Monday, December 28, 2009

The second time is no easier

The Second Time is No Easier

I start teaching a prep for the second time next term, i.e., in TWO WEEKS(!!!!!), and I have no effing idea what I'm doing. This is in part due to where I teach, in part due to the outcomes I've been driving for my department, which are more skills- than content-based, and in part from the resulting attempts to try to balance content and skills when I am the only damned medievalist in the department, and I am not sure what content is all that important anymore. No, seriously. This is the problem with not being able to teach one's own field very often. I seem to have lost a survey-level grasp of it and what my colleagues would consider important. (Hmmm... I have just realized I can search for syllabi online, and have done so, and haven't found a lot, but thank goodness for Jacqui Long and for Steve Muhlberger, who put up lots of sources at ORB). It doesn't help that I'm using the Innes textbook (which I like in many ways) and the newest James, so I'm sort of heading into uncharted territory. On the other hand, this means that I'm sort of caught up in the question of letting the texts dictate the shape of the course, or the ideas of what I want to teach dictate the ways I assign reading.

In my ideal world, I would have a list of topics, and then assign the readings as appropriate (and yes, I'm using primary sources -- the Rosenwein reader, possibly Tacitus, Beowulf (the dread Heaney translation, because it's in a Norton edition with good essays), Two Lives of Charlemagne, and probably some selections from the Tierney and Geary readers, as well as some stuff from the Fordham site. But my students do not have the narrative. We teach World Civ here, so there isn't a lot of time for Rome and the MA. Moreover, my students are not particularly likely to go find simple narratives for themselves, and they are also very likely to need to rely on the textbook for a narrative crutch. So somehow, I have to figure out how to balance narrative (possibly podcasts?), topical approaches, and the heavy discussion of primary sources that most of my courses rely on.

Now, this might be easy-ish if the course had worked last time, but in some ways it didn't. This was in part the composition of the class -- only two students really accepted the ideas that they were responsible for learning the narrative and that, for us pre-modern folks, a working knowledge of some basic primary sources and of types of primary sources is fundamental. Most of the people in the class saw the primary sources as being no more than those little boxes in big survey textbooks -- things that illustrate what the authors tell us, rather than the information the authors work from. I think this time, that will be less of a problem, if only because the students are all used to me and many have taken courses with me from the very beginning of their uni careers.

Still, I'm trying to work the balance, and also they sorts of assessments I'll be using. There will be a review essay, and I think a presentation each (how I'll fit those in, I'm not sure, but the topics will be biographical, I think -- Augustine, Gregory (of Tours, but maybe the Great), Bede, Boniface...suggestions?

Well, hell. I just got sidetracked by responding to some ideas about our thesis seminar syllabus, which a colleague and I have entirely re-written... what was I saying?

Oh, right. So does anybody have any brilliant ideas about this balancing act? I'm really thinking of sticking to Innes for a chronological (mostly) narrative, but taking in a break for James and then, within that chronology, pulling out some topics that I think need highlighting, and just forcing the students to work the topics into the larger narrative. Like wot I had to do.

Oh. And then there is geography. gotta work that in, too. bleargh.

This post brought to you by thinking online and blegging.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Carnivalesque 57

Carnivalesque 57

Hey, everybody! It's Ancient/Medieval Carnivalesque time!!! Go, read, enjoy!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

a note to my medievalist colleagues

a note to my medievalist colleagues

And to the rest of my blogroll, for that matter.

Please stop writing for a while. It's Solstice, I don't do well in winter so much, and I cannot keep up with all of you. I really can't keep up with you if I am to get any work done.

So you, the one with the ponytail and the metal t-shirts (you know who you are!) and you, you people who should be digging your cars out of Canadian snows, and you, you scary lit people and your bodies and monsters and cannibals and theories...

Just go take a break and play with your families, dammit!

You are writing too many interesting things!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Something More Important

Something More Important

In case you have not been watching, the sf blogosphere has been full of righteous anger on behalf of author Peter Watts, who was arrested and beaten (beaten and arrested?) by US Border Patrol Officers last Tuesday.

There is a defense fund set up. Links are at the Scalzi post and at Making Light, I think.

I'm not going to get into arguing the fine points. I'm not really worrying about "he should have known better," for example, because US police procedures are not standard around the world, and also? No US police agency that I know of justifies using more force than is necessary to subdue a person. In other countries, it is perfectly normal to question the police as to the reasons for a search of a vehicle. Me, I'd have just done what the cops said -- not because I fear the police, but because I have known enough cops over the years to know that people who don't follow their orders can make *some* cops jumpy, and I don't like to be around jumpy people carrying loaded guns.

The sad truth is that we live in a country where people in positions of authority feel no need to justify their actions. One would think that the border folks might have thought about the fact that borders are places where cultural norms cannot be assumed to be the same. One would think.

More importantly, one would think that people who apparently posed no real threat wouldn't get pepper-sprayed, beaten, and arrested.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On the Recent Brouhaha

On the Recent Brouhaha

For those of you who don't read Whatever, you may have missed John Scalzi's recent post on the pay offered by Black Matrix Publishing, or his follow-up post that rounds up the responses of lots of pro writers and editors. Today, Scalzi points us to a very cranky response by MFA student and aspiring pro writer Jenn Brissett. The comment thread is wonderful. It's useful. It makes clear that Brissett doesn't get it.

So why do I care? Scalzi is not my friend, although I would love to hang out with him some time. I do know some professional sf writers and editors, though, and have been on the fringes of fandom for a long time. I don't see myself writing professionally, because I think I'm not really imaginative enough to write something that isn't jejeune and embarrassingly full of the Mary-Sue-ness that, even though it can sell (I'm looking at YOU, Stephinie Meyer), is not really very good. And if I wrote sf or fantasy, I would want it to be good, because I don't want the people I respect as writers to laugh at me. So yeah. Don't look for fiction by ADM anytime soon.

Right -- so this is why it concerns me at all. There are really a couple of reasons. The first is that, well, I have friends who write, and I want them to be writing for markets that pay relatively well. The second is that, well, I do write. I mean, I write really slowly, and I don't get paid in anything but CV credit, but in some ways I think that's relevant to the larger conversation. One of Brissett's arguments is that publishing with businesses like Black Matrix is still better than not publishing, because it can give a writer pro credits. The counter-argument is that some publishers are better than others; while the publishers who pay well tend to be the best-known and have the big pro reputations (hence good publication credits), many of the smaller and badly paying venues are also not places where the credit will count as much. This is not true for all of them, and I can imagine that, given the right publisher and editor, it might be advantageous for a newbie author to publish for free.

That seems pretty sensible to me, because the same is true for academic publishing. We rank our venues. A peer-reviewed publication is the bottom line, and from there there is a hierarchy of journals and publishers. Oxford UP or Cambridge UP will publish your book? Gold standard for many of us. Non-academic publisher or publisher with no guarantee of peer review? Not so much. There is an assumption of quality based on venue.

The second issue that strikes me about all this, though, is the one of payment. Academics don't expect to make tons of money from their books (although some do bring in some good royalties). To the best of my knowledge, most sf/f authors also do not make ginormous profits. Brissett argues that, by calling publishers like Black Matrix on their sweat-shop like wages, pro authors are acting as gatekeepers who don't want the newbies to get a fair shot. I call shenanigans on that. I may be a medievalist, but dammit, I teach the modern survey, too, and passed macroeconomics. I am familiar with Ricardo and his Iron Law of Wages. It's not about gatekeeping as much as it is looking around us and noting that, when we live in a society that undervalues labor, everybody's wages suck. This is true whether we look at people working at places like Walmart or in the kitchens of restaurants, or at humanities faculty. When people undersell themselves, they make it possible for employers to underpay them. Not only does it drag the wages of everyone else down, but it also encourages people to see what we do as having little worth. Unions can sometimes mitigate that, but honestly, they can't prevent state budget cuts and furloughs, which would not pass if people were properly infuriated and placed a high value on what we do.

Yeah -- that's getting a little close to blaming the victim, and I don't mean to do that. But this also connects back to our discussion of Bennett's History Matters, in terms of women and their occasionally willing participation in the perpetuation of the patriarchal equilibrium. Actually, it just connects back to feminism, plain and simple. If we aren't part of the solution, we are part of the problem -- and Brissett not only is part of the problem, but her arguments are so self-interested that she seems unable to see the same problem the rest of us do, i.e., that a poor wage structure, especially coupled with a venue that does not supply any particular cachet to its writers, is a sucker's game.

A final issue, which make it three for the promised two, is that ... WHAT? As I said above, I'm really sort of on the fringes of fandom. I don't drag myself to cons, even though I am starting to explore options there (Readercon, Sirens, and Wiscon are on my radar these days, although often they are not at convenient times for me to travel). But my overall impression, from being on those fringes for the past 30 or so years, is that the world of sf/f writing and editing is really not one of extraordinarily high, multi-bolted gates. There seem to be an awful lot of pros who got their start writing fanfic or editing fanzines. Smart people with something sensible to say seem to get put on con panels, and get worked into the system, although there does seem to be a flexible, but existing, frontier between the pros and the fans. But by and large, it seems to me to be a world where the talented can reinvent and establish themselves in ways that are not nearly as possible in many other professional areas.

You may wonder what all this is in service of. First, it's my blog and I had too much to say in a comment. Also? I've just successfully avoided marking essays for about 40 minutes! Guess it's time to get on that...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

oh, dear

Thanks to Dr. Crazy for taking me to this site ...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What day is it?

What Day is it?

What I have done this week:

  • taught 6 classes (including prep, obviously)
  • had one chairs' meeting
  • dealt with several end-of-semester student crises
  • two phone interviews (on a search committee)
  • Weighed in on College issues
  • written up questions for a different part of the search
  • written a review for survey classes
  • lost a large chunk of my mind
  • ranted about people who really got on my nerves
  • paid bills
  • had a really good meeting with a colleague on some of the things we're doing to revamp the program

What I would like to have done:
  • slept more
  • got to the gym
  • kept the flat tidy
  • read something for me
  • reviewed to start writing again
  • gone to the basketball game with friends
  • did I mention sleep?

What I'm going to do with the rest of the week:

  • sleep
  • get to the gym
  • have friends to dinner
  • go out for a beer on Friday
  • finish all my pre-exam grading
  • write my final exams
  • prep my last three days of classes
  • teach 4 more classes this week
  • finish reading Bone, from volume 5 on.
  • Start my Christmas cards!!

If I do this, I can go for a hike next week, do some search committee work, and still get my grading done and in by next Sunday, and will have most of the break to write and prep for the newish course in my specialty area that I am teaching in the Spring. w00t!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Disturbing thought

Disturbing thought

I was looking around the blogosphere this evening, thinking about how much content people manage to transmit to their students. I don't get enough of that done, because I am so busy being Dr. Socratic Method to a bunch of people who can't be arsed to remember anything and have to be re-told/re-led to the same conclusions over and over again. And I get behind. And all my plans to be really good at my job fall apart, because I'm not making them learn enough stuff, and I'm not getting through what I want to get through, and I'm not delivering enough content.

I am teaching some of them how to read primary sources, though. Unless they talk about religious stuff, in which case, roughly 70% of my students will fall into ignorant credulity and talk about how clearly miracles must have happened if people said they did.

But anyway. Did you were worry that people think you're good at your job in part because they don't know any different? I wonder how they'd feel if they had to get through some of my medieval colleagues' classes. It's stuff like this that makes me worry I couldn't cut it somewhere else.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Call the Whaaambulance.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cliopatria Awards Last Call

Cliopatria Awards Last Call

Nominations for this year's Cliopatria Awards end tomorrow. Please, please, pleeeease, nominate a favorite post!!

I'm judging the Cliopatria Awards this year, along with David Silbey of The Edge of the American West and Miriam Burstein of The Little Professor. We'll be judging the Best Individual Blog and Best Post categories. If you have a nominee, please click on the appropriate button below!

Friday, November 27, 2009

A serious post, brought to you by Patrick Stewart

A serious post, brought to you by Patrick Stewart (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 27)

A friend pointed me to this essay by Patrick Stewart on domestic violence. It's a hard read, but a good one. Some of you know that I was raised by a woman with a violent temper. I never had to witness the sort of thing Stewart mentions, but the rest, barring the alcohol, sounds eerily familiar.

But come Friday night, after the pubs closed, we awaited his return with trepidation. I would be in bed but not asleep. I could never sleep until he did; while he was awake we were all at risk. Instead, I would listen for his voice, singing, as he walked home. Certain songs were reassuring: I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen; I'll Walk Beside You . . . But army songs were not a good sign. And worst of all was silence. When I could only hear footsteps it was the signal to be super-alert.

Fortunately, my mother was not a drinker. She was just chronically depressed, possibly bipolar. She was never a particularly strong woman, and she seldom made a fist. Remember, I'm a boomer; when I was growing up, it was still considered normal to smack one's kids. The big difference to me was that, where some of my friends had parents who would take a belt to them (something that scared the hell out of me>, it was part of a very formalized system of rules. They knew when they broke them, and expected to be punished if caught. Not that that makes it much better (if at all), but there's not that constant wondering about what the rules are, and whether you might set things off. Anyway, I thought I would mention once again that the victims of domestic violence are also almost always the victims of emotional abuse. And that emotional abuse is so much easier to hide.

It's also much easier to ignore, or to miss, especially if you're caught in an abusive relationship. And if you grew up being used to emotional abuse, as a victim, or even as a witness, it's likely to feel familiar enough that it's sort of comforting. Me, I try to be vigilant in my own relationships, and I try not to ignore warning bells that go off in my head. It's harder if you see this happening to people you love -- and I have to admit, there are times that friends have had to point out red flags to me. More often, though, they've been there for the sort of reality checks that you need, because two of the most effective tactics of the emotional abuser are that they can make a person question reality and they tend to make the person being abused feel responsible for the abusive situation. To the outside world, the abuser often represents hirself as the victim. Usually, that's a true representation, as far as the abuser is concerned. That's the really fucked up part of emotional abuse: the abuser often thinks that zie is the most reasonable person around, if only hir spouse/child/partner/employee would just do things the right way. I'm posting some signs below, and I've tried to make them gender-neutral, because although abusive men are still by far more likely to beat the crap out of, and even kill, their partners, it's been my experience that women are right up there in the ranks of emotional abuse, which can bee far more subtle.

So I thought maybe I would post a few of the classic telltale signs of an abusive relationship, just because it never hurts to remind people (and even myself):

Zie was verbally abused as a child, witnessed it in hir own family, or was verbally abused by a previous partner.

* Zie has low self-esteem.

* Zie has an intense temper, triggered by minor frustrations and arguments.

* Hir sense of power or control depends on hir partner's acquiescence and performance per hir demands. Zie feels "in control" only if hir partner is totally passive and giving in to all of hir preferences and decisions.

* Zie has rigid expectations or fantasies of marriage, partnership, and what the partner should be/ how they should behave, and will not compromise. Zie expects a partner to behave according to hir expectations of what hir partner should be like; perhaps the way hir parents' marriage was, or its opposite. Zie demands that the partner change to accommodate hir expectations.

* Zie projects the blame for all relationship difficulties onto hir partner. Zie wouldn't get angry if only the partner would be who zie wants hir to be... Zie wouldn't drink if the partner didn't make hir unhappy... Zie denies the need for counseling because there's "nothing wrong with hir, only with the partner." Zie might not want the partner to get counseling because zie's threatened by the possibility of an outsider "taking sides" with him -- they just wouldn't understand the true dynamics of the relationship.

* Abusers are extremely possessive and jealous. They experience an intense desire to control their mates.

* Abusers often have superficial relationships with other people. Their primary, if not exclusive, relationship is with a spouse/longtime partner.

* Zie may be described as having a dual personality -- Zie is either sweet or exceptionally cruel and sharp. Zie is selfish or generous depending on her mood.

* A major characteristic of abusers is their capacity to deceive others. They can be sweet, calm, charming and convincing.

* The mate is usually a symbol. The abuser doesn't relate to hir partner as a person in hir own right, but as a symbol of a significant other. This is especially true when zie's angry. Zie assumes that the partner is thinking, feeling, or acting like that significant other -- often modeled on family member or authority figure).

(Adapted from a list at


Emotional abuse is characterized by the abuser’s manipulation and invalidation of his or her partner. Here is a list of warning signs to be aware of.

Abusive Expectations

* Makes unreasonable demands.
* Requires constant attention, or that you spend all your free time with him/her.
* Constantly criticizes.
* No matter how much you give, it never seems to be enough.


* Calls you names, accuses, blames, threatens, or gives orders.
* Can be disguised as “helping” or “teaching.”
* Judgmental “I know best” attitude.

Constant Chaos

* Deliberately starts arguments and may be in constant conflict with you or with others
* Treats you well in front of others, but changes into a different person when you’re alone together, or vice versa.
* May enjoy “drama,” because it creates excitement and brings the focus back onto him/herself.


* Denies your personal needs, especially when that need is greatest, and does so with the intent of hurting, punishing, or humiliating you.
* Denies that certain events occurred or that certain things were said.
* Refuses to listen or communicate (silent treatment), and withdraws emotionally.
* Denies your perceptions, memory, and sanity.
* Disallows or overrules any viewpoints, perceptions, or feelings that differ from his/her own.
* Causes you to lose confidence in and question your own perceptions and feelings.
* Causes you to doubt your most powerful survival tool: your own mind.


* Manipulates the relationship so that the only feelings and opinions that count are his/her own.
* Must have his/her own way, and will hurt your feelings if necessary in order to get it.
* Holds you personally responsible for his/her own happiness.
* Disregards your personal standards or beliefs, and may try to persuade you to do things that you don’t want to do.

Emotional Blackmail

* Plays on your fear, guilt, compassion, religious values, or other “hot buttons” to get what he/she wants.
* May threaten to end the relationship, totally reject or abandon you, give you the “cold shoulder,” or use other tactics to control you.


* Seeks to distort your perceptions of your own world.
* Refuses to or fails to acknowledge reality in order to create his/her own false reality.
* If you tell your partner that you felt hurt by something he/she did or said, he/she might say, “You’re too sensitive. That shouldn’t hurt you.”
* Or, the abuser might turn it around by saying, “You hurt me too sometimes. I just don’t say anything because I’m understanding.”
* Suggests that your emotions and perceptions are faulty and can’t be trusted.
* Any time your own feelings are disregarded or denied, invalidation has occurred.


* Less extreme form of denial.
* Says things like “You’re exaggerating” or “You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
* Trivializes by suggesting that something you have communicated is inconsequential or unimportant.

Unpredictable Responses

* Acts angry or upset in a situation that normally would not warrant such a response, or gets angry certain times but not others.
* Blows up or gets angry at you over innocent comments you made.
* You feel like you have to “walk on eggshells” around him/her.
* Has drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts.
* Likes something you do one day, but hates it the next.

Verbal Assaults

* Berates, belittles, criticizes, threatens, or calls you names.
* Subtle to blatant use of sarcasm and humiliation.
* Constantly finds flaws with you.
* Makes fun of you in front of others, or in private.

Emotional abuse often starts out very subtly, and progresses gradually over a period of time. Abusers are master manipulators, and can deceive even your friends and family – as well as their own. Trust your own feelings and perceptions. (taken from

Thursday, November 26, 2009



via Jeffrey Jerome Cohen


Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Thanksgiving (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 25)

I'm not all that fond of talking about how thankful I am for stuff, because so often it sounds like a bunch of mealy-mouthed platitudes. And yeah, I'm happy to have a job I love (IN THIS ECONOMY -- that's for New Kid), health, yada, yada, yada. But those are just sort of normal things, aren't they?

But here's a thing. I'm single and my family are all thousands of miles away. When LDW and I were together, he was a couple of thousand miles in the opposite direction. Holidays have always felt a bit iffy and worrisome. Not Christmas so much -- I'm actually a bit better at ignoring Christmas, which I really only like when there are kids and lots of family, and then I sort of hate the stress that can come about with lots of family :-)

No, really, I used to have to start my mornings with my best friend and her mom, with whom I lived for a time, then off to my grandparents for dad-family breakfast, then off to the maternal family (two at one point, as my grandparents were divorced), then to the dad house for dinner in the afternoon, then back to the friend house for dessert and carol-singing. That's a lot of running around. Christmas with my married family, or my mom and sisters, can also be a joy -- there is always a tantrum and always some sort of tension because someone will inevitably be late, or stressed at having to be the one who had to drive, or whatever.

So yeah, holidays alone are not the worst thing in the world.

One of the cool things about SLAC is that holidays alone don't necessarily exist. Part of it is that I do have family of sorts about three hours away. So I've had two Thanksgivings with them. And one in fabulous European Capital with LDW (I'm still sorry about that roast ...). And this year, I'm staying in town and eating with friends. Feeling a little guilty about not going to the family, especially because we need to see each other, but happy to hang out with some of my favorite colleagues. The best thing of all of this is that I don't feel like I'm included out of charity. That's a nice feeling.

This year, I can't get back to the left coast till New Year's. The fabulous European Capital option no longer exists. But I have bunches of friends who will be around for the holiday season, and I have tons of people to visit on all the days before and after Christmas itself. For the first time, I haven't had time to think about what to do during break besides working, because I know I have stuff to do. Same for Spring Break. I should stay home and work, but there may be a chance of a camping trip in an as-yet undecided locale.

Naturally, my life decides to have a social aspect exactly when I should be working harder and producing more. Life's funny that way. I expect there's an appropriate Terry Pratchett quote, but I can't be arsed to look it up. I've got baking, laundry, and marking to do tomorrow before I go and eat turkey.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A sad truth of academia?

A sad truth of academia? (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 23)

I have finished my teaching obligations for the week. I have finished my service obligations for the week. And all I can think is that I have several days in which I can actually get some damned work done. I have a big pile of marking to do -- essays for all classes, and catching up on all the online marking. The plus is that I will only have one set of papers to read the weekend before finals, and then the finals.

I am so looking forward to break, when I can ... ok, take a little break. I'm going home to visit The Kid and X and friends for five days, and there are a couple of parties and maybe some hiking, too. But mostly I will be looking forward to re-reading LDW's latest book, which I'm using for class, and at least one of his other books, and working on my damned book project (about which Superdean is nagging me) and also perhaps on my article for TenthMedieval. And going to the gym.

Maybe I'm just like this because I'm hopeless about time and balance. Maybe other academics spend their holidays actually having holidays. But I have this weird feeling that I'm not the only one who sees non-teaching time as a way to catch up.

On the other hand, I expect that it's a good thing that I've got to the point where I see these breaks now as real breaks, mental breaks, opportunities to do things I want to do, rather than as something I resent because I won't have a break. Still, I think I'd like to get more writing done in term time, and actually have a holiday, too.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An open letter to applicants

An open letter to applicants (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 22)

ProfGrrrl posted the other day about hiring committees and it got me thinking. I'm on a search committee this year, and it's going to be interesting. Politics and an inside candidate. I hate inside candidates. I try to stay away from committees where there is one. I don't know that this is true, but I don't feel I can speak freely about the inside candidate, because there will always be people who simply expect that we are supposed to hire the person they know, regardless of the other candidates. Ugh.

But that's not what I wanted to say. Mostly, what I wanted to say, not very delicately, is:

Dear Applicant and Applicant's Advisor/Referee,

Are you taking the piss? Because if you are, you have wasted a bunch of people's time. If you are not, you are friggin' morons. What the *hell* did you think you were doing? Our position is pretty specific. There's a chance that we won't find anyone who meets all the criteria, but we have a good chance of meeting someone who comes close. But you... I do understand that you come from a big and reputable research university, but really, you aren't all that, let alone a bag of chips.

Let's start off with your cover letter:

Nowhere does your letter address your suitability for the job we advertised. It doesn't show that you have the first clue about SLAC, a campus that has not only undergrads, but also several specialized schools that have very special needs. Some of those needs were outlined in the ad, but strangely, you didn't think you needed to mention how your very fancy-pants dissertation addresses the 4-3 teaching load and the classes you would teach: classes that have NOTHING to do with your fancy-pants dissertation. Now, to be fair, you do mention your teaching. Sort of. You've taught a lot, mostly as a grad student, and it's hard to tell how many of your courses were as a GA and how many were independent. But that's OK. And incorporating your philosophy into your cover letter is not a bad idea, either. But seriously, it's better to give us a clear idea of what you actually do than it is to include posh phrases in Italian and French -- I suppose it's at least a blessing that the Greek was at least transliterated. However, when you mention that you try to impart X's ideas of Y, where Y is theory, then really, you come off as a pretentious little git who thinks he's not only the gods' gift to the students, but oh, so much better than the people you'll be working with. Either that or no one has ever explained that, in a department that's hiring two people and only has four full-time faculty, that there will be at least two non-specialists on the search committee.

Also, it's good to sign the cover letter and to make sure that, when you cut and paste from your teaching philosophy, you at least try to re-word the most outstandingly precious phrases. I'm just sayin'.

Of course, I can't blame you entirely. You've been allowed to do all your work at the same BigName institution, from when you walked in the door as a freshman. No wonder your letter is so much like the one your advisor wrote for you. You might lose hir, by the way. The letter zie sent was even more pretentious. David Lodge couldn't have made that one up. Bespeckled with the droppings of name and reference to theory, the letter told us far more about your advisor than it did about why you were a suitable candidate for our job. This was a letter all about how erudite your advisor is -- why surely, we should hire someone purely because you are clearly the genius sprung forth from hir loins. Your publishing career, based on the sheer brilliance of your thesis, so carefully directed by the advisor, will allow us to bask in the glow of your reflection. Oh -- by the way, I still can't tell exactly what the point of your thesis was, because you defined yourself entirely in terms of the scholarship of others, without so much showing your own contribution to your field. If you're going to focus on research you'll never have a chance to do or teach while at SLAC, at least let us know how tragic it will be five years down the road when you die under the crush of our loads and your own bitterness. Except it's unlikely we'll be interviewing you, because, well, there's nothing you've told us about yourself but that you would be the last person we'd want to teach our students, who really want us to focus on them and teach them without making them feel stupid.

And to you other advisors out there? Please, do think about it before sending us two candidates from your program. Or at least in some way acknowledge that you are sending two students who have the same committees, and that each of them has hir own strengths. Maybe even make sure that the applicant letters aren't based on the same template, and that your letters are not formatted and written to say almost the same things in the same order. It makes you look sloppy. It doesn't help the person whose name comes alphabetically second. It makes me wonder what you've taught them about dealing with other academics. Having said that, I do like your candidates, and part of it is that the package looks solid -- it's just that seeing the same package (more or less) twice really does weaken the impact.

And for the rest of you people: this is not a bad job. It is a job in a field with not nearly enough openings, and it is tenure-track. Some of you should have applied. And some of you? Really. If you can't be bothered to tell us how you can fill the job we advertised, rather than the job we need to fill, stop wasting my time.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

holding place

holding place

I actually fell asleepp while writing my post last night, and have a meeting for most of the day today. So here is today's post... I see it as substantial, because I have to think!

Also, last night Superdean nagged me about the book. Eep!

Leave me a comment saying "Resistance is Futile."
• I'll respond by asking you five questions so I can satisfy my curiosity.
• Update your journal with the answers to the questions.
• Include this explanation in the post and offer to ask other people questions.

Questions from my friend chickenfeet2003

1. What would your dream vacation be?

One where I didn't have to feel rushed and could spend time with people without feeling guilty about what I'm not doing and who I'm not seeing. Actually, it might just be my usual England trip, but for the whole summer and with plenty of cash for traveling to see people. OTOH, I have always thought that it would be wonderful to charter a big sailboat with a few friends and spend an entire West Indies Tour sailing from island to island; sail to Jamaica, watch the Test while sitting in the sun, sail to Antigua, watch the Test ...

2. When are you coming to Toronto? (You are a bloody medievalist!)

I should look into that, shouldn't I? I shall start looking at research fellowships :-) But also, an LJ friend will be at PIMS next year, and I hope to visit her there...

3. What risky/foolish/daring/silly thing do you have an urge to try?
I'd like to do more rock climbing and maybe scuba diving.

4. What's your favourite whisk(e)y?

Whisky, definitely. Laphroig, or one whose name I can't remember, but I want to say it was from Orkney and had a seaweedy taste Scapa.

5. What movie can you watch over and over again?

A few of these: The Princess Bride, The Great Escape, A Bridge Too Far, The Lion in Winter, Love, Actually, Galaxy Quest ...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Long Day

Long Day (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 19)

I can't honestly think of anything substantial to say today, because my day just ended. Email, Doctor, tidying desk, lunch with guest speaker, guest speaker to class, office hours packed, more email and reading of Tacitus, grocery store, mad tidying of house, book club, now to clean up. Cannot wait for the weekend, except that I realized I have a meeting with my professional organization colleagues Saturday for between 4-6 hours, probably. Monday will start at 8 am and end at 10 pm, unless there is also beer. Thank goodness for Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Something that struck me today

Something that struck me today (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 18)

One of the things that struck me today has to do with faculty privilege and how weird some of it seems to me. It's about communicating one's availability. I was feeling really grumpy today about people who don't communicate or pay attention. I'm talking about basic communication, nothing really work related. Just that I have colleagues and co-workers and student workers who just don't make sense to me. Some do. One of my colleagues never fails to pop hir head in and say hi when zie notices I've come in, and always says goodbye at night if zie leaves before me. Another always asks if I want the coffee left on when zie leaves, and I always know when zie is not going to be in, because zie mentions zie will be gone to a conference, for example. Some of my colleagues post their office hours clearly, and leave their doors ajar. If they are friends, we sort of know each other's schedules, more or less. Most of the students who work for my colleagues in our building pop their heads in when arriving or leaving, even though they don't work for me, just to say hi or bye. A couple even ask if I have work, if they have nothing assigned to them.

But then there are people who just don't communicate. The reason I started thinking about this was that I was by myself in the building for part of the afternoon, save one student. I don't know when the student left, but it was dark when zie did, and zie left the building door open. At night, after dark, with one female faculty member by herself in a building on the periphery of campus and adjacent to a busy road with not only lots of foot traffic, but a main thoroughfare for Dabbaville's homeless. It annoyed me. Part of it was the apparent lack of consideration, but then I realized that my expectations of communication just don't hold true for everybody.

This has happened before. I have a couple of friends who understand entirely when I ask them to text when they get home, if we've been out late, or if they have gone somewhere lonely by themselves to run, or some such thing. And we do that. They don't laugh when I post to facebook about illness or going for a run, because they were raised to check in, or know that single people can end up in all kinds of trouble and not be missed. Friends who thought it was a little silly have become a bit more understanding after I passed out for no identifiable reason last year. But anyway, I just think it's good to have an idea of where the people you care about are supposed to be, in case they end up somewhere else. Not everybody feels that way, and that's fine.

That was my reaction today. I reminded myself that my colleagues don't all have the same idea about communicating their whereabouts. And most of them are faculty. Faculty don't have to account for their time and where they spend it, except when required to be in a certain place for a class or meeting. So why should they communicate their schedules?

And then, I realised that I just don't buy it -- or not completely. If I need to talk to Superdean, or the Provost, or the President of SLAC, I may not be able to, but someone will know where they are and when they will be available. I don't account for every minute of the day, but I put a schedule for the week on my door, so that if people are looking for me, they can at least see if I'm definitely supposed to be somewhere else. And normally I shoot an email to folks if I'm coming in after about 10 on a non-teaching day (I like to go to the gym in the mornings sometimes, and often work till 7 ish). Hey, I'm department chair and have 25 advisees: people occasionally look for me. And if I'm home or working in a coffee shop, it's likely I'm checking email, anyway. Why? because it seems to me that, despite the freedom we have as faculty, people still normally keep something resembling bankers' hours, and part of the job is to be available to students and colleagues.

I've worked on a flex schedule before, by the way. I've worked jobs where I had a home office and only had to see my boss once a week. But if he was looking for me, he could usually find me, even if sometimes I was at a conference call in my pajamas. I've worked for places where every minute was jealously guarded as well. There's a difference in those atmospheres. Working from home on salary feels different from punching a clock. I never felt that I was obligated to call my boss and ask him if I could go to the gym at lunch, and he didn't care, as long as my work was done, and I returned calls and emails in a timely manner. But if I knew I'd be out of cell phone or internet range for more than a couple of hours, I'd usually let people know, because it's best not to have customers calling the boss to complain that you didn't pick up on the second ring.

I guess my point is that we work in a world where lots of people are accountable for their time, and there are lots of good reasons to communicate where we are, if only for simple courtesy and to make sure that, if our students need to see us, someone knows what to tell them about how to get hold of us. I'm just not sure how not having to account for one's movements got to be a faculty privilege, nor how that privilege seems more and more to be something assumed by staff and students, as well. Seems a little weird to me.


Substanceless (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 17)

I have no substance today. I had posts in my head, but invited a friend to dinner and we ended up talking till about an hour ago. So this is semi-substance. Here's a not-so-secret:

I hate administration, but am better at it than I like. The same with service.

Today was partially about service. That and the podiatrist, who tells me that no, I do not actually have gnarly feet. I'm not completely convinced, but apparently, the most I need is a pedicure. Service-wise, it was job applications. Can I just say that there are things people should make sure they do when applying for jobs? Like, for example, make the letter and the recommendations look like they are for the actual job they are supposed to win for the desperate candidate? Proofread the letter and all other documents, especially if the job is in a field where writing and editing skills might be seen as, you know, important? Referees, please make sure that, when cutting and pasting from more than one letter, you go back and make sure that what you send is all in one font, and that you haven't allowed spell-check to misspell any words.

Also, is it just my experience, or are all search committees fraught with politics and the possibilities offered by multiple agenda?

Monday, November 16, 2009


Bernard Cornwell, Agincourt (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 16)

Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt. (New York, HarperCollins: 2009)

There is a lot to like about Agincourt. The hero, Nicholas Hook, is appealing, the 15th C equivalent of Sharpe, Cornwell's 18th C rifleman. He's an outlaw, having made enemies at home in his village, and used his uncommon skill with the longbow to settle a longtime grudge. It is that skill with the longbow that rescues Hook, and sets him off on a journey that leads him through the siege of Soissons and up through the English victory at Agincourt. Nick is our man on the scene, not quite Everyman, for his skills put him in contact with some of the leading figures of the English army -- including King Henry himself. Between battles, Nick finds himself repeatedly facing his old enemies from home, the Perrill brothers, who constantly scheme at his death, and that of Melisande, the Frenchwoman with whom he has fallen in love.

Melisande is the daughter of a French noble, rescued by Nick from certain rape and death at the fall of Soissons. This is one of many scenes that demonstrate to the reader that Hook is noble in heart, if not by blood. His nobility is in sharp contrast to many of the other soldiers, and especially to all of the Perrills and their father, the lecherous Sir Martin, a priest. Father Martin is an archetypical villain, a corrupt clergyman who uses his rank to sway the local justice system and whose tastes run to raping virgins, or at least women who seem pure in heart. Compared to Cornwell's descriptions of the battles and the soldiers who fight in them, the constant threat of the Perrill family often seems contrived. The Perrill brothers and Father Martin serve as plot devices, giving Hook reasons to behave well, either by rescuing women from their clutches or by giving him the opportunity to extend his forgiveness, reminding us over and over that he is the better man.

In contrast, Cornwell's story of the battles and the men who fought them are far more compelling. The descriptions are vivid and detailed, down to precise explanations of each piece of armor, weapon, and formation. Some are reminiscent of both Shakespeare and Keegan, but they are interesting and convincing nonetheless. In typical Cornwell fashion, he takes us to the heart of each battle. He starts with Soissons, where Hook adopts Ss. Crispin and Crispinian as his patrons after a vision in which Crispian speaks to him. The fall of that city and Hook's flight with Melisande lead him to Calais, where he and Melisande are questioned, and taken back to England to report on the events at Soissons. In England, Hook meets the young king, who is impressed with the archer, although less for his skills than for his assertions that his patron saints speak to him. Cornwell's Henry is pious and rather grim, traits that will explain some of his later actions. Hook is released into the service of Sir John Cornewaille and with Cornwaille's archers makes the crossing to France with Henry's fleet. Cornwell's descriptions of the operation help the reader to understand what a massive undertaking the transport of troops was.

The action turns quickly to the siege of Harfleur, replete with the claustrophobic action in the tunnels dug to undermine the city, the frustration of the men, the dysentery that ran through the English camp. After the English victory, the drama intensifies as Nick's younger brother, Michael, is accused of looting a church. As the army trudges back towards Calais, the tension mounts: *we* know that they will be forced to stand against the French, and *we* know that the French will vastly outnumber the English -- just as *we* know that the English will win. This is one of Cornwell's greatest strengths as a novelist: despite knowing the outcome, we want to see how it happens. He blends the familiar, like Henry's anonymous pre-battle visit to the troops to check on their morale, with the less familiar details of armor, weaponry, battle formations, and the disposition of troops. With Hook as our eyes, we are there in the thick of things, trudging through the mud, watching the French cavalry get stuck in the mud and drown in it, often with the help of the English men-at-arms. As the battle winds down, and the English receive the order to kill the prisoners who are too many to guard, Cornwell brings us back to the story of Hook, Melisande, and the Perrills. He carefully engineers the deaths of the villains in ways that remove most of the culpability from our hero and his love. Evil deeds are repaid, Hook and Melisande are free to marry, and Hook can continue to climb the ranks in the king's service well after the end of this book.

Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt is strong on detail and action, less so on characterization and dialogue. Still, it's a fun read, and one that helps to bring the period to life, with close attention to detail and a potboiler of a plot that will hold most readers' attention for the entire campaign.

yestrday's post

Yesterday's post (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 15)

went the way of a migraine.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Interruption for a good cause or two

Interruption for a good cause or two (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 14)

Yesterday's post was suspended due to my going to a charity dinner and then for drinks with friends. That and feeling horrible when I got home. I swear I've had H1N1. But at the moment, I'm having San Elias 2009 Sauv. Blanc. I recommend it. I also recommend Men who Stare at Goats, which made me laugh. Saw it tonight with two biologist colleagues, who are lovely people. They also bought me fantastic gifts for my birthday -- Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and the best pirate t-shirt ever.

Oh, right -- so that's what I did today. Slept, tried to grade papers, took care of a friend's dogs, and slept. And dinner, movie, and hanging out. A few errands. Tomorrow is going to be a serious workday.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about teaching things religious in history classes. It's not so hard to teach basic ideas of Confucianism or Islam, but the Abrahamic religions are tough, because you never know the audience, and people will get offended. And I'm the first to admit that I'm not an actual authority on such things, but I have actually done *some* reading, and did ace two courses on the History of Christianity with an Actual Big Name Scholar at Beachy U. Not to mention I'm sort of a medievalist and all, and we do read a fair amount of vitae, passiones, translationes, regulae, and actual theology at some points in our lives. Having said that, I admit that I do tend to confuse monophysites and monotheletes, but am pretty sure there's an iota of difference between them. Oh, and also? Have done much in the way of reading and coursework on the Reformation. So possibly, I have some foundation to teach a bare-bones sort of historical approach to such things.

To be fair, my students seldom question my ability to teach about religion in the context of my classes. But there are always some who have a hard time with my saying that Christians at a certain time believed X, or that Muslims believe that the Quran was dictated to Muhammad, whereas the Bible was put together by committee... and of course the "is Islam a violent religion?" question. And normally, I just don't care. That is, I don't care what people believe in private. I don't care what people believed in the past. But I do care that people in the present not argue that adherents of religion X believe Y, when they have not always believed that. This especially bothers me with Christianity, because beliefs about Christianity are so often wrapped up in ideas of progress that are actually sort of appropriate -- after all, to Christians, we're moving towards the apocalypse and all. But I get sort of irked when that's linked to a belief that "J. Student's" Christianity is so much better and purer and right-thinking than the Christianity of the past. I get sort of irked when students talk about Christians and Catholics, as if there is a difference in 300 CE, or as if there were no Christians till the Reformation (except that they often don't know about the Reformation). I become annoyed when they ask me about salvation, and I reply that at the time in question, people believed one thing, only to be told that those people were wrong. This is most especially irritating when those people include, um, I dunno ... Church Fathers??? Because, well, Augustine, as much as I think I would have disliked him, is sort of largely responsible for Christian theology, I'm pretty sure. So are some of those other guys who died well before Luther. It's not that I'm all about orthodoxy -- after all, I think that both Ariua and Pelagius were sensible about some things. It's not that I want them to believe anything -- I really don't care. But I would like them to be a little more open-minded about history when it includes religion.

Yes, there's a story behind this rant. It doesn't have much to do with my students, as it happens. And to be honest, it's not just religion that does this -- I get the same sort of frustration when talking about Liberalism, Conservatism, various forms of Socialism and Marxism ... it's just cranky-making when you have to fight the "but it's not always been that way" battle, is all I'm saying. Because I teach history. Nothing has always been this way, with only a few biologically determined exceptions.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dedication to substance

Dedication to substance (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 12)

I haven't written anything in ages. I have been trapped, even though I'm only teaching three courses (and two preps), between teaching, advising, and administering. If nothing else, the past 12 days have reminded me that, when I want to, I can carve out time to write. If I can carve out time to blog, I should be able to carve out time to work on my research. Of course, it took actually sitting down and committing to blogging to remind myself of that. Ok, a couple of other things happened, too. I have to admit that blogging is not the same as research, even when it is thoughtful blogging. I don't worry about getting the facts straight, for example. But much of what I should be working on is also not the sort of thing where I have to carve out research time. Much of it could be done (after some revising) in smaller chunks, here and there.

Recently, Notorious, PhD posted about why we write (a couple of other people did, too, but at the moment, I can't brain. I used to write because it was a way to get and keep a job. Now that I have got to the point that I see research and writing as really important parts of my job, and things that I really like to do, I have a much harder time finding the time. Part of it is real. I teach in a demanding way. I should probably just write lectures, but you all know by now that I don't. I will also admit that I don't prep enough when my students aren't keeping up. But my time always seems to be eaten up with chairing, assessment work, advising (I've only got 25 advisees at the moment, which is not horrible compared to some of my College colleagues, but is about eight times more than any of my departmental colleagues), and committees. Only one search committee, but I've got to read some apps ...

And, as a friend pointed out the other day, I could actually do something useful in the morning rather than get on facebook and read blogs! The thing is, I *do* like to write. I like to read. But somehow, I get caught up in the semester and it always seems that I have no time free in substantial chunks. OH! It was Jonathan Jarrett who wrote about carving out time for writing. I need to go back and look at what he said, although I disagree with the tidying up. I do work better when I tidy up, perhaps because the action of tidying up means that I've moved away from the computer and the internet and am just focusing on what needs doing.

But mostly, I just need to do it. After all, I'm doing this, aren't I?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The eleventh day of the eleventh month

The Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Placeholdery post

Placeholdery post (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 10)

I’m working on a substantial post for this series of posts at In the Middle, so today has been partially (and honestly, too much) spent at looking over the past seven years of this blog. So in lieu of something longer, I'm going to leave you with some of my favourite posts. I'm sort of glad I looked at these, because there are some things I could stand to integrate into my teaching yet again!

The F-word

Whose Middle Ages (I wish I'd remembered this before the panel at K'zoo last year)

New and improved, it's History!

Why I love the Early Stuff

How to do College

What we didn't know is what our students don't know

The Internalization of a Construct

Monday, November 09, 2009

Why am I surprised?

Why Am I Not Surprised? (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 9)

I haven't posted about the House of Representatives -- or rather, the House Democrats -- and their decision to stab the people who helped put them in office in the backs. I'm not sure I should be surprised. After all, I'm a middle-aged woman who has been voting since 1980. I've been a feminist for as long as I remember. I've seen and been a victim of misogyny and discrimination. I don't have a hell of a lot of faith in politicians in general, and I know that to get to any sort of position of power, whether elected or appointed, in government or in industry, or in academia, people often find themselves cutting deals that are pretty appalling. Apparently, that's just the price ambitious people pay -- they sell out the rest of us. After all, they are playing with the big boys, and the people they have betrayed? We're just women.

Even still, the Stupak-Pitts amendment is particularly underhanded and nasty. Not only is it a blatant attempt to keep women from having abortions, but it discriminates against poorer women and may even keep women who have miscarried or who have other medical conditions from having procedures like D&Cs, which are done in cases other than abortion. It would also prevent women whose pregnancies, whether or not they are wanted, from having abortions even if their own lives are at risk, unless they can come up with the cash to pay for them out of pocket.

I'm not debating whether or not abortion is right. I honestly don't believe that a first trimester fetus is a person, but I can't deny that it certainly has the potential to become one. I don't know what choice I would make if faced with an unplanned pregnancy, or the knowledge that I would give birth to a child that couldn't live without extraordinary care, or constant pain, or that might cost me my own life (more than the risks of a normal pregnancy, that is), or if I were raped and became pregnant. Ok, those are all pretty unlikely at my age, but they have been very real concerns for much of my life, and are still possibilities now. They are possibilities for my friends and my family and my students. I hope that none of the people I love ever have to make such choices. I wish no one did.

But here's the deal. Legally, we have that choice. It is immoral and unethical to deny that choice to one group of women in this country because they might depend on subsidies or government funding for health care. But am I surprised that women, especially poorer women, are sacrificed on the altar of a half-assed compromise that will pave the way for yet another round of Congressional back-patting while our elected representatives bask in the glow of a good circle-jerk? No, not really.

ETA: you know, if Congress is so worried about abortions, maybe they'd be better off by making reliable birth control easier to get.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday before Monday

Sunday Before Monday (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 8)

It's Sunday again, and I'm not entirely ready for tomorrow. This has been the story of my semester. I know what I'm teaching. But I don't feel on top of things, and really, my prep is relying more on experience than on immediate prep. I hate that. Part of this is the way I teach. I really do focus a lot on that active learning thing, so I don't lecture much. But the past three weeks have been absolute torture. The students haven't really been prepped, and this means that time I've planned on doing one thing is often spent just trying to get them up to speed while not annoying the hell out of the few students who are prepared.

Overall, I have some very bright students, and many of them are doing the work, but aren't really getting it. I have to say that, despite the quiet in the room, more of them are taking notes than is typical for SLAC students, and most of them are really using the discussion boards well. It just never feels like we're as together as I'd like. And tomorrow I need to backtrack a little, because I noticed on the discussion boards for one class that they really want to talk about a particular topic.

That is one of the nice things about World History, at least -- I can move things around a little. Still, next semester, I am going to try much harder to create mini-lecture podcasts with maps and all for my classes. In my spare time. :-)

NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 7

NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 7

I wrote and sent a job application today. Count that as substantial writing!

Friday, November 06, 2009

Not about teaching

Not about teaching (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 6)

Matt Gabriele has an interesting and typically good post up about the shootings at Fort Hood. I don't have a lot to say about it, except this: the first thing I thought was, "some soldier has lost it." I wasn't all that surprised. It's not like it doesn't happen in other jobs, although now that I think about it, it seems to happen less in really high-stress jobs. You hear about police and firefighters killing themselves, but not so often opening up on their co-workers.

Anyway, the second thing I thought was in response to hearing the gunman's (when did we start using 'shooter'? it sounds wrong to my ears) name. What I thought was, "oh, shit." Because the minute his name was announced, the speculative reasons were never going to be about whether being in the military during wartime might have had anything to do with it. They were not going to be about being a Muslim in the military when we are at war with mostly Muslim. They were all going to assume he was a terrorist and that his being a follower of Islam was pretty much the entire explanation.

As I mentioned at Matt's, I overheard a conversation today where one person who had been in the military said that soldiers were just conditioned not to trust brown people. It wasn't a racist thing, just understandable. Soldiers would see all blue-eyed people as a threat if they were constantly attacked by blue-eyed people. I understand the point. I even believe that the person I overheard meant it. But I don't think it's true. I think it's also one of the inherent problems in this country: we say that we are a melting pot, or salad bowl, or interesting stew, but we forget that all of those descriptions are predicated on the idea that, no matter where a person is from, that person can become every bit as much an American as your average person of white European descent. Legally? yeah. But even then, apparently that only makes a person "technically" American. Um ... here's a newsflash: The US is a nation of immigrants. All citizens are "technically American." Even if you leave out the naturalized citizens, it's pretty easy to be born a US citizen and be of a different racial/ethnic/national background to your neighbors. That's supposedly one of the things that makes this country strong.

Maybe it does. But isn't it odd how, knowing that, some of us still can look at a person and assume that he or she is 'not a real American' based on the colour of his or her skin, or the way his or her name sounds? I think that's one of those examples of privilege, in case you weren't sure. That is, yes, we'll believe you are as American as the white guy (or in this case, possibly also the African-American guy), until you do something wrong. And then, you will not be seen as another American, just another terrorist. If you're white and you do something this terrible, it's going to be very unlikely that the first motive people ascribe to you is that you hate the American Way of Life. That's not something the average white guy has to deal with. Ever.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Teaching Primary Sources 3

Teaching Primary Sources 3 (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 5)

Another short post, I'm afraid, but it's been a long day. The fools who started NaNoWriMo clearly weren't thinking about the fact that this is a hellaciously busy time of year for academics. I swear I don't know what happened to my day, but I know I was busy and in my office from 8:30-7:00 with a couple of bathroom breaks and only two cups of tea -- except for the time I was in class.

So anyway, I thought I'd address one subject that has come up in comments so far, and that is whether or not one uses excerpts. I mentioned in my last post that I agreed that full pieces were preferable to excerpts, but that one can't always read the full thing. It depends on the course and the level of students, just for starters. Still, I understand the objections to excerpts, especially those in a reader. Often, they are chosen, as Jonathan Dresner pointed out, to put forth a certain didactic point. This is problematic at best -- especially when the point of the editor is not the point you'd like to make!

Short passages also tend to reinforce the idea that one uses primary sources to illustrate 'what we already know' from the textbook, rather than what I am trying to teach, which is that we couldn't have the textbook had historians not read primary sources. Even those document readers that have longer passages can annoy me because they often ask leading questions. At some level, I do understand. It's good to give the students an idea of how other people have used sources in the past. But so often the questions are things like, "what kind of evidence is there that slaves were not thought of as fully human?" I don't want that sort of question. I think such questions deaden the wit and encourage students to look no further. If the editor must offer questions, please, offer questions like, "What does this document tell you about the attitudes of slave traders towards the Africans? What specific examples can you find?"

It's a pain, really, because there are readers out there with fantastic documents; for example, I love the choices in the Andrea and Overfield reader. But I hate the questions and I hate even more the long introductions, because the students invariably want to talk about what the editors say rather than what the documents say. They know the tone of authority, and to their ears, that tone is much more "reliable" than the voice of someone who lived in the past, and definitely more authoritative than anything they could come up with. So I've come up with a way of dealing with the didactic excerpt and over-edited and glossed collection: I make it part of the lesson. When I have only a short excerpt, or there are editorial comments or organization (for example, the introduction of headings in documents that have no such thing in the original), I wait till a student starts to head off in the direction the editor clearly wanted. And I tell them that they clearly got what the editor intended, and then raise the question of whether the document is an excerpt or the whole story. This works really well with law codes, by the way ...

Sometimes, I don't need to even go that far: occasionally students will ask about what an ellipse does, or why the numbers of laws skip around. Either way, it opens up a conversation about how translation and editing can make a difference, and how they add yet another layer of questions to the external criticism. Translations are fun, too. One of the things I wish I remembered to do more often is to bring in several translations of the same document, and see what students come up with. Of course, that often necessitates the use of ... a dictionary! But that's a post of a different type.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Teaching Primary Sources 2

Teaching Primary Sources, pt.2 (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 4)

This is going to be a short post, because I've been transcribing excerpts of sources by hand (i.e., typing, because I haven't been able to get the scanner to work) for the past couple of hours. Why? Fair use.

In response to Jonathan's and Susan's comments on the last post regarding excerpts: for me, it depends entirely on the level of the class and the point of the assignment. If what I want is primarily for the students to get a really good overall view for a period or place, or if the reading is relatively short anyway, I'm all for the whole thing. But say I want to show something about Roman provincial administration -- do I really need them to read all of Pliny's correspondence to Trajan? Or (heaven forfend) more than the pertinent pages of Civitas Dei to give them an idea of Augustine's response to the sack of Rome?

What about when I am trying to teach the students to pick apart a document? how much do I need?

I'm not really arguing against more reading or the value of reading entire works or substantially longer excerpts. I'm just saying that I'm not sure that shorter passages are any more problematic, if what one is trying to teach is how to read a source and/or how to construct an argument and write an essay around it.

Speaking of which, I'm going to have to do some modification of a series of assignments I use in my surveys. For a couple of years, I've given three papers, each worth a bit more than the one before, as part of the course grade. Each paper is successively more difficult, and they are meant to build on things we discuss regarding primary sources. The first essay is simply two or three paragraphs in which they have to identify things: author, audience, type of document, etc., and then one piece of historical evidence in the document and how a historian might use it. The second paper is longer, and asks them to look at one document and write an essay that shows that they can use that document to tell us what it reveals about [a specific theme, e.g., gender relationships or trade] the time and place. The third paper requires them to consider 2-3 documents (usually from different time periods and/or cultures) and compare and contrast a couple of themes evident in the documents in ways that show that they can not only identify themes and create arguments, but also show that they are considering how all the external criticism stuff comes into play. Just assigned such a paper. Am thinking I may have to re-think and tighten it up.

Today's progress report

Today's Progress Report (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 3)

Today, I wrote 1332 words of self-reflection and self-advertisement. That's about all the writing I can handle for today.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Teaching Primary Sources

Teaching Primary Sources (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 2)

Over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe yesterday, Jonathan Jarrett wrote bemusedly about troubles teaching primary sources. I'd like to say I have the answer, but I don't. I have lots of answers, and on days like today, I wonder if they're any good at all. The thing is, I'm having trouble teaching them this semester, too. I'm honestly not sure why, and part of it may be that I have not put as much energy into enforcing my policies on preparedness as I would like. Part of it is that, in my survey classes, students are *thinking* about the sources, or at least their comments on Blackboard indicate that they are. It's just that they are having more trouble than I expected. It's a different thing with my upper-division students. Despite many of them having taken classes with me before, and knowing that I expect the courses to run as the seminars they are, they just seem unwilling to actually do the necessary work to make them fun and interesting places. Honestly, I'm not sure what the answer is to "how do I get the students to actually do the reading if they don't feel like it and are perfectly happy with Bs and Cs?" So if you have the answer to that one, let me know. I've tried explaining that this is kind of fundamental, and that this is actually what historians do. I may have to reiterate that this is also something that goes into the thesis...

So anyway, I'm going to start posting on how to teach primary sources, based on what I've done before and how I'm thinking about facing the challenges I've got at the moment. It may take me several days to get through it, but here's roughly what to expect:

  • Why do we read primary sources and why should we use them?
  • How do we use primary sources?
  • When we look at primary sources, what are we looking at?
  • What are our assumptions about primary sources and reading them, and how do they clash with our students' assumptions?
  • How can I teach them better?

I can't guarantee that these things won't bleed over into each other, but I didn't promise you all polished posts, just posts.

So first and foremost, "Why primary sources?"

This seems pretty much self-explanatory to most of us history folk, and to a lot of the lit folk as well. They're primary sources. They are artefacts of their periods. They are often the closest thing to being there. It's an historian's job to interpret them, analyze them, use them to create arguments and narrative. They are at the very heart of what we do. For some of us, they may be too much at the heart. I know my own research sometimes suffers because I tend to focus far more on the primary sources than the scholarship, and this can mean I miss things out in my interpretations, even if it's to reject other interpretations. This was true when I wrote my senior thesis at Beachy U, and is often true even now. But still, for me and most of my pre-modernist friends, the bulk of our work rests on primary sources. For Classicists and Medievalists especially, I think that there is a much clearer canon of primary source material as well. There are just lots of things we are supposed to have read at least once, even if they're only in translation. Not every medievalist will have read the Annales Fuldensis or the Annales Bertiniani, but we've all read Einhard and Notker, for example.

I'm not sure when I realised this for the first time. I know it wasn't clear to me when I began at university. I wasn't planning on studying history then, though. Surprisingly, it was my desire to focus on the actual sources rather than the scholarship that turned me to history: I was an English major, but had a very hard time getting my head 'round criticism unless it was of the historicist type. Every time the professor said something that seemed anachronistic to me, I'd have to point it out. As LDW said to me once, I couldn't help it -- I read like an historian. But I certainly didn't understand that about myself at the time. The primary sources assigned for my classes were just illustrations of what was in the textbook. I read them, but they served to flesh out the pictures drawn by Mortimer Chambers et al. in what was probably the 2nd edition.

This is one of the things I have been trying to address in my own teaching: really getting the students to "do" history from the first day of class, when I have them interpret a coin or picture. I generally use textual sources, but I think it's important to get across the idea of using different types of sources as well. I spend a day talking about external and internal criticism, and bring it up again in classes throughout the term. This might be something I need to figure out a bit more -- how to make those lessons a little more effective. One thing I'm thinking is to use more recent examples for analogy. More importantly, though, I think I might need to reinforce the idea of interrogating our sources a bit more.

The interrogating the sources, and addressing the external criticism, are things I think are very important, yet we may overlook them. The thing is, most of our students come in knowing something about reading and talking about what they read. What they expect is that they will read, and we will ask them what happened, and they will summarize and perhaps paraphrase the reading. Honestly, there are days when I'd kill for that much! They might even get as far as picking up a writer's tone. Most of them will get as far as thinking about the kind of document they are looking at, if you've told them it's important, and maybe even figure that into their interpretation. But they often don't connect them to other things they've read, nor do they put them into any sort of context. Guess what? They're not alone! Most of your non-historian colleagues won't do that, either. That's something that had never occurred to me until I read one of those essays on the back page of the Chronicle of Higher Education in about 2004ish. Sam Wineburg wrote about an experiment he'd done where he gave faculty from different disciplines a couple of passages to read, and described how very few of them looked for contextual clues like information on the author, place and date of writing, type of document and whether it was excerpted ... these aren't necessarily important in other fields. Wineburg also talks about a similar experiment in one of the essays in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, which I think is really a useful book. The point of this is, of course, that some of us probably do think like historians naturally, but for others it's a learned skill, and even people who do naturally tend to consider the source (as it were), many of us don't really think about what we are doing. It's sort of like being a native speaker of a language, and an avid reader -- you can get along really well in that language, but if you're asked to parse a sentence, you might be screwed, because the rules are so well internalized you've never really had to articulate them or thing why they exist.

This is one reason why I ask my students to answer some questions about the documents I assign for discussion: I want them to have at least some of the basic information down on paper. Usually, they are supposed to bring in a list of things about each document -- the initial steps in external criticism. They need to know when, where, what sort of document, the intended audience, and who the author was. Sometimes, it's a little difficult to get them to remember that asking who the author is does not mean asking the name of the author. We need to know as much as we can about him (or her), in order to identify a possible point of view (I'd use 'biases', but I'm trying to break that one -- or at least remember to ask students to identify the bias the students want the authors to show). We need to think about what is going on at the time.

Only then, after getting the external information and forming a nice little nest of context, do we go on to the internal criticism, which often cannot be explained without the external.

Next time: Getting students to think about what's in the documents, and getting them to start looking at groups of documents together, external evidence/criticism first.

Sunday, November 01, 2009



I'm going to try to write something of substance every day, with the understanding that, if I write something academic, a word count post on the blog will count. Database enlargement will also count as writing.

I just realized this is day one. It's a substantial decision!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hallowe'en Carnivalesque

Hallowe'en Carnivalesque

Carnivalesque LV is up at Bavardess! Full of spooky goodness!

Cliopatria Awards

Cliopatria Awards

Hello, world!!

I'm judging the Cliopatria Awards this year, along with David Silbey of The Edge of the American West and Miriam Burstein of The Little Professor. We'll be judging the Best Individual Blog and Best Post categories. If you have a nominee, please click on the appropriate button below!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blogging for Kids with Disabilities

Blogging for Kids With Disabilities

We talk a lot about children out here in the academic blogosphere. Much of the time, the conversation is about how kids and parenting affect us in the workplace, whether we *are* the parents or we feel that we are expected to pick up the slack for our colleagues so that they can be better parents. Most of those conversations touch on the issue of choice, whether it is our choice to remain child-free, or the choice of our colleagues to have children. I happen to be one of those people who tend towards seeing my colleagues' families as a lifestyle choice, and one that I should not be expected to subsidize through my efforts, even though I also am very happy to rearrange my time to accommodate their schedules whenever I can. I might feel differently if I didn't work in a place where my colleagues were also my friends, I suppose. As it is, the kids are people I know and like, and I enjoy spending time with them as well as their parents. Still, there are times, professionally and socially, when my colleagues' chosen lives have an impact on mine and, if it comes down to someone else's finding a sitter or me rescheduling a trip, they can find a sitter. It was their choice to have kids.

Sometimes, though, it's not always that simple. When we choose to have kids, most of us imagine that the kids will be healthy and relatively happy. Yes, we expect illness and tantrums, and that little kids will need more care than their older siblings, but that they'll eventually grow up and take care of themselves -- and maybe even us. Sometimes, what we ask for is not exactly what we get. The choice to have children ends up coming with obligations we never imagined. That's something we don't talk about in our conversations about academic parenting, either because we instinctively know that a child with disabilities creates a different situation, or because we are uncomfortable talking about it, or because we have mixed feelings about how to deal with our colleagues when the colleagues may themselves not be dealing well -- or when they seem to be dealing very well. Mostly, I think we just aren't sure of how to handle the whole subject.

The reason I bring this up is that it's Blogging for Kids With Disabilities day, or so I hear. I have several friends and family members whose children have disabilities, from genetic disorders to autism to milder learning- and speech impairments. The Kid, about whom I have not spoken for a while, has a congenital hearing problem, so that she is mostly deaf in one ear, and partially deaf in the other. Even something so relatively explicable can have unforeseen problems: when we lived abroad, and tried to explain to her teachers that she needed to sit near the front of the room to read lips and that her loud voice was partially due to not being able to hear how loud she was, or that the teacher might have to touch her or tap her desk to get her attention in a loud room, we were told that she might be better off in a 'special' school. WTF? Because she was embarrassed about it, we had to mention these things to other parents, so they wouldn't think she was ridiculously rude. It was difficult, and still can be, but it's hardly insurmountable.

Still dealing with the Kid, and with some behavioral issues that were in part the result of her being treated for years as a problem child who couldn't pay attention, ate into a good chunk of my dissertation time. This is something we don't talk about much, either, even when talking about childcare and the fact that women academics often still bear the brunt of housework and childcare, and how it affects their careers. If childcare and equity are feminist issues, then perhaps we should think a bit more about how having a child with disabilities might make things even tougher.

The reason I would like people to think is because, contrary to what you might be feeling right now, I don't see this as a problem to be dealt with. I see this as something we should think about, and if we do, we might be reminded of how amazing some of our friends, families, and colleagues are. Not because they have a problem, but because honestly, parenting is hard, and parenting a child with disabilities can be even harder. And yet, when I think of my colleagues who have children with disabilities, they are all scary overachievers. They are the people you most want to work with, and honestly, I don't know how some of them manage sometimes. Well, I do, a little. They make other choices, choices we don't see. They don't go for the jobs that will keep them away from home at all hours. They don't travel as much, sometimes, because it would be too hard on a partner or child if they took that fellowship. They might not eat out or go to movies much, whether because they are paying for extra tuition or maybe because they know their kid isn't quite ready for the sensory input of a crowd, or darkened cinema with loud noises and flickering lights. They may not come to parties because they are spending extra time helping their kids train for the Special Olympics ...

And they may not mind, or they may be resolved, or they may scream and cry in frustration to the world, and then show up to the office, looking a little drained, but still plowing through the backlog that we all have.

Maybe when we start talking about children being a choice, we might want to also think about the other choices people make, from changing one's research agenda and mobility to being a scary overachiever who not only has incurred the wrath of David Horowitz, but also spends a lot of time blogging about politics and disabilities, all the while shaming the rest of us mortals who never, ever threw a birthday party this cool, to handling so much of the behind-the-scenes work at the biggest conference most of my friends and colleagues attend, writing amazing fiction, and making pottery so lovely that I could easily go broke buying it -- all the while trying to balance the needs of both of her children. I'm just sayin'...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Brain Fart

Brain Fart

I'm applying for a job. I remembered to ask my Dean for a referral. But as for others, I forgot that I haven't yet asked people, and also I have no idea to ask anymore. I seem to be in a weird place where my only publication is forthcoming and in pedagogy, and I'm trying to think of people who have come to my presentations, and I don't really know them well enough to ask on what is becoming very short notice! Aargh.

I spend an awful lot of time thinking about applications, so that I write good letters and statements, but I don't know how I managed to blank on this part. D'oh.

Has anybody got suggestions for how to dig myself out of this one?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Does this qualify as Irony?

Does this qualify as Irony?

Longtime readers will know that I am not really fond of theory qua theory. I mean, I think it's important to be able to identify a Marxist, or Feminist, or PoMo, etc., approach, but I tend to switch lenses like a crazed lighting director changes gels. For me, the sources and questions they inspire sort of dictate my approach to them, and theory is something that sneaks in around the edges. I admit that I really do need to read more, but I'm not sure that I have to read *that* much more theory to understand what Judith Butler's 'performative acts' and how that may or may not inform my readings of Althoff and Buc on ritual, for example. Yes, I realize that those things are in and of themselves 'theory' ... but I tend to think of such things as bring really straightforward, so, um, right.

Anyhow, here's the possibly ironic part. Nice Colleague is teaching our methodologies and historiography class this year. She's working from the syllabus I put together when I taught it, which still needs some work, because I'd never taught it before. But basically, we decided that, since it's a departmental requirement, anyone who wants to teach it should contribute to the syllabus and agree to teach the same basic assignments, although we would all teach within our own general fields. She's an Americanist, and is using lesbian pulp fiction as part of her discussion of gender and feminist theory. I'm kind of jealous, and am so using the Rykener case next time I teach it.

But anyhow ... we realized that we really want to do a lot of things with this course that are really sort of, well, theory. Damn you, gender construction, for hooking me!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

another stock-taking post

Another Stock-Taking Post

Well, it's the end of Fall Break, a weekend where I traditionally try to get caught up on everything, and usually fail. So instead I take stock and try to organize myself for the rest of the semester so that I can have a couple of days of rest at Thanksgiving and Christmas -- providing I remember to get online and see if I can redeem some miles to go back to the Left Coast and see X, the Kid, and friends. It was a good break -- not only did I manage to get all my marking up-to-date, but I managed to drive through three states yesterday to go and see my cousin and her kid. Sadly, they are moving back West. Happily, at least they are headed back to the same town my mom and sisters live in, so at least now most of my family is located on the same coast -- or in London.

I have to say, I love living east of the Mississippi. The drive to the cousin's was wonderful (except for the drivers on a long stretch of the road, where OMG they are frakkin' crazy). The weather was nice and dry, and the colors of the leaves were gorgeous. There are lots of miles of country highway on the route, and sadly, lots of roadkill. Raccoons seemed pretty big on this trip. One skunk. Countless furry-tailed tree-rats. Possibly a ground-hog. And something really, really big. Deer meets semi-truck is my guess. And it was mostly still in the road... Yuck. And yet, I couldn't help thinking about the Gary Larson cartoon with crows using spatulas. That and what a human body might look like after getting hit by a truck and a couple of cars. Ugh.

Oh -- and I managed to work on getting rid of most of a nasty cold -- yay me!

So, right -- stock-taking.

I need to do some revamping of my classes. Or maybe take some time out to talk about why I teach the way I do. I don't lecture. I stopped lecturing a while back, when I was teaching at Jesuit U, because my evaluations indicated that the students did not like it and expect more Active Learning. Since then, most of my classes are really discussion-based. This means that students really need to be prepared to discuss and they have to be able to put things together in different ways. Now, fortunately, my program's outcomes are also kind of geared towards my kind of teaching -- they focus mainly on teaching the skills of the historian. This is problematic in its own way, but that's another post.

When my students show up, they really don't know what to expect, and most are not prepared for this sort of class. But honestly, I don't think that they would be successful in the sort of class that I took as an undergraduate. I would sometimes like to craft nice lectures and expect the students to take them, the primary source readings, and the textbook readings, integrate them, and use that information to answer solid historical questions. But that isn't going to happen in the World History survey. My students have enough trouble keeping the information in the textbooks straight. So instead, I focus on using primary sources and discussion to highlight the most important issues. It has been pretty successful so far, but I'm finding I need to do a few new things as well.

My students are not particularly good at reading essay questions. This is true for multi-part questions that, when broken down, tell the students exactly how to structure the essay, as well as the more simple-looking questions that require students to consider the question and demonstrate that they understand all the issues at stake. Since they don't read -- or understand-- the questions (and really, these are the same questions we've all asked and answered: I've even poached questions from exams I took!), they don't answer them. I can't stop giving essay exams and papers, so I'm going to have to spend a bit more time early on explaining how to write essays. Where I'm going to find that time, I'm not sure. Possibly group work -- perhaps letting them use their computers in class to work on a wiki, and workshop the opening paragraph of an essay?

Beyond that, I probably need to add a bit more structure. Hmmm. And remind the upper-division students that they are responsible for information that I haven't talked about in class, if it's something that was in the reading. And I'm still behind on making the podcasts I wanted to make for this year, and on my reading. At least that last part I can do :-)

Apart from that, I'm feeling overwhelmed this semester, and shouldn't. Departmental administration is more difficult than I had expected. There's a lot that needs doing in terms of curriculum and program revision, and getting buy-in is ... interesting. Coming up with outcomes was pretty easy, but getting people to make the leap from outcomes to coming up with assessments that really do reflect the outcomes? Different animal. Plus there's a job application to write, a search committee to serve on (touch wood it's only one -- there are a bunch of searches this year).

And then there's the writing. I've got a book I've done bugger all on in months, and an article to write, whether or not it's going into a collection a colleague is proposing. I totally botched getting in a proposal for Leeds (but if anyone finds they need a chair at the last minute, do please let me know). I have to start thinking about a panel for Big Berks. And do some background work for the professional organization I'm a member of ... oh -- and maybe actually read some books and professional journals.

So, pretty normal for an Associate Professor of History, I think. Guess I'd better figure out how to get going on all of that. Reading for tomorrow first, I guess.