Saturday, June 30, 2007

Oh Yeah, bombs

Oh yeah, about the bombs

What does it say about me that I heard about the first bomb as I came into the BL yesterday, and the second this morning, and basically thought, "well, that kinda sucks!"? Honestly, I'm a little disconcerted, but not as much as I am by the act that there was a mugging round the corner from LDW's last week and a fatal stabbing round the corner from my in-laws' two weeks ago. OK ... so maybe now I'll get around to making a will. But really? I'm still more worried about getting work done and keeping my job. I figure I have a better chance of being hit by a car than being hit by a bomb. Not that that's reassuring.

Pathetic, eh?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rainy London

Rainy London

Dear everybody,

Trying to work, but am very tired today and not focused, hence blogging. If you're at the BL, I am, too. I am trying to work on both an article and a book proposal. I have only a small clue about what I'm doing. OK, maybe more than that. But anyway, I will be trying to stay away from the blogosphere while here, so I can make the best use of my time!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

On the road and copyright infringement

On the road and copyright infringement

So, I'm in rainy London. Had a good day in the BL yesterday with LDW. Still trying to adjust to the time, etc.

In other news, I hope to hell that Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie sue the shit out of the Westboro Baptist Church for this little piece of perverted and twisted copyright infringement. I'm pretty much agnostic these days, but I wasn't always. As a person and as a medievalist, this kind of sick twisting of Christianity offends me deeply. I've actually read the Bible. Both Testaments. I always got the impression that Jesus was talking about a God who loves the world.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Back soon

Back soon

Sorry for the not blogging. I'm at an undisclosed location, having taken on an undisclosed extra week's work, and I think I'm like sworn to secrecy about it or something. More soon.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Required classes

Required Classes

In the comments to this post, New Kid and sqadratomagico disagreed with me on whether or not history should be a required subject. I really think that it's important enough to require -- not so much for content as for teaching people how we do history. I've argued before that history is not necessarily -- should not necessarily -- have to be relevant to our students. I think that's very true in terms making connections between, say, what the Romans did and what we do. More importantly, I think that kind of emphasis and (mis)use of historical learning lead us to the kind of thing Matt Gabriele talks about here.
So how do we teach history and not fall prey to teaching false analogies in order to make it 'relevant'? I think -- and this is just a suggestion -- that it is not so much the content that we should make relevant.

Let me 'splain -- No. It is too much. Let me sum up.* I think the information we teach in inherently relevant and interesting. But it's relevant because of the questions we ask. This is at the root of why I think history should be required, and taught in ways that try to inculcate in our students the fundamental processes of inquiry, reason, and explanation that allow students to then look at history by themselves. It's relevant because the questions that we ask and try to answer about the past are the same kinds of questions that we should be asking about the world around us. If we go a step further, we can help students to understand why, for example, neither Vietnam nor The Crusades are good comparisons for the current situation in Iraq or for the cultural conflict between Islam and the industrialized West. If we do our jobs well, I think our students should come out of our classes with the confidence to say, "Yes, I can understand that you think the Iraq War and the Vietnam War look something alike on the surface, but what about X? Y? Z? If we look at those things, we can see that they are not really that much alike. But the answers to X, Y, and Z help us to figure out what really is going on." Or something like that. To really sum up, I think that it's the way historians are taught to interrogate their sources and ask and answer questions that are the most relevant and most transferable skills we have to offer. The content is always there, and I think that we humans always want to make analogies. That need is what drives many people critique and understand the present through the past. And yeah, I think that, if more people had some decent training in history, people might be a little less complacent. It's that tension between the desire to find explanations through analogy and the discipline of picking apart those analogies for a better understanding that lies at the heart of what we do. If we teach that part better, I think we'll be doing a better job and creating a greater appreciation for history. The hard part is that really, what I'm calling history isn't what most of my students think history is. Still, the best comments on my evals come from people who praise the emphasis on primary sources. Go figure.

OTOH ... I was thinking last night that, when I taught at several campuses where history was not required, I had better students. My life was much happier when I had students who actually cared about doing well in my subject, rather than just passing a required class. These days, I have rockin' FTEs, but I also have a ton of students (depressingly, many of them are education majors) who take my classes because they have to, and see themselves as clocking time towards a piece of paper. Alas, my post on student attitudes must wait.

*Apologies to The Princess Bride and Inigo Montoya.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

More on Language

More on Language

Ancarett is riffing off the post below, and it reminded me about a concomitant problem with the whole language requirement thing. FTEs and Gen.Ed./Core requirements. I think that the problem may be worse at smaller campuses where smaller also = financially strapped. For any given requirement of a course or courses in one department, another department whose courses are not required will feel hard done by. Sometimes the argument will be phrased as "but this is important in terms of a well-rounded education." And sometimes, that's true. Language certainly fits in there. But there is often pressure from above ("too many requirements mean students have too few choices, and they will leave us and go elsewhere") and from within the faculty ("why do you think your field is more important than mine"). The former argument is dodgy. The latter, just stupid. Some fields are more necessary to a Liberal Arts education than others. Because, well, there are these things we call Liberal Arts. Seven of them, as it happens. History's one of them. The social sciences? not. So I'm all for arguing that History should be required, but that non-majors should be able to satisfy a general social science requirement with Econ, Sociology, Anthro, Psych, PoliSci ... But I also do understand that people's egos are at stake.

In more practical terms, though, I think a lot of it is about funding. The pie is only so big, and smaller departments don't want their budgets diminished at the expense of something as lame as foreign languages. I've seen this happen at a couple of places. The people who side with languages? History (usually, as long as History is already required), some kinds of Lit people, International Relations, and some of the Health Care professions. One guy from the Business School (it's always a guy ... talk about gender imbalance). A cultural Anthropologist, if there is one. For the rest of the faculty, not so much support. Note: this is not true for faculty who went to really good SLACs or universities and had to learn languages themselves. They usually appreciate the value.

But as long as funding is based on enrollments, there will be problems getting meaningful language requirements.

On Language requirements

On Language Requirements

One of the things that many of us mediævalists have in common is that we're snobbish about languages. Ok, so we can't be quite as snobby as the Classicists, because, well, Greek. And some of the Late Antiquity types do Persian or some other Near Eastern language. Since I kind of hang out with those folks, though, I think I'll lump them in for the purposes of this little blog post. So for the sake of argument, let's just say that those of us whose fields of study span the era before about 1500 tend to be language snobs.

This was true in my grad program. I remember group pity extended towards the person whose Latin and French were good enough to pass the requirements, but just not good enough that s/he could work in anything other than English History, and only where OE and ME were not required. A 'lesser' degree seemed in order. Some of you may have noticed that this is gate-keeping again. Yeah, it is. Ancarett made a comment to yesterday's post that made me want to write this. That, and I'm panicking about my travels, due to start next week.

For us mediæval and earlier types, language is the test at the gate. After climbing that nasty mountainous road to a graduate program, you will meet the bridge gatekeeper, and he will say something along the lines of...

Gatekeeper: "Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see"
The intrepid grad student will answer: "Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid."
G:"What... is your name? "
G: "How is your Latin?"
IGS: "I will pass the exams, I promise"
G: "do you know or can you acquire a reading knowledge of French, German, and anything else demanded in the next year?"
G: "Right, yer in."

But then that year is up, and the conversation goes like this:
Gatekeeper: "Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see"
The intrepid grad student will answer: "Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid."
Gatekeeper: "Did you pass your Latin exam?"
IGS: "Yes"
G:"Lisez-vous français?"
IGS: "Oui?"
G: "Sprechen Sie, Bzw. Lesen Sie Deutsch? Wenn Sie etwas auf Deutsch lesen, wissen Sie unbedingt, dass Ihre Übersetzung korrekt ist?"
IGS: "er ... ja ...peut-etre?"

At this point, the student is not doomed to be cast into the chasm.* There are lots of languages we use. Perhaps the questions should have been posed in Italian or Old Norse (in which case, the student will really need that German, too). My point is that we are expected to have Latin and at least two modern European languages between when we walk in the door (say, for example, at Toronto) and when we get to the writing stage. Presumably our colleagues in the UK and Ireland have the languages when they start, because they don't have coursework. At my grad school, Europeanists needed to pass two language exams, Americanists one (and they could substitute SPSS if it was more relevant). Medievalists needed three plus any other languages needed -- and we didn't get a choice in the first one. Latin.

But languages we must have. They are not always easy to learn. We must also learn other odd and peculiar skills, like paleography, the reading of archæological reports, Orts- or Personennamenkunde, and a working knowledge of a huge number of general primary sources. That may be another difference, come to think of it. I think that the canonical writings in our fields tend to include far more primary sources than secondary sources. But that's another post. Now, we may not have to read all of these languages or acquire all these skills equally well. New Kid, for example, can probably kick my butt at reading unedited legal documents, because almost everything I use has been edited. It's in Latin, and much of it isn't translated, but it's edited. I don't need to read some scribe's handwriting -- although with Carolingian miniscule, at least that's not the most difficult thing in the world! On the other hand, she'll never have to try to trace family relationships through the leading names and name elements! The medievalist's tools are diverse and hard to acquire. I can tell from some of the comments I've seen here and elsewhere that some people think we are using those tools to keep people out. To a certain extent, I guess that's true. But would you hire a carpenter who couldn't use a hammer and saw?

Without the tools of our trade, languages being the most important and basic of those tools, a mediævalist (or Classicist, or Late Antiquarian)** cannot join in the scholarly conversation. I've just glanced over to my collection of library books. For the first time I can remember, the majority of books are in English. That's because I just took back six books in German and because I'm working on a project on women and property, and there is a lot of scholarship in English to weed through, even though it may have very little to do with what was happening in the Lahngau and Grabfeld and Mainzgau in the 9th and 10th centuries. There's one book in French, Sauver son Âme et se Perpétuer. I'm not really looking forward to it because, well, it's in French, which is my fourth-best language. But I need to look at it, because it's part of the conversation. If I ignore what's out there, then my own work will be incomplete and honestly, pretty shoddy -- or at least it won't be able to stand up to close scrutiny.

I'm lucky, in that I have a really good feel for languages. I have to work at them, but I can generally pick up the basics pretty quickly. I also lucked out because my grandfather made me read and speak Spanish as a child (not that I'm all that fluent 40 years later), my counselors made me take two years of French in middle school, and I foundered through two years of high school Latin before I picked it up again my last two years of undergrad, where I took three years of Latin courses and a quarter of Greek in two years. Somewhere in there I took a year of German. Among my friends and colleagues, it's pretty much only the Classics undergrads who have comparable language exposure. Meaningful language requirements at any level seem to have fallen by the wayside in most Anglo-American educational systems (except for the politically-motivated French requirements in parts of Canada). I do know from friends in the UK and Ireland that they often deal with the same issues of under-trained students who wish to pursue postgrad degrees.

I think one of the results of this will be that time to finishing will continue to creep up for people who go into grad programs in Mediæval History -- or those students accepted and/or granted fellowships will be those who already have languages. My guess is that the students who have language skills will be from the high-powered unis or selective Liberal Arts Colleges. I don't like to think what that might mean for demographics. I also don't like to think that our requirements will make others think that we occupy some rarified position -- at least, no more rarified than the people who split atoms or do any number of very specialized things. This doesn't seem to be as much a problem for our Asianist and Islamist colleagues, because, well, what they do is relevant. Somehow, and I realize that none of these thoughts are as well-formed as I'd like, but it was either blog now, or blog much, much later and blog something closer to perfection, I think that that is the problem. When we don't see language as being particularly relevant to our daily lives, we don't see that the fields that require languages are relevant unless they directly connect to politics or economic forces.

Whatever the results, I think that we need to conceive of language requirements (or paleography requirements, etc.) differently. We are used to the gate-keeping/maintaining standards model. What if, instead, we were to see these -- and describe these to others -- not as requirements absent the connection to our work that we know is implicit and absolute, but rather as tools and skills. We cannot do our jobs properly until and unless we acquire them, in the same way that cabinetmaker needs to know the different properties of different types of wood and the kinds of tools (and how to used the tools) to use in their appropriate circumstances.

In terms of those of us who have got through the training and are either on the market or employed, I think there is another battle -- and perhaps another post. I don't know about the rest of you, but my teaching load is detrimental to my getting a lot of scholarly work done during the academic year. This means that I have to come up with strategies (not too many good ones, as it happens) for keeping up my languages. It takes me up to a week of hard work to get to where I feel comfortable in my reading skills again. Mostly, I find myself grabbing dictionaries and actually writing out translations that differ from what I read only in completeness. But the tools seem to rust. Next post -- dealing with rusty tools.

*Apologies to Monty Python
** And yes, I know that we have colleagues in Asian and Islamic (and Eastern European) history who have to learn many of the same types of things to do their work. Although they are in some ways as marginalized as we are, I think that time plays a role here, too. If you are a modern historian, I think that people understand more easily because of the relevance issue I mentioned above.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On Gatekeeping

On Gate-keeping

In the comments to this post, Anastasia pointed out that I was probably engaging in a kind of gate-keeping. I think I was. I've been pondering my own ideas for when I think gate-keeping is good, and when it's bad. Faculty engage in gate-keeping all the time. Grades are a form of gatekeeping. So are hiring committees and T&P committees. Of these, grades are the ones that arguably have the least wiggle room; faculty should be grading almost entirely on the merits of the work and whether it meets the criteria of the assignment. Search committees can be more nebulous -- there's a lot of legitimate room for 'fit', but then there are also discussions of whether candidate A or B is more likely to be a productive scholar ... all kinds of things. T&P committees, so I've heard, can be all over the place. Friends at campuses trying to reinvent themselves often tell me that T&P committees often seem to take great joy in expecting new faculty to meet requirements that far exceed what already-tenured faculty had to meet for their own T&P. Me? I think that it's really important to have standards, but that they have to be applied fairly. If these things are done fairly and transparently, then I think it's not really gate-keeping in the negative sense -- it's trying to maintain standards.

It's when gate-keeping is applied unfairly that I tend to worry. In almost every workplace -- or part of life, for that matter -- we run into people who want to make and enforce rules because they can. The ability to prevent people from doing things -- in fact, to complicate their lives and jobs -- is an expression of their personal worth and power. That's true for the people with some authority as well as the Jobsworths. What surprises me is that often, these are people in support positions. When I worked in support, I got my ego boos by helping people and out of being able to say that I was just doing my job after helping untangle a hopeless crisis. There are definitely people like that out there -- the guy who stayed on the phone with me for two hours after Adelphia accidentally disconnected my internet service (and initially claimed it would take three days to bring back up), talking to managers and getting things fixed was an absolute star.

I've run out of ideas for a snappy conclusion. What are your ideas on gate-keeping? When is it legitimate? When is it just obstructionist?

Friday, June 01, 2007

More Confusion

More confusion -- EndNote version

Can somebody explain to me why one would use Endnote and what might be a better program for what I need? I would like to be able to take all my notes as I'm reading and keep them in my computer. Right now, I use Word and just type in Keyword terms at the end of each note. I've tried Scribe and it's incredibly complicated, even though it seems to duplicate the notecard type of functionality I want. It would be very nice to be able to type in my notes, have them all linked to one bibliographic database, and be able to search for them and put them into my work as I'm writing. Is there such a thing?

RBO Confusion

RBO Confusion

Things that confuse me today:
  • Why textbook companies don't just buy into the used textbook business.
  • Why my campus bookstore refuses to buy back books just because there's a new edition out -- even thought the old edition is still available and I've ordered it.
  • Why there aren't solar panels on a/c units. Seems to me that the times one is most likely to use a/c are also the times when those solar panels would work best.
  • Why, if we're trying to conserve energy without hurting the economy, we don't require greener building practices. Unless 'hurting the economy' is some kind of code for, 'people will have to spend more on things and so they'll buy less crap they don't need and then the people who make and sell the crap will be out of work.' Except wouldn't more people be needed to make and sell the things that go into green building? and if we gave incentives to people and companies for green remodeling, then wouldn't that employ people, too?