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.