Saturday, July 31, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, all hell broke loose.

To be continued...

Monday, July 26, 2010

I have been a killer for as long as I can remember.

I am in the process of killing three houseplants. One was a gift from a friend, a cutting from a houseplant of his that I liked very much. Another was a sacred trust, a colleague's gift from her best friend in grad school that she asked me to care for it while she was away this summer. The third is zombie plant, something that should have already died a thousand deaths from under-watering since I bought it my first year in grad school, but somehow always clawed its way back from the brink, until now.

I told my friend's husband that I was capable of killing cactus; had, in fact killed a cactus. And also an ivy. He was incredulous, and grew even more so when I explained that these two botanical deaths had taken place within a month of each other.

These are not, I should note, delicate tropical plants. They are simple houseplants. They need water and sunlight. Occasionally they should be repotted, probably. They are not fiddly creatures, yet they die under my care. And today, as I contemplated another mortally ill houseplant, I wondered why. Plants, after all, do not hate anyone personally. They do not hold grudges. And they do not require a particular personality trait to be happy. Their needs are simple: healthy soil, sunlight, and water. Requirements may vary slightly from one plant to the next, but I'll bet there are books. And I'll bet it's not rocket science.

On the other hand, today I was thinking that plants -- even the most forgiving ones -- do require something that I appear to have trouble with: attention. I may be seeing signs and portents where none exist, but: I think my sickly houseplants may be telling me something. And I have this funny idea that if I can bring them back to life, I will learn something in the process.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

In Which I Receive an E-mail, Coin a Phrase, and Make a Recommendation

The e-mail: Several hours ago, I received an e-mail from an unknown correspondent, sent to my university account, with the subject line "student." Thinking that this was someone enrolled in one of my fall classes asking if I could provide a copy of the syllabus (a common occurrence here), I opened it. What I found was a helpful suggestion as to what I might "need," sexually speaking, complete with a couple of anatomically-based insults. No virusy attachments or links to unsavory websites; just a single, foul sentence.

Coining a phrase: I actually don't believe this was personal (I didn't recognize the name, and I've been on sabbatical, so my opportunities to piss students off have been minimal); most likely it was some random person trolling faculty websites looking for women to harass. It occurs to me that this type of behavior is part and parcel with catcalls and other skeevy behaviors from one stranger (usually male) to another (usually female), with the intent of asserting power, and that the whole spectrum of behavior needs a phrase to describe it. I propose gender terrorism.

The recommendation: So, finding myself more irritated than actually intimidated, I decided that I should at least go on record. I e-mailed my chair, and she wrote back almost immediately, telling me that it should be reported to our network security people, and to keep her informed. She is generally good about these things, and takes them seriously, preferring to be safe rather than sorry. The network security people, on the other hand, advised me to "ignore it" or call 911. They also helpfully advised me not to reply to my correspondent.** Fine. As I said, I'm almost certain that this was random, rather than personal, and I can't imagine that the university should go on red alert every time that some jerk decides this kind of thing is hilarious. But you know what would help to make women feel like they're welcome in the workplace? A simple statement of solidarity. Something like, "we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment," or "we value the safety of our employees." Sure, they're platitudes. But knowing that the university has my back in case something were really amiss here would mean a lot.

That is all.

UPDATE: I guess that's not all after all, because just before closing up for the night, another e-mail came in, this one with the name and number of one of my fall courses in the subject line. So I guess it's not random after all. Crap. This is going to be a huge pain in the ass for me, onacounta some jackass.

**Good to know, right? 'Cause my first thought was to strike up a fucking correspondence.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Trailing Spouse Bloggers?

I got this rather interesting question in my inbox this morning, and though I can't help the correspondent, I thought I'd put it up as my post today: first, because I believe that some of you out there can probably help her find what she's looking for, and second, because I have little to report.
Hello! I'm the spouse of a PhD student who is super close to finishing up (and claims that process will go much faster if he can just land a job already). I have a BA and work in a university library, but am not pursuing grad school, as I don't know what I'd want to do there. So, we are an academic and a (para?)academic. My job isn't a career, so I gladly said I'd go with him wherever he gets his post-doc. That was years ago, and I had no idea how long it would be, and how that kind of limbo would affect my life and sanity, as well as my autonomy. I started a blog to work out my anxieties, and in looking for similar blogs, I can't find them. I can find academic couples, but no voices from those that are (and I hate this term) trailing. Have you heard through the grapevine about anything from people who are married/with young academics and their travails?
How 'bout it readers: Have you?

On an unrelated note: Here's something I photographed the other day, right before I gobbled it up:

Friday, July 16, 2010

It's never too late to change direction

A discussion about "helicopter parents" and their children over at Historiann's place has taken an interesting turn; namely, the question of whether we professors aren't overreacting, and perhaps projecting our own atypical approach to education and college life onto our students.

And yes, I was one of the ones whose immediate reaction was to do just that, from atop a rather tall equine.

And then a couple of commenters went even further, reminding us that a magic "adult" switch doesn't flip on when a student turns 18, or registers for their first class. And it hit me that I've become a bit too cynical. So I'm reprinting my comment here, since it's something that I'm now going to do some thinking about:

I’m really enjoying reading these comments, especially Emily’s, and now Leslie’s, both of which are reminding me that adulthood isn’t an instantaneous process, and there’s a big difference between a student (especially a first- or second-year student) who contacts parents frequently for advice or searching for validation, and a student or parent who expects that the parent will always run interference, absolving said student of any responsibility for his/her actions, and preventing hir from growing up.

Here’s where I’ll take my stand, at least for the moment: from the outside (that is, from a professor’s point of view), it’s very difficult to tell the difference between the two, since we only see part of the picture. And since a few bad encounters (“my dad’s a lawyer!”) tend to make us a bit cynical, we assume the worst when confronted with partial evidence.

I’m therefore going to try to do a reversal on my own reactions, and try to assume that a student is the former type, unless they’re proven to be the latter. This will be a trial run.

I really do think I've become too cynical in my approach to teaching, assuming that, without a whole bag of carrots and sticks, my students will not read, or care, or do anything but take shortcuts. But I never wanted to be that professor, and I still don't. I don't need to turn into a Pollyanna to admit that it's time for a change in my own approach.

I'll let you know how it goes.

UPDATE: Emily posts in the comments about a post that Tenured Radical wrote a while back about developing a less cynical approach, and it's definitely worth a read, so I'm linking to it here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Today in Research

(unrelated photo)

...a Carmelite friar preaches class revolt from the pulpit during a year of crisis. Things get interesting. And I realize that I would very much like to be Natalie Zemon Davis.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Adventures in Mistranslation

I haven't been posting much lately, because most of what I've been doing has been transcribing municipal ordinances, and they don't give much to talk about. But every once in a while, something entertaining comes up. This time, the entertainment was provided by my own rather unpredictable brain that cheerfully translates unfamiliar words into the first thing it lights upon. To wit (and leaving out the boring parts about the mechanics of translation/transcription in an age before orthographic rules -- and, more importantly, before I'd finished my first cup of coffee): I was fully convinced for 90 minutes that tuna were among the animals that residents of Exotic Research City were forbidden from herding through the city streets.

I make my own fun.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Where My Head Is At Lately

In case you were wondering, I'm still transcribing documents, and preparing for a weekend visit from a friend from Fellowship City.

When she leaves, I will start writing again. For real.

And maybe clean my kitchen floor.

Also, I have allowed myself to develop a crush. I'm enjoying the occasional risk-free dopamine rush, and I thought that those of you who know me well would like to know that I'm finally allowing myself the occasional daydream. Baby steps.

Here's something pretty to look at:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Natural Evolution

Once upon a time, I had a topic for this project. Not a good research question, mind you, but a topic.

Next, came a stack of documents that seemed to be talking about that topic.

And now, diving into them, I find myself diverted by one particular tangent. I sit here and dutifully transcribe, but every time this tangent comes up, I perk right up. Which makes me suspect that my topic is evolving.

Not that I have a question yet or anything, mind you.

In other news: yesterday was a friend's birthday, a nice day at a local cultural spot. And I'm resisting going to the gym. But I will.