Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Putting Down that Load: Service to the Profession Edition

A few years ago, I made the mistake of voicing my doubts about how a certain Big Ongoing Project transition should be handled. Stuff along the lines of, "Hey, have we really thought these things through?"

Silly me: They put me in charge of it.

Anyway, Big Project ended up being a five-year commitment. Every fall, I'd start working on Big Project. Every fall, it would nag at me mercilessly, yet another thing to do. And because I'm a perfectionist, everything needed to be perfect.

And it was always later than I'd like. I always wanted it done by early October. And usually, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas was more like it.

Here's the thing: as of two days before Christmas this year, my five-year commitment was finished. Oddly enough, "Auld Lang Syne" was playing on my parents' radio as I sent off the last official communiqué and handed the whole thing over to my successor.

Here's the thing: when you're mid-career, your service load expands. A lot. And one of those things is "service to the profession," wherein you serve on the boards of organizations, read and review book and article manuscripts, and do other stuff. This labor is mostly uncompensated. And it's actually pretty fulfilling. And it's all voluntary. So you can't complain that you're having this foisted on you. I actually enjoyed working on Big Project -- sometimes quite a lot!

But it also felt good to put it down and move on to other things.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hindenburg Student

Sometimes students explode. Sometimes they burn bright and then fizzle. And sometimes, the crash is long and slow, but nevertheless ends in flames.

This student's crash I saw from a long way off. From week 2, it was obvious that s/he was one of those students that was a voracious but sporadic consumer of facts. They'd pop out randomly in class. Yet they seemed to have little to do with the actual reading. So we had a talk about that every few weeks. I mentioned that talking about outside materials (a) didn't let me see that s/he'd been doing the classwork, and (b) shut the rest of the class out of the conversation.

Then there were the odd behaviors: the close-talking, the need for immediate verbal feedback at the end of each class, the need to shake my hand at the end of every conversation. These struck me as possible spectrum disorder issues, so I talked to hir -- gently! -- about getting to see the folks at DSS. I even mentioned a specific person who I knew was particularly helpful.

Then there were the anxieties, the near-tearful breakdowns in my office. For these, again gently, I mentioned how helpful our free on-campus counseling program could be. That it was totally normal to feel overwhelmed in the first semester of transferring from a two-year school to a four-year one. That we had lots of resources to help hir; s/he only needed to use them.

By week five, it was obvious that this airship was going down in flames and I was suggesting withdrawing from some of hir classes. By week 8, it had gotten bad enough that I was floating the possibility of medical leave: "just to give you time to get in the position where you can really succeed the way you want to."

S/he insisted that s/he was "just going to stick it out and see it through."

And today, I got the e-mail: after three missed appointments to talk about the final paper and two extensions, s/he wrote to say s/he wouldn't be turning in the paper. S/he was getting Ds or Fs in all hir classes, but s/he was going to do better next semester.

For which s/he was enrolled in five classes for a total of 16 credit hours.

Sometimes, you see a crash coming from a long way off. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, the student crashes and burns, all the while insisting that everything's fine.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Yeah, I'm one of THOSE bloggers

Namely, the kind who will retract and redact her own posts. In this case, I poofed the last post because several comments have cause me to seriously rethink what I said there, to the point where I couldn't stand behind my own words anymore. A braver blogger would let it stand, but what you've got is me. And sometimes I say some pretty uninformed things when I'm feeling cranky & peevish.

So thanks to my commentariat who is often more informed than I am, and a mea culpa to anyone who was offended.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

There ought to be a mathematical equation...

...to express the relationship between a given student's effort on a project or in a class and the amount of time a professor spends on that student alone.

Mathematicians? Care to take a crack at this? While you're at it, I'd appreciate a bar graph with student grades plotted along the X axis, and average professor-hours per student on the Y axis.

Friday, November 28, 2014


That is, unfortunately, what my e-mail inbox looked like on Wednesday.

2996 messages.

1088 unread.

Yeah. If you haven't gotten a reply from me, it's not that I'm ignoring you. Apparently I'm ignoring everybody.

Part of this has to do with the fact that I've been writing. Focusing on other things. I've been going on these 10-week "write-every-day-even-two-sentences" binges, and while it's been really productive, it's also been keeping me hopping.

Part of it is that I don't have home internet anymore. But let's not kid ourselves -- I was bad about this long before. 

What it really is is that "keeping up with correspondence," never among my top talents, has become more difficult as the e-mail proliferates. And as the junk e-mail proliferates, the real stuff gets buried. And I think "I'll get to it later." And then I get busy again.

So, this holiday weekend has been a process of digging out. Wednesday I resolved to myself that, for every day this week, I'd shrink each of those numbers by 50%. Yes, I know -- those of you who do math, or even those who know the story of Achilles and the Tortoise -- will tell me that, at this rate, I'll never get there. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. But this morning, I'm at 600/50, and falling fast.

I really think that "keeping up with my correspondence" needs to be my major resolution in the upcoming semester.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

OGs of the Blogger World

Today I got to have a Very Special Lunch with two long-time bloggers: Historiann and Comrade Physio-Prof. Neither of these two live nearby normally, yet the stars brought everything into alignment, and lo, a lunch was arranged.

And yet, a week before the event, I had backed out.

As the Comrade might say: What the ffucke?

And I realized that sometimes, dedication to work needs to take a backseat. That I could be here in my office from sunup to sunset every day, just in case some student wanted to see me, and that I'd probably see maybe one more student a week. That while I enjoy my job, and have been really proud of how well I've been doing, it's okay to relax once in a while. It's okay to opt out of a meeting rescheduled at the last minute, even if your "appointment" was with the couch and some reading you really needed or wanted to do. That it's okay to tell a student that you're just not available for a special meeting at that time.

I'm about halfway there on this. The halfway that has learned to say "no" retracted my retraction and got my ass to the out-of-town-but-not-by-much venue and had a fun lunch, full of foods I usually don't eat, swearing, stories about college drinking, and lots of inappropriateness with a bunch o'bloggers (CP and I noting the moribund-but-not-quite-dead states of our blogs). The other half had to bail after two hours because I had office hours at 4:30. Two days before Thanksgiving.

From left: Comrade Physioprof; Notorious Ph.D.; Historiann (with spouse)

I totally forgot that I had that "work less/live more" tag. Maybe that needs to be something I work on.

Friday, November 21, 2014

It is that point in every semester...

... where I have given up any dreams that I will finish the semester well, and now am concentrating on merely surviving.

... when I have realized that my brand-new class has lived up (?) to my usual bit of sardonic advice for good teaching: "Never teach a class for the first time."

...when I am spending too much money on restaurants because my fridge has been empty for a week and I am too worn out to go to the grocery store.

...when I wonder what I was thinking taking on as many commitments as I did, and patting myself on the back for saying "no" even a few times.

...when I eyeball yet one more grant application and wonder whether I can squeeze it in...?

...when I can't even think about the holidays, and am perversely glad that I don't live near family, because I so desperately, desperately need the entire Thanksgiving holiday to get caught up.

Yeah. It's that time. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Am I Full Professor Material?

Thursday, I turned in my promotion file.

Here's the deal: at most universities, you have to go up for tenure. "Up and out," they say. Every school has its own standards: some require a book, or even a book plus progress on the next one. Some, more teaching-focused, want lots of good teaching, course development, plus more campus service than you might think is humanly possible. Some schools (primarily religion-affiliated ones, I think) want a heavy dose of community service in there -- making connections between campus and community. My school falls somewhere in the middle of all this, and people work the teaching-research-service balance in various ways across the campus. But in any case, you have about five and a half or six years to prove you're doing the kind of job they want to see. And you don't have a choice. You can't just say, "Oh, I'll take the lower salary or whatever and will go up when I'm ready." It's up or out.

Going up for full professor is a mite different, in that, at most schools, you never have to do it. And if/when you do it, you can do it on your schedule. And if you don't get it, you can try again the next year. And the next. But the file itself takes about a month and a half to put together, so you don't want to do it until you're reasonably confident that you'll pass. Most people at my school do it five years after tenure. So, last year when it was my first opportunity to go up... I declined.

I just wasn't sure. I mean, I had done some pretty good stuff with teaching. My service was okay -- nothing spectacular, but I wasn't shirking. But I still only had the one book to my name, and only one post-tenure article forthcoming and another in the pipeline. The second book was a stack of documents, some scribbles, a couple of conference papers, and a title (though a damn good title, I must say). How to count the first book was the toughest thing to gauge: I had sent off the manuscript literally two days before submitting my tenure file. As anyone who has published a book knows, there is a lot of work after that point -- even after you get the contract, there are months of revisions, then copy edits, then page proofs and an index... but still, it was just one book. And I just didn't think it was enough.

Here's the thing, though. I was judging my record based on the paths of the faculty at the university that I got my Ph.D. from. These were my models. And if you earned a Ph.D., you were at a research institution. But very few of our post-Ph.D. jobs are at such institutions. And sometimes we forget that our jobs are different. You can't crank out an article every year plus a well-reviewed university-press book every six or seven while teaching three or four courses a semester. You can't get to the archives every summer if you don't have research funds. And that's okay. You are doing different work. No less valuable.

So, the point of this story is that this year -- in fact, just two days ago -- I turned in my file for promotion to full professor. It has a couple more articles in it than it would have a year ago. It has a major service commitment. And it has a well thought-out book proposal. But my senior colleagues looked at my record and asked me why I didn't go up last year. The answer is that there will always be a significant part of me that doesn't feel like full professor material. But I'm trying to let that go.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What I'm Learning from my Grad Students

How about: way more than I thought I would?

I have a system for my M.A. exams for my grad students. I developed this system to try to balance student interests with me not going completely insane trying to make sure I knew all the material that they'd covered for their exams. I haven't been in the biz long enough to have an eight-page bibliography from diverse medieval stuff topics from memory or in my notes already, and since I'm the only medievalist, I've got to be able to cover students interested in stuff all over the continent, for the entire thousand-year period.

Here's how it works: Students taking a M.A. exam with me have to read about 45-50 items, spread out over 5 different subtopics. I have a list of about a dozen topics that I've got reading lists ready to go for.

But, here's the deal: if there's something they really, really want to explore, and it's not on my list, they can design a field of their own. They come up with the topic and a preliminary reading list; I tinker with the list to make sure it works, and off we go.

What this means is that, for most students, I end up reading up on a field that's totally new to me. Sometimes I couldn't care less about the field. Anglo-Norman institutions? Do. Not. Care. But I read them, and I try to design a question.  But sometimes, it's pretty interesting.

Which is a long way to say that this month, I'll be reading a whole heck of a lot on Islamic, Norman, Angevin, and Aragonese Sicily. And I think this is actually going to be one of those reading lists that ends up being a lot of fun.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Rookie Mistakes

You know how we always tell students to read the directions?

How we always tell them that, if they want a letter of recommendation from us, they ought to get the request in way in advance?

How we always wish they were more concerned about professionalism, and it makes us grumble when they're not? "Nobody ever had to tell me to do this stuff."

Yeah, well, I got another lesson in humility this week. Applying for Big Fellowship #1, I gave my letter-writers a heads-up and lots of materials several weeks ago. But then I made several assumptions about how the online application system worked -- and here is the key bit -- without first reading the instructions.

The result? A near last-minute "omigodheyrememberthatletterwetalkedabout ::deep breath:: it'sdueinfourdayshere'sthelinkkthxbai!"

Okay, perhaps it wasn't that bad. But that's how it feels in my gut. I've got a little stored-up goodwill, but if I were one of these folk (especially the one who's traveling) I'd be pretty damn annoyed.

I've been doing this for two decades now, if you count grad school. Will someone please tell me when it will be that I'll finally stop making rookie mistakes?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Professor Notorious: What the Critics are Saying

Part of putting together my promotion file is assembling my student evaluations. We've actually improved the evaluations in recent years, and changed the tenure/promotion file process so that student evals are only one small part of the picture. But still, we have to include them. We are only required to include the summary sheets (e.g., the raw numbers), but we can include the actual narrative comments as well.

I read these comments as they come in, but there's something about going through six years' worth at once that gives one a bit more big-picture perspective. Sure, there are the loads of "She's great!" or "There's too much reading!" or "She made me love this subject!" or "She should make her assignments not due on the same day as my other classes' assignments." Such evaluations, like the poor, will always be with us. There are also the ones that offer concrete suggestions about how an assignment might be more helpfully structured, or who give me feedback on a new experimental assignment. And I take those into account.

But then, there are the really fun ones (and I do mean that), which I now share with you:

·      “Babbles in connection with lecture” [If only it were just in lecture.]
·      “This was a great class. Too bad it had so much religion in it.” [Well, it is a course on medieval Europe.]
·      “As always, I enjoyed your class. Teach more classes!” [Dear God, no.]
·      “It would be cool if you taught a bit more about the Knights Templar.”  [::backing out of the room slowly…::]
·      “Class was a pain and great at the same time” and “Very dedicated to getting us through the semester without losing our minds.” [Two comments from my methods class – what we refer to as “history boot camp”]
·      “Hi. You are cool.” [Thanks. Back atcha'.]
·     “The Abelard reading isn’t as interesting as Lateran IV.” [I just… What?!?]
·      “I didn’t dread coming to this class.” [I usually didn't, either. Usually.]
·      “SWED => This final is gonna blow.” [SWED = “smoke weed every day.” I had to look this up. Who says we don’t learn as much from our students as they learn from us?]
·      “Good job, tough class, great hair.” [A student who has taken my critiques of wordiness to heart.]
·      "What isn’t the Mediterranean?" [This, from a class where I apparently asked “What is the Mediterranean?” a few too many times…]

And finally, perhaps my all-time favorite evaluation comment: 

 ·      “Her passion for history is as contagious as smallpox and a lot more fun."

Friday, September 19, 2014

In the event you are assigned to a committee...

Hey! Everyone!

If you're a member of a committee, no matter at what level, do your shit on time.

What happens to you if you don't? Well, nothing. And you still get to put on your CV that you served because, really, who's going to check? Especially if you're tenured and stuff.

But if you don't do said shit on time, or you do a quarter-assed job of it, and if said work has hard deadlines, then you know what happens?

Do you?

Answer: The chair of the freaking committee does all the work you didn't. Yea, even if it means that she's up in the office until 7 p.m. on a Friday, two hours after declining invites from friendly colleagues for end-of-week, post-faculty-research-seminar drinks and socializing, because she's making sure everything gets done.

Or so I've heard.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Getting promoted, and getting older

The process of going through my promotion file has gotten me focused on dates -- Can I count this? Was it published after I submitted my last review? When was that, anyway?

And thinking about dates and eras of life and milestones in between, and I was struck by something -- well, two linked somethings, actually:

a. I hit all my major career accomplishments in my thirties: PhD, job, tenure, book (published a month before I turned 40). My thirties were also the last time that I ever got a raise, and the last time that I was in any sort of romantic relationship.

b. My forties (I'm a decent chunk into them) have been marked by zero milestones: no relationships (hell, no dating even), no home purchase, no promotions, no children, no raises -- none of the external markers that tell you that your life is on the right track. It's also so far, the decade of my life in which I have been most consistently happy.

Seriously: it's kinda weird.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"The File"

Here it is, Friday, a day I don't teach. And yet, here I am, sitting in my office for hours on end. Why, you may well ask, is that? Well, first of all, it's because I have air conditioning in my office, but not at home, and Grit City is a toasty 88 degrees with 65% humidity.

Second: I have internet here, and there are a few on-line chores I need to accomplish.

Most importantly, however: I am working on The File. Which is to say, my file for promotion to full proffie. I plan to be blogging the process a bit, because it's full of twists and turns and is likely a barrel of laughs for anyone who isn't currently in the middle of it. But for now, just know that for the past two weeks, the phrase "The File" is pronounced with capital letters.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Grand Experiment

I'm unplugging.

No, not from the blog (though it might seem that way most of the time lately). What I'm doing -- brace yourself -- is disconnecting my home internet.

The spur for this decision was financial, as my home internet bill recently rocketed up to sixty-three dollars a month. That's just the internet. I knew that if I called the local monopoly and tried to cancel, they'd lower my rates. But then the more I started thinking about it, the more I wondered what my life would be like without internet at home.

Here's the thing: Having home internet allows me to do things like look up stuff immediately, download and upload student papers, order library books, maintain my course website, answer e-mails from my students and other assorted university folk -- all without having to go into the office. I can do it any day of the week, any time, day or night. That's a good thing.

Except when it's not, right? Being available 24/7 is a decidedly mixed blessing.

And then there's all the stuff that's just a drain: too much time on the web, watching TV shows I don't care about, watching videos of nothing important, checking Facebook gods only know how many times a day. Yes, I tried the thing where you install limits on the biggest time-suck sites. Except that I now just go in and dismantle these things. I have no self-control. And I figure I spent 15 hours a week, at least, doing things that don't matter, and that I can't remember 15 minutes later.

In short, for me, home internet provides marginal convenience at considerable expense, in many senses of the word. Hence, the grand experiment in unplugging. Yes, I'll still have internet at the office (I'm there four days a week), not to mention at various coffee shops that I frequent a couple times a week, as well as via my phone. It's not like I'll be out of touch. But what I won't be able to do is come home from work, turn on the computer, and piss away hours every evening. I'm interested to see what happens. What will my brain do without the constant distraction? What could I do with 15 more hours a week?

I'll be sure to use some of that extra time to keep you updated. From a coffee shop, that is.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Depths of My Ignorance

Where has Notorious been? Well, I've been writing. Just everything except blog posts.[1] In my very first post to this blog, back in 2007, I wrote: "If the blog begins to keep me from doing the actual work that it was created to motivate, the blog goes." Well, it's not that drastic, but spending hours a day, almost every day, either reading or writing on the summer projects has left me... well, I think I used up all my words for a while there.

But now we're here, just a few days short of the end of my Great Writing Summer with Many Projects, and by the end of the week I should be able to report back, but the short version is that a summer of ignoring virtually everything except those projects has kinda paid off, in that I've got some stuff to shove out the door very soon. I've also learned some stuff along the way, which I'll be blogging about soon as the summer winds down.  But here's the first one: When it comes to my new project, I'm pretty darned ignorant.

Now, before anyone cautions me not to be down on myself, let me note that I deliberately chose "ignorant" rather than "stupid." It's taken me eight years of grad school plus ten-plus years as a grown-up professor to realize that I'm probably not stupid, even for a person with a Ph.D. Sometimes I'm even pretty smart, with good ideas. But ignorance? Yeah, that's something else entirely.

Back when I was trying to figure out what my second-book project would be, I basically had two choices: build on what I already knew and continue researching/writing along those lines (hedgehog) or striking off for unknown country (fox). I opted for the latter approach, mainly because I didn't have anything really inspiring me in the former direction at that time. I knew it would be hard work essentially re-training myself. But diving into the first chapter of the new book project -- really diving in -- has been an exercise in realizing how many things I simply do not know about the place and time I've been studying and writing about lo these many years.

This has led to a few moments of despair and lots of "what the hell was I thinking?!?"  But on my better days, I think of this as an adventure. I hope that it becomes a book, and one that people will want to read. But by the time that I finish, at the very least I will have satisfied my own curiosity. And perhaps that's what it's all about, after all.
[1] Well, that, and answers to e-mails, grant applications, the syllabus for a brand-new course I'll be teaching in the fall... okay, a lot of things, now that I really think about it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Your Suitcase WILL Be Filled with Books

Here's one thing I've discovered in my many trips to Blargistan: Pack or purchase a small empty duffel, because you will be coming home with books.

Over the past decade and a half, I have schlepped home over fifty pounds of books[1]: four reference volumes (hardcover), about ten three-inch thick exhaustive studies (paperback, but still big and heavy), and more gifts from other scholars than I can count, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with what I work on, but it's the done thing.

What these all have in common is that they're impossible to get in the states. "Someday I may need this," I tell myself. So I pack them up, and sometimes pay an extra weight fee once I get to the airport. I hit upon the small duffel idea several years back, as a way to take the books on the plane and thus avoid the fee. Still, they're heavy, and cumbersome, and every time I'm sitting there the night before my return to the states, wondering how many clothes I can jettison to make room, wishing fervently for a book mule, I wonder whether it's worth it.

Today, it paid off. As part of the chapter I'm working on, I need some background on a particular government official. He was a big deal in his decade-long tenure, but I searched every catalog I could find, in vain, for some article or book about him. Zippo.

Then, I turned to my own bookshelves. I pulled down several of those exhaustive studies that I have yet to crack (seriously -- one of them runs to four volumes, and over 3,000 pages). I flipped to the indices. And lo and behold: four of the books I hauled home over the years have extensive entries on this guy.

So I've got the books stacked up on my coffee table, ready to dig into tomorrow to find out whether the text lives up to the promise of the index. I'm relieved to have something -- anything -- on this guy, because it looked like I was hitting a dead end that I could not afford to hit. I'm tickled pink that they were right there all along. But I'm also just as pleased that all that book hauling has paid off.

[1] You can actually view about 80% of these in the "after" picture of the previous post: they're the two middle shelves on the center bookshelf. The remaining 20% are up at my office.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The OTHER Summer Projects

When we last left our heroine, she was embarking on a summer without travel, the purpose of which was to enable her to complete an article, a book chapter (based on the article), and drafts of grant proposals in a ten-week period.

How am I doing at slightly past the halfway point? Well, thanks to a couple of writing support groups (one online, two in person), I've managed to get a mostly-done draft of the article, and I'm two thirds of the way through the first pass at the chapter draft. No work on the grant proposal yet, but that will come. I also realized that I neglected to factor in a couple of book reviews (one embarrassingly overdue) and a syllabus for a new course, but I'm chugging forward on those, too.

But I've not mentioned the other summer project: get my house in order. Literally. There are those thousands of multi-hour projects that you can't really take on during a semester workweek, and that you're too wiped out (or buried in grading) on the weekend to even contemplate. For me, a tidy house contributes to my peace of mind and productivity, but most often, my home, while not a complete disaster, looks a bit like this:

It puts me on edge. But it's also too overwhelming to think about most times. Yet last night, faced with the impending arrival of my young nephew who will be sleeping in that front room for four days, I decided that now was the time.

"I'll just tidy up a little," I thought. HAH! Five hours later, I had pulled and sorted stacks of papers, reshelved some books, taken others to be sent to the office. I had filled two bags full of recycling. Lo, I even dusted.

And now, Behold!

I am mighty! I am unstoppable! I am... What's that you say? My office?  Well.. um... Omigod is that a mountain lion behind you?!?


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Who are you writing to?

Today, the internets coughed up something called "Kurt Vonnegut's Eight Rules for Writing Fiction." I have no idea whether or not these are apocryphal or real, but here's one that stuck out to me:

"Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

Which quote brings up a question that I think we might all think about as we write: Who are we writing to? It's an important question: though we may want to reach a broad audience (Who among us says, "I'm aiming to write something that only six people will appreciate"? No one, that's who), in reality, we have a primary target audience, and who that audience is will determine how we write.

If you're a dissertator, the answer is fairly straightforward: you're writing for your dissertation committee, and especially for your primary adviser. So you're going to write to demonstrate all the skills you learned in the program: research, writing, argument.

If you're writing your first book, you're likely writing to specialists in the corner of the field you've staked out: You're likely going to be writing primarily to prove your bona fides as a grown-up scholar. With any luck, your book is going to be a clearly argued piece of scholarship, but with a narrow-ish appeal. Every so often, a first book is a smash hit that gets picked up and read by a broad swath of scholars, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

But what about the second book, and any books beyond? You've proven yourself to first a dissertation committee (who have a vested interest in seeing you do a good job) and to a small field of specialists (who reserve judgment until they read the final product). But now, here you are, unshackled not only from the research that you probably began as a dissertator but by the particular expectations of why you needed to write in the first place. Now what?

Anyone who's embarked on a second book project knows that it can be a very daunting process. You're not only cut loose from the ties of what you're writing about; you now have to decide who you're writing for. Will this be another specialist book? A book that attempts to talk to a broader group of scholars by addressing a Big Question (with the implicit understanding that you may be sacrificing the comforting precision of your first book)? Are you going to try to write something that might be good for use by advanced undergraduates? Or -- hey! -- what about a popular history? Something that the general public might read and find intriguing?

That's a lot of questions for one little book that isn't even written yet. In my case, I think this time my imaginary audience right now is the upper-division undergraduate. At least, that's who I'd like this book to speak to. And yet I keep finding myself writing highly technical passages (like today's 700+ words on the evolution of a particular code of maritime law... seriously) that can't be in a book like that. So I guess we'll see.

But what about you? Who are you writing to?

Friday, June 27, 2014

I'm really trying to be philosophical about this.

In a fit of reorganization several weeks ago, inspired by the new organization for the book as a whole, I'd gone through my old files and put them all in a new order, deleting redundancies. Are the document summaries with the transcriptions? Yep, one for each one. Great. So this set of files is redundant and taking up space. Delete. Synchronize all backups.

Except it wasn't redundant. What that deleted set of files was, in fact, represented about six weeks of going through the files, collecting them together in rough groups and started to freewrite a bit about them, noting down things I'd have to track down, possible leads, random musings and the like. It was, in fact, the seeds of a book project, the absence of which I discovered today as I went to look for it to work on a chapter section.

And now it's gone. Completely, irrevocably gone.

As the post title says, I'm trying to be philosophical about this. This was all stuff I'd written up years ago, back when I had no idea where this was all going. And it's possible that these old, unformed thoughts might have dragged me back off the track I'm headed on right now. And I've still got the transcriptions and document summaries.

There's going to be a lot of work I'll need to redo, but I hold out the faint hope that something better will rise from the ashes, unencumbered by my earlier flailing. Really, right now, that hope is all that I've got to go on.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

44, or, La plus ça change...

...is how old I am today. Some facts about my life at this, the halfway point (if I'm very lucky and the damage hasn't already been done):
  • Education/Employment: Gainfully employed in my field, tenured, and about to go up for promotion to full professor
  • Housing: a very nice (albeit small) one-bedroom cottage apartment in a good neighborhood within walking distance of half a dozen coffee shops
  • Transportation: Trek Lexa entry-level road bike
  • Relationship status: happily unattached
  • Most recent international trip: Last summer, to Italy, for a yoga retreat and intensive language courses
  • Best recent accomplishment: Book award
  • Thing that needs to go away: I can't believe I started smoking again. Crap.
  • Overall state of mind: utterly content

At 33:
  • Education/Employment: Just got a job offer and will be headed out to Grit City next week to look for an apartment
  • Housing: Tiny attic studio in the student ghetto that I actually fixed up to be pretty nice... but damn it's hot. And I can be counted on to bash my head against the slanted ceilings at least once every six weeks. And I caught a mouse under the sink -- which is an improvement over the poisonous spiders in the previous place I lived, but still. A mouse.
  • Transportation: Trek 530 hybrid bike, about 10 years old
  • Relationship status: complicated
  • Most recent international trip: Mop-up research trip to Blargistan, during the winter 18 months ago
  • Best recent accomplishment: Defended my dissertation!
  • Thing that needs to go away: See above, re: "relationship status"
  • Overall state: relieved and a bit at sea

At 22:
  • Education/Employment: Just completed first year at a fancy four-year college after two years at community college; working two food service jobs (a fancy restaurant and a coffee shop near school) at about 20 hours a week apiece.
  • Housing: Downtown puddletown apartment in a great 1930s building, shared with a roommate. In this arrangement, I am in the role of obnoxious slob.
  • Transportation: incredibly heavy 5-speed bike (circa 1978) + city bus.
  • Relationship status: [redacted]
  • Most recent international trip: 7-week solo trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland two years ago
  • Best recent accomplishment: Accepted to junior year abroad trip to Munich
  • Thing that needs to go away: As with most college students recently turned 21, I am drinking far too much alcohol (spoiler alert: A year in Munich is not going to help in this regard...)
  • Overall state: Pretty screwed up, though blissfully unaware of how much so.

Looked at that way, it looks like I've done better for myself than I've any right to. Happy Birthday to me.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

It was a dark and stormy night...

Did I really just read that?

Did this book at an A-list press really just begin with the phrase "Throughout history..."?

Yes. Yes indeed it did.

(The book as a whole is better than that. But still.)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Projects, and the Progress

This summer, I have three projects that seem doable:
  1. Finish an article MS and get it sent off;
  2. Use the article MS to draft a book chapter on the same topic;
  3. Write a book proposal that I could also use to apply for grants this fall.
(It helps that #1 & 2 are about pirates.)

How's it been going? Well, I've been working on #1 since June 1, and here's the deal: When I got into the old article file... which I hadn't opened for two years (minus two months), I was delighted to find that I already had over 6,000 words, and many of them were pretty well researched! Also, my "get up and write before breakfast" thing works pretty well, still. I'm closing in on having the thing finished. And -- brace yourself -- I have too many words. This means I actually get to cut some things without starting to get anxieties about dropping below what an editor might consider article length. Plus, the extended length means that I have more to go into the chapter, which will need to be about twice the length of the article.

The current frustration is a minor one: I've reached the point where I need to write a paragraph here, strengthen my support for an argument there, and the like. Which means that I'm reading a lot and writing very little. Today I skimmed 5 of 8 books that I'll need to write approximately 400 words.

Tomorrow morning I sit down and skim yet another book so I can correct a patently stupid assertion I made in a conference paper that nobody called me on.

Stuff like that.

Still, I'm pleased to be back at work on the thing. And I promise to write something more entertaining soon.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

It's official: I am writing a second book.

This announcement may come as a surprise: not that I'm writing a book -- I've had that "another damn book" tag over in my sidebar for a while, after all -- but that I'm only just now getting around to making it official. But I really consider today my kick-off, because today, I took the first real steps.

That may seem strange to say. I started collecting documents in 2010, after all.[1] And in the summer of that same year, I transcribed, oh, let's say a hundred or so folios and started grouping them into topics to explore, complete with freewriting and ruminations on things I needed to find out about. In the interim, I produced one very short article and a few conference presentations. I drew up lists and bibliographies. But in general, it's felt like I've hardly been working on it at all for years.

And then, just this April, I was (finally!) hit with the inspiration for how this thing should go together. I pulled together a draft proposal and presented to my editor, and received general enthusiasm and a couple of good suggestions. And last week, I organized all the files so I could figure out what I had and where it all was.

But today was different. Today I took the first steps in working on a piece of what will, gods willing, become the book that I now see in my head. It was a small step: I identified a small section that needed filling in, and took notes on a relevant book section, plus identified the other three books I needed to look at to finish what, in the end, will likely amount to no more than 300 words of the finished piece. Yet it's forward motion, with a purpose.

This is my Big Writing Summer. By the end of this summer, I hope to have a draft of a chapter and the rough outlines of a second one, along with an article that dovetails with Chapter Draft One and a well thought-out book proposal.

I have officially embarked on the road to the second book. Wish me luck.

[1] Jeez. Has it really been that long?!?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

How on earth did I let this happen?

As longtime readers will know, I'm a late but enthusiastic convert to daily writing. I have been known to opine that writing is like any other exercise: you get stronger with daily practice, but weak and out of shape the longer you're away from it.

This week, I've been forced to confront what happens when you stray from your project for years.

How it happened: Back in 2010, I had a decent idea for a project. I did a whole bunch of archival research, transcribed a whole bunch of documents, saw a project taking shape. Over the next couple of years, I put together a few conference papers, and continued to spend a month of each summer in the archives, collecting (and sometimes transcribing) documents. But a strange thing happened: by the time I'd return from these multi-week collecting trips, I'd be exhausted. "I'll just give myself a week... or maybe two... to recover." Perfectly reasonable. But then, it's August and I realize that I've done no course prep whatsoever. "Okay, so I'll write a bit during the semester." And there would be another conference paper. But other than that, very little forward motion.

In the meantime, I forget what I've collected, to the point where I not only have little idea of what I have, and even less idea of where to find it. Was it on the work computer? The home one? Did I accidentally delete it? Why do my two computers seem to have two separate filing systems, and the document files don't always coincide? AAARRRGHHH!!!

All of which could have been avoided if I'd kept working on the damn thing.

So now, here I am, fired up with what I think is a really good idea for how to put this book together, and ten travel-free weeks to do it in. But before that can stand any chance of happening, I need to dig into what I have and try to make sense of it all. So far, I'm on day two, and I think I've got one machine sorted out. I'll be digging into the other one after that.  Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Regretting the offhand title of the last post

...because frankly, in light of the Isla Vista shootings, the thought of bullets of any kind is making me a bit ill.

Here's the deal with me: I'm not 100% anti-gun. If I ever retire to my dream cabin in the woods, and if it's in a region where there are Wild Things, I'll likely even purchase a shotgun myself and get trained to use it defensively and, if at all possible, nonlethally.

Having said that, I firmly believe that the "no restrictions" crowd is 100% in the wrong, and the Isla Vista shootings make it clear why. What we're seeing here is a toxic mix of unrestrictive gun laws, possible mental illness, and misogynistic entitlement. A person who was mentally ill and/or racist/misogynist/homophobic might indeed do some damage. But the fact that he was able to legally purchase 3 semi-automatic weapons made him ever so much deadlier.

This is not the "well regulated militia" that the second amendment speaks of. This is mass murder driven by misogyny and entitlement and made all that much easier and more efficient by the easy availability of rapid-firing weapons and a culture that equates their use with nationalistic mythos and control over one's own destiny. Too many things in our culture say this kid was doing the right thing. And that's what makes me ill.

BONUS LINKAGE: There are some good pieces being written in the wake of this lobe-melting massacre. Here's one I particularly like, addressed directly to men.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Random Bullets of Berks

Here I am in Toronto, halfway through my first-ever Berks and, as usual, I'm not getting enough sleep. I've been having a truly excellent time, meeting people whose work I've known for ages, but have never met in real life. This is my third conference in six weeks, and frankly, I'm exhausted. But I'm also inspired. Conferences have a way of doing that. Book ideas, blog post ideas, people to write... Thank the gods I'm not doing any traveling this summer.

I would normally write a long, ruminative post about the experience, but as I said, I'm pooped. So here, in quick bullet-points version, are some of the experiences and thoughts running through my head at this, the halfway mark:
  • Coming as it does at the end of the semester for most of us, and post-Kalamazoo for us medievalists, organizing a blogger meetup seemed to fall by the wayside. Fortunately, Belle from Scattered & Random thought to put up a "who's going?" post, so I got to meet up with her for a lovely and leisurely breakfast the first day, on a day when I hadn't any panels to go to until 1:30.
  • That first premodern panel... let me say, I'm thrilled to know that the Berks organizers have, over the past decade, started to include more panels with premodern content. And the first panel on women in premodern courts contained everything from 14th-century Jewish women to women in colonial Virginia. Now, the next step is to get organizers to realize that we've got enough interest that we'll need bigger rooms (see photo below). Though, happily, the overcrowding seems to be not a symptom of neglect, but rather the fact that the organizers hadn't anticipated so many people showing up for the conference, period. All the rooms were overcrowded. Uncomfortable and possibly hazardous, but a good sign for the field in general.
We're gonna need a bigger boat.
  •  Toronto is a great city. But holy moly, it's expensive here.
  • 8 a.m. panel Friday honoring the contributions of Carolyn Walker Bynum... with CWB as a respondent. And I'm once again inspired by a combination of intellectual firepower and personal generosity. These are the kind of people I want to be when I grow up.
  • The panel I chaired and did comment for was lovely, with some really interesting papers. My favorite thought-provoking quote from a paper: "Patriarchy doesn't need to be consistent to be effective."
  • Lunches, dinners, and all sorts of chance encounters with friends and professional acquaintances who I haven't seen in years = very nice.
  • You know what's gratifying? Meeting grad students and professors who have read my book and liked it. With as few copies as it's sold, I have sometimes wondered if anyone has read it at all. But they have, and it appears to be making a difference.
  • Remember that book project that I long ago got scooped on? It appears to have become a growing field of inquiry in recent years. You know what's cool? I no longer mind.
  • ZOMG. Giant crowd for the panel on rethinking key analytical concepts: "gender binary," "gender crisis," and "agency" all came under scrutiny. I scribbled like mad.
  • Convocation! With Tenured Radical, who was there to announce that she had taken on the formidable task of designing a Berks website that actually made sense (yay!). I mentioned to the friend with whom I was sitting that I needed to dash down after we were done to say hi to her. "Do you know her?", she asked me. "Yes, for about seven years now... it's just that we've never actually met." But now we have. And she's excellent. And within 15 seconds of meeting asked "Do you want to be on my communications committee?" Uhhh... But because it's TR, and the Berks, I'll probably say yes.
  • Great dinner with more fabulous premodernist feminists, including former commenter K and one of Historiann's regular commenters EJ, with whom I got to talk with for ages over Too Much Pasta. We talked about second books, mid-career crises, and learning how to set our own agendas for the first time in what may be decades. All promised as blog fodder.

 Also: there are 2,000 people here, and I'm eating way too much.

And there are still two days left to go...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

NOT from Student Papers: The Top Three Weirdest Things I've Heard About the Middle Ages

I'm in grading jail for the next 48 hours, though close enough that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and even justify a yoga class or two. But I've been trying to remind myself that a blog, like a garden, needs regular tending, and not just "too busy to post!" posts -- there needs to be some content.

So, for today's pathetic gesture towards content (and perhaps even some much-needed entertainment during grading season), here is my post on The Top Three Weirdest Things I've Heard About the Middle Ages.

And here's a switch-up: none of these come from student papers. Not a one.

Number Three: I posted about this one recently: the member of our campus' media relations office who wanted to interview me, but specifically wanted to talk about (a) What caused the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Dark Ages, and (b) whether there was any connection with the Third Reich.

Number Two: The student who very enthusiastically brought up on the first day of class the idea ("I read somewhere...") that the stories about dragons came from the fact that there were places in the remotest regions of medieval Europe where pterodactyls had survived.

And the number-one weird thing: The ladies overheard in the coffee shop:

"Why did they call it the Dark Ages?"
"Oh, well it was because there was so much death and disease and warfare and violence."
"Really? I heard it was because there was this big comet that hit the earth. And the comet threw up a lot of dust and so the sun couldn't shine for a few hundred years. And so that's why it's the Dark Ages."

There. Those student papers don't seem quite so bad now, do they? Happy grading season, everyone!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Book News: The Good, the Bad, and the Undetermined

The Good: One of the things I did at Kalamazoo was to write up a preliminary book proposal for Another Damn Book (now its semi-official working title) and make an appointment to talk with FabEditor about it. And the good news is that it went pretty well: he's interested in seeing it, he seemed receptive to the ways I thought it would be different from the first one (more of a classroom book, though hopefully with something for specialists in there, too!), and he had a couple of questions/suggestions for me to think about before I start sitting down to write it. The meeting also prompted me to commit to a self-imposed deadline or two.

The Bad: While at this meeting, FabEd asked me, "Hey, weren't you also looking at working on a microhistory on X? Yeah, well... you should visit the Other Press Table..." And sure enough, stacks of a book that, while marginally different in topic and approach, is close enough on both counts to make my proposed next project an issue.  Gah! Recalculating...

The Undetermined: During the Q & A at the very last panel of the conference, someone way in the back row mentioned something about a case very much like the one that forms the basis for my would-be third-book project. Turns out it's the author of the book from Other Press. I congratulated him and told him I'd bought a copy. Then I told him about my back-burner project. Turns out that he is hoping to sell Other Press on the idea of a series, and is very interested in keeping in touch on this. But the crisis also got me thinking about other ways to approach and market this book, including the seed of a thought of the vague possibility about... publishing for the popular market? Shhhh....

Friday, May 9, 2014

I Love Kalamazoo

Goodness, but this may be my best Kalamazoo ever.

I should explain that the International Congress on Medieval Studies, as it's called, is a lot like summer camp for medievalists. There are somewhere around 2,000 attendees, and it's been even higher in the past. Many people stay in the dorms. In addition to over 550 panels covering multiple disciplines and stretched out over four days, there is a gigantic book display, movie showings, a standing-room-only 900-seat auditorium panel sponsored by the "pseudo society" in which folks give satirical papers (usually skewering their own research or things they're known to care deeply about), events and workshops, innumerable wine hours (featuring bottled beers and boxed wine) and a dance. There are plenty of medievalists who don't care for it because it's not considered a "serious" conference. But in some ways, that's what I like about it.

But there's plenty of good intellectual work going on here. I've been coming to this medieval studies conference off and on since... May 2000, when I gave my first paper here (and, incidentally, the first paper ever on the dissertation project that would become my first book). I've given 8 papers here total since then. Some have been very good, and at least one has been a clunker (fortunately, that one was scheduled for Sunday at 8:30 a.m., so no one was there to see it). It's a great place to pitch books, and to meet up in a short time with people you might not have seen for years: sometimes you arrange to meet up intentionally, but more often someone just turns a corner, and there's a happy smile and a hug and 15 unplanned minutes of catching up. It will make you late to the panel you want to attend, but it's worth it, and everybody here gets it.

I'm typing this at the end of day two, and I've been having a great time mixing the fun with the work. In addition to the many happy chance meetups, I've seen:
  • Two panels full of uniformly interesting papers on Mediterranean topics -- and all by grad students!
  • A panel on medieval charlatans, which I had to leave halfway through for...
  • A meeting with my publisher about the new book project, and he's interested in seeing it.
  • Breakfast with my dear friend Little Bear, who is smart, compassionate, and possessed of a wildly inappropriate sense of humor, even at 7:30 a.m.
  • An amazingly inspiringpanel on writing about the Middle Ages for non-scholarly audiences
  • Dinner (and lots of laughter) with a former M.A. student who's now cranking away on her doctorate 
  • A workshop on how to use an astrolabe, complete with demo models
Tomorrow is another day, this one even fuller than the previous ones. I'm not getting any sleep, but I'm having a marvelous time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Dorm Life, Kalamazoo Style

Every May (or every other May, depending), I go back to the dorms.

No, wait: "Go back" is not quite accurate, because I never lived in the dorms as an undergraduate. But here, at Kalamazoo, it's sort of a ritual.

For those of you who aren't medievalists, the International Congress on Medieval Studies (sounds fancy, no?) is held every May in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on the campus of Western Michigan University. The school year gets out about a week or two before the congress, and then the organizers make a mad scramble to prepare everything, because one of the ways one can save money is by staying in the dorms.

Yup: I am writing this post under a buzzing florescent light, surrounded by whitewashed cinderblocks in a 10-by-10 room with two twin beds, two desks, a dresser, and one bathroom shared by adjoining rooms. So far, I have not been walked in on while using the facilities, but I figure it's only a matter of time.

I used to stay in the dorms as a grad student to save money: $35 a night, or less if you actually double up in the rooms (I don't). Since my earliest Kalamazoo presentation, my income has increased to the point where I could afford one of the off-campus hotels, but I choose to stay in the dorms anyway. Less money on hotels means more money for better food. Also, it's nice to be able to come back to the room between panels, change clothes, lie down for a bit, brush my teeth, whatever. I've learned to request a room in the hall that is perhaps furthest away from the action (not by much) but closest to the good coffee (though this time I'm at a room right above an area where people appear to be gathering to have a conversation just below my very window -- at this very moment, in fact. I must learn to be more specific).

In other words, I'm cool with dorm life for a weekend. And with several hundred of us here, it feels a little like camp. Though the accommodations do make me wonder about how undergrads staying in the dorm negotiate their more private assignations -- these dorm beds seem like anything but inviting.  I've even learned to think of the stiff towels that are provided as sort of drying and exfoliating all in one. But the blanket they provide... there is a certain sadness to those felt blankets, is there not? Thin, pilled, like dryer lint held together with ambient moisture and broken dreams.

But luckily I may be too exhausted to care. The conference is going well so far, and I have much to report already, but for now, I'm going to post this, sign off, and go to bed.

Just as soon as I walk downstairs and outside and tell those noisy kids to get off my lawn.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Kalamazoo blogger meetup(s)

Well. It seems that I went to update this post and accidentally deleted it. Crap. Well. Let's start again, with the updates.

First: I have discovered the way to beat the stress of ramping up to Kalamazoo: Play hooky a few days early if you can, and then spend a couple of days at the Michigan lakeshore. It helps to have a good friend (pseudonym pending, but I'm leaning towards "Smarty-Pants O'Mulligan") whose family has had a lake house for generations. Find one of those charming little tourist towns still in the off-season, and park your butt with a lovely latte and a house-made scone. Send e-mails. Block in your schedule. Breathe.

Second: the meet-ups! Another Damned Medievalist has gotten the ball rolling. She's got an evening one going Thursday night after 8:00, in one of the unused lounges in the Eldridge end of Eldridge-Fox. There will apparently be signage. This group tends to have a lot of early-medievalists, but interlopers (myself included, and also one of the greatest heroes of the Congress staff!) have always been welcome.

There's also going to be a less formal meetup going at Mug Shots Friday morning, with people drifting in and out between... oh, usually 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. By our Steve Muhlberger you will know us.  I've got breakfast with a friend that day, so will likely be showing up around 9:30, so I hope to see many people there!

Any other meetups scheduled? Leave them in the comments!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Thoughts on the Roundtable Presentation as Scholarly Format

I'm participating in a roundtable on gender at Kalamazoo. I really like the roundtable format because it privileges discussion over presentation. We "presenters" are simply providing a bit of chum in the hopes of stirring up a feeding frenzy of sorts.

It's also an interesting way of organizing my own presentation. It's a lot shorter, unfootnoted, with only a couple of references to specific works, and is more general musings and hypotheses than actual arguments. I'm taking a position that might be one of the more marginal -- sort of coming at the topic sideways.

The really beautiful thing is that I don't have to attach to being right; I just need to be provocative. But I can't just be provocative for its own sake; I need to actually believe in what I'm saying. And you know, I think I just might. But this is the first time that I've done such a thing, so I'll have to let you know how it goes.

Anyone else out there have thoughts on this?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Awesome Stuff on the Near Horizon

Today promises to be a grueling day: Two meetings, one of which promises to be filled with pointless and unproductive negativity, which suits me not at all. Worst of all, these meetings (one of which was called with less than 24 hours' notice) are being held right in the middle of my writing group. I thought I'd miss an hour of it; now it looks like I'll be missing the whole thing. For meetings.

Also, it's unseasonably hot, and dry, which means I'm cranky and have a nosebleed.

BUT... better things are on the horizon, for lo: I have a full summer to write! Even better: I have my mojo back. Two weeks ago, inspiration struck. After years of wrestling, I know what my next book is going to be doing. I pitch it to Dream Press at the 'zoo in a week. That's cool. But even cooler: I'm excited to write, and I actually have the time to do so.

Hell, yeah!

So bring on that meeting! Bring on two! Try to suck me down into the swamp of negativity, if you dare. I'll just be hanging out on shore, doing the butt-dance.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Sometimes you just can't face the Thing that Must Get Finished. Usually, that Thing is grading. Today, some unseasonably hot and windy weather has sapped my will to do... well, anything. But certainly not grading.

This is the time for "procrastivity." I figure it's okay if I procrastinate, as long as I'm doing something, even if it's not the thing I'm supposed to be doing. So for the next 45 minutes, I will work on making a dent on the mess on my desk.  I think that will be sufficient.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Dark Ages, Nazis, and Media Relations

Hey, guess what? I just found out that our campus has a media productions team as part of its public relations team, complete with its own YouTube channel.  I found this out because I was contacted by the head of their team, referred by our Ancient Historian (who I now suspect has it in for me). This is possibly the most amusing inter-campus correspondence I've conducted to date.

First, hir query:

"Hi, Girlscholar. I was referred to you by Joe Venerable.  I would be very interested in talking with you about your research and knowledge regarding Ancient Rome, the Fall of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent Dark Ages.  I’m wondering what caused the Dark Ages? What can be learn from it today?  Is the advancement of technology without the equivalent moral and ethical advancement leading us to a similar end?  Also, is there a tie-in with Nazi Germany?"

For two days, my brain sputtered, trying to formulate a reply. A friend at another (research-oriented) campus suggested a try to turn the opportunity in my favor, so I counter-pitched the most audience-friendly ideas I could think of:

"Dear X, I'm intrigued by the idea, though I'm not sure I know enough about the transition from Rome to the Middle Ages (we don't really use "Dark Ages" anymore) to fill more than 5 minutes or so… However, if you're ever interested, I have expertise in medieval women, as well as the poly-ethnic culture of medieval Blargistan, and all sorts of unsubstantiated opinions about medievalism in popular culture (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, etc), and I'd be happy to talk to you."

Nice, no? Measured, helpful There were even emoticons.  One will note that I tactfully left out any mention at all of Nazis -- Like a fart in church, I simply could not think of a polite way to address it. 

Then, I received a reply:

"Thanks for your response.  I think the topic is less about the Dark Ages and Rome - specifically…..and more about the reasons behind the fall of Rome and its possible parallel to Hitler’s Third Reich….was there any connection?  Could the demise of both governments be attributed to the advancement of power at the expense of the moral decay of the society?  Joe Venerable referred you, but if you don’t feel this subject would be one that you would be comfortable discussing, is there another member of your Department that you feel could address these kinds of questions?"

::sigh:: Thus endeth my first attempt at being a public intellectual.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reader Query: Can I Change My Mind?

April 15. For those of us stateside, it's tax day. But for academics, this has traditionally been the deadline to accept or decline your offers to programs,[1] along with their attendant funding packages, if you're so fortunate.

But today, a comment from a reader on an old, old post raises an interesting question that I'm not sure how to answer,[2] so I thought I'd ask my readers -- if, indeed, any of you are reading. If today is hir deadline, chances are that the answers may come too late to do much good, but I'd like to hear what others think -- especially those of you who are at institutions with doctoral programs.

The query:

What are the unspoken rules about accepting a PhD program and backing out last minute? I got offered a position at a University which wasn't my first choice; I am afraid to walk away and I wanted to accept and let them know for sure closer to when the program starts. How bad would that be for my career?

As longtime readers know, my institution doesn't have a doctoral program, so I can only guess at the answer to this question. What I have below are off-the-cuff thoughts, not to be relied upon. Hopefully more experience readers will chime in.

(a) Would it be unheard-of? No. If you backed out, you wouldn't be the first person to do so. Things happen between April and September: Illnesses, financial catastrophes, family emergencies. And yes, some people simply get offers they can't refuse.

(b) Would it be bad for your career? That all depends on the faculty at the institution you're at. If they're grudge-holders with some influence in the field, then yes. If not, then probably not. And it may be that if and when the day arrives that you enter the job market, they will have forgotten all about some aspiring grad student they never met.

(c) Would it be inconsiderate? Well, maybe a little. Programs have limited places. If they're offering you one, there is likely some other applicant out there in the cold (or accepted by a less-preferred school when your suitor is their preference). Same goes double if your suitor has offered you a funding package. If you're in the sciences, advisers may have to make calculations way in advance as to how they're building their lab teams -- I don't know anything about that, personally, but it may be a more serious issue. If you back out down the road, it may be that the offer and/or funding can go to someone else. Or maybe not. But this brings me to a related point: The aspirant suggest that s/he might "accept and then let them know for sure closer to when the program starts." If I'm reading that right, that won't fly. You either accept or decline. There's no seat-saving in grad programs. And you'll also want to read the conditions of acceptance carefully: I've never seen contract-type language in an offer that specifies consequences for changing your mind, but if there's a financial offer in there then there just might be. If that's the case, then you want to tread more cautiously, because you may be signing something legally binding. Again, I've never seen such a thing, but it's been a long time.

(d) Is it a moot point? Perhaps. I'm trying to think of a situation where one school has their April deadline and another you haven't even heard from yet. There are only two: (1) you're wait-listed at Dream School and they've informed you of such; (2) the program you're waiting to hear from has a different notification calendar, so nobody's heard. If neither of those two obtains, then I think it's a fairly safe bet that the call isn't going to come, and there's no sense waiting for it.

Here's my thought: all academics should strive to be courteous and professionally considerate in all things. This includes not stringing along potential advisers and allies. On the other hand, all academics balance this with their own best interests, and sometimes this has professional consequences. Were it me, I'd accept the bird-in-the-hand offer, unless it were somewhere I really, really didn't want to be. And if Dream School came knocking later, I'd scrutinize that offer very closely and ask myself whether accepting it would be worth whatever consequences came my way -- remember that you don't have to accept an offer just because you have one, and the "safety" school may in fact turn out to be a better fit than the high-profile one you were aiming for.

That's my two cents. Again, pulled straight out of my nether regions, as is almost all my advice. So I defer to my six remaining readers: What would you tell a person in this situation?

[1] At least it was back in my day. But that day was a long, long time ago.

[2] Like that's ever stopped me.

Monday, March 31, 2014

On a Pilgrimage

Today is International Hug a Medievalist Day! It's also Cesar Chavez day in California. But perhaps more important to academics from my institution, it's the first day of spring break.

Whoo Hoo!!!  SPRING BREAK!!!

::ahem:: Sorry. I'm just kind of excited, because I'm almost 100% caught up on my grading for the second time in as many weeks, and I may be able to handle the 8 remaining papers during my extended layover (flight delay) here at Midcontinental Airport, and again on the approximately 2 1/2- hour flight from here.

From here to where, you ask? As loyal readers, you know that I've been known to spend time in several lovely locations in sunny, cosmopolitan Blargistan, go off on semi work-related jaunts to Italy, give papers in Rio, visit friends in Venice. Where should we expect such a jet-setting glamour-puss with a week and no obligations to spend her time?

I am going to Gradville.

Gradville is located in a non-coastal college town about an hour from the nearest international airport. Gradville has one main street and a lot of fiercely independent businesses. Gradville is an island of blue in a red sea. Gradville has Interesting Weather.

Why am I going to Gradville? The first reason is that a major anniversary of one of those Life Milestones happens to coincide with my spring break, so since this particular Milestone happened while I was resident in Gradville, it seems appropriate to commemorate it there.

Second: I haven't been back to see Gradville friends (of both Town and Gown types) in several years, so it seemed like time.

Third: Esteemed Former Advisor still lives in Gradville, but rumor has it that his health may be failing. So I very much want a chance to visit with him. We have a nice lunch planned for tomorrow, and I'm really looking forward to it.

So: perhaps an odd way to spend spring break, but for me, for this year, it seems just right. Pictures to follow.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Please, ma'am: May I have some more?

Today is my last teaching day before spring break. And while most of my classes this week have been replaced by conferences for upcoming papers, I did have one to get through: Western Civilization. A 100-level class, and today we were discussing El Cid. And let me tell you, I was dreading it. This is a really fun story, and I'd been selling it to them for a couple of weeks: Battles! Honor! Valor! Betrayal! Christians and Muslims! But walking into class today, I knew I had several things working against me:
  • These are not history majors. Most of them are taking this class as a General Education requirement, so they're only here because they have to be.
  • A medieval epic may be exciting to a medieval historian, but it's not everybody's cup of tea.
  • It's the last class before spring break.
So, you will appreciate how pleasantly surprised I was that the 60% or so of the class who actually participated did so with some real enthusiasm. But even more than that, there was this conversation after class:

"Yes, Susie? Did you have a question?"
"Well, it's kind of off-topic..."
"I love off-topic questions. Shoot."
"Well... I really liked this book! I read it all in one night. Like, I had to do laundry, and I was really mad because I had to put the book down! And so... I was wondering... Are there other books like this that you can recommend?"

That's right: My undergraduate, non-major, taking-this-required-course student just asked me for more medieval literature. Because it was so awesome.

Friday, March 21, 2014

How I Won the Week


What to say about this week? These days, it feels like a minor triumph just to keep ahead of my normal workload. But I've managed to do all that and take care of some backed-up e-mails and arrangements about upcoming conferences, plus three letters of recommendation, helping plan a shower for a friend, and getting off an application for a campus program that could really work in my favor if I get it. In other words, I'm keeping all of the balls in the air. This is an accomplishment for me. In addition to all that, I've been negotiating some class-three rapids in a way that had potential to embroil me in something I don't want to be embroiled in, and I think I managed to do so with a bit of grace and come out okay. All right, so there's one person who's likely not happy, but I'm secure in knowing that I acted ethically, so things will turn out all right in the end.

Extra bonus: Visit from a good friend and former colleague who moved back to her home country several years ago. She's a real dear, and it's always lovely to spend time with her.

Extra-extra bonus: By noon tomorrow, I should be fully caught up on my grading! I could push that to tonight, but I've decided that I've earned an extra yoga class tonight and an early bedtime.

Life is pretty darned good chez Notorieuse.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Another Surreal Moment

UPDATE to the folks using this post to "advertise" their HVAC services: I am categorizing all such posts as spam and deleting them on sight. Stop wasting your time and mine.

My conversation with the facilities guy today, regarding a problem with the aged heating/cooling unit in my office:

FG: Someone called in a problem with the wall unit?

ME: Yeah. The cooling isn't working. It was working yesterday, but today it's only blowing hot air, even when it's supposed to be cool.

FG: That's what I thought the call down to us said. But I checked with my boss, and he tells me that there isn't actually air conditioning in this building.

ME: Yes, there is. I mean, there isn't any right now. But it was working yesterday.

FG: No -- this building only has pipes for heating, and a fan that circulates the regular air. You just thought it was air conditioning.

ME: I've been in this office 10 years. There's always been cooling. Including yesterday.

FG: My boss and four other guys told me there wasn't.

ME: But look: there's this dial right here that has two settings: one for heating and one for cooling. There are occasional problems with either one, but generally, they both do what they say they do.

FG: Let me get on the phone to my boss. [calls, confirms, puts boss and other Guys In Room on speaker phone, who also insist that there is not now, nor has there ever been, air conditioning of any kind in FO-2]

ME: Hang on here a minute. [walking next door to office] Coleague, is your AC working?

Martha: It was yesterday. Let me check. [turns on AC] Yep.

FG: [sets thermometer to measure temperature from wall unit next door]. Huh. 70 degrees. So there is air conditioning in this building. Let me see if I can fix yours.


To be fair, the guy in my office was very nice and apologetic about it once he realized his error. And I was equally gracious, assuring him that I understood he was only working with the information he had. And my cooling now works. But still.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

You'll be stone dead in a moment!

From an e-mail from the leader of the History Students' Association, regarding an upcoming event that I agreed to give a quick 5-minute talk (on medieval food) for:

Dear Dr. Notorious,
Thank you for presenting tomorrow for the HSA event. Just as a reminder the event is from 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm in the conference room.  The first 30 minutes will be presentations by the students or HSA members, followed by presentations by our extinguished faculty, such as yourself.

There are so many jokes here that I don't know where to start, so I'll just let my witty commentariat supply the punchlines. But first and foremost, there's this:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On being stood up

Undergraduates, take note:

If we have academic business to discuss -- a paper conference, say -- I will go out of my way and be up on campus for you on a day I'm normally not here. I don't have to be, and I don't expect that other faculty members ought to do the same -- this is my choice, after all. But because I have made that choice, I abjure any right to resent you for taking me up on the offer, or to loudly trumpet the sacrifices I'm making. If I voluntarily make an offer, I should follow through with a cheerful mein.


If you fail to make that appointment, even once, with no notice, just leaving me cooling my heels in my office when I could be elsewhere, you may expect that I will never again go out of my way for you. I will continue to be as helpful to you as you need me to be, but that help will come only during my regular office hours. Period.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I was the best of students; I was the worst of students

As my most recent post explained, somehow one of the voices talked me into taking a class on a 1200-page Spanish novel. After 5 or 6 weeks (I lose track), I've figured out what sort of student I am: The one who seems really bright, but just isn't performing up to her potential.

We've all had these students in our classes. Chances are, you've got at least one right now. I've got two (in two different classes). They're great in discussion, but don't leave themselves enough time to get the As that your best professor instinct tells you they're capable of. If only they budgeted their time better! By all rights, they should be pulling straight As! How can you get through to them?

Being in the student position myself has been enlightening in this respect. Here's how my semester has gone in this class:

Weeks one and two: knocked it out of the park. Did all the reading. Took conscientious notes. Participated in class -- maybe even a little too much.

Week three: Holy shit. How did so many deadlines pile on at once? I need to finish that article, and there's that performance review that I totally spaced on and it's due tomorrow, and I'm trying to organize conferences and stay on top of the grading for once... And come the evening before the night class, I realize that I haven't done any of the reading, and I won't have time to do it the day of class, because I'm teaching all day, and so I make the decision... to skip class.

Week four: Similar to week three, except I've cleared off two of my three big must-dos, but another one that I had been putting off was due, and it was a hard deadline, so I got about half of the reading done (and no, I didn't do the reading from the week before -- no time for both). So I attended the first half of class, then skipped out at the break.

Week five: back on track. I back-burnered my grading (I'm paying for this now, I'll have you know) and managed to do all the reading again, understand what was going on, and turn in a creditable performance. Again, I probably talked too much -- something I'm acutely conscious of from my own discussion-leading experience. So I tried to shut up. But there are just so many interesting things to discuss!

And here we are at week six. And that grading needs to get done. But I just found out that a dear colleague's husband died suddenly so I'll be attending a memorial service on Saturday, and a housewarming for Voice of Reason on Sunday, and there's a college-level committee meeting tomorrow, and pick up the bike from the shop, and buy and mail off a small birthday gift for my sister. This weekend.

Which is to say: Where before I intellectually knew that my class is not the only thing going on in my students' lives, now I understand. It's been a long time since I've been in that position. Ouch.