Actually, I have no idea what I am going to write. I just felt really rebellious, and thought, “Well, I have a huge pile of crap to get through, and have no time to blog, and I just don’t care.” Honestly, I thought at the beginning of October that Things Would Change: I would be caught up, and my classes would be going well, and I would be running regularly, and I would be blogging regularly. That hasn’t happened, obviously. I thought that a particularly troublesome and stressful situation at work had finally just died and its corpse had been well and truly buried, but it dug itself out of the ground and has been looming, zombie-like, at the edges of my world for most of the semester. Unfortunately, some of the shorter-term treatments for the resultant anxiety and depression are not conducive to feeling full of energy, nor even to getting out and exercising, which would help. So, for the umpteenth time in my life, I’m buried in work, and looking out at a beautiful, sunny, cold day and saying to the world and the pile of work, “Fuck it. I don’t care if it sets me back a little further in the short run. I need to write. I need to read things that aren’t prep. I need to run. I need to sleep.” After all, as my Superdean reminds me, the academic term only lasts so long, and we always manage to get through in the end — even if sometimes the end isn’t pretty!
So I’m letting this serve as a sort of manifesto to myself, a reminder that blogging and reading blogs, that researching and writing, and that conversations with interesting colleagues over the internet is a good thing, and there are things I would like to put out for discussion. My goal is to write 500 words before breakfast on these various topics, and blog them. I’m aiming for daily posts for the rest of the month, but I’ll take it one day at a time.
Some of the topics:
- Seriously, I’m now middle-aged and/or I don’t need to put up with certain kinds of behavior anymore
- The gap between what faculty think their job is and what students think their job is, and vice versa.
- Traditionally non-academic programs developing postgraduate study — does anyone know what they are doing?
- In general, articulating expectations in ways that they are understood.
- Teaching methods
- Teaching World Civ
- career stuff
- being a middle-aged academic whose career seems to be turning into something that feels real and right.
- Advising students
- politics, perhaps
- Student athletics
And those things aren’t counting responses I would like to make to some of my fellow bloggers!
Fingers crossed? Keep them that way, and I’ll see you tomorrow.
I need to catch up on it!
For example, I didn’t know James had a blog.
Since I am so out of things, please, let me know what great new-ish blogs I might be missing. And by the way, there are Reasons I have not been blogging much of late. I’ve also not been socializing much, or much of anything, for the past year or so. Much has been happening in my life, and some has recalled the time I saw something nasty in the woodshed. Unlike Aunt Ada, however, I haven’t got a large family living in fear of my wrath and caring for my every need. But I got that retreating from the world thing down pretty well. Anyway, I’m starting to crawl back out from my cave… really.
So I was sent a Change.org petition the other day. It’s the kind of thing I’d normally sign: a transperson claiming discrimination against his university. Except for one thing: I looked at the university’s website, and read the student manual (because I know people who teach there, and it seemed an incomplete story), and honestly, there are so many mechanisms at the campus for students to file grievances and complaints of discrimination — and transgender discrimination is specifically mentioned — that I find it hard to believe that the colleges in question have in fact refused to allow the student to be treated as he identifies.
I’m reserving judgement on this one till someone shows me that the colleges have actually discriminated against the student. My guess as a faculty member is that the student hasn’t completed the necessary paperwork to be recognized as male in the institutional database, or that there’s an issue with the feed from the database to the mailing lists that needs to be worked out.
So I’m withholding my signature, because I think it’s the responsible thing to do.
It’s embarrassing to see how long it’s been since I last posted. Part of me says I shouldn’t be posting now, because I am very behind on syllabuses, proofing a chapter, a translation, and a bunch of other things. However, on the theory (and experience) that I am more productive when I take the time to blog and read blogs, and feel much more engaged when I do so, I am starting my academic year and blogging year anew. I have conference posts, and pre-sabbatical posts, and all sorts in the back of my head, but the title of today’s post refers to a series of interconnected topics that have been on my mind for a while, and have come glaringly to the forefront since my arrival back on campus. Rather than post one excessively long post, I am going to be breaking things up over the next few days, or as long as it takes, starting … now:
Much of these essays are predicated on the idea that people in general like to what things going on in their world are likely to affect them, and how. It’s often said that people don’t like change. I think that that can be true, but for me and, from what I can tell, in any institutional situation, it’s not necessarily the change that people object to — it’s change when it’s presented as fait accompli. Academics are used to being thought of as experts. They work with a lot more autonomy than people in most occupations. Most universities have some sort of inclusion of faculty in the governance structure, so there is an expectation of consultation on some level. In those places where a hierarchical organization is firmly in place and recognized by all participants, then the nature of the hierarchy and the role of faculty governance play a big part in setting expectations on how decisions are made, implemented, and received. Whether or not people like the decisions, there is at least the comfort in knowing that the system is working; even if it’s a completely objectionable top-down, rule by fiat structure, there’s the comfort of knowing bastards will behave like bastards. In places like SLAC, where the structure and relationships are less clearly defined, and/or ignored by at significant portion of the faculty and overlooked by administrators, it can be more difficult.
The difficulties are varied: because the structure and relationships are unclear, they are understood and defined differently by different people. So, for example, there are those who really aren’t bothered by changes in duties or expectations, because they are happy to show up, teach classes, keep their heads down, and get paid. They’ll do what they need to in order to stay under the radar, but as far as they are concerned, they don’t really report to anyone. I know at this point some of you might be laughing, but really, it’s true. SLAC sent me to a really good workshop for department and division chairs, run by and for places like SLAC. At one point, we were asked, “who’s your boss?” Maybe a third of the people there had an answer: generally, it was, “the dean, then the provost.” Most people looked puzzled. According to the people running the workshop, when they polled all the faculty at places similar to SLAC, the percentage of people who could identify a “boss” or who saw themselves as employees was even smaller. (I should point out here that none of the places in question were unionized — the language of labor and management makes it pretty damned hard not to see oneself as an employee). That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does beg the question of how a person sees herself in relationship to other parts of the university and its structure.
On the other end, there are those faculty who volunteer for every committee, and show up to every function, and even when they aren’t, they want to know details of what every committee is doing. They deal with change by trying to make sure they are part of the process. Part of the impetus is that being in on things, and having advanced knowledge makes them more comfortable. For many, though, I think it also indicates reacting to a lack of trust. How it plays out depends on whether that lack of trust is well-founded or not. If someone grudgingly volunteers because the administration is lousy at soliciting or listening to faculty input, it indicates to me that they take on the service because they see themselves as a member of a larger university community, with an obligation to the institution and (sometimes even more) to their colleagues and students. Knowledge is a means to power, and something that should be shared in order to diminish chances of its abuse. On the other hand, there are those faculty whose understanding of their positions in the university, and more importantly, in relation to their colleagues, is framed by their service. For them, knowledge is power, and holding on to that knowledge gives them a higher position in an unstatable hierarchy — but unlike other unstatable hierarchies, this one is rooted in their own insecurities. Those same insecurities and understanding of the knowledge/power relationship seem to me to explain their unwillingness to sit back and let their colleagues do their share: they do not trust them with “power”, not because the colleagues are untrustworthy, but because it places the colleagues above them in the knowledge/power hierarchy.
Obviously there are lots of other ways that faculty see themselves in relation to the university, their students, and their colleagues, but they all impinge on how faculty see their autonomy and its limits. Or rather, perhaps, how a person understands autonomy frames their interactions and relationships with the university, colleagues, and students. So what happens when faculty at the same institution have vastly different ideas of what autonomy means?
That’s for tomorrow.
UPDATE: Yeah, so my resolution to not be so much of an anti-social hermit this year got off to an ill-timed, but excellent start. Don’t even ask how much isn’t done for Monday. So today’s post will come tomorrow.
I have SO MUCH I want to write about. Sadly, I need to use my BL time wisely, as I am OMG trying to write a paper for next week, and I have only a couple of hours today and Monday left before I leave for the conference!! Obviously, I have the weekend, but it just ended up that the weekend I’d planned to keep free for writing the paper ended up being the weekend best suited for a family visit…
Anyway, here are things in the works…
a lot on the 19th C and how it has shaped what we do.
something on degrees in the humanities
the AHA’s new curriculum suggestions, and how different they are from the scarily bad Michael Gove plan
thoughts triggered by Historian on the Edge’s “Crisis of the State” post.
And probably, by the time I get round to it, Leeds.
Bis bald, Leut’
Strange Zoo this year. As usual, I was overjoyed to see old friends and make new acquaintances who might become friends. My panel went well, I think, which is always gratifying. Mostly, that was down to having clever people who listened to each other and helped to ensure smooth transitions from one topic to the next. I’m very lucky to have had such talent agree to participate.
I’m still transcribing notes from the papers I heard, but in the meantime, I thought I’d mention a couple of real low points, both incidents of poor behaviour by colleagues. The first I witnessed myself, the second something I partially missed, having left a panel early. I’m trying to confirm some details about that one, but did see enough to bring it into this discussion. The point here is not to shame anyone, but rather to offer a couple of reminders to people at different stages in their careers about checking their privilege and their responsibilities.
Most of the regular readers of this blog (if there are such people) know I have Opinions on keeping to time when delivering a paper. It probably won’t surprise anyone that my reaction was less than favourable when a scholar senior enough to have earned the rank of full professor began hir presentation with the words, “I realised yesterday that my paper was too long; I will have to cut a bit as I go.” I do empathise with people who need to make last-minute changes: after all, it only takes a couple of things to throw paper preparation off schedule. My last paper for Leeds was finished at about 0200 for a 0900 panel, and wasn’t nearly as polished as I would have liked. It happens. But here’s the thing — the presenter still has an obligation to hir fellow presenters, the moderator, and the audience to keep within time. It’s a thing I like to call “acting as professionally as possible.” That announcement of unforeseen cutting should only be offered as an apologetic warning that the presentation might be a little rough. In other words, it’s an appeal to one’s colleagues’ generosity; it’s begging for their indulgence and trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. What it should not be is an anticipatory excuse or explanation for then running into someone else’s time or putting the moderator in a position of having to cut a presenter off. That’s what I call ‘unforgivably rude.’ When it comes down to it, though, it’s one or the other.
A full professor, more than anyone, should know how to time a presentation. If it’s a twenty-minute presentation, it’s about 2600-2900 words for most people — less if there are slides. If a person is used to using images, then zie should have an idea of how many words there are to a picture. A person who shows up with a paper that is at least 4000 words, accompanied by at least 20 slides, intending to get through all of it in 20 minutes is at best a fool. At worst, zie has made a conscious decision to behave unprofessionally.
Not only is that decision unprofessional, but it is rude and inconsiderate. It’s a decision that indicates that the presenter’s value system relegates everyone else in the room to “less important than I am.” It’s just a big “fuck you” wrapped up in insincere packaging.
So… just don’t do that, if you want your colleagues to think well of you.
The other incident is a bit murkier. One of the two papers (of three) in a session closely connected to my own interests was simply poor. I was not impressed by the paper. It was fine for an undergrad, and even for a first-year MA student, it might have been fine within the department. I thought it clearly argued; despite some weaknesses in contextualizing the sources, it was also not a bad argument. The topic, however, was unsophisticated and not at all new. It also seemed fairly obvious that the presenter hadn’t read, or had disregarded, at least one important book on his sources. To me, it was a disappointing use of my time — I’d rather have gone to a different session, frankly — and it convinced me there was no point to staying for the last paper in the session, by another grad student at the same institution, because the title just didn’t seem to suggest anything better than one of the papers I needed to get marked. When I run into situations like these, I figure there are two possible explanations: either the student ignored hir advisor’s advice and went ahead and presented a paper that should never have seen the light of the IMC, or the advisor had not mentored the student very well.
I’m guessing, since the students seemed to have a faculty person with them, that the papers had been approved. I honestly don’t know why. Pulling a paper is embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as dealing with being thrown to the wolves.
Sadly, I hear that’s exactly what happened. I left the session after the second paper, which was given by a friend, because I’d realized that I had to get something in to my dean within the hour. At the wine hour, I ran into someone who had stayed for the whole panel, and heard that a senior medievalist, who had written one of the significant books in question, ripped the paper to shreds, and did it without differentiating between the paper and its author. According to my colleague, a second senior medievalist, who was also there, either intervened or pulled his colleague aside after and spoke to him. There’s a lot to unpack here, not least because I wasn’t there, so am trying not to spread false impressions. I’ve interacted with the first senior medievalist, and he’s always been pleasant, but he’s definitely acerbic at best when he’s offering a critique. He’s also the author of what is still one of the most mean-spirited reviews I’ve ever read. But that was written of a peer when they were both young and building their reputations. Almost forty years on, I wonder if perhaps he just didn’t realize that the presenter was an MA student. In any case, this reminds me of something a dear friend of mine, an Anglo-Normanist of the same generation as these Late Antique lions, told me: be kind, and if you must engage in public critique, make sure you you err on the side of punching above your weight. Given that my friend is known for his ability to demolish a paper with a couple of well-placed questions, I might take this with a grain of salt; however, I have never, ever, seen him publicly humiliate a student or junior scholar. He takes them aside, often offering a coffee, and walks them through what they missed. I know which model I prefer.
I love going to conferences, even though it usually takes me a couple of weeks to wind down and process all the interactions. I think those of us whose academic lives are divided between teaching selves and research selves really need those interactions. In any case, having the opportunity to hang out with people I like and respect and who keep me on my toes is one of the best things I can think of. If not for conferences, I would probably not know HotEdge, or Magistra, or Susan, or LDW, or any number of people who have become friends without aid of the internets. Conferences have made a huge difference to my career, and to how I see myself as a scholar. I mean that not only in the obvious sense of whether or not I am good enough, but also in the sense of where I am in a more objective sense. My normal sense of academic self is that I’m nobody anyone should know. I don’t produce as much as I’d like, and I never feel as on top of my field as I think I should be — or that my colleagues who have the luxury of only working on the MA are. At SLAC, my departmental colleagues manage to dismiss what I do (i.e., anything with the MA) as esoteric, and somehow manage to turn the fact that competency competency in just one of my fields requires knowing over a thousand years of stuff in several different cultures, while competency in their fields includes about 200 years in one place, into a sort of insult. Going to conferences helps me to see myself in relation to other medievalists at different stages in their careers. I am always cognizant of the help and mentoring my colleagues give me, and I try hard to make sure that I am doing everything I can to repay the kindnesses I’ve received by passing them on to others. I think there are many of us who feel the same way — conferences are our community in action on a different scale.
Now obviously, there’s a lot of diversity in our community in terms of age, interests, political ideologies, etc. (although HELLO??? medievalist conferences are still overwhelmingly attended by people of pallor). But for communities to work, there need to be some common understandings of acceptable behavior. In both cases I mention, and in most I can recall, the people behaving unprofessionally and inconsiderately are senior scholars. They are almost always male (but not always — I was once at a conference where a female scholar’s paper went over so long that we made time the next morning for her fellow panelists to answer questions). Academia is currently in a parlous state in many ways; medievalists often have to defend their relevance even more than most people in the humanities. I’m all for defending high standards as part of our response to people who want to cut our jobs, reduce our pay, etc. But I’m pretty sure that we can do that without eating our young. So next time you go to a conference, don’t forget to check your privilege and be kind and respectful to your colleagues in sessions (and whenever it’s possible, bearing in mind that no one has an obligation to be respectful to people who behave like total dicks). And ask yourself what kind of points you want to score.
Thursday night, from 7:30 on, at the same place as last year, i.e., a room in the Valley of Registration.
If you are new to the party, email me, and I’ll tell you how to get there.
Contributions of beverages and snacks, or offers of cash to chip in on the healthy amount I plan to bring, gladly accepted. I’m driving in, so it’s not as much of a hassle as it is for people without cars.
Hope to see many of you bloggy-types there!