speed and scope when the news came down Thursday morning.
The losses seem small in numbers: 14 full-time faculty, plus five empty positions; if typical percentages prevail, perhaps 20-25 part-time/returning faculty will also have no place to return to. Two staff members will also lose their jobs. I have heard other, even worse specific stories, but they're things that I'm in zero position to confirm, so I won't get into it.

Dell'Omo (Rider's spankin'-new president) has pitched this as a move to save a university on the verge of financial collapse. Certainly, Rider was operating on the financial edge. But the sense was that things were starting to turn around. Of course, "the sense" of faculty is often governed by the presence/absence and/or quality of refreshments at the faculty meeting and other things that are just as likely to be the result of good department-level management as overall health of the institution. So there may indeed have been need for drastic action.[1]

But I've still got two questions:

1. Does a person who has been on campus for less than three months already know enough -- that is, can s/he have played out all other scenarios and exhausted all the other options -- in order to justify cutting over a dozen departments?

2. More to the point: Can a four-year school that has eliminated departments and programs in art and art history, advertising, American studies, business education, French, geosciences, German, marine science, philosophy, piano [at a school that was, after its merger with Westminster Choir College, sort of known for its conservatory-like program in music performance], web design, and Economics (BA; the BS is still there) really claim to have "saved" anything?

[1] Though I suppose that Rider faculty should be grateful that it's not as bad as one headline had it: "Rider University cutting 13 majors, eliminating 14 professors"... giving new and gruesome meaning to "getting the axe," I suppose.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Soundtrack of Scholarship

I like a little music while I scholar.

I know from experience that earplugs actually serve me better in terms of directing my focus inward. But sometimes work is better with music.

When I'm reading or writing, I like things with no words, or in words in a language I don't understand. NO CRESCENDOS. So something like piano sonatas, or even modern composers, or baroque choral music in Latin? We're good. Hell, even tibetan chimes/singing bowls, if it's early and still dark. Chopin nocturnes for when it's actually nox.

But occasionally, scholar-ing is a bit more active. Physically active. Like today, when the Hogwarts butler commandeered a giant chalkboard for me and I spent two hours making this:[1]

I puttered at it for a while, unsatisfied, but really picked up the pace and started enjoying myself when I found the right music. If you're familiar with either of Bob Mould's projects (Hüsker Dü or Sugar) that bracket his two solo albums (Workbook being a lot mellower than BSoR), you'll understand the sort of "I am not leaving the room until I kick this project's ass" mood that I was in. It was also a great relief to be physically moving, stalking from side to side of this board, standing back to see the whole thing, and occasionally getting into the music a bit -- not quite a dance break, but about as close as one gets with a bit of hard-rocking post-punk. So, on the off-chance that you have some more kinetic scholar-ing to do this weekend, enjoy:

[1] "This"  being a version of the genealogy of the medieval family that I was complaining about in this post. Believe it or not, this is far from complete: I had to leave out about half a dozen maternal lines because they added lines and messes on the board making the whole thing even less legible than previously. I settled for appending the brides' natal surnames -- something that medieval documents never do,[2] but that at least let me see what lineages were being brought together.

As far as all this mess goes, I'm really interested in the middle lineage, and in particular in a guy in the middle of the middle. But I was somehow driven by an urge to understand how it all fit together. So I made a Thing.

[2] ...except in a one very nifty case here in which the maternal surname becomes the surname for an entire branch of the lineage, for reasons that would make a very interesting research paper, I think.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

External Review: The Gatekeeper vs. the Advocate

I've just finished my first external review for a tenure case. I'm pretty sure that saying that doesn't violate any sort of confidentiality, but I won't go any further to name institution, field, department, or anything, much less what the content of that review was.

So, if I'm determined not to say anything, then why the Vagueblogging? (Yes, I just made that up. Yes, it's horrible.) Well, it's because it got me thinking of what our roles as midcareer and senior faculty are.

There are lots of times that I've been part of an anonymous review process: article manuscript reviews are the most frequent, but there have also been book reviews, and now a tenure case. We've probably all had the experience of getting back a review that convinced us that the person writing it saw it as their job to shred us to bits. Rationally, I don't think that's ever the case. No one, in their heart, is Darth Vader. Ideally, we'd all like to think we come to every review a blank slate. But I've found that there is always one of two voices whispering in my ear.

One of these, I call The Gatekeeper. This entity says that it's my job as a reviewer to make sure that everything meets a certain standard, else the phrase "peer reviewed" means nothing. The Gatekeeper knows that "a certain standard" is entirely subjective, but she refuses to talk about that.

The other, I call The Advocate. This one reminds me that I never know whether my verdict is going to make or break someone's career. I should actively look for ways to say yes. The Gatekeeper sneers, pokes her in the gut, and accuses her of having no standards and watering down the profession as a whole. The Advocate tells the Gatekeeper that maybe a "no" should be a "revise and resubmit," because that, at least, lets someone improve. She speculates that the Gatekeeper gets a kick out of crushing young scholars due to her own insecurities. Voices are raised. There is an unseemly scuffle.

I would be surprised if there was anyone in a position to review (even signed book reviews!) that hadn't heard both of these voices at one time or another. And the scuffles are only going to get more frequent as we advance in our careers and come to be regarded as people with the Authority to Pronounce. We've probably encountered folks who we think are pure Advocate or Gatekeeper, yet we see ourselves as always a little of both, and constantly hope for an objectivity that we know doesn't exist this side of the grave.

So, out with it: Advocate or Gatekeeper? Or do you have totally different voices in your head?

Monday, October 19, 2015

An Open Letter to the Six-Generations of Sprawling Medieval Family I am Studying at the Moment

Dear family: please stop having all the same names, over and over.

I mean seriously: can you *imagine* what these family reunions were like?

"Clara! You remember your uncle Bernard, don't you?"

"Really? I thought you were dead. I mean, I know that's not polite, but I swear I heard you died at sea."

3 of what would ultimately become 5 pages of ArghIckHate
"No, that's my cousin Bernard you're thinking of."

"Ah.  That explains it. My apologies."

"And who is this fine young lad hiding behind your skirts?"

"Oh, that's my son Bernard. But since that's his father's name as well, we call him Bernardino until he comes of age. To avoid confusion, you understand."

"Of course."

Seriously. This has been my entire weekend. And that's with the aid of someone who wrote a 135-page article on one century of this family's history. Bleah.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Women's Work

I'm starting this post off with a "caveat lector": this post is about women and women's work in academia, and about how we can and should support and promote it. Period. If you feel the need to put in a "what about the men?" or "notallmen" kind of comment, please see the first sentence of this short preface. Thank you.

Recently, I've been thinking about the work of a senior-to-me female colleague whose work is, in my opinion, vastly under-appreciated outside her field of specialization. Her own scholarship is wonderful. But the one thing I find myself coming back to time and again is her work as a mentor. She's got a couple of great books of her own, but she's taken time away from her own work to edit collections (that's plural -- when most people run from even one), chair important planning committees, and work to promote and informally mentor younger scholars in her field. It's almost impossible to find a young scholar in one of her fields of interest who hasn't benefited from her help and support.

This is the "women's work" of academia.[1]

I don't just mean serving on committees or developing new teaching strategies or mentoring young scholars; I mean doing these things to the point where you know you could have had out another book or two if you'd just pretended not to be there when people knocked.

Because here's the thing: if you want to get a fellowship or grant or promotion or raise or other professional recognition, your scholarly output weighs most heavily. People who volunteer for tough committees makes things run. People who edit collected volumes provide outlets for scholarly work on a particular topic. People who mentor young faculty -- who take them under their wing with no conceivable benefit to themselves -- make academia a better place to be, and model civility and humanity.

Shorter version: if these people went away, we'd be fucked.

I'm about 50-50 on this. I try to be a good worker/colleague/mentor, but I'm also serious about drawing boundaries. No value judgement in that either way; just that's how I roll. But that's just a full disclosure, because this ain't about me. It's about the fact that women (and, in my own personal observation, gay men -- but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish) are the ones who set up and clean up, who take meeting minutes while everyone else looks at their shoes, who step up and say "yes, I'll do that work that no one will ever see,"  who take the time to check in with a junior colleague and say "How are you doing? Let me buy you lunch and let's see how I can help."

And every hour spent on unseen-yet-essential labor is an hour that we could be reading, writing, thinking. We may actually enjoy the service and mentoring. But when it comes time to be recognized, and you stack up our CV next to the male candidates, chances are that they'll have more publications than we will. And committees will think they're making objective choices: "He's just more qualified!"

So, women have been told to "say no." Which is great, but it only goes so far, due to decades of cultural conditioning combined with pressure from above. And who's going to do the work, if not us? And if the work doesn't get done? Well then, we suffer too. One solution is to apply "see something/say something": if the women in your department are doing all the heavy lifting while the men get to be scholars, say something to your chair if you can, and ask if something can be done. Or say something to the men themselves if that's practical: I find a lot of men are simply blissfully unaware of how much work goes into getting things done.

So sure: we need to set boundaries to the degree that we can, and we need to point out inequities and agitate for change. But you know what we also need to do?

AS A PROFESSION, WE NEED TO RECOGNIZE WOMEN'S WORK. We need to promote its value, not just rhetorically, but also in terms of promotions, raises, professional honors, and all that other stuff. We need to point out the value of all this labor, and make sure that it gets taken into account -- really taken into account -- when it comes time to hand out tangible rewards.

[1] Here, I could insert some stuff about how I know that men do blah-blah, and I know that not all women set their own work aside to do work for others... but I'm not gonna. Because there are lots and lots of people out there who say and write such things on a daily basis, and I really don't feel like apologizing for my own argument.  Fuck it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Something Beautiful

Last weekend, I left Hogwarts and the books behind, grabbed a rented car, and headed across a state or two to see my best friend from grad school, Piper Ph.D. Piper warned me "there's not much to do here." And in fact, after a little walk around the county seat where she has worked and lived for the last decade, we ended up spending the evening by going out to dinner, then watching videos at her house, and trying to coax her new shelter cat out from behind the dryer.

When you are in a small town and the universe provides you with pie that looks to be homemade, who are you to refuse?
In other words, it was just like grad school: with a real friend, you don't necessarily have to "do" anything to have a blast.

But... the next day, she said, "I want to take you to Area Nature Place." And so, after a hearty diner breakfast, we went to Area Nature Place. Now, I had witnessed a lot of the natural beauty of Piper's adopted state along the drive. It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous in the fall, and I had somehow stumbled upon the perfect weekend. But Area Nature Place was beyond beautiful:


Yeah, I got home after a total of 11 hours of driving and was exhausted. And yeah, I woke up yesterday morning feeling behind on the research. But even so: this was an objectively good weekend in all ways.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Is there anything quite so joyous... finding a gaping hole in the scholarship on a topic you are working on?

Seriously: I'm working on, say, the Great Pox Outbreak of 1402. And there's a huge literature on the topic of late medieval pox in general. The GPO happens to fall smack in the middle of the five-year-long War of the Three Henrys. Massive historiography there, too, in three different languages (one for each of the places contributing a Henry to the war).

And yet, somehow, none of these historians really makes much of a connection. Or, if they do, they mention it in a two-sentence aside. As I see it, these things are connected in a number of ways. Yet Pox scholars don't read most of the things on the War, and Henrico-bellists only mention the pox outbreak when it kills one of the major generals.

This, for me, is great.

As is the fact that both Poxers and Henricans (all three languages of them!) have meticulous footnotes.

Thank you, one and all.

Monday, September 28, 2015

My Banned Book

No, not my banned book. My book is fine. You can buy a copy. In fact, you should buy a copy.
Graphic courtesy of the ALA

Nope: this is Banned Books Week, and so I'm reading a banned book that I've never read before. And now I'm going to admit that it's... To Kill a Mockingbird.

I know, I know: How have I not read it? Let me just say that there are a lot of books out there that I haven't read, and many of them are reported to be truly excellent. This is one of them.

So: this week, I see what all the fuss is about.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Week in Making and Unmaking

This week, I decided not to keep pounding my head against that wall that I smacked into late last week. Rather, I would look at it and strategize my way around it. I kept writing bits and pieces -- I'm a serious convert to the "write every day; even a couple sentences" school of writing -- but the word counter barely budged. I was clocking maybe a page a day, which is flippin' fantastic if you're teaching, doing service work, parenting, etc. But when you're on a fellowship without family or kids and have nothing but time to work, isn't going to cut it in the long run.

But I managed, finally, on Friday, to figure out a way over, under, or around that wall. I put together what I think is the fourth outline for this chapter so far (entitled "new-new outline"). I determined that some of the big, detailed bits I had cranked out this week were going to go in a chapter that I thought was already done, but that on second thought, will probably have to be lightly reconceptualized. Today, I wrote provisional headings for each of the subsections, and sometimes each paragraph, making notes as to what parts of the old MS went where.

And then the unmaking began.

At the end of last week, I had almost 14,500 words in this chapter.

At the end of this week, I had added a little over 1,000 words to that.

And now, after having re-configured and pulled and plugged... I ultimately pulled the plug on almost exactly a third of my words. Sitting here at this very moment, I have just under 10,500 words.

I'd be more freaked out, except for three things:
  1. The words are not really gone-gone. Many of them, as I said, are going into another chapter -- I already have a home for them. And others (though surely not all) may find homes eventually.  
  2. I've done this before, much more definitively: I ruthlessly deleted -- I mean, made really, really gone -- somewhere around 35 hard-won pages of my first dissertation chapter, and when writing the book, I made the decision to cut an entire chapter that just wasn't working. In both cases, it was scary, and in both cases, after the shock wore off, what I had left was ever so much better.
  3. I like counting words, just like I like fitness monitors and to-do lists I can check off and little chore charts with gold stars. I like visible stats on my progress. BUT -- and heed me well here -- I've learned that it matters so much less how many words you have than whether they're the right words.
And that's the really good news: I think this chapter knows where it's going, finally.  At least, until I run into the next wall.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Perils of the Public Intellectual

In honor of Constitution day, let's discuss a constitutional controversy. No, not whether the 14th amendment endorses birthright citizenship (duh), nor whether the 10th amendment lets you have your legal weed. Nope: it's the question of whether our country's founding document is an explicit endorsement of racism and/or slavery.

There has been a great deal of consternation on this subject lately, prompted by yesterday's op-ed by Sean Wilentz, in which he argues that the constitutional wording in three important clauses -- the three-fifths compromise, the fugitive slave clause, and the delay of abolition of the slave trade until 1808 -- were actually victories for the anti-slavery delegates.

Yeah, I know: Weird, right? Friends of mine have referred to it as everything from "puzzling" to "pretty nutty." There's a long-form rebuttal here (EDIT: and, more recently, a counter-argument in the Atlantic).

But here's the thing: it's a rebuttal to only part of the argument. I was actually able to see the whole thing in a nearly hour-long talk in which he presented all of his evidence for the claims in the op-ed, and in which the very claims he makes are properly nuanced. Let me tell you: it made a huge difference. What may have seemed "puzzling" or even "pretty nutty" in the op-ed now looked like a Really Cool Thing when presented in its fullness. Sure, there were a few bits in the argument that I thought were a bit of a reach to make an otherwise cogent point.1 But the argument as a whole made sense.

And this is the essential dilemma of the public intellectual: you can't make the same argument in 603 words (I counted) as you can in 45-60 minutes with your evidence on slides. This is obvious. You can't honor the complexity that is the hallmark of scholarly historical study. And yet, you're not going to get most of the general public to sit down and read a monograph or scholarly article or even attend an hour-long talk, should they be so lucky to have one in the vicinity. So this is why we have public intellectuals. They boil stuff down.

Of course, anyone who has cooked anything knows that boiling something too long removes all the flavor and texture and nutrition. Likewise, perhaps this topic was too complex to be boiled down. Or maybe Wilentz had an nice, tight 800 words, before some editor insisted that, no really, Professor Wilentz: 600 is all you get. I can just tell you two things:

1. the op-ed in no way reflects the complexity of the argument behind its points; and

2. [point 1] is an example of why being a public intellectual is hard, and the folks who take on this work won't always hit the mark -- even the very smart ones. But that doesn't make it any less worthwhile.

1 Academic historians like to present things in threes: four supporting arguments may be too much for a listening audience to follow, while two seems a bit thin to really support a Big Argument. But sometimes you have two really strong points, and end up stretching a bit to get the third. And -- pro tip -- if you're ever digesting an academic argument, if there's a weak point, it's usually in the middle.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Smacking into a wall

Well, that didn't take long.

Four weeks into my stay here at Hogwarts for Historians. Two weeks into serious writing. One week after cranking out a jaw-dropping (for me) 4500 words in less than a week and learning a whole lot of new things about hard-tack and why you want a weasel on board your ship and all that... and I've gone and hit a wall.

This past week's progress has been fueled by the knowledge that I was going to work on a specific section this week, and I wasn't going to worry about perfection. I was just going to get the stuff down on paper. Today, though, I did my usual weekend thing of trying to plan what would be on tap for next week. And I realized that, while I had some broad general topics I needed to look into, I didn't have any good questions yet. And as any writer of anything from a five-paragraph essay to a 500-page book will tell you: no questions = no direction. And no direction, gentle reader, is the death of writing.

I will admit: I panicked.

And then I got out my pen:

There always comes a point in my projects when I get really, really stuck. Usually it means that I've written for too long with too little reflection. This can happen when I get all obsessed with word count and pages and goals and the like. But the truth is, I need to pause for reflection as well. And for me, reflection happens with a pen in hand, as I scribble summaries of what I know so far, accompanied by half-baked "what might it all mean" notes, and try to let the ideas come, rather than alternately shoving and dragging them. Shoving-and-dragging is good for word counts sometimes, but for me, I need to scribble my way in to this part of the process.

So that's my task: rather than spending the weekend stockpiling reading for the week's writing to come, I'm going to give myself permission for next week to be an extremely low word-count week so I can spend this weekend focusing on the ideas and where this chapter seems to want to be heading. Here are the questions I plan to ask myself (in no particular order, and not looking at my provisional outline):
  • What are the big themes of the book, and how does the chapter I imagined potentially contribute to them?
  • What type of chapter is this shaping up to be all on its own? What questions am I on the way to answering? What does it want to be about, versus what I thought it was going to be about when I wrote an outline?
  • How can I take advantage of that to help me answer a small piece of the larger question? Does this mean the larger question has to shift again?
If I'm being honest, the question I will probably come back to most this weekend is: "What made me think I could write a book? Is it too late to do something else for a living?" But believe it or not, I think that actually writing this book is the path of least resistance.

And besides: I'm at History Hogwarts. Anything could happen.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Answers to questions I didn't know I had

One of the reasons that I settled on my current book project was that it allowed me to dig in and answer lots of questions that I have for myself. In other words, I am, in a sense, writing this book to satisfy my own curiosity, and I hope that other people will be interested as well.

Someone built this. And sailed in it.
But you know, I'm coming across lots of little tidbits that I didn't know I even would be getting into. This week, for example, I'm researching how you went about building and crewing a ship -- like a really, really big ship -- in medieval Blargistan. Over the past week, I've learned where in the city the ships got built (by the shoreline -- duh -- but where specifically), where they got their wood (pretty close by), what sorts of specialists were involved in the various steps of shipbuilding (lots), how you make a ship watertight (oakum + pine tar + secret sauce), who is on a crew (again, lots), where you hire that crew (again, near the ocean, but in another spot), what they're paid (varies).

Someone cooked this.
And, one presumes, ate it.
(Or, at least tried to.)
Today, it's been "What sorts of food do they eat?" Hard-tack with stew, washed down with rough wine, I'd have said before. Turns out there's quite a bit more to it. More meat and way more fresh bread than you'd imagine. More live animals on ship. More vegetables, even.

What is all this going to add up to? Hard to say. But "Apply Butt to Chair and Trust the Process" is my new two-part mantra.

And in the meantime: this is all pretty neat stuff to know.

EDIT: I've decided that I needed to start looking up photo credits. The first one came from a Danish group that makes and sails replica Hanseatic cogs. As far as I can tell, the one for hardtack came from a survivalist website, which also provides a recipe, so you can try it if you want it. However, the website's statement that "When it has the consistency of a brick, it’s fully cured" makes strange bedfellows with their insistence that it's "delicious."

Friday, September 4, 2015

Friday Word Count

I have about fifteen weeks to write this semester before the holidays. I have set some goals for that time period, one of which is no doubt wildly unrealistic. But from low end to high end, I need to write somewhere between 2500-3000 words a week.

This week I got 1950. I'm considering that a victory for a first week, considering that I'm still ramping up.

That is all. Boringest post. I apologize, and offer you this gift of a picture of my morning coffee in my morning chair as partial recompense.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

More about FPU soon, but first: a hopeful note

I've been flailing for so long I've almost forgotten what it feels like to do otherwise:

  • This summer, I flailed in the archives, as I worked with an entirely new genre of documents in new archives with no idea what I was looking for.
  • I've been flailing a bit about the "so what" of this book as a whole. When someone asks what the argument of my half-drafted book is, I contemplate faking my own death -- even though I know this is really the most important question to ask
  • More proximately, I've been flailing about what the chapter I'm working on meant.

"Breathe, Notorious," I tell myself. "It's okay to write your way into this one. The idea will come. It always does. For now, just write." And so that's what I've been doing. And lo and behold, earlier this week, I got one of the "big picture" hooks I'm going to need for the book. Still nothing on the chapter... until this morning. I kinda-sorta figured it out. For now, anyway. I'm willing to let this change and evolve. But I no longer lie away at night thinking that this chapter -- and maybe even the book -- will amount to "Look at all this neat stuff I found!" And that is a huge relief.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Settling In at FPU

Greetings from Fancy-Pants University!

Yeah, okay, it's been over a month since I've posted. But to be fair, in that month, here's what I've done:
  • Finished up a last frantic week of research in Blerg City
  • Gotten a cut that got infected four days before leaving (shivering in 75-degree rooms? check!)
  • Traveled back to Grit City, and moved in with friend for 10 days
  • Visited doctor for antibiotics for infection, then got sick with some new upper-respiratory thing
  • Spent ten days finishing final good-byes in Grit City; dealt with address changes; mailed 7 boxes across the country
  • Moved self (with two suitcases) across country
  • Settled into new apartment and new office and new... well, new everything
So: busy.  But now, finally, I feel like I'm approaching a rhythm. I observed to someone yesterday that you cna power through 90% of settling into a new home in just a few days, but that final 10% can take weeks. Monday, for example, I had to buy a set of stick-on wall hooks that let me have a place to put away my winter hats and umbrellas. Yesterday, it was the process of getting the detritus of former tenants picked up by a local charity service (I have a severe problem with clutter, and no 1-bedroom apartment needs three tables [not including the desk] and six chairs, not to mention two microwaves) as well as getting automatic deposit set up for my travel reimbursements. Today, I applied for a car-sharing service. Tomorrow, perhaps it will be getting the new phone service set up.

My new office is pretty fancy-pants in its own right.
And, of course, there's the work of organizing the actual work. I was at that yesterday and today, trying to figure out what I had (more than I thought), what I still need to transcribe (again, more than I thought -- depressingly so), and where I'm at with the chapter drafts (not as far as I'd like to be, but a good respectable third of the MS in draft form). I'm hoping to really dive in and start writing on September 1. Every time I try to think beyond that, about how much writing I need to do, or what my daily/weekly pace needs to be to get there, or (gods help me) what the real "so what" of my book is, I start to freak out a little. So I've decided for now to stop doing that. Just put in the work every day, rain or shine. And enjoy the hell out of FPU, which truly is a wonderful, wonderful place.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Put your (camera) phone away

I love taking pictures here in blargistan, but I've got a three-part manifesto on how not to do picture-taking when you're on your vacation-of-a-lifetime:

1. If you're taking pictures in a high-traffic area (and in a place like Paris or Barcelona or Rome or whatever, this is pretty much everywhere in the city), then be courteous of other people who are trying to see something or go somewhere: don't block half of that charming alleyway; don't take so long lining up your shot (it's an iPhone camera, fer chrissakes!) that the nice folks who usually pause to let you get it don't get annoyed because they can't get by you.
This is Blerg City at all times in the summer.

2. I'm starting to feel sorry for selfie-takers. Not because they are all alone. Quite the opposite, actually: most people I've seen taking selfies are with groups of people, or in pairs. So why not ask your friend? Or better yet, a stranger? And for the love of all that is holy, that selfie stick thing? Trust me: some day, you're gonna feel totally embarrassed that you owned one.

3. Going to a place full of gorgeous architecture? Fabulous art? Consider leaving the camera in your bag. A recent study suggests that you remember more about what you've seen when you just interact directly with all that stuff around you.

Of course, this may seem strange coming from someone who posts loads of pictures on her blog (when she posts at all). I love photography. And I love using the blog (and yes, even Facebook) to broadcast my observations on things. The irony of this post is not lost on me. But I'm gonna hold firm anyway: sometimes it's time to put down the camera (just like putting down the smart phone) and experience whatever incredible moment we find ourselves in, rather than obsessively documenting it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Wide Awake in Blargistan

I. Am. Exhausted.

It's not just the work. Nor is it jetlag -- I managed to duck that this time. No, it's just that Blerg City goes to bed late, and it's taking its toll.

How late? Well, in the summer, in this neighborhood, it appears to be near midnight on weekdays; much later (earlier?) on weekends -- say, 2 in the morning. No kidding: go to any public space on a Saturday night at 9:30 or even later, and you'll see loads of kids out playing. Like, grade-school-aged kids. And maybe you're thinking, "Well, nothing says that you have to be out as late as a nine year-old!" But here's the rub: part of the reason that Blerg City goes to bed so late is that, this time of year, it doesn't get dark until sometime around 10 p.m. And my brain can't force me to sleep when the sun is shining. In fact, full dark is usually the "let's start winding down" trigger for my brain, which means I'm ready to sleep about two hours later. Which is untenable if I want/need to be up at a decent hour. I'm one of those folks who operates best on 8 1/2 hours a night, and while I can run a deficit for a night or two, I can't do so indefinitely.

But I think I may have it beat. Here, two weeks into my umpteenth trip to Blerg City, I realized something wonderful: my room here has blackout curtains. Now, these are meant to keep the heat out. But I also realized that I can impose an artificial sunset an hour or two earlier. So, I'm going to try that tonight and see if I can't push my bedtime back at least to 10:30. 'Cause carrying a 2-hour sleep deficit for every night for two weeks straight makes working in the archives next to impossible.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"Mop-Up Trip" ha ha ha!

I've been in the archives & libraries pretty much solid for the past couple of weeks. Hell, it's Saturday night in Blerg City and the neighborhood is jumping... and I've been inside for hours reading a book about Carmelite friars.

Yeah. My life is a nonstop party.

But just a quick thought that occurred to me that I wanted to share before I called it quits for the evening (and it's five minutes till midnight here, so I ought to do just that): When I began this research way back in 2009, I had a vague idea of what I'd be doing. And I collected a bunch of documents. I thought I had most everything I needed, and that this would be a quick mop-up trip. But here's the thing about having a clearer idea of where your project is going: you realize that entire collections of documents that you had previously skipped as irrelevant are now revealing themselves to be highly relevant. And, in fact, you could probably spend another year in the archives before you feel like you've got everything you need. And that this book is going to be a much bigger job than you thought it would even just a couple of months ago.

Or, to put it more succinctly:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Arrived in Blargistan

And I appear to be mostly over my jetlag, though I may be spoiling that by still being on the wifi at 2 a.m. this is why I got rid of my home internet last year: because I can't be trusted with it.

First observations: 1. I like the fact that my dollar buys more Euros now since any time since that currency's inception, and 2. Blerg City, like the rest of Europe, is hot

More words later. Here's an arty photo, taken from my evening perigrinations.