Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A tribute

My father died last week. 

I have sometimes seen academics sighing about family members who don't understand what they do. My dad always seemed to get it, and not because he was also an academic; he was raised on a farm and spent most of his working life selling agricultural equipment. But he and my mom sacrificed so I could go to the liberal arts college I wanted, and cheered me on throughout grad school. He was one of the few people in the world who have actually read my dissertation. He never expressed disappointment with my various part-time and temporary jobs, only sympathy and support. He was thrilled when I got my tenure-track job offer. 

Dad was not always easy to get along with; he could be stubborn and easily angered, and he grew more conservative as he grew older. But I will always be glad of his unstinting support. I'm sorry I never got to show him around my college campus, and I'm sorry he'll never be able to see my book, should I manage to get it published. 

This has been a hard few weeks; I'm not planning on further posts until sometime in January.

Friday, December 4, 2009

December already?

Ugh. That was a longer-than-planned hiatus. I lost much of November to bronchitis.

Two weeks of class are left. Classes are going fine, the only hitch being a class full of shy, introverted first-year students who are afraid to say anything in class. Stimulating discussion, or even getting them to ask basic questions about assignments, is tough.

My college is hiring in an important campus-wide position, and all of the interviews will be in the next two weeks, so I need to fit in going to those presentations / receptions / Q&A sessions to get a sense of the candidates.

I'm also trying to finish up an abstract to submit to a conference within the next week, and finish up with the books I borrowed from interlibrary loan before the librarians come after me with sticks.

Add in getting ready for the holidays, illness and other drama in the family, and it's been a hectic few weeks.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Today I took some time to reorganize my (computer) files, which were in a terrible state.

Back when I was in graduate school, I dumped all notes, drafts, etc., for a particular course into a folder labeled with that course's name. This system broke down a bit once I got to the dissertation research, when virtually everything got dumped into a folder titled "Diss." Eventually this acquired some subfolders ("Drafts" and "Comments", for example). All the research, writing and note-taking I've done since then have not been organized systematically. Sometimes I made new folders, sometimes I shoved files into pre-existing folders, sometimes I left files in the main "Research" folder. 

The result of all this is that it has gotten increasingly difficult to find stuff, and every time I look for some particular notes, I end up searching in half a dozen places on the hard drive to find what I'm looking for.

I hope that I've licked that problem going forward. The Research folder now has subfolders for Writing, Research Materials, and Secondary materials, among others, with appropriate further subdivisions. I sincerely hope that making it easier to find research materials will make the time I have for research more productive, and that clarity in organization reflects clarity in thought. We shall see.

Friday, October 30, 2009


I've been wanting to write more about transitioning from contingent faculty to tenure-track faculty. The thing I'm most conscious of, though, is that it's difficult to bring up details about my transition without telling so much that I'm easily identifiable. I already think that a determined reader could figure out who and where I am, and I'm not sure how faculty and administrators at my college would perceive my blog.

So I keep finding that there are things I don't want to talk about: I don't want to vent my occasional frustrations with students; I don't want to talk an ongoing administrative decision; I don't want to talk about some quirks that make my college distinctive.

What, then, can I say about this transition?

On the one hand, it hasn't been that difficult. Having several years of contingent teaching experience is an advantage in planning and preparing courses. I have materials I can use; I have syllabi and lesson plans I can adapt for this new setting. I know what kind of assignments I like to give and how I like to grade them. All of that experience serves me well.

On the other hand, I worry more about how I fit in. As a lecturer, I didn't stress much about such things. Now I worry about things like: is my grading too lenient? am I going to get a reputation as an "easy" or "soft" professor? Should I socialize more with other faculty? How important is it that I attend talks, performances, and other events on campus?

I still struggle, too, with the issues of mindset that I mentioned here. I still need to remind myself, periodically, that administrative issues being discussed really are pertinent to me. As a lecturer, I often thought to myself, "The outcome of that decision won't affect me, and no one here cares what I think anyway." But here, I am new, but not irrelevant. If I comment on an issue, it is likely that the comments will be taken as seriously as anyone else's.

So those are my current thoughts, midway through the fall. I have also actually been thinking about writing, but that's for another post. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hanging in there

I'm taking a moment's break from grading jail this weekend for an update.

  • The student I alluded to back in this post seems to be getting along ok. She stops by my office regularly for clarification on issues that confuse her, but the very questions she asks demonstrates that she does understand the basics. 
  • I have another non-Christian student in my class on the Reformation whose outsider's perspective is really refreshing; he's not afraid to say things that challenge Christian students' ideas of what's normal, and that livens up discussion immensely.
  • I'm not entirely happy with how I've organized the second half of the Renaissance-Reformation survey course, but we'll see how it goes; I'll teach it again in the spring, so I'll have opportunities to tweak it very soon.

My job requires that I teach every day; this is a very teaching-focused liberal arts college and essentially everyone has an every-day schedule. This is definitely been a shock to the system after the last couple years of part-time adjunct teaching. As tiring as that was, I was usually able to arrange to teach only on two or three, or at most four, days, and had some time during the week to recharge and work on other things. Being in the office and classroom every day is wearing. I need to figure out how to carve out some time mid-week to refresh myself, but I haven't quite managed yet...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Berks 2011 CFP

The call for proposals for the next Berkshire Conference of Women Historians is up here. Also as seen here and here.

I attended the last Berks conference in 2008, and had a really excellent experience. Good scholarship, good opportunities to meet people, and much less fraught with professional angst and status-seeking than many other conferences. I'd also especially like to encourage medievalists to consider participating. It is easy for large conferences to seem dominated by the modernists, and I think it's important for scholars of the ancient, medieval, and early modern world to be visible participants. There is a lot of time yet to think about submission, as the deadline is March 1.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

No prior knowledge assumed?

This week I was talking to an international student about my 100-level history class. The class is a pretty broad survey of European history between c. 1300 and 1700. In theory, the class requires no prerequisites. But in talking to this student, I realized that isn't quite true. 

I do assume, when teaching an introductory class, that my students have had some history in high school. I assume that they've gotten a basic narrative of western history, that they've heard of feudalism, the Renaissance, and Martin Luther. My class is usually designed to take apart paradigms that I believe to be familiar, and to interrogate assumptions about what, for example, "the Renaissance" means.

This student, however, is Asian, and has had very little exposure to European history. It's kind of startling to me to think about how to teach in a way that genuinely did not assume any prior knowledge of the period being taught. How would I teach a whole class full of such students? I would really need to rethink the way I introduce all kinds of topics. With only one student in this situation, I'm less inclined to make major changes, but it's worthwhile to keep the lack of familiarity with the topic in mind. Perhaps I should even make fewer assumptions about what my American students may know.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Why, pray tell, does the latest version of MS Word have separate buttons labelled "Insert Footnote" and "Insert Citation"? Since I (and I suspect, most college professors) use the terms somewhat interchangeably, this is confusing. And I frankly don't understand what the program is doing when it "inserts citation"--it's not actually putting in a footnote. 

I've been fielding a lot of student questions about citation lately.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Is it possible I might one day do research again?

My new job is time-intensive, but yesterday I managed to get a little ahead on class prep, and today I had some time to think. I wrote up an abstract and made some lists:

goals for the year

materials to get from the library

ideas I might want to pursue in the future

I keep most of such notes on the computer, and I have a terrible time keeping track of such stuff. On the list of goals, in fact, is "for the love of God, reorganize the files so I can find things." My system of electronic file-keeping broke down once I moved beyond my dissertation materials, and whenever I try to find an idea or reference I wrote down, I end up searching in five different folders, opening and closing a dozen different files before I find what I'm looking for. 

I think I have a pretty manageable agenda for the year, and we'll see how things go.

Now back to paper grading and class prep.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Stuff about my new job

  • Surprise, surprise! My every-day teaching schedule consumes a lot of time and energy. 
  • Graded the first batch of student papers, and they were generally pretty good.
  • I have a nagging fear I'm a way-too-lenient grader. The fact that the college actually circulates our grade distributions contributes to this fear.
  • I am not convinced that my brand-new rubric saved me any grading time. Don't know if I need to just get used to it, tweak it, or simplify it dramatically.
  • My fellow first-year faculty are cool and we get along well.
  • Students here actually come to my office. I think I've had a visit from at least one every day.
  • Our library doesn't have some books I'd like them to have. I don't know if there's enough room in the budget to pick them all up.
  • ...there was another thing, but I've forgotten it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


The first week of the tenure track is now behind me.

My college does not assign advising or committee responsibilities to first-year tenure-track profs. I appreciate this policy on a number of levels, but in the last week I have found myself actually wishing I had more responsibilities. All I really have to do right now is teach my classes, and that's not so different from my last few years as a contract lecturer.

As a contract lecturer, I showed up, I taught my classes, I attended the occasional campus social event, and I spent the rest of my time in my office. Sometimes preparing classes and meeting with students, but sometimes working on my job applications, writing, or just killing time. It was easy to focus on my students and otherwise float through my days.

That mindset, of not being fully connected to the college community, is one I need to avoid slipping into. That's why it would be nice to have additional responsibilities, as a reminder that my position on campus needs to be somewhat different. I've tried to decide for myself that, in addition to teaching, my job consists of figuring SLAC out: getting to know people, figuring out how things work, getting a sense of the overall community.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

That's the problem with doing no writing since May

I would kind of like to submit an abstract to Kalamazoo this year. I even have a couple of sessions picked out as possibilities. The problem is that I am fresh out of ideas at the moment. Or at least, fresh out of ideas that I'm confident I can write a paper about by May. And somehow I can't imagine I'll have much time to brainstorm, since I'll be teaching every day starting tomorrow...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I have now been oriented. I have signed a dozen pieces of paper dealing with benefits and taxes and stuff. I got the long tour of campus (as opposed to the short tour I got at my interview). I paraded around in a gown for the new students. I have met several dozen fellow faculty. I even remember the names of some of them. I have stood and waved as my name and academic credentials were read out at multiple faculty gatherings. (So now they all know who I am, even though I don't know them.) I have discussed teaching at a SLAC. I have been served catered luncheons. I have met the entire library staff. I have toured the writing center and the other student support offices. I have hobnobbed with deans.

Next week I will actually get to work.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

At least I have two weeks to rethink


That newer collection of essays I was assigning? Apparently the bookstore can't get enough copies of it. At least not without ordering it (doubtless at outrageous prices) from the UK.

Time to retool a little...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Realizations of mid-August

I am mostly moved into my office (save the one box of books that turned up in a totally strange place in the house). I have another week until my orientation starts, two weeks until I start teaching. 

Oh. Yikes. I start teaching in two weeks. At the moment I have a messy syllabus-shaped object instead of a proper syllabus. It is full of question marks and italics and proposed readings that I haven't quite settled on.

The course that concerns me is on women in the Middle Ages. I've taught it twice before, at a different school each time. It was originally heavily based on a couple of courses I had taken myself, although I have changed things around a bit each time.

This time I kept the two somewhat older collections of essays I've liked to use, but added a more recent one. I'd like to expose the students to newer as well as "classic" scholarship. I also want to do a better job of teaching them how to read scholarly articles. This is an "advanced topics" course for majors, so reading scholarly articles is a more than appropriate goal. Usually I make the mistake of assigning articles and assuming that students can read and get them, and then become frustrated when they have read but not gotten. I'm much better at teaching students to deal with primary sources in useful ways.

In this class one of their papers will be an assignment to analyze and critique a scholarly article. I am thinking it will be one that they choose, not already on the syllabus (partly because there is so much excellent stuff I'm having to leave off), although I will supply them with suggestions as necessary. I think I need to precede that with more exercises involving identifying arguments, homing in on clear or unclear points, and figuring out what evidence an author is using to support her argument.  Suggestions for useful exercises are welcome.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Office organization

Today I moved twelve boxes of books into my new office. Yay new office! As the newest prof, I get the smallest office, but it is more than adequate for my needs: lots of shelves, new desk, new computer, plenty of filing cabinets. 

I'm pretty sure these books haven't all been on the shelves at the same time. My last few jobs ranged from "lots of shelf space" to "half a shelf in a shared office," so I've been storing various items for a while. Other books were shelved, piled, or boxed at home. Now I have to figure out how to organize them.

So, gentle readers--assuming you're still out there--what are your favorite methods of office organizing? By period? By author? By color? (Some friends once rearranged my shelves by color as a prank; the result was striking but a little surreal.) Primary sources separated, or mixed in?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Well, I've successfully relocated over 1,000 miles. Stuff seems to have arrived intact, and we've been setting up the house.

Still to be done: moving books into office, sorting out files and papers, final planning for the class that will start in just over a month.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


I've finished the formatting changes on the article, but I need to write the abstract. I hate writing abstracts. The finished article is over 11,000 words exclusive of footnotes. It's kind of difficult to boil that down to 200 words. Bleh. I'm writing a draft version now and I'll let it marinate for a day or two, then rewrite it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Taking stock

Thanks for the good wishes on the last post, everyone!

I missed this blog's anniversary. The year (plus a bit) that I've had this blog have been fairly momentous for me. When I started this blog, I had just come finished a job that nearly burned me out. I had a one-year contract at a different school, and I was starting to explore non-academic career options. I thought I'd make one more try on the job market and then do...something else.

That one try on the job market, though, produced interviews, and an offer. I always said I only needed one offer, as long as it was the right one, and this job is practically my ideal. So now I make a transition from a contract lecturer to a tenure-track professor. I look forward to the transition, but also find it daunting.

My original intent for this blog was to focus on my research interests, on topics related to women's monasticism in the Middle Ages. Looking back, I can see that its focus has drifted a bit, to include more discussion of teaching and of my life in academia in general. I am sure it will continue to evolve over the next year. I think chronicling the transition from contract to tenure-track may be useful, but I also expect to fold more discussion of research and writing back in. 

Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Well, perhaps not quite nothing

The article I've been revising for ages was accepted. *throws confetti*

One of the things which has always struck me as distinctive about the academic life is how achievements are delayed. One works and works over a piece of writing, sends it off, and doesn't hear much until weeks or months later. By that time, ideally, one has moved on to other projects, and isn't in the same mental space any more. It seems to me to make it difficult to celebrate achievements and milestones, because the moment of doing the work and the moment of hearing its reception are so far separated.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I've got nothing

In the (nearly) two weeks since I've been back, packing has consumed my life. I don't seem to have much brain left. I have a half-finished post on my dilemmas in ordering books for next semester, but it seems pretty banal.  I have some random thoughts on organizing my books (currently almost all boxed), and I'm not sure that's worthy of a post yet. In short, posting is likely to be light for the next month or so, until I start to get settled at the other end.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Triumphant return

Was off in New State for a week. Now I'm back. If all goes well with inspection & financing, we'll have a house to live in, hurrah. I also got to see my new office, which has more-than-ample shelving. More hurrah.

Now we just have to get everything packed and ready to move in about six weeks. Yikes!

I took work with me on the trip, but ended up getting nothing done. Except, I replied to the email of a student who wanted to finish up an incomplete from three years ago. I told her/him I couldn't possibly, what with all the packing/moving/unpacking/house-buying/new-job-starting. Three years seems long to me anyway--s/he should probably just take the course over, and not with me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Academic Moving

Today I have been sorting through the last 5-6 years' worth of notes. Since I have to pay to ship these across the country, everything unnecessary must go.

Notes relevant to research I'll keep; likewise copies of articles, which I keep either for reference or because I may assign them in a class someday.

But do I really need to keep all my printed-out class notes? When the same files are on my hard drive? I tossed the ones for classes I don't anticipate teaching in the near future (or, perhaps, ever again), but I'm undecided about the others. 

Notes for graduate classes can also be purged, I suspect, especially since I haven't really looked at most of them in ages.

Terrifying discovery: my senior thesis. I'm afraid to look at it too closely.

Edited to add:

I did throw away student evaluations of my grad school teaching. I've taught my own classes for years now, no one cares how well I led discussion sections at the age of 25. Evaluations for my own older courses may go, too--I'm undecided.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I'm calling it done

There comes a time to just declare a piece of work done.

Sure, I could revise and edit and revise and edit and revise and edit some more. At this point I'm not sure how much that would actually improve the piece.

I have a couple more references to check. Why is that I still forget to write down the page ranges of articles? I know I'm going to need them in the references.

I also need to write the letter that goes with the article responding to the reviewers.

Neither of those things should be too time-consuming, so I should get it out sometime next week.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Teaching the 14th Century

This semester I taught a  "later" medieval history survey (1000-1500), which meant that the 14th century material was sandwiched between the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, and, well, the regular Renaissance. Judging from the final essays, what students remember about the 14th century is this:

  • the Black Death
  • famine
  • the Hundred Years' War
  • the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism

We did do some other things, I swear; we read some Boccaccio and Dante, we looked at Catherine of Siena, and I think there were a few other things in there. Yet clearly, for most of them, the takeaway from this century is death, corruption, and more death. 

The problem I have with this is not so much that their impression is incorrect as that it seems...incomplete. It leaves out a lot of interesting phenomena, such as lay literacy and devotion, and ignores that we can know a lot more about the lives of peasants and artisans from this period than about members of the same social groups in earlier centuries. One of the things I tried to do in this survey was show the complexities of events, and I think I succeeded with some portions of the course. We discussed problems with the idea of "renaissance," for example, and I think we managed a complex, multidimensional examination of the 12th and 15th centuries, and perhaps even the 13th.

Yet somehow, it seems very difficult to convey the complexity of the 14th century--or at least, very difficult to do so in the two or three weeks allocated to it in this survey. Any attempts I made to get beyond the Great Catastrophes of the 14th century just didn't sink in. Perhaps the spell of famine, plague, war, and death is just too difficult to break.

At present, I can easily imagine an upper-level seminar on the 14th century: that could be a great course, with the opportunity to really delve into some rich materials and explore the connections between everything that's going on in that period. But I'm still not sure how I would boil that century down into a concise unit without having the same results I saw this semester.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nearly there

All grades for one class are done. Grades for the other class are done except for the three who need to send me relevant files. This semester is almost officially over for me.

Some of the essays I read today unfortunately managed to hit my pet peeves: Progress, blithe but problematic assertions about periods we haven't covered, wild overgeneralizations.  Many of them also made me reflect on the difficulty of teaching the 14th century well. I have some thoughts brewing along those lines, so will try a more substantive post later.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

And so the grading begins

My students are really so, so lovely this semester. Conscientious, hard-working, generally a pleasure to have in the classroom. As of today, for example, they have all turned in their final assignments, except for the two who wrote me for special permission to turn the assignment in tomorrow. (In both cases, they are traveling, and extra time seems reasonable.) Many of them have also sent me pleasant notes telling me how they enjoyed the class.

The assignments themselves have been somewhat disappointing, however; in the ones I've read so far, people are consistently doing a little worse than their assignments from earlier in the semester. I suppose this is mostly the result of their having to do four or more final assignments at once.

13 grades down, 30 to go.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Approaching the finish line?

My students turn in papers tonight, so grading starts tomorrow. And I'm not going to Kalamazoo, unlike seemingly most of the other medievalist bloggers out there. In the meantime, I can continue plugging away on these revisions.

Today I finally had a bit of a breakthrough: I've substantially reorganized the introduction. I want to make extra-clear that I am not really making a general argument about liturgy, or even about Cistercian liturgy, in this essay, but rather just making an argument about how the liturgy works at this particular community.

I have a few other passages to fix--some additional references to work in. At that point I might be ready to send it back. I'll need to read over the whole thing again (sigh) to be sure.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rethinking assignments

As the semester winds down, I tend to take stock of how classes went. Which assignments should I keep, alter, or abandon? What did my class need more or less of?

This semester my two classes went rather differently. One, a medieval history survey, was pretty polished, and I was generally happy with it; there were a few readings I thought I could have prepared to teach better, and I probably could have cut out an assignment or two.  The other, a course on medieval religion, was trickier. I'd not taught it before, and I didn't have a lot of time to prepare it before it started. I made a hasty plan, under the assumption that students would inject their own interests into the class to help direct it. I should know by now that one can never plan on that!

I also experimented with assignments a bit. I like the concept of one assignment I used, but I was not totally satisfied with the results. The idea was that, to gain some familiarity with different scholarship in the field, each student would choose a book and give a brief presentation on it. The presentations would kick off a class thematically tied to the book. 

The problem I had was that students mostly had trouble conveying the main concepts of their books accurately.  Presentations instead tended to be dominated by a series of interesting facts and anecdotes from the book, and then trail off. 

I do like the idea of the assignment, but I think it needs to be structured differently. I think I should require them to end by posing discussion questions, for one thing. I am not entirely sure how to teach them how to identify and describe the argument of a monograph, though--probably we will need to start with articles, work with those in class, and hope they can move up to a longer work from there.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Notes from the end of the semester

I have just one class left in this academic year. I'll be finishing up my contracts at both my current employers really, really soon. This sort of thing always makes me a bit pensive; I've liked my students, and I don't really expect to see most of them again. I've also had to tell them I'm not returning. Their disappointment is flattering, of course: take that, Person Who Got The Tenure-Track Job Here! I'm encouraging them to check out Person's classes, though, and telling them they can get in touch with me if they need anything.

Next week I'll teach that last class, and probably won't go back to that campus again, since it's a longish drive for me. I'll also go in to my other job to clean up my office. I share the office with a person I've never seen (we're there on alternate days). I'm not sure my office-mate actually comes in at all, since the contrast is so freakish. I've posted pictures on the walls; I have piles of library books and papers covering my desk area. He has a computer in his desk area, a pad of paper, a pan, and nothing else. By the end of the next week I'll get all the final assignments in, and within a week or so after that, I'll turn in the grades and be done.

Next fall I can move my books, papers, and other office stuff into my real and permanent office, where they can stay longer than a year; next spring I'll only have to say goodbye to the students who are graduating. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Inching along

Ah, that last post looks so optimistic. I have made progress on revising the article, though--just in rather small segments. I have a list of things that need to be done to the thing, and I manage to knock off one or two of them each time I sit to work on it (not more than once or twice a week, though). So it is inching along. I am so tired of it that I have to talk myself into working on it, even though I would dearly love to send it back. It was sent back to me last fall, so it feels as though I've been working on the revisions for way too long. Now that I think about it, I did write and submit another paper during that time, plus did a job search and a chunk of editing work. Of course, this journal editor doesn't know that, and what if s/he thinks I'm a slacker? (Such is the paranoia of journal submission.)

Oh well, if they don't take it, I'll just have to submit it elsewhere. So be it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A little research, at long last

Between teaching and job market stuff, I haven't had much opportunity to write since January. I have this long-lingering revise-and-resubmit which is turning into something of an albatross, poor thing. I was going to work on it last Friday (my non-teaching day of the week), but my computer chose that day to malfunction, preventing me from accessing the relevant files. 

Today I finally took a look at it: first the list of tasks I still need to do to finish the revisions, and second the article itself. Since I've let it sit so long, I really needed to reread it. I made some minor edits as I went along, and noted a couple of other places that need fixing. I think the article now beats around the bush too long before getting to the main idea, and some of the transitional paragraphs are kind of clunky. So, progress, hurray. I hope now that I've looked at the piece I can get back to it quickly.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Teaching and pre-teaching

I may be getting better, but my second class resumed last week, and teaching both classes seems to distract me thoroughly.

Today I taught the Black Death. Students always get into this topic, sometimes with a level of glee which is slightly disturbing if you think about it. I raised the theory of some scholars that the Black Death was not actually the same disease as modern bubonic plague. This sparked a discussion which was lively, if somewhat ill-informed (none of us being really qualified to deal with some of the medical / biological ramifications of that issue).

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about next year's courses. in some ways this seems premature, since I won't start teaching them until September. I keep telling myself that it makes some sense, though--there will come a point when my time is thoroughly taken up with logistics related to moving. That's not the case now, and if I have some pre-class preparation done, I won't have to try to do it while packing / moving / unpacking and so forth.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

At least I don't have as much grading?

I am not interested in adjudicating students' requests for extensions. I just have no interest in deciding whether the reason for an extension request is a good or bad one. So instead, the policy in my course is that they can have [x] number of extensions per semester, no questions asked, as long as they inform me in writing that they're taking the extension. Still, I was somewhat startled yesterday to find that, of the 36 students in the class, only 6 actually handed in the essay, and the rest requested extensions. Hm. 

In other news, it turns out I don't have pneumonia. In fact, the cold seems to be going away, and the cough seems less frequent, so I may actually be getting...better!

Monday, March 23, 2009

End of spring break

Back to work today, though as I mentioned only one of my two classes resumes this week. Maybe that means I can ease back into the routine?

Unfortunately, my dr. thinks I might have walking pneumonia. And over the weekend I developed yet another cold. Joy.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring break progress report

More than midway through now--how am I doing?

1) Finish revisions on long-suffering article so I can resubmit it: not at all. Bad academic.

2) Write recommendation letter for student mentioned in last post: drafted
3) Grade small stack of papers: not actually due until Mar. 31
4) Write comments I promised to a few students ages ago: mostly done
5) Figure out how to rearrange the rest of my course schedule to make up for our snow days: done
6) Skim/peruse books that I'm considering for next year's courses: only a little

7) Tidy up and dust: made some progress
8) Clean the bathroom and kitchen: partly done
9) Clean up my desk: nope

10) Hang out with the spouse (also on break): Yes! Hurray!
11) Visit nearby exhibit: on tomorrow's docket
12) Whatever else strikes my fancy: have done plenty of whatever!

The article is the major failing here. I'm just having trouble getting back into it, after shelving it to deal with the job search and being sick much of the winter.

Next week I have kind of an odd half-break; of my two teaching jobs, one resumes next Monday, and the other will still be on break next week. That should give me some extra time to finish up the revisions and the grading as needed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Were medieval nuns "lesbian-like"?

This post is building on the ongoing conversation about Judith Bennett's History Matters. See part 1, part 2, and part 3. Thanks to Notorious for starting this up--great idea!

First off, I think this is a great book, immensely thought-provoking. I should also clarify that I read the book a year or two ago, and now can't find my copy, so I haven't fully refreshed my memory.

But, as I remarked in the comments to Tenured Radical's post, I have some concerns about the use of "lesbian-like" to describe medieval women, particularly medieval nuns. I can see the attraction to the term: nuns did, after all, live in primarily-female communities, and so often had their closest relationships with other women. Bennett's discussion of the term also reminds me of the need to avoid heteronormativity, which can be easy to slip into.

Nonetheless, I have some qualms. One is that I've encountered a number of people who were already eager to assume that medieval nunneries were hotbeds of women having sex with each other. Many of them were undergraduates, true, but not all; I fear that introducing "lesbian-like" only reinforces some of the more titillating notions about medieval nuns. That alone wouldn't put me off, though.

Second qualm is that women's monasteries in the Middle Ages were, in fact, not always, or even typically, female-exclusive communities. Nuns had male chaplains, confessors, and other priests on hand; some nunneries had attached communities of lay brothers; lay men did construction, farming, or other manual labor around nunneries. So, at many communities, men went in and out quite regularly. Plus, while many nuns, perhaps even most nuns, did have their primary emotional relationships with other women, there must have been many nuns who viewed men as their primary friends and emotional supports. Hildegard of Bingen's male secretary, Volmar, seems to have been a trusted aide and confidant; Elisabeth of Schonau was very close with her brother; numerous later medieval nuns had strong emotional ties to their confessors. So even on the level of emotional, rather than sexual, intimacy, many medieval nuns had important relationships with men.

Even beyond that, nuns were supposed to direct their energies--emotional, sexual, and spiritual--toward God. Much spiritual literature aimed at nuns invoked the image of a nun as Christ's bride. As I've discussed before, this was not just metaphor, but literalized. Many people, including a great many nuns and their spiritual advisors, viewed nuns as the literal brides of Jesus, the heavenly bridegroom. Nuns' relationship with Jesus could be somewhat eroticized as well as emotionally affecting and intimate. (A digression: what would that have been like for a nun whose sexual desires were for women? would she have found the bearded Jesus on the cross alienating rather than fulfilling? might she have fixed on more feminized aspects of Jesus in her personal spiritual journey?) The generally masculine figure of God was, then, theoretically at the center of nuns' existence, which perhaps makes them seem not so lesbian-like after all.

In the area of sexuality, I think a case can be made that, in the Middle Ages, virginity was a sexual identity. Whereas modern secular culture tends to view virginity as a temporary phase of life, to be moved past in one's youth, for medieval people it was a state to aspire toward, to protect vigilantly, to be constantly aware of. The preservation of virginity (or chastity) was a vital part of nuns' identity. How would this affect any sexual orientation on the part of nuns? If a nun had taken vows as a young girl, to what extent was she even aware of her other sexual preferences?

As discussed by Bennett, the term "lesbian-like" does raise some important issues of interpretation and things to think about. But for all the above reasons, I think it's too easy to apply to medieval nuns, and doesn't do enough to reflect the real complexities of nuns' daily lives.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Spring break plans

My spring break has just begun. Here are some of the things I'd like to get done in the next week:

1) Finish revisions on long-suffering article so I can resubmit it

2) Write recommendation letter for student mentioned in last post
3) Grade small stack of papers
4) Write comments I promised to a few students ages ago
5) Figure out how to rearrange the rest of my course schedule to make up for our snow days
6) Skim/peruse books that I'm considering for next year's courses

7) Tidy up and dust
8) Clean the bathroom and kitchen
9) Clean up my desk

10) Hang out with the spouse (also on break)
11) Visit nearby exhibit
12) Whatever else strikes my fancy

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How to request a recommendation

Yesterday I got a packet requesting a recommendation from a former student. The packet was astounding and delightful: it was everything I could have wanted to write her a great recommendation and more. Here's what the student did:

--emailed me ahead of time to let me know the stuff was coming, reminding me of which class of mine she was in
--included a detailed letter explaining her current situation and plans, thus why she's requesting the recommendation
--included a current resume
--included the appropriate form, and a pre-addressed stamped envelope
--included a printout from the website of the program she's applying to; this describes the program and its core courses, so I have a good sense of what its demands are
--included a copy of a paper she wrote for my class; this is in fact a photocopy of the version I returned to her, so my marginal comments are on it as well

So I have here everything I need to write her a detailed and useful letter. I was already pleased to recommend the student, and now I'm extra delighted. Now I can and will also mention how extremely organized, thorough, and considerate she is. The recommendation I will write her will glow in the dark.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The job

Thanks for the good wishes, everyone!

I'm trying to figure out how much I feel comfortable saying about the job in this space. The college I'll be working at has certain quirks that are fairly distinctive, so including the relevant details would make it fairly easy to figure out my real-life identity. Then again, it's not that hard to do that if you're sufficiently motivated, since I've been pretty open about my research interests.

But some details that are less specific:
--I'll be teaching both medieval and early modern history, pretty much half and half. Basically, if something happened in Europe between the years 500 and 1700, it's my bailiwick. I haven't had to teach early modern for a couple of years, so I'll need to brush up. If anyone has suggestions for Renaissance/Reformation/early modern readings for undergrads, I'd welcome them.

--My department is really small. All members seem to get along well, unless they've been pretending for my benefit. Tips on navigating a small department also welcome.

--I won't have any advisees or committee assignments in the first year, so I have more time to figure out those aspects of the job.

--The college has a medieval & Renaissance studies program which apparently needs new life breathed into it. Suggestions on attracting students and/or inspiring an interdisciplinary program are very welcome!

Monday, March 2, 2009

I got the job

I actually got the job.

It's a great job for me. It fits really well with my priorities, and my (future) colleagues seem really nice. I'm delighted to have accepted the offer.

I was originally going to make some comments on the job market in this post, but they rapidly got more complain-y than I was comfortable publishing. So suffice it to say: I've been on the job market now for many years. It's taken me as long to get a tenure-track offer as it took me to get a Ph.D. in the first place. I've actually been quite lucky, in that I've had very solid and generally enjoyable temporary teaching jobs in the meantime. But I am ecstatic to finally have that tenure-track offer.

Snow Day

Classes are cancelled...what's a professor to do?

--figure out how to rearrange the schedule to compensate for this missing day
--do the prep for tomorrow morning's class
--try to get ahead by writing up assignments for future weeks
--ponder submitting an abstract for next year's Medieval Academy meeting

I'm finally healthy, or close enough to make very little difference, so I hope to be returning to more regular posting here this month.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Quick update

Well. My campus interview was last week. I think it went well enough, and I'll leave it at that for now...

I immediately came down with some sort of hell-flu when I got home. I'm really hoping that March is a better month as far as health goes.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Week 2 ramblings

I am finally getting over being sick. Hurray for antibiotics! I had some kind of sinus infection and for over a week felt really junky, plus I couldn't hear very well.

I find it hard to believe it's just the second week of the semester. I have two teaching jobs currently, so I am teaching a medieval history survey (1000-1500) to about 40 students at one school, and a course on medieval religion to about 10 students at another. Both seem to be going well; both groups of students are with it and engaged. Except that they don't seem to want to post in their online dicussion fora, which is perpetually irritating to me. This should be an easy assignment; just log on to the course website and write some comments about the reading! They do seem to have things to say in class, so I don't think it's a matter of not knowing what to say. This is the first week I've asked them to do these postings, so I'll see how it goes.

I need to pull my job talk together. Work for tomorrow. Although the talk is clearly my top priority, I still regret having to put off the other things I'm working on to focus on it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Today's agenda

Well. I opted not to go to this week's job talk. I was persuaded by the several commenters who feared causing discomfort--for the candidate, for the department, or for myself. Take note that this is a small enough institution that my presence would be fairly obvious. There are two more talks next week, so I may revisit that decision.

Frankly, what finally made the decision for me is that I had way too much to do. Being sick last week has left me running to catch up all week, and that hour right before class turned out to be essential prep time.

Today is not a teaching day. Bliss to sleep later than 7 am and to have the day to work on other things. First and foremost, I have to give my own job talk in a few weeks--30-45 minutes, should be accessible to undergraduates (the job is at a small liberal arts college). This requires some planning.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reader poll!

I am teaching at a certain college. Said college is hiring someone in my field. I applied for the job, but was not interviewed.

Now the finalists are making their visits to campus.

Do I go to the job talks, or not?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Not how I planned it

Oh, it has not been a good week. Well, it had good parts--had some friends over on Monday since we had the day off--but right after that I developed a Horrible Plague which has laid me low for days. I am just now emerging from days of lying about miserable and blowing my nose, and tomorrow classes start. Fortunately my first class is in the afternoon, so I can go into the office tomorrow morning to get things ready. But this is so not how I planned to start the semester.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Further research

To follow up from yesterday's search of liturgical texts in CANTUS, I took a look at Late Medieval Liturgical Offices. LMLO is potentially a great resource compliling complete offices for a wide variety of saints, all from the later part of the Middle Ages. It has some drawbacks, however. One is that it uses a somewhat complex system of ascii codes for the information. The text accompanying the data files argues that this is not hard to learn, but it does constitute something of a barrier to using the materials. Even more problematic, just now, is that it was published in 1994, and its data files come on...3.5" floppy disks. My computer is an aged beast, and still has a floppy drive, but I know most newer computers don't. I'll see if I can actually read the files this afternoon.

At any rate, I was interested to discover from LMLO that the office for Saint C I'm looking at also appears (or at least a very similar one appears) in a single 15th-century manuscript from Barcelona, not so far from the monastery I'm studying. So I would guess I'm looking at some regional office for the saint. My ms. evidence is earlier, though, so I still wonder whether the office originated at this monastery or elsewhere...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


So I am revising this article on liturgy that I seem to have been working on forever. I am looking at the feasts of several saints to see how they are presented in the liturgy of a particular nunnery. At the suggestion of a reader, I plugged the texts for these saints into the CANTUS database. To camouflage the project a little, I'm going to call these saints A, B, and C.

Saint A was wildly popular in the Middle Ages, and the results show it. Exactly the same texts appear in over a dozen different manuscripts, from totally different parts of Europe. So the monastery I'm studying probably got their office for Saint A from some commonly available materials.

Saint B was also quite popular. The texts I entered only appear in a few manuscripts, though. Both of those manuscripts are from monasteries of the same order, so perhaps this office was one composed at, and circulated among, monasteries of this order.

Saint C was another popular saint. But the texts used at the monastery I am studying don't appear in the database at all. Not a one of them. I checked them all. Admittedly the database is not comprehensive, but it does include a large number of manuscripts, and I did get hits for the other feasts. I am especially intrigued by this, because the celebration of Saint C is unusually prominent at this monastery. Other monasteries of the order did not observe her in the same way. So the fact that the texts are more obscure is extra interesting.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Getting unblocked

I have so many things to do this month it has been a little paralyzing. I came back from the AHA (via train) last Monday and spent the afternoon totally zoned out. I took a nap, which I almost never do. Then I spent a couple of days catching up on correspondence and finishing my grades and such.

As I puttered away at one thing and another, I realized I was reluctant to get back to my research. I need to finish revisions on an article and resubmit it, and then I need to dig back into the book manuscript. And I felt blocked. I wasn't totally sure how to address the comments of one reader, who seemed most interested in some points I felt were tangential to my major argument. I hadn't worked on it since probably early December, what with all the mess of finals. Prep for the spring semester seemed more pressing. And so on.

But today I may have gotten unblocked. I allotted two hours to work on the article. I sat down and read through it, made notes on things to do, fixed up some footnotes, added some brief explanatory material, explored the sources suggested by the reader. I think things are coming together. It may not even take that much more work. I'd be delighted to send this off by the end of the month.

I also allotted two hours to work on course prep. That was good, too; I made some progress, and the two-hour time period kept the prep from sprawling over into the rest of the day. I hope I can keep this up for the rest of the week.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

AHA report 3

The other session I attended was a really delightful one titled "Women and Community in the Middle Ages." I made a special point of going as it promised discussion of nuns. As it turned out, all three of the papers were very good, and all three posed some worthwhile challenges to common tropes of discussion medieval women.

Fiona Griffiths, in the midst of some interesting work on relations between male and female religious in the twelfth century, argued that we need to pay more attention to money. She suggested that financial issues underlie a number of criticisms of nuns, and that financial considerations contributed to concerns about purity on questions of separating male and female religious. While this was definitely a work-in-progress kind of paper, the general point seems potentially very important.

Anne Lester discussed how, in northern France, women following informal religious lives tended to be organized into Cistercian nunneries rather than Franciscan or Dominican ones. According to her, bishops in this region took an active role in encouraging/requiring such women's communities to adopt Cistercian customs, including lobbying the Cistercian General Chapter for inclusion; such houses, however, continued to be visited by bishops rather than Cistercian abbots, and modified their customs somewhat to allow practices of apostolic poverty. Overall Lester indicates that we shouldn't assume older orders like the Cistercians have nothing to do with the apostolic poverty movements of the twelfth century.

Katherine French finished up, building on her work on medieval English parishes to situate Margery Kempe in her parish. French pointed out that Margery is often discussed as an anomaly, eccentric, utterly unique, and that in fact she was very active in her parish church and shared similar concerns with many other women and men of her parish. This was also a really interesting paper.

The following discussion was good, although most of it blurs together for me; but I found all of the papers to be quite thought-provoking, potentially having ramifications for my own research.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

AHA report 2

As I reported yesterday, I attended just two sessions.

The first session I attended, on Friday afternoon, was on "Old and New Classics." It was a continuation of similarly-themed sessions at previous AHAs. I had attended the one last year, I think it was, which had a huge crowd. By comparison, attendance at this one seemed a little sparse. Still, the conversation was fairly lively. Each member of the panel proposed a classic work of medieval history (admittedly two of them dealt with a classic theme, instead). Daniel Bornstein's classic was Robert Brentano's Two Churches, and he raised the possibility that a classic may forestall rather than inspire imitation. Ruth Mazo Karras discussed classics of medieval women's history, focusing on the essay collection Women in Medieval Society edited by Susan Mosher Stuard. Carol Lansing instead talked about integrating heresy into broader histories, discussing Herbert Grundmann and Lester Little's work, among others; John Van Engen focused on Haskins's Renaissance of the Twelfth Century and how the idea has become a fairly standard part of most medievalists' thinking. Session chair Dan Smail--making a last-minute entrance--said he'd like to see a future session focusing on classic articles rather than monographs, which seems a worthy idea.

The discussion was wide-ranging enough that I won't attempt to convey my sketchy notes: it included specific responses to all of the speakers, as well as a broader conversation about undergraduate and graduate teaching. I hope this series of sessions continues; I think it has sparked some very interesting conversations, especially useful for younger medievalists. Since I work on neither England nor Italy, I wasn't familiar with Brentano's book, for example, but it sounds well worth a look.

Monday, January 5, 2009

AHA report 1

Fresh year, fresh post.

I am back from AHA. I succeeded in my plan of abandoning the conference for significant periods to see some of the city, with the able assistance of Dr. Notorious and others. I had two job interviews, both of which seemed to go well (at least from my point of view). I had useful conversations with a number of people and was able to catch up with some friends.

I also managed to see some sessions--just two, but both good. More on those later after I've had a little time to process my thoughts.