Don’t make it worse

This is my winter motto, to go with What Now’s “suck less.” So you can’t figure out where a potentially useful half-hour went and why you’re now late leaving for the gym? Don’t make it worse by stewing over what you were (or were not) doing with that half-hour. It’s not going to get any earlier if you realize how long you spent reading the newspaper. You’re late with some project? Don’t make it worse by letting embarrassment about being late cause further procrastination; get on with it.

Don’t know why you haven’t yet done X, Y or Z with your life? Well, don’t make it worse. If you really want to do those things, get started. It’ll never be any earlier.

It sounds a bit grim (and feels it, too), but it’s better than the stewing.

Back online

Hello, I’m back, did you miss me, I missed you, pick me up, put me down, I hate you, let me out, let me in, feed me!

No, wait, that was the cats.

Well, it was me, too. I picked up a computer virus, and my laptop had to spend most of a week at the computer hospital (such a long stay partly because they had to acquire new equipment to connect to my hard drive . . . this starts to sound more obscene than medical, sorry). And in the end they re-installed my operating system, which is to say, NOT the old one I was used to but something newer which ought to be better but which I think sucks. (Put me down, I hate you.)

So at least now I’m back and can check in from my own personal laptop instead of guiltily taking a quick look at blogs from my work computer many miles away (let me in, feed me!), but nothing looks quite right (let me out!).

It will get better. I’ll reinstall some stuff, download other stuff, tinker with settings, and it will all be fine. The good news is that I got my Wednesday syllabus and documents for annual review done two whole days before they had to be done, last week, because I just stayed in my actual work office until I finished them so I wouldn’t have to do the drive again. But I still have a ton of stuff to do for my other class, and writing things to work on, and so on. I wish I were a cat. Is it naptime yet? Can I just ignore everyone who isn’t bearing food? I definitely feel like biting someone.

I expected to hate it . . .

With at least a third of the academic blogosphere off to conferences, I feel it is my duty to come up with something to entertain the rest of you until more lively bloggers like Dr. Crazy get a minute to report on the MLA.

You will be happy that I decided to refrain from live-blogging the Excavation of the Box of Things That Must Be Filed, Saved, or Otherwise Dealt With, or simply fall into the category of “I might use this [20% off coupon/ catalog/ etc.] so I’ll save it till it has expired and then I can recycle it.” I am relieved to report that a lot of the box’s contents do fall into the last category, and that I am making good progress with the rest of it. I am embarrassed to report that I found . . . oh, never mind. If you have a good guess as to how to complete that sentence, leave it in the comments.

The title phrase from this post is the most common one to appear in my course evaluations. Because of the way our major is structured, students rarely take my classes because of a deep interest in the topics, or even a passing curiosity combined with a convenient course time. No, they show up (in droves: at least my courses make) because they have to. And most of them discover that Chaucer is actually an interesting writer (who knew?), and had insights into human nature that remain applicable (I refuse to say “relatable”) today, and that the Middle Ages were a lively, even exciting period that repay closer attention.

But we almost always start with the negativity. My best and favorite student from last semester, who had a work ethic I admired as well as a lively and curious mind, confessed to expecting to hate the course. I’m beginning to wonder where this comes from. Are students forced to read Chaucer in high school, and thus hate Chaucer either because of the associations, because of being forced to read him (forcing anything always seems to result in distaste), or because he’s not well taught? Or do they expect to hate Chaucer because his works are even older than Shakespeare’s, and they struggled in high school with Shakespeare’s language, and so expect (rightly) that Chaucer’s language will be even harder, without considering that they might have learned something, reading Shakespeare, that will help with Chaucer? Sir John suggested that they assume the past just gets worse the farther back you go, so that, having been forced to read The Scarlet Letter in high school, they expect the Middle Ages to be even drearier and more repressive.

I don’t really get this. I “came of age,” so to speak, between the First Flowering of the Lord of the Rings and the heyday of Dungeons and Dragons; my generation, and my first students, were all in love with the Middle Ages as the Source Of All That Is Cool in fantasy literature and role-playing games. But I would like to know where my students’ dread comes from.

More about Colin

(Spoilers ahead, if you’ve not read Blackout and All Clear.)

Clio’s Disciple quite rightly points out, in a comment on my last post, that Colin Templer (now there’s a name for a medievalist) does engage in serious archival work. He really gets a twofer, since in order to do it, he has to time-travel to a past where the archives still exist; or maybe a threefer, since he also makes carefully calibrated visits to WWII. In short, by the time All Clear is over, he has all the background necessary to be THE World War II historian of his generation: hands-on experience and archival research in more than one decade (let’s hope he wrote things down and didn’t rely on memory).

But the decade of research Colin undertakes is glossed over in a few sentences; clearly it was tedious, dusty, worrisome work, punctuated by occasional depressing discoveries and only briefly enlivened by a drink with an attractive fellow-researcher. A. S. Byatt does a better job of conveying the romance of the archives, but perhaps for Willis’s purposes, the archives need to be boring, because Colin isn’t doing the work for its own sake but so he can find Polly. The romance has to be front and center; archival work is the test-quest the fairy-tale prince undergoes to win the princess.

While I’m being critical, though, let’s think about who Colin is, why he can do this, and what the results are likely to be. White male, check. Privileged background, check: educated at Eton and Oxford. Connections, check: his dead great-aunt was a close friend of Jim Dunworthy, who supervises the time-travel lab in 2050’s Oxford; Colin has grown up in and out of the lab, and knows the technicians and other useful dramatis personae. Supposing the boy in love with Polly had been almost anyone else? A townie, her hometown sweetheart, an immigrant, a person of color? Supposing the lover had been a girl? Would anyone but someone with Colin’s privileges be able to spend so much time badgering the techs to recompute possible drop sites? Wouldn’t anyone else get kicked out of the lab?

If the job situation in 2060 is rosier than it is now, then Colin and Polly might turn into the academic power couple of the decade: she has over a year of actual lived experience of WWII, while Colin has done all the research I listed earlier. Polly, of course, will still have to do the writing-up part, while Colin . . . hang on . . . thanks to time-travel, Colin has had ten years to do research and, conceivably, write up a spin-off article or several, while Polly has been stuck in 1941 expecting to die in the Blitz. Can you say “post-traumatic stress syndrome”? How about “patriarchal equilibrium”? I’m afraid that I foresee not a relationship between academic equals, but Colin waltzing into a high-profile position and negotiating some sort of trailing-spouse job for Polly. Or maybe she’ll become a faculty wife.

I hope not. I hope I’m being too gloomy and early-twenty-first-century about this. And I want to make it clear that I like Colin, and was glad to see him back, and I love Willis’s books. One of the things I like about them is how much food for thought they generate.

Blacking out

This year, I dealt with Christmas by reading. I checked out a tall stack of Charles Todd’s mysteries featuring Ian Rutledge, the haunted WWI vet, and started working through them a couple of days before the dreaded 25th. For a change, after Christmas, I moved up to WWII, thanks to a gift of Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear. Yeah, despite my being a medievalist, somehow my fun reading list seems to come from the History Channel; the American Civil War is all that’s missing.

Willis’s two recent books have the same background, and pretty much the same plot, as The Doomsday Book: “historian” from mid-twenty-first century Oxford gets stuck in a harrowing period of history while things go wrong in 2054 or 2060; eventually the complications on both ends of the story get sorted out, although, history being what it is, some people die. I enjoyed these books. In fact, I found them riveting, and recommend them if you like stories about time travel (physicists probably should steer clear). But the academic in me looks for elements that are not there. The time-traveling historians not only don’t spend any time writing up their research, most of them don’t even have clear questions they’re trying to answer about the past. OK, Mike in the recent pair does have a clearly stated topic, and even thinks about how to write it up: he’s interested in what makes a hero, why an apparently ordinary person can perform heroic acts at a crisis point. However, this strikes me more as a question for psychology or philosophy than for history (a historian friend of mine says this topic would never get approved for dissertation research). As for Polly and Eileen, they observe people (shopgirls in the Blitz, evacuated children), but it’s not at all clear what the results of their observations are, or what questions they’re trying to answer. Are they at the “reading-around” stage of research, where you know you want to work on, say, Anglo-Saxon legal history, but not what your specific topic is? But since time-travelers can’t go back to a period they’ve already been in, it seems to me that “reading around” should still be reading, with fieldwork done after they have determined a hypothesis to test.

The same friend says that Willis engages in real history: she is interested in how the past affects the present, and simply avoids the academic politics that don’t make for a good story. As a literary scholar, I appreciate the need to develop a good plot and avoid bogging down in the sort of academic controversies that drive us professors crazy. And yet it disturbs me that Willis’s “historians” never get past “what was it like?” (which my friend assures me is a reasonable starting question, especially for social history) to “what does it mean?” which is what I think of as a required question, or questioning attitude, for those of us who study the past.

It’s true that I am the sort of reader who likes character-driven stories with lots of atmosphere, and I’m willing to sacrifice rapid plot development in exchange. Sir John is the other sort of reader; the atmospheric, character-driven novels I love make him crazy. So I know there are other ways of looking at this. Nonetheless, in the interests of verisimilitude, I would like more background on the way historians work in the mid-twenty-first century. In The Doomsday Book, we do see some turf wars between modern and medieval, “academic,” document-driven (or linguistics-driven) scholars vs. “practical,” time-traveling historians; but these focus on rivalries within Oxford colleges and faculties, not the larger scholarly conversation. The scholars with whom Jim Dunworthy engages, in Blackout and To Say Nothing of the Dog, are Japanese theoreticians concerned with the possible paradoxes and problems of time-travel: they seem to be closer to physicists than to historians. And, of course, it seems obvious that the Japanese would not be able to do fieldwork studies of medieval England.

To Say Nothing of the Dog makes a couple of references to race: it would be risky to send Badri Chaudhuri to WWII because he might be taken for a Japanese spy (WTF? Why couldn’t Badri be a soldier in the Indian Army?), and the entire past is a 10 (most dangerous ranking) for blacks. So Willis is aware that most of her historians are white, and for certain times and places, could only be white: otherwise they either couldn’t get to the place and time they were studying (the continuum will not allow disruptions to history as it has happened), or they would need a damned good legend to account for their presence. The corollary, which she does not explore, is that for other times and places, only historians of the appropriate race and sex could manage to observe the past.

Only someone of Asian descent would be able to study most of Chinese history, for example. Bill Jordan would not be able to visit medieval England. Meso-American history could be observed only by people with the appropriate features and skin color. Female scholars interested in the history of the Catholic Church could study only convents and lay people, not monasteries and the institutional Church. The identity politics that already shape our departments, fields of study, and scholarly discussion would become even more central, and even more virulent, as the study of history would divide between field-work historians and archival historians. I can imagine the fights: “My observations show X about attitudes toward taxation; you only know the archives.” “On the contrary, you have observed attitudes in one village, whereas I have read all the documents relating to the central administration’s collection of taxes; your study is woefully incomplete.” It would degenerate from there.

To be sure, students are usually less aware of the scholarly controversies and politics than are practicing scholars. But drawing graduate students’ attention to these is part of the job of teaching graduate classes, and making students read quantities of historiography (or literary criticism, for some of us) is another crucial component. What are the supervisors of Polly, Eileen, and Mike thinking? In preparing to go to the past, the time-travelers wind up focusing on grade-school “history,” memorizing dates and places (for example, when Tube stations were bombed). There is obvious practical application for this information, of course, if you’re actually going to be in the Blitz. But it is ironic that a writer whose central question is “how does the past influence the present” forces her “historians” to commit facts to memory, rather than asking searching questions about the significance of those facts.

I am curious to know what some historians think: ADM? John Jarrett? Anybody? Comments very welcome.

Hippo gnu deer!

Happy 2011, everybody. Regular blogging will recommence shortly. I have been a slug for the last 10 days, and it was great. But now it’s time to roll out all my new calendars and start making lists, keeping track of time, and, of course, taking names and kicking ass.

How I did on last year’s wish list:

Cat sitter: ha ha ha. The situation is even worse, since we now have two cats on chemo. (But the good news is that the Scot is responding very well to treatment.)

Integration of Basement Cat: improved, but he’s still too aggressive with the tiny cat.

Injuries: rotator cuff problem starting in August, much improved recently.

Healing of ankle injury: much improved; am doing some gentle jogging.

Swimming: there were a couple of weeks in which I got up to 3 miles, but every time, illness, injury, or travel promptly interfered with keeping it up. After the shoulder injury, I was out of the pool for months. In the past week, I’ve swum a few times, a quarter mile or so each time. I’m looking at another long slow recovery, I think.

Bicycling: haven’t tried.

Yoga every day: mostly. Sitting every day: there were a couple of weeks when I did, but mostly I have not sat at all.

Steady research habits: some very productive spurts, but I am still not very good at really keeping at it every day, especially in the thick of term time. And missing a few days makes it much harder to get going again.

Finishing things: some progress here. I finished one writing project, moved some others forward by focusing on one at a time (though I ran into the old problem with deadlines forcing a change of focus, it’s still clear that one-at-a-time is a good principle), finished a crochet project, and got some home repairs and refurbishing taken care of.

I got a book review through page proofs, and got an essay accepted, though it won’t be out for another six months or so.

I did not get to France. I did visit California, which was fabulous. And England, and Ireland. Not only that, but I avoided delays and cancellations due to volcanic activity, weather, and similar hassles, which this week seems rather miraculous (why I try not to fly in the winter).

No new friends; but lately we’ve seen a bit more of some old ones; and I have found someone else to exchange work with. Actually, she found me. I’m looking forward to reading her work and getting something ready to show her.

Garden re-do: in progress. A lot of stuff moved out last spring, but I didn’t do much to rearrange or add to the remaining plants. I had one tomato plant, which produced like crazy, but since then I have been advised that it might be healthier not to eat vegetables grown in this area. I think this may be over-cautious (especially given all the topsoil I’ve worked into my garden), but I don’t mind following the advice, either. So, more flowers, and I’ll relinquish my intermittent vegetable garden nostalgia.

I think I saved more. And I also had some fun.

I’ll be thinking about my wishes for this year. May all of yours come true!