Monday, August 30, 2004

The F Word

Talkin' 'bout something Medieval -- the 'F' Word or, Splitter vs. Lumper

A few days ago (seems like yesterday), Kieran Healy used the dreaded 'F' word. He used it twice -- at Crooked Timber and at his own site. I generally like Kieran's stuff, but dammit, how many times do medievalists have to go through this? Feudalism. The 'F' word. Not actually a term used during the Middle Ages, but a description made up in, IIRC, the 18th c. Since then, defined and redefined as we know more and more about medieval society.

It isn't what most people think it is. Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace proved that. Hell, even historians debate it. But still, sociologists and economists continue to use the term in an increasingly anachronistic (in the sense that so much work has been done on the topic since those fields took up the then-current working definition) sense. What I dread is that I will get these students (well, not exactly Kieran's students, although I now have a colleague who teaches with Kieran who probably will), and will have to fight tooth and nail to explain to them that the 'F' word isn't what they've learned, and instead is many things and nothing in particular. I'll have to explain the nuances of historiographic debate, and then go into much longer and more complex examples from England, West Francia, East Francia, France, and Germany (not to mention various Spanish kingdoms and Portugal), over a very long period, to demonstrate that what they think of as Feudalism never actually existed in the way it's been explained. It will take up a lot of time from my survey classes. It annoys me. It's why I have a deal with one of my colleagues in Economics. Bob never defines the 'F' word and I don't mess around with the 'C' word -- Capitalism.

Kieran will be speaking about both:
These are the people I have to interest in the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.
Why, specifically, am I concerned about this? Because, as I commented at CT,
... there is no such thing as a transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, since the former is a very loose term that covers a set of political and social relationships, while the other is all to do with economics. Perhaps you mean manorialism? [ ... ] there’s a reason lots of medievalists (the people who kinda know a little something about it) call it “the ‘F’ word.” I don’t think Brown is completely right about it (Brown, Elizabeth A.R. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” AHR 79 (1974), pp. 1063-1088), but I also would argue that most of us don’t completely buy Bloch’s interpretation, or at least might say that he’s often misinterpreted in terms of what the actual feudal relationship is.

I would also suggest that people read both Ganshof and Reynolds to get an even more complete picture. Those are just some of the basics -- and I'm not even going back as far as Maitland.

Why, you might ask, does this matter so much to Another Damned Medievalist? It's just a word, after all. And in some ways, I agree. Except ...

I really think that the misuse of and misconceptions attached to this word have done more to present a false picture of the Middle Ages than perhaps any other single concept. For many people, it forms the foundations for a wonderfully romantic (in the small 'R' sense) picture, beloved by the SCA, RPG-ers, etc. It ties into the idea of the entire Middle Ages as "Dark Ages," even though the period once so described never included the later M.A. It supports a mythos that includes a set of Us vs. Them, West vs. East, Christian vs. Islam social, political, and economic dichotomies that provide fodder for explanations and justifications for the furtherance of those antagonistic relationships up to and including the present. This saddens me, because the truth is so much richer than the fiction. Understanding that richness, and the complexities of the interactions between peoples and cultures in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages forces us to reinterpret a lot of what we see in the news. It makes us look again at Spain's patron saint, Santiago Matamoros (talk about anachronism) and Italy's recent attempt to 'recognise a "historical truth" and refer explicitly to the "Christian roots of Europe" in its new constitution' from a new perspective -- just how true are those "historical truths"?

It's only a few steps from such misinterpretations to the deliberate kinds of historical revisionism condemned by James McPherson in the September, 2003 issue of Perspectives, a journal published by the the American Historical Association. McPherson was goaded into speaking out against the misuse of the term "revisionist historians" by the Bush administration. One of the examples McPherson gave was the administration's arguments for the invasion of Iraq:

The administration's pejorative usage of "revisionist history" to denigrate critics by imputing to them a falsification of history is scarcely surprising. But it is especially ironic, considering that the president and his principal advisers have themselves been practitioners par excellence of this kind of revisionism. Iraq offers many examples. To justify an unprovoked invasion of that country, the president repeatedly exaggerated or distorted ambiguous intelligence reports to portray Iraqi possession of or programs to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear "weapons of mass destruction" that posed an imminent threat to the United States. In his State of the Union message on January 28, President Bush made clear his acceptance of a British intelligence report that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" to develop nuclear weapons. This assertion was "revisionist history" with a vengeance; the U. S. government knew at the time it was received that the intelligence was unreliable and learned soon afterwards that it was based on forged documents. Yet not until July did the administration concede its gaffe—and then tried to blame the CIA. That agency took the fall, but with respect to another administration justification for the war—Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to Al Qaeda—the CIA refused to provide any aid and comfort. An official in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research offered (in the New York Times of July 12, 2003) a pointed description of the kind of revisionist history practiced by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al: "This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude: 'We know the answers, give us the intelligence to support those answers.'"

I hate to put forth a "thin end of the wedge" argument, but this much is true, at least in the U.S.: as a discipline in K-12, History is given far less attention than it was 20 or so years ago. It is seldom taught by people with discipline degrees, and frequently by people who have taken as few as two undergraduate courses in the subject. It is taught much as a collection of names and dates to remember, and the critical thinking and analytical skills absolutely necessary to thinking as an historian never make an appearance. It it therefore arguably easier to convince the public that a particular interpretation of history is correct, because frankly, a large number of the public hated History in school because it was badly taught and, if they remember anything, it is either a few unconected events or their particular teacher's interpretation. They are comfortable with the lumpers, and see the splitters as troublemakers.

[ADM finds that the argument has taken on a life of its own in a place entirely unexpected and thinks, "what the hell ..." but goes with it]

Bush is a lumper of sorts. He relies on people not to be splitters. I will not comply. It is our responsibility as teachers to make sure our students know when to lump and when to split. The debate on the 'F' word is a teaching opportunity. Use it wisely ;-)

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Anyone surprised?

Anyone Surprised?

Lord of the rings
J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Rings. You are
entertaining and imaginative, creating whole
new worlds around yourself. Well loved, you
have a whole league of imitators, none of which
is quite as profound as you are. Stories and
songs give a spark of joy in the middle of your
eternal battle with the forces of evil.

Which literature classic are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

I was. I don't think I've really got many imitators, although I have what the spouse calls my acolytes. The first set are getting ready to start their transfer year at Big State U this quarter -- I'm incredibly worried that I haven't prepared them well enough. What if I've let them down??? The rest is kinda true, I think -- especially the song thing. Oh, and the fighting evil. My heroes have always been fighters of evil -- although not necessarily evildoers.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Shoot the Whole Day Down

Shoot the Whole Day Down

Didja know that Rhapsody has no Boomtown Rats? Not that I'd normally mind too much, but there are times I'd like to start my day with "I don't like Mondays," and the Tori Amos version isn't quite the same (although Tori Amos kicks ass). Here's why I don't like Mondays:

The Quarter Approaches

I'm behind as usual. The spouse still can't understand what I do with my day -- although when the spouse asks, it's not, how's the book review going? or how's the new class coming? but rather, when are you going to re-finish the deck? I admit I am the world's worst procrastinator (although my student with the incomplete is pushing that -- two weeks overdue, they're shutting down the Blackboard site on Wednesday, and she's now dumping all this grading on me just as my crunch is is hitting crisis level. Still, I know that, if I'd got my act together a bit earlier, this would not be a problem. On the other hand, this is my first year as a full-time, no running from job to job, academic, with a summer where I can justify not working as a waitress or something. How can I learn how to do this right, if I have to fight the, "but you have the Summer off!" battle?

Proud Extremely Embarrassed to be a Murcan

Paul Hamm is an embarrassment. Paul Hamm is a big, fat (well, really, little and muscular) LOSER. Really. Paul, you little whiner, you DIDN'T win Gold. You weren't good enough on the day and it sucks, but get over it. Dude, aren't you ashamed of yourself? Look at this!
“I shouldn’t even be dealing with this,” Hamm said Sunday after failing to win medals in event finals for pommel horse and floor exercise.

or even, much worse in my opinion,
Hamm simply wants the dispute to be over. He doesn’t feel his gold medal has been marred.

“I personally feel I was the Olympic champion that night,” he said. “If you’re going to open the door to changing the rules, you’re going to open the door to doing everything. That’s why we have those rules in place.”

Paul, you won on a math error. You weren't really the Olympic champion. But here's the deal -- you got to feel that you were for a while. You got to feel that you were really lucky, too, because ... um ... remember the vault? It should have taken you out. It didn't. But you didn't give a championship performance, and you must know it. No one had a clean night.

So please, Paul, be a man. Be a mensch. Be a sportsman. I'm not the only one who thinks you should give up the gold with grace and dignity (although it's a bit late for that, isn't it, you twit). Mike Celizic thinks so, too, although Not for the same reasons:
He [Hamm] may already have missed his chance to show the world that Americans still believe in sportsmanship and to generate the kind of goodwill that this country will never recover, no matter how many times the White House issues statements about how much better off Iraq is now than it was before we brought peace, harmony, democracy and full employment there.

That's a bit hyperbolic -- clearly it's wrong to even imply that Hamm has the ability to make a difference that could right the wrongs wrought by the latest war against Iraq. He's unfortunately right in that Hamm's actions will probably play badly in Korea after the Apollo Ohno fiasco, but that shouldn't be a concern for Hamm. He shouldn't give up his medal for international relations. He shouldn't give them up to make the US look less arrogant, either -- although he should know he's an embarrassment to a lot of us already, and will only begin to retrieve his reputation by giving back the medal.

But dammit, he should give it up because ... well ... it's the right thing to do. It saddens me that this is even a question for him. It's not like the Koreans are asking for a change because the cameras caught something that the judges didn't. I can see how winning a protest on those grounds would rock the sports world.* But that's not the case here. The judges goofed on the math and Paul Hamm should act like a man, not a baby. 'Cause as much as I believe that we shouldn't force our athletes to be international relations experts, they do represent the country. Our tax money (I believe) helps to give them prizes for winning. They have an obligation to make us proud, not to win.

*Just think what might have happened in the 1998 World Cup, had the referees had access to Simeone's attack on Becks, or in 86, when England went down to the Hand of God. And look at what happened to Beckham when England came home. He was in the right, but still not the hero. Just to remind you, Paul Hamm is in the wrong.

I love Ali G -- Spoilers coming up

So last night, we were watching Da Ali G Show. For those of you unacquainted with the show, it's a piss-take on everything. The hugely funny Sascha Baron Cohen, in the guise of characters Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, interactswith and interviews real people. Ali G is the best, because Cohen clearly does some research so that he can deliberately misunderstand his hapless interviewees -- people like James Lipton, John Gray, Naomi Wolf, and last night's Andy Rooney.
The funniest moment last night was when the Bruno character -- the best gay Eurotrash character I've ever seen -- went to Daytona Beach for Spring Break and got these college wrestlers to "teach him to wrestle", scream at the cameras, and show off their nether cheeks, only to find out they were being filmed for "Austrian Gay TV." The saddest was when Ali went in to talk to Andy Rooney. Rooney came off as a cranky old man who thinks far too highly of himself. He started in on Ali for slaughtering the English language, and then, when he could have taken the piss right back, he got up and terminated the interview. Another crybaby. The sad thing was that Ali G gave Rooney the opening to say something both true and useful. He asked Rooney if it wouldn't make more sense to write the news in advance, so that people could avoid all the terrible things that happened. Rooney got all pissy, and then, when Ali G asked if it had ever happened before, had the newspapers ever got it wrong by writing something in advance -- perhaps over an election? -- Rooney, the experienced commentator, chose to have a hissy instead of taking the "Dewey Defeats Truman" option. Pathetic little man. Da Ali G Show is in the worst possible taste (although I still think it ranks behind South Park), but I think some of the satire is brilliant. It's a good note on which to end the week.

Lordy -- is that the time? I have an online class to prep!

Friday, August 20, 2004

Explanation, please?

Explanation, Please?

Haven't had a chance to check on the blogosphere today, and have much in the way of else to do. But I just saw this and am both pissed off and confused. Pissed off, because it seems a really lame reason to deny a person communion. Confused, because presumably the communion wafers are transubstantiated anyway -- so why does it matter what they started out as?? I mean, really. If we are to believe that the miracle of transubstantiation exists at all, why wouldn't it? It's not a spell where a practitioner of magic has to have the right ingredients or it all goes pear-shaped -- it's not supposed to be magic at all, is it? It's supposed to be bloody miraculous. I thought there was a difference, but apparently there's a limit on what miracles can be performed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

My favorite season

My favorite season

At the moment, it's now. Forget that spring thing (although I really love it by the end of winter) -- now is the good season. Football season is here!. Ok, I admit that last link was to Chris Bertram's invite to play BBC Fantasy Football, but that's part of the fun. Even more fun is this! Hee hee hee! To be fair, though, I think the frequently dodgy Mike Riley should have given Everton a penalty -- Cygan committed a blatent foul in the box, and it's a miracle neither the linesman nor the ref saw it.

The other great thing about this time of year is that I start gearing up for school in a big way. It's like there's a switch, somewhere between excitement and panic, that gets thrown when the kids in the neighborhood start talking about going back. It means I have about six weeks to take care of far too much stuff, but I love it. Apropos of that, I've turned in my submission to the Chronicle for consideration to be one of the job-hunt First Person people. I'd love it if anybody can think of a pseudonym for me to use -- ADM is almost as specific as my real name, in terms of the job market!

Also, I just read this really good article by Jonathan Dresner of Cliopatra on grade inflation and the need for faculty to take ownership of assessment before assessment takes ownership of us.

For now, I have to read a student paper (finishing up an incomplete -- interesting, since I'm still a contingent person and not actually employed until the quarter starts (and even then, I haven't yet received my letter of intent) and clean up my office.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Another fine mess

Another Fine Mess

New rules for the rest of the summer:
  • Don't forget Bill Maher is back
  • Stop taking on projects like, uh ...everything! (see below)
  • Put a time limit on time spent in the blogosphere (note: this requires that Rana, Steve Krause, profgrrl, and ProfB (among others) stop the pseudonym discussion)
  • get the old stuff done before the new stuff (see above!)

Dumbass projects and why I'm doing them:
  1. Refinishing the floors. All of them. Dog destroys carpet on landing, ADM rips up carpet to find hardwood beneath. ADM takes carpet off stairs. ADM and spouse decide to refinish all floors where hardwood is under pet-stained carpet. ADM and spouse fortunately return to partial sanity and decide to call in pros for actual refinishing, but are now committed to pulling up carpet, nails staples, padding, kenneling pets and staying in a hotel for a couple of days.
  2. Finishing fence. Actually spouse's job,. but must help with trenching and gravelling below fence line. Oh, and staining.
  3. making spouse a gift before next Monday's birthday -- which means buying unfinished gift and painting it creatively.
  4. making handmade invitation's for spouse's birthday party.
  5. giving shower for colleague -- meaning much weeding and cleaning in next few days.
  6. working on late review so I can write review I just agreed to do -- plus the usual "getting ready for the school year and market" stuff.
  7. Writing something to send to the Chronicle in the next two days.

Jane, stop this crazy thing!

Oh well -- I think it's taught me one thing about academic summers. If I'm not teaching Summer Quarter, I should just devote the first six weeks of summer to household projects. That way, I'll be so happy to get back to academic stuff that I'll be able to focus on it. Now, off to the shops and the garden.

Monday, August 09, 2004



Messing with Code

Whew -- I think I finally got the stupid comment thing figured out. Ugh.

Who'd have believed it?

I agree with
Condi Rice on something! According to the New York Times, she says:
the United States and its allies "cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon"

but then ...
warned that President Bush would "look at all the tools that are available to him" to stop Iran's program.

Ummmm ... no. We've seen what happens when Bush looks at his tools. You know what, George and Condi? It's like, not your job. Or it is, but not just yours. Here's a thought -- maybe it should be a multilateral decision. In my book, Iran + Nukes = bad news. But then, in my book, almost anybody + nukes = bad news.

Yes, there could be problems with that since, like Iraq, Iran has trading partners less willing to put pressure on them. But maybe, just maybe, my tax dollars would be better spent on getting rid of actual terrorists preparing to attack actual people, and we let the IAEA do their jobs. Call me a flip-flopping pessimist, but I'm more worried about hard-to-track cells with portable weapons or flight training than I am long-range nukes. Of course, we might have to crack down on our own trading partners who harbor terrorists and/or practice terrorism themselves.

What would Condi and George suggest, I wonder, if the Saudis acquired significant nuclear capability and aimed their weapons at Israel?

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Changing comments

Changing Comments

Well, Squawk Box flaked on me again, and blogger now offers its own comments, so I've switched over. If you left comments on the previous post, I hope you'll re-post them. Meanwhile, I'll try to figure out how to retrieve the stuff that was already on the comments pages. Pardon our progress, as they say in retail remodeling. Why they say that beats me.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Good (Academic) Wife

The Good (Academic) Wife

The pseudonymous Julia Goode offers an interesting column in the Chronicle this week discusses academic summer schedules. As with many of the Chronicle's offerings, it has its downside. (Note to self: try not to do what you are about to criticise when submitting the audition "First Person" column ... ) The author seems to imply that her problem is one more limited to legal scholars than to all of us, especially those whose families don't have a tradition of academic employment.

So I try to explain that even though I'm not teaching, I am still "working" and that I need to do research and write an article during the summer. That obligation never sounds substantive enough for a nonacademic to understand that I might not be available for weekly park outings on Thursday mornings.

Other moms seem surprised and dismayed to learn that even though I'm not teaching this summer, my children are signed up for camp five days a week. So I fill my answers with more disclaimers about how my schedule is very flexible and how we're always available for an afternoon here or there. Then I rob Monday night to pay for Monday's trip to the zoo with a playmate and her mom. Or more accurately, I rob January, nearly killing myself trying to finish my article for submission March 1, to pay for the June that I will spend with my kids in the park.

Lady, you're not alone. Really. It's not just a mom thing, either. Granted, this particular professor is perhaps feeling the pressure more than many of us do, since she has a couple of small children and a tenure-track job wherer she is expected to produce a substantial article a year. My hunch is, though, that most academics, especially those whose partners are not academics, have to cope with the same problems. It's true even during the academic year, I think. There seems to be a perception that we only work when we are teaching classes, and maybe grading papers. In my house, it was only after my spouse found out that lots of my colleagues work 10-12 hours a day (I can think of one who puts in more, but he's head of the Faculty Senate Council and Professional Development Coordinator) that he stopped thinking that I was just hopeless at time management. I'm not good at it, but teaching at least one new prep a quarter in writing-intensive classes takes a bit of time to do even reasonably well.

For those of us who have been employed as contingent faculty, I think that it actually gets a bit stickier. For those who find summer jobs (something I thought would go away after I finished college), there is little necessity to justify to others how the summer is spent. For those who are fortunate enough to have the financial wherewithal to "take the summer off," though, it often comes at the same price that the author of the Chronicle piece pays. At our house, for example, summer is a time for projects. Gardens must be tended, yards weeded, decks cleaned and re-finished, interiors painted, and there's a general expectation that the house will be cleaner than it is "when I'm working." The problem is, of course that all of these things take time away from catching up on reading, writing new lectures, prepping new classes, and getting book reviews and articles researched and written. And, of course, landing a tenure-track job is less likely unless those things get done!

All that whingeing aside, I do sometimes wonder how much of this we bring upon ourselves and how much it might have to do with the expectations society still holds of women. Goode says:
Admittedly, summer outings and my pathological need for social acceptance among peer mothers aren't the only suspects in the case of my missing time. Because my husband has clients and other lawyers demanding his attention at specific times and intervals, most interruptions in the schedule fall on me. Whenever our children are too sick to go to school, whenever they have dentist appointments or whenever the heater breaks, I'm the person who stays home to handle the unexpected. Carpet cleaning, furniture delivery, car maintenance, school holidays -- those 8 a.m to 5 p.m. intrusions fall to me.

Individually, the division of labor makes sense. If someone has to take the dog to the vet, my husband's absence will be noticed at his law firm. My absence will not make the piles of unread law-review articles even raise an eyebrow. But in the aggregate, the individual diversions can take a huge bite out of my course prep and research time.

What she says makes sense, but does that have to do more with having a flexible schedule or with her work being perceived as less important? Or indeed, with her own perception of her work as being less important in the grander scheme of her family life? I don't mean that I think Goode is not entirely dedicated to her career -- far from it. I do wonder, though, if women are more likely to make those flexibility compromises than are men. One of the things I like about being a full-time (if contingent) faculty person is that I have an office, and I'm expected to be on campus and available for most of the week. I commute an hour each way to get there -- so I can't just run home to wait for a repairman and go back to the office. I can justify a certain lack of flexibility and get more work done. Before, either when working or in grad school, I'd always been the person who took care of such things, as well as the vet, school appointments and kid things when there was a kid at home. And like Goode says, it makes sense. Sort of.

Why sort of? Because I think part of the problem is that when we are willing to be that flexible, we run the risk of robbing Peter, but paying Paul with exorbitant late fees. Scholarship is actual work. It may not be as tangible as other work, but the more I think about that, I wonder how tangible any white collar work is. Does a programmer have to justify his time at work by saying, "I wrote x number of lines of code today?" When we treat is as something that can be shifted around and put off, we run the risk of devaluing it in our own eyes and thus in the eyes of others. Looking at my male colleagues, I don't see that happening nearly as much. There seems to be much more of an innate sense that whatever they do, their time is worth something. Not worth more, mind you, but of value.

For those who are reading this, thinking that I've not proven the male-female point well at all, I agree. It's just something I'm wondering about. It could also be something to do with how non-academic society sees academics -- or maybe how that translates for people from non-academic backgrounds make a transition to a life of teaching and scholarship. With nothing to compare to, and with no one in the immediate family to understand that in many ways, academe really is another world (although no more so than medicine, law, internet start-ups or restaurants) with different expectations, it's easy to understand a willingness to allow one's work to be undervalued. I knew a couple of guys who dropped out of grad school because of that. So, it could be neither, or both, or some of each ... what do you think?