Thursday, September 30, 2010

Undergraduate History Bloggers?

Time to ask my knowledgeable and web-literate readers out there: can anyone suggest some really good undergraduate history bloggers? I'm faculty advisor for our undergrad history club, and I'd love to put them onto some of these voices out there, if they exist.

So: suggestions of thoughtful undergraduate writers on either particular historical topics, or on the undergraduate experience as a history student -- I'd love to hear about these.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Open letter to the student who takes his lunch every day in the main quad near my office

Dear Student,

For the record, I appreciate guerrilla art in which public spaces are transformed into performance spaces.

Your 80s-style boom box is not that. It's just loud. Really, really loud. I'm inside with my windows closed, and I still can't focus on anything more mentally taxing than blogging.

If it were a single day of this, I'd love it. Here's a guy who has found a way to challenge the way this space is used. Even the music itself -- old-school hip-hop -- is an interesting and even appealing choice (although right now you're spinning "Ghostbusters," so I'm not sure what to think about that).

But the fact that you're doing it every day has taken it out of the realm of the interesting and into a pathological need for attention (which you do not seem to be getting). Either that, or you're conducting a long-term psychology experiment to see how long people will pretend some social convention is not being transgressed when it actually is. In which case, I guess we're potentially back to interesting again.

In short, I can't decide if you're being unthinkingly obnoxious or deliberately provocative. I guess, for the moment, I'm going to treat you like I treat trolls on my blogs and figure that you feed on attention, making the best reaction none at all.** That's the approach that everyone anywhere near your vicinity seems to have adopted over the weeks: give this guy a wide berth.

But sweetie-pie, if the day ever comes when you do want someone to sit next to you -- or even within 30 feet of you -- when you eat lunch, you should really turn it down, or invest in a pair of headphones.

Keeping it real in my own way,


**This is actually my policy, and one I recommend for my readers/commenters: Do not feed the trolls.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Can somebody please explain this to me?

Here are the facts:
  1. I am caught up on my grading, with the exception of half a dozen short papers I took in from my grad students tonight.
  2. My bills are paid, and I will have enough money (barely, but whatever) to make it to payday on Friday. My credit card debt is going down, rather than up.
  3. There are no current family crises, other than the usual background chaos.
  4. My committee work is fine and solid until Friday, when more stuff comes in.
  5. I have a presentation a week from Wednesday that I feel prepared for.
  6. My travel to an upcoming one-day symposium does not require me to present anything.
  7. My session organizer paperwork for Kalamazoo is turned in.
  8. Ditto on my travel authorization forms and applications for travel funding.
  9. I have bits and pieces to finish on two projects due by the end of the month, but I can get them done by this weekend, no problem.
  10. I have eaten decently today, though I probably could have had a little less sugar and a little more vegetable and/or whole grains, and I got a moderate amount of exercise (two 15-minute bike rides), though I've been short on sleep for a couple of nights now.
So can somebody please explain why I've been suffering from low-grade but constant anxiety for the past two hours, as if there were something important that I haven't done? I mean, I think I'll probably feel better when #9 is done, and there's a little worry that one of those two projects is going to be half-assed, but really -- what's up here?

Argh. I hate feeling like this.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Academic Couch-Surfing

I have reached a new milestone in the ongoing tug-of-war between my desire to maintain a research profile in my field, and the ever-shrinking support for research-related activity (archive trips, conferences, symposia) at my non-Research University.

I am couch-surfing.

Here's the way faculty funding has worked in the past: the individual colleges have had pools of money to help partially support faculty conference travel and the like. The individual departments also have pools, though much smaller. Junior faculty are prioritized over those with tenure; actual presentations are prioritized over chairing sessions; simple attendance is only funded if there's something left over in the pot at the end (so, very rarely). All this strikes me as reasonable.

Unfortunately, as our overall budget has shrunk, so has the pool for travel funding. We used to be able to count on partial funding once a semester. Then it was once per academic year. Then the funding ceiling for that once-a-year funding was cut by 25%, which usually still covers airfare and registration, though not food or lodging. So I've been watching myself, trying not to go to too many conferences or focusing on nearby ones. If there's a specialist seminar within a day's drive, I made sure to attend, to keep myself in the game on the cheap.

And then, an opportunity: A one-day seminar about 500 miles away. The topic fits with a particular teaching specialty that my department wants me to take the lead on. It also fits with the new direction my research has been taking, and so would allow me to dive into the new field. They've got Big International Name as the keynote speaker. It's even held on a day where neither seminar itself nor the two travel days would conflict with my teaching schedule at all. And there is no registration fee.

How could I not go?

And yet... I would not be presenting anything. I'd be sitting there, listening, and learning. An important opportunity for me, but not something that I could get funding for under the current circumstances and guidelines -- guidelines that I, in principle, agree with.

So, how am I pulling this off without going $600 into debt? Simple: I have a friend from Puddletown who has temporarily relocated to a city about 35 miles from Seminar Location. Her city is also the location of the nearest airport. So she, blessed woman, has joyfully agreed to put me up for two nights, and has even offered to lend me her car for the round-trip commute. My price for this? Round-trip airfare on a budget carrier, and I pick up the tab for two dinners out with friend and her son (who have simple tastes).

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I wish it didn't come to this. "If I didn't have to subsidize my own job, maybe I could pay off my damn credit cards! AAARRGH!!"

But the more I think about it, the more absurdly pleased I am with the way this has shaken out. I'm looking forward to seeing my friend before and after a day of heavy academia. And as a person who grew up hunting for her school clothes at the Goodwill, I'm still proud of getting something really great for almost no money. And I'm reciprocating by hosting professor and grad student friends whose research & conference travel brings them into Grit City's orbit. So my karmic balance is cool.

But I do hope that this is not the shape of things to come. Because I don't yet have good friends in every major university town.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Service Blues

A while ago, I wrote about taking on a greater service load after tenure. Now, all that seems to be coming true.

In our department, junior faculty are generally given light service loads. The idea is that pre-tenure faculty need to concentrate on getting their courses up and running, and getting some publications out -- a couple of peer-reviewed articles and a book MS has been the standard lately. That leaves time only for a departmental committee or two a year, plus maybe a few years on a college- or university-level committee. This, in my opinion, is right and good.

With tenure, the expectations change. Oh sure, we still need to publish, and the teaching needs to be strong. But now it appears to be the time for service. Lots of it.

Which is just background for me to sigh deeply, and say that so far this semester, my life seems to be composed of little more than meetings. As a Very Disorganized Person, this is causing me undue stress. So I've become a better calendar-keeper. Every morning, I wake up, look at the calendar, and remind myself of where I'm supposed to be, and when. Do I have another graduate student meeting? Do I need to send out an e-mail for that committee to meet? Is there a paperwork deadline I've almost missed? And what about all that "service to the profession" -- do I say yes to serve on the board of that organization I think is really neat? Have I got all the materials for that other organization? Did I forget to turn something in for that panel I'm organizing?

If I thought about it all at once, I'd wail with despair. So I just take it one day at a time, and hope nothing slips through the cracks.

Thank god I'm not trying to date or have a social life.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Big, Fat, Fake Conferences

This morning, I received three versions of the same e-mail about a certain academic conference, informing me that the deadline for the CFP had been extended. One of these three versions, distressingly, was forwarded from a member of my university's administration. I say "distressingly," because this particular conference seems clearly (to me, at least) to be a big, fat, fake conference.**

Real conferences have a few main goals (not necessarily in the following order): to disseminate researchers' new findings, to allow researchers to get feedback on ideas in progress, and to bring scholars together more informally to get the creative juices flowing. (Some would also say to have an excuse to get blotto and hit on people you'll never see again, but we'll leave that to one side for now.)

Fake conferences' goals are two: to make money for the organizers, and to give cash-strapped academics a way to get their universities to pay for travel to an exotic locale.

Now, depending on your own personal bent, your university's available funds, and the climate of your university's locale compared with that of the conference venue, you may indeed feel it worthwhile to apply to a fake conference. I won't presume to judge. But you almost certainly don't want it ever to show up on your CV. So here's your handy guide to telling if something is a fake conference. If you answer "yes" to only one of the following, that doesn't necessarily mean you're dealing with a fake conference. But two or more, and you may need to think about it:
  • Is the conference location somewhere that a non-academic might plan a once-in-a-lifetime vacation?
  • Does the conference venue have the word "resort" or "spa" in its name?
  • Does the conference invoke "interdisciplinarity" to allow them to accept papers from over a dozen different disciplines, but with no central organizing principle or theme?
  • Is the registration fee (not counting hotel and transportation) unusually high for an academic conference?
  • Does the organizer appear to be an individual or a commercial business, rather than an academic or creative organization or a university-related entity?
  • Do they appear to accept all papers?
  • Does the publication venue (if there is one) make the main criteria payment of registration fee rather than quality of the paper?

As I said, one or two of these things doesn't necessarily mean that it's a fake conference. Some very good conferences may be held in nice locations, are interdisciplinary in nature, or have financial support from businesses who want to use some of their profits to support culture, or are under government mandate to do so. Go, have fun, take some pictures -- but know what's legit and what's not.

**UPDATE: Historiann makes a good point in the comments. Technically, these conferences aren't "fake": academics go to them, give papers, and even attend other people's sessions. "Bogus," as she suggests, is probably more accurate (and more fun to say). But since I've already titled the post using "fake," I'm going to leave it, and figure that my meaning will be understood.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I am, this year, faculty advisor to two groups I care a great deal about: the undergraduate History Students' Association, and the UG/Grad interdepartmental Medieval Studies group. These groups are mostly self-directed, but I also step in with ideas. This year, it's going to be a career workshop, for both.

I also advise my own grad students. I advise them on how to approach projects. I tell them when they're in trouble. I advise them to learn more languages. If they are Ph.D.-bound, I advise them what programs to apply to to suit their own interests and career aspirations. Sometimes they even listen to me.

But in these situations, I actually know what's going on. What am I, a random pseudonymous blogger, to do with a perfectly polite but oddly specific request like this?
Dear Notorious, I’ve read some of your posts in your blog where I also found your email address. I’m interested in studying medieval history with focus on [X] history. Unfortunately, I couldn’t found any faculty in [city redacted to protect anonymity] that has such a program. I’ll be grateful for your advice about universities in [city] that have dedicated programs in this area. Any hint will be helpful. Thanks in advance!
I do give out advice on the blog now and then, but only when I damn well feel like it, and usually it's utterly unsolicited. But I can't figure out why the correspondent in this case would think I'd know the answer to his or her question. I do have areas of expertise that I'm more than happy to pronounce on, and sometimes at great length. Sadly, no one ever asks me about the best bike routes around town in Grit City,** or the best way to cook tofu without it falling apart in the pan,*** or how to deal with curly hair.**** These are things I know a great deal about.

Which is all to say that, as usual, I don't have an actual answer. Fortunately, what the correspondent actually asked for was a "hint," and I have three of those:
  1. I have no way of knowing. I don't live in your city; have never even set foot there, except for its airport. Your best bet is to talk with your current professors (assuming that they and you live in or near to your target city). They will have a better idea about the strengths and weaknesses of nearby programs. Listen to what they say.
  2. If your university experience is not current or recent, there are other options. When I was applying to grad programs, I went to the local university library, started with authors who had written books in my geographic subspecialty, found out where they were teaching, and then leafed through the microfiche catalogs for their institutions. That's still possible now, except steps 2 & 3 can be done on a computer. How great is that? Alternatively, you could pull up the web pages for all the history departments in the major universities in City X (a large city, granted, but surely there can't be more than 8-10, right?) and browse through them.
  3. But why city X? Must you stay there? Do you have a spouse or family member or some other reason why you can't possibly leave, or is it a matter of geographic preference? City X, I've heard, is very nice, sure. But if your geographic limitations are based on preference, rather than actual necessity, you need to reexamine your priorities, especially if you're looking at graduate programs and beyond. I left my beloved Puddletown to go to grad school in a place that I considered the end of the earth (for the record, I ended up loving it, though only after two years of resenting it for not being Puddletown), then got a job here in Grit City, in a part of the country that I never, ever thought I'd live in (again, a lovely surprise). Control over location is an early thing we have to give up. I'm not saying it's right -- I miss Puddletown still, 15 years later. But that's the way it is. There may indeed be programs in your area of interest in city X. Putting my hints 1 & 2 into practice will tell. But give this last bit some thought, too.

**1st & 6th streets are both good, and if you have to ride in heavy traffic, get out into the middle of the lane and claim your spot on the pavement so people don't try to squeeze around you.

***Slice and gently and evenly but firmly press by hand between many layers of paper towels -- twice -- before cubing and cooking.

****Deva "One Condition," and dump the shampoo. UPDATE: people seem more interested in this than in the actual post (which is fine), so check out the comments for ideas, if you care.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

In Praise of the Binder Clip

A little bit of weekend fluff for y'all:

If you're an academic, or have a home office, chances are you have a supply of these items. One friend of mine refers to them as "barbie purses," and it's easy to see why:

I have a little jar at home full of them, in various sizes. They are, of course designed to hold together stacks of papers larger than can be handled by their more plebeian cousin, the humble paper clip. But they're handy for other things, too. Some of my off-label uses for binder clips have included:
  • a clip for outgoing mail on my vertical mailbox
  • a closure for opened bags of food in my refrigerator and cupboards
  • hanging a Christmas wreath

Binder clips! A million and one uses! And the fun never ends...

Happy Labor Day weekend, everyone!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Life of the Mind

There's been this weird thing going around the academic blogosphere lately. We're all, all of a sudden, looking inwards.** And this shift seems to be happening at around the same time.

For the few years that I've been blogging, some of my favorite bloggers have been in the same space that I have: get a job, write a book, do a conference, find a publisher, do those edits. Or, to break it down: go, go, GO!

Now, it seems, we have all independently, but oddly simultaneously, decided that go-time is over, and now is the time to stop.

It seems like at least once a week, I pull up someone's blog post and she (usually it's a she) is writing about my life. Here are what my colleagues are doing:
  • morning meditations, to quiet the chatter in the mind, and to remind us that it's okay to be slow now and then
  • yoga, or other forms of physical exercise, for both mental and physical benefits
  • realizing that we don't have to care what other people think about us, and that if they try to tell us we're no damn good, it may be that they're wrong; certainly, we don't have to stand there and take it
  • attempting to regain a more positive attitude in a sea of negativity; not getting sucked into a culture of complaint (I've actually made a pact with three of my colleagues on this one; we're going to see if we can make it spread). There's plenty to complain about, and we undoubtedly will from time to time, but we don't have to live there.
Why is all this going around now? Is it because we have or are approaching tenure? Is it because we are or are approaching 40? Is it the time to think afforded by sabbaticals? Is it because we're just plain worn out? Whatever it is, I think we may be headed for a better life this way.

**viz: my "omphaloskepsis" label has been getting a serious workout for the last 4 months.