Monday, February 3, 2014

Story and history

German uses the same word, die Geschichte, to mean both story and history. Such a blurring of lines is especially interesting given how little we know about what actually happened in history - we have plenty of records, but none can be called completely objective. Some historical facts aren't under question - the Nile did really flood every year, for example. But many parts of history are not nearly as easy to figure, especially when it comes to politics, war, and the why questions.

(Even some so-called facts are up for debate. A friend's favorite story to illustrate this point is the Greek historian Herodotus, whose credentials as a believable source could not be better. He is very careful to note how he came by his information, if it was first-hand, second-hand, third-hand, and so forth. He discusses the credibility of his sources. He tells you if he believes something to be true or not. He's willing to write things that reflect badly on his own people. At a time when many sources reported everything that came to them as fact without distinguishing the reasonable from the absurd, his careful charting of sources and credibility is a wonder. And then he tells you about seeing the flying snakes when he was visiting Saudi Arabia. What should we do with that?)

History matters, in a whole number of ways. One very concrete way is in modern-day territorial disputes, as found in Israel/Palestine or Zimbabwe (or most of the Middle East, Africa, Russia/Eastern Europe and much of Asia. Also Quebec. Occasionally Texas). North America and Western Europe are largely free from having their geography questioned, in large part because they were the ones who drew the geographical lines for everyone else. I digress.

In territorial disputes, history is appealed to as a source of truth and ultimate judge. Both sides in such a dispute declare that their claim to this land or that resource is the first, and therefore must be respected. This looks very pleasant, until you getting clashing views of history. At some point, history (what really happened) and story (what may have happened) get very very confused. That point often comes up very quickly.

Now some might disagree with my definitions of history and story in this context. That's fine. I think the delineation is a helpful one, though, and makes the study of history all the more interesting. Essentially, the more I study history, the more I realize that most of what we know isn't history at all, but story. There's truth in there, but it doesn't look like tidy scientific laws or elementary school textbooks. The truth of stories is always under question, as it should be. Some stories contain truth because they recount something that veritably occurred. Many stories contain truth because they speak to something beyond a recounting of facts: emotions, experiences, reactions, deeply-held opinions. That's mostly how we interact with the world, messy as it is, and one of the reasons I love literature so much.

For all the German's lack of distinguishing between story and history looks like a failure for precision of language, it may actually communicate something more. Story contains truth and history isn't all truth. I think that's really cool.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Polar Vortex Strikes Back

Except image Darth Vader as a big snowflake, or Snow Miser, or something.

Sorry dude, you're too much
Both the first and second waves of bitter cold are probably no surprise to, oh, all of you, since the entire northern US was hit with chill and snow. The first time around we ended up with over a foot of snow (I have pictures of my car, they're scary); this time around is more just cold. The insides of my windows have ice and frost on them, I've spent most of the past week in a blanket, and I drink ungodly amounts of warm beverages. That last one is nothing new. I found a fantastic recipe for root veggie and ginger soup that I'm planning to make tomorrow.

Because it is so cold, I don't want to move very much. Counterproductive, I know. I really don't want to go outside, except for a few minutes while Peaches proves that teaching animals to use the toilet is probably the best unattainable idea every. She, on the other hand, wants to sniff around and explore. The apartment gets boring after a time, I understand, I just lack an indoor, fenced, heated space for her to dash around and explore. Anyone with ties to a dog-friendly, leash-free place inside, hit me up!

Like last time, I've taken this cold snap/extended dance sequence as a change to hunker down and indulge myself. Between watching The Daily Show and Parks and Recreation, I've also been reading a fascinating book about clothing and textiles in the colonial and federal period. Mostly the clothes and accessories explored are from Colonial Williamsburg, and run from the early-ish 1700s through the very early 1900s. Even though I love pants and don't really like corsets, many of the dresses are just gorgeous. I love the shape they give, and would really enjoy working in Williamsburg sometime if my life takes a different path. Or even if it doesn't, who knows? Summer would be kind of brutal in Virginia. That might just be a price I pay, like October in Salem when our cloaks were mostly for show.

One fascinating detail from the studies of 18th- and 19th- century clothing is that the really nice clothes were usually not made particularly well. They held together just fine and looked lovely, of course, but they wouldn't have been finished on the inside or stitched particularly carefully. Homemade linens - chemises, shifts, shirts, and so on - were often stitched very neatly and carefully. No loose edges, no raggedy bits, finished seams, everything would have been made really well. This was because those homemade, everyday items had to stand up to wear and tear, as well as regular washing and bleaching. Dressy clothes were worn far less often, were not worn next to the body, and would have been sent out to a specialist to be cleaned when necessary. They didn't have to stand up to daily work, body oils, or regular scrubbing, so their construction didn't reflect that concern. The book talked about this difference in the context of what is a "masterful" item, since we often think of such items as being the best specimen of whatever it is they are. While some very impressive wealth displays and beauty can be found in nice clothes, some of the best craftsmanship can be found in much humbler items that required it.

I'm sure there's a deep lesson there somewhere. For instance, write syllabi carefully. Also notes on papers?

Another factoid: indigo dye (the only good blue available at the time) oxidizes and sets upon contact with air. Clothing patterns were often made by stamping an adherent on the clothing and then submerging the whole thing in a dye so the dye stuck to the clothing. The alternative was stamping the clothes themselves. In both circumstances, indigo wouldn't adhere nicely because it would set on the stamp or get all strange in the dyeing vat. The blue parts of 18th-century textiles tends to look a bit sloppy because it was applied by hand with a brush, but quickly. This is true for really nice fabrics like expensive silks as well as much cheaper cottons and wools. All the other colors are perfectly in line, and the blue is just a little smudged.

Probably also a lesson there.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Grad School and the Internet

One of my favorite things about graduate school (and school in general) is the regular interactions with people whose interests and fields of study are foreign or even unknown to me. I love the breadth of information found online, but nothing beats talking to someone who is really into whatever-it-is they are doing.

My university is very interested in a field of study called "digital humanities" - essentially, combining traditional humanities questions and scholarship with ever-improving technology. This ranges from searching two key words together to see how they've turned up in other work to recording volunteers reading in an fMRI machine to see how the brain processes different kinds of reading. That project is actually being undertaken by one of the professors from my department, who is interested in attention and how we train (or don't train) our brains to focus in a world that usually requires multitasking. She looks at how the brain responds to pleasure reading versus focused reading.

Of course the first half of "digital humanities" requires both access to technology and the willingness to use it. For a field devoted to the printed word, this an interesting new road. The use of technology in general has made for a real change in the way humanities scholars and students work - a great deal of information can be found online, we can preview possible works before reading them to see if they look promising, we can search out more keywords than an index can ever provide. This has the benefit of cutting down on the amount of reading of ultimately non-useful information, but also means that research doesn't so often include tangential, possibly interesting chapters. It's something of a trade-off, certainly, but not a dire one. Perhaps not even a negative one.

I confess to remaining very attached to printed books. E-readers (for example) take up far less space, granted, but they don't have that wonderful book smell. Or pages you can dog-ear. Or a dozen other tactile aspects of reading I've grown up with and come to love. Word processing, on the other hand, is a gift from above. I can't even imagine the extra time that went into typewriting, when you couldn't just delete mistakes or  cut and paste paragraphs.

One continually-evolving part of the humanities is the role crowd-produced information and research, like Wikipedia. Like most of my colleagues, I don't consider Wikipedia a scholarly source. Incredibly helpful for a brief summary, yes. Often with correct information, yes. Sometimes with good links off-site, yes. But not to be cited in a paper. Scholarly work not only tells you who the author is, but has gone through some kind of review process.

So here's the question: at what point does group wisdom (or "wisdom") become indistinguishable from that review process? Is the collective opinion of a big enough group enough to equal out the learned opinion of a few editors? There are definitely crazies out there - witness the comment section of, oh, anything - but they seem generally to be outweighed by non-crazies. And academics have their own kind of crazy, which is sometimes not weeded out thanks to the norms of scholarship and professorial work. I'm not convinced that Wikipedia can ever take over scholarly work, to be honest. That's probably not a bad thing. But any professor or teaching assistant can tell you that students are often convinced the two are interchangeable. I wonder if I'll be proved wrong.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Off Hiatus

The only thing more boring that my daily routine might very well be my exam period and school break. The normal schedule includes such exciting elements as going to class, doing my homework, eating, sleeping, and joining in the odd activity outside my hermitage of an apartment. I often go to bed by 10:30. Clearly I live an interesting life.

Exam period looked much the same, except everything except eating and sleeping was replaced with research and writing, and more research and more writing. And break? Just eating and sleeping, more or less. I hope your holiday period looked much the same. Rest is such an important part of our rhythm - the prescription (common to many religions) of a holy day to spend not doing normal things is really a wonderful invention.

As of the first week of January I'm back in classes, and my days are taking on the patterns of grad school again. One difference: I adopted a dog! Her name is Peaches, and she's a nine-year-old terrier mix. Her ears stand up and she's endlessly curious about everything. My mom calls her Nosy Rosy. Somewhere in her previous life she learned to stand on her hind legs for long periods of time, the better to peer over barriers or look to see if I'm on the bed, one presumes. She's curled up next to me as a write, snoring a little bit. I'm grateful to have her around - she gets me out of the apartment and reminds me to maintain a normal meal schedule, for her sake if not for my own. I've really missed having a fuzzy companion the past five years. All colleges should allow fuzzy pets, not just fish. It's very difficult to snuggle with a fish. (They usually die if you attempt it).

My department's requirements for graduation include proving competence in a second language, even if that language has little to do with your area of research or interest. In my case, I go the boring route of 17th-19th-century Britain, where English serves me pretty well. I still need to have a second language, in my case for the purposes of expanding my worldview and looking outside the Anglo-American box. This is a good thing, if ending up somewhat frightening. My graduate-level German class is a steep learning curve, but the 400-level undergrad courses wouldn't fit with my schedule. Our first class was cancelled due to the polar vortex (!!) that swept through a vast portion of the States a couple weeks ago, but last week's discussion of citizenship and national identity in pre-EU Germany and Europe really stretched my ability to participate in a conversation. About the time that I would figure out the gist of the current conversation and formulate a vaguely related comment, the class would have already moved far beyond that point. The professor assures us that our first reading was the hardest one, and this week's reading seems to confirm that point. Rede des toten Kolumbus am Tag des J├╝ngsten Gerichts (The speech of the deceased Columbus on doomsday) is not an easy read, to be sure, but I can follow the narrative, such as there is. The novel might be called experimental for its lack of a clear storyline and time jumps. It might also just be called confusing. And as is typical of German art of a certain generation, it is highly political.

Thankfully the class, while interested in German as a language and German scholarship and writing, is a bit more flexible. Our discussions flipped between German and English, as do our readings. Other than the occasional inability to think of a certain word in whatever language we're currently using, this seems a good way to go. My colleagues back in Germany would be horrified at our use of a non-monolingual language classroom.My students would likely cheer.

This particular class requires that we cultivate an online presence as people and scholars, though I confess mixing the two leaves me feeling a little nervous. I've been assured that personal blogs are acceptable for this kind of presence-creation; I may be spending a bit more time on theory, philosophy, and reflection this semester instead of just stories about wiggly elementary schoolchildren on a field trip. Do bear with me. I'll try to be entertaining.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Burrowing in

As it turns out, burying one's head in a long series of books for several months on end isn't nearly as entertaining as German schoolchildren. Or being a tourist. So I've been quiet for a while, not precisely because there's nothing to write about, but because most of it would devolve into a high-pitched, pathetic whine. Like a leaky teakettle.

Speaking of teakettles...

The things that have kept me sane over the past six weeks:

Pleasure reading
John Stewart
String cheese

Why the last? I'm really really deeply considering adopting a dog. I miss small fuzzy things. My apartment is wonderful and I love my own space, but it would be nice to share it with a small creature sporting big brown eyes and a wagging tail. I haven't had time to visit any shelters, that's the plan for after I've turned in my papers in another week or two. In the meantime I browse the websites and fall in love with a succession of sweet faces. I have a whole list of places to visit when I'm finally free. And while I don't have the time or energy to deal with a puppy by myself, you can bet your boots that I'll want to pet and snuggle any puppies currently in residence.

Fun fact: at least one university brings in local therapy animals and puppies for the students to cuddle during finals week. I think that sounds like a fabulous idea. I might consider trying to get it started at my university. But later. When I have time.

I'll leave you with my pile of books. The 23 (!!) of them represent only some of the books I've read for these papers, but some are already returned and others are on the internet. It's weird to read books on the internet, but highly highly useful.

Deep breaths. Breathe. Breathe.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Just look at that beautiful German in the title there! And even better, look at what it represents - speaking German with Germans who help me to learn and remember.

I'm studying English literature because I love it, but sometime during the past year German wormed its way into my heart and has taken up residence. Happily, I found a local German group that meets twice a month to have lunch or dinner and just chat. Not everyone who comes is German (several are American, one is Ukrainian), but they all have learned or want to learn the language and enjoy practicing it together. We met at a Mexican restaurant (cosmopolitan!) and I spent ninety minutes exercising my already-flabby German muscles. And it was really fun! Everyone there speaks English fluently, so there's no concern that you'll just get stuck. The non-natives speakers want to improve. The native speakers like hearing their mother tongue in a country where it's rare. Everyone wins.

Sadly I can't go to the second meet-up this month, but I look forward to my regular doses of Deutsch, and I may look into the university German club as well. It just meets at a really inconvenient time. No matter what, though, I'm not giving up on my hard-fought language skills. I'll even fight for more of them. Hopefully that all goes well.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Priorities, people!

My "Intro to Graduate Studies" class just had me read a book about how to survive grad school and find a job. Most of it was fairly useful. I hope that I'll be able to reference it again as I get through the various stages of grad school

But. There's always a but. In discussing time management, the author talks about how hard it is to find time for research, teaching, and family. He suggests that grad students hold off having a family until they've graduated at least, or have a non-working spouse. If one can't manage such a thing, he says, one must be aware that something's gotta give. And that something cannot be your research. Oh no. It's sleep.

Now I don't mean to say that graduate students (or professors) should do poorly at their jobs. And part of that job is research and writing. But it seems like this particular author has taken a leaf out of the business playbook and decreed that unless you give 250% for the rest of your life, you might as well give up now. And I don't think that's healthy. Every job has push and pull. Every job has time management issues. If you are talking to a bunch of graduate students and advising them that they need to be chronically sleep-deprived in order to have a life outside of work? Something's wrong with your view of the world.

Sure, there will be times when this happens. And sure, being both a grad student and a professor is more than a 40-hour-a-week job. But it doesn't have to be 80 hours a week. It could be 50. And there should be regular breaks. I wish the author would have told his readers that students should take a good hard look at whether winning the career game is worth the things they'll give up, instead of assuming that's the path they'll take. Because for me? I'll do my work well. And it won't just be a 40-hour workweek. And sometimes the rest of my life will have to be the thing put on hold until the current project is finished. But time to sleep, exercise, read for pleasure, and recharge are worth not being The Ultimate Grad Student or The Ultimate Professor.

I just finished training to volunteer for the local sexual assault hotline. (Intense. Really intense.) One of the most important things we talked about was self-care - the things you do to help yourself relax and be happy even when the world around you isn't happy. Taking some times - ten minutes, an hour, a day - away from workworkwork is part of self-care. It's part of keeping the thing you love from driving you insane. And it's necessary, no matter how much other people want to shame you for daring to care for yourself sometimes.

I've been keeping a running list of things I do and don't want to do when I'm teaching a class. It includes things like "for lower-level classes, give a bunch of small assignments and grade them fairly instead of inflating. That way, you can also grade the papers more fairly and not feel like you're torpedoing the students' chance of success". After this book, I added "never tell students that their work should be their one and only. Remember that everyone has a life outside of study, outside of work, and that is a very good thing".

Of course these ideas can be hard when you really just want someone to pour heart and soul into your class. It has become my new goal to tell students that yes, they need to work hard, but no, their work isn't the most important thing ever. Sometimes other things are important. If you're working well, if you're not using it as an excuse for mediocrity, never feel guilty about recognizing when something else takes over that importance slot.