Category Archives: academe

It Can’t Be September

Because if it’s September I start teaching on the third. I also have article revisions due before mid-month.


At least all my syllabi are ready. For those playing along at home, I’m teaching several courses this term beginning with Western Civ. So far there are fifty-five students enrolled. There’s a second-year survey on Early Modern British History with only twenty-five students because it runs at 8:30 in the morning, two days a week. I’m team-teaching a third-year class on The History of the Occult with almost forty students signed-up and then there’s the graduate seminar on historical methods. I’ll also most likely have one Directed Readings grad course running all year.

If my syllabi are ready, I’m certainly not. Time to get back to polishing the opening lecture notes and slides for Occult and to ensure I have something fun for the first class which I’ll meet on Wednesday which is the British history course. And there was that additional article which I’d hoped to complete. . . .

Push back the clock!


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File Wrangling

I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the past two months wrangling files. Actually, I’ve hired someone to wrangle a lot of paper files – to shred some materials that needed to be securely eliminated as well as sort out some old teaching files that I can now decide to keep or recycle. At the same time, in between writing, working on recovering my health and supervising a grad student, I’ve been wrangling professional paperwork. Both virtual and physical, I assembled a dossier documenting the past five years of my academic work.

Let me tell you, that is not easy. Even if I’ve been pretty good about managing and storing my files over the years, some files become corrupted, some documents don’t play well with other and some mandates (merge ALL the PDFs for everything you’ve taught over the past five years!) just don’t work well. Even when you have the tools, there are some mysteries that cannot be plumbed as to why the rubrics for my early modern British course did not want to be included in the mega-PDF but every other course’s rubrics worked just fine.

After a five-hour final marathon session, I called it quits on this particular task with a definite sigh of relief. I’m glad to have it off my hands. The only scary part is that our program is up for its periodic review this coming year and we’re going to have to do much of this work all over again but for all of the faculty for the entire program over the past seven years and a lot more besides. Oh, joy. Maybe we can hire a full-time file wrangler? I only wish!

What file-wrangling tips and tricks keep you on top of documentation, virtual or physical?


Filed under academe

Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards

The teaching term has definitively ended and it was one of the best I’ve enjoyed in many years. However, if the term is over, the paperwork isn’t! Next week I have to polish off my annual report along with my teaching and research dossiers. The dossiers represent a staggering amount of paperwork although this year not quite so daunting as I’m between two deluges of publications. Next week I also must needs start on my summer’s hectic schedule of WRITE ALL THE THINGS.

In fancy-pants academic lingo, I’d label this week as “liminal”, being the semi-porous boundary between the old term and the new. It’s all stressful because, OMG wrap up all of this term-end stuff and get going on the summer research plan, now, now, NOW! But which way to jump? What gets done next?

A check-in on Friday with Jo VanEvery made a world of difference with my stress levels and sense of flailing. Jo helped me work through my long list of obligations, aspirations and implications, winnowing down to the important questions of what do I have to do, what do I want to do and how am I going to use my time to achieve those goals. Jo’s advice is always spot-on, as with her recent post on self-directed writing retreats, a version of which I will use in June to wrap up an article I desperately want to complete this summer because the project is very dear to me.

Now I have a better handle on the week ahead and the summer beyond that. I still have a lot on my to-do list but it’s going to be whittled down in an orderly fashion, matched up against a calendar for the time-sensitive elements (textbook orders due mid-month, grad student research essay deadlines in July and August). It may not be simple, but I feel a bit more in control as I look backwards and forwards this week.

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Short and Long Cycles (of Courses)

Publisher’s reps are emailing me with increasing frequency, asking what I’m teaching next year and what textbooks I’m going to adopt. I’ve had to consult some documentation to see what that will be because I am teaching a metric whackload of new courses – three brand new ones, to be exact, two of which I’m team-teaching so that means they’re set aside three familiar classes (and one new distance course that I’ll offer online for the first time next January).

There are some courses that I always teach – Western Civ is a historian’s version of Freshman Comp (and just about as much fun as a course concept even though I try to liven it up each year). I taught Renaissance Italy for eleven years running before I ran screaming from what had once been a favourite subject. I give graduate level historiography and methods a serious side-eye having taught it all but three years in this millennium.

Repetition can wear me down. In fact, the major reason that I’m preparing a distance course is to relieve pressure from an over-popular course in Ancient Near Eastern history which can be offered more often online (with another academic taking over the instructor’s duties) than I want to do in the classroom.

I know some academics advise a tight rotation of select courses – come up with a two-year rotation and stick to it. I tend towards the other extreme: I prefer a three or four year plan of teaching that allows me to get a break from a subject and turn towards other interests. I also am always game for a neat new course concept (which is how I ended up co-teaching a course on the history of the occult next year).

I suppose this is also my way of coping with the necessary repetition. I may have to teach the first half of Western Civ every year from now until retirement, but I have fun new courses on the history of war and on the history of crime to leaven the boredom, at least for next year.

What about you? Are you drawn to new course concepts or options (even new themes in a core course would count) or do you prefer to keep your teaching to a tight set of regular-repeated topics?

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Reading London

I’m simultaneously shocked and tickled pink to be teaching a course relating to my research specialty at the graduate level. After more than a decade teaching historical methods and years before that teaching nineteenth century European social history (don’t ask), teaching “Topics in British History” will be a positive pleasure.

The course theme is London, 1550-1950. Do you want to read along with my M.A. students? Here’s our reading list:

I’m also steering them towards many outstanding websites, including the following:

Am I missing anything great? Suggestions are eagerly welcomed in the comments. Classes begin January 6th with the first three articles on the list and we’ll wrap up the meetings in early April.


Filed under academe, history, teaching

Virtue is. . .

Not sure if it’s a reward or what, but I’ve been spending most of this month with my nose to the proverbial grindstone. I’ve been marking and writing and preparing teaching. The writing has come to a frenzy of productivity as my deadline looms.

I’ve also submitted the complete manuscript of The Hobbit and History to our publishers. It’s going to look very nice when it comes out in 2014 but no time to think of that now. I need to be writing!


Filed under academe, pop culture, writing/editing

University from Both Sides Now

Eldest has graduated high school and is preparing to start university this autumn. It’s been an exciting and occasionally stressful year in our household with her working through the process of deciding where to apply, waiting on the responses, applying for scholarships, making her decisions and, now, following through with the endless summer of paperwork still remaining.

As a second-generation academic, I realize that I have a wealth of information and experience about the entire university application and entry experience. Despite that, this has not been an easy or simple process: forms for financial aid, scholarships and even redeeming your own educational savings appear to be entirely opaque. I’ve availed myself of the phone helpline for the last more than once and it’s not like I’m doing all the work, here. She’s been doing her share, which is quite a bit.

Seeing university from the other side, now, a generation (or more) beyond my own freshman year, is sobering. This is a lot more work than I remember. Is it that I look on the past with rose-coloured glasses? I don’t think so. This is a lot more complicated than it used to be and there’s no good guidebook, at least for the Canadian experience. (Believe me, I’ve looked!)

Particularly, it’s the tricky part of knowing what to do and when that’s got to be the hardest part of university. Here at our institution, which serves a large proportion of first-generation students, I’m constantly made aware of how much they don’t know. But even with Eldest, who was raised in this milieu and can navigate her way around my campus blindfolded, was left adrift, time and again, especially with the scholarships and other funding opportunities.

University is hard. Getting into and staying in university is even more difficult in many ways. What could be accomplished with more sessions that not only invite questions but also lay out the key elements that students, coming from a publicly funded K-12 system, might not know they need to know about? That would be amazing, I suspect.

Now, because I can’t think of this phrase without thinking of the song, here’s a lovely 1991 cover of “Both Sides Now”:

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Filed under academe, personal

Another Crop of Students Done

Yesterday I participated in an excellent graduate student’s M.A. thesis defense (in French – now that kept me on my passively-bilingual toes). This is the third student in nine months to complete an M.A. under my direction or co-direction. It’s been an anomalous last two years with multiple students on the go, pursuing feasible and fabulous projects related to my own early modern specialty. Usually I’ll supervise one grad student every few years as more of our students are interested in modern Canadian history which definitely isn’t my strength.

Right now, I have no grad students lined up for next year and that’s all right with me. First off, most people don’t need a graduate degree in history. Second? Well, let’s just say that graduate students require a lot of work. It’s all the good kind of work: the real exercise of scholarship for which we all entered our fields. Still, I look forward to focusing on my own research and writing in the next while.

I pride myself on the fact that these three received excellent support, not just from myself but from our program!, and a chance to develop as researchers and writers. They can apply these skills inside and outside academia. That’s a vital consideration these days. Only one of the three is going on to doctoral work at the present and that’s because this student received full funding. Without that support, it’s really hard to justify the endeavour.

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Bingeing on Books

I wrapped up my winter’s term marking just as the last of the ice melted off of the lake. While getting back into my academic writing that’s been shelved most of the past month and pulling together the reams of documentation necessary for my annual report, I’ve been reading lots. Bingeing, almost. Fiction, that is. Genre-style.

Over at Novel Readings, Rohan Maitzen has an intriguing post on binge reading. In her case, she’s doing it for a project, to review the novels of Dick Francis. When I saw mention of this on her Twitter update earlier in the week, I was intrigued. Not only because I was a big fan of Dick Francis’s work back in the day (when I was a teen, I binged on about twelve or fifteen books of his in quick succession, borrowing a stack at a go from our city library). I quickly recognized the formula (wiry, game ex-jockey who goes through some horrifying torture on his way to solving a racing-related mystery) and reveled in the easy read that predictability provided.

Today we read more about binge-watching television shows but binge-reading has its uses. Concentrated non-academic reading clears my mind of the detritus of a term of teaching. I’m not obsessing about the successes and failures of my students (or the recurrent problem some demonstrated in differentiating between hanged and hung in a discussion of early modern punishments). By reading a raft of mysteries, romances, fantasies and other completely non-work-related non-fiction, I’m attuned to words in a very different way than I was in the midst of marking. I’m thinking about what makes a story compelling and where it disappoints. I’m aware of how word choice can make or break a scene, all in a way that’s fun and energizing. I’m reminded about what I love in reading and ready to get back into writing, even my own much more sedate academic history.

Reading for teaching is diagnostic: you’re trying to find problems or help prescribe solutions. Reading for research is surgical: you’re in there to get some specific nuggets of information to fuel your own scholarship. Reading for entertainment is restorative: you’re in there to relax or explore or think in different ways. A balanced reading life includes all of these aspects. Sadly, when term’s crazy, I tend towards only the first two forms but this entertainment binge has me back in balance and just in time. Another deadline’s looming!


Filed under academe, personal, writing/editing

So What (I’m Still a Rock Star)

I got a professional rejection today. Or, should I say, a rejection for a professional application: a research grant. The rejection itself wasn’t very professional. In fact, it was downright dismissive.

Now, I can take away some useful lessons from this, like, hrm, I need to work more on articulating what I’m doing in the grant and beefing up the bibliography. Some other lessons aren’t terribly useful because I can’t do anything about my research record until more of the pending articles and chapters get into print. I also suspect that I won’t get this group to fund anything to do with this line of research until it’s all but done because they really just don’t get it. So unless they see many related prior publications, they’re not going to see where this is going. These are all important lessons for the academic researcher. However, the best lesson was paying attention to my own emotional reaction.

I was a bit disappointed. That was all. I read the reasons for my rejection and chuckled at the heavy-handed rhetoric while retaining the useful elements.

Most important was what I didn’t feel. I wasn’t crushed. I wasn’t even angry. Irked, maybe, at the tone, but that was all. Honestly, the first words that sprung to my mind were “So what?”

Is this rejection really going to negatively effect my research plans for the next year? No. In fact, since all of my M.A. students are graduating, I’m short of prospects. I don’t have a grad student working with me in 2013-14 or even any seniors lined up for projects. I’d have a hard time finding a student to work on the project which involves reading a lot of seventeenth-century manuscripts: not a skill you can expect to build in every undergraduate who comes along.

Without the grant money and hiring concerns, I can scale back the project from communities in three counties to one and cover all the material myself. I won’t have to devote time to hiring and training: I can simply segue into this project when I’ve wrapped up the next chapter on my to-do list and that’s just what I’ll do.

So what? I’m still a research rock star (or maybe, more realistically, a wedding singer? Whatever!). I got my rock moves and I don’t need that grant.

So for all those other great academics who’ve also been rejected this grant season, P!nk says it better than I could:


Filed under academe