Monday, June 28, 2010

My plan to become less interesting

For the forseeable future, expect this blog space to contain less advice (unsolicited or otherwise), and more (a) intermittent updates on what I'm working on on the new project(s), (b) random observations on my life in general, and (c) light photoblogging.**

Here's an example:

(a) One of my new projects has me, right now, reading about municipal grain policy and fiscal instruments for the sale of public debt. Really. It's as dull as you imagine, and then some.

(b) While in Puddletown, I have seen two people who look eerily like my two most recent ex-boyfriends, neither of whom live here. This is unsettling.


**I'm not sure if this is a rejuvenation/fallow period, or a transition towards retirement, but I do know that it's what I need to do right now.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Some things change, some stay the same

One or two gray hairs have started to put in the occasional appearance. Just one or two, but I anticipate more in the next couple years.

I can no longer physically fling myself out of bed and across the room at the sound of the alarm.

My neck...

My eyes are drying up, and my morning routine, every morning, now begins with eyedrops.

I have lost all patience with pretending I'm dumber, weaker, or smaller than I know myself to be just to support someone else's ego, and have finally sworn off behaving civilly to anyone who suggests I should.

On the other hand: I still sing to myself without realizing it, and engage in spontaneous dance breaks. I still ride my bike down the steep hill without touching the brakes** and love the pull of the centripetal force when I bank into the left turn at the bottom.*** I still wave and smile at other people's kids in restaurants, because they (the kids) seem to like it. I still think Chrissy Hynde kicks ass. I am still plagued doubts and insecurities, and plenty of them. I'm still prone to fits of joy or despair all out of proportion to actual events. I'm just learning not to make excuses for these things, because I'm starting to think they don't actually need to be excused.

Welcome to my fortieth birthday.

**I have even been known to yell "whooo!" while doing this.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

The road to perdition actually kind of pretty, as it turns out.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Puddletown Report

Puddletown isn't all great coffee, friendly people, amazing bookstores, happy dogs, and good bike lanes. Sometimes it's this:

Or this:

Or this:

Neither side of Puddletown has so far offered me any solution as to what my project is going to be about. But it has offered me congenial places where I can sit & drink my coffee while I transcribe my way towards a solution.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Homeward Bound

Hi all!

So, although I haven't packed or taken out the garbage or anything even remotely like that, in two hours I'm headed off to Puddletown for a week. I'm going to see friends and family, drink coffee, buy books, keep transcribing, go hiking, celebrate my 40th birthday, and think about what it all means. I'll also be taking some pictures, so perhaps there will be a bit of photoblogging. And then we'll see what comes next.

Have a great week!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

No, really: I AM a fraud.

Here's why: I don't know much of anything about the history of Exotic Research Country.

No, that's not quite true. I know a great deal about it -- more than my medievalist colleagues who study other countries. But my knowledge of it can't even be put on the same page with that of my friends and colleagues who also study ERC which, for the duration of this post, I'm going to call Blargistan.

I went to grad school specifically to study the history of Blargistan. I was fascinated by it for various reasons that I won't get into here. And sure enough, I did my M.A. with a professor whose research was in the history of Blargistan. But most of his reading on the subject was a couple of decades out of date, and since I wasn't yet savvy enough to find the best current scholarship on my own, I ended up reading a lot of the same books he had read in grad school many years ago, and little else.

For the Ph.D., I switched to work with a professor whose advising style I worked better with. It was a good choice, and I don't regret it one bit. But this professor's work had nothing at all to do with Blargistan. He read and wrote fluently -- even elegantly -- in Blarg, but his area of specialty was thematic -- let's say, for the sake of argument, scholastic theology. So, I ended up writing a dissertation (and later a book) on scholastic theology and kittens in Blargistan.

And as I'm now moving on to another project, I'm realizing that I now know a great deal more about both scholastic theology and kittens (separately and together) in the Blargistanian context than probably most medieval Blargistan historians working in this country. What I don't have, I'm coming to realize, is a good grasp on the general literature of medieval Blargistan -- all that stuff that my friends read as a matter of course in grad school completely passed me by. In fact, there is one Very Important Author in the field who doesn't appear in my book's bibliography at all because, other than a single article, I've never read any of his work. That's not my judgment on the worth of his work, which is universally acknowledged to be excellent; it's just never come up.

If people knew, they would be shocked.

So, as I move away from kittens and scholastic theology and onto a new thematic project, I find that I have a hell of a lot of catching up to do, simply to make myself into the moderately competent Blargistan scholar that I claim to be.

And quickly: before I get found out as the fraud I am.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Let's talk Plan B

The last post was yet another reiteration of that old song, "How bad things are on the academic job market." It's a catchy tune, and I sing along, but: Am I the only one who's getting a little tired of it?

One of the oft-repeated verses is: "Have a Plan B." At the beginning of my last year in grad school, I rather belatedly started thinking about this. But unlike friends who studied, say, modern China, my skill set as a medievalist was a bit more limited. How many jobs ask for a working knowledge of Latin? The only things I could come up with that wouldn't require yet another degree were other options in the field of teaching. As I put together application packets for tenure-track jobs, I also researched a few high-end private high schools and kept an eye on the hiring cycle at community colleges. I also began to think about ways I could use my research or writing skills in some area outside of higher education -- technical writing, perhaps? In a pinch, I reminded myself that anyone who had experience operating an industrial dishwasher (I do) would never starve.** But as a plan B, it wasn't such of a much, and my main method for keeping the panic down was to block out what I knew about my debt and say to myself, "For eight years, you have had the privilege of doing what you love. Most people never get that. So whatever you do from here, you're okay."

Fortunately I landed a tenure-track job, so I never had to find out. But luck played a huge role in that, and I know that I didn't think seriously enough about Plan B. And who would I have talked to about it? The sometimes cultish culture of academia discourages grad students from talking with their professors about possibilities beyond the tenure track, for fear that those professors will stop taking them seriously. Market-bound students may hesitate to bring up with each other the possibility of not getting a tenure-track job for fear that speaking it aloud might jinx them, or at least bring down the already shaky morale among their cohort. But it's hard to seriously think about it if we don't talk about it. So why not let's us talk about it right now? Especially if you're in the Humanities, where it's not always easy to imagine our skills as transferable, except in the abstract. What were/are your plans B?

**Maybe not as true today as it was in 2002.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Seriously, folks: write to Ms. Mentor

Dear Recent Correspondent: I'm flattered that you think I know enough about the academic world to advise you on whether or not you should give it a go. Really, I am. But though I sometimes offer unsolicited advice on what to do in the archives, or how to construct a book proposal, I only do so because I have experience in those areas. I sometimes even make general statements about the job market and what might or might not be good reasons in general to try for a Ph.D. and an academic career. But I am in no way qualified to tell anyone what to do with their life in particular. These are important decisions that are best pronounced upon by people who really know the situation, not by some random person on the internet. You do not even know my name, much less my professional qualifications or my relative degree of sanity. You might as well ask a magic 8-ball.

So, if you e-mail me such questions, chances are that I won't respond, and the weightier the decision, the less likely I am to dole out advice. If I do respond, here's what you'll likely get:

  • Snark. See this post as a good example.
  • Advice worth the price you paid for it:

    Still want advice? Okay, here it is: Yes, you may indeed be crazy to consider dumping your secure (one assumes) job and going for a career in academia because it's a long (5-10 years), rough road, far from everybody makes it through, and even those who do face dim employment prospects, often with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans. Yes, it's a good thing -- a great thing, even -- to have a fulfilling career. But as previous posts here and elsewhere have noted, going to grad school is far from guaranteed to result in a career of any kind. There is no magic formula of X motivation + Y level of work = Z outcome. You might end up with the result you want, which would be great (career satisfaction! regular paychecks!), and we'd all do a happy dance. Or you might end up unemployed and in debt up to your eyeballs. Do you love your chosen field so much that simply the process of getting the education would be satisfaction enough, even if there was no job at all on the other end of it, and you had to restart your old career, or begin a new one, in your mid- to late thirties?

    Most importantly: if, as your letter strongly implies, you have a family depending on you and your current job for part or all of their financial support, then they're the ones you need to be talking to, because they will be the ones making the sacrifices. And that, my friend, is the best advice I can give you.

    That, and: Plastics.
  • Getting My Groove Back: Transcription

    As a medievalist, one of the trickiest things to deal with is transcription of our documents. We take specific classes in paleography, which is simply the art of deciphering centuries-old styles of handwriting.** So, first you learn Latin, then you learn the complicated system of abbreviations, symbols, ligatures, and contractions, and how to count backwards and consider the date of Easter when a document is dated something like ".xiiii. kalendis ffebrerii anno quod supra." Not to mention (though I guess I will) the fact that some letters look entirely different from the way they do now, some (such as c, t, and r) are nearly indistinguishable from each other, and a lack of dots on the "i" makes figuring out a word like "minima", written in cursive, nearly impossible to figure out. There are, of course, some guides to this, but they don't cover everything. Add to that the inevitable holes, liquid stains, ink bleed-through... well, you get it.

    And then, just when you think you've got it figured out, some punk decides to start writing in the vernacular, but in some messed-up medieval version of it.

    Advantage: they abbreviate less, because all the good abbreviations are in Latin.

    Disadvantage: There are absolutely no orthographic rules, and while you might take a course in medieval Latin before you hit the archives, and if you're an England specialist you will have studied Middle (or Old) English, you probably won't get one in medieval variants of Venetian, or Breton, or Gallego, or Proven├žal. Unless you're at some super-fancy school, in which case: Thhbbbtttt!!!!

    Anyway, I'm here transcribing (most emphatically not translating) and summarizing stacks of documents in the vernacular. I'm finding it's going more quickly than I had anticipated: I can get through 100 lines a day right now, rather than the 50 I had reckoned with. Of course, this may be a function of the document type -- some are just easier to work with than others. But I remember what a slow slog this was as I worked on the dissertation documents. And it's nice to know that there are some things that your brain actually hangs on to, other than Brady Bunch episodes and that Schoolhouse Rock song on the preamble to the Constitution.

    **In that, I understand, we may be more fortunate than our colleagues who study the 18th century: while the handwriting they have to deal with is not as difficult, there are no specialized classes to train them in reading it. They just have to figure it out as they go.

    Monday, June 14, 2010

    Why yes, I DO have a Master's Degree!

    So, again today there was a version of this conversational exchange:

    "So, what do you do?"

    "I'm a history professor."

    "Ohhhh…" (pause, then in tones of admiration:) "So you have a masters' degree?"

    The simplest answer here would be, "Yes." Because, in fact, I do have a masters' degree. Worked hard for it. Cost me a lot in terms of both work and emotional strain. Wrote a thesis that I'm reasonably proud of. But that M.A. represents only one-fourth of the time I spent in graduate school. And the Ph.D. is something that took even more effort to attain. More importantly, it represents one of my most important lifetime accomplishments.

    Now, these are complete strangers.** I am not applying for a job with them; they do not really need my full CV. More than that, they are already plenty impressed with an M.A., so I can't really take offense. Yet somehow, it always gets my back up, and I usually say something like, "Yes! And a doctorate, too!" I usually say it in my perkiest not-being-an-elitist-bitch voice. Likely because I feel like I am being an elitist bitch, especially in the face of people who are already impressed. But dammit, I worked for that Ph.D.! And if it's not gonna bring me fame and fortune (and oh, boy is it not), I'd at least like it to be acknowledged, when the subject comes up.***

    ::sigh:: Like getting rankled at my students addressing me as "Mrs. Notorious" (in their best effort to show respect – I get it, believe it or not), this is one of the many places where my social-egalitarian ideals and my background come into conflict with my vanity and my aspirations.

    So, please somebody: tell me how to either a) just let it go, or b) have a good answer prepped that won't make this class-conscious woman feel like an ass.

    Or maybe I should just smile, let it pass, and blog about it.

    fig. 1: my various degrees, in their natural habitat;
    note the symbiotic relationship with the yet-to-be-hung
    office poster (far left)

    **Before you ask: they tend to be men, but not always, and this most recent encounter was with a woman, about twelve years younger than me. In either case, there may be gender dynamics at play. Age may also be a factor – in a particularly perky mood, and barring fluorescent lighting or close inspection of my neck, I might present as mid-30s. And as we know, all Ph.D.s are sixty-something tweed-clad bearded men. But I think a greater proportion of the reaction comes from simply not knowing that most professors have Ph.D.s as a basic qualification. And face it: that's not really a fact that most people will ever need to know.

    ***I never bring it up myself. Proud and ashamed at the same time: How fucked up is that?

    Sunday, June 13, 2010


    This past weekend, as I noted in the previous post, I had the privilege of seeing my dear friend Voice of Reason get married to a very fortunate man. For various sound reasons, they held the wedding at a mountain town that caters to weekend travellers seeking to escape city life and wander around among the trees, look up and see stars, and all that sort of thing.

    I ate it up.

    After a few hours of fantasizing about ways to live in such a place while continuing to work in Grit City, I discarded the idea as utter nonesense,** possibly brought on by altitude-related oxygen deprivation, and instead thought about one that I might actually put into practice: once-a-semester writing retreats.

    Now, in my fantasy world, this would involve enough time to give me two travel days, plus three days where I'd write in the morning, hike in the afternoons, and read in the evenings. The cost would be about equivalent to an academic conference. The retreat location of my fantasy world would have at least one window that would look out on no neighbors, and the actual dwelling would not have free internet access. The practical part of my brain does not allow me to delude myself that I could knock off an entire article or anything, but I do think I could accomplish a lot if unplugged, and in an inspiring place. And being forced to disconnect from the e-chatter for a while might help form some good habits I could take back home.

    I am, as you may have guessed by now, a bit of a romantic.*** And I do acknolwedge that if a procrastinator gets in a car or on a plane and heads to the mountains, the person who gets out of that car or plane in the mountains will be… a procrastinator. So there is essential groundwork that I need to think about before seriously contemplating this.

    I know that one of my regular readers takes herself on retreats, but these are spiritual, rather than work-related. Then again, my longing for occasional doses of mountain solitude does have a vaguely spiritual component to it, too.

    Anyone tried this? Did you find it helpful?

    **First, it clashes with my live-where-you-work philosophy and the communitarian and environmental benefits of said philosophy. Second, I've been nattering on for a month now about becoming more emotionally connected to Urban University and Grit City. Putting down my main roots somewhere else entirely would be antithetical to this goal, to say the least. Third, it would be damn expensive.

    ***I don't think that's necessarily a bad quality. But it's one that has prompted me to leap into untenable situations in the past.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010

    Out of Town

    ...while Voice of Reason gets married. The lovely woman decided that it would be cheaper for all concerned and more fun to rent out a group of cabins in the local mountains, so I'm off until Monday. Pictures of mountainy goodness to follow.

    Hope you all have a fun weekend!

    Thursday, June 10, 2010

    Another blogiversary, come and gone

    Damn. I missed another blogiversary. But, better late than never:

    On June 5, 2007, I posted this.

    If you click through, you'll see that I started this blog at the beginning of a pre-tenure fellowship year, to chronicle the work on a first monograph in Medieval Stuff. "People might find this interesting," I thought. And sure enough, some people did. Along the way, there was a fabulous Judith Bennett roundtable, "remedial-gate," some romance for a time, and a lot of new friends -- some of whom I've even gotten to meet in person, much to my happiness.** When I got stuck, I'd sometimes post a photo. Like this:

    The first book is now finished, and I've just gone through all of my old posts to add a tag, "First Book Chronicles." If you're interested in that process, click on the tag at right (or the link), and all my experience in this matter, both good and bad, will be revealed.

    But as I said, the first book is now finished, and available for purchase. Barring some follow-up posts when the reviews come out, that part of the blog is definitively done. As a result, I find myself writing a blog in search of an identity. If you've noticed some rambling, navel-gazing, and opinionating over the last few months, that's why.

    As in any creative endeavor, a theme or two will emerge soon, I'm sure. In the meantime, thanks for hanging out with me the past three years:*** readers, lurkers, new friends and old ones. It's been a blast, so I'm gonna keep it up, and see where we go.

    **Turns out that the people who have been pretty cool online are also pretty cool in person. And we're all stunningly attractive.

    ***= 21 in blog years.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010

    Medieval Academy and Arizona Politics: An Update

    UPDATED with more info for people who have already submitted abstracts: scroll down to the bottom of the post.

    Dear Readers,

    I reproduce here without comment a note to a listserv from Professor Monica Green, regarding current debates in the Medieval Academy's governing body over whether to pull out of this year's meeting in Arizona. I've blogged about this briefly, but there is a much bigger discussion going on. I encourage my medievalist readers especially (and even more those who are Medieval Academy members) to read below, take a look at the links, and get involved, according to their own political or scholarly priorities:

    I wish to bring to your attention the fact that the Council of the Medieval Academy of America (MAA) is currently debating whether to continue with plans to hold the 2011 meeting in Arizona, as had originally been scheduled. [...]

    As I said, the MAA Council is at this very moment debating the issue amongst themselves and is due to vote on the matter by next Wednesday, June 15. As would be expected, there is a range of opinion about the matter. If you would like more information, there is a notice on the blog "In the Middle" (you'll need to scroll down a bit to the section headed 'Important Update RE: MAA in AZ'). Included there is a statement by one of the current Councilors, Connie Berman. She includes a link to the list of the full current Council, where you can find e-mail addresses in order to contact them with your opinion. There is also a petition calling for a boycott of the meeting if plans are not made to move it elsewhere: for discussion, go to

    If you have not yet heard about the law that was passed in April, probably the easiest thing to do is just Google "Arizona immigration law". There have been tens of thousands of news reports about it worldwide.

    [T]his is a matter of academic politics of concern to us all. I encourage you to read the blog statement and contact the MAA Council with your opinion.

    UPDATED: reproducing below a section of the letter from MAA program officer Professor Constance Berman (which I shamelessly ganked from the "In the Middle" post Professor Green references above):

    I would like you all to know that enough Councilors of the Medieval Academy of America have indicated that we will not attend a meeting in Arizona to have called a virtual meeting of the Academy which will, I hope, take place within the next two weeks. One of the arguments being used to have the meeting continue in AZ is that there are 120 abstracts. While I'm morally opposed to having a meeting in Tempe, I'm trying to use the more easily made "practical" argument, that if we hold a meeting, no one will come. So, if you have submitted an abstract, but will not attend if it's still in AZ, then it would be good if you so indicate to medieval academy officers and council -- whose names have recently been sent out on the MAA list-serv

    It'll make it easier for those who oppose it from inside the Council without having your abstract used against us. Thanks and hang in there,

    Connie Berman, Prof. of History, University of Iowa

    So there you have it. I wonder: are any of my readers people who have submitted abstracts? Are you planning to pull out? Would you be willing to share here why or why not?

    Now back to your regularly scheduled

    Thanks to all for your voices of sympathy and experience on the previous post. I found them really helpful.

    I've gotten more information about my sometime friend. It looks good, as far as general quality of life, but less so as far as a career as a researcher/teacher. But one never knows. Small blessings, I suppose.

    As for me, it's another good push in the direction my introspection of late has been taking me: be present, and be grateful.

    But this does not preclude also: do thi werk. So it's back to transcriptions. I'll let you know when it gets interesting.

    Monday, June 7, 2010

    What now?

    What happens when someone with whom you have a complicated history, someone about whom you have some fond memories, but also who irritates you deeply from time to time, someone who has been their own worst enemy in their search for a happy life, someone who you've recategorized from "friend" to "friendly acquaintance" in order to not be upset so often by their words or behavior, someone who still has many good qualities...

    What happens when that person -- only a couple years older than you -- suffers a serious medical crisis that leaves them mentally impaired, possibly for life?

    What if the last words you said to them were not kind, but rather calling them on some bullshit?

    How are you supposed to feel?

    Sunday, June 6, 2010

    Early Progress

    Okay, even though I don't know jack about my new topic, I am happy to report the following:

    I have just written the first 301 words of the post-book project.

    These words are little more than summaries and some offhand early musings about two of the documents I transcribed yesterday. But they are in paragraph form, as if they were part of something. And I am pleased.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010

    Scribblings of Two Sorts

    Today's scribblings were those of people writing several centuries in the past. The documents right now are fairly legible, but they're also written in the vernacular, rather than the Latin I'm used to, so there's a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary where I just have to guess at the word. I've transcribed thirty lines of these scribbles -- took me about two hours. I'd like to establish a pace of fifty lines a day, but I'm going to have to work up to it, because boy, am I ever out of practice.

    Tomorrow comes the harder scribblings: my own. I'm trying to practice the "write every day" thing, which is really, really hard when I'm at the beginning of a new project that has nothing to do thematically with the stuff I spent ten years becoming proficient in. At this point, the best I'm expecting of myself are freewrite-style musings that I hope will clarify as I go along. But step one is to get back into the writing habit.


    Thursday, June 3, 2010

    M.A. Thesis Advising: An Update

    (Alternate title: Our Graduate Advisor is Very Wise)

    Just a quick update on an earlier post, on the off chance that it might help someone in the same situation.

    I spoke today with the Graduate Advisor, who is invested in maintaining high standards, but fair and realistic. She noted, as I did (and as many of you did), that an institution like ours can't base our admissions on whether or not a prospective M.A. student has a close match on topic. What we can do, however, is offer them truth in advertising.

    So, here's what my M.A. students will learn from me, unequivocally: if they, I, and the director all agree that they are going to write a thesis rather than do an exam,** they can work on whatever topic they are interested, within the confines of the broader field. HOWEVER, I will let them know that, if they work completely outside my handful of areas of expertise, the best guidance I can offer them along the way will not be as complete as it could be if they were working closer to my area, whether geographically or thematically. I will always do my best by them, but my best in some areas is significantly better than my best in others. Likewise, if they apply to Ph.D. programs, my imprimatur will mean significantly more if it's in an area where prospective Ph.D. advisors know that I know my stuff, and that I have imparted it to the candidate.

    After that, it's caveat emptor.

    **This is how it goes at our institution: the student has to want to do a thesis, a faculty member has to be willing to supervise that thesis, and the grad director has to endorse the decision, based on that student's overall performance in the program. A student who does not do a thesis takes comprehensive exams as their path to the M.A.

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010

    My Work ≠ Me

    When you're single with no children, it's easy to let the academic part of your identity take over your life. But lately I've been remembering that before I became an academic, I was a bunch of other things. Friends and neighbors, I'm going to be forty in less than a month, so it seems like an appropriate time to take stock. So here's some random stuff I've been thinking about. If I think about it enough, it may end up popping into the blog from time to time, along with the usual academentia:
    • Food: I'd like to try a new recipe every week. I love to eat, and I really enjoy the process of cooking, when I have the time for it.
    • Mind/body: I've been, off and on, practicing yoga and doing some silent meditation. Most of my adult life, my head has felt like it was full of flies. And lately, my ability to focus on where I'm at, who I'm with, and what I'm supposed to be doing has been getting worse. I'd like to change that.
    • Just plain body: Do you know that I can't do even a single push-up? And that I've never been able to? As I get older, "fit" equals less "pretty/sexy" than "strong/not hobbling around."
    • Creativity: I take pictures. I think I'll keep doing that.
    • Stop waiting: I've been putting off a lot of Stuff I Want To Do until I meet That Special Someone to do it with, or until I'm in the perfect job, or in the perfect location, or am out of debt... the list could go on. Time to realize that my life is what is happening now, rather than what is waiting somewhere up ahead.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010

    In all the hoo-hah, I totally forgot to mention...

    ...that you can now buy my book at your favorite online retailer.** Not pre-order; actually buy. I received my first advance copy (earmarked for mom & dad) on Saturday and held it in my hands. You know how you look at someone else's newborn, and you think, "it looks like a baby" or even, "it looks like a boiled monkey," but the parents are all "He's so beautiful"?

    Yeah, well, that's me with this book. I realize that to anyone else, it looks like a book.

    But to me, it's beautiful.

    **I actually encourage going into your favorite brick-and-mortar retailer, if you're lucky enough to have one. But there you'll probably have to special-order it. Still, you can browse while you're there.