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.