When a Picture is a Thousand Words

Or at least several hundred. My co-instructor and I wrapped up the latest offering of The History of the Western Occult, HIST 3406, with a discussion about themes, topics and ideas we’ve all been working with over the last three months. It was a lively end to a fun course that teaches a lot of valuable skills for historians all in pursuit of cool topics, obviously!

My favourite part of the wind-up is the use of word clouds (generated over at Wordle). Word Cloud of Occult History Terms It’s interesting to see what gets emphasized more, or less, in a course. I threw in all the text that had appeared on our course slides – this is the result for my half of the course which runs from antiquity into the seventeenth century. Yes, a very heavy emphasis on magic in my classes. I’m not sure if that’s a weakness or a strength?

This second word cloud comes from my co-instructor, Dr. Dave Leeson, who taught the topics from the seventeenth century to the contemporary era. Word Cloud of Occult History Terms The contrast and comparison between the two makes for some really intriguing insights both into our different ways of approaching the occult but also into the very different ways that occult history has developed since the Enlightenment era.

Hopefully they’ll also be useful tools to stimulate our students’ minds as they study for the final exam coming next week!

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Picture Me This

It’s midterm now and – eep! – my how times flies! I’m working through grading in all three of my courses, always a worrisome sign as I endeavour to stagger the workload as much as possible. But I’m making progress, so I can’t really complain too much.

What’s making it possible to work through all of this is the counter-intuitive promise I’ve made to myself of taking time off. I’m not getting the crafting time I’d hoped to eke out – I’m a bit too tired and disconnected most evenings to pull out my stitching and work on that. It’s also not super-easy on my eyes to focus on tiny stitches late at night! But I’m endeavouring to get a little fun reading in every week along with the daily dog walks and the weekly gym workouts (Zumba is our latest experiment). It’s vital to have something besides work, work, work if I’m to be usefully productive all year long.

Lately, it’s a colouring book that’s given me the most fun, even as it’s challenged my vision some evenings. Those teeny little lines! Those swirling organic shapes! Those pencils that need to be sharpened again and again! But how could I resist? Colouring Pages, Horses And the subject matter is just so “me” – I’ve always loved horses, more than is healthy. These are intricate and interesting but also well-done. So after I mark the next essay, I’ll take a break and either read, do some more colouring or maybe play a game. Maybe all three!

What helps you keep balance in your life?

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Too Many Books?

Do Books Bought in 2008 any of you have advice on how to manage an out-of-control book collection? I’m afraid that I have too many books!

When I moved into my current office several years ago, I regarded three walls of bookshelves with some satisfaction. Certainly there was room here for all of my books and room for many more! I arranged my shelves in thematic cluster: one massive medieval section, an even larger early modern British area that runs from one wall to another, primary source (in chronological order), and so forth. I even left room here and there for new acquisitions while also leaving the perilous and unreachable top shelves empty.

Fast forward several years and almost all the bookshelves are full. Yet I still keep buying books. While I personally prefer ebooks for pleasure reading and as teaching texts, I can’t lend those to students – one of the major reasons behind my academic book buying! – so I keep an eye out for sales at my favourite presses while also buying must-have books for my many teaching subjects. The result is overfull bookshelves and I’m still a good fifteen years away from retirement.

I essayed a little shelf-cleaning and clearing the other week between class time and a department meeting. I could, with some further work, clear out about four linear feet of books, perhaps six feet, from the office. I’d be culling the books that students won’t really need like 1950s editions of Renaissance texts or that I’m never going to cite in my own research like collections of economic history analyses from the eighties. I’d have to be wildly unsentimental in the process, something with which I usually have no troubles but with books, well, it’s tough. Books Bought, May 2013 They bring back all the memories, especially if they were a gift or a hand-me-down but even those books chance-gotten at thrift sales or from a pile of discards can become familiar friends just by my seeing their spine on the shelves many years after they were first acquired and read.

We have a bench by the department with a perpetual sign pasted over it: “Free Books!” Usually some prof lays down a few or a few dozen in any given week and they’re all instantly snapped up. I need to remind myself that any books I discard will be soon snatched up by someone else and get to the work of winnowing my collection. Wish me luck!

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My Friend, the Fitbit

Over at 11D, Laura asked, Do you Fitbit? My answer could be summed up as “heck, yeah!” I received a Fitbit for my birthday in the spring and promptly fell in love with what it could do for me. Not only did it replace my rather generic watch in functionality and the annoyance of carrying my phone as a step counter, but it does so much more that I find useful.

Who needs an alarm clock when you can program your Fitbit to buzz you awake in the morning as you need? I haven’t used this for naps but this would also be a great way to ensure that if I do fall asleep on the sofa, I don’t let it go on too long!

My Fitbit alerts me to appointments and texts with a buzz followed by a scrolling short text description when I cock my wrist to see what’s up. So if a text comes through while I’m cleaning the kitchen, I don’t have to have my phone on me to know what’s happening. This is helpful as my phone is almost always muted and vibrations are my only alerts to incoming messages. But it’s also great for all of my Google calendar reminders to come through on my Fitbit.

I also love the Fitbit’s reminders to get up and get active every hour. I don’t always make the goals, especially during seminar classes or writing sprints, but my reminders run from 10-6 and I usually achieve at least six hours out of ten.

I know that the Fitbit isn’t a magic tool but it keeps exercise as a priority by giving me the reminders and incentives. It may seem silly to be motivated by a small piece of technology but when it does so much, it works for me!

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Time Management and Teaching

As we support Youngest in her transition to university, I’m reminded of how vitally important are all those skills that aren’t only academic, especially the skills of time management. In my own undergraduate days, I wasn’t a paragon of time management prowess. Many essays were typed the Sunday before they were due only by virtue of the fact that it took most of a day to go from handwritten notes on legal pads and a towering stack of books beside my table to typewritten essay. I kept well ahead of readings mostly because I love reading but I lacked the savvy to read efficiently so that the only thing that saved me was my ability to speed-read. I never pulled all-nighters, but I stayed up too late too many times doing too much stuff at the last minute. In short, I wasn’t good at time management but I learned through the school of hard knocks.

I’ve tried to teach time management to my students in university – not as a broad set of academic principles, but in practical requirements for the course that force students to try out some time management principles by scaffolding assignments with proposals, submitting drafts or discussing their progress on a regular basis. I’ve become convinced of the value of planning work ahead, even to the point of assigning myself fictitious due dates (a few weeks or a month ahead of what’s required) to ensure that I’m not, myself, working up against an impossible deadline.

Youngest, who has autism as an additional factor, doesn’t cope at all well with last-minute pressure, wouldn’t work well burning the midnight oil and doesn’t know how or want to BS her way out of undone readings and homework (hallelujah!). But she doesn’t intuitively know how to break down a list of due dates and class schedules into an actual plan of attack. So we’ve been spending time with her these first weeks of term showing her how to identify what needs to be done and then putting that into a plan of attack for the week ahead (as well as, in a general way, the entire term). Here’s what we do:

  1. Open up her planner agenda for this week (after scanning the month page that lists all major items)

  2. Review course manuals (syllabus/outline/whatever), learning management systems and class notes for what needs to be done this week (readings, labs, quizzes) as well as what might be good to prepare for further ahead

  3. Estimate how much time each activity will take – 30 minutes/problem for these questions; 3 hours for this reading, etc.

  4. Write all that needs to be done in this week’s NOTES section

  5. Note each individual task on the week day it’s going to be done

  6. Cross off achievements as they’re completed and don’t forget to submit all completed work (that’s on the list, too)

We’ll see how this goes. So far today she’s done two parts of one big assignment and read through a textbook chapter. I’m off to remind her now that the first two books of The Odyssey (another part of today’s goal) still await before I take a moment to write down and organize my own week’s activities because I’m realizing this level of planning can work for me as well as for her!

Want more time management material? York U’s excellent Time Management Guide and Many Time Management Resources & Links at Dartmouth. Enjoy! It’s time for me to get back to class prep. That’s in my schedule, you see!

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Planning for a Work-Study Student

After a long time working on other projects, I’m happy to be getting back into my research on early modern families and crime. The university approved my work-study application so that, starting this fall, I’ll have a student working with me to analyze Old Bailey sexual offence reports exploring how family members were invoked and involved. This should be rewarding for both of us – I’m hoping we can aim for some publishable results at the end, as co-authors. This project should also help me to focus my research and writing time on revising another family & crime history article that’s been sitting on the back burner for several years now.

Right now my focus is on preparing the way for our study – putting together the bibliographic framework, assessing how the rise of self-censorship within The Proceedings will affect the scope and analysis, etc. I don’t want to overwhelm the student or myself. The dangerous thing with a wide-open research scope is the being buried in too much material. So we’ll start small and see how far we go. Still, it’s pretty exciting. Being on faculty at a regional university means that I’m used to being the only one working on X, Y or Z. Even my graduate students have tended to work far afield from my own research subjects but this work study project will hopefully employ a student who’s equally interested in the material and aspects of the topic so we both can profit by the connection!

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HIST 3406: The Occult in Western History

Another autumn course is this course on the occult that I’m team-teaching with a delightful colleague, David Leeson. The Occult in Western History surveys esoteric beliefs and practices from ancient times through the twentieth century. Thankfully, I have my colleague to tackle everything after the witch-hunts!

I look upon this course as a way to discombobulate the students, forcing them to clearly articulate what they know and believe as well as what people in the past knew and believed (and the essential differences between the two). How does it change our understanding of early Christianity when we acknowledge how it related to magical beliefs of the time and created new secretive philosophies to engage thinkers? How are alchemy and chemistry related and yet also distinct? How much of the occult can be explained by a lot of lonely people throughout history who just want to find true love (or epic wealth or gain respect or whatever they lack)?

The trick is not to make it all about lecturing but to get the students to participate. This is the second time we’re teaching the course so I’ve added even more questions and discussion prompts to my daily lists. In the opening weeks of term we’ll be reading The Perfect Discourse and using that to lead them into the hermetic occult tradition. Then they’ll pursue some research projects before wrapping up their term work with a study of Nightmare Alley.

I expect we’re going to have a lot of fun along the way, not the least of which will be bringing up and appropriately debunking pop culture takes on the occult like this:

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