Friday, December 9, 2016

Resistance Fridays: I wrote a letter Paul Ryan.

A real letter that I have signed and I will put in an envelope and put a stamp on and mail to Janesville, Wisconsin.

No, I'm not a constituent. Nor am I a Republican. But I am someone who is concerned about stuff. And he's in a position in which he can do stuff about stuff. Or not. And if we want stuff done (or stuff opposed), we're going to need to engage with those in position to influence stuff.

That's it. It's Friday.

Do stuff.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Accidental Writer

I haven't been writing much about writing. In general, writing is a frustrating process for me, and talking about how frustrating it is often finds me with my head further up my ass than when I began. Or, even worse, writing about writing takes away time that I should be using to write.

So it is with real pleasure that I share a bit of news. I may have shared at some point about "procrastivity" -- that is, procrastination, accidental or deliberate, that somehow turns into productivity.

This was not real procrastination. Rather, it was prioritizing a talk over writing my book. That's productive, sure, but not the thing I was supposed to be working on. But there it is: this semester found me plugging away at a "what I did on my leave" presentation for my department. I was supposed to present on my research for about 40 minutes, after which there would be another 40 minutes of Q & A, and then we'd all go home. It's actually a very nice thing our department does, and something you don't often find outside of research universities.

So I started writing. And here's the amazing cool thing that happened:

Late September: Should I present a chapter? No: since I'm close to done with this project, I should present an overview. So this will include narrations about what my big question is, and also what each chapter is, and how it contributes to the whole.

Early October: But then there's the question of audience: If my presentation is all medieval, then my colleagues (almost all historians of the 19th and 20th centuries) might find themselves at a loss for how to engage. So... Okay, I'll make sure to have a lot in there about approach and methodology and maybe even a little of that Cool New Theoretical Framework I've been trying to use.

Mid-October: This thing is getting kind of way to long. Remember THAT ONE PRESENTATION that never ended? You don't want to do that. Nobody ever complained that a presentation ran short after all. But I don't want to dam the flow. I'll just write it as it comes out of my brain, and the fact that it's about 8,500 words long is okay; I'll just cut it down for the presentation....


Wait just one minute.

8,500 words. With question, argument, methodology, theory, narrative chapter outline...


Yeah. I'm pretty sure I did.


Huzzah for procrastivity!!!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

While we're burning the system to the ground...

Yesterday, the New York Times posted an op-ed by a Dallas elector who stated why he was going to refuse to cast his electoral vote for... well, you know the guy. The orange one with the alleged "hair." I wrote on the facebooks that I wasn't sure how I felt about this: I would be happy with the result, but this would basically further erode trust in an elections system that is already as frayed as one's gym underwear (come on -- don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about).

But then I got to thinking, and I realized that this is a situation that has some merit to it. Here's my fantasy of how it plays out (and yes, I know this is a fantasy. But let me have it for a few hours):

  1. Dallas elector's example is followed by others who are not willing to go public, but who know that the future of the country rest in their hands: Will they turn the country over to a dangerously ignorant narcissist? Okay, I think most of them will. Because most people hate confrontation. Most people are rule-followers. Hell, I'm mostly a rule-follower. But some people will see a crisis. Maybe some. Maybe enough.
  2. Agent Orange loses the electoral college vote, and is not president. Who becomes president? Honestly, who cares at this point. Because other than some of the cabinet appointees and their backers, there is no one less qualified or more dangerous. 
  3. The GOP members of congress express vociferous outrage! And (here's the key bit) respond by moving through legislation to do away with the electoral college altogether and have presidents elected by popular vote. And the democrats, in a gentleperson's agreement, tactfully do not mention how secretly relieved their GOP colleagues are.
See? This way, everybody wins. Well, everybody except one person. But I could live with that.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Resistance Fridays

So yeah, I'm concerned. And likely to stay that way for a while. I'm concerned that less than a quarter of this country's eligible voters have elected a sexist, narcissist charlatan who has shown a willingness to get into bed with racists, white supremacists, and white nationalists, and who either hasn't read the constitution or doesn't give a damn about things like a free press and the rule of law.

I'm concerned that the president-elect is more interested in appearing before a cheering crowd than actually doing the business of governing, which appears to bore him.

I'm concerned that the president-elect does not read, nor does he care to know anything that does not confirm what he already believes.

So I am resisting.

Part of that resistance is by keeping on doing what I'm already doing: by teaching, by underlining the importance of critical thinking, by refusing to give ignorance a pass. Part is mentally preparing for what I will do if confronted with injustice: mentally preparing myself to intervene. Part is writing checks. Part is volunteering to volunteer. Part is making calls, registering my protest with people who can make a difference. Reaching out to people who might be swayed.

Mostly, I need to make an appointment with resistance, and make it part of my schedule. Because human beings can adapt to the most atrocious circumstances, and decide that the unacceptable is actually acceptable. And it's not.

So I hereby declare "Resistance Fridays." Every Friday, I will report an act of resistance, small or large, a concrete measure I have taken to push back against the unacceptable.  I have no illusions: I know that most outcomes will be losses. But I can't not fight back. And dedicating some time, once a week, to resisting will remind me to stay in the fight.

Here is this Friday's act:

This week, the news is full of reports of how the incoming President's business holdings make him vulnerable to quid-pro-quo arrangements. He will have the power to appoint the head of the National Labor Relations Board, an organization that is currently ordering him to correct violations of federal labor law at his hotels. He will appoint the next head of the Justice department, a federal bureau investigating financial malfeasance of Deutsche Bank, a financial institution holds millions in Trump family loans. He continues to lean on Scotland about wind farms that, according to him, mar the view from the Trump golf course. And, of course, there are the foreign diplomats flocking to stay at the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania avenue -- a property that Trump leases from the federal government, under a contract that states that no federal employee may profit from the lease.

I would not worry about his dealings now if he had even an ounce of shame. He does not. If he is not stopped, he will continue to bleed the country dry for his own benefit. It's unethical. It's shameful. It's gross.

Yet there have been two rays of sunshine in all this. The first was the Office of Government Ethics' masterful Twitter-trolling of the Troll-in-Chief, right down to imitating his diction and punctuation. The second was that the Senate introduced a resolution urging His Orangeness to divest.

I'm down with that. So my Friday act of resistance was to write both of my senators, thanking them, and my Representative, asking him to sign on if such a thing came through the house -- or maybe to propose something himself.

Resistance Fridays: Make it a thing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My Day-After Diary

There was an election. And then there was fallout, and trying to figure out what to do. And in the middle of that, there was the flu. But I did write something, on Wednesday, November 9. And now it's time to share it. And maybe other things as well. Because as SquadratoMagico pointed out in our day-after e-mails, one of the things we do is write.

Today sucked. I cried. Literally broke down and heaved great gasping sobs in my office. Online, I wrote about how we need to not give up. And I know I will eventually pick myself up and figure out some way to ACT, so that history isn't just something that happens to me. But right now I can't imagine what it would be.

I want to reproduce the words that my sister wrote to me, about how Emergency Backup Nephew, not yet seven, started the evening excited, and went to bed crying. I can't. Reading those words breaks me in two. I think of the two little girls I saw at the school where I voted, and how their eyes got big and their faces broke into smiles when I answered them ("who are you voting for?") with "I'm voting for Hillary." What kind of morning did two African-American sisters, probably 7 and 9, have this morning? As bad as my nephew's? As bad as the girls at Wellesley who were interviewed on NPR, saying they looked at the map and saw a country that didn't want them? A country that would rather vote for the most willfully ignorant and utterly unqualified dangerous narcissist to be elected by a democratic process?

Students here protested. I am proud of them. I'm worried that they are insisting "not my president" and even more that "the election was rigged." Taking refuge in denial or conspiracy theories is no way to solve a real problem. But they don't need a middle-aged white lady telling them how to run their revolution.

I still don't know what I'm going to do with myself. So far I have made donations, I have sent e-mails volunteering to volunteer (no response yet). I have written to a local Islamic center expressing my sadness at a recent bit of horrible hate mail they'd gotten, and asking if I could help in any way. Other than that... I feel like I should be doing something. But perhaps here, as in other things, I will write my way in.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Notorious Book Club Day 4: Details, Details (Grafton, chs. 5 & 6)

I had a conversation with a grad student about two weeks ago about a thesis chapter of hirs. The writing was elegant, and there was a great argument at the chapter's core. The problem (in my estimation) was that ze had spent pages detailing the names and contributions of every middling lord in north-central Floopriana, with the predictable result that hir argument became lost in a sea of hard-won erudition.

What do we do with the details? Chapters five and six of Grafton's history of the footnote jump us back another century, from the literary footnotes of the eighteenth century to the seventeenth century, to address this question. Chapter five focuses on the the dilemma of the late Humanists, pulled in two by contradictory impulses: on the one hand, wanting to adhere to the models of classical scholarship, which prized elegance of narrative form; on the other, attached to the source criticism that characterized earlier humanists like Lorenzo Valla. Grafton shows how early c. 17 historians handled their ambivalent relationship to footnotes. On the one hand, Jacques-Auguste de Thou, a Latinist and Parisian lawyer, steadfastly refused to include footnotes in his text... but he did leave behind a massive volume of correspondence with other scholars that, in a sense, served as an informal annotation for the scholarly community. Samuel Johnson, whose  position (and possibly very life) depended on his history not being trotted out as evidence of sedition, included notes to his sources, but only reluctantly, taking time in his preface to preemptively defend himself against charges of pedantry.

Less fearful of such charges were the subjects of Grafton's sixth chapter, the ecclesiastical historians and the antiquarians. Also denizens of the seventeenth century, these writers were unafraid of accusations of pedantry: they were practicing a form of history in which erudition was the watchword, rather than stylistics. For the ecclesiastical historians, mountains of detail served as arsenals in sectarian conflicts. Data was so important that interpolations and outright forgeries were far from unknown... giving rise to peripheral disciplines like paleographics and diplomatics in order to root out forgeries created in this age. [Note: will someone please write a history of a golden age of forgery?] For the antiquaries, the details were not the means to pushing a sectarian agenda; they were the end in and of themselves. The were collectors and catalogers, preserving detail for its own sake. And in both cases, since erudition lay at the core, annotation was not only tolerable, it was essential.

What to take away from all this detail about how historians deal with detail? Well, the main thing for me is how very diverse an ecosystem early modern historiography was. And how very contested the definition of "history" is, and how that all relates to how we deal with details. Do we, as my student did, include them all because every one holds a small piece of the puzzle? Do we pare them back (as I recommended to said student) in the service of an elegant and reader-friendly narrative? When we make these choices, what are we saying about our job as historians?

And how does this all relate to the modern footnote? Well, that's Grafton's final chapter -- the one where he brings it all together. Stay tuned...

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Notorious Book Club reconvenes next Monday...

...because I'm up to my eyeballs in work until then. October is going to be... interesting.

So: next Monday we do the two back-to-the-future chapters. Tuesday we do the Cartesian chapter. Wednesday, conclusions.

And then we'll be all caught up and I'll learn not to be so damn enthusiastic about how much I can do and still sleep and sometimes (but not this week) even buy groceries.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Notorious Book Club Day 3: Pedantry, Real and Fake (Grafton, ch. 4)

One of my favorite novels is Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. When I attempt to explain the book to my friends, I start with the setting: England during the Napoleonic wars. "So it's a historical novel." Well, not exactly. There are droll little commentaries throughout, kind of like in Jane Austen, gently poking fun at the rules of middle-high society. "So it's a comedy of manners." Well, a little, except there's also the fact that, in this version of Georgian England, magic is real. "So it's a fantasy novel." Well, a little, but also not really. Because magic, when the novel opens, is a stuffy academic discipline, embraced by stuffy older gentlemen who find the idea of practicing magic to be vulgar. "Okay, so... umm..." And just as I'm losing them, I usually add in, "And the best part? It's full of FOOTNOTES! Explanations of things and citations to scholarly works written by gentleman-magicians that the author is also making up! It's Brilliant!"

At this point, they usually try to find a way to shift the conversation. But that weird elision of genres turns out to be where Anthony Grafton ends up in his chapter four, "An Enlightenment Interlude." Sliding back a step chronologically, Grafton takes his search for the origins of the footnote from the nineteenth century of Ranke to the eighteenth century of the philosophes. And what he finds is surprising: "Footnotes, in short, spread rapidly in eighteenth-century historiography in part because they were already trendy in fiction." [1]


Here's the thing: I, perhaps like most people, associate the literature of the enlightenment with the Voltaires and Swifts: scholars more interested in being incisive than being scientific. But Grafton shows how the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were actually home to two traditions in scholarly literature: the broadly gesturing and often satirical philosophe, and the erudite antiquarian.[2]  That the former is better known -- perhaps "won" the contest for whom the century would be associated with -- is a foregone conclusion. But the fact that the former felt obliged to constantly puncture the pretensions (as they saw it) of the latter points to the widespread existence of the latter.

And in the ultimate irony, the vehicle that the former used to carry their satires and excoriations was, more often than not -- you guessed it -- the footnote itself

From the prose of Gibbon to the pornographers of Grub Street the eighteenth-century footnote is not one thing. It is a genus with several species: some are citations to sources (of varying degree of precision), some are explanations or clarifications that the erudite address to the ladies, some are snark, and some appear to be entirely made up, used as signifiers to lend the illusion of fact to what was undoubtedly fiction, in a melding of the two as a joke that the reader was expected to be in on.

Had they only existed, Susanna Clarke's scholar-magicians would have been delighted.
[1] Grafton, 121.
[2] Gibbon makes a reappearance here as well, as the bastard offspring of the two traditions, grand narrator above the line, but alternately pedant and satirist below the line. Sort of the scholarly-literary equivalent of a mullet.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Notorious Book Club day 2: Science and Story (Grafton, chapters 2 & 3)

“Simply to say how it actually was.”  — Leopold von Ranke

Poor, misunderstood Leopold von Ranke. If most of us know anything about him, it is this quote, which makes him seem inutterably naïve, the symbol of the way we wrote history before we knew that our sources couldn’t be taken at face value. A slightly more sophisticated summarizer of his life and contributions to the discipline might take a slightly more charitable view, to say that Ranke was the founder of a “scientific” history, one that was born out of an inherenet skepticism of received historical narratives. In oder to find out “how it actually was,” one had to master a method: learn enough of languages and paleography and the intricacies of archival spelunking (archives in those days being largely closed affairs) so that one could go back to the original sources and see what they said.

Are those laugh lines, Leo?
It is this latter Ranke whom we might expect to come up with a nitpicky instrument like the footnote: something that specialists use to show how they are specialists. Grafton’s two chapters on Ranke introduce us to the young (and then middle-aged, and then quite old and blind) enthusiast for source work. The fact that his method depended on critical reading of original sources meant that he had to show his work: as Grafton puts it, “the historian who had eaten from the tree of source-criticism could not regain the innocence necessary to write a simple narrative.”[1] Footnotes for Ranke were not Gibbon’s commentary nor the ancients’ appeal to authority; they were the method laid bare, a sort of postmodern architecture in which all the pipes and struts and supports become an essential part of the design.

Yet this picture, like much modern design, leaves us with an impression of a sterile coldness that doesn’t match the other crucial component that usually gets left out in descriptions of Ranke’s work, and that Grafton so eloquently reproduces in these two chapters: the romance of the archives. Ranke was in love with archives[1] and libraries, he was drunk on undiluted primary sources. In these chapters, we meet Ranke as storyteller. The method was the means to an end, but a perilous one: Footnotes broke the story, took the reader out of the past that he was trying to recreate. He put in footnotes to point the next generation of historians towards the sources they would need.[3]  To put it more simply, he created footnotes not out of love of their scientific nature; rather he used them probably for the same reason he put on pants: because it was necessary to the culture he inhabited.

The final part of the second chapter raises another point: that Ranke was not even the originator of the modern footnote. But I’m going to save that for tomorrow and append it to my discussion of Grafton’s “Enlightenment Interlude,” where he follows the footnote’s backtrail. For now, I just want to rest on this point and invite contemplation of the battles between our own inner scientist and inner storyteller, and to note that even our avatar of scientific history had his misgivings, loved narrative, and maybe even envisioned heaven as an archive. That he aimed to come to his sources with precision — footnotes being a part of that precision — does not mean that he did so without excitement and wonder.
[1] Grafton, 68.
[2] Though he didn’t use them nearly as often as we think.
[3] Towards, not at: Grafton notes that Ranke was at the receiving end of some rather vituperative criticism because his citations did not point where he said they would; he replied that a real enthusiast would not need something handed to them so precisely; they should love the hunt as much as the kill, so to speak. In other words: he had no patience with pedantry — at least not pedantry directed at him.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Notorious Book Club: Footnotes and Authority (Grafton chapter 1)

NB: this is first in a week-long series dedicated to discussing Anthony Grafton's "The Footnote: A Curious History." Today, we're discussing chapter 1; tomorrow will be chapters 2 & 3. Grab a book and a slice of pie and join in wherever you like.

“Only the use of footnotes enables historians to make their texts not only monologues but conversations, in which modern scholars, their predecessors, and their subject all take part.”[1]

“He uses footnotes like a lamppost: not to illuminate anything, but merely to have something to lean on.”[2]

When I was an undergraduate, I found footnotes intimidating. If a book was scholarly, that was fine, so long as the notes were at the end. Seeing them looming there at the bottom of the page made me feel like an interloper on a world of specialists that I was nowhere near smart enough to evaluate. The elaborate code, the titles in multiple languages, the long quotes in Latin (I’m a medievalist, after all) — all of these let me know that I was an outsider, rather than someone who was a real practitioner.

The first chapter of Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History tells us two things: First, that the modern footnote is engineered to do just that, and second, that it wasn’t always that way.

Let’s turn first to the proposition that it wasn’t always this way, that “the footnote varies as widely in nature and content as any other complex scientific or technical practice.”[3] Grafton notes the relation (though not direct parentage) of the modern footnote to the ancients’ in-text references to authorities they were depending on, and to medieval writers' authoritative glosses. And the chapter opens with a drolly hilarious[4] section on Gibbon’s use of footnotes to gossip and snark while maintaining a gentlemanly decorum above the line. As any reader of my blog or my academic prose knows, I am a fan of this sort of footnote. I tend to use footnotes as a storage space: Here’s something pretty neat that’s tangentially related or maybe something that just crossed my mind that would break the flow of the argument in the text, but I tell you, you have just got to see this. If the text is the lecture hall, then the footnotes are arm-waving chitchat at the bar or coffee shop. Above the line, all is outline-based order and strong topic sentences that flow from one to the next and ruthless culling of the irrelevant; below the line, the barely contained chaos of an easily distracted mind.[5]

Second, there is the proposition that the modern footnote is meant to divide the world between specialist and non-specialist. This is the footnote we are familiar with. It is a claim to authority, not of the sources, but of the author her- or himself: “I have labored in the mines; I have mastered the method.” Grafton lets us know that, unlike its premodern ancestors, the modern footnote generally legitimizes the author and the method of production, rather than focusing on the reader and the framework of consumption. As much as I might joke in my blog about letting my subconscious write the footnotes to my academic prose,[6] I know I’d never actually do that, simply because Mann macht das nicht. Because that would not be professional.

And there’s a whole heckuva lot tied up in that idea of “the professional historian” and the relationship to the modern footnote. But I’m going to leave that for tomorrow, when we go into Grafton’s chapters 2 & 3 on Ranke and the footnote. For now, I leave you with these two questions: How do you use footnotes? Did you recognize yourself in any of what Grafton writes in chapter 1? 


[1] Grafton, 234
[2] Some snarky scholar, randomly (and probably mis-)quoted by an ex of mine. 
[3] Grafton, 11
[4] YMMV
[5] Squirrel! (And, to be perfectly honest, my lecture style is pretty easily distracted too. Pity the poor student.)
[6] Did you click the link in the callout? 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Notorious Book Club: week of Oct. 3-7

Hello all!

I'm a few days behind where I wanted to be in my reading, so though I had planned to publish my thoughts (and discus, if the enthusiastic "yes, please!" responses I got could be translated into actual participants) on Tony Grafton's "The Footnote" this weekend, for various logistical reasons I'm pushing it back until Monday, October 3, and will leave the post up for discussion for the entire week.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Notorious Book Club reminder

Just a reminder: if you want to take part in the discussion of Tony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History, I'll be hosting it here sometime around Sept. 30. So get your copy, read up, and tune in!

Monday, September 12, 2016

It's not you, it's me. (Or is it?)

"Don't be afraid to get it wrong," I tell my students all. the. time. "It's how we learn."

I'm usually prompted to tell students this in some private meeting to discuss their sinking grades in discussion (undergraduate) or seminar (graduate) participation. The same students who are so passionate and interested in my office hours, so articulate in their papers, are quiet as mice at a Quaker meeting when it comes time to bring those ideas up in class. Usually what happens is that someone says something in class, and that becomes the consensus for the class as a whole. Now, everyone is afraid to speak an opinion that runs counter to what that first person said. In some cases, they don't want to be disagreeable. But in others, they just don't want to get it wrong in public.

I've often wondered how we get students past this fear of being ignorant in public. That's not "stupid", mind you. It's just publicly exposing yourself as not knowing something. Or maybe as misunderstanding something. In the past, I have likened this to my mistakes while learning my first foreign language. I landed in Frankfurt at age 19 armed with two years of high school German, and decided that I couldn't stay in the hostel forever. I needed go out and fearlessly mangle the language and wait for someone to correct me; only this way, I reasoned, would I learn.

I'm starting to reconsider this, and I'm doing so because of a book review that I'm currently writing.

When I was a graduate student, I wrote cautious book reviews, ones that mostly summarized the book and its arguments, and made some statements as to how it fit in with/contributed to the current literature on the subject. My evaluations were always kept to a bare minimum: Who am I, I thought, to pass judgement on a scholar's work when I haven't even finished my dissertation?

This changed a bit after I had published my first book. I had come to think that I knew enough to judge. I knew how to make connections between a book and its progenitors. I knew the difference between incremental contributions (most books) and the truly pathbreaking (rare), and how to praise both. I knew what was a legitimate criticism, and felt expert enough to level those, though I like to think I did so fairly.

But this book...

This book that I'm currently writing a review for has me out of my depth again. There are many things I understand, in terms of time, place, and context. But the approach is something that I'm wholly unfamiliar with. And frankly, that I find myself confused by. And this has me feeling like one of my undergraduates again: Are other people confused by this? Does the emperor have scanty clothing in some places? Or is this just my inexperience in this area, and everyone else who reads this book will immediately understand these things that I find confusing? Is the author eliding terminology? Or am I just not grasping the distinction?

I already feel myself retreating into that "cautious book reviewer" pose. But I'm going to give myself one more chance to try to understand what is going on here, to figure out who is responsible for the confusion. And then I'll write my book review as bravely as I can. But that may not be very much.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Medieval Mammal of the Week

Meet the "least weasel." This, apparently, is the little guy or gal you want to get if you have mice on board your medieval ship.

And trust me: you DO have mice on board your medieval ship. Be smart: get a least weasel now, before it's too late.

Monday, August 29, 2016

On the other hand, it's not NOT political history.

The history social webs are all abuzz today about the recent op-ed in the New York Times, asking the question "Why did we stop teaching political history?" And while I'm sure others will write about this (Tenured Radical is already on it, for example), I'm going to focus on how this op-ed helps to illustrate one of my pet peeves (and they are legion) in the field of English usage: this is the correct example of what's meant by "begging the question."

The phrase "begging the question" is most commonly used incorrectly: "Candidate X's sudden shift in position on a key issue begs the question of whether s/he ever actually intended to follow through with the original position." Here, it means "raises the question." In fact, it's used so much more often this way than the correct way (see below), that descriptivists/living language proponents might be justified in saying that this is now a fully correct use of the phrase.

But the phrase, in its original sense, is an a priori assumption, a trick to claim as a fundamental proposition the thing that is to be proven. And in that sense, the op-ed in question is a beautiful demonstration of this fallacy: "Why did X happen," when he has not proven that X did happen.

To put it more simply: the answer is that we haven't stopped teaching political history.

What have we stopped (or at least radically pulled back on) teaching and researching? Political history divorced from social, cultural, religious, economic, environmental, global, gender histories. Currently practicing historians realize that our fields were illusions that the boundaries were fuzzy, and that that was, actually, a good thing. Our courses (and research) may not be labeled "political history" because we are looking at the productive spaces where politics collides with race, or environment, or gender, or globalism, or, or, or.

illustrative anecdote: I am a medievalist who teaches a course on the crusades. I introduce the big outline of events in the first couple weeks, and then we move into theme weeks: gender and crusading, theologies of Just War; images of the Other; crusade and colonization. I explain to them on the first day that "this is not a military history course." And every time, a few pair of shoulders sag. But then I explain to them that it's not not military history. It's just that we're not doing 15 weeks of battles and generals and comparative trebuchets. The military dimension is present, but it doesn't operate in isolation.

And I guess that's what I'd tell the authors of this piece: that a job ad or research trajectory or course description might not be "political history"... but it's not not political history. And if the political is now infused with everything, then the flip side of that coin is that most other topics can no longer pretend to exist in isolation from the political.

All better now?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Unassigned Reading Club: The Footnote

For most academics, there are two types of reading we do: Books we have to read, and books we read to relax. For me, "have to reads" include things for both teaching and research. "Relaxation reads" are real brain-in-power-down-mode novels, more often than not in one of the speculative fiction or fantasy subgenres, with an occasional award-winner thrown in there. Point is, I'm either working, or I'm off the clock.

But then there's that other list: the things that are smart, written by scholars for a popular audience, or journalists for a smart audience. Books that make you think, but that manage to do so without feeling like work. 

Often, what visually differentiates these books from the "have to reads" is a lack (or paucity) of footnotes. Which is what makes my choice for September particularly ironic: it's Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History. It's a book about the way knowledge is presented in written and visual form. I think. I haven't read it yet. And yes -- it does have footnotes.

In any case, my friend J and I were planning on reading this during the month of September, and then talking about it. So if anyone would like to join in, grab a copy (did I mention it's a slim volume, perfect for a quick-but-smart read?), get reading, and let's meet back here around September 30th.

Who's in?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Qualms About Being Qualified, or What the Hell Am *I* Doing Pretending to Teach Paleography?

Today, my friends, was convocation at my college. This can only mean one thing: the semester is actually going to begin. On Monday. Will a year have left me rested and rejuvenated? Or will it have rendered me utterly unable to cope? Only time will tell.

But... other than stupidly deciding that this was the year to Revise! All! The! Courses!, I've taken on an extra quasi-prep: for my two excellent grad students (truly, they are) I am organizing a paleography workshop. Just six weeks, I told them. You should not think this will prepare you for the archives, I told them. But it might, just might, prepare them to take a real paleography course from someone who's actually qualified.

Query now: I wonder if anyone is really qualified to teach a medieval paleography course. I mean, someone whose field is Manuscript Studies, perhaps. But a working medieval historian? Most of us work with one century, at most. We tend to specialize in two or three hands at first, maybe expanding that over the course of a career. But a paleography course runs the whole gamut. Who among us is specialist in Merovingian chancery script:

...and blackletter book hands:

...and whatever the hell this is:

(Oh. Wait. That's one of mine.)

Anyway, the point is that I need to realize that most people who have ever taught paleography have been in the same situation I'm in: confident in a handful of hands, vaguely competent in a few others, and ready to admit ignorance in some places. I guess I can live with that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Welcome to the Beehive

I need to start this story with the Bungal-ette. I moved into it in 2003. Imagine a wood-frame bungalow, built in the late 30s. Imagine wood floors and tile in the bathroom and kitchen and windows everywhere. Imagine it shrunk down to 500 square feet. Imagine it convenient to bike lanes, bus routes, coffee shops, and a body of water. It was a little piece of rental perfection, and was thus my home for the dozen or so years between when I was hired at Grit City and when I went off to my divine year at Fancy-Pants U. And though the owner and I got along famously, "no sublets" was a hard and fast rule. Thus, I knew that I would have to find someplace to live upon my return. And I was pretty sure that I'd get less and pay more -- prices are high here, and Bungalettes are hard to come by.

I am here to tell you that I had no idea.

In the scant year I was away, rental prices went up about 15%. In a single year. And the vacancy rate fell to below 3%. I looked and looked. One place wanted a two-year lease. Another didn't come with a refrigerator. Another was a whopping twenty-five percent more than I had paid only a year ago, for a smaller and less desirable place. And just about everything already had five applications in.

And then I found the Beehive.[1]

Here's how it went: my former Pilates instructor asked the owner of the studio who had a friend who was moving from one unit to another in a subdivided house, and so the small upstairs unit would be available, and might I be interested? Well, it was indeed small -- 410 square feet, including the closet. And certainly a little more chaotic than my previous place, what with everbody living on top of each other. And there were a few things that Did Not Work that I knew I would have to fix myself or just learn to live with. And the previous tenant had done only a desultory job cleaning. It was not promising at first. But... it was next to the neighborhood I was hoping for. And both the co-owners (one of whom lives in a back unit) seemed pretty cool, and happy to have someone mostly self-sufficient and quiet, as well as to knock off over half of the deposit in exchange for the full day of pre-move-in cleaning I did. And though the unit kitchen can only accommodate one butt at a time (and that only if said butt is not dancing), and a living/dining room that could not fit an actual dining table, it also had a little corner nook under the eaves for an office and my bike. It was still biking distance from work,if in a neighborhood a bit less well maintained. There were wood floors. The other tenants were friendly, and the resident co-owner built conceptual art out of reclaimed wood in the backyard, and was the kind of person who would eventually offer to swap her preserved meyer lemons for my cranberry-apple chutney. The bedroom got tons of morning sunlight. It had a little working gas fireplace in the corner to provide the heat in winter. It rented for 50% below market, enabling me to put well over a third of my take-home pay towards my ever-optimistic house fund. And it was available.

Reader, I rented it.

[1] "Why 'The Beehive?'," you may well ask. Well, in large part because, with four units in the house plus two stand-alones and the owner's workshop/studio -- did I mention she's a conceptual artist? -- in the backyard and half of the units taken up by people who either are related to each other or have known each other for ages, all kind of on top of each other, it's a hive of seemingly chaotic but perfectly cheerful activity. And also, because there is an actual colony of bees that has taken up residence in the exterior wall just below the gorgeous bay window in my miniscule living room. The screens, fortunately, are sound. I checked.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Picking Up the Thread

I don't know why, but today seemed like the day to pick up the blog again. Wait: I do know why. More on that below. But first, what have I been up to in the past... forever? Well, since my last post, which was basically a bitch-fest about notarial documents, I've done a few post-worthy things that I hope to pick up on soon (if anyone still has me on their blogrolls... if anyone still reads blogs):
  • Finished a trip to Blerg City in which, for the first time, I had some fellow US researchers who are also friends, and so was not a complete hermit.
  • Procrastinated by poking around in a place where absolutely nothing of value to my project would be, and thereby stumbled on a Document That Explains Everything.
  • Moved back to Grit City Beach, discovered the abysmal state of the rental market, and ended up moving into The Beehive.
  • Had a lovely two-day roving visit with SquadratoMagico
  • Begun planning courses, even though two of them were only for-certain locked-in three weeks before the semester started; panic ensues.
  • Appalled myself by getting bent out of shape in a way that clearly has to do with some privilege issues I still have.
  • Began work as member of the organizing committee for a smallish annual conference (I'm in a minor role)
  • Quit smoking (again)
  • Signed up for a yoga intensive workshop
Anyway, that's a lot, and I plan to write about it all over the next couple weeks. But here's what made today the day: Today, I opened my book file for the first time in over three weeks. I'm the person who has said over and over that walking away from a big writing project for more than a few days is a bad idea, and will make it difficult to pick up the thread. Yeah, well: I'm discovering that for myself. Again. Today I managed to map out what I need to do next, and "wrote" a short section on what a certain mendicant has to say about merchants ("They're AWESOME!" -- yeah, that sort of surprised me), mostly by stringing together some quotes with a bit of connective tissue and analysis. And it felt good to add to the word count again. And I've looked into downloading a plugin that will allow me to read notarial files from home. (um.. yay?) But starting again after a long hiatus is hard.

This seems to be the theme now: relearning lessons about how slacking off for a day or two turns into a week, and month, and suddenly you're not writing, not blogging, not exercising, and smoking. Gah. So: today I try to pick up the thread. Let's see how this goes.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Litany of Complaint about Notarial Records

Someone tell me how to love notarial archives.

For those of you unfamiliar with this beast, these are (at least in my field) books of contracts. X acknolwedges a debt to Y, and promises to pay in Z amount of time. Q is giving R such-and-such an amount of goods of this kind to take to Far Away to sell and return with this other thing. Joe agrees to pay a dowry of this amount to Sue, and then 2 pages of legalese.

I know people out there who have written amazing books from these things. I have heard more than one say "there are treasures in there!" And I've been spending the last two and a half weeks going through them. I have to say, I'm not in love yet.

First there is the handwriting. For my late medieval era, what we have are these scribbles. They remind me of the stuff you're writing in the margins when you're grading the 18th paper of the night, and then the student comes back two days later and asks you what it says, and you literally have no idea, even though it's your own hand. Yeah, they look like that. Plus faded. And kinda destroyed by insects and moisture. One grad school professor described the records she was working with as: "like they had been written in champagne on a cocktail napkin." That's sort of how I feel about these.

I've seen better. But Ive also seen worse.

Then, there are the abbreviations. The notary is scribbling this all down in his book, and will make a fancy copy later, but right now, he's doing something for his own records, so whole words are apparently a luxury.

Also: reading contracts is not exactly exciting. I've worked in court records, and there every document has, if not drama, then conflict. Something to animate it. This? I'm just not seeing it. There are interesting patterns to be found when you stack them up, but individually, they're pretty dull.

And finally, about that pattern: it takes about a gazillion of these things to see it. And I think this is my greatest frustration. I'm going through these godawful books, and I don't know what I'm looking for because I have to look carefully at everything before I can figure out what the patterns are and truly focus in on the ones that are going to be important for me, which will allow me to speed up a bit. Eventually.

Upon rereading this, I realize that these are the same complaints that I could have written the very first time I encountered any archival documents ever, back when I was a wee slip of a grad student. This is that, times twenty. I never realized how good I had it.

So: notarial archive folks out there: teach me how to love these? Because it looks like we're gonna be together for a while.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Quiz time! What Fresh Hell Is This?

"You have to look at, like, 200 of the things. And then, suddenly, you read the 201st, and you say 'Oh! So that's what's going on!' And then you have to go back and check the first 200 again."

This quote, over lunch, from Mr. 3D, my frère d'une autre mère here in Blerg City (yes I'm back).

Archive-based historians, what kinds of records are we talking about?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dubious Investment Advice for Women**

**I am so going to get spam based on the post title alone. So comments stay open only for a week so I don't spend the rest of my life deleting posts by bots.

I love a good shoe. Truly, I do. In fact, today, I was walking -- nay, strutting -- through the library at Hogwarts, and in no small part because of the pair of boots I am wearing. They are comfortable yet stylish. They work with skirts and jeans. They are perfect, and I will cry when I inevitably wear them out and can't find another pair like them.

But today, in my social media account, one of those ads popped up. It was from a women's magazine, and it was promoting what its editors thought (or had been paid to think) were the shoes to have this season (Yes, some people buy shoes by season. We call them "wealthy people"). I clicked on it, and found what I anticipated: there was one pair that was reasonably attractive; the others seemed designed to scream out YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE ME BEFORE I AM TOTALLY UNIQUE NO NOT UGLY HOW COULD YOU THINK THAT YOU SHOULD BUY ME RIGHT NOW FOR $800 SO YOU CAN WEAR ME FOR EIGHT WEEKS BEFORE THE INEVITABLE KNOCK-OFFS HAPPEN AND EVERYBODY HAS A PAIR AND YOU HAVE TO DISOWN ME AND BURN EVERY PICTURE YOU HAVE WITH YOU WEARING ME.

For $990 this (and its mate) can be yours.

But it's not that -- the inevitable disposable fashion -- that caught my eye. That's a given, as is the eyeroll that is my standard response. It was the title of the post. Usually, it's something like "18 handbags you can't live without" or "12 smoothies that will change your life" or something equally hyperbolic. This one, however, was called "Sixteen Shoes You'll Want to Invest In This Spring."  And that title raised a few questions for me:
  • What is the projected rate of return on my shoe investment?
  • Is my shoe-investment tax-deferred?
  • Can I roll it over into an IRA?
  • What are the investment manager fees for my shoe purchase?
  • Will my employer match my contributions?
Oh, wait: by "invest", you mean "Spend the equivalent of 2.5 months' retirement contributions on a pair of shoes that will be fashionable for about the next 5 minutes because poverty in old age only happens to ugly people." Got it.

As the inimitable Twisty Faster used to say, this chaps my spinster hide. First, women are marketed beauty products with food to put on their faces to replace the food that they're not supposed to put in their faces; now, "investment" means "spend money on something whose value depreciates to zero in less time than it takes you to pay off the charge on your credit card."

What. The. HELL.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The University of All Our Besties

I just found out that a good friend of mine is going to be in Blerg City this summer. We were supposed to be there together last summer, but she had to cut her trip short for very good reasons. So: she will be there, and will need a pseudonym. And Osito, another one of my favorite folks, will also be there for a couple days. And a couple other folks just up the road.

And I thought about something that occurs to me quite frequently: as academics, we move around a lot. If we are lucky, every place we land we have some good colleagues, and at least one friend who truly "gets" us. And then we get thrown into other professional situations -- seminars, conferences, even blogospheres -- and we meet other people who get us, on a real, deep level. People who you can make up silly songs about washing underwear for, and who will sing along. People who will suggest ice cream for dinner. People (in my case) who think it's perfectly appropriate for a middle-aged spinster auntie to swear like a sailor.

BFFs. Your Tribe. Besties.

Wouldn't it be nice, then, if we could just found our own university, and pack it with our besties. Jesus, we'd never get anything done for all the giggling and eye-rolling. But it would be a whole hill of fun.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Research Notes from the Voices in My Head

You know those little notes we write to ourselves as we frantically scribble the drafts? Those little square-bracketed comments and reminders? Usually, they are something along the lines of:
  • "Didn't I read something about this a couple months ago? Check notes."
  • "Learn more about banking system to write 1 para."
Just things that you need to remind yourself of. Well lately, one of the voices in my head -- the one that is dubious every time my reach starts exceeding my scholarly grasp -- has been taking over and writing notes. It's sort of like Stephen Colbert's old "The Word" segment, where the talking points on the screen lobbed sarcastic commentary at him.  Here is yesterday's, as I typed it:
  • “Neither revolt’s perpetrator was  kind enough to leave behind a manifesto telling later historians what their riot was all about. [Inconsiderate bastards].” 
This was today's:
  • "A great deal has been written about riots without realizing that not all riots are the same, nor even remembered the same: the meaning of a riot changes. [Yeah, go ahead: pretend you’re a cultural historian. That’ll be fun.]"
Maybe I should just let that voice write my whole book. [You should: People might actually buy a copy if you did.]

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

779 how many crappy words I wrote today. On a brand new chapter.

I hate brand new stuff.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Counting Down

... to my presentation for the seminar at Hogwarts. Less than a month now. So, yeah: probably not much posting will be going on here. Hang tight; I'll be back with more adventures soon.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

That Fourth Horseman

Quick quiz! Name the four horsemen of the apocalypse! No googling!




Got it?

Okay, so it turns out that it's surprisingly contested, especially the identity of horseman #1. The original source (the Book of Revelation) has been interpreted a number of ways. But in the popular tradition, there's Pestilence (or Plague), War, Famine, and... Death.

I got to thinking about this because I'm researching one of the other horsemen. And I have to admit I've always wondered about Death-as-Horseman. Death is the only one that the original source material actually names by name. And yet it's the one that makes the least sense. I mean, isn't death implied in the other three? Is this just a case of gilding (or wilting) the lily?

Because, if not, then it sort of implies that War, Famine, and Pestilence maybe are serious, but not, you know, deadly-serious. Like maybe Famine is really more along the lines of "that feeling you get when you forgot to pack a lunch and have convinced yourself that you can make it until dinner time but now it’s 4 p.m. and you’re wondering if anyone will notice if you take something out of the employee fridge." Maybe Pestilence just turns out to be a bad rash, and you realize that you probably only need a little hydrocortisone ointment.

And then Death arrives late at the party, and is all like NO WE ARE NOT SCREWING AROUND PEOPLE.


These are the things I think about.