Category Archives: academe

Knee-deep in Alligators

My father – himself a long-time academic administrator – had a cartoon he had posted on a bulletin board, featuring several business-suit wearing men, looking more than a bit terrified and bedraggled, struggling to keep themselves out of the maws of several alligators taking up the terrain below their dangling feet. The caption read “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your first objective was to drain the swamp.” These days, “drain the swamp” has a different connotation – more about corruption than heretofore unknown hazards, but the unpleasant prospect still holds. In today’s more environmentally-informed era, maybe we should preserve the swamp and other habitats – leaving the alligators to flourish in their own world and stay within safer bounds?

Hazards abound in working life – many of them surfacing with no ill-intent. The other day I got an email politely asking about when a pending report could be expected. *CHOMP* It felt as if an alligator was suddenly underfoot, even if I knew well that responsibility was on my shoulders. It had been such a pleasant 36 hours with only one immediate crisis to manage. . . .

The learning curve for serving as Director is steep. That I spent my first month in the role covering for another major set of responsibilities in the Faculty stretched me thin for time. The final straw was squeezing in prep for a new course that I ran in the fall term: Games and History.

It all worked, somehow. The course was great – it really worked well to engage students thinking about history as much as “covering” topics. They connected practices well across time and considered thoughtfully how contemporary games about historical eras were, themselves, a form of historical interpretation that was worthy to examine.

This term there’s only one new preparation and it’s a shared course, so it’s work, but not nearly as daunting. I still have many daunting parts of my director’s duties to handle, though – recruiting faculty members for urgently-needed committees, drafting necessary reports, tweaking the timetable for next year, and, yes, sometimes meeting with folks.

Speaking of which, it’s time to get cracking on prep work for meetings and more (and keep working on my French because, dang, while my written French has improved greatly over the past eight months, my spoken French is still very much my Achilles heel). Au revoir, tout le monde. Qu’il n’y ait pas d’alligators chez vous!


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Summertime Re-set

So much has happened in the last two years. . . let me sum up. The good news? I still have a full-time faculty job. The bad news? Too many others don’t. Yes, my university has gone through the wringer. Truth be told, we’re still in the midst of matters and it’s a big ol’ mess. Here’s the CBC story covering the provincial auditor’s preliminary report on the matter.

Those of us who remain are becoming experts at doing more with less. I’ve said too many goodbyes, among them the cheerful kind that comes at convocation where students celebrate their triumphs and share their plans of what comes next. But too many of my goodbyes have been sad ones: of careers cut short or student dreams denied. I also bid my beloved Siberian cat, Sisu, goodbye, last December when cancer finally got the better of her.

We had already welcomed Gráinne into our lives at that point. Named after the pirate queen of Connacht, she is small but imperious: a worthy successor to Sisu. Along with Kaiser, the two cats keep us busy.

I’m working, as much as possible, from my home office this summer. After being dismissed as Chair of History when our department was amalgamated with all the others in the Faculty, I’m now a sort of “super-chair”: Director of the School of Liberal Arts. It’s a fancy term for someone who’s good at signing a lot of digital paperwork and supporting students in programs from English through Law & Justice. I’m also getting to teach some of my favourite courses along with one new one: a second-year class on Games and History. Lots of reading, lots of administrivia, and a little bit of summer fun, including some counted cross-stitch, a hobby that’s sustained me through this pandemic.


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Virtual with a Vengeance

Back in the 1990s, I used to joke that I lived much of my life virtually. When I wasn’t caring for kids or working at the U, I could be found in online forums like those at iVillage and other, even more fantastical virtual locations like the dock on the Oasis of Marr in Everquest. Screenshot of my character from early Everquest

Now we’re all going virtual with a vengeance – Zoom meetings populate everyone’s online calendar and shared Google Drives allow us to coordinate efforts from miles apart. For my part, I’ve been doubling down on my early love of the possibilities we can find online in this pandemic: with incorporating more game-based learning, recording a lot of short, simple videos, and brushing up on other techniques. all hoping to cultivate our learning community in the online world. Although I’ve presented virtually before at a wonderful conference on the Old Bailey, it’s still a brave new world to have Zoom conferences (with very little schmoozing opportunities).

But it’s a whole new ball game to be managing everything without access to my office (old/current or new/awaiting move-in indefinitely due to COVID-19 interruptions), my books (even though I hauled a huge bag home of the ones that I knew I’d need), and my colleagues who are in and out of the virtual space as much as I am. I even missed out on some of my own virtual appointments: a Wednesday morning social meeting passed me by after I stepped into our basement storage room for no more than ten minutes and emerged over an hour later.

At least my commute is super-short! Makes more time to squeeze out some new adventures in the ongoing saga of Everquest!


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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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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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Women’s History Week 2015!

Women's History Week @LUIf you want to know what’s been consuming my life for much of the past month (besides mountains of marking, a conference presentations and many other responsibilities) it’s Women’s HIstory Week. Twenty-two years and counting, this event has been a feature on our campus. So what are you waiting for?

Join us on campus and downtown for Women’s History Week 2015 at Laurentian University / semaine de l’histoire des femmes 2015. Click either link for the full schedule of events.

We have open classrooms all week long, a book launch and a keynote lecture by Dr. Jane Nicholas of St. Jerome’s University and author of The Modern Girl, who will speak on “Why the Flapper Matters: TWomen's HIstory Week Eventshe Canadian Modern Girl” Thursday night, 7pm at the Speakeasy downtown. How perfectly appropriate is that for a venue?

I’m also excited about the open classrooms initiative that is a long-time feature of our event. There are faculty participants from Communications, Environmental Studies, History, English, Ancient Studies and more who have agreed to open their classrooms to the wider public this week. Fellow students, staff members and other profs might just pop on in as well as any one interested in seeing how the subject of women is taught across disciplines at Laurentian.

The book launch celebrates the recent biography of Madge Watt, founder of the Women’s Institutes, published by our own Dr. Linda Ambrose who brought Women’s History Week into being as well as nurturing students and scholarship in the field over the past twenty-two years.

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The Joys of a Good Teaching Text

Wednesday we’re back into the routine with three courses on tap for me this fall: Western Civilization (Renaissance to French Revolution), Early Medieval Europe and a graduate seminar on London history. Al told, I think I’m squeaking in with just under a hundred students in the three courses: still the most of any one faculty member in our program. Go me?

I’m really excited about all three classes but particularly happy with the prospect of this year’s go in Western Civ. The subject is something I’ve taught almost every year since starting but it’s a course that constantly renews itself given the hundreds of years of history and historical studies I draw upon. This year I’m doing something unusual for myself – I’m teaching with all three of the same texts as last year: two general survey narratives that cover our period from 1350-1815 and one primary source work, The Lusiads.

Normally The Lusiads - Oxford World ClassicsI swap out primary source texts every year to keep teaching fresh (and to minimize the chance of plagiarism). But The Lusiads was such a fun work to teach and had so many intriguing aspects to it that last year’s class had only begun to explore, I felt compelled to give it another turn. The Lusiads is Portugal’s great national epic and a conscious throwback to Virgil’s great Roman poem, The Aeneid. Yet it’s also very contemporary for the sixteenth century in which it was written: telling the tale of Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of Africa and travels to India.

The epic poem, ably translated into modern verse by Landeg White, has just about everything you could want to touch on in an introduction to European history for the period: there are themes that draw on Renaissance conceits (classical gods, learned allusion), elements of religious conflicts (Christian divisions and prejudice towards other religions), the broad sweep of exploration, discovery and exploration in da Gama’s voyages, and all brought together with innovations in technology, worldviews and social orders. Relatively little-studied in the anglophone world, I found that teaching with this text was a great refresher for the course which might otherwise feel ‘stale’ and I can’t wait to tackle it again with a better sense of the pitfalls and promises inherent in such an unusual text!

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Student Depression: More Than Helicopter Parenting

You’ve seen the story making the rounds amongst parents and academics that correlates helicopter parenting with college-age depression. You might well have nodded along as you read the horrific stories of awful parents who dictate their kids’ university choice, major and even study habits. These are truly wrong-headed individuals who, by micro-managing their children’s lives well into adulthood, deprive them of the chance to learn how to be independent, self-reliant and find their own happiness.

That said, I take issue with a big part of the article’s claims.

As parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is “best” for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?

You’re right to be thinking Yes, but do we know whether overparenting causes this rise in mental health problems? The answer is that we don’t have studies proving causation, but a number of recent studies show correlation.

The emphasis is that of Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the book from which the article is an excerpt. The former freshman dean at Stanford candidly admits that she knows this overactive parenting culture all too well and frequently has fallen into some of the bad habits she herein decries. I’m good with anything that helps to counter the scourge of parents who treat twenty-somethings as toddlers or leads to mom or dad buttonholing profs and TAs over what’s properly the student’s turf. And don’t get me started on that smooth rhetorical slide right past the whole correlation line because we all know correlation is not causation, right? Right!

In any case, I’m troubled by the easy equation of depression in college-aged people with the evils of helicopter parenting. Yes, that can be one factor, but is it the only or even the best? I’d say no. There’s a whole raft of reasons for the youth of today to be profoundly depressed. It’s the economy, stupid! We’re destroying the planet and waging war worldwide. Even if we focus in those problems directly affecting colleged-aged people who are actually going to college, there’s still enough fodder for a real-world dystopian Hunger Games: ruinous tuition increases, student debt that’s impossible to discharge, gutted support for students, dismal job prospects and political leaders enthusiastically dismantling public higher education. Oh, that’s cheerful, isn’t it? Let’s not forget how these young people have been hemmed in by decades of “No Child Left Behind” and other onerous testing regimes in their school lives, or communities that eagerly police the practices of “free-range” parenting. When students revolt against standardized tests, how are we surprised?

But ignore that man behind the curtain, Dorothy. No, look at the bad parents here and there. Why, they’re the cause of this whole problem! Let’s just get them to change their behaviour and, sure as shooting, young, crestfallen folk across the continent will start to perk up.

That’s ridiculous! This is a small fix for only a tiny slice of a big problem. But it’s easy, ridiculously easy, to stir up popular disgust with painful parenting practices such as those described in the story. Nobody can justify those excesses, but nobody can sustain the argument this helicopter parenting the key to the real mental health crises on university and college campuses or in those peer groups beyond the ivory tower.

Depression is an illness but there are people who can help you. Depression is serious, depression is real and depression isn’t banished by condemning over-the-top parenting practices. We need to accept that helping young people manage their mental health takes resources, commitment and actually paying real attention to their concerns.

So let’s stop feeling as if condemning one particular brand of bad parenting is what we need to do to support students with their mental health issues, okay? Thanks.


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Moving On Up

As of July, I’ll be a Full Professor of History here at Laurentian University.

I had applied last July 1st, even though I was barely back on my feet after a spring sacrificed to illness and malaise. I was ill but not so ill that I couldn’t wrangle the binder full of paperwork together for the promotion application. With four publications slated to appear in the next several months, I hoped that the application would be acceptable.

It was a gamble. I definitely haven’t had the most conventional publishing career of any academic historian. But I enjoyed the support of many colleagues here and elsewhere, for which I’m grateful. I also realized that, even if I was turned down, how bad could it be? Staying as a associate professor until I could try again? Not a hardship.

So there’ll be new business cards (if those are even still a thing) this summer and, more importantly, the opportunity to do more service, research and teaching secure that the only thing I have to prove to others is what’s there in my work.


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