Saturday, December 30, 2006


Last year, I stopped by the American Historical Association conference just long enough to meet a friend, walk around, be terrified to my very core, and run off to dinner. This year, I'm actually going to stay. I figure if I take this approach, by the time I actually have to interview at AHA, I might be able to walk through the conference hotel without wanting to vomit.

Last year, I parked ten whole city blocks from the conference and was stunned to discover that I could pick out the historians on the streets of Philadelphia as I walked towards the hotel. They weren't wearing name tags or all dressed the same. But somehow, I knew. (I wish my gaydar was that good.) Somehow, though historians are a pretty diverse group, we have just enough in common to exude it as we walk from point A to point B. There's something completely exciting about this, as if I've found my people.

I was also stunned by the accumulated stress that seems to collect in the halls and corners at AHA. When I opened the door to the hotel lobby last year, it hit me like a shock wave and almost pushed me right back on to the streets. My friend showed me around, pointing to the area where masses of frightened historians gathered to find out where their job interviews were being held. I'm scared out of my wits in anticipation of the interviews that mark the beginning of the end of a very long road. But I'm pretty sure that part of the fear was in being aware, not just of the interviews at hand, but of all the interviews that had passed each historian by. I'm pretty sure of that because that's what I'd be thinking: "Holy shit. I didn't get an interview there or there or there or..." The "theres" were almost infinite.

Though I had nothing at stake at last year's conference, I still found myself ready and waiting to leave that hotel and go find dinner and a glass of wine. The sympathetic stress was killing me. I find this a little sad. I so rarely feel like I'm surrounded by people who speak my own language. One of the things that feels electric and inspiring about conferences is the accumulation of energy and momentum that comes with that many people engaged in the same intellectual pursuit. It's as if we're all in orbit around the same planet and the pull leaves us all moving along the same wobbly, oblong path. What's sad is that so much is at stake at these things that it starts to feel as if it's time to eat your own young if that's what it will take to survive. That person who just said the fabulously smart thing becomes a threat instead of an inspiration. All the interviews you don't take are evidence, not of a thriving discipline, but of your inadequacy. (Seriously, I'm not even on the market, and it's hard not to take all the activity as a sign I should be further along, presenting more, closer to the end.)

I don't like it. It's not that I actually believe that because historians all love history that we should all feel warm and supportive towards one another. God help us if that were so. A little antipathy keeps things grooving, keeps things alive. (Plus, history is a big discipline and I don't like that many people.) But I'm not quite competitive enough to want to look around and see all of these strangers, who look so familiar to me, as measuring sticks or evidence of my worth or lack thereof. But that's exactly what happens so quickly in academia. So I figure I have some re-training to do on the coming weekend. None of these people, no matter how much their CV might scare me in a dark alley, are a threat to me. I'm just there to observe. And feel a little warm and supportive of people who've dedicated themselves to a discipline that I love.

But what does it say about this entire weekend that I'm already trying to psyche myself up so I don't crumble under the stress of being an observer?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

Is it seriously already Friday again?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Christmas Story

I get choked up each year when I watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special and Linus drags his blanket to center stage to tell the Christmas story. It's the stark hope of the phrase "unto a you is born" that gets me. The hope and the promise that a child born in a barn will inspire the faith that makes a man king brings tears to my eyes. Well, that and the completely overwhelming understanding of what kind of endless possibility is given as a birthday gift to any child welcomed as prince and the corollary understanding of what is denied a child not offered that hope. It often seems to me an object lesson that a child born in poverty should bring wise men to their knees.

Like Xtin over at Xtinpore, I love the ritual and the spectacle of Christmas. I love the sensory feast that leads me to lie awake at night, squinting at the lights on the tree and watching their halos swallow everything in sight. I love the spiced cider and the wrapped presents and the Christmas carols. There's always something new to incorporate. This year I feel in love with hand bell choirs and mulled wine. I love it all. Like Xtin, I'd often be just as happy to embrace the rituals and let the whole "true meaning" business float off on a snowflake.

But not this year. This year, I keep hearing Linus say over and over again, "Unto you a child is born..." Because unto us a child was born. On Monday last, I spent 14 hours with my laboring sister as she gave birth to the first of my family's next generation. I want here to type the story of my niece's birth as a story of inspirational transcendence. Like the story of Mary in the barn, I want the story of her first hours to be a story of some kind of spiritual birth, the sort of thing that makes you believe in higher powers and miracles and A Plan.

I can't. I can't and I won't, though not because my niece's birth wasn't inspiring or enormously important to me. It was. But I won't talk about it as if it is only miraculous because what I learned as I stroked my sister's hair while she called out in a voice I hadn't heard since she was scared and six years old was that birth is deeply, deeply human. It is a manifestation of the best and hardest parts of being human. It's worked for, mired in bodies, a gritty, painful burden that was bourn with heroic determination in the bed where my niece was born one fractional centimeter at a time. We believe the little girl born to us can change the world because we watched as my sister's body split open for her. It wasn't divine. It was, without a doubt, the most physical, earthbound thing I've ever seen.

And so this Christmas, my family passes around a baby who, at seven pounds, is barely enough to fill our arms. She's yet to manage a very convincing cry. (Though she's practicing.) But every time she opens her eyes or makes a heroic effort to get that fist in her mouth, she stirs the hope and the promise that in her face we will glimpse peace and in her possibility we will sense all possibilities. When she pulls my sweatshirt closer to her soft little face, I know how human the Christmas story really is and how much the kings and shepherds and wise men and gifts and angels singing are an externalization of the profound and astounding hope born with every baby.

Unto us a child is born.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Holiday Photo Blogging

Friday, December 22, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dead or Alive?

On the fifth day before Christmas, my academic department gave to me a teaching dilemma. The subtleties, vagaries, and political scramblings involved in teaching appointments in said department are many and maddening, and I will not go into them here. I suspect they are little different than those found elsewhere. (The problems with these things is that they always feel incredibly personal when they often are not.) Let it suffice to say that I'm left to choose between teaching a class referred to as "Dead" because of its lack of live lectures, and one that is live.

The horns of this dilemma, I'm afraid, are that it forces a choice between teaching and my own research on one horn and my CV and my time on the other. Neither choice is, I'm afraid, ideal or even particularly inspiring, and I'm trying to put my disappointment about that aside in order to make a good decision. That said, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. They are as follows:

Dead: This web-based course will allow me oodles more time. It involves teaching a lot of first-year students, and I do love them. I enjoy the teaching challenges and possibilities that come with first-years, and I love the earnest cluelessness that they bring to the table. The disadvantage is that I have taught the class before, will interact with exactly no-one in the department (a problem for me), and will have to do more grading and managing of the assignments and syllabus.

Live: I'll have the opportunity to work with a professor I don't know on a time period I love but teach little. The interwar years are just way too much fun for a cultural historian, and I'd love to engage with the material in the classroom. It is not, however, a cultural history class. I'll work with older students, who are challenging and rewarding in their own way. The disadvantages are that I'll have little control over the class or syllabus, which involves a lot of reading that is, um, traditional. (I'm often not.) The class doesn't have a great reputation, but it's not so horrible that I'm cringing at the thought.

I love teaching enough that the right choice is actually crucial to my grad student health. If I'm teaching a class I enjoy, I'm more likely to be energized by the teaching assignment and productive in other areas. I also need to consider the fact that the last time I taught, I was lecturing my own course. I miss lecturing. I miss planning class, the incredible physical high of actually delivering the lecture, the rewards of seeing my own goals for the class come to fruition. These are the rewards of teaching your own course. They are not the rewards of TAing one. I'll somehow have to manage my own expectations for what I can do and what the class can do if I hope to have a successful semester at all.

This entire decision has really emphasized for me the way that an academic career will consistently force me to choose between my own interests as a reseacher and my interests as a teacher. I'd love the ideal assignment that combines time with rewarding opportunities to engage in the material and a new line on the CV. (What? It's Christmas! A girl can dream!) Since that's not going to happen, I'm left trying to balance my teaching and my research. It's a balancing act I expect to face my entire career. I feel a bit like I'm in one of the endurance challenges on Survivor: If I stand on a barrel bobbing in high tide with an apple in one hand and a book in the other, how long can I hold onto both before one goes into the ocean? If the book is mine alone and the apple what my tribe will eat for the next five months, will I hold one more tightly than the other? Will the book inevitably fall? Will the apple eventually rot? Will I jump in the ocean, taking the book and the apple with me to some watery grave? Anything feels possible.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Carnival of GRADual Progress, Christmas Edition

Styley Geek has done a bang-up job of putting together the fifth Carnival of GRADual Progress over at Fumbling Towards Geekdom. It's full of things that make me just pleased to be a graduate student. Being able to count yourself a member of such a smart, funny group of people is one of the best things about grad school, I think.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Search Terms

I regularly get a good laugh at the search terms that lead people to this blog. The number of people who end up here after searching for information about Veronica Mars's hair is both amusing and unfathomable. (Really? That many people are typing "Veronica Mars hair" into Google?) (And now the hits will double...) Today's though, made me laugh pretty damn hard.

The terms? "graduate student pathetic life."


Tell me about it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


You know, sometimes you're sitting in a far away place, eating a bowl of French onion soup and drinking a Sierra Mist, and the Sierra Mist is unsatisfying because it isn't the Coke you crave, but you've cut out caffeine so it will have to do, and as you check and delete e-mail in between bites of soup and try not to dribble on anything that can't be easily wiped up and wonder about whether your niece will ever bother with being born and whether the beautiful weather is a fluke and whether you really can stand even one more day in your parents' house, though it is a good house with good, supportive, loving people in it, you suddenly have The Thought. You know the one. The Thought is the one that makes your dissertation (or whatever) wholly, perfectly clear to you. It makes the whole thing seem possible. It makes your evidence seem, well, still lame, but like a piece of something instead of piles of nothing. Because this work? This work is so in you that you're working on it, even when you're really just working on everything else.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging