September 30, 2006
Who Needs Professors?
Yesterday was the first meeting of the Brithist Reading Group for the fall semester. I started this reading group in January to bring together those of us who at some point are planning to do a prelim field in modern Britain, and to give class credit to those who needed it. It started out pretty strong, but dwindled to three members by the end of the semester. Nonetheless, the three of us found it pretty useful, and Sarah, one of the three, decided to revive the reading group for the fall semester. This time around there is much more interest because there are a lot of second-year grad students who are planning to do Britain fields, as well as two third-year students who have Europe fields with British stuff, and, of course, me, the only fourth-year student who has yet to take prelims.
There were nine of us there yesterday and we discussed three books: Orientalism and Race by Tony Ballantyne, Burdens of History by Antoinette Burton, and Prostitution, Race, and Politics by Philippa Levine, as well as three articles by Levine. We had split up the labor with two or three people on each book and one person on the articles. Everyone had something to say and, even though each of us had only read one of the three books, we were able to make connections and comparisons. An hour into the meeting, someone said "this is way better than class -- we've just covered three books and three articles in an hour!" The rest of us couldn't agree more. I think that, without having a professor there, we were all willing to take more responsibility for the discussion, and we were also less inhibited. We should have all our classes without professors!
September 29, 2006
On your marriage and your acceptance to library school. Why didn't you tell us?
September 28, 2006
How to Study for a Geography Quiz
I should have posted this three weeks ago, before my students actually had their geography quizzes, but it wasn't until someone complained about his grade yesterday (4.5 out of 10) that I realized some of them may not have known how to study. I should say, however, that most students did very well on the first quiz (I haven't graded the second one yet, but just from quickly browsing through them it looks like they did even better on this one). Over 25% got a perfect 10 on the first quiz. But the student who got 4.5 (which, let me say, was not the lowest score) complained that he had studied for two hours, so it occurs to me that it is not obvious how to study effectively. Staring at a map of Britain for two hours will not do it. Try this:
- Xerox your blank map several times -- you will need these for practice.
- Using your study guide, fill in one of your blank maps with the cities or topographical features you will be tested on. This will become your new study guide.
- For each thing you will be tested on, practice filling it in on your remaining blank maps until you get it right.
- Once you can locate each place individually, practice doing them all at once.
I don't claim that this method will work for everyone, but the key is practice. Do at home what you will have to do on the quiz. One person drew a grid on her quiz sheet, which helped her locate the cities more precisely. She got a 9.5, so her method, which involved doing something, rather than just staring at the study guide, obviously worked. I realize now how unfortunate it is that so many teachers (myself included), just tell students to study, without telling them how to study.
September 27, 2006
Industrialization Rocks My World
Yesterday in the lecture for the class I'm teaching, Britain industrialized. I looked forward to it all day. Yes, I know I'm a geek, but I just love the way this professor presents industrialization. She shatters everything our students learned about the Industrial Revolution in high school. She begins with the Agricultural Revolution and the enclosure movement, which created a huge body of rural people who, for the first time ever, had to work for wages in order to get by. At the same time, urban merchants (the example used was a wool merchant) were looking for a new workforce because the urban craftspeople were increasingly organized and demanding. Rural workers could be paid less because they were dispersed, disorganized, and desperate, and the system of cottage industry was born: middlement brought the wool to rural households, where it was carded, spun, and eventually woven. Disorganized labor was docile, but merchants and middlemen soon found that they could organize labor to their own advantage -- they could exert greater control over labor -- by bringing it into a central location: the factory. Popular understandings of the Industrial Revolution begin with the development of the steam engine, and move from there to factories powered by steam. But the professor I'm working with stresses that industry did not require technological innovation. Rather, the factory itself, the concentration of labor in one location to make it more productive and easily controlled, was the innovation; the factory was the new technology. She also compares factories to ships and slave plantations: two other eighteenth-century sites of highly regimented and controlled labor. What I love about this explanation of industrialization is that it focuses on the human -- the profit motive; the need to work; the desire for control.
September 26, 2006
Yet Another Dictionary
You might think that having two dictionaries in my study, one in my dining room, and one in my car would be enough. You would be wrong. I needed one for my backpack! Or, rather, one that I could keep in my office and take to sections that I'm teaching. So I went out and bought the smallest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary I could find. Surprisingly, it only set me back $6. Now I'll be prepared tomorrow when my students ask what "peculation" means. It's embezzlement.
The Travelling Sweater
This morning in the Atlantic I read a story by Jaqueline Novogratz, CEO of the Acumen Fund that I wanted to share. As a child, Novogratz had a blue sweater with animals and mountains on it that her uncle had given to her. When she was fourteen, a boy at school made a lewd comment to her about the sweater, and she promptly gave the sweater to Goodwill and forgot about it. Twelve years later, she was jogging in Kigali, Rwanda, and saw a boy wearing her sweater. She ran up to him to check the label and, sure enough, her name was on it.
Having read Salaula by Karen Hansen, I was not terribly shocked by this story, but it did reaffirm for me that all of our actions affect others. Salaula explains how second-hand clothing from the U.S. and Europe gets to Africa, and the meanings these Western fashions take on when worn by Africans. Only about a quarter of the clothing we give to Goodwill or other such organizations actually gets resold in the United States. The rest is sold by the pound to middlemen, usually in Belgium or the Netherlands, then shipped to Africa, where it is sold in marketplaces or on streetcorners. There are two ways to get clothes in Africa: have them made for you or buy them secondhand. "Salaula" literally means "dead white men's clothes."
When I was in Ghana in the summer of 2005, I was surprised to see Ghanaians wearing University of Michigan t-shirts. The first time I saw this, I went up to the man to tell him that I was from Michigan. He had no idea what I was talking about. He was not a Michigan football fan; he probably didn't even know what Michigan was. Michigan meant absolutely nothing to him. Or, rather, Michigan probably did mean something to him, but it meant something totally different than what it means to me. After all, even though the shirt was second hand, he still chose it, and must have chosen it for a reason.
September 25, 2006
A meme for today because I can't think of anything else to say:
- What is the greatest source of stress in your life? The obvious answer here would be grad school. After all, I don't think there is any aspect of doing a Ph.D. program that doesn't cause stress: more reading assigned than is humanly readable; the dreaded prelims (in my department a four-hour written exam followed by a two-hour oral exam -- on three hundred books!); the teaching load on top of the regular workload; the paucity of jobs in this field. But another source of stress is worrying about what I would possibly do if not this. Being a Ph.D. student offers job security (as a student, not when I graduate), a steady (though pitifully low) salary with benefits, and the status that comes from having more education than just about anyone else I know. So I guess there are perks that come along with all that stress.
- How do you deal with tension on a day-to-day basis? On a day-to-day basis, I try to avert tension by either staying on top of my responsibilities or jettisoning them. When that doesn't work, I get on the phone and bitch to whomever will listen. Massages and hot baths also help, as does knitting until my fingers are sore.
- What do you find to be the best way to wind down after a tough day? This is a new one for me, and I'm almost embarassed to admit it, but my current favorite is watching television. These days David and I are Netflixing Six Feet Under, a brilliant though morbid drama about a family in the undertaking business. Television gives me a momentary escape from my own life but doesn't require as much brainpower as reading.
September 24, 2006
Silence reigns all around me as I settle into the soft black leather chair in my living room, a steaming cup of tea on one of the arms. The tea warms me from the inside out, limbering my hands to type one word after another. The clickety-clack of the keys on my laptop breaks the silence of the morning. The round marble-topped table, standing on ornately-carved legs, is full of the detritus of my life: an open binder; a French press, half full of tea and resting on a cork coaster; my day planner, bound in red leather, etched with the date 2006; a large pink eraser and two mechanical pencils (why two? Because one is out of lead); a magazine flipped open to the last article read; a manila folder waiting to go upstairs to be filed; a linen-lined wicker basket, brimming over with my latest knitting project – bamboo needles and purple heathered yarn; a cordless phone, poised to ring; my own slippered feet resting one on top of the other. In the center of this antique table, in the place of honor, stands an ovoid glass vase holding an arrangement of dying flowers, identical in type, though varied in height, sitting in a cloudy pool of brackish water. Brown and withered leaves overhang the side of the vase, yet the bright colors of the now-drooping petals testify to their one-time cheeriness: from yellow centers spring white petals tipped with purple. For nearly three weeks, this bouquet stood like a sentinel, tall and proud, keeping watch over the whirlwind of life taking place around it: heated debates over the daily newspaper; informal meals shared on the couch; reading, writing, knitting, and television-watching. But now, tired, and rank, their life cycle is over. Soon they will join the compost pile, seeping back into the earth from whence they came.
September 23, 2006
Wishing a sweet and happy New Year to everyone, everywhere.
September 22, 2006
The Politics of Dialect
Last night I had tutor training at 826 Michigan, which was taught by Caroline Eisner, the associate director of the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan. I love Sweetland and have a lot of respect for the work they do. I have gotten quite a bit of help from them with my writing, and I am grateful for their presence on campus.
Before this training, I didn't realize what a therapeutic practice tutoring is. Eisner told us that one of the goals of tutoring is to heal the wounds inflicted on students by the educational system. For this reason, she told us never to use red pens because red ink is too harsh. I'll honor that request at 826 because I'm not grading student papers, I'm only coaching them as students, but I think the statement that red is a harsh color is total bulls--t. The only reason the color red seems harsh is because it is the color teachers use to grade papers. If teachers had graded papers in green ink from time immemorial, we would now be hearing that green is harsh. In tutoring, however, we are not evaluating; we are on the students' side, so I won't use red.
Eisner also told us never to correct a student's speech. The example she gave was African American English. If a student says "we was," we are not to tell the student it is wrong. If the student uses this construction in writing, we may tell the student that, when writing, the correct construction is "we were," but that in speech, "we was" is perfectly correct usage in African American English. I can't help thinking that we are doing students a disservice by not teaching them to speak standard English. What happens when they go into a job interview and say "we was" because they were never taught that it is wrong. Simply having brown skin already puts a person at a disadvantage as far as hiring goes, and I know that I certainly wouldn't hire a candidate who said "we was." It turns out that Eisner wasn't speaking from a position of cultural relativism, but rather on the basis of research on the effects of this kind of correction. The rationale she gave is that correcting a student in this way shuts them down; they stop using the dialect construction, but they also stop learning standard English. Apparently, if one corrects a second grader's speech, that student's English will never move beyond the second grade level. This sounds a bit farfetched to me, but I'm not the expert, so I'll honor Eisner's request. I would never let one of my UM students say "we was," but that probably won't be a problem because all of my students are white. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that nonwhite students are at a disadvantage in applying to college because their well-meaning white teachers never told them that "we was" isn't correct.
September 21, 2006
I Love Finance
Yes, these words actually came out of my mouth. Those who know me, and have heard me go off on the evilness of money and my hatred for everything and everyone having to do with money may be shocked. The context was a streetside conversation with a fellow history student about eighteenth-century Britain. I have always considered myself a bad historian because, in addition to being incorrigibly presentist, I have always had trouble approaching the past. I focused on the twentieth century because it seemed least foreign and because the sources are all typed -- no paleography for me! But, as regular readers already know, I have recently become enamored of the eighteenth century. I'm not giving up my presentist outlook just yet, though. What I love about eighteenth-century Britain (and I mean "Britain" in its widest sense: not just the British Isles, but also British colonies in North America, the Caribbean, and South Asia; British slave forts and trading posts in Africa; and British naval and merchant ships all over the world) is that it saw the birth of the modern world. The world as we know it began to come into existence in the eighteenth century, through Britain's contact with the rest of the world. What I love about finance is its historicity: the fact that it emerged at a particular moment (the eighteenth century) for a particular reason (to coordinate the flow of goods and money all around the world). The emergence of finance, banking, and insurance also changed the way people perceived themselves and the world. An excellent (though ahistorical) account of this epistemological shift can be found in Ian Baucom's Specters of History.
September 20, 2006
A Phone Call from Africa
Sometimes I get phone calls from Ghana in the middle of the night. 3:30am, to be exact. Last night was one of those nights. The calls come from Ackah, a man about my age who sells CDs on the street near where my "Auntie" lives in Accra, Ghana. I walked down that street everyday, and we started becoming friends when I bought a Fela Kuti CD from Ackah. I gave my phone number to a lot of people in Ghana, but he is the only one who has actually called me. I think he has called on about three separate occasions, always at 3:30am. He must not know about the six-hour time difference! It is jarring to have the phone ring in the middle of the night. Before Ackah started calling, the last time the phone rang at that time, it was David's dad having a heart attack. So I always answer, sure that something is wrong, but Ackah was just calling to say hi. And when I say "phone calls," I do mean plural. It always takes him a few times to get through, then, invariably, after I figure out who it is and we do say hi, he hangs up and calls back. I'm not quite sure why. It is very bizarre, but, knowing how difficult it is to make a phone call in Ghana (it took me two weeks to figure out how to call David), I'm flattered that Ackah makes the effort, even if he never actually says much of anything.
September 19, 2006
Writing the Self
Yesterday I worked my first volunteer shift with 826 Michigan, an organization affiliated with 826 Valencia, an organization founded by Dave Eggers in San Francisco to offer free tutoring, particularly in writing, for children aged six to eighteen. Yesterday, 826 put on a college essay writing workshop for seniors at Community High School, Ann Arbor's public alternative school, led by Debbie Merion, who coaches college essays professionally.
It was super cool to be able to take part in this event, and it really wasn't much work at all. Merion went over what a college application essay is, and what it can do, and then had us do some writing exercises, after which I led a small group in sharing these exercises with each other. It was a bit scary to realize that it has already been ten years since I wrote my college application essay. Nevertheless, I still remember what I wrote about: my most prized possession. Through most of my teen years, I had an ongoing collage on one of the walls of my bedroom, consisting of photographs, cards, and magazine clippings. This collage expressed who I was, what I thought, and how I viewed the world. When I was sixteen, my mother and evil stepfather got divorced. We moved into a new apartment, which meant that I had to take down the collage. I put all the in a sweater box, where it probably remains, somewhere. Since the collage had developed organically, putting it back up in the new place just seemed too contrived. For my college admissions essay, I dug this box out, went through its contents, and wrote about it, using the items to express who I was. I guess it worked pretty well, since I got into Pomona!
I actually hated writing this essay and, until yesterday, considered the college application essay one of the most evil pieces of writing ever dreamed up. But yesterday I finally got it: this essay is a chance for a person to ask herself "who am I?" and "what is special about me?" It is not a summary of one's life, but rather a chance to take one incident that captures the essence of what is important to you and write about it in a way that epxpresses that essence. Merion compared such incidents to acorns: just as an acorn contains the entire oak tree, students should choose an incident that contains everything about them that they want the admissions officers to know.
September 18, 2006
What is a(n) Historian? -- Part II
On Saturday, I read the quickwrites I had my students do before our "What is history?" discussion on Wednesday. Reading these, I was struck by their idealism. Many students wrote that historians study the past so that our society can make better decisions in the future. One student even said that historians use the past to predict the future, which I found pretty hilarious. Historian as fortune teller. We may be prescient, but we don't have ESP. Another student said that we need to learn history because it repeats itself. This is a common incorrect view of history. If it repeated itself, history would have laws, as physics does. Instead, history is the study of contingency and rupture, but also continuity over rupture.
One student summed up the idealistic view of the historian's role in society pretty well: hisotians
'do history' by analyzing events and passing on to the masses [sic] patterns of behaviors, events, leaders, etc. Once presented, it is up to the people to take the hisotians [sic] analysis, choose the patterns that yielded positive outcomes, and apply it to their own lives and world around them.Reading this response almost made me want to cry, because this is how history should function in society, not how it does function. History should serve the public by teaching society about its own past and public leaders should heed the lessons of history, but unfortunately, it doesn't work this way. Academic historians write for each other, focusing on minute points and arguments that may well have bearing on our current world, but to actually point this out is denigrated as presentism. Some historians, notably Juan Cole, a professor in my department who can frequently be heard on NPR, do try to apply the lessons of history to current situations, but heck if our elected leaders are going to listen. So, really, it goes both ways. Historians should make their work more accessible and relevant, and world leaders should learn their history and pay attention to the lessons it offers.
September 17, 2006
Hail to the Victors
Have I mentioned that David and his dad and brother are rabid Michigan football fans? Despite the fact that they are originally from Ohio, and that nobody in their family attended the University of Michigan until David transferred there from Hope College in 1990, they have had season tickets to the Big House since the 1970s. They have also turned me into a huge Michigan fan (for a small woman who didn't even know what football was until about four years ago -- this is despite having spent my whole high school career in marching band). Apparently, I still have the innocence of young fandom: I simply assume that everyone cares about Michigan football, and I always expect us to win because we are, of course, the best team in football (regardless of what the rankings say). I have seen us lose on television (notably in two Rose Bowls), but I always chalk it up to a fluke.
In addition to watching all of the home games live, David and his family watch all of the big away games on television, usually in a bar. Yesterday was the big game against Notre Dame, so we all trooped over to the Zuckey Lake Tavern to watch it. All means the whole M-- family, a few of Mr. M's friends, and our friends Shawn and Dave. I first participated in this ritual in 2002, but it predates me by many years. Apparently, Mr. M. has told Shawn and Dave that they are bad luck because we have never won a televised game against Notre Dame when they have watched it with the M-- family. I was along four years ago when Michigan lost spectacularly, and have declined the invitation every year since then because it was absolutely no fun to be with David's family on such a mournful occasion. But yesterday I went along because I had missed M-- family bar night on Wednesday and I wanted to do my part to root for my favorite football team. I spent the first half of the game reading my students' quickwrites and grading their geo quizzes, but was able to watch the second half, in which Michigan scored one of the most decisive victories on such an important game that I have ever seen. 47 to 21.
By the third quarter, David's dad and brother were simply giddy. Normally, they are incorrigible pessimists. No matter how far up we are, they still anticipate a loss. David was like that yesterday, but not the others. I have never seen them so sure of a victory, or even so happy. It truly was a joyous occasion for the M-- family, and really for all Michigan fans everywhere!
September 15, 2006
Historians and Technology
Yesterday was the kickoff lecture for this year's program at the Institute for Historical Studies, a center for historical research on campus that began last year. As part of the ongoing theme, "History and the Visual," guest speaker Victoria da Grazia (from Columbia), was going to give a talk titled, "Visualizing U.S. Cultural Hegemony in 20th Century Europe: A Big Problem." Her talk was slated to begin at 4pm, which, at the University of Michigan, actually means 4:10. But by 4:20, the talk still hadn't started. IHS director Kathleen Canning announced that they were still trying to get da Grazia's power point working, and that the talk would begin momentarily. As an aside, she said that, if they didn't get it working soon, they would have to break out the wine. Which is exactly what ended up happening. At 4:30, Kathleen announced that the power point still wasn't working and they weren't sure what was wrong with it, but that da Grazia couldn't give her talk without it, so she invited us all to have a glass of wine until the technical difficulties were overcome. This just struck me as so typical of the History Department -- we can't figure out that newfangled technology, so let's just drink instead. As a nondrinker, I was immediately out the door, so I don't know whether or not the talk actually happened. Perhaps the wine loosened up da Grazia enough so that she was able to give her talk without the power point. And what is up with a historian even using power point anyway? I have certainly never used it, nor have any of my professors. Chalk was even too high-tech for my college professors. The professor I teach with here is at least on overhead transparencies, which is still way beyond me!
September 14, 2006
My last entry was rather negative, and I don't want to give off the wrong impression of my students. Aside from the fact that they don't know what a historian is, I have been consistently impressed with how smart, interested, and dedicated they are. One first-year student even correctly used the word "hegemony" in a sentence. I certainly didn't know that word when I was eighteen! I guess the real question is, does she understand its Gramscian meaning?
What is a(n) Historian?
Yesterday in class I was shocked to learn that most college students do not know what a historian is. When asked, the overwhelming answer was "someone who is interested in the past" or "someone who likes to read and write about the past." When prompted, they did suggest that maybe a historian was someone who taught history, like a professor, or someone who had an advanced degree in history. But then the other students jumped down this person's throat, calling them elitist and saying that anyone can write about history. They were surprised when I told them that, sure, anyone can write about history, but that it won't be published unless you have a Ph.D. The point I wanted to get across was that "historian" is a profession, just like "doctor" or "lawyer," and that there is a world of difference between a historian and a history buff. This was part of my larger point -- that history is analytical, interpretive, and thus subjective -- but that historians' interpretations are legitimized through their training and their use of established methods. I wanted them to be able to distinguish between, say, an article that they read in this class, and a show they watch on the History Channel. I also wanted to instill in them some respect, not only for myself, but also for the professor of the class and the writers of their readings. Not that I wanted to squelch their critical thinking -- I was very glad to see yesterday that they aren't afraid to disagree with me -- I just wanted to show them that some historical interpretations have more weight behind them than others as a result of the qualifications and methods of the historian. I wish now that I had used "doctor" as a comparison. If I had asked them what a doctor is, they would have agreed that a doctor is someone who has gone to medical school, and who has been trained in a residency program. They would certainly not have said "someone who likes the human body" or "someone who heals people." Sure, anyone can write about medicine or the body, but nobody will take that writing seriously if the author doesn't have "M.D." after his name. And, given the fact that most historians actually have more years of schooling under their belts than most doctors, we should be accorded the same level of recognition as experts in our fields.
September 13, 2006
Well, the weather has taken a turn for the worse. The last time I blogged about weather, it was just cold. Now it's cold and rainy. Yesterday I woke up to predictions of rain all day on Michigan Radio. Having made the mistake of going to school with no umbrella last Tuesday, I made sure to bring it yesterday. I used it on the way to lecture at 2:30, but when lecture let out at 4, the rain had stopped. So I left my umbrella in my office and went off to the gym. What was I thinking? Not bringing my umbrella pretty much ensured that it would rain and, sure enough, and hour later I had to race between the raindrops to get from the gym back to my office. I was on campus until 9 last night for GSI training, and by the time I got home, I had dried out pretty well, but was still feeling sorry for myself. It turns out that David had gotten caught in the rain too, just a bit after I did, when it was raining even harder. He had no sympathy for me. He felt my pants and my socks, and announced that I hadn't gotten nearly as wet as he had. So not only did I get caught in the rain yesterday and get soaking wet, I also got absolutely no sympathy!
September 12, 2006
Yesterday my friend Lynn took me to Greenfield Village, a living history museum created by Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. Lynn is a member, so she goes there all the time and was able to get me in for free. Greenfield Village is a pretty amazing place. Henry Ford actually moved historic structures there from all over the country (and even a few from England), to preserve elements of the American (and I guess English) past. Restored Model Ts rove the streets. Many of the homes and other buildings belonged to his friends, including Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and the Wright Brothers. There is also a home that was once owned by Robert Frost in Ann Arbor, when he was Poet-in-Residence at the University of Michigan. Henry Ford's childhood home is there, as is the one-room schoolhouse he attended in Dearborn.
I learned a lot yesterday. For example, the Firestone farm is kept as a working farm. Its cash crop is merino wool (which is sold as yarn at the gift shop), and they raise other crops and animals for subsistence. Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory was the world's first research and development lab. The boardinghouse across the street (also at Greenfield Village) was one of the first homes to have electric lighting. Streamers strung across the ceiling of a dry goods shop indicated that the store sold "unmentionables" (underwear?). The local post office was also the town's gossip center. One of my favorite homes was that owned by former slaves in Georgia who papered their walls with magazine pages.
What struck me the most, however, was the grandiosity of the whole operation. Henry Ford must have thought pretty highly of himself in order to create a museum of his childhood and of his own and his friends' accomplishments. By creating this museum, Ford became the arbiter of history; he determined which structures and ways of life would be preserved for posterity and which would be allowed to be forgotten. He determined not only who Americans would remember as their cultural and intellectual forbears, but how we would remember them. He also played God in the lives of his workers, building little villages for them and engineering every aspect of their social and professional lives. I can't help thinking that, if I were an Americanist (or a psychologist, for that matter), Henry Ford would make a fascinating dissertation topic.
September 11, 2006
I'm Just Not Ready...
For the weather to be this cold already! It is only the second week of September -- temperatures should be above seventy every day, but according to the Weather Underground, we won't see seventy degrees until Thursday. This is a problem for me because I have no pants. I guess that is a bit of an overstatement; I'm not going around in my underwear or anything. I do have four pairs of pants that fit, but none are appropriate for teaching: I have jeans, corderoys, and two pairs of "safari" pants that I got for my trip to Ghana, which was now two summers ago. Last weekend, I went to the mall with my friend Diana and bought new clothes for the first time in a year (what kind of girl am I to go an entire year without shopping? I'm a grad student!). Thanks to the miracle that is H&M (and unfortunately to the overseas sweatshop labor that allows them to sell clothes so cheaply), I was able to get two pairs of nice pants that fit me very well, except in one respect -- the length. Being a relatively short woman (5'3"), it is very hard for me to find pants that don't drag on the ground. This was never a problem when I lived in California because my mom is a master pants shortener (she is even shorter than me!), but this time I had to find a real tailor. I guess everyone else is getting their new fall wardrobes altered too, because the tailor said it would take two weeks to hem my two pairs of pants! This was a surprise to me, as the sign outside her shop said "Slacks hemmed while U wait," but I figured that, as long as the weather stayed warm, I could just wear skirts. And then we get this cold snap! Of course, we always seem to get an indian summer (a phrase I never knew until I moved here!), so I know it will warm up again. In fact, the temperatures are predicted to get close to eighty by the end of the week -- right when I get my pants back!
September 10, 2006
Last night I went with my friend Ken to see Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the Detroit Film Theater at seven o'clock. I am a huge fan of Pedro Almodovar, and have been wanting to see this movie for years now. When we got there, however, we found that there wasn't a seven pm showing; it was only playing at 9:30, which is past my bedtime. We drove to Royal Oak, to see what was playing at the arthouse theater there, but the choices were not terribly exciting. So we got a cup of coffee, chatted about history for a couple of hours, and then came back to Ann Arbor. I was bummed to miss the Almodovar film, but Ken assures me that it will be playing at the Michigan Theater at the end of the month.
September 09, 2006
Please Don't Tear Down My House!
Yesterday morning, around 9 o'clock, a man came knocking at my door. There was a Detroit Edison truck parked outside, and the man said he was there to turn off my electricity. I asked why he was turning off my electricity, since I had just paid the bill. He replied that he had to take out all of the electrial equipment so that the house could be demolished. Demolished? My house isn't being demolished! Is it? He showed me his work order, and there it was: my address, David's name, and the word "demolition." I told him this must be some kind of mistake, as we certainly weren't planning to have our house demolished. Was this some kind of greenway-related plot? Could the city tear down our house without our permission? There was a phone number on the work order that I didn't recognize, so I told the guy to call it. When he did, he learned that the demolition was supposed to occur at the same address, but on South Ashley, so he apologized and left. I called David to tell him what had happened, and he suggested that, if DTE had the wrong address, maybe the demolishers had the wrong address too. So I put a sign on the door saying "DO NOT DEMOLISH" and I called DTE to get the whole thing straightened out. Given how hard it was to actually talk to a person, the whole screw-up didn't surprise me a whole lot. What did surprise me, however, was how someone could just call, give them the address, and ask for elimination of the electrical service. Why didn't they ask for an account number or some other kind of identification?
David looked up the property that is really going to be demolished, which turned out to be a barn about ten blocks from our house. I guess we will just have to keep an eye on it till its gone to make sure they demolish the right building!
September 08, 2006
The Things We Say
David and I have some of our most interesting conversations while suffering from insomnia in the wee morning hours. One such conversation was a debate over whether or not the Spanish Inquisition was a religious war (it was). David disagreed with my interpretation of this event, telling me that I don't know anything about history. I had forgotten that I didn't know anything about history after getting a master's degree in it.
Our conversation last night began with us comiserating over how hard it was to get across the diag to the gym yesterday because it was the day when all the student organizations set up tables to recruit new members. I always end up signing up for some kind of random organization. Last year it was the bridge club (I do play bridge, but it has been well over a decade, and I can't even remember how to bid anymore); yesterday it was KnitWits and the African Students Association. Readers who know me know that I am not an African student, but I am a student of Africa and I have been a student in Africa. And I really liked their t-shirts! David asked if they noticed that I am white, and I pointed out to him that there are white Africans. He replied that it is wrong to be a white African, and that they should be ashamed of themselves. So then we were debating again. If you were born in, say, South Africa, Zimbabwe, or Kenya, where your family has probably lived for over a hundred years, you are just as African as I am American, regardless of whether you are white, brown, or yellow. That is your nationality; you don't have any other citizenship. What are you if not South African, Zimbabwean, or Kenyan? This statement isn't meant to condone colonialism (after all, my whole academic career is dedicated to criticizing imperialism in all its forms), but only to point out a fact of history. People who are not black have been living in Africa for hundreds of years and, regardless of whether your great-great grandparents came from Europe, South Asia, or China, if you and your parents and grandparents were born in Africa, that is your continent. That is where you are from; you are African.
September 07, 2006
Well, I survived my first day of teaching yesterday, but was much too exhausted to blog about it by the time I got home. Teaching three fifty-minute sections was so tiring that I finally understood why high school teachers give so much busy work. Nobody can stand up and teach for real five hours a day, five days a week! In college, busy work really isn't an option, which I guess is why there is just so much less class time.
I am teaching History 221, British History since 1688, and the majority of my students are sophomores and juniors, but there are also some freshmen and quite a few seniors. My three sections were very different, both in size and in atmosphere. Nine o'clock is the smallest (big surprise), but also has the oldest students. They seemed dedicated to their work and wanted to get right down to business. My ten o'clock section had ten students, which is just about the perfect size, and they were very enthusiastic, maybe because they had an extra hour to wake up. I knew going into my one o'clock section that it would be the most challenging. It is the biggest (again, no surprise there), and also the most diverse in terms of ages and majors.
As we had no substantive material to cover yesterday, we spent some time getting to know each other. Even though I have a lot of history majors, nobody in any of my sections knew anybody else in the section. So I had them split up into pairs, interview each other, and then introduce their partner to the class. I learned a lot about my students from this exercise, and many of them came to find that they have a lot in common. Some found that they have mutual friends or are even from the same town. There are a lot of Harry Potter readers and Tigers fans. What surprised me the most was how many legacy students there are. When asked why they came to the University of Michigan, many answered "because everyone in my family went here."
Today is the first real lecture -- right into eighteenth-century Britain! I have heard the lectures for this class before, but my interest in the eighteenth century has grown over the past year, so I'm looking forward to hearing about it again. I guess I really am a history geek!
September 06, 2006
I knew I would be nervous about my first day of teaching, but I didn't expect to be up at 5am! I guess this will give me plenty of time to get my mascara on right and organize all my handouts :)
September 05, 2006
Just Call Me Hermione
Today was the first day of school. All of the students looked tan, relaxed, and excited. In honor of the occasion, I wore mascara, which I hardly ever do. Not wearing makeup is not a political statement for me, it is simply an expression of sheer laziness. And ineptitude. Having never learned how to apply it properly, I am always afraid it will get out of place (think lipstick on teeth -- or chin!). And that is exactly what happened today. The mascara was on my eyelid, under my eye, everywhere. I did manage to get it off, but I don't think that most women end up with black-smudged toilet paper in their trash cans after applying mascara the way I do.
Tomorrow I will lead my first discussion section, and I can tell that I have already gone way overboard. Once an overachiever, always an overachiever. I finalized my syllabus this afternoon and also came up with four other handouts for the first day of class (this is on top of the four handouts they all got from the professor today at the first lecture). At 4:40, I went into the copy room to xerox them -- all on different colored sheets of paper, of course. After waiting for my turn on the machine, I proceded to spend about fifteen minutes xeroxing. It didn't help that one of my handouts jammed the copier! There was a line out the door of other GSIs waiting to copy their syllabi for tomorrow, and at 5pm, the department had to kick us out to lock up the office. I felt guilty for spending so much time xeroxing, not to mention all the trees I killed!
Now it's time to learn my students' names. This year the University of Michigan provided us with photo rosters for the first time, which I guess means I'm expected to know everybody's name on the first day of section. The problem is that these photographs were taken either at the beginning of the students' freshman year, or they might even be their senior pictures, which means that some of them -- particularly the juniors and seniors -- might look completely different by now!
September 04, 2006
Happy Labor Day
Today I celebrated Labor Day by joining a labor union. I have always wanted to be a member of the AFL-CIO, and now I am. Yes, I know I'm a geek (actually, I really wanted to join the IWW, but the AFL-CIO seemed more realistic). Today was my first day as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) at the University of Michigan. Our union contract specifies that they can't call us TAs. We are represented by the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), which is part of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO Local 3550. I signed my union card and was given a copy of our newsletter, "The Graduate Student Worker," so I guess I'm a real worker now. Tomorrow I get to pick up my buttons, stickers, and t-shirt at the GEO open house (there is also supposed to be free pizza and beer). I can't help wondering, however, why our union contract doesn't prevent us from having to work on Labor Day. After all, as laborers, isn't this supposed to be our holiday?
September 03, 2006
Cooking with Fire, Part II
My mom and Ken recently got their first charcoal grill, a beautiful green Weber. They also got a chimney starter, which eliminates the need for lighter fluid. It also seems to eliminate the need for beer: we grilled without beer three times while we were out there and each time it worked just fine. We liked the chimney starter so much that my mom had one sent to us when we got back home. It arrived Friday and I used it for the first time last night. The way it works is that you crumple up two sheets of newspaper and stuff them in the bottom, then fill it with charcoal and light the newspaper, which ignites the coal. It took me a long time to get the newspaper lit, however. It was a windy evening and I was using paper matches. Then I ran out of matches and had to switch to a lighter. It still took a while, and I began to wonder if my lighter was running out of butane, but then it caught dramatically. After I got the newspaper lit, I called my mom to thank her for the chimney starter and to tell her I was using it. She sounded a bit alarmed to hear that I was using it without adult supervision (after all, I'm only twenty-seven), and reminded me that it would be flaming when I dumped out the coals. I reassured her that I had oven mitts (in fact, I had just run over to Kmart to buy them), and that it would be okay. And it was. By the time we got off the phone the coals were glowing red with white ash on the outside, so I dumped them out and put my food on. I learned the hard way, however, that one chicken breast, two egglplants, and four large zucchini is just too much, even for a large grill!
September 02, 2006
The other day, I tried to emply the "vacuum principle," which states that getting rid of stuff creates a vacuum into which new stuff flows, by selling some CDs that I haven't listened to in years and will probably never listen to again. I took them to Encore Music, which is probably the laregest used record store in Ann Arbor, but they wouldn't buy my CDs. In fact, they told me that my CDs are worth "less than a penny," and that I will never be able to sell them, except maybe at a garage sale. Granted, these CDs are objectively bad (think Titanic soundtrack and Eagle Eye Cherry) -- after all, that is why I am trying to sell them -- but it was very depressing to have to cart the CDs back home. This wasn't the first time something like this has happened to me. I have had very bad luck selling stuff here in Ann Arbor. Every time I take a bag of books to Dawn Treader to try to sell, they are willing to give me a couple of bucks for one or two of them, and then I usually just end up leaving the rest because I can't bear to hang on to them. Maybe I should just give up on trying to get money for my stuff and make more use of Ann Arbor Freecycle.
September 01, 2006
David is away on his annual fall trip with his dad and brother, so I have the house to myself this weekend. They are up north fishing at Mike's "hunting cabin" (it is really a pole barn: not quite up to code for human habitation, but now with electricity and a water pump; the "toilet" is outside). Even though I miss David, I have to admit that I kind of like having the house to myself for a few days. I can let mail pile up on the coffee table and dirty dishes stack up in the sink. In this odd couple, David is the clean one and I am the messy one. He recently got a new pair of glasses and, when he found that the glasses came with a cleaning cloth, he asked the optician how to wash the cleaning cloth. I have been using the same cleaning cloth for my glasses for six years now, and it has never once occurred to me to wash it. After all, it is for cleaning the glasses, so isn't it clean by definition? But in all seriousness, I do kind of miss having someone around to keep me on my toes (or my dustmop). And while this house is the perfect size for two people, it starts to feel very large when I'm all alone here. Maybe I should have a party...