Saturday, May 20, 2017

Slink off, or face the music?

Call this a lesson of midcareer. It could apply to any stage of my career, but it seems to have gotten worse, not better, as I advance and feel both flattered and obligated to say yes to the increasing number of invitations to do stuff.


Every semester, I try to start with a fairly clean e-mail inbox. For me, this means fewer than 100 messages in the active queue. But somehow, by a month in, I'm in over my head. And somewhere around week 6, I start setting the important stuff aside with the following thought:

"This is important. It demands my attention. But I'm being pulled in three directions at once, so I can't give it the attention it warrants. So I'll set it aside and answer it tonight. Or tomorrow. Or once I'm through this stack of exams."

And of course, by the time we get to tonight, or tomorrow, or when the stack of exams is finished, there have been 200-300 more e-mails, and 3 more urgent tasks, and the thing that demanded more attention than I could give it has gotten no attention at all. And I've completely forgotten about it.

That's right: the more important something is, the less likely it is ever to get answered.

And then, the end of semester comes, and I start to dig my way out. And I discover these things, and I realize that the person on the other end has no idea what has been going on this semester; they only know that I appear to have rudely blown them off. And then I have to decide whether to slink off or face up to them and ask whether they still are interested, even though it's 6-10 weeks later.

I've done this three times in the past week. Here are the results:

1. The person in question contacted me after I'd decided that the best thing to do was assume they'd given up on me, and hope that they forget all about me so the word doesn't get around. They asked if I was still interested for submitting an abstract. And my answer was an enthusiastic YES! and an abstract that I submitted within 48 hours lest I lose track of it again. All is, apparently, well.

2. Emboldened by the forgiveness of one set of people, I reached out to another who had patiently e-mailed me twice with no response. I did this as I was getting to the bottom of my inbox: Profuse apologies; It sounds like an interesting project, but I couldn't do it on the specified deadline. Would they be interested in later? Response came right back: No thanks, and not happy with me.  gulp.

3. And then I found one even more buried, where I had actually begun a correspondence, then the whole thing had lapsed... on March 1.  Jesus. I'm a hot mess. I just tried the approach I tried with #2: profuse apologies, yes I'm interested, yes I could make the deadline, here's what I'd do.

We'll see how this goes.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Open Letter to the Entire French Electorate

Dear France,

Today, I read this in the New York Times report about your upcoming election: "The far-left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has suggested that there is an equivalence between the two candidates. Some two-thirds of his voters will cast blank votes or abstain on Sunday, according to an internal party survey.”

Mes amis, been there, done that: lots and lots of American progressives, disappointed in their choices, stayed home last November to send a message to the Democrats. As a result, we (and the rest of the world) got the world's most dangerous idiot as president.

I get that you're unhappy with your choices. What I'm saying is that you don't need to try it to see what happens. We got that covered.

Be smarter than us.

Merci.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

"European Identity" My Lily-White Ass.

So.

This week, my campus was targeted by a national white supremacist organization as part of a larger national campaign. We found our hallways, library, kiosks adorned with variations on this theme:

The poster in our hall. I've blurred the org. name because F those jerks.

So today, I had to go into two of my classes and address this. There was no internal debate. No should I/should I not -- none whatsoever. Not even for a second. First of all, the issue was a misuse of the very past I was there to discuss, and so it was required that I talk about this, and take a strong stand about the abuses of history. Second, if someone wants to complain that I'm using class time to say mean things about nazis, I'm cool with that. Anyway, I mentioned that these morons were basing their idea of the future being "ours" and belonging to "us" on a bogus claim of the past belonging to "us."

I may or may not have deployed the phrase "ass-ignorant." Reports vary. I am certain that I was shaking at various points.


A representative of our administration made a point about being a public university and thus respecting free speech. Which is true. What is also true is that outright lies are not co-equal with reasonable arguments. Just like it's not "airing both sides" to arrange a debate between a German historian and a Holocaust denier.

It's not so often that medieval history is on the front lines of the fight against nationalism. We tend to get characterized as "esoteric" or even "irrelevant" to the way we live our lives today. But not knowing allows these falsehoods to take hold. And we don't do ourselves, our students, or our society any good by trying to be apolitical in the face of something both historically wrong and morally repugnant.

We have a role to play. Time to step up, be loud, be unafraid and unapologetic. Time for historians to make sure they get right with history.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Three Things for 2017

When I remember I have a blog, I sometimes remember that I have a bit on my sidebar that is called "three things." The principle is simple: decide on three things you want to accomplish that day. They don't need to be huge, but they can keep you moving forward.

Today, I failed utterly to even put on pants, so there's that for a day.

But I have decided on three things I want to aim for in 2017:

  1. Finish my second book manuscript: I know from experience that a "finished" book manuscript will then need to go on to be finished a number of other times: a big revision, revisions for readers, page proofs... and that's if it's successful on its first go out. But I want something done this year. I want to look at 100,000 words that looks like a book.
  2. Read Don Quixote in English: a couple of years ago, I took a class with my friend La Professora and read the damn thing in Spanish. Have you ever tried to read a 1000-page novel in a language that isn't yours? Okay, how 'bout in a 16th-century version of that language? Now what about when the author, for purposes of the narrative, lapses into passages in the 14th-century version of that same language? The point I'm making here is that I only got about 70% of what was going on. But that 70% was enough to convince me that this was possibly the best novel ever written, and that I needed to read it in a format where I could get it all. So I've started on this. A chapter a day (chapters of DQ generally being about 8 pages long).
  3. Save enough money that I could conceivably put a down payment on a condo: I don't know if I'll actually buy said condo. Grit City Beach is expensive. And I'm closer to retirement than I am to my hire date. And who knows what life will bring me in the next year or so. Maybe I'll look at that pile of cash and decide to pay off my student loans. Or take it to the track. Whatever. But I want to have that goal to shoot towards. I won't name the number I have in mind, but it's largish.
As for the rest -- the stuff about getting up early and meditating and not letting my yoga practice slack off this year and ditching that one Really Bad Habit and being a better correspondent -- that stuff's all lurking in the background. But that's a lot to think about. This year, three things. That's enough.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Resistance Fridays: I wrote a letter

...to Paul Ryan.

A real letter that I have signed and I will put in an envelope and put a stamp on and mail to Janesville, Wisconsin.

No, I'm not a constituent. Nor am I a Republican. But I am someone who is concerned about stuff. And he's in a position in which he can do stuff about stuff. Or not. And if we want stuff done (or stuff opposed), we're going to need to engage with those in position to influence stuff.

That's it. It's Friday.

Do stuff.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Accidental Writer

I haven't been writing much about writing. In general, writing is a frustrating process for me, and talking about how frustrating it is often finds me with my head further up my ass than when I began. Or, even worse, writing about writing takes away time that I should be using to write.

So it is with real pleasure that I share a bit of news. I may have shared at some point about "procrastivity" -- that is, procrastination, accidental or deliberate, that somehow turns into productivity.

This was not real procrastination. Rather, it was prioritizing a talk over writing my book. That's productive, sure, but not the thing I was supposed to be working on. But there it is: this semester found me plugging away at a "what I did on my leave" presentation for my department. I was supposed to present on my research for about 40 minutes, after which there would be another 40 minutes of Q & A, and then we'd all go home. It's actually a very nice thing our department does, and something you don't often find outside of research universities.

So I started writing. And here's the amazing cool thing that happened:

.....................................................
Late September: Should I present a chapter? No: since I'm close to done with this project, I should present an overview. So this will include narrations about what my big question is, and also what each chapter is, and how it contributes to the whole.

Early October: But then there's the question of audience: If my presentation is all medieval, then my colleagues (almost all historians of the 19th and 20th centuries) might find themselves at a loss for how to engage. So... Okay, I'll make sure to have a lot in there about approach and methodology and maybe even a little of that Cool New Theoretical Framework I've been trying to use.

Mid-October: This thing is getting kind of way to long. Remember THAT ONE PRESENTATION that never ended? You don't want to do that. Nobody ever complained that a presentation ran short after all. But I don't want to dam the flow. I'll just write it as it comes out of my brain, and the fact that it's about 8,500 words long is okay; I'll just cut it down for the presentation....


Hey. 

Wait just one minute.

8,500 words. With question, argument, methodology, theory, narrative chapter outline...

DID I JUST ACCIDENTALLY WRITE A DRAFT OF MY BOOK'S INTRODUCTION?

Yeah. I'm pretty sure I did.

.....................................................

Huzzah for procrastivity!!!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

While we're burning the system to the ground...

Yesterday, the New York Times posted an op-ed by a Dallas elector who stated why he was going to refuse to cast his electoral vote for... well, you know the guy. The orange one with the alleged "hair." I wrote on the facebooks that I wasn't sure how I felt about this: I would be happy with the result, but this would basically further erode trust in an elections system that is already as frayed as one's gym underwear (come on -- don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about).

But then I got to thinking, and I realized that this is a situation that has some merit to it. Here's my fantasy of how it plays out (and yes, I know this is a fantasy. But let me have it for a few hours):

  1. Dallas elector's example is followed by others who are not willing to go public, but who know that the future of the country rest in their hands: Will they turn the country over to a dangerously ignorant narcissist? Okay, I think most of them will. Because most people hate confrontation. Most people are rule-followers. Hell, I'm mostly a rule-follower. But some people will see a crisis. Maybe some. Maybe enough.
  2. Agent Orange loses the electoral college vote, and is not president. Who becomes president? Honestly, who cares at this point. Because other than some of the cabinet appointees and their backers, there is no one less qualified or more dangerous. 
  3. The GOP members of congress express vociferous outrage! And (here's the key bit) respond by moving through legislation to do away with the electoral college altogether and have presidents elected by popular vote. And the democrats, in a gentleperson's agreement, tactfully do not mention how secretly relieved their GOP colleagues are.
See? This way, everybody wins. Well, everybody except one person. But I could live with that.