Friday, October 23, 2015

The Soundtrack of Scholarship

I like a little music while I scholar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2015

External Review: The Gatekeeper vs. the Advocate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ah.  That explains it. My apologies."

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

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

"Of course."

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

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Women's Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Something Beautiful

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

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

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


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

Monday, October 5, 2015

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

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

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

This, for me, is great.

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

Thank you, one and all.