Monday, January 29, 2007


It's snowing here in my city. Small, lazy flakes are making their way to the ground, backlit by the street lamps and headlights and the glow from my neighbors' windows. They're a lovely distraction from the gray and slush and grit of winter in a city this cold. Earlier today I was thinking that everything, everything was dirty and might never be clean again. Now things have gone white like crisp linen, and I'm pretending I don't notice the puddles of salt and sand on my laundry room floor.

Earlier this week, I went to the first seminar I've taken in a while. My advisor somehow convinced me and ten of my closest friends that we needed to take a research class with her as a way of kicking our collective asses into gear. (She didn't put it quite that way, but I know what she meant.) For the first class, she asked each of us to put together five minute presentations on our dissertations. She set guidelines: no self-deprecating jokes, no notes or off the cuff descriptions, and if we didn't know what to say, we were supposed to make it up.

This assignment turned me into a petulant child. I did. not. want. to. I whined and whined and whined. Secretly, I was terrified. Not to be an idiot in front of my advisor, though I do always feel as if I have something to prove to her and it stresses me out. But these friends of mine? This particular group of ten? May be the group of people I respect most in this world. They are people who demonstrate their intellect and decency and kindness in real, consistent ways. There are no grand gestures in grad school. There is only every single day. And as much as I want to do work that lives up to my own expectations, I want to do work that is worthy of their respect. And the thought of actually laying my plans in front of them in such a raw way made me seriously scared out of my mind.

Luckily, among the list of reasons why these fellow grad students are my favorite people is the fact that they are excruciatingly funny. This assignment had turned them into petulant children, as well. None of us wanted to do it. And so in the hours leading up to class, e-mails whipped around like a very sharp wind, reinforcing just what a bad idea we knew this to be. They didn't want to do it any more than I did, but they made me laugh about it.

At the seminar, I was willing to hide under a chair if it meant I didn't have to go first. Thankfully, as the chairs were very small, I did not have to do this. And as each of these brilliant, nice people told the group about their projects, I felt something within me unfurl. Every single one of these people is going to be known as brilliant some day. I cannot begin to explain how inspiring their projects really are. And as each of them talked, I remembered all of the reasons why they are wonderful people. And it's just entirely impossible to feel threatened or frightened of people you adore as much as I adore them. I was distracted from my own fear by their show of lovely ideas, twisting and dancing in the room like softly falling snow.

I have no idea how people make it through grad school without a group of people of whom they are inordinately fond. I hear stories of grad programs that are so competitive that no-one can share worries or complaints or fears. I can even see how my own program might foster a sort of cut-throat competition. But I have these wonderful people to distract me from that, to deter me from my own worst impulses, to convince me over and over again of the good in this field and this career. And this week, I could not be more grateful for that. I just couldn't.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Friday Photo Blogging

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sixth Carnival of GRADual Progress

The latest Carnival of GRADual Progress is up at Working Writing Wailing Mama. (Actually, it's been up for a week now, but I'm a slow sort of girl.) Included in the carnival are several posts on issues associated with blogging that are well worth reading and considering. Read and enjoy!

Great Expectations

On Tuesday, I begin teaching again for the first time in seven months. I haven't heard from the professor and I don't have a copy of the syllabus. This will making advance planning difficult. I suppose I've never been one for a lot of advance planning, anyway. I will not let this influence my expectations of the semester. Or I will, but I'll valiantly pretend this is not a sign of things to come. My eyes will remain shut and I will chant, "this WILL go well" over and over until I'm drowning in blue books and being stalked by angry students.

I'm actually looking forward to getting back to the classroom. An examination of the class rosters reveals one of my favorite students to be among the eighty undergrads under my supervision this semester. When he was in a class of mine a year ago, he so exceeded my expectations that it made me rethink what is reasonable to expect from my students. His presence in this class will be a reminder to me of the expectations I take into every classroom. I find that, way too often, teachers have expectations that are disgracefully low for their students. Their focus on success neglects to ask at what, exactly, the students will succeed. For instance, it's true that some students will be unable to win a fight with a particularly difficult text. Does that mean you should stick with a simple textbook? Does that mean you shouldn't assign the text?

Sometimes, I'm sure it does. Being aware of how much will be hit and how much will be miss with a particular reading assignment is crucial to maintaining a classroom atmosphere in which everyone is both challenged and rewarded for their work. But I was an undergrad at a small, liberal arts university where the expectations were exceedingly high, and I've seen first hand what high expectations can do for you. They keep things difficult and occasionally frustrating, but they also keep things new, challenging, and with the potential for each individual to have a unique experience with the texts and assignments. In my freshman-level English class, we started with Foucault. In my history survey class, we started with Joan Scott. Each of these texts were assigned to me again in graduate school. They weren't easy then and they aren't easy now. But I fell in love with academia then. I fell in love with the idea of disciplines instead of subjects and investigations instead of recitations. I fell in love with the idea that everything, from biology to religious studies, was subject to perspectives, agendas, and some fairly contentious debates. I fell in love with college, then. I want my students to have that same opportunity.

But this is not the same institution of higher learning as that. I feel that students are often done a disservice by the low expectations that deny their capacity to rise to a challenge as well as their capacity to fall in love with intellectually rigorous approaches to topics that may seem, on the surface, to be simple. I want my students to tangle with a particularly difficult text and come up with something—anything—in their hands. It's ok for them to measure their success in relative terms. They might not understand an article in its entirety, just like I did not understand Foucault at first reading, but they may have pushed themselves to a new level, grasped new questions about the discipline, developed a new understanding of part of the material at hand. Last year, I lectured a course in which I repeatedly assigned students very difficult articles. They didn't always get every point. Often, we had to really work for them to get any point out of it at all. But it was tremendous fun to work with them towards an understanding of why I had assigned the article and what it might mean to each of them. It might have been ill-advised to start with such high expectations, but you know what? They did it. They rose to the challenge every time because I expected it of them.

I think part of the reason that instructors so often reject the pursuit of those successes is because it creates an enormous amount of work to measure them. (And let's face it, we all have too much work to do.) It requires a different approach to class time, in which large groups must somehow grapple with difficult texts together. It requires bringing many of the strategies of the seminar room into a lecture hall, which seems strange to a lot of teachers. But I find the other option—in which low expectations take students on a long, dry march through history—utterly depressing. I want the individuals who come to my class to have the opportunity, each of them, to fall in love with the history that is my partner in every classroom endeavor. I hate putting them both—the history and my students—at a disadvantage from the very beginning.

So, now, if I only had that syllabus...

Not Friday Photo Blogging

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Funnel Cloud

It seems only right that on a blog named, in part, for a Hem song (The blog is also named for a primary source I often reference.), I post a little review Hem’s latest album, Funnel Cloud. It would have been more appropriate if that review had come out when Funnel Cloud did in September, but I’m apparently unable to keep track of such things as album release dates. Oh, well. I have it now, and I can say that it’s worth the wait. (The album, I mean, not this review.)

When I listen to a Hem album, I often feel as if I’ve been talking in my sleep. I feel as if I’ve been talking in my sleep and while I was babbling away my darkest secrets into the folds of my blankets, songwriters Dan Messé and Gary Maurer were sitting next to the bed with little notebooks and quiet pencils and then stealing away in the night with my most intimate thoughts and emotions. They transform these intimacies into lush songs that feel as if they sweep in off of the fields I grew up among and wrap themselves around my heart instantly; sometimes they are wrapped too tightly. Sometimes they squeeze. Even though I’ve played their album Eveningland until it’s a tiny little musical pulp in my mind, there are still moments that I start to listen to the album and have to turn it off because it feels too close.

Still, I’m a little abashed that Funnel Cloud is full of songs that already, two days after I first purchased it, remind me of people and emotions that I never expect to find in music. Surely, I’m not so suggestible as that. Or maybe I am, because the songs on this album have, once again, convinced me that Hem knows all of my secrets. They've convinced me with songs like “Not California,” which evokes for me the truth of feeling displaced, something that goes hand in hand with living so, so far from home. “I Dream of You Tonight” made me cry on first listening for being so full of hope for things and people that feel so close and so far all at once. The title song, “Funnel Cloud,” feels like the soundtrack of this moment in my life, when everything is so temporary and yet so enduring and encompassing. Further still, the overall feel of the album, which is just similar enough to past Hem offerings to be familiar and gratifying but different enough to be interesting, makes me feel like the texture of my inner life has been put to music, and that’s exactly the disconcerting comfort I’ve come to expect from Hem. Funnel Cloud did not let me down.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday Photo Blogging

The view from my hotel room at AHA last weekend. The photo isn't the sharpest anyway, and it is, as I often find photos are, blurrier on this blog page than elsewhere. Still, I figured it went with the week's posts.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Act II

The plot thickens.

Actually, it really doesn't. Grad school would make a horrible musical, Broadway play, or serial drama. I suppose for the good of my readers I could construct a fatal job interview or a knife fight in the lobby of the Marriot over definitions of identity and community in social histories, but none of you would believe me. You might believe a drunken marriage between the stars of two rival departments, but you probably wouldn't care that much.

So instead AHA has proceeded much as it began, with each of us going through more or less solitary motions in parallel worlds, all on orbits that occasionally collide. Yesterday, I had the moment I feared. I felt completely lame. I don't know enough. I definitely don't know the right people, a conclusion I came to based on the fact that I don't know any people. I was sure for most of last evening that I was doomed, doomed, doomed. And then today I went to a panel in my field and realized I did have something to contribute, questions to ask, different ways of framing the debate. I went to a reception filled with people I instantly liked and did not find scary or threatening. We were strangers, but we talked and teased and laughed and suggested ideas for panels for next year's conference. I met friends for drinks this evening and found myself wishing I could bottle them and carry them home with me for that InstantFondness that you feel when you watch people you really like say kind and intelligent things. This musical, as slow and boring as it is, is doomed to a cheesy feel-good final number.

But the curtain will go down, for me, as it came up. I'm sitting in the lobby, surrounded by the historians who just can't go to bed without checking their e-mail, coffee and wine from the hotel bar close at hand. I do continue to find it comforting to know that we're all treading water in lonely shark tanks. This isn't to minimize the completely insane experience that is the AHA. Let me be clear: It is in.sane. So I don't feel like we're all in it together or anything, but I don't feel like I'm too dense to to see the harpoon floating over there in my individual shark tank that will help me bring down the predators and emerge victorious. I'm pretty sure I'm just supposed to keep swimming and stay alive. I'll settle for that.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Grad School: The Musical

I’m sitting in the lobby of one of the hotels playing host to AHA. I wish I could take pictures of this herd of grad students deep in thought over their laptops, cups of coffee steaming by their sides. But I think that whipping out a camera right would be a bit like photographing a skittish jackal at the zoo or a circus performer juggling fourteen flaming batons, so I'll resist. So you’ll have to trust me that, though the air is obviously brittle with stress, there’s also something comforting (for me, who has no interviews to prepare for today) about sitting here first thing in the morning, surrounded by people who also need to get up in the morning, sit at their computers, drink their coffee, and let the day seep in from behind the monitor. I suddenly feel as if I’m in Grad School: The Musical, and each of these movements that I make in isolation each morning (stumble, sit, turn, drool, type, sip, lean back, close eyes, open eyes, sip, type, stare, stare, stare) are being done in concert, a dance number in a larger production happening here in this lobby. I’m also amusing myself by giving it all a sluggish morning tune. No lyrics. Who wants to sing first thing in the morning?