Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Recommendation season

I have had several talks lately with students considering graduate school. All of these students are pretty savvy, and I can tell when I start in with the spiel about the job market, etc., that this is not the first time they've heard of such a thing. Some of them have decided not to apply for next year, after all.

More awkward is the case of a student applying for a program in Not My Field, who nonetheless asked me for a letter. There is no major in Not My Field here at Small College (I doubt there is at very many small colleges, in fact); student has, I think, a double major in history and Field Related to Not My Field. So I've agreed to write the letter, and I can talk about the student's general intellectual qualities and work ethic, but it's definitely harder to talk with confidence about what the student can contribute to NMF, since I don't know it that well. I also worry that the student is operating at a disadvantage without a major in NMF--the student also seems pretty nervous. So I'll just write the best letter I can, and try to consult with student about a plan B if things don't go as hoped.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Observations of the last three weeks

I am supposed to be grading papers this weekend. But I had my students turn in their papers via an online system, which appears to be down.

Several of my advisees are lovely, poised individuals who have been a breeze to advise. Others have mysteriously vanished and missed key moments of the registration process.

My students have all been sick, and I fear I'm only narrowly avoiding getting sick myself.

Next week my file comes up for reappointment review.

More later.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I'm back from my research trip, and back at work. It's vaguely surreal to be back in the office and classroom.

Also, I am advising, and some of students have proposed schedules that are sadly delusional. No, you should not sign up for multivariable calculus if you have only taken high school algebra II.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Now here's a bad nun for you

When I'm transcribing documents I tend to get in kind of a flow, where I am making sure what I'm writing down are actual words, but I'm not really processing the content very closely. The other day I was rolling along typing in this manner, listing off the various accusations against a particular prioress, when it suddenly sank in that the word I was just typing was "interfecit." 

I stopped and took a closer look. Yes, indeed, the accusation was that this prioress had killed another nun. The hell? Now, there's not a lot of detail here, so it's not clear whether we're talking premeditated murder or accidental death. Said prioress had also apparently given birth at her nunnery. The bishop's wrath can be imagined. Understandably enough, he had his bailiff lock up the errant prioress. And then things took an interesting turn.

A local miles, evidently a cousin of the imprisoned prioress, rode to her rescue. Not alone, but with a troop of armed followers. The bishop complains that they rode up on horseback shouting and raising a terrible fuss. Though he also complains of their violence, it's not clear whether they actually fought with the bishop's guards, or whether the bailiff turned the prioress over in response to their intimidation (the bishop doesn't seem too happy with the bailiff, either, which inclines me toward the latter conclusion). 

There are several letters about the incident, as the bishop excommunicated the prioress and the miles and repeatedly begged various authorities to turn them in. One letter names around twenty individuals also excommunicated, these presumably constituting the armed troop. Some of those men share surnames with the prioress, others with the miles, suggesting that we're looking at an extended family group.

As is so often the case, I have no idea at the moment what the outcome was. Nor do I have any real idea what to do with it, other than post the incident for your entertainment.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The phrase I've been typing most often lately

(aside from basic opening and dating formulae):

in virtute sancte obediencie, et sub pena excommunis

I wish I could credibly put the same thing on my syllabi:

in virtue of holy obedience, and under penalty of excommunication, we order that you turn in your work on time and do not plagiarize, students!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Notes from the archives

I'm writing from an undisclosed location in the land of research. And I was just fondly remembering back before I got my (now not-so-new) job, when I actually used to talk about the subjects of my research on this blog. Ahhh. 

I've been looking at a register of episcopal letters to see what sorts of letters the bishops sent to nuns. Some observations I found interesting:

--Usually the bishops write in Latin, but when writing to nuns (and some lay men and women) they often use the vernacular instead. 

--In the case of one community, when the bishop writes to a particular nun in that house, he writes in Latin, but when writing to the nuns collectively, he writes in the vernacular.

Further, I think the register may actually be the originals of the letters. There are emendations in the text (words crossed out, others added in the margins) which suggests to me that a clean copy was made to send off afterward, rather than the register being a copy of a letter composed separately.

A few letters deal with disciplinary issues, which the bishop says are very scandalous. I find it interesting that those letters have a LOT of emendations. Dare I think this suggests some emotion on the author's part--agitation or anger at the scandalous behavior, perhaps? 

The content of the letters is interesting, too, but I need more time to ponder it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Not all of us were here then

I have started and abandoned several posts over the last couple of weeks. I would like to talk about some of my new responsibilities as a second-year faculty member, by way of continuing to chronicle my journey from contingent to tenure-track faculty. These things feel difficult to talk about, though. Even pseudonymous, I have a hard time figuring out what conversations with advisees / committees / whatnot should be best kept private, and I have been erring on the side of "private."

There is a discourse on campus, though, that I find vexing as a new faculty member. Our campus is the midst of discussing some large-scale curricular changes. There is a lot of anxiety about whether the current proposed changes will pass, and what the consequences of that will be, both from supporters and critics of the proposal. Although the current proposal was put together just last year, the original movement for curricular change started several years ago, in the days of Legendary Committee. The thing I find vexing is that many faculty who have been here longer speak about the changes as if all of us are familiar with the work of Legendary Committee, and as if the discussion held at that time about the college's curricular goals is now set in stone. "Well, the goals of this proposal came out of the Legendary Committee report," they will explain. "At the time of Legendary Committee, we all agreed on X, so surely we must still agree on X now?" There are a lot of assumptions that everyone remembers the long process that has led up to this moment.

Not so. I was one of several new faculty last year. There were several the year before that, and several more the year before that, and so forth. There are quite a few new faculty this year. All together, that represents a sizable minority of the entire faculty who were not involved in the Legendary Committee discussions, and who may bring different ideas and expectations to the table. The faculty does not actually exist in a fixed, unchanging state, where a consensus established at one moment can be expected to endure forever.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

End of the week

Well, it was less "easing in" than I'd hoped. The processing and welcoming of new students (and bidding farewell to their parents) went off fine, but registering the new students teetered on the brink of disaster all week. Our online registration system is clunky and difficult at the best of times, and this time it kept refusing to recognize new students as first-years, which meant it wouldn't register them for their required first-year courses. Argh. It is not a good thing when your college's registrar has to send emails titled "Don't panic!" in the middle of registration. I had enough to do trying to keep track of my advisees' interests, AP credits, and the like, without also having to fight the software.

On the other hand, the prospect of starting class on Monday does indeed seem like a breeze, in contrast.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Easing in

Class doesn't start for me until next week, but I'm going to have to be on campus every day this week. Faculty at SLAC are expected to attend opening receptions and new student orientation activities--we all got recruited to either lead a discussion on the campus's common reading or give a mini-lecture that gives them a taste of teaching. As a new advisor, I have an advising workshop to go to, and then I need to meet with my crew of new advisees and get them registered for fall classes.

This is maybe more involvement with new-student stuff than faculty have at larger institutions, no? But this is part of the atmosphere SLAC sells itself on. I'm actually hopeful that it will be a good way to get myself more used to a structured routine. I have been spending the summer sleeping late and having very unstructured time, and I need to get used to getting up earlier and paying attention to what time it is.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Belfry house

My house does not have a belfry, but it is a big old house, and it does have bats, apparently.

Let me first say that I am a squeamish person, I don't like being around wildlife, and the bats make me panic quite enough as it is. When we first encountered bats in the house, I posted about it on facebook, at which point a good half dozen of my friends started posting panicky comments about rabies! and omg what if they bit you! So if you are squeamish and panicky about bats yourself, please do not read any further; I really don't need my own paranoia fed by yours. I am posting here because I need to vent a little, and my real-life friends mostly don't read here and so won't hassle me about the bats later. OK?

We found two bats in the house back in May. One was dead when we first saw it. The other I found alive, when I was at home alone; I wigged out, shut up the room it was in, and by the time my partner (henceforth, Batcatcher) came home (24 hours later) it was dead. Then we didn't see any for several weeks. In late July we found a couple more dead ones, all intact, lying on the floor. Our best guess is that one of our cats nabbed them (probably during the day, when they were sleepy and slow-moving) and abandoned them when they were no longer moving.

The exciting new wrinkle of the last few days is that we started finding them live. We went up to our TV room, which is in our finished attic, and as soon as we turned the lights on a bat started flying around. We have rigged a catching device out of a pillowcase and a wire coat hanger. Batcatcher nabs them in this improvised net, holds the pillowcase closed, takes them outside, and releases them. Three live bats in the last three nights. (we hope it isn't the same bat over and over again, sigh) It seems like time to call in professionals to see if they can figure out where the bats are getting in and stop them...

Friday, August 6, 2010

On being a hedgehog

This is written in response to Notorious, PhD's recent series on being a scholarly fox vs. hedgehog, at Notorious's suggestion, in fact. Those posts elicited numerous comments on the joys of fox-ness, and she thought perhaps I might be better placed to offer a defense, or praise, of the hedgehog. On reflection, I'm not sure if this adds up to either defense or praise, but I can talk about what being a hedgehog feels like to me.

My scholarly interests focus on certain key themes. I'm interested in women, religion, and community, and in a particular region, at that. That is, I'm interested in how religious women formed communities; how religious women engaged with the surrounding community; and how community norms shaped women's religious experiences. My research started with a particular cache of documents, all related to a single institution.

From that starting point, my research has pushed outward in different directions. I have looked at institutions of different religious orders and in different cities, and have looked at both vowed nuns and lay women. One paper took me into the heady specialty of liturgiology; I'm now attempting to explore the roles of lay servants at monasteries. In general, interesting sources have led me in these varying directions, and each has required me to get familiar with different scholarship and resources.

I still consider myself a hedgehog, however, because all the various papers and small projects I've pursued stem from the same coherent core of interests. I keep a running list of research questions I'd like to pursue at some point, which currently fills a whole page, single-spaced, and all fit into the same core interests of women, religion, and community (and for the most part, stick to the same region). I don't feel constrained or pressured to stay in my patch, as some of the fox commenters seem to; these are the questions that come to me naturally, and they could occupy me for years to come.

I think my job at a small liberal arts college suits my hedgehogging, in a couple of ways.

1) As I am the only medievalist, I must teach widely (in fact, I teach early modern history as well), so I get opportunities to exercise broader interests in my teaching. I taught a seminar involving persecution and the inquisition, for example, which I love to teach, but have no interest in researching.

2) My college has limited research expectations for tenure. Since our teaching load is intense, I call this sane, although I think some of my fellow young faculty see it as a failure of ambition. Perhaps, but to me it also indicates that I have freedom to work on what I like, without having to publish it in Sufficiently Impressive Venues.

As I said in a comment at Dr. N's, I am still early in my career. My first book is still a work in progress, and there may come a day when I wake up and decided I have nothing more to say about religious women and community. Perhaps on that day I will become a fox.

But I think my final note is that the fox-hedgehog binary, like so many others, is ultimately a matter of perspective. I commented to Notorious that I think of my advisor as a fox (er... in this scholarly-metaphorical sense), while she thinks of him as a hedgehog. I don't want to make too much of this perceived divide, therefore; surely the reality is a spectrum of interests and approaches which varies for each individual.


How did it get to be August? Where did the time go?

My summer goals have met with decidedly mixed success. I've made progress on preparing new courses and preparing for my fall review, but not so much with the writing. I may still be able to get some writing in before class starts...but that's only three weeks off... so we'll see how much I can accomplish.

I am not entirely happy with my lack of productivity this summer, but I think the reality is that I needed a break. To review, in the last year, I bought a house, moved halfway across the country, started a new tenure-track job, gave papers at two conferences, and experienced my father's death. This summer has been, if not productive, a valuable time for rest and renewal.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Summer projects

So one of my summer projects (one for which the college is actually paying me, hurrah) is to get up to speed on Crusades scholarship for a course I'm teaching in the fall.

There is a lot of Crusades scholarship, folks. Hoo boy. I ordered a huge stack of books which I'm now skimming. Some I'll assign for class, and others I'll order for the library, whose collection in this area is not very current.

When I started this reading, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to do with this class, and the process of reading has sharpened my ideas considerably. I have rejected several books for class assignments as being, to me, "too magisterial." I want my students to get a handle on what happened, but I don't want them to be too influenced by a single narrative that proclaims This Is What Happened. I am much more drawn to books that explain differing interpretations, that talk explicitly about how they handle sources, and that don't pretend to be the single definitive account of events.

I've winnowed my giant pile into rejects and books I want to take a second, closer look at. I'd also welcome suggestions.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The first year on the tenure track

So, I have finished my first year on the tenure track. I am taking stock a bit, and figuring out how it feels to have passed this milestone.

Last fall I was struggling a bit to feel differently about this job than the one-year positions I've had for the last few years. (I wrote a bit about that here and here.) At some point, when I wasn't really paying attention, I found that I had successfully transitioned. On some level, I have recognized that I have committed to this place. In fact, I have had to restrain myself from worrying too much about proposed curriculum and policy changes.

In a lot of ways, I am glad to have had experience working at other schools before starting on the tenure track here. In my very first (visiting) job out of grad school, I encountered faculty politics that were contentious and a little dysfunctional. That has given me a better idea of what to look for. I have spent much of the past year observing politics here, as well as the quirks of faculty governance, and I think I'm developing the ability to hear what lies behind apparently innocuous comments made in faculty meetings. My senior colleagues have, I think, been a good guide for me.

My classes generally had good enrollments, except for one which was cancelled. I'm writing that one off as a fluke, as my preregistrations for next year also look good. I think I was more relaxed about fitting in with college norms in the spring, so I hope I'm getting adjusted.

I didn't get a ton of writing done this year, but I did give two conference papers, so I think I'm doing all right on the research front.

Next year will bring a considerable change in my responsibilities, since I'll have advisees and committee work. But I think I feel ready, more or less, for this new work.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


I went to commencement yesterday, the first time I have attended commencement as a faculty member, and the first time I wore my fancy new regalia.

It was a simple, lovely ceremony. Working at SLAC = small graduating class = shorter ceremony. I don't know many of the new graduates very well, so I didn't have to stick around long afterwards for the family meet & greet.

Now my obligations as a faculty member are basically done. I'm getting together with my faculty mentor next week to talk over my first year and next year's review. I'm torn between wanting to take it easy for a week and wanting to start getting the things on my summer list done.

Unfortunately, it already feels like summer. It's been hot, sunny, and humid 'round here. The house a/c unit needs repair, so we're making do with fans. (Unfortunately, my office at work isn't any better.) And the baby tomatoes I planted are wilting in the sun. :( I'm trying to remind myself that the entire garden was an experiment, so it should not be a surprise if not everything flourishes.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Almost summer

I am not counting time as part of "summer" until after commencement this Saturday.

But I find that I am somehow, amazingly, almost done. Classes are over. Most of the grading is accomplished. I am waiting on a few late assignments before I submit grades.

Here, therefore, some summer goals (just the academic ones, there are others regarding yard, social life, etc.):

1) Earn my summer stipend by ordering and reading materials and making plans for my fall course on the Crusades.
2) Look over my old conference papers and prepare an article to submit by the end of the summer.
3) Look at my book manuscript, figure out what revisions it needs, and begin work on them.
4) Make plans for a research trip in the fall.
5) Make plans for my other new courses next year, plus start putting materials together for my review. (My school does a 2nd-year review and another in the 4th year.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I have not that much to report, really. I went, I zooed, I returned. I was a little disappointed by the lack of papers and books for sale that might be pertinent to my research. I gave my paper, which went fine. I had many lovely meals and meetings with many lovely people. I made a couple of contacts I hope to follow up with. I dragged my spouse along, and he claims to have had a good time as well.

And now, if you'll pardon me, I have a week of classes left and a stack of papers to grade.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Almost on my way

Kalamazoo paper is done, and may even not be crap! I also made a handout, and managed to fit it onto front/back of one page. Yee ha! I should be arriving Thursday evening. I'm looking forward to being away for a little while.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

So this should be a busy month then

I've got three full weeks of class left. I'm hoping my senior students can hang in there and avoid the plague of senioritis.

I've also got an extremely short turnaround between the end of class and submitting senior grades.

I worked on my Kalamazoo paper yesterday. I'm kind of concerned that it may be crap at this point, but at least it's 75% done crap.

The weekend after Kalamazoo, my in-laws are coming for a visit.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Contingent Teaching Baggage

OK, I lied. I didn't get to this post last week. Judging by the absence of response to the previous post, none of you were waiting with bated breath for this post anyway. At any rate, here it is.

So when I left off, I was accepting a visiting position in a distant state while still ABD. I then finished my dissertation very quickly. It had taken me some large number of months of work to turn out two chapters, and I finished the remaining chapters (three or four, I don't want to look up how many right now) in about four months. In retrospect, the diss would have benefited from some more time and thought, I think, but I knew I wouldn't be able to work on it while preparing new courses from scratch.

Thus began my six years of contingent teaching, in which I had five different teaching jobs. Some were actually full-time, others were one course. If there are any graduate students out there reading this to get a sense of what things could be like, I feel that I should stress that I was extremely lucky in at least two respects:
1) I spent a while living in a place where many colleges had phenomenally good adjunct pay. Most schools do not pay more than $1500-2000, and I often did much better than that.
2) I have a spouse whose full-time salary and health plan meant I did not have to go without groceries or medical care.

Since I worked at a number of different colleges in somewhat different capacities, my experiences were fairly varied. At some places, I felt pretty well integrated into the department; at others, my office was isolated in a different part of campus, and I hardly saw anyone else from history. At some, I shared an office; at others, I had space to myself. One of the positive aspects of these experiences is that I had the opportunity to see how different colleges and departments work. A lot of my colleagues at my current institution have never worked anywhere else, and I think I have a broader perspective on how higher education works.

A second positive aspect is that I gained a lot of experience. When I finished graduate school, I was rather raw in some respects. I had never taught my own course and I had no publications. That first year, in particular, was something of a crash course (experiential) in teaching. I also did two conference papers that year and started preparing an article for journal submission. In my various jobs, I got a lot of practice prepping new courses, and a lot of opportunities to observe faculty politics. These things have enabled me to step into my current tenure-track position more easily than I moved into my first post-grad-school job.

Things that sucked:
There were quite a few, but I'm going to highlight just three, I think.
  • Very little mentoring. New t-t faculty may get formal mentors; new contingent faculty, not so much. I corresponded with my grad school advisors, but couldn't have one-on-one meetings. I had to figure out a lot of things about teaching, publication, etc., more or less on my own. I asked for advice, and did often get it; but I had to form relationships and ask for help on my own initiative.
  • Double job searches. I spent much of every fall preparing applications for the tenure-track job market. I spent much of the spring making lists of colleges in my area, phoning people, and mailing off copies of my c.v. This was a successful strategy, which did get me hired on several occasions, but it took a lot of time and a heavy emotional toll.
  • Feeling like my life was on hold. It was hard to make plans more than a few months ahead. I avoided making commitments in the area where I lived, because I thought I might be moving in a few months. I seldom had the right combination of money and available time to do more research (again, I often couldn't plan on a summer research trip, because I might need to relocate...). I often felt socially isolated, and I wish I had been more open to developing relationships while living in places I thought of as temporary.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Graduate school baggage

When bloggy discussion turns to graduate education, I feel myself to be in an odd position. I am newly come to the tenure track. My institution gives only bachelor's degrees, so I have no role in preparing graduate students. I do, however, need to figure out how best to prepare my students for graduate school, should they choose to go (and whether to encourage or discourage them, etc.). I have opinions on graduate education, based on my graduate school experience. Reading the recent posts here, here, and here have led me to some musing on that baggage, as well as my several years on the gypsy track before starting my current t-t position.

Graduate school difficulties
The things that made my grad school experience difficult fall into two categories. One is that the graduate program in my field was restarting after a bit of a hiatus. This meant that my advisor was figuring out the process at the same time I was going through it; I had no more advanced students in my area to look to and seek advice from; and the seminars while I was in coursework didn't form a very coherent curriculum. Students in other subfields talked about turning their seminar papers into publishable articles, which mystified me as my seminar papers all seemed to me to be very student-type work, not publishable at all, and often not well tied to my core interests. Figuring out what my core interests were posed its own challenges, but I think that's another story for another time.

The other factor making my graduate school experience was the graduate school administration. Not my department; I generally felt that the department, or rather the professors in it, was geuinely committed to my success and intellectual growth. The message I got from the graduate school administration, on the other hand, was that I should teach teach teach and somehow also finish my degree in 5-7 years. For example, I had to meet with an assistant dean to obtain permission, and the needed funding, to go abroad to do my dissertation research in my fourth year. "But we expect you to teach in this year," s/he said. "But if I stay here and teach, I will not be able to make any dissertation progress whatsoever," I said. We went back and forth for quite a while before s/he agreed--and taking the funding then meant I did not get it for my "writing year" later as I was supposed to. I became increasingly concerned in grad school, that the university's method of encouraging advanced students to finish was entirely punitive: grad students in their 5th year or more went to the end of the preference list when teaching positions were assigned; their funding was reduced or cut off entirely after a certain year; they had to pay more for their health insurance; and on and on. The premise seemed to be that a 7th-year or more student was a slacker who needed to be cut out of the feeding trough. This seemed to me to be untrue in most cases: students might have difficult advisors or be working on complicated projects, but the university simply didn't care. It became my belief that once a university admitted a person for graduate study, the university then needed to commit the necessary resources to help that person succeed, not punish him/her when support was most needed.

Things that were not difficulties in graduate school:
My advisor. We have always had a congenial relationship. He had a rather hands-off attitude about a number of things: he allowed me to flail around for a while as I tried to figure out my project, which I think was intellectual work that I needed to do myself. He did point me in the direction of sources and colleagues that proved immensely fruitful. I found that when I asked him directly for advice or something else I needed, he was forthcoming and generous--but I did have to askk. For example, we had met only irregularly for most of my time there, but I asked to meet more often when I was in the later stages of writing (because I needed the incentive of a meeting to produce drafts more quickly). We then met every week or two until I had a complete draft.

My fellow grad students were also helpful. There were few students in my subfield, but those of us who were there were supportive of each other, and have remained friendly. I became tied into a large network of students in other subfields in the department, which helped provide me with psychological support. A small group of us in different fields also formed a dissertation-writing support group for a while; we met each week and critiqued a different person's draft chapter, so that we each had to have a draft to show every 3-4 weeks. Like meeting with my advisor regularly, this provided a very helpful incentive to write, as well as useful feedback.

Summing up:
So, on the whole, my graduate experience was fine. I certainly did not have the kind of toxic advising relationship that has caused problems for other people. But by my 5th and 6th year, I was increasingly frustrated with the university's attitude toward advanced students, which seemed callous. Each new teaching assignment I got was further away from my area of specialty; I was tired of teaching sections of other people's courses; I was tired of feeling like less than a full-fledged adult. So I jumped at the chance to finish up and take a one-year visiting position when one was offered to me.

I think this post is long enough; I'll talk about transitioning from graduate school to contingent scholar later this week.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Tyranny of Readers

I am starting to think about next year's courses. I have a number of tweaks to make to assignments, but the more pressing issue is what books to assign (because the bookstore wants me to order them soon).

In my intro classes I assign them a textbook for an overview of the period, and the rest is mostly primary sources. Much of that comes from a reader, or collection of primary sources with short editorial introductions. I find I have a love/hate relationship with most of the ones I am using.

Using the reader is convenient because it saves me the trouble of hunting down such a wide array of primary sources myself. The editors usually provide some handy background information on the document and its author. All the stuff is is one handy book, so students don't have to worry about losing handouts and the like.

The major problem I am having is that I feel like when I am using a reader, the book itself drives the content of the course more than I like. For example, for ages I have used Geary's Readings in Medieval History in my medieval survey. I like a lot of things about this book: I like that it uses long excerpts, or complete sources where possible; I like that it covers a broad range of topics; I like some of the specific sources included. But the last time I was using it, I felt frustrated. It seemed like we kept talking about kingship and institutions of power. It's not that I wanted to ignore these things entirely, but it felt like the book was sending us in that direction because of the materials it included. That is partly my issue, as I don't mind supplementing a reader with other materials, but I like to use as much of the selections in the reader as possible, so students get their money's worth from it.

So, I'm now trying to decide whether to continue using the book, substitute another reader (which might have similar issues), or put together my own slate of sources for the students. I'd welcome comments on what has worked for you.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Days in the Little Archives

Notorious, Ph.D., is in the process of a lovely series on working in the archives: part 1 and part 2. Go read those first, if you haven't already.

Now, I believe Notorious works primarily at Big Archives in Exotic Research City. I, on the other hand, have done most of my work at various small archives in Quaint Research Town. Here I want to talk about a few of the differences about working in smaller archives. Small archives are well worth exploring, because they often have a lot of stuff that has not been examined before. They're also important if you're interested in rural areas, smaller towns, and local institutions (like monasteries!). So, some points of difference:

  1. Catalogs may or may not be available. Sometimes brief archival guides exist that give you a sense of what to expect in a small archive, sometimes not. I know of one or two that do have an online presence, which is extremely helpful, but it can't be counted upon. Even more than working at Big Archives, I think, working at a small archive can be a fishing expedition.
  2. Local archives can be pretty casual about who works there. They're likely to be less fussy about coats, bags, pens, etc. It's nonetheless incumbent on you, of course, to take good care of the documents they trust you with. Local archives will not have their own researcher cards, most likely, but they may require ID. A letter of introduction from an established scholar may also be helpful. When I did my diss research, I carried about a dozen copies of a letter from my advisor just in case.
  3. Offsite storage. A small archive may not have all its documents on the premises, due to limited space and/or the need to regulate temperature and moisture. So you may need to put in your request one day and come back a day or two later. It may be useful to contact the staff ahead of time, if possible, to let them know that you're coming and put your first request in before your first day there. This, of course, requires some idea of what you want to consult, which may be tricky (see point 1).
  4. Limited staff. Right, and about that staff: there may not be very many of them; they may be part-time only; they may not speak your language well; and they may not have any particular expertise in your area. I have mostly encountered lovely and helpful staffers at small archives, but they weren't necessarily able to provide the level of assistance you might get at a larger archive. In addition, the small archive may only be open 2-3 hours a day, so you'll need to plan your time carefully.
  5. Lack of community. There may not be anyone else working in the small archive while you are there. There may be only a few people doing genealogical research. I know a lot of people who met good friends while working at Big Archives, socializing with them after the archives closed. At a small archive in a small town, there's unlikely to be that same sense of community. There were no other grad student researchers at the places I did most of my work, and I was correspondingly somewhat isolated.

The documents themselves, however, will likely have the same range and difficulties as Notorious describes in her Day 2 post.

Now, I can at least say that I have had generally professional experiences in the small archives, and the documents have generally been in good shape. Scholars of an earlier generation who worked in Exotic Research Country invariably have archival horror stories to tell: the archive that was only open two days a week, whenever the archivist felt like showing up; the archivist who chain-smoked who filing documents; the documents stored in the local pigeon roost; and so forth and so on. These days I think you're more likely to find generally professional operations, even in small places.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


As you may be able to guess, this past week was not less busy than the preceding one.

Small College where I work is going through a bunch of changes right now. So, although I am not on any committees, I have been going to a number of meetings at which people aired grievances, asked questions of our top administrators, and tried to decide how to proceed on various matters. There's a lot of anxiety about our financial situation. A couple of those meetings have shown a collective sense of demoralization.

Whenever I go to a big meeting, I try to find a colleague afterward to talk about it individually. Not always the same colleague. That is my chance to ask questions about past decisions and try to get a sense of what lies behind the questions and statements in meetings. So this week, I asked a colleague what s/he thought about certain issues, and as we talked I said I hoped that the changes we're going through this year are an opportunity to get some fresh insights and vision, and put the college on a better footing.

"Well, aren't you a Pollyanna," s/he said. Not meanly, and we both laughed. But it made me wonder. I try to keep me eyes open and not ignore the problems the college has to deal with. But I also try to hope for the best. I need to hope for the best, in fact. If I don't, I find it easy to sink into a sort of panicky pessimism in which I'm convinced that everything is going to hell in a handbasket. I hope I'm not naive to think that positive change might emerge from our current situation. I hope that I won't end up burned out and cynical about the prospects for institutional change.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

And so a busy week ends

Thanks for your responses on the subject of independent studies, everyone!

It's tricky--I'm at a SLAC, so close work with professors is something that we sell ourselves on. But yes, doing independent studies is also an unpaid overload. 

The two students I've said yes to are both good students; one of them I've had in class before. So I'll keep my fingers crossed for everything working out well.

Last weekend's conference was very pleasant--some good conversations and comments on my paper. I got back on Sunday and right away plunged into what seemed like a billion tasks and problems. Most are unbloggable, suffice it to say that SLAC is dealing with a lot of changes, some of them unexpected, at the moment. Now that it's Saturday I feel like I can catch my breath.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Independent Study

OK, yesterday's frazzled feeling has been largely resolved. Later today I'll head off to a small conference. I'm hoping it'll be fun.

Students here are registering for next year, and I've already tentatively agreed to two independent studies. In both cases they're good students for whom the IS would fill an important spot in their overall program, so on the one hand I feel good about doing them. On the other hand, my dept. chair advises me not to take on too many, and I don't want to overload myself. I have had independent studies before--some of them turned out great, others were frustrating and took way too much time.

What do you think, readers? What makes me you more or less willing to supervise an independent study? Are there keys to both student and prof having a good experience with one?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Annoying meeting yesterday ate up a lot of time. Grr. Must finish conference paper that I am giving this weekend, and finish something else that needs to be mailed by next week.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Perils of Interlibrary Loan

My campus library is small and much of the collection is old. I have ordered new books which seem appropriate and necessary, but the library's budget is also small, so I have tried not to be too demanding on that score. In particular, I have tended to order things that I think will be useful for students, and have generally not ordered things that apply only, or primarily, to my research. This has put me often at the mercy of interlibrary loan services.

The ILL service has been fine in that it gets me the materials I want. The major problem is that I don't get them for very long. In the fall I ambitiously ordered six or eight books at once, then couldn't get to them immediately, and one by one they all went overdue, and my ILL privileges were revoked until I finally returned all the books.

Most recently I ordered just one book, which proved to be so dauntingly large that I put off looking at it for a few days. This was, of course, counterproductive, especially since once I started going through the book, I found it to be not only thick but dense; every chapter is full of ideas and information and requires some thought to grapple with. It has not lent itself well to skimming. The book is now overdue and I'm only a small portion of the way through it... sigh.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Progress report

Though I have no service responsibilities yet, there's been a substantial increase in meetings in the last month. For one thing, we newbie profs had meetings in which we were introduced to the basics of governance and advising, since those will be new for us next year. Soon we'll have to indicate what committees we're interested in serving on, so I'm trying to figure that out: some of our committees sound like a ton of work, but also fairly interesting; one sounds like a lot of work which I would find immensely tedious; others may have lighter work loads, but also sound a bit dull.

For another, we had two hours of faculty meeting recently in which a seemingly innocuous proposal regarding a major had the potential to have huge repercussions for the college-wide curriculum, which had to be discussed in detail.

Finally, my department is very small and hardly ever has department meetings, but we need to have one soon to figure out how we are implementing some new requirements for majors. 

So overall, I am definitely getting introduced to the joys(?) of faculty governance and service.

In spite of that, I have made some progress on this semester's writing goals

#1: Interesting Opportunity application, is mostly done, awaiting feedback from a couple of colleagues.

#2: Started a draft of first conference paper; need to look over a few things I've read previously to help flesh this out.

#3: Have collected some stuff to read to inform this one.

So far, so good. It's nice to be able to carve out some time for writing. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

In which I critique web sites

The writing goals of the last post are only inching along, but I did finish up the research for the departmental service project and sent a short report around to my colleagues. 

There are some bad college & department websites out there, y'all. My goodness. I am no web design guru, but I'd like to suggest some principles:

  • The dominant color on the website for your women's college should not be pink.
  • I should be able to find a list of major requirements right on a department's page, not have to locate the college catalog (not linked anywhere on the college home page) to read them.
  • The college catalog should be easily accessible from the home page.
  • Lists of faculty should say something about their interests right on the list; you shouldn't have to click through to each individual profile to find out what they do.

Bonus points to sites that make syllabi easily accessible and that lay out requirements for majors (and the reasons for them) clearly and with detail.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Writing goals this semester

I am hoping this semester will be a bit less crazed than last semester, and I'll be better able to write. I know I can only expect so much during my first year at a new job, but I think on the whole I have reasonable goals:

1) Write up application for Interesting Opportunity

2) Write conference paper #1, due early March

3) Write conference paper #2 for Kalamazoo

4) Work on book manuscript revisions

#4 there is more speculative and I probably won't have time to really dig into it until this summer. The rest really ought to be feasible even around teaching etc.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Thanks for all the sympathies, everyone. I have good days and bad days, but I think overall I'm starting to adjust to the new way of things.

As part of that effort, I've been back on campus sporadically this week. I have a relatively light semester ahead; one of my classes had such a small enrollment that it's been converted to an independent study, leaving me with a lighter teaching load than I'd have otherwise. Neither my chair nor the dean thinks this is anything but a weird anomaly, not a reflection on me as a teacher. Enrollment in my other classes is good, and my teaching evaluations for the fall seem fine.

Per our faculty handbook, I have agreed to take on a department service project in lieu of teaching. We are planning to implement a capstone requirement for majors within the next few years, and my job is to do some research on how other colleges handle such requirements and bring them back to the department for discussion. I'm starting the early stages of that this week, as well as finishing up a book review. I am hoping that I'll be a bit less swamped with teaching this semester and better able to work writing, as well as the service project, into my schedule.

Safe travels to all going to the AHA meeting, and good luck to all the job seekers!