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(NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 25)

I'm not all that fond of talking about how thankful I am for stuff, because so often it sounds like a bunch of mealy-mouthed platitudes. And yeah, I'm happy to have a job I love (IN THIS ECONOMY -- that's for New Kid), health, yada, yada, yada. But those are just sort of normal things, aren't they?

But here's a thing. I'm single and my family are all thousands of miles away. When LDW and I were together, he was a couple of thousand miles in the opposite direction. Holidays have always felt a bit iffy and worrisome. Not Christmas so much -- I'm actually a bit better at ignoring Christmas, which I really only like when there are kids and lots of family, and then I sort of hate the stress that can come about with lots of family :-)

No, really, I used to have to start my mornings with my best friend and her mom, with whom I lived for a time, then off to my grandparents for dad-family breakfast, then off to the maternal family (two at one point, as my grandparents were divorced), then to the dad house for dinner in the afternoon, then back to the friend house for dessert and carol-singing. That's a lot of running around. Christmas with my married family, or my mom and sisters, can also be a joy -- there is always a tantrum and always some sort of tension because someone will inevitably be late, or stressed at having to be the one who had to drive, or whatever.

So yeah, holidays alone are not the worst thing in the world.

One of the cool things about SLAC is that holidays alone don't necessarily exist. Part of it is that I do have family of sorts about three hours away. So I've had two Thanksgivings with them. And one in fabulous European Capital with LDW (I'm still sorry about that roast ...). And this year, I'm staying in town and eating with friends. Feeling a little guilty about not going to the family, especially because we need to see each other, but happy to hang out with some of my favorite colleagues. The best thing of all of this is that I don't feel like I'm included out of charity. That's a nice feeling.

This year, I can't get back to the left coast till New Year's. The fabulous European Capital option no longer exists. But I have bunches of friends who will be around for the holiday season, and I have tons of people to visit on all the days before and after Christmas itself. For the first time, I haven't had time to think about what to do during break besides working, because I know I have stuff to do. Same for Spring Break. I should stay home and work, but there may be a chance of a camping trip in an as-yet undecided locale.

Naturally, my life decides to have a social aspect exactly when I should be working harder and producing more. Life's funny that way. I expect there's an appropriate Terry Pratchett quote, but I can't be arsed to look it up. I've got baking, laundry, and marking to do tomorrow before I go and eat turkey.
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NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 23

I have finished my teaching obligations for the week. I have finished my service obligations for the week. And all I can think is that I have several days in which I can actually get some damned work done. I have a big pile of marking to do -- essays for all classes, and catching up on all the online marking. The plus is that I will only have one set of papers to read the weekend before finals, and then the finals.

I am so looking forward to break, when I can ... ok, take a little break. I'm going home to visit The Kid and X and friends for five days, and there are a couple of parties and maybe some hiking, too. But mostly I will be looking forward to re-reading LDW's latest book, which I'm using for class, and at least one of his other books, and working on my damned book project (about which Superdean is nagging me) and also perhaps on my article for TenthMedieval. And going to the gym.

Maybe I'm just like this because I'm hopeless about time and balance. Maybe other academics spend their holidays actually having holidays. But I have this weird feeling that I'm not the only one who sees non-teaching time as a way to catch up.

On the other hand, I expect that it's a good thing that I've got to the point where I see these breaks now as real breaks, mental breaks, opportunities to do things I want to do, rather than as something I resent because I won't have a break. Still, I think I'd like to get more writing done in term time, and actually have a holiday, too.
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(NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 22)

ProfGrrrl posted the other day about hiring committees and it got me thinking. I'm on a search committee this year, and it's going to be interesting. Politics and an inside candidate. I hate inside candidates. I try to stay away from committees where there is one. I don't know that this is true, but I don't feel I can speak freely about the inside candidate, because there will always be people who simply expect that we are supposed to hire the person they know, regardless of the other candidates. Ugh.

But that's not what I wanted to say. Mostly, what I wanted to say, not very delicately, is:

Dear Applicant and Applicant's Advisor/Referee,

Are you taking the piss? Because if you are, you have wasted a bunch of people's time. If you are not, you are friggin' morons. What the *hell* did you think you were doing? Our position is pretty specific. There's a chance that we won't find anyone who meets all the criteria, but we have a good chance of meeting someone who comes close. But you... I do understand that you come from a big and reputable research university, but really, you aren't all that, let alone a bag of chips.

Let's start off with your cover letter:

Nowhere does your letter address your suitability for the job we advertised. It doesn't show that you have the first clue about SLAC, a campus that has not only undergrads, but also several specialized schools that have very special needs. Some of those needs were outlined in the ad, but strangely, you didn't think you needed to mention how your very fancy-pants dissertation addresses the 4-3 teaching load and the classes you would teach: classes that have NOTHING to do with your fancy-pants dissertation. Now, to be fair, you do mention your teaching. Sort of. You've taught a lot, mostly as a grad student, and it's hard to tell how many of your courses were as a GA and how many were independent. But that's OK. And incorporating your philosophy into your cover letter is not a bad idea, either. But seriously, it's better to give us a clear idea of what you actually do than it is to include posh phrases in Italian and French -- I suppose it's at least a blessing that the Greek was at least transliterated. However, when you mention that you try to impart X's ideas of Y, where Y is theory, then really, you come off as a pretentious little git who thinks he's not only the gods' gift to the students, but oh, so much better than the people you'll be working with. Either that or no one has ever explained that, in a department that's hiring two people and only has four full-time faculty, that there will be at least two non-specialists on the search committee.

Also, it's good to sign the cover letter and to make sure that, when you cut and paste from your teaching philosophy, you at least try to re-word the most outstandingly precious phrases. I'm just sayin'.

Of course, I can't blame you entirely. You've been allowed to do all your work at the same BigName institution, from when you walked in the door as a freshman. No wonder your letter is so much like the one your advisor wrote for you. You might lose hir, by the way. The letter zie sent was even more pretentious. David Lodge couldn't have made that one up. Bespeckled with the droppings of name and reference to theory, the letter told us far more about your advisor than it did about why you were a suitable candidate for our job. This was a letter all about how erudite your advisor is -- why surely, we should hire someone purely because you are clearly the genius sprung forth from hir loins. Your publishing career, based on the sheer brilliance of your thesis, so carefully directed by the advisor, will allow us to bask in the glow of your reflection. Oh -- by the way, I still can't tell exactly what the point of your thesis was, because you defined yourself entirely in terms of the scholarship of others, without so much showing your own contribution to your field. If you're going to focus on research you'll never have a chance to do or teach while at SLAC, at least let us know how tragic it will be five years down the road when you die under the crush of our loads and your own bitterness. Except it's unlikely we'll be interviewing you, because, well, there's nothing you've told us about yourself but that you would be the last person we'd want to teach our students, who really want us to focus on them and teach them without making them feel stupid.

And to you other advisors out there? Please, do think about it before sending us two candidates from your program. Or at least in some way acknowledge that you are sending two students who have the same committees, and that each of them has hir own strengths. Maybe even make sure that the applicant letters aren't based on the same template, and that your letters are not formatted and written to say almost the same things in the same order. It makes you look sloppy. It doesn't help the person whose name comes alphabetically second. It makes me wonder what you've taught them about dealing with other academics. Having said that, I do like your candidates, and part of it is that the package looks solid -- it's just that seeing the same package (more or less) twice really does weaken the impact.

And for the rest of you people: this is not a bad job. It is a job in a field with not nearly enough openings, and it is tenure-track. Some of you should have applied. And some of you? Really. If you can't be bothered to tell us how you can fill the job we advertised, rather than the job we need to fill, stop wasting my time.

Long Day

Nov. 19th, 2009 10:37 pm
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(NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 19)

I can't honestly think of anything substantial to say today, because my day just ended. Email, Doctor, tidying desk, lunch with guest speaker, guest speaker to class, office hours packed, more email and reading of Tacitus, grocery store, mad tidying of house, book club, now to clean up. Cannot wait for the weekend, except that I realized I have a meeting with my professional organization colleagues Saturday for between 4-6 hours, probably. Monday will start at 8 am and end at 10 pm, unless there is also beer. Thank goodness for Thanksgiving!
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(NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 17)

I have no substance today. I had posts in my head, but invited a friend to dinner and we ended up talking till about an hour ago. So this is semi-substance. Here's a not-so-secret:

I hate administration, but am better at it than I like. The same with service.

Today was partially about service. That and the podiatrist, who tells me that no, I do not actually have gnarly feet. I'm not completely convinced, but apparently, the most I need is a pedicure. Service-wise, it was job applications. Can I just say that there are things people should make sure they do when applying for jobs? Like, for example, make the letter and the recommendations look like they are for the actual job they are supposed to win for the desperate candidate? Proofread the letter and all other documents, especially if the job is in a field where writing and editing skills might be seen as, you know, important? Referees, please make sure that, when cutting and pasting from more than one letter, you go back and make sure that what you send is all in one font, and that you haven't allowed spell-check to misspell any words.

Also, is it just my experience, or are all search committees fraught with politics and the possibilities offered by multiple agenda?
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(NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 16)

Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt. (New York, HarperCollins: 2009)

There is a lot to like about Agincourt. The hero, Nicholas Hook, is appealing, the 15th C equivalent of Sharpe, Cornwell's 18th C rifleman. He's an outlaw, having made enemies at home in his village, and used his uncommon skill with the longbow to settle a longtime grudge. It is that skill with the longbow that rescues Hook, and sets him off on a journey that leads him through the siege of Soissons and up through the English victory at Agincourt. Nick is our man on the scene, not quite Everyman, for his skills put him in contact with some of the leading figures of the English army -- including King Henry himself. Between battles, Nick finds himself repeatedly facing his old enemies from home, the Perrill brothers, who constantly scheme at his death, and that of Melisande, the Frenchwoman with whom he has fallen in love.

Melisande is the daughter of a French noble, rescued by Nick from certain rape and death at the fall of Soissons. This is one of many scenes that demonstrate to the reader that Hook is noble in heart, if not by blood. His nobility is in sharp contrast to many of the other soldiers, and especially to all of the Perrills and their father, the lecherous Sir Martin, a priest. Father Martin is an archetypical villain, a corrupt clergyman who uses his rank to sway the local justice system and whose tastes run to raping virgins, or at least women who seem pure in heart. Compared to Cornwell's descriptions of the battles and the soldiers who fight in them, the constant threat of the Perrill family often seems contrived. The Perrill brothers and Father Martin serve as plot devices, giving Hook reasons to behave well, either by rescuing women from their clutches or by giving him the opportunity to extend his forgiveness, reminding us over and over that he is the better man.

In contrast, Cornwell's story of the battles and the men who fought them are far more compelling. The descriptions are vivid and detailed, down to precise explanations of each piece of armor, weapon, and formation. Some are reminiscent of both Shakespeare and Keegan, but they are interesting and convincing nonetheless. In typical Cornwell fashion, he takes us to the heart of each battle. He starts with Soissons, where Hook adopts Ss. Crispin and Crispinian as his patrons after a vision in which Crispian speaks to him. The fall of that city and Hook's flight with Melisande lead him to Calais, where he and Melisande are questioned, and taken back to England to report on the events at Soissons. In England, Hook meets the young king, who is impressed with the archer, although less for his skills than for his assertions that his patron saints speak to him. Cornwell's Henry is pious and rather grim, traits that will explain some of his later actions. Hook is released into the service of Sir John Cornewaille and with Cornwaille's archers makes the crossing to France with Henry's fleet. Cornwell's descriptions of the operation help the reader to understand what a massive undertaking the transport of troops was.

The action turns quickly to the siege of Harfleur, replete with the claustrophobic action in the tunnels dug to undermine the city, the frustration of the men, the dysentery that ran through the English camp. After the English victory, the drama intensifies as Nick's younger brother, Michael, is accused of looting a church. As the army trudges back towards Calais, the tension mounts: *we* know that they will be forced to stand against the French, and *we* know that the French will vastly outnumber the English -- just as *we* know that the English will win. This is one of Cornwell's greatest strengths as a novelist: despite knowing the outcome, we want to see how it happens. He blends the familiar, like Henry's anonymous pre-battle visit to the troops to check on their morale, with the less familiar details of armor, weaponry, battle formations, and the disposition of troops. With Hook as our eyes, we are there in the thick of things, trudging through the mud, watching the French cavalry get stuck in the mud and drown in it, often with the help of the English men-at-arms. As the battle winds down, and the English receive the order to kill the prisoners who are too many to guard, Cornwell brings us back to the story of Hook, Melisande, and the Perrills. He carefully engineers the deaths of the villains in ways that remove most of the culpability from our hero and his love. Evil deeds are repaid, Hook and Melisande are free to marry, and Hook can continue to climb the ranks in the king's service well after the end of this book.

Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt is strong on detail and action, less so on characterization and dialogue. Still, it's a fun read, and one that helps to bring the period to life, with close attention to detail and a potboiler of a plot that will hold most readers' attention for the entire campaign.
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(NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 15)

went the way of a migraine.
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(NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 14)

Yesterday's post was suspended due to my going to a charity dinner and then for drinks with friends. That and feeling horrible when I got home. I swear I've had H1N1. But at the moment, I'm having San Elias 2009 Sauv. Blanc. I recommend it. I also recommend Men who Stare at Goats, which made me laugh. Saw it tonight with two biologist colleagues, who are lovely people. They also bought me fantastic gifts for my birthday -- Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and the best pirate t-shirt ever.

Oh, right -- so that's what I did today. Slept, tried to grade papers, took care of a friend's dogs, and slept. And dinner, movie, and hanging out. A few errands. Tomorrow is going to be a serious workday.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about teaching things religious in history classes. It's not so hard to teach basic ideas of Confucianism or Islam, but the Abrahamic religions are tough, because you never know the audience, and people will get offended. And I'm the first to admit that I'm not an actual authority on such things, but I have actually done *some* reading, and did ace two courses on the History of Christianity with an Actual Big Name Scholar at Beachy U. Not to mention I'm sort of a medievalist and all, and we do read a fair amount of vitae, passiones, translationes, regulae, and actual theology at some points in our lives. Having said that, I admit that I do tend to confuse monophysites and monotheletes, but am pretty sure there's an iota of difference between them. Oh, and also? Have done much in the way of reading and coursework on the Reformation. So possibly, I have some foundation to teach a bare-bones sort of historical approach to such things.

To be fair, my students seldom question my ability to teach about religion in the context of my classes. But there are always some who have a hard time with my saying that Christians at a certain time believed X, or that Muslims believe that the Quran was dictated to Muhammad, whereas the Bible was put together by committee... and of course the "is Islam a violent religion?" question. And normally, I just don't care. That is, I don't care what people believe in private. I don't care what people believed in the past. But I do care that people in the present not argue that adherents of religion X believe Y, when they have not always believed that. This especially bothers me with Christianity, because beliefs about Christianity are so often wrapped up in ideas of progress that are actually sort of appropriate -- after all, to Christians, we're moving towards the apocalypse and all. But I get sort of irked when that's linked to a belief that "J. Student's" Christianity is so much better and purer and right-thinking than the Christianity of the past. I get sort of irked when students talk about Christians and Catholics, as if there is a difference in 300 CE, or as if there were no Christians till the Reformation (except that they often don't know about the Reformation). I become annoyed when they ask me about salvation, and I reply that at the time in question, people believed one thing, only to be told that those people were wrong. This is most especially irritating when those people include, um, I dunno ... Church Fathers??? Because, well, Augustine, as much as I think I would have disliked him, is sort of largely responsible for Christian theology, I'm pretty sure. So are some of those other guys who died well before Luther. It's not that I'm all about orthodoxy -- after all, I think that both Ariua and Pelagius were sensible about some things. It's not that I want them to believe anything -- I really don't care. But I would like them to be a little more open-minded about history when it includes religion.

Yes, there's a story behind this rant. It doesn't have much to do with my students, as it happens. And to be honest, it's not just religion that does this -- I get the same sort of frustration when talking about Liberalism, Conservatism, various forms of Socialism and Marxism ... it's just cranky-making when you have to fight the "but it's not always been that way" battle, is all I'm saying. Because I teach history. Nothing has always been this way, with only a few biologically determined exceptions.

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(NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 10

I’m working on a substantial post for this series of posts at In the Middle, so today has been partially (and honestly, too much) spent at looking over the past seven years of Blogenspiel. So in lieu of something longer, I'm going to leave you with some of my favourite posts. I'm sort of glad I looked at these, because there are some things I could stand to integrate into my teaching yet again!

The F-word

Whose Middle Ages (I wish I'd remembered this before the panel at K'zoo last year)

New and improved, it's History!

Why I love the Early Stuff

How to do College

What we didn't know is what our students don't know

The Internalization of a Construct

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It's Sunday again, and I'm not entirely ready for tomorrow. This has been the story of my semester. I know what I'm teaching. But I don't feel on top of things, and really, my prep is relying more on experience than on immediate prep. I hate that. Part of this is the way I teach. I really do focus a lot on that active learning thing, so I don't lecture much. But the past three weeks have been absolute torture. The students haven't really been prepped, and this means that time I've planned on doing one thing is often spent just trying to get them up to speed while not annoying the hell out of the few students who are prepared.

Overall, I have some very bright students, and many of them are doing the work, but aren't really getting it. I have to say that, despite the quiet in the room, more of them are taking notes than is typical for SLAC students, and most of them are really using the discussion boards well. It just never feels like we're as together as I'd like. And tomorrow I need to backtrack a little, because I noticed on the discussion boards for one class that they really want to talk about a particular topic.

That is one of the nice things about World History, at least -- I can move things around a little. Still, next semester, I am going to try much harder to create mini-lecture podcasts with maps and all for my classes. In my spare time. :-)

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Matt Gabriele has an interesting and typically good post up about the shootings at Fort Hood. I don't have a lot to say about it, except this: the first thing I thought was, "some soldier has lost it." I wasn't all that surprised. It's not like it doesn't happen in other jobs, although now that I think about it, it seems to happen less in really high-stress jobs. You hear about police and firefighters killing themselves, but not so often opening up on their co-workers.

Anyway, the second thing I thought was in response to hearing the gunman's (when did we start using 'shooter'? it sounds wrong to my ears) name. What I thought was, "oh, shit." Because the minute his name was announced, the speculative reasons were never going to be about whether being in the military during wartime might have had anything to do with it. They were not going to be about being a Muslim in the military when we are at war with mostly Muslim. They were all going to assume he was a terrorist and that his being a follower of Islam was pretty much the entire explanation.

As I mentioned at Matt's, I overheard a conversation today where one person who had been in the military said that soldiers were just conditioned not to trust brown people. It wasn't a racist thing, just understandable. Soldiers would see all blue-eyed people as a threat if they were constantly attacked by blue-eyed people. I understand the point. I even believe that the person I overheard meant it. But I don't think it's true. I think it's also one of the inherent problems in this country: we say that we are a melting pot, or salad bowl, or interesting stew, but we forget that all of those descriptions are predicated on the idea that, no matter where a person is from, that person can become every bit as much an American as your average person of white European descent. Legally? yeah. But even then, apparently that only makes a person "technically" American. Um ... here's a newsflash: The US is a nation of immigrants. All citizens are "technically American." Even if you leave out the naturalized citizens, it's pretty easy to be born a US citizen and be of a different racial/ethnic/national background to your neighbors. That's supposedly one of the things that makes this country strong.

Maybe it does. But isn't it odd how, knowing that, some of us still can look at a person and assume that he or she is 'not a real American' based on the colour of his or her skin, or the way his or her name sounds? I think that's one of those examples of privilege, in case you weren't sure. That is, yes, we'll believe you are as American as the white guy (or in this case, possibly also the African-American guy), until you do something wrong. And then, you will not be seen as another American, just another terrorist. If you're white and you do something this terrible, it's going to be very unlikely that the first motive people ascribe to you is that you hate the American Way of Life. That's not something the average white guy has to deal with. Ever.
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Another short post, I'm afraid, but it's been a long day. The fools who started NaNoWriMo clearly weren't thinking about the fact that this is a hellaciously busy time of year for academics. I swear I don't know what happened to my day, but I know I was busy and in my office from 8:30-7:00 with a couple of bathroom breaks and only two cups of tea -- except for the time I was in class.

So anyway, I thought I'd address one subject that has come up in comments so far, and that is whether or not one uses excerpts. I mentioned in my last post that I agreed that full pieces were preferable to excerpts, but that one can't always read the full thing. It depends on the course and the level of students, just for starters. Still, I understand the objections to excerpts, especially those in a reader. Often, they are chosen, as Jonathan Dresner pointed out, to put forth a certain didactic point. This is problematic at best -- especially when the point of the editor is not the point you'd like to make!

Short passages also tend to reinforce the idea that one uses primary sources to illustrate 'what we already know' from the textbook, rather than what I am trying to teach, which is that we couldn't have the textbook had historians not read primary sources. Even those document readers that have longer passages can annoy me because they often ask leading questions. At some level, I do understand. It's good to give the students an idea of how other people have used sources in the past. But so often the questions are things like, "what kind of evidence is there that slaves were not thought of as fully human?" I don't want that sort of question. I think such questions deaden the wit and encourage students to look no further. If the editor must offer questions, please, offer questions like, "What does this document tell you about the attitudes of slave traders towards the Africans? What specific examples can you find?"

It's a pain, really, because there are readers out there with fantastic documents; for example, I love the choices in the Andrea and Overfield reader. But I hate the questions and I hate even more the long introductions, because the students invariably want to talk about what the editors say rather than what the documents say. They know the tone of authority, and to their ears, that tone is much more "reliable" than the voice of someone who lived in the past, and definitely more authoritative than anything they could come up with. So I've come up with a way of dealing with the didactic excerpt and over-edited and glossed collection: I make it part of the lesson. When I have only a short excerpt, or there are editorial comments or organization (for example, the introduction of headings in documents that have no such thing in the original), I wait till a student starts to head off in the direction the editor clearly wanted. And I tell them that they clearly got what the editor intended, and then raise the question of whether the document is an excerpt or the whole story. This works really well with law codes, by the way ...

Sometimes, I don't need to even go that far: occasionally students will ask about what an ellipse does, or why the numbers of laws skip around. Either way, it opens up a conversation about how translation and editing can make a difference, and how they add yet another layer of questions to the external criticism. Translations are fun, too. One of the things I wish I remembered to do more often is to bring in several translations of the same document, and see what students come up with. Of course, that often necessitates the use of ... a dictionary! But that's a post of a different type.

(NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 5)
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(NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 4)

This is going to be a short post, because I've been transcribing excerpts of sources by hand (i.e., typing, because I haven't been able to get the scanner to work) for the past couple of hours. Why? Fair use.

In response to Jonathan's and Susan's comments on the last post regarding excerpts: for me, it depends entirely on the level of the class and the point of the assignment. If what I want is primarily for the students to get a really good overall view for a period or place, or if the reading is relatively short anyway, I'm all for the whole thing. But say I want to show something about Roman provincial administration -- do I really need them to read all of Pliny's correspondence to Trajan? Or (heaven forfend) more than the pertinent pages of Civitas Dei to give them an idea of Augustine's response to the sack of Rome?

What about when I am trying to teach the students to pick apart a document? how much do I need?

I'm not really arguing against more reading or the value of reading entire works or substantially longer excerpts. I'm just saying that I'm not sure that shorter passages are any more problematic, if what one is trying to teach is how to read a source and/or how to construct an argument and write an essay around it.

Speaking of which, I'm going to have to do some modification of a series of assignments I use in my surveys. For a couple of years, I've given three papers, each worth a bit more than the one before, as part of the course grade. Each paper is successively more difficult, and they are meant to build on things we discuss regarding primary sources. The first essay is simply two or three paragraphs in which they have to identify things: author, audience, type of document, etc., and then one piece of historical evidence in the document and how a historian might use it. The second paper is longer, and asks them to look at one document and write an essay that shows that they can use that document to tell us what it reveals about [a specific theme, e.g., gender relationships or trade] the time and place. The third paper requires them to consider 2-3 documents (usually from different time periods and/or cultures) and compare and contrast a couple of themes evident in the documents in ways that show that they can not only identify themes and create arguments, but also show that they are considering how all the external criticism stuff comes into play. Just assigned such a paper. Am thinking I may have to re-think and tighten it up.
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Today, I wrote 1332 words of self-reflection and self-advertisement.  That's about all the writing I can handle for today.
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Over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe yesterday, Jonathan Jarrett wrote bemusedly about troubles teaching primary sources. I'd like to say I have the answer, but I don't. I have lots of answers, and on days like today, I wonder if they're any good at all. The thing is, I'm having trouble teaching them this semester, too. I'm honestly not sure why, and part of it may be that I have not put as much energy into enforcing my policies on preparedness as I would like. Part of it is that, in my survey classes, students are *thinking* about the sources, or at least their comments on Blackboard indicate that they are. It's just that they are having more trouble than I expected. It's a different thing with my upper-division students. Despite many of them having taken classes with me before, and knowing that I expect the courses to run as the seminars they are, they just seem unwilling to actually do the necessary work to make them fun and interesting places. Honestly, I'm not sure what the answer is to "how do I get the students to actually do the reading if they don't feel like it and are perfectly happy with Bs and Cs?" So if you have the answer to that one, let me know. I've tried explaining that this is kind of fundamental, and that this is actually what historians do. I may have to reiterate that this is also something that goes into the thesis...

So anyway, I'm going to start posting on how to teach primary sources, based on what I've done before and how I'm thinking about facing the challenges I've got at the moment. It may take me several days to get through it, but here's roughly what to expect:

  • Why do we read primary sources and why should we use them?
  • How do we use primary sources?
  • When we look at primary sources, what are we looking at?
  • What are our assumptions about primary sources and reading them, and how do they clash with our students' assumptions?
  • How can I teach them better?

I can't guarantee that these things won't bleed over into each other, but I didn't promise you all polished posts, just posts.

So first and foremost, "Why primary sources?"

This seems pretty much self-explanatory to most of us history folk, and to a lot of the lit folk as well. They're primary sources. They are artefacts of their periods. They are often the closest thing to being there. It's an historian's job to interpret them, analyze them, use them to create arguments and narrative. They are at the very heart of what we do. For some of us, they may be too much at the heart. I know my own research sometimes suffers because I tend to focus far more on the primary sources than the scholarship, and this can mean I miss things out in my interpretations, even if it's to reject other interpretations. This was true when I wrote my senior thesis at Beachy U, and is often true even now. But still, for me and most of my pre-modernist friends, the bulk of our work rests on primary sources. For Classicists and Medievalists especially, I think that there is a much clearer canon of primary source material as well. There are just lots of things we are supposed to have read at least once, even if they're only in translation. Not every medievalist will have read the Annales Fuldensis or the Annales Bertiniani, but we've all read Einhard and Notker, for example.

I'm not sure when I realised this for the first time. I know it wasn't clear to me when I began at university. I wasn't planning on studying history then, though. Surprisingly, it was my desire to focus on the actual sources rather than the scholarship that turned me to history: I was an English major, but had a very hard time getting my head 'round criticism unless it was of the historicist type. Every time the professor said something that seemed anachronistic to me, I'd have to point it out. As LDW said to me once, I couldn't help it -- I read like an historian. But I certainly didn't understand that about myself at the time. The primary sources assigned for my classes were just illustrations of what was in the textbook. I read them, but they served to flesh out the pictures drawn by Mortimer Chambers et al. in what was probably the 2nd edition.

This is one of the things I have been trying to address in my own teaching: really getting the students to "do" history from the first day of class, when I have them interpret a coin or picture. I generally use textual sources, but I think it's important to get across the idea of using different types of sources as well. I spend a day talking about external and internal criticism, and bring it up again in classes throughout the term. This might be something I need to figure out a bit more -- how to make those lessons a little more effective. One thing I'm thinking is to use more recent examples for analogy. More importantly, though, I think I might need to reinforce the idea of interrogating our sources a bit more.

The interrogating the sources, and addressing the external criticism, are things I think are very important, yet we may overlook them. The thing is, most of our students come in knowing something about reading and talking about what they read. What they expect is that they will read, and we will ask them what happened, and they will summarize and perhaps paraphrase the reading. Honestly, there are days when I'd kill for that much! They might even get as far as picking up a writer's tone. Most of them will get as far as thinking about the kind of document they are looking at, if you've told them it's important, and maybe even figure that into their interpretation. But they often don't connect them to other things they've read, nor do they put them into any sort of context. Guess what? They're not alone! Most of your non-historian colleagues won't do that, either. That's something that had never occurred to me until I read one of those essays on the back page of the Chronicle of Higher Education in about 2004ish. Sam Wineburg wrote about an experiment he'd done where he gave faculty from different disciplines a couple of passages to read, and described how very few of them looked for contextual clues like information on the author, place and date of writing, type of document and whether it was excerpted ... these aren't necessarily important in other fields. Wineburg also talks about a similar experiment in one of the essays in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, which I think is really a useful book. The point of this is, of course, that some of us probably do think like historians naturally, but for others it's a learned skill, and even people who do naturally tend to consider the source (as it were), many of us don't really think about what we are doing. It's sort of like being a native speaker of a language, and an avid reader -- you can get along really well in that language, but if you're asked to parse a sentence, you might be screwed, because the rules are so well internalized you've never really had to articulate them or thing why they exist.

This is one reason why I ask my students to answer some questions about the documents I assign for discussion: I want them to have at least some of the basic information down on paper. Usually, they are supposed to bring in a list of things about each document -- the initial steps in external criticism. They need to know when, where, what sort of document, the intended audience, and who the author was. Sometimes, it's a little difficult to get them to remember that asking who the author is does not mean asking the name of the author. We need to know as much as we can about him (or her), in order to identify a possible point of view (I'd use 'biases', but I'm trying to break that one -- or at least remember to ask students to identify the bias the students want the authors to show). We need to think about what is going on at the time.

Only then, after getting the external information and forming a nice little nest of context, do we go on to the internal criticism, which often cannot be explained without the external.

Next time: Getting students to think about what's in the documents, and getting them to start looking at groups of documents together, external evidence/criticism first.


a_d_medievalist: a gift for my birthday from gillo.  Please don't use it! (Default)

January 2014



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