November 30, 2006
I must admit that I have been going to Starbucks a lot lately. For a long time, I resisted patronizing this "evil empire" of coffee (with the exception of the summer of 1998, when I worked there) on moral and ethical grounds (exploitation of coffee growers, competition with local coffeehouses), but I have recently lost my power to resist.
Starbucks offers many attractions to the helplessly-addicted coffee drinker. To begin with, they offer quantity: Starbucks's economy of scale allows it to sell a 12-oz cup of coffee for the same price at which our local coffee chains sell an 8-oz cup. Second is the quality: it is just a better cup of coffee, and I can tell you why (I don't think I signed any confidentiality agreements when I worked there). Starbucks roasts its coffee longer than other roasters, resulting in a darker, richer bean. Then its baristas brew the coffee at a ridiculously high ratio of coffee to water (2 tablespoons of coffee for every 6 ounces of water), resulting in a darker, richer brew. While others may prefer to be able to see through their morning cup of coffee, I like mine strong and dark. The dishwater the local competitors sell literally pales in comparison. I also like my coffee hot, and am tired of the lukewarm lattes baristas in other establishments serve me.
At other times of year, it is easier for me to resist the call of Starbucks's hot, strong coffee, but in November and December, I am drawn to Starbucks like metal filings to a magnet. Why? I am just a sucker for those red cups they use during the "holiday season." I know this sounds pathetic, but I have a strong appreciation for good design, and those red cups just call to me, despite the fact that, as a Jew, I should probably be more critical of the Christmasization of the month of December. But I can't. There is something about the sight of a red cup against a gray winter sky that just makes me feel warm inside (though ingesting a 170-degree beverage probably helps with that too).
November 29, 2006
Have I mentioned that I am in love with a bald man? No, I'm not cheating on David, I'm just referring to his lack of hair. When I first met him, I wondered if he was sick (cancer, AIDS, some other terminal illness...), but I soon learned that men of a certain age just lose their hair. Actually, I knew that part, I just didn't realize David was that age :) In any case, over the past five years, I have grown very fond of David's perfectly-round skull, and have come to see hair on men as just wrong. I never had a thing for baldness before I met David, but I did always admire men like Michael Stipe, who embrace their hair loss rather than fighting it. David, too, has fully accepted his baldness and, even though he has hair on the sides of his head, keeps his skull closely shaved.
Recently David signed up to work as a guinea pig for drug trials at Pfizer, our local pharmaceutical company. The first study he agreed to do was a trial for a cream to regrow hair. David figured he had nothing to lose -- after all, he is already bald, so it can't get any worse. But when he went in for the initial evaluation yesterday, despite the fact that he had refrained from shaving for the past two weeks, the scientists told David that he is too bald for their baldness study! I guess his hair is past the point of no return.
November 28, 2006
The Passive Voice Revisited
Amazingly enough, only one of my students challenged his grade on the first paper. Although I had clearly indicated on the syllabus that students must make grade appeals in writing (explicitly stated to mean a hard copy turned in to my mail box along with the paper to be reconsidered), this student emailed me to ask if there was any way I could raise his grade. I replied that, because he had only answered the first part of the essay question, I couldn't give him anything higher than a B but that, if he had a good reason why he should have gotten a B rather than a B-, he should write a paragraph and turn it in to my mailbox along with the paper in question. After responding with the idiotic question of whether he could do this by email (the obvious answer: no, because I need to see the paper again), he did as I asked.
His grade appeal began with the statement, "I believe that while the second half of the question was not fully answered, my paper deserves a B." Upon reading this, I burst out laughing. He had turned in this paper right after my lesson about how the passive voice hides responsibility and agency. By using the passive voice in his grade appeal, this student made it sound as though the fact that "the second half of the question was not fully answered" had nothing to do with him. This construction reflects his unwillingness to take responsibility for his poor grade. To say "I didn't fully answer the second half of the question" would be unthinkable because it would mean admitting fault. This kid will probably be a ridiculously high-paid defense attorney someday.
November 27, 2006
In the December issue of The Atlantic, Virginia Postrel sings the praises of chain stores. According to Postrel, chain stores such as Best Buy and Home Depot give shoppers in smaller cities access to the variety of products previously only available in large metropolises. She argues that the spread of chain stores from the coasts into the heartland only offends those coastal snobs who want other parts of the country to look different when they visit. The people who live in those other parts of the country, however, want to have access to the same stuff coastal dwellers get. As she suggests, we here in the Midwest don't appreciate our Starbucks coffee any less just because we know that people in the East, West, and South also have Starbucks.
While critics bemoan the fact that chain stores kill regional distinction, Postrel argues that the economies of scale enjoyed by chain stores actually allow them to offer shoppers more variety. For example, Best Buy can stock more models of refrigerators than the local Mom and Pop appliance store. In terms of hardware, appliances, and even clothing, I couldn't agree more with Postrel's premise. I don't think our country would be any less vibrant if everyone had the same microwave, the same door hinges, or even the same clothing. And, as Postrel points out, even these cookie-cutter stores aim to blend in with whatever area they move to by reflecting local architectural styles.
The problem with chains, however, is when they reach monopsony status, as Wal-Mart has done, giving them the power to dictate which products get produced. Again, in terms of refrigerators or blue jeans, I could care less. When bookstores achieve monopsonies, however, we get de facto censorship. Today, publishers are much less likely to publish books if they think Borders or Barnes and Noble won't stock them. Postrel, however, doesn't acknowledge this issue. In fact, she writes that
When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler [Arizona]--or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles--didn't have much in the way of bookstores.While I do agree that Borders (and especially Amazon) has made books much more accessible to most Americans, it certainly wasn't the first bookstore. Los Angeles had some really fantastic bookstores before Borders began to expand. We had Midnight Special, which couldn't keep up with the big competitiors; Dutton's, which is still squeaking by; and Vroman's, an independent bookstore that looks and feels much like the large chains. Even here in Ann Arbor, Borders isn't our only choice: Shaman Drum is an age-old fixture of downtown Ann Arbor that manages to stay in business through an intimate relationship with the University of Michigan.
Postrel accurately notes that "stores don't give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do." David argued, however, that food is a big part of culture, and that chain restaurants (which Postrel also celebrates), undermine local culture. Postrel claims that, before chain restaurants, "one deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one," which simply isn't true. A diner in Santa Fe, for example, would probably feature many more items containing green chiles than a diner in Boston, which might offer a certain baked bean dish. A pizza restaurant in Chicago would produce a completely different pie than a pizza restaurant in New York.
While I agree with the main premise of Postrel's article, I'm frustrated at how her insistence on the beneficence of chain stores blinds her to the products for which chain stores are not the ideal vehicles. It seems that, particularly among Atlantic readers, there is so much animosity toward chains that Postrel felt she had to exclude the anti-chain argument completely in order to write a convincing pro-chain piece. Her position might have been more credible, however, had she been able to capture these shades of gray.
November 26, 2006
Today on This American Life I learned that Warner Brothers Studios has made a movie of my childhood. Unaccompanied Minors is a fictionalized account of the 1988 snowstorm that stranded Susan Burton, her little sister Betsy, and several other "divorced kids" in the Chicago O'Hare Airport on their way from Denver to visit their father, who lived in Michigan. No, I wasn't there in O'Hare Airport with Susan and Betsy, but I easily could have been: I flew back and forth as an unaccompanied minor between my mom in Los Angeles and my dad in Boston twice a year from the age of eight until I was no longer a minor. Once I did get stuck on the runway in Los Angeles for two hours while snow was being cleared off the runway in Boston, but I never got stranded overnight.
As I listened to Susan's story on This American Life, I hit on the difference between her childhood and mine: she had a sister with whom to share the experience of being shipped back and forth across the country. What made my childhood so tragic is that I had to go through it all alone. As a child, I loved to read stories of parentless kids, like the Boxcar Children. In these stories, however, there are always siblings. There are no books about only children who are abandoned or neglected by their parents and have to make their way in the world. Susan recognized how important Betsy's companionship was to her as an unaccompanied minor and ended the story by acknowledging that "on these trips to visit our father, more than any other time, all Betsy and I had was each other" (Unaccompanied Minores). As a child, I always longed for a sibling, believing that, with a brother or sister (preferably a twin -- someone my own age!) one is never truly alone in the world.
November 25, 2006
Over the past few months, David and I have watched the television series Six Feet Under in its entirety, from pilot to finale. Six Feet Under was a truly fantastic television show because it dealt with death, something our society usually shies away from. Every episode began with a death: some tragic, some hilarious, some both. Viewers saw, sometimes in excruciating detail, exactly what embalmers do to get the bodies ready for viewing. We also learned that being a funeral director isn't just about selling caskets, but also involves a lot of grief counseling. The show focused, however, on the lives of the Fisher family, who live in the funeral home. The series begins with one family death, that of Mr. Fisher, and ends with another family death (I won't give it away). The dead Mr. Fisher is still a regular character, though, appearing to his wife and children, sometimes to mock them, and sometimes to give them useful advice. He helps the other characters deal with their problems in life, from his gay son coming out to his daughter deciding to go to art school. My favorite thing about the show is that, even though most of the characters are terribly repressed (beginning with the mother, Ruth, the craziest one of all), they often speak and act their minds, almost as if they just can't hold in their true feelings any more. Sometimes they only fantasize about the things they want to do and say, but I still found it immensely liberating to see these characters doing and saying things that I would never allow myself to do, even if only in a dream or fantasy. I also love that the show is set in Los Angeles, my former home, though I think the writers could have done more with that.
My main criticism of the show is that there is way too much substance abuse. All of the characters drink like fish, and most of them smoke pot pretty regularly, including the parents. Somewhere around season three, David commented that the show must be sponsored by the pro-marijuana lobby. At certain points when dealing with close personal deaths, some of the characters become raging alcoholics, but a few episodes later seem to just be drinking normally. Yeah right.
I must admit that I had never really thought much about death before seeing this show. I have been lucky to have lost no friends and only very distant family members. I have been to only one funeral (not including Bo's service at the stadium), which was for someone I had never even met -- I went to support a friend. Watching Six Feet Under has inspired me to start reading The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, a local funeral director who also teaches writing at UM.
November 24, 2006
There is a joke in David's family that every Thanksgiving is "the best Thanksgiving ever." That is what David's grandmother Edith used to say, no matter how much of a disaster the meal was. These days, someone always says it in Edith's honor and memory. But this year, I think it really was true.
Maybe it's just because I wasn't cooking or cleaning up, but this was the most relaxed and least stressful Thanksgiving I have experienced in a long time. My dad drove up from Pittsburgh, and he and David and I arrived at David's mom's around 2:30; we ate when the food was ready, and spent the rest of the evening sitting around kibbitzing about sports, country music, and biodiesel fuel. My poor dad, who doesn't follow sports, listen to country music, or drive a diesel-powered vehicle, felt a bit out of place at first, especially when, on hearing that he lives in Pittsburgh, David's aunt, uncle, and cousin asked if he is a Joe Pa fan. Dad had no idea what they were talking about; his football team is the Steelers. But he reached deep within himself and rediscovered his teenage fandom for the Green Bay Packers and for the Dodgers (he spent his adolescence in Wisconsin, then moved to Los Angeles for high school), the appreciation of Willie Nelson shared by all decent human beings, and his concern for the environment. At that point, he fit right in.
In the midst of this lively conversation, we also had a fantastic meal. My vegetable dish was a hit (between the nine of us, we ate about two pounds of veggies!), the turkey was moist, and the rolls were burned, which is apparently a family tradition. The best part was when the burnt rolls took flight: Everyone had just about finished eating, when David's Uncle Bob commented that he hadn't had any rolls. David's mom, Chris, sitting at the opposite end of the table, tossed him a roll. Bob missed, so Chris threw another and another. Bob blocked the third one, which went flying back across the table and hit Chris! By the time we cleared the dishes, there were rolls strewn across the floor. I used to make fun of David's family for eating the same Thanksgiving foods year after year after year, but last night it occurred to me that, when you eat the same foods over and over, you develop memories and traditions surrounding them. In David's family, the most legendary Thanksgiving dish is the French Silk Pie from Baker's Square. As children, David, Mike, and their cousins always wanted some but weren't allowed to have it -- their parents told them it was a grown-up pie, and kept it for themselves! So now, when the FSP comes out, the younger generation teases the older generation about having hogged the pie in the past. Last night we had five desserts: three pies, a pumpkin cake, and a box of clementines for me. David and I left loaded down with yummy leftovers -- it will be Thanksgiving in our house for the next month at least!
November 23, 2006
Green Bean Casserole
Thanksgiving is my favorite secular holiday. I love the fall weather, the turkey, and the gathering of friends and family. While some families have Thanksgiving traditions that they repeat year after year, my mom and I always took a more experimental appraoach to the holiday: turkey sandwiches, turkey pizza, tofurkey, tofu lasagna. Sometimes we even had our Thanksgiving meal in restaurants. The one constant was that we were always with people, either friends, family members, or both.
The last Thankgsiving I spent with my mom was 2001. I had been living in Ann Arbor for six months, and it would be my first trip back home. David and I had been dating for just a couple of weeks, but he gave me a Thanksgiving gift to take back to LA with me: the makings of Green Bean Casserole. Having grown up in Los Angeles, where most of our groceries came from the Santa Monica food co-op, I had never heard of Green Bean Casserole, and was quite puzzled when David gave me two cans of green beans, two cans of cream of mushroom soup, and a can of those deep-fried onions. I had no idea what to do with these ingredients but, fortunately, the recipe was on the back of one of the cans. So I put them in my suitcase and, on Thanksgiving day, I mixed it all together and stuck it in the oven, not at all sure what would come out. I had never even seen a canned green bean before!
We had several people over that year: my grandparents; my mom's boyfriend Ken and her best friend Mary Ann; my (still quite friendly) ex-boyfriend Erik and his parents, brother, and sister-in-law; and my uncle Chris, his wife Anna, and stepson G. Nobody had ever heard of Green Bean Casserole, and our guests were all very curious about this Midwestern concoction (actually, according to my Google search, GBC originated in the South). Everyone agreed that it tasted good, but we couldn't quite agree on whether or not it was actually food -- after all, what food group does cream of mushroom soup fall into?
Since 2002, I have joined David's family for Thanksgiving. After two years, however, his mom decided that she was done with the holiday, or at least with the cooking part. She had made the meal every year since she was nineteen, and formally turned it over to me. As our house is way too small to host Thanksgiving dinner, for the past two years, I went over to David's brother's house, and cooked the meal there. I had all kinds of ideas for what I would make, but David's family is one of those traditional ones, and they eat the same dishes every year. He insisted (under threat of being excommunicated from the M--- family) that I had to do it exactly as his mom had done it, which included using her turkey recipe. The first year, everything turned out very well, and everyone agreed that my turkey was the best they had ever eaten. But last year, the turkey was too big, and David's mom's recipe didn't work. The turkey came out of the oven still rather raw (I couldn't test it with a thermometer because it was wrapped in aluminum foil), but by the time we figured this out, the oven was full of other stuff, and the turkey couldn't go back in. So we microwaved it! David's family was very understanding, though, and assured me that it was still the best Thanksgiving ever.
This year, David's mom has taken the holiday back, so I am off the hook! Although cooking used to be one of my passions, I am utterly grateful that I don't have to cook today. I told her that I would bring a vegetable dish (roasted onions, carrots, turnips, and beets tossed with kale), which I made yesterday, so today I can just relax and eat! But the other day David's mom called him to tell him that his cousin Heather would be driving up from Ohio with her family and bringing Green Bean Casserole. She was afraid that I would be upset because I was already bringing a vegetable dish, and Heather's casserole would be competition. So I called her to assure her that I could really care less. To begin with, I'm just not that petty (I don't think). But, no less important, whatever Green Bean Casserole may be, it is most certainly not a vegetable dish!
November 22, 2006
When I first moved to Ann Arbor five and a half years ago, nobody could have predicted that I would one day spend a cold November afternoon in Michigan Stadium celebrating the life of a (Republican) football coach I had never met. I went to Bo's service yesterday for two reasons. First, for David. He grew up during Bo's reign as UM's head football coach, and Bo Schembechler was a household name throughout David's childhood. David aspired to play for Michigan under Bo, but by the time he transferred to UM as a sophomore in 1990 had learned that his talents lay elsewhere. Second, I went because it seemed like an historic occasion. I have never been to a state funeral, and it seemed almost that official. Bo's former players and their families (a group numbering about four hundred) streamed out of the tunnel, across the field, and under the "Go Blue" banner as the marching band played Hail to the Victors. A group of people in military uniforms raised the flag and then lowered it to half staff while the band played our national anthem.
November 21, 2006
In a former life -- way back in 2005 ;) -- I was a burger connoisseur (I probably spelled that wrong, but I don't have time to drag out the AHD right now) and a founding member of Burger Club. Burger Club was born during David's stint as a moonlighter with Zingerman's Mail Order, when he and another employee, Andy, began discussing their favorite burgers. As a relatively new convert to burger eating (sadly, I was a vegetarian on and off for most of my life), I had found my own favorites, but was curious to try some of Andy's. So the three of us grouped together with two other friends, Shawn (one of David's coworkers at both Zingerman's and ICPSR), and her husband Dave, and we began our search for the best burger in Southeast Michigan.
Over the course of 2005 we tried Miller's Bar in Dearborn, the Red Coat Tavern in Royal Oak, Joey's Meatcutters' Inn in Detroit, a couple of slider places in the suburbs, Knight's in Ann Arbor, and Sidetrack in Ypsilanti. We had good burgers, bad burgers, big burgers (1 lb. at Joey's!), and small burgers. We added a sixth member, Jaymie, and I went on sabbatical and was replaced by another of David's coworkers, Dieter. This spring, however, Andy moved to Seattle to take a job with Microsoft, and the Burger Club went on semipermanent hiatus.
Until last night, that is, when Andy came back to town for Thanksgiving and we reunited at Grizzly Peak. All six of us were there, along with Jaymie's wife Amy. We ate, drank, took pictures, and caught up. And the burgers? Most of us agreed that they were pretty good, but they didn't displace anyone's previous favorite. Yes, that's right, there is no consensus on the best burger in Southeast Michigan. For me, it is a tie between Grizzly Peak and Miller's, which are both excellent burgers, but in different ways. Shawn prefers Knight's, Dave and Andy prefer Red Coat, and I'm not sure what David and Jaymie's current favorites are. I guess everyone just has different sets of criteria about what make a good burger. For some it is the bun-to-meat ratio, for some it is the available toppings, and for others it is the juiciness of the patty itself. Cost and atmosphere also play a role.
Up next for the Burger Club: a field trip to Seattle to visit Andy's new favorites!
Suggestions for future outings? Email us: email@example.com
November 20, 2006
Lazing the Day Away
I lied earlier when I said that I had work to do. Rather, I didn't lie about having work to do, but I lied about my intention to do the work. Okay, that wasn't so much of a lie either; I intended to work, and I did some work, but then I stopped. Now I'm just lazing, and it is a rather nice day to laze, as the sun is streaming in through my new sheer purple curtains, and I feel like a cat just stretching out in the warmth.
To laze is a rather odd verb, a verb that is not an action. According to my American Heritage Dictionary (the big one, not the college edition or the backpack-sized edition, both of which I also own), to laze means "to spend (time) loafing," and to loaf means "to pass time at leisure; idle." To idle means "to pass time without working or while avoiding work; to waste."
The value judgments embedded in those three definitions demonstrate that English is clearly the language of a people stricken by the Protestant ethic. Instead of feeling guilty about my idleness today, however, I have whiled away my time reading Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, which praises idleness as the food of the soul and creative spirit. She calls it "moodling about." I have to admit that I didn't think I would like this book, given that it was first published in 1938, and I have little patience for the out-of-date (again, why did I ever go into history?), but her words are still as true today as they must have been back then.
And now, with a clear conscience, back to my lazy ways.
I just lost a long entry that I had spent the last half hour working on! That should teach me to save more often. I'm too frustrated right now to try to recreate it (plus I have work to do!), so here is the rundown:
2. David and I saw Babel yesterday at the State Theater. We liked the movie a lot, but it took us a while to figure out what was going on; we came in late because the State doesn't take credit cards. Ultimately, it was about misunderstanding, an all-too-common state of affairs in today's world.
3. David and I are both reading The Omnivore's Dilemma (and fighting over it, as we only have one library copy between the two of us!), which is quite a fascinating approach to our nation's eating habits (the "national eating disorder," as Pollan puts it) and food industry. Stay tuned for a future post about the ethics of eating meat.
Apologies for my pissy tone this morning -- the entry I lost was much more pleasant to read.
November 19, 2006
Love and Toothbrushes
I can chart my relationship with David in terms of oral hygiene. He first realized that I was beginning to feel comfortable with him when I began using his dental floss without asking first; I realized that he was serious about our relationship long before we began to talk about moving in together, when he gave me a toothbrush to use at his house (or maybe he just got tired of me using his). Yesterday, David went to Meijer to buy deodorant and laundry detergent, and came home with coordinating toothbrushes: a green one for himself and a purple one for me. We never buy toothbrushes for ourselves -- we each get two every year from our dentists and a few more from David's mom as stocking stuffers -- so his purchase had to mean something. This morning I began filling out the Washtenaw County marriage license application.
November 18, 2006
David and Emily on the Fifty
To prepare for today's big football game against Ohio State, David and I went to Crisler Arena last night to watch the UM basketball team annihilate Harvard 82 to 50. Basketball is one of my favorite sports to watch because we get to sit indoors in theater-style seats. I also like the intimate scale of the game, and the fact that I can actually see what is going on because the ball is bigger than a hockey puck and much closer to me than a football in Michigan Stadium.
On the way home, we walked through the Big House to honor Bo Schembechler's untimely death yesterday. As we made our way into the stands, we realized that the field was full of people. Not football players, certainly, who were probably already on their way to Columbus, but just random Ann Arborites like the two of us. Some were tossing around footballs while others were simply taking advantage of a rare opportunity to tread the same ground as Bo, Lloyd, and the numerous boys who keep our school spirit soaring week after week. One man was there with his small son, explaining to him how artificial turf is made. David and I quickly scrambled down the steps and over the wall to join them. I took off my shoes and reveled in the feel of the turf under my feet. We made our way to the big M on the fifty yard line and fondled it reverently. Just as I said to David that I wished I had brought our camera (yes, we still use film), I noticed other people taking pictures with their cell phones. For the first time ever, I understood the utility of a camera phone!
November 17, 2006
Life Without Punctuation
In the absence of the ability to make long-distance phone calls (which, by the way, I have rectified), my dad and I communicated more by email than we usually do. This correspondence was difficult for him, however, because his email provider doesn't always let him use apostrophes! I was at first appalled when he told me about this state of affairs. How can one write without apostrophes? Granted, my students do it all the time (and sometimes I wish they didn't have access to apostrophes because when they do use them they often put them in the wrong place), but it would require a whole different tone of writing. Possessives would be much more cumbersome. Instead of saying that I'm going to David's mom's house for Thanksgiving dinner, I would have to say that I am going to the home of the mother of my fiance. What a mouthful! But then I started thinking that it might be a fun exercise to have to make do without one form of punctuation or another. It would certainly force me to change up my writing style. I think the one I would miss the most is the semicolon; even though it is a totally unnecessary form of punctuation, I use it all the time! When I said this to my dad, he replied that he would just give up writing altogether if he couldn't use semicolons; he just loves them that much. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
November 16, 2006
Making It Up As I Go Along
Teaching undergraduates for the first time this semester, I am struck by the haphazard nature of undergrad teaching. Unlike K-12 teachers, who need a degree in education and certification by the state, college teachers are never really taught how to teach! Sure, we had GSI training, but it was a joke (no offense to our GSI mentors, who did the best they could without having any training themselves in teaching us how to teach). We had five hours of training before our first day in the classroom, and then five more two-hour sessions as two-week intervals over the first two months of the semester. These mostly consisted of bitch-fests, where we complained about what was going wrong in our classes.
There was one genuinely valuable session, however, at which a very experienced GSI came in to talk to us about how to teach critical thinking. This session was useful because our guest speaker had done her own research on pedagogy and shared that research with us. In other words, the information is out there. In education departments all around the country, scholars research and develop modes of teaching effectively. The problem is that there is no institutionalized communication between those scholars and those of us who teach at the college level. We can either seek out this research on our own, or just teach without it, making it up as we go along. The only reason I can fathom why college professors don't actively seek out advice on teaching from education experts is disciplinary pride, which verges on disciplinary hubris. We know that we are the experts on history, so how could someone without this expertise (someone whose degree is in education, which we all "know" isn't a "real" discipline) tell us how to teach our subject?
The problem, though, is that, as Sam Wineburg argues in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, historical thinking is a skill that one must learn, just like any other, and learning involves processes that historians don't necessarily know about. Wineburg is an educational psychologist who specializes in history, and has studies those processes by which students become historians -- how they learn to think historically.
Ultimately, historians learn our craft by imitating others. The fallacy of grad school is that our professors don't teach us how to do history, they simply evaluate whether or not we have successfully imitated them. In research seminars, we are not taught how to do research or write an article, we are simply set loose for ten weeks to write an article-length paper based on original research. Grad school is trial by fire.
Since we aren't taught, we have no model on which to base our own teaching, and we have to make it up as we go along. Thinking back to my own undergraduate education, I realize that my professors also simply did their best to figure it out. Some of them did it really well; I will be eternally grateful to the professor who taught my undergrad research seminar because that is where I learned to do original research. Others modeled their classes on graduate seminars, which means they didn't teach at all. I entered graduate school without knowing the nature of academic history or the purpose of historiography.
As a teacher, I have made up my teaching style as I go along, continually asking myself what I wish I had been taught as an undergrad history major. I have realized that my job isn't to teach names and dates, but rather to teach students how to read primary and secondary sources, and how to write history and historiography. I am also hoping to instill in them the value of using their colleagues as a resource. To these ends, I have done two peer editing exercises with them. For the first paper, I had them pair up and I gave them a worksheet to guide them in editing each others' papers. This worked well for those whose partners took the exercise seriously, but it seemed that some students were either too intimidated to critique others or simply couldn't be bothered. Yesterday I tried a different exercise. My challenge was that only about half of the students had written papers; they were given a choice of whether to write a paper in November or a paper in December. I modeled this exercise on the workshop, which I have found very useful in my own work, but we didn't have the advantage of everyone being able to read every paper. So I focused on arguments. I had each student write their argument on the chalkboard, and then, as a group, we critiqued each others' arguments. This exercise encouraged them to help each other, but I also participated, so that the students could see what I was looking for in an argument. I'm not sure what they thought of it, but I was pretty pleased with the results. I'm writing about this not just to brag about what a creative teacher I am, but also because I think that, in the absence of formal training in how to teach undergrads, those of us on the front lines need to do a lot more sharing about what works and what doesn't. We also need to be a lot more humble about the fact that we don't really know what we are doing, and a lot more willing to ask for help from whatever sources we have at our disposal.
November 15, 2006
Today I was shocked to find that none of the students in my 9am section (almost all junior and senior history majors or minors) could tell me what the passive voice is and what is wrong with using it.
This website explains it pretty well. The passive voice changes the order of the subject and the object in the sentence. While "the girl wrote the paper" is an active construction, the equivalent passive construction is "the paper was written by the girl." The passive construction is just as correct, but it emphasizes the object rather than the subject.
Sometimes there is a valid reason to emphasize the object. An example I gave my students is that David was once in a car accident, but didn't want to admit to me that his friend Josh (the driver) had been negligent in the situation. So instead of telling me that Josh totalled the truck, he told me that the truck was totalled. Pretty clever.
In a paper, the writer might want to emphasize the object if she had just been talking about the object and wanted to make a smooth transition. Most of the time, however, the passive voice is overly wordy, not to mention weak and awkward. It requires the verb "to be," one of the weakest verbs in the English language.
The passive voice is often used (see -- I just used it!) in scientific writing, to make the process seem more objective. When I took physics in college, however, my professor encouraged us (active) to use the active voice in lab reports, and it was much more fun to say "I dropped the egg off the roof" than to say "the egg was dropped from the roof."
David disagrees with my distaste for the passive voice. As an undergraduate English major here at UM, he had a history GSI fail him on a paper for overuse of the passive voice, when he thought it was perfectly justified. Similarly, one of my students who is not only a senior English major but also a peer tutor at Sweetland, suggested in class that to make all sentences active creates a choppy writing style. I do agree with both of them: there is a time and place for passive voice, and it is important to vary one's sentence structures. However, I firmly believe that one must know the rules and practice using them before achieving license to break the rules. If my students don't even know what the passive voice is, how can they use it effectively?
November 14, 2006
Just Read the Syllabus!
I can't even begin to say how sick I am of having students ask me questions that are fully explained in the course syllabus:
When are your office hours?
Where is your office?
How long is the paper supposed to be?
Is there class the week of Thanksgiving?
Can you raise my grade?
Do I need to talk in section?
Next time I teach, I'm going to have the students read the syllabus out loud on the first day of class, just to make sure they read it!
For some reason, David and I both do our most avid housecleaning when the other is out of town. I don't know if this is simply because it is easier to clean without another person underfoot, or if it is because we are cleaning up the detritus of a brief period of singlehood. Perhaps it is that each of us knows how nice it is to return to a clean house and we want to give that gift to each other. In any case, David will return home tonight to spotless floors, which I cleaned yesterday, and fresh sheets, which are in the dryer right now. I must admit that I hate washing the sheets, and I only do it when David is returning from a trip or when he specifically asks me to. The actual washing is the easy part -- I don't mind stripping the bed, carrying everything down two flights of stairs, and throwing it in the washer -- the part I loathe is putting the clean sheets and pillowcases back on the bed.
Again, this shouldn't be terribly difficult, but David has very high standards for his bed. This is one of the major differences between us. I never even made my bed until I went to college, and even then I dispensed with the customary top sheet in order to make it easier for myself. This may sound pretty vile to hard-core hygienists, but what can I say? It worked. Since I have been living with David, however, not only have I been using a top sheet, but I have also learned about hospital corners. The problem, though, is that no matter how many times he shows me how to do it, I always forget. There is also a problem with our comforter/cover situation: the cover is a couple of feet longer than the comforter, and the excess material has to be tucked under at the foot of the bed to keep it from getting all tangled. Isn't life hard? I'll stop complaining now and just consign making the bed to the "labor of love" category!
November 13, 2006
Let There Be Light
Yesterday morning I woke up, walked in to the bathroom, and hit the light switch. After a brief flash of light, the room returned to darkness. The lightbulb had burned out. In my early-morning confusion, I couldn't quite believe it, so I flipped the switch a few more times before accepting the fact that I would just have to change the lightbulb. Normally, I would just leave it for David to do, but he won't be home until Tuesday night, and I couldn't imagine showering (er, bathing, rather, as we don't have a proper shower) and flossing my teeth in the dark for three days. Changing the lightbulb myself would be no easy feat, however, as our house has rather high ceilings and, even with our handy stepladder, I wouldn't be able to reach the light fixture. So I employed my monkey instincts, using the toilet as a stepping stone to scramble up on top of the sink. With one foot on either side of the counter, I was able to unscrew the light fixture (yes, David, I cleaned it while I had it off!) and change the bulb. For the rest of the day I was so proud of myself that I told everyone I saw about my lightbulb-changing feat. It only takes one Emily to change a lightbulb, but she needs about a dozen people to talk about it with afterwards!
November 12, 2006
Takin' Care of Business
David is out of town again, this time in Florida with his dad, visiting some aunts. With him away, I find myself more motivated to take care of stuff around the house. Yesterday, I finally got up the initiative to replace the ugly lace curtains that have hung on our windows since before the windows were ours. They were already yellowing with age when David moved in six years ago, and we began to talk about replacing them when we bought the house in 2004. We even tried once, and actually bought a set of Roman blinds at IKEA, but they didn't come with the necessary hardware, and they were too white against our white walls. I was tired of white -- I wanted color.
Yesterday I decided that I couldn't bear looking at those yellowy doily drapes one more day, so I went to K-Mart and impulsively bought a set of sheer lavender Martha Stewart curtains. I actually had more of a burgundy color in mind, but they only had two of the burgundy, and I needed at least four. I don't often shop at K-Mart. It isn't evil in the way that Wal-Mart is evil, but it just doesn't have the style of Target. However, I am a closet devotee of Martha Stewart (only since her arrest though, I never liked her before!), and I adore her Everyday products, which are only sold at K-Mart. So the new curtains are up, and the dingy doilies will soon be in the trash. I just hope David loves the change as much as I do!
November 11, 2006
When I moved in with David in September, 2002, I inherited the long-distance calling plan he and his former roommate, Josh, had in place. It was a very expensive international plan, which they had gotten when Josh was dating a Norwegian woman. As David never makes long-distance calls (except when I am out of town), I paid for the whole thing. Month after month, I felt as though I was getting screwed by AT&T, paying through the nose for an international plan I never used and an additional seven cents a minute for the calls I did make. In the spring of 2003, I spent a lot of time out of town visiting grad schools (only to end up right back here at UM), and found pre-paid long-distance cards a cheap alternative.
When I returned to Ann Arbor, I told AT&T to take its plan and shove it, and I signed up for pre-paid long-distance service with BigZoo.com, which is no longer in business. When BigZoo went out of business, I switched to Pingo.com, which worked very well until about two weeks ago. Then, inexplicably, my calls stopped going through. This is not a problem of exhausting my account -- according to the website, I still have $8 of pre-paid long-distance calls. I will probably just have to bite the bullet and get a new long-distance carrier, but I'm putting it off as long as possible in the hope that Pingo will magically start working again.
So, if you live outside the 734 area code and are wondering why you haven't heard from me in a while, this should explain all. I can still receive long-distance calls, though, and I would love to hear from you!
November 10, 2006
Yesterday I made my first visit to David's Books, where I traded in my old copy of Peter Clarke's Hope and Glory (superceded by a new edition, which I got for free as a GSI!) for The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates. I was a bit sad to sell the Clarke, given that I bought it in England during my semester abroad at Cambridge, but it was also fun to see that I could trade in my history books for fun books. Perhaps after I leave grad school, I'll replace my entire library to reflect my new postacademic life!
November 09, 2006
There Is a Reason Why it Was Called the Depression
Because just reading about it is f---ing depressing! In the US, the Great Depression didn't start until after the stock market crash of 1929, but in Great Britain, things had already been pretty depressing for a long time. For the most part, the Liberal landslide election of 1906 was the last good thing that happened in Britain until the establishment of the Welfare State after World War II.
The other day, my mom asked me how school was going, and I thought I was going to cry telling her about World War I. We had been reading the chapter on the Battle of the Somme from John Keegan's The Face of Battle, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit despite having absolutely no interest in military history, but it was heart-wrenching to read about the tens of thousands who died in a battle that took no ground, in which the soldiers had no chance from the outset.
Even more men returned from the war with missing limbs and deep psychological scars, but it doesn't end there. All the aggression that had been bottled up through four years of entrenchment was subsequently expended in the empire by the Black and Tans in the Irish War of Independence and with the Amritsar Massacre in India, not to mention aerial bombardment of newly acquired imperial territory in the Middle East, which Britain was supposedly holding in trust for the League of Nations.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the Great War did have some good effects on the homefront. Steady employment became much more available to the working class, and women's employment opportunities improved. The war didn't bring women into the workforce -- British women had always worked (as an historian, I usually avoid using the word "always" as it is rather ahistorical, but in this case I really mean it) -- but the war brought women's employment into the public. They no longer had to rely on cottage-industry-style piecework or on domestic employment because clerical and factory jobs became available to them. Although there was a huge push to get women back into the private sphere after the war (and most middle-class women did go back), many women kept their jobs, particularly in the new light electrical industries, which employed women for assembly-line manufacturing. Their refusal to return to domestic service created the so-called crisis of domestic service, but the new industries in which they worked supplied labor-saving devices to the middle-class and lower-middle-class women who, for the first time, had to make do without domestic servants. Miriam Glucksmann provides an excellent analysis of this labor shift in Women Assemble.
These interwar factory girls, all decked out in stockings and lipstick (see Sally Alexander's Becoming a Woman), were, however, deeply resented by the massive numbers of unemployed men, former workers in the traditional heavy industries of the north who had been put out of work by the econmic shifts engendered by the war and by the Second Industrial Revolution, which led to the obsolescence of the traditional British industries. These men of the North of England were the first to experience postindustrialism, and J.B. Priestly poignantly described their plight in English Journey. Their desperate situation is best symbolized by the unemployed men of Jarrow, who marched to London in 1936 to lobby Parliament for jobs.
The narrative of the Great Depression isn't quite adequate for the experience of Britain between the wars because massive unemployment began nearly a decade before the 1929 stock market crash. At the same time, however, as Priestly noted on his journey, England was not uniformly depressed. New industries boomed in the South, creating a new class of workers who had access to new and more democratic forms of consumption and leisure coming in from the United States, symbolized by Woolworth's and Hollywood. As I emphasized to my students yesterday, the interwar period is one characterized by deep division, not just class division, but regional division, and that the so-called "Great Depression" was experienced very differently by heavy industrial workers in the North, by assembly-line workers in the South, and by the middle class throughout Britain.
November 08, 2006
I woke up in a new country this morning, to news on NPR that Democrats had seized control of the House of Representatives for the first time in my adult life. Now I know how Republicans must have felt in 1994! I can't wait to see what happens when Nancy Pelosi injects her "San Francisco Values" into our government as the new Speaker of the House. What are "San Francisco Values," anyway? Tolerance? Equality? I think our legislative branch could use some of that after twelve years of Republican domination. I'll bet that, for the next two years, Bush and Cheney will be extra careful not to ride in the same car or airplane, knowing that Pelosi is third in line for the presidency!
It is also a bright new day here in Michigan, where my fellow voters resoundingly rejected not only Dick DeVos, but the Republican party in general, returning Jennifer Granholm to the governorship and securing a Democratic majority in the state legislature for the first time since 1999. Without her hands tied by a Republican legislature, Granholm might actually be able to enact some of her progressive policy ideas!
It is not all good news here, however, as the evil Proposal 2 did pass late last night, but it passed by a much smaller margin than pollsters had predicted. UM president Mary Sue Coleman will address the university community today at noon on the diag, to talk about what the affirmative action ban means for us. I will most likely miss it, however, because my day is stacked to the brim with classes and meetings. In any case, today I'm proud to be a Michiganian, and proud to be a part of the 42% of our state that still supports affirmative action.
November 07, 2006
Lately I have been sleeping all over town. It starts innocently enough -- curling up somewhere comfortable with a book -- but the next thing I know, I'm waking up, not quite sure where I am or how I got there. In the past month, I have napped in the History Department grad lounge, at the Starbucks on State and Liberty, and in the reading room of the Grad Library. Apparently, I'm not the only one who naps around: on Friday, I sat down on a well-padded bench in the Michigan League, with a sign above warning me that sleeping was not permitted. Each time I wake up, I'm a bit embarrassed for having fallen asleep in public; I haven't been such a nap slut since college, when I was chronically sleep-deprived!
November 06, 2006
Fishing for Spiders
Don't Forget to Vote Tomorrow!
Unless you have your head in the sand, it probably would be pretty hard to forget, given that the election is the only thing I have heard about on NPR all weekend, and I'm sure it has been all over the commercial media as well. I keep hearing about these negative campaign ads, but the nice thing about not paying attention to the commercial media is that I haven't had to see or hear any of them. Not that it would make a difference. I'm a pretty predictable voter and pigs would have to sprout wings before I would vote for a Republican for any kind of executive, legislative, or judicial position, though it might be okay to have a Republican drain commissioner! Not that I'm particularly enamored of the Democratic Party, but today (rather, tomorrow) they are the only real alternative.
Here in Michigan, we have a pretty evil proposal on the ballot that we need to defeat: Proposal 2, the Orwellian-titled "Civil Rights Initiative," which would actually undermine civil rights in Michigan by outlawing affirmative action. I can't even begin to get into the smarminess of the backers of this proposal (Remember Ward Connerly, who got affirmative action outlawed in California? Well, now he is in Michigan!), or the underhanded tactics they used to get it on the ballot, but you can read all about it here.
Michigan voters can find a lot more information about the election and check registration status and polling location at www.publius.org, a website set up by a UM grad!
See you at the polls tomorrow!
November 05, 2006
David and I are celebrating our five-year anniversary today. Five years ago, David helped me move into the coolest apartment in Ann Arbor, and then he kissed me on my new balcony. Four days later, we had our first date at The Blue Nile, where we drank Red Stripe beer and ate with our hands from the same plate -- a great way to build intimacy!
Over the past five years, we have moved in together, bought a house together, traveled together, and shared both joy and pain. We have grown as individuals and as a couple. I'm excited to see what the next five years will bring.
November 04, 2006
Last night, David and I attended the annual Band-O-Rama show at Hill Auditorium. Despite the fact that I am the official band geek in our relationship (I played tuba in my high school marching band), going to Band-O-Rama was David's idea. He had read in the Ann Arbor News that Ernie Harwell would be performing Casey at the Bat with the UM Concert Band.
When Harwell came on stage, it was the first time I had ever seen a performer get a standing ovation before the performance. As David said, however, he had earned it before the performance. Unfortunately, he didn't get another standing ovation after the performance, though he might have done if the volume on his microphone had been turned up a bit -- we couldn't really hear him...
Nonetheless, Casey was my favorite part of the show, followed by John Williams's Overture to The Cowboys, which we played in my high school Wind Ensemble. I also enjoyed Niagara Falls, written by UM composer Michael Daugherty. David and I have very different taste in music: I prefer the modern; to David, the older the better. His favorite piece from the Concert Band/Symphonic Band portion of the show was a medley of old showtunes, which surprised me because David usually expresses nothing but disdain for musical theater.
We were both totally geeked, however, to see the UM Marching Band take the stage after intermission. The 265 band members high-stepped up there into concert formation. We were surprised they didn't shake the whole place down. I always complain about the marching band because they play too much television music (particularly the theme songs to cartoons), but they also seem to have so much fun rocking out to their own music. I think that if I had seen that concert when I was in high school, I would have wanted to come to UM for college and play in the Marching Band!
November 03, 2006
I don't care what the calendar says; according to my wardrobe, yesterday was the first day of winter. After watching thick flakes of snow swirl around my windows, I de-linted my purple wool coat and inaugurated my long underwear (long unders, as David calls them) for the season.
A good friend told me that, for this winter, she has sworn off complaining about the weather. There is nothing she can do to change it, so she will just try to enjoy it. This is a brave stance to take in Michigan, where the weather is the subject of so many conversations! But there are good things to be said about winter also. Walking across the diag in a snowstorm yesterday, I overheard a girl on a cell phone telling someone that it is beautiful here. And it was, though not in the way an erstwhile Angelina would typically think of beautiful weather! It may be cold today, but at least the sky is blue and the sun is shining.
November 02, 2006
The Slums of Manchester
For section yesterday, my students and I read a book that, in the words of our professor, is "flippin' brilliant": The Classic Slum by Robert Roberts. The Classic Slum is brilliant because it combines memoir and social history. Roberts, who has clearly been trained in historical methods, uses his own memories of growing up in Salford, a working-class "village" (slum) in Manchester, along with other primary sources -- including newspaper clippings, quotes from politicians, demographic and economic data, and records from his parents' Salford grocery store -- to create a compassionate yet critical microhistory of early-twentieth-century Salford. It is a fabulous example of the genre of microhistory because it contextualizes thick ethnographic description of a single village with national and world history.
Roberts also engages in historical debate, challenging the theories of Richard Hoggart and others who have romanticized pre-mass-consumption working-class life by saying, "I was there, and it wasn't like that." In that way, it reminded me of Carolyn Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman (but without the feminist psychoanalysis) because both use their own experience to challenge the overly-general theories about the English working class propounded by the cultural studies crowd.
Beyond all this analysis, however, The Classic Slum is just a great read, and most of my students enjoyed it as much as I did. Roberts pokes fun at the conservatism of his Salford neighbors and describes the way in which they bought into the Victorian bourgeois ideology promoted by such figures as Samuel Smiles, thereby helping to secure the early-twentieth-century Tory hegemony.
What I found most surprising in this book was the profound change to working-class life effected by the Great War. It makes perfect sense, however. Pre-war working-class society was characterized by a very hierarchical social structure. From the "labour aristocracy" to the inmates of the workhouse, everyone knew his place; one showed deference to one's superiors and expected it from one's inferiors. Appearances were very carefully maintained, as everyone knew everyone else's business, and wearing the wrong outfit on Sunday could reduce one's status in this intricate hierarchy. This hierarchy preserved working-class oppression by giving everyone someone to whom he or she could feel superior. The distinction between skilled and unskilled workers formed a major division within the working class, and the unwillingness of skilled workers to band together with unskilled workers, either in trade unions or in politics, prevented the takeoff of either syndicalism or socialism in Great Britain. World War I, however, broke down many of these distinctions, first by providing more jobs and thus more money to more of the working class, and second by de-skilling labor through the introduction of new (American-made!) machines. Finally, the war provided a measure of autonomy to women; with many men away, they had more control over their wages and households. After the war, these changes in work provided a greater sense of equality within the working class, and the massive number of lives lost in the war gave the working class a new language in which to demand citizenship, which included the vote, unemployment insurance, national health care, and a pension scheme, all of which would be further expanded after the next major war.
November 01, 2006
Back in the day when we used to work together, we could get flu shots at the office for $8 a pop. My first year of grad school, there was a flu shot shortage, and David's mom (who was then a nurse but is now retired) stole them from the hospital where she worked and gave them to us in her living room. She claimed she had never given a shot before, but I'm not sure how she could have graduated from nursing school without learning something that important. In any case, I was the guinea pig -- David, his brother, and his stepfather were all too scared to go first! Last year, I wasn't going to get a flu shot at all, but when I went to the UHS travel clinic to prepare for my trip to Kenya, they gave me one just in case. Today, UHS was offering a walk-in flu shot clinic for UM-affiliated people until 11:30. I had to go there anyway to get a cholesterol test and, when I arrived at 11:10, I called David and told him to hightail it up there so we could also get our flu shots. He arrived in record time, and we were through the flu-shot assembly line in about fifteen minutes. They are very efficient!
No flu for us this year. I also just learned from the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention that I am at very low risk for diabetes and heart disease, so I shouldn't have any heart attacks this year, either!