Dame Eleanor Hull

Oh, Parliament . . .


I did not know that parchment had remained in use until the present day by this august institution, but I am disappointed that the tradition is ending. While it is true that high-quality paper lasts for centuries, parchment lasts longer. The cost doesn’t seem high enough to make much difference in a country’s budget. Will sixteenth-century Acts of Parliament still be available to scholars when the 21st-century ones have crumbled to dust?

I had not thought about this question before: what style of handwriting was used through the twentieth century for the written-on-parchment records of the British Parliament? I’ve never looked at anything later than the 17th century.

Familiarity breeds

I often wonder if I am unfriendly, or out of step with the times (well, yes, duh), or spoiled by working in a job (and area) where people seem to want to use a title with last name, so that I am accustomed to be addressed as Ms, Dr, or Professor Hull. And then I run across posts like this one, and I realize that I may be out of place, but I am not alone:


Every time I go to the gym and some teenager who just started working there yesterday scans my card and says “Have a good workout, Eleanor,” I grit my teeth and say thank you. But what runs through my head is “We have not met, and I am old enough to be your mother. That’s ‘Ms Hull’ to you.”

I also remind myself that they mean to be friendly, that their bosses probably encourage this name use to make a good impression on clients, and that this first-naming seems to be the custom of the country. In other words, I spend a lot of time and mental energy on reminding myself of the culture in which I live. Like someone who lives in a foreign country. Why is it so hard to assimilate?

Do you re-read your own blog?

While I’m re-reading other people’s old blogs, I wound up back at my own, thanks to feMOMhist who linked to the spring 2012 writing group. Wow, I sounded so together so much of the time, and I was actually so.damned.tired. most of the time. Writing was definitely incremental that semester. Must keep this in mind when planning for next year. Well. I will definitely not organize any more conferences. That was the most painful thing. But I really liked those inspirational quotes. Apparently other people did too. Nice to get inspired and feel I did some good in the world, that year!

And, that said . . .

I can see the use of Twitter as a way to get a quick answer to the question “Who is ‘the historian of late-medieval Coventry’ whom Keith Wrightson quotes directly on p. 56 of Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain? Direct quote. No notes. Yale UP, and no notes. Just a sort of bibliographic essay about the major sources for each chapter. This is not what I would call a popular book. Maybe if I were an early-modern economic historian, a name would come immediately to mind. But sometimes people whose expertise lies elsewhere need to get some information about another field.

Here endeth today’s rant.

Nostalgia (again)

So here I am, on research leave, plugging away on various things: two sets of revisions, notes to an essay I dashed off last summer and then put aside, book-in-progress, regular work on dead languages, tons of reading for assorted projects—many of which intersect, so I use color-coded post-its and I keep having to check what the code is, and I need to buy more blue ones. Where was I? Right, plugging away, and like Undine says, progress is incremental, but it’s much better to keep going slowly and steadily than get impatient and screw things up. Like Jonathan says, mediocre progress is actually great. It adds up.

So anyway, I keep returning to assorted blog posts from around 2010-2011, like Jonathan’s advice, and especially feMOMhist’s sabbatical year, which was inspiring in all sorts of ways. Enthusiasm, primarily, which I share, but sometimes it’s hard to take that first plunge down the rabbit hole. Good general advice, too. I miss her.

And I’m sure that many of the bloggers I miss are now on Twitter or Facebook or whatever. I mean, I’ve been assured that they are. But I’m still a conscientious objector to those venues, for many reasons. One is that I can do fairly well at fragmenting my ability to concentrate all by myself, without any help from the interwebs and especially not from super-short-form stuff. I want to get down that rabbit hole into the past, and spend hours thinking about the same things, mainly in the distant past. If I’m going to look to blogs for inspiration on some mornings or for refreshment in the late-afternoon slump, I want to read entries that require me to engage for more than a sentence.

Yeah, so. I still like showing up here. And yet I have fantasies about unplugging completely and trying to live the research-life of Maria Rosa Lida de Malkiel or M. D. Legge. Pure fantasy, because AND and MED! I’m not going to go to the library and flip pages when I can sit at home and type in a word or pick from a list. But there’s this push-pull feeling about needing modern connections and yet also wanting to get away from them.

Groundhog’s Day

I don’t know about Punxsatawny Phil, but nobody around here is seeing any shadows today. What I’ve never understood is whether seeing the shadow means only six more weeks of winter, or at least six more weeks of winter, or even exactly six more weeks of winter. In parts of the country where I have lived, only six more weeks of winter from now would be a joyful prospect indeed, and in others it would be about right, and in places where I aspire to live, it would be “what the hell are you talking about?”

So if the shadow does not appear . . . .

This starts to sound like one of those obnoxious logic problems about identical triplets one of whom always tells the truth and one of whom always lies and one of whom is insane, and you have to come up with one single question to ask each of them that will reveal which is which. Phooey.

In other news, Sabra just spent a minute kneading my sore arm (return of an old RSI). It feels wonderful. Whatever Basement Cat says, I think she’s a good one to have around.

McPhee says:

“Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? . . . You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. . . . Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations and other impediments along the way.”

John McPhee, “Omission,” The New Yorker, Sept. 14, 2015, pp.42-49, at 44.

Follow-up to OneNote/Evernote/Scrivener/Zotero question

I’m grateful to everyone who commented.  It was helpful to hear from real people.  Nonetheless, I’m just not seeing what these programs can do for me that I can’t already do with Word, Excel, Adobe Acrobat, and my computer’s Search function.

It sounds like what a lot of people like is the bibliography capabilities of these programs.  Bibliography is the least of my worries.  Having graduated from college before the advent of the word processor, I long ago developed my own methods for keeping track of the books and articles I read.  Compared to hand-writing entries on index cards and re-typing whole pages when the mistakes became too prolific to keep applying Wite-out, changing MLA format to Chicago style is a trivial matter.

I can also take notes on PDFs using Acrobat, and copy those notes into files in Word.  And Word allows me to paste in snippets cut from pictures of manuscripts.

Dropbox allows the same material to appear on multiple devices, with fewer privacy-compromising issues than OneNote.

I can see how a certain kind of mind would love electronic notecards or corkboard, something that looks like the bits of paper but can be searched electronically.  It sounds cool.  But.  Maybe it’s my age, or maybe some other element of my mental makeup, but that makes me totally crazy.  I want either paper or a tidy typed list or paragraph onscreen.

Any operating system worth its salt allows a user to create as many folders as she likes, into which PDFs, scans, pictures, notes, and screenshots can be saved in whatever combination seems appropriate.  The search function allows searching within files as well as for file names.  This is the 21st century: we have optical character recognition (at least in modern fonts; it sure would be nice to have a program that can read medieval chancery hand).  Many documents in different programs can be open at the same time, and with a large enough monitor, or multiple monitors, they can all display at once.  Sir John even has a nifty utility that allows him to toggle between different desktop displays (so he can have, say, four windows with different programs quartering his monitor, and then with one click have four completely different ones appear).  I don’t actually want that much going on at once, but he could make it happen for me if I wanted.  He could also write me a fancier search program if I knew what I needed.

And there’s the real problem.  What I want is a way to make thinking easier.  Remember my man John McPhee?

“Each of those . . . structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. . . . The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.

“The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common.  They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative.  So I always rolled the platen and left blank spaces after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology.  After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size.  If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders.”

Even the computer program that he eventually got to do some of this work for him was based on his own coding process.  A programmer talked to him for a long time before working out how to write a program that would simplify the sorting of the notes.  But the codes are the hard part.  It doesn’t help to search for everything to do with, for instance, the process of making cheese, if you don’t want to write a whole section of your essay (or chapter, or book) on cheese-making.  If the cheese-making process is providing the chronological structure of an essay about Cheese in Chaucer, then your codes need to indicate that Step One (milk the cow) goes with the widow in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and Step Two (add rennet) goes with the alchemical processes of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, and so on.

Getting everything in one place is the easy part.  It’s breaking it apart again that is difficult.

As Susan observed in comments to the McPhee post referenced above, “McPhee’s structure is part of the work.”  That is, writing for humanists means discovering the relationships between the parts of your work; the structure is not standard (introduction, methods, results).  Working through all this shows me that there are ways I could make things a little easier on myself.  I could make better use of folders, and more use of Excel.  But in the last analysis, what I really need to do is think, and there aren’t really any shortcuts for thinking.


The Organization

Though black, Glendower has always had a more chocolate cast to his coat than our short-haired black cats, Reina and Basement Cat.  A couple of times lately, when I’ve seen him sitting in the sun with the morning light hitting his fur just so, he looks mottled enough that I’ve momentarily mistaken him for Sabra.  I hate to admit it, but Basement Cat might be right about Sabra’s connections and recruiting efforts.

Plus ça change

Real-world hiring is getting more like the academic job marker.  Or so the Wall Street Journal suggested this morning, in a piece titled “The Six-Month Job Interview.”

“Replacing . . . [a new hire who fails] can wreck a tight budget.  Finding the best candidates requires assembling a large, diverse pool. . . . Group interviews of candidates by multiple insiders are more common . . . .”

Yeah, we know.  Oh, we know.

The do’s and don’ts sound familiar, too:

“Hurdle: Long silences between interviews are making you crazy. . . . Don’t call HR and demand to know the status.

“Hurdle: You’re invited to a 12-hour visit at headquarters to meet and dine with hiring managers. . . . Don’t relax when dinner finally arrives, have a few drinks, let down your guard and crack some jokes.

“Hurdle: A prospective employer asks you to research and present a full-blown business plan.  Do target your presentation to demonstrate the specific skills and abilities the employer wants to see.

“Hurdle: Your No. 2 employer is ready to make you an offer but your No. 1 choice is moving more slowly.  Do e-mail No. 1, explain that other options are advancing fast and ask politely if there’s anything you can do to expedite the process.  Don’t say nothing and settle for the job at No. 2.”

It sounds to me like proof that ex-academics have skills that can be applied outside academia.  We know all about long intervals between initial applications and actually starting the job.  Anyone who has made it even to the conference-interview round has faced multi-person hiring committees.  If you get to campus, you will probably have a 36-48 hour “visit at headquarters.”  For “business plan,” substitute “job talk and teaching presentation” and you’ve done that, too.

As a life-long academic (apart from some temp work and similar, in college and before grad school), I thought the odd part was the intimation that this process was Not Normal.  I can’t imagine just talking to one person and suddenly having a job that would start right away, but this article appears to be addressed to people who think that that’s how hiring works.  Maybe this shift in corporate culture will make it easier to explain to our non-academic families how things work in the Ivory Tower.

And we can brag that we originated the obstacle-course, long-slog interview.


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