February 22, 2007
Paying the Piper
In 2001 I graduated college with $17,718 in student debt. Over the next few years, I paid $447.41 plus interest and my mom paid $7147.73 plus interest (thanks, Mom!) toward this debt. Then I went to grad school and my loan repayments were deferred. Now that I have left grad school, however, the payments for the remaining $10,122.86 are coming due, and the companies that own my loan are not into giving advance notice. Yesterday I got a letter from Sallie Mae telling me that my next payment of $92.32 is due on February 18. Reader, yesterday was February 21. There is nothing scarier than getting a bill three days after the payment is due! This morning when I logged in to make the payment, I was informed that my account is three days delinquent. If they want people to make payments on time, they should give us a bit of advance warning!
When I decided to go to Pomona College almost ten years ago, I knew I would graduate in debt, and I didn't care. After all, that was still four years down the road, and then I would have ten years to pay off the debt, by which time I would be in my early thirties. It is very hard for a seventeen-year-old to think that far down the road. My dad tried to warn me what it would be like to be in debt, telling me that I would never even be able to buy an ice cream cone because all my money would have to go to debt service. To this day, I still resent him for using the "no ice cream" threat to try to scare me. It is true that being in debt isn't fun, but fortunately -- between my two jobs -- it isn't an overwhelming burden. Yes, it is true that I could have gone to Boston University for free, as my dad wanted me to, and today I wouldn't be in debt, but I still think I got the superior education (no offense, Dad).
Recently, I have been looking at debt blogs, which make me feel a lot better about my own indebtedness. Unlike some people, I don't owe anything on credit cards and, compared to others, owing $10,000 is just the tip of the iceberg.
So today I made my Februrary and March payments on my Stafford Loan, and next week I'll start making regular monthly payments on my Perkins Loan. My goal is to put $300 monthly toward these loans, at which rate I should have them paid off within about five years (accounting for the interest that will accrue as I repay). Perhaps this is tmi (too much information), but this kind of accountability worked for some of the debt bloggers, who managed to pay off their credit cards super-fast once they started blogging about it, so I'm trying to take advantage of it too.
January 31, 2007
Why I'm Not An Historian (Anymore)
Kisha's recent post reminded me of just why I gave up on my brilliant career as an historian. Historians suffer some of the world's worst working conditions. Okay, that is probably an exaggeration -- it would (probably) be worse to work in a third-world sweatshop for pennies a day -- but considering that we are Americans with close to a decade of post-college education, our working conditions are abominable.
Granted, faculty positions can be pretty cushy for tenured professors, but in order to reach that near-mythical status, one must spend quite a bit of time in the dreaded archives, the subject of Kisha's post. In the archives, you can't eat, drink, or go to the bathroom. The chairs are uncomfortable and the documents are dirty. The archives can get away with treating historians like that because we aren't employees of the archives. Believe me, however, if the archivists couldn't eat, drink, or go to the bathroom all day, OSHA would close down the archives. Furthermore, when you think about the fact that grad students are paid on average about $15,000 a year for an average of about 60 hours a week, that works out to about $5 an hour, less than the federal minimum wage. Add on to that the fact that we have higher than average living costs because we have to travel to the archives and pay ridiculous amounts of money to stay in sub-standard housing while we are there (in London, I paid $50 a night to stay in a dorm), and it gets even worse.
The worst archive I worked in was the Public Records and Archive Administration Department in Accra, Ghana. The catalogs were scattered on the floor, half were missing, and the archivists kept the most important ones hidden. But what really bothered me was the bathroom situation. To begin with, it was kept locked, so I had to suffer the indignity of asking the archivists for the key whenever I wanted to use it. One would think that a locked bathroom would stay relatively clean, but not so. Just imagine what could be all over the walls, floors, and other surfaces of a bathroom. It was. Finally, there was toilet paper only for archivists and not for researchers. They got it out of their locked desk whenever they used the bathroom, but didn't give it to us! It was particularly disheartening to hear from another American historian there that Ghana's archives were better than most in Africa. After the first day, I just didn't eat or drink all day (since I couldn't do so in the archive anyway) in order to avoid having to go to the bathroom. I returned to the US 10 lb lighter than when I left.
So now that I have spent all this time complaining about the archives, you may be wondering why I work in one. I have addressed this in a previous post, but Kisha's post reminded me of more reasons why it's better to be an archivist than an historian. To begin with, as an employee of an archive, I have to be paid at least minimum wage and all of the usual OSHA standards apply to my working conditions. But I think I work in the world's best archive because researchers don't ever have to come here. All of our holdings are digitized, so scholars can download our materials from the comfort of their homes and offices, sandwich in hand if they so choose. They don't have to fly to Detroit or pay the exorbitant Ann Arbor hotel rates. For this reason alone, being a sociologist or political scientist (our main clientele) is way better than being an historian. Unfortunately, I didn't think of that before I applied to grad school.
Now if only someone could digitize historical documents...
January 29, 2007
Et Tu Brute?
Last night I went out with my friend Diana to celebrate her 26th birthday (!) and she told me to check my History Department mailbox because teaching evaluations from last semester had come in. Eager to see them, I set out extra-early this morning (6:45) so I could stop by the History Department on my way to work. Let's just say, I shouldn't have.
To begin with, my 1pm section didn't even bother to turn in their evaluations. That's right -- out of my 37 students, I only had 16 evaluations. I opened the evaluations for my 10am section first. This section had been my favorite to teach and, judging by the midterm evaluations, I really thought they liked me. But I was wrong. All of my scores were between 3.13 and 4.20 (on a five-point scale), and most were in the bottom quartile for the university as a whole. Even though I had very few scores of one or two (strongly disagree or disagree with statements such as "one real strength of this discussion section was in the classroom discussion"), I was surprised at how many threes (neutral) I got. Please, kids, have an opinion! My highest scores were on "the discussion instructor seemed to enjoy teaching" and "the discussion instructor was friendly." What bothered me the most, however, was that only two of the nine respondents in this section took the time (and I gave them plenty of time) to answer the open-ended questions. One person actually did answer all five of these questions, demanding "more light, individual work." What is the point of coming to a discussion section if the instructor has students work individually? Another person simply said "this discussion was largely unhelpful" and nobody else wrote anything. I have to admit that I'm pretty pissed off at these kids for giving me low scores and not even explaining why.
Opening the 9am evaluations made me feel a little better. My lowest score on those was 3.67 ("I reconsidered many of my former attitudes") and all of the other scores were above 4.25. I even got unanimous fives on "overall, the discussion instructor was an excellent teacher." That warmed my heart. These students did answer the open-ended questions, saying things like "the quality of instruction was excellent, Emily was friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
She listened well and always gave positive feedback on responses;" "Emily was such a viable component to our success. Whether fielding questions, providing her own, or engaging us in debate, she was always there to help;" "Emily was an amazing GSI. Her passion for the subject clearly showed whenever she was teaching...She was very good at getting everyone to participate in duscussion and understood that some people, though they aren't necessarily vocal are actively participating and listening. She even got me to speak a lot in duscussion section and that says a lot." The worst comment I got from this section was "9:00 is too early."
So what were those 10am kids thinking?
December 23, 2006
In the Thick of It
I graded twenty-seven papers yesterday and have eight more to go. I thought I had thirty-eight students, but I only received thirty-five final papers. According to my contract, I could have had up to seventy-five students, and right now I'm very grateful that my class was underenrolled. I still can't believe just how little time they give us to grade finals -- seventy-two hours! There is simply no way to give justice to papers in such a short period of time. Unfortunately, however, my students' final papers don't seem to deserve much justice. There are, of course, some excellent ones, but most are just atrocious, and I'm not sure why because previous papers from the same students have been much more thoughtful, engaged, and well-written. I don't know if they were thrown for a loop by the essay questions or if they were simply too busy with other papers and finals to put in a whole lot of effort. What I really wish is that more of them had come to me for help. A few did, and their papers showed the extra effort. Other papers are full of misinformation, devoid of textual evidence, and just poorly written. Many were obviously not even proofread. And when did "dominate" become an adjective?
December 22, 2006
Well, I didn't start grading yesterday. Big surprise, right? But I did finish the book and a scarf I was knitting for David's stepfather, and I watched The 40 Year Old Virgin, so it isn't like I was just sitting around doing nothing!
As I gear up to start reading my students' papers today, I find myself reassured by New Kid's recent post about grading. I tend to give a lot of grades in the B range (okay, I give a lot of As too, but don't tell anyone), and it is reassuring to read that B grades are just the nature of the discipline. I very much appreciated her explanation of how history, though it is chronological, is not cumulative. That explains how I managed to get A and A- grades in my history classes all through college without learning anything about what actually happened!
December 14, 2006
Yesterday was my last day of teaching. I'll still be grading right through the twenty-fourth, mind you, but the classroom component of the semester is over. Because yesterday was the last day of class, I had my students fill out evaluations. As a GSI, evaluations matter. They go into my personnel file and get dragged out every time I apply for a teaching position, either here or elsewhere. And I'm not above bribing my students with food in order to get good evaluations. It's actually a pretty common tactic; many of my professors used to bring food in on the last day of class as well and, as I was walking in yesterday morning, I ran into a fellow GSI who was bringing cookies for her students. I didn't quite stoop that low: it is one thing to bribe them and another thing to get them strung out on sugar, so I brought in clementines. Apparently, however, fruit is not as popular as candy. I brought in two crates of clementines, thinking that everyone would have one and that some people would have two or three, but I ended up with a whole crate left over. Oh well, more for me.
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 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!
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 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 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.
October 26, 2006
Vampires, Part II
Discussing Dracula with my students yesterday was actually quite fun. They were excited to talk about it, and I was able to help them contextualize it, which I think is the first step to reading a novel as a primary source. What shocked me was that many of them hadn't picked up the fact that blood sucking is a metaphor for sex. It is pretty obvious when you read the book: male vampires suck women; female vampires suck men; the female vampires are described as sexually alluring; the sucking happens at night, often in bed, and, of course, it involves the exchange of bodily fluids; it also results in the creation of a vampire "race." Granted, Stoker's language is Victorian, and hence restrained, but it is still pretty obvious, particularly for anyone who has seen Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film version. My mostly-nineteen- and twenty-year-old students were pretty embarrassed when I pointed it out to them, and most of them hadn't seen the movie. After all, they were only five or six years old in 1992!
What I love most about being a GSI is how much I learn, either directly from my students or from the act of teaching them. Through the three discussions yesterday, it became apparent that Dracula is a commentary on modernity. I typically think of the turn of the twentieth century as kind of the triumph of modernity. Reason was in; superstition was out. Technology was all the rage and Britons viewed themselves as the most "advanced" nation in the world. At the same time, however, middle-class Brits hungered for a sense of meaning that science and reason did not provide. Alex Owen's The Place of Enchantment charts the rise of occultism in Great Britain at precisely this time. In Dracula, Stoker suggests that science and reason can't account for everything in the world. Some phenomena have no logical explanations, and some dangers can't be averted with modern technology. The heros of Dracula certainly needed modern technology to catch him -- typewriters, phonographs, telegraphs, railroads, and Winchesters -- but in order to truly defeat him, they had to depend on religious symbols, and not just any religious symbols, but those of Catholicism -- the host and the crucifix. The novel thus suggests that science, reason, and technology are necessary developments, but not, in and of themselves, sufficient tools with which to engage the world.
October 24, 2006
For today, anyway. I brought my laptop to school so that I could work on grading during my (very quiet) office hours and after lecture, and I have found that there is wireless internet access here! This is the first time my little computer and I have used wireless, and it is a lot of fun. I can even talk on the phone while surfing the internet! I could easily get used to this. The only problem is that it is quite seductive. I turned on the computer to type comments about my students' papers, and then I found myself blogging. We'll see if any real work gets done this afternoon!
October 13, 2006
Moment of Truth
I have a confession to make. Many of you know this by now, but I wanted to refrain from blogging about it until I had discussed it with my advisor. I don't want to be a professor when I grow up.
I know, the horror! How could anyone not want to be a professor when she grows up? More to the point, what the heck am I doing in a history Ph.D. program if I don't want to be a professor one day? That is what I have started to ask myself (and my advisor), along with asking whether it makes sense to go through the hell of taking prelims and writing a dissertation if I don't want to be a professor anyway.
So now I am (publicly) embarking on the project of trying to figure out, first, what it is that I do want to do with my life and, second, whether having a Ph.D. in history will help me with that. I actually began this process a few weeks ago, when I attended a Career Center workshop on nonacademic careers for graduate students. This was less of a practical workshop on how to get a nonacademic job and more of a chance for us to explore why we have decided to leave academia and what that means for our career identity. One of the more useful exercises was listing the reasons why we entered academia, and then what has changed to make us want to leave. I'll share my answers with the world:
I came to grad school because I was frustrated and bored in the work world, and sure that I could not get more interesting or challenging work without an advanced degree. As I had enjoyed studying history in college, it seemed natural that, if I were going to pursue an advanced degree, it should be in history. Contributing to this perception was the fact that I had gone to a liberal-arts college, which treated everyone as a pre-Ph.D. student. I had also received relatively poor career counseling at said college, and came from an academic family, so I wasn't aware of the full range of opportunities out there. But there were also things about the academic lifestyle that attracted me. I have always loved learning and I enjoy being part of an intellectual environment. I longed for more flexibility in my work life and, when people warned me that, as an academic, I would have to work twenty-four hours a day, I retorted that at least they could be any twenty-four hours i wanted. I also simply wanted to work harder. I came home from my full-time job each day feeling as though I had much more in me to give, and nothing to give it to. Finally, I was curious about history and wanted to travel.
So what has changed? One major change is that I realized I am an extrovert. I had assumed I was an introvert because I hated the customer service jobs I had had in high school and college, and it never occurred to me that there is a difference between working with people and customer service. I entered history because I thought I would enjoy the solitude of research and writing, and instead found myself climbing the walls. I have also come to realize that academia requires more sacrifices than I am willing to make. I have already sacrificed family, friends, and health, and I have come to realize that I actually value these things more than I value prestige or income. Finally, I realized that academic historians speak to a very small audience -- each other -- and I want to do something that makes a difference in the real world.
There are, however, some things about academia that I love: learning, reading, writing, sharing ideas, having smart colleagues, flexibility, intellectual engagement, teaching/mentoring, campus life, and even public speaking. I hope to be able to integrate some of these things into whatever I do next.
I am blogging about this because I want to get it all out in the open. I'm tired of hemming and hawing every time someone asks me when I'm planning to take my prelims, and I was starting to feel like I was lying to my advisor through omission of this not-so-minor detail. I am also blogging in an attempt to solicit advice from anyone who might be reading. Today I raided the Career Center library, made an appointment with a career counselor, and checked out What Color is Your Parachute from the public library. I am in full-on job search mode and I am eager to use all the resources at my disposal!
October 12, 2006
British History in Da UP
Yesterday I managed to inject a small bit of Michigan history into all three of my discussion sections. Tuesday's lecture covered regional differences within the British Isles. The professor told us that Cornwall was a mining district, but that the copper and tin mines were depleted by the early nineteenth century, at which point miners from Cornwall emigrated to other places with mines, but she did not specifically mention the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. For section yesterday, the students read an article about Cornish identity, so, when we discussed this article, I asked how many of them had been to Michigan's UP. At least a few students raised their hands in each section, so I asked them what they eat in the UP. The answer? Pasties. And where do pasties come from? Cornwall? So how did Cornish pasties get into the UP? You have probably guessed it by now, but the UP has its own mining industry -- mostly copper, iron, and silver -- which attracted miners from all over the world, but particularly from Cornwall. One of my favorite things about British history is that it happened all over the world, even right here in Michigan!
October 11, 2006
The Industrialization Saga Continues
Over the next week, my students will be writing their first papers for me. I'm geeked about reading them because the professor I'm teaching with came up with a super-cool paper topic: How does Britain become "an industrial society" by the mid-nineteenth century, and how does this change the lives of ordinary people? It is a huge question. After all, everything we have covered so far in the course, from empire to enclosure, could be said to have contributed to industrialization. The challenge will be covering it all in 2-3 pages!
October 03, 2006
Fifteen Minutes of Fame
This semester, my colleague Rebekah is teaching a freshman seminar titled Global Food Histories: Tales of Commodities and Cookbooks. The assigned reading for yesterday's class was none other than my second seminar paper, "The Imperial Housewife and the Familial Empire: The Empire Marketing Board's Family Analogy, 1926-1933." I had presented this paper at the "Gender in the Archive" grad student conference back in April, 2005, and Rebekah served as the discussant. Apparently, she thought it was good enough to serve as an example to her students of how to use primary sources. It also helps that I had some really fantastic sources -- posters, advertisements, radio broadcasts, a film, and, of course, recipes. So yesterday Rebekah invited me to make a guest appearance in her class, to tell her students about how I found and used these sources, and to do a workshop with them on reading primary sources. It was a lot of fun. I showed them photographs of the archives I visited in London when I researched the paper during the summer of 2004, and Rebekah and I prepared a packet for them of some of the different kinds of sources, which they then read and interpreted for themselves. It was a lot of fun for me to get to revisit the paper and the sources, and I found myself reading the sources very differently than I did two years ago when I wrote the paper. The students also pointed to things in the sources that I hadn't noticed, and I loved being able to learn from them. It was also pretty fun to be introduced to the class as "the famous author who you read for today"!
October 02, 2006
My Hat Is Off To You, Ken
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 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.
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 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 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 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?
July 12, 2006
Today I am reading The Sinews of Power by John Brewer, which is about the development of the fiscal-military state in eighteenth-century Britain. Brewer argues that Britain's eighteenth-century military successes depended not only on wealth and manpower, but on the centralized state administrative structures that allowed the state to mobilize that wealth and manpower in its own service. Further, he argues that resistance to state centralization and bureaucratization forced the government to be transparent and accountable, which made it more legitimate and hence more effective. This legitimacy allowed the state to gain hegemony in the sense that its subjects acknowledged Parliament's right to tax them and thus willingly paid their taxes. Brewer acknowledges, however, that this hegemony weakened with greater distance from the metropole, and that, although the expanding state avoided autocracy at home, it did rule its peripheries autocratically. It is a convincing argument, and I did not expect a book about taxation to be so engaging!
Here are some key words (in reverse alphabetical order):
venal: (adj) 1a. Open to bribery; mercenary; b. Capable of betraying honor, duty, or scruples for a price; corruptible; 2. Marked by corrupt dealings, especially bribery; 3. Obtainable for a price.
sinew: (n) 1. A tendon; 2. Vigorous strength; muscular power; 3. The source or mainstay of vitality and strength.
sinecure: (n) 1. A position or office that requires little or no work but provides a salary; 2. An ecclesiastical benefice not attached to the spiritual duties of a parish.
excise: (n) 1. An internal tax imposed on the production, sale, or consumption of a commodity or the use of a service within a country; 2. A licensing charge or fee levied for certain privileges.
customs: (n) 1a. Duties or taxes imposed on imported and, less commonly, exported goods; b. The governmental agency authroized to collect these duties; c. The procedure for inspecting goods and baggage enteringa country; 2. Tribute, service, or rent paid by a feudal tenant to a lord.
bureaucracy: (n) 1a. Administration of a government chiefly through bureaus or departments staffed with nonelected officials; b. The departments and their officials as a group; 2a. Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures; b. The administrative structure of a large or complex organization; 3. An administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action.
July 11, 2006
Those Who Can't Do...
Write books. I just finished reading Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America by Peter Sacks, which I assume is a pseudonym, since he speaks as a journalist who has gone undercover as a community college teacher. As a member of the so-called X Generation (Nintendo wave, born 1979), I was deeply offended by his bullshit expose.
Sacks left a career as a successful (Pulitzer-nominated) journalist in order to relocate with his partner, a doctor, and took a job teaching journalism at a community college somewhere in the inland West. He began with high hopes, but soon found that things had changed since he was in college. The students he encountered had below-college-level reading and writing skills, failed to show up to class on time or even at all, and refused to do any work that wouldn't directly influence their grade. Let me repeat, he was at a community college. People go to community colleges precisely because they don't have the skills necessary to succeed at four-year institutions. The whole point of community college is to get them up to speed so that they can transfer to other universities. And his students wanted to be able to succeed -- Sacks mocks them for wearing Harvard and Yale sweatshirts, signs that they do have academic ambitions, and refuses to help them learn the necessary skills that they will need in order to transfer to more prestigious universities. Instead, he derides this sort of teaching as "hand-holding" and "spoon feeding," expecting if he simply humiliates them enough in class, his students will magically learn how to write. Sacks also notes that his students are working an average of 20-30 hours per week, but for some reason this doesn't explain to him why they simply can't study any more than is necessary. He goes into his new job with the attitude that "those who can't do teach" and somehow figures that, since he can do, since he has been a successful journalist, that this should also make him a brilliant teacher, despite the fact that he knows nothing about pedagogy. So when his students give him deservedly-bad evaluations, he blames them, arguing that, as the postmodern Generation X, raised on Sesame Street, they expect college to be just another form of entertainment. Sacks spends much of the book critiquing this expectation of entertainment, but I think he has missed the distinction between entertaining and engaging. As a student, I don't expect my professors to sing and dance (actually, I really don't want them to sing and dance), but I do expect them to engage my attention. After all, even the most brilliant person in the world can't communicate a concept effectively if he fails to connect with his audience.
Sacks responds, first, by attempting to pander to his audience with his "Sandbox Experiment." He figures that, if his students are going to act like kindergarteners, he will treat them like kindergarteners. He also engages in the unethical practice of handing out undeserved As and Bs across the board. He is not surprised when his evaluations improve. For him, this experiment proves his hypothesis that students in the 1990s approach college with an attitude of consumerist entitlement: they are paying to learn and feel entitled to good grades without having to put in any actual effort. So far, I don't think he is too far off the mark, given that he is teaching at a community college, where students are, for the most part, paying for their own education rather than relying on Mommy and Daddy, and where they are working so hard to put themselves through school that they simply don't have as much effort to give as, for instance, I had as a pampered student at a private liberal arts college.
But his critique takes a sharp right turn into Reaction Land when he blames the culture of postmodernity for all his woes. He aptly describes postmodernity as a much-bandied-about-but-rarely-defined term, and goes on to attempt to define it. His definition boils down to the overthrow of the authority of the middle-aged white man. And, yes, this is an element of postmodernity. The culture of modernity, ushered in with the Enlightenment, was based on the definition of the white man as the bearer of reason, a quality which was denied women, children, and nonwhite people of all ages and genders. Postmodern scholars particularize modernity as a specifically European experience, one which depended on the conquest and subjection of the non-European world. After all, there could be no "modern" society until there was a "traditional" society with which to contrast it. Sacks equates modernity with scientific objectivity and rationality and postmodernity with its rejection. But modernity undermined itself: the Heisenberg Principle demonstrates the impossibility of scientific objectivity (the act of observing always alters what is observed); and the Holocaust turned the latest industrial technology to the task of destroying humanity. Knowledge is constructed by those in power (see Foucault); when higher education was democratized after World War II, new groups of people gained access to the knowledge-making process and, lo and behold, we found that there is not necessarily only one truth. Knowledge is situated. For example, historians had always written their stories based on documents found in government archives. But a history of, say, the Vietnam war based on government archives will look very different than one based on articles from the New York Times, which will look very different from a history based on my parents' diaries, which will look very different from a history based on oral testimony from Vietnamese combatants or refugees. Which one is more true? Sacks bemoans the fact that students no longer look to their professors as the gatekeepers of established knowledge, but professors are the ones who are creating knowledge. They are the ones who struggle daily with the uncertainties of scientific methods and historical archives, and I applaud the integrity of those who are willing to admit that the truth is not neither unitary nor self-evident. Recognizing that there is not one complete, true, and accurate narrative of the past (and to even present history in narrative form is a lie, since life does not unfold as a narrative), it would be an act of bad faith for me to get up in front of a class of undergraduates and pretend that there was.
In any case, postmodernity is a red herring in Sacks's book because it is not a product of Generation X. He equates postmodernity with the questioning of authority, but that was a slogan of his generation, not mine. It was his generation who refused to go to class in the spring of 1970 in protest of the U.S. government's invasion of Cambodia. My generation might be the first to grow up in the postmodern age, but we did not create it -- we are simply trying to come to terms with it, stumbling through a world in which we can no longer rely on the integrity or objectivity hallowed institutions that once served as the arbiters of truth and knowledge. We have seen our parents' marriages break up, we have seen our elected officials lie to us, and we have seen corporations manipulate our access to truth and reality.
Sacks does, however, make some valid arguments, though the things he critiques are not simply or unambiguously products of postmodernity. First, the overcommercialization of our culture. In the post-regulatory age ushered in by Reagan, everything is for sale. Corporations deal in abstractions. College students even sell their bodies as walking advertisements. My eight-year-old sister watches commercials on the internet as if they were the news. But this is a feature of post-industrial capitalism, not postmodernity (though, just as industrial capitalism was deeply imbricated and implicated in modernity, so too is post-industrial capitalism implicated in postmodernity). Second, the culture of entitlement. Sacks argues that students see their education as a commodity, something that they are entitled to because they are paying for it. Unfortunately, this is true: as universities lose public funding, they become more dependent on tuition dollars and begin to treat students as paying customers. The only way to get around this would be to eliminate the tuition-paying system, as is done in Ph.D. programs. Of course, someone pays my tuition, but I am so far removed from the exchange that I see myself as an employee, someone who works for grades (and, I must admit, for my stipend), rather than a customer. Again, this is not postmodernity, but late capitalism and the privatization of the public sphere and public amenities. Finally, grade inflation, or, as Sacks puts it, the elimination of standards, which he blames on the relativism inherent in postmodernism. Grade inflation is a serious problem. In my seven-year higher ed career, I have never received less than an A-, though at times I'm sure I deserved less. A professor in a top history Ph.D. program once explained to me the necessity of grade inflation: because his university can't fund all of its students' dissertation research, his students have to compete with students at other universities for outside funding, and they look better to fellowship selection committees if they have top grades. Sacks would argue that, if these students don't earn their top grades, they don't deserve the fellowships, and I tend to agree. After all, universities are turning out more Ph.D.s than there are jobs, and it doesn't do anyone any good to increase the population of the overeducated unemployed. But professors can't unilaterally end grade inflation -- their students suffer by having worse transcripts than do those students who only take classes from "easy A" professors, and ultimately the professor's reputation as an anti-grade-inflation crusader will hurt his enrollment. One solution Sacks proposes, which I think makes a lot of sense, is to record on the transcript not only the student's grade in the class, but also the average grade in the class, so that evaluators can see how the student did relative to everyone else.
While Sacks does make some valid points, his book smacks of reactionary elitism. He is nostalgic for the days when one had to be white and wealthy to even go to college, and is having trouble adjusting to the democratization of both higher education and American society more generally, however uneven and incomplete this democratization has been. The problem is not the X Generation but rather Sacks's own arrogance and fear of change. All I have to say is get over yourself.
July 04, 2006
For days now I have been struggling to write a 250-word academic bio. Actually, that is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that for days I have been avoiding writing this bio. But it is due Friday, and can't be put off any longer. Reading other people's 250-word bios has really intimidated me, convincing me that my life will never measure up to theirs. This morning I complained to my friend Diana that my life has been too boring to write a 250-word bio, and she reassured me that I was wrong, reminding me of all of the traveling I have done in grad school. Inspired by her confidence in my life, I sat down and wrote the thing:
As a Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University of Michigan, my research focuses on twentieth-century British imperialism and colonialism in Africa, and on the ways in which empire reflected back onto everyday lives in metropolitan Britain. I am particularly interested in examining British and African women’s experience of empire through quotidian practices involving food: marketing, cooking, eating, feeding, and nutrition. I became curious about the lived experience of empire as an undergraduate at Pomona College, during a semester abroad at Cambridge University, and wrote my senior thesis on the link between the emigration of British women to South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century and the simultaneous emergence of maternal welfare programs in Great Britain. At the University of Michigan I have had a chance to study African history in addition to British history, and have traveled to Ghana and Kenya, as well as to London, for research and conferences. I analyze imperialism and colonialism as a way to bridge the traditional historiographical divide between Africa and Europe, and food has provided a particularly useful lens through which to examine the transcontinental circulation of people, objects, and ideas, with specific reference to race, gender, and modes of knowing and governing human bodies and cultural practices. I hope that my dissertation will not only contribute to British and African historiographies, but also challenge our understanding of eating as natural by foregrounding the cultural and political elements of food and human nutrition.
July 02, 2006
Today I came across this website. The "Successful Academic" does give good advice -- the tips she recommends are all things I actually used to do back in my productive days -- but I find it terribly disturbing that this woman profits from the misery induced by academia. Her career depends on the fact that Ph.D. programs inevitably turn formerly intelligent and articulate people into zombies. If academia were not such a toxic work environment, her career wouldn't even exist. And the most frustrating part is that the more we grad students suffer, the more she earns. I imagine she must love her job!
June 29, 2006
One of the coolest things about my boyfriend that he taught me to use dictionaries. Not how to use them (I learned that in elementary school), but to use them, as in he taught me the value of looking up words I don't know, or even words I do know. He also brought several dictionaries into my life. The first year we were together, I planned to give him the Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary because he had told me that he coveted it. But my birthday is a week before his and he stole my idea, giving me the College Edition of the AHD. I still went ahead with my plan, so we now have one upstairs and one downstairs, in the dining room. This is a very handy place for it because we frequently need to look up words during dinner. His old dictionary is now in the car. One might ask why we would need a dictionary in the car, but trust me, we use it. Often.
Here are two pairs of words that I have been curious about lately:
immanent: 1. Existing or remaining within; inherent. 2. Restricted entirely to the mind; subjective.
transcendent: 1. Surpassing others; preeminent or supreme. 2. Lying beyond the ordinary range of perception. 3. Being beyond the limits of experience and hence unknowable. 4. Being above and independent of the material universe.
identity: 1. The collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known. 2. The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group. 3. The quality or condition of being the same as something else. 4. The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity; individuality.
alterity: The state or quality of being other.
These pairs appear to be antonyms: immanent, or internal, is the opposite of transcendent, or external. Identity, or sameness, is the opposite of alterity, or difference/otherness. But the third and fourth definitions of identity appear to contradict each other. The fourth one suggests alterity: identity is not only the quality of sameness, but also the quality of difference. Alterity is thus immanent to identity, which explains the dialectical relationship between the two, or the impossibility of one without the other. Because you are not me, you and I can't be the same unless we are different from someone else.