Category Archives: review

Prairie Fire: A Book Review

A year ago, I reviewed a YA contemporary fantasy novel that drew an intriguing picture of an alternate world where dragons and dragon slayers integrated seamlessly with a world of cars and cornfields. The Song of Owen has spun out into a wonderful and worthy sequel, Praire Fire by E.K. Johnston (cover) Prairie Fire. E.K. Johnston gives us a new verse for Owen, featuring his bard, Siobhan McQuaid and their many companions on the oft-mentioned Oil Watch (an international protective duty linking dragon slayers, engineers, medics, firefighters and, after many years without, bards).

A number of other reviewers were taken by Johnston’s deft and engaging alternate history as I was on the first outing. This only deepens in Prairie Fire where Johnston takes us deep into the Oil Watch and deeper into the world those brave souls protect. She delights in off-hand mentions of historical figures from our world who figure a bit differently in her own. In Prairie Fire, this is particularly evident with the focus on Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada and, in both the real world as well as Owen’s universe, the driving force behind a transcontinental railroad. Crowd watches the CPR last spike, 1885The project was a tough enough endeavour in real history; just imagine what it would have been like in a world where dragons were drawn by fire and exhaust to feast and destroy. So there, the railway went deep underground for far more of the route. In both cases, that labour was mostly through the work of Chinese labourers, whose sacrifices earned them a share of the tunnel’s name as spoken of by McQuaid and others stationed at the desolate concrete outpost of Fort Calgary: the John A-Zuò Tunnel.

Deep tunnels and dedicated dragon slayers don’t mean ease and safety. Johnston gives us risks and dangers galore as we take up after the harrowing end of The Song of Owen with the high school students preparing to wrap up their studies and head off to their duties. Only nobody exactly knows what Siobhan’s duties are, including Siobhan, in a world that’s forgotten the bardic tradition. Where corporate contracts have outweighed community good and dragon slayers are seen as distant figures: those are battles that Owen and Siobhan have already fought and began to make inroads upon with the help of their fellow crusaders, Sadie and Emily. Now the foursome are torn apart, the first three sent off to training in the Oil Watch and Emily remaining behind as their anchor to the rest of the world transfixed by the heroes of Manitoulin.

Siobhan struggles, saddled with devastating injuries incurred during that epic battle in the first book. But she struggles with the help of her friends, old and new, who bond with her in determination to make a difference in the Watch. Around Owen, the support crew builds with Siobhan’s centring support: engineers like Courtney Speed, medics and firefighters, who are there to assist Owen in his terrifying duty. During training, they bond and shine, but then they are faced with even more hurdles, including an unexpected posting where they connect with another renegade dragon slayer, Declan Porter.

And now, in a fashion I hope that Siobhan will approve, we pause for a musical interlude. Siobhan characterizes almost every person she meets musically. Owen’s a horn, Sadie a trumpet. Peter, a farmer that Siobhan befriends, is a mandolin. And Declan Porter, SAS-trained dragon slayer? He’s bagpipes. No bluster, just deeply-based determination leavened with a sense of humour. He’s also a wary mentor for Owen and all the rest: fellows in disgrace, for Declan threw his career away when rather than hide from the most awe-inspiring of dragons, a rogue Chinook boiling out of the Rockies and down to Kansas, he shot it down. Porter saved thousands but his kill started a fire that still burns, years later. (Johnston’s dragons are a serious ecological threat when killed out of turn.) So for Declan Porter, I offer up the feeble hope of rest and relaxation, with Spirit of the West‘s “Home for a Rest”

For Siobhan, Owen and all the rest, there are more adventures in this book. There are adventures and dangerous that will astonish and test, both characters and readers. Serving in the Oil Watch, Owen’s team uneasily realizes that there is real inequity and wilful blindness in their world. They see that people are not the prime value of politicians: but coal, land and wheat. There are trenchant observations as condensed in this exchange between Sadie and Siobhan:

“What are you singing about?” she asked. “The price of wheat?”
“Not in terms of money,” I said.

Siobhan, Owen, Sadie and the rest are also refreshingly real. They stumble and flail, they misread people and yet they soldier on because they are soldiers, now. We follow them into the concrete jungles, off to the coast and into many more encounters with dragons along the way. Primed by the rash and principled bravery of Declan Porter, however, you never know what they might do when a hot wind blows off the mountains.

So I’ll end this review with one more musical interlude, including another bit of Canadiana, for Prairie Fire is that, too, although it wears the Maple Leaf lightly. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young mixed memories, hope and benediction in “Long May You Run”. That is my hope for Owen’s crew and for Johnston, with many more books before her.


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Everloving Evernote

This spring I started using Evernote which, if you don’t already know it, is a multi-platform notetaking system. I’m pretty certain that I got interested in using it via Profhacker which is about the smartest group blog out there for academics of any stripe.

Anyway, I installed Evernote on my laptop and my tablet. I poked around with it and was semi-sort-of meh about the whole thing. I mean, what was in it for me? How should I use it? I made a few notes, kept track of a few things and not much else happened. My world was definitely not rocked.

Then the super-smart Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recommended a book for academics on how to use the software: Work Smarter With Evernote by Alexandra Samuel. I bought the book because, dangit!, the software really sounded helpful but I knew that I was missing the point. I read the brief book and, wow, world has definitely been rocked. My new phone has Evernote installed and it’s become a universal constant in my life, thanks to the book and other useful guides. Another Twitter star and historian, Liz Covart, cemented the deal for me with her 3 Ways Evernote Makes Research Easier. (Also see this only slightly-outdated list of Evernote power-user tips from PCWorld.)

Samuel highlighted some of the tools and organizational elements existing within Evernote that you can use to cluster your life or work in “stacks” that are easily and intuitively accessible. She showed how webpages can be clipped, documents appended and photos added to turn Evernote from a simple note tool into a total reference system.

I’m still only a novice but, wow, Evernote is so amazing. I’m putting together reading lists and class plans in course-specific notebooks that reside within my teaching stack. Tagging allows me to bridge the research and teaching aspects of the system where appropriate (which is surprisingly more and more now that I think about it). I have a personal to-do always floating around at the top to help me remember errands. Post office tomorrow to mail a small parcel, thank you, Evernote!

I’ve Evernote screenshot become an Evernote enthusiast but the real joy of the software didn’t hit home until Wednesday, during the grad class. One of the students was leading the discussion and I was making notes in Evernote on my tablet, all about the presentation when a handout materialized in front of me. Without thinking, I pulled out my phone, used the camera to snap shots of the two sides and pull them into Evernote. Then back to the tablet where I could now start making notes on how the handout and discussion intermixed. Oh, and if I’d pulled the document file out of the accompanying email or sent it to my evernote account, I could have included that there as well. In the end, I had a helpful note about the grad student’s work, incorporating their material, already labelled with the class (because Evernote reads my schedule and knows where I am at any given point in the day), that I could then tag and file appropriately. I’m now going to do one better and import my presentation rubrics into Evernote so that grading becomes more streamlined as well.

Do you use Evernote? If so, what do you love about it? If not, have I convinced you to take a second look?


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Here Be Dragons: A Book Review

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston might not be the title of a book that you’d expect to find reviewed on a historian’s blog. But that’s where you’d be wrong because this fabulous new YA fantasy has wide appeal in no small part because it’s a wonderfully clever bit of alternate history served up in a story you won’t want to put down.
The Story of Owen cover art
As exciting and engrossing as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter debut which married wizardry with an orphan’s coming of age, The Story of Owen uses dragons to drive a story of friendship and growth wrapping around Owen Thorskard, grade eleven transfer student and dragon slayer in training, and Siobhan McQuaid, an aspiring music major who may have just found a practical application for her talents as bard to the budding hero.

Johnston is a wizard of world-building, taking one new and compelling twist to turn our modern world into a dangerous prospect for young Owen and Siobhan. Industrialization didn’t just roll out factories and Fords, in Owen’s fantasy world, it also fuelled a boom in a scary ecological niche – dragons. Thus dragon slayers have become the vital force in protecting urban industrial centres as well as oil-rich regions and shipping routes. But why, then, oh, why, is this young dragon slayer coming of age in the rural world of Trondheim, Ontario?

That’s one of the many mysteries that unfold over the course of the book, explored through the perspective of small town student and would-be composer, Siobhan. She befriends Owen on his first day at school but, despite her best attempts to let the cool crowd take her place, finds Owen a fast friend. He, in turn, sees something in her smart assessments in their history class that links the two in an attempt to revive the ancient alliance of dragon slayer and bard.

All of this isn’t just for show. Just as in any other great story, there’s a threat looming ever closer. The rural world of Trondheim is under siege from the same forces that depopulated Detroit and most of Michigan: dragons. Owen’s family may have produced many great dragon slayers but is a high school junior really ready to take on not just one, but a host? Owen may just have to, with Siobhan by his side, molding his story and sniffing out the roots of this growing crisis.

“Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival.

There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition.

But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected.

Such was Trondheim’s fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds—armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard.

Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!”

Along the way to the spine-tingling conclusion, you keep bumping into perfect little vignettes of alternate history. Eloise (of Eloise and Abelard fame)? A dragon slayer. Yes, she was just that bad-ass of a medieval woman! Buddy Holly? Not just any musician, but the last great bard who chronicled the deeds of a dragon slayer. The day the music died wasn’t just a tragedy for fans, but it also cut off a major connection between the dragon slayers and the people they protected.

Queen Victoria, 1843

Queen Victoria features in Johnston’s rich alternate history

Queen Victoria? She was not just an imperial figurehead (as if!), but a determined protector of the British people and their lands who masterminded the impossible task: shifting a hatching grounds of the flying predators safely away from her favourite British haunts. Canadians will also enjoy a little thrill as, with the story set in modern-day Canada, the True North features naturally, from the steel mills of Hamilton to the outsized legacy of Lester B. Pearson. Lightly handled, all of this background never overwhelms but wonderfully sets the stage for Siobhan, Owen and other determined souls to save Trondheim and nearby Saltrock from the deadly menace of dragons that grows worse every day.

The Story of Owen delivers on every level for readers of all ages. I can’t wait for the release date so I can start making good on the promised gifts of copies to fellow book-lovers. If you’re a YA fan, you have to put Johnston’s book on your must-read list and if you’re not a genre fancier, you should still give it a whirl. A second book in the story world, Prairie Fire is due out in March of 2015. I know that I can’t wait!

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“The Feminine Mystique”: Fifty Years On

Can you believe it’s fifty years since “The Feminine Mystique” came out? I couldn’t and I’m almost as old as the book!

I’m not a modern historian or an American historian, so I’d never had cause to read the book before. I’d read selections from “The Feminine Mystique” over the years but never sat down to read the entire work until this 50th anniversary edition appeared. I was inspired by seeing Emily Bazelon’s post on her own reading at Doublex. The book is well worth digging into, particularly in this edition which includes multiple epilogues and introductory materials from earlier editions. They provide snapshots of how Friedan’s book was seen at launch, ten, twenty and many more years after. This reiterates the enormous impact that her book had on readers then and later on as well as upon her own life, including her work as a co-founder of NOW.

However, the meat of the book remains the text itself and “The Feminine Mystique” stands up well as a readable work, even half a century on. Friedan’s perceptiveness in describing ‘the problem without a name’ is bolstered by material from her own research, interviews and countless other contemporary sources. Where contemporary society encouraged men to pursue higher education, careers and grow in fulfilling ways, the mystique, bolstered by some cherry-picked elements from Freudian psychology and functionalist philosophies, urged women to subordinate all of those elements to their gender-mandated and absolutely certain fulfillment as a wife and mother. The problem was that so many women were driven to despair by the frustrations that they encountered in what was marketed to them as the ultimate in personal fulfillment and rewarding feminine duty. The mystique also contributed to a precipitous decline in the age of marriage across the American middle class. Higher education for women was condemned as counter to their natural and rewarding mission at home so that even women’s colleges began to step back from the academic programs they’d fought so hard to offer in favour of helping women prepare for their “Mrs.” degree path.

The book lays out a damning case for how the mystique ran counter to the previous trends in American middle class culture where women’s freedom and initiative had been celebrated. More damningly, Friedan shows how the mystique was endlessly useful to marketers in the burgeoning era of consumerism as well as their peers in the worlds of magazines, education and so on. Margaret Mead comes off rather badly for pushing the mystique’s key message to urge women to embrace domestic service to husband and children early and totally while she, herself, did no such thing.

The book is flawed in my mind by an excessive reliance upon psychoanalysis. Many chapters focus in detail on this subject beginning with a long background on Freud’s own problematic relationships with and understanding of women to page after page where Friedan uses psychoanalysis to diagnose problems in American housewives and their families all deriving from the toxic powers of the mystique. It is also relentlessly middle class: the world of the working class is almost non-existent except when evoked as servants!

I also couldn’t accept her dismissals of homosexuality, particularly in men, and autism in children as consequences of pathological mother-love run amuck or improperly applied but, as I read those sections, I knew that she was approaching these topics using the thinking of the time. It’s impossible to expect a book from 1963 to speak with the voice of 2013 all the time. The strength of “The Feminine Mystique” is that it evokes the past so vividly you’ll think you’re reading a modern history until you’re jolted back into reality by those occasional tone-deaf moments.

Occasionally you might feel a deep sense of depression as you read about the ways in which marketing heavily reinforced the mystique’s domestic mission. Friedan’s story about how many women attempted to fit the mold and failed is also sobering. No wonder the Stones did so well with “Mother’s Little Helper”!

If you want to understand the U.S. middle class culture of the 1950s and 1960s as how it played out in the media, medical, educational and marketing industries as well as in the personal stories of countless women, you should pick up Friedan’s book and get to reading! (And follow me at Goodreads where I’d initially posted a version of this review.)

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Black & Tans: A Reading Holiday

It’s the end of reading week and, surprise, surprise, I’m doing some non-work reading. Black & Tans book cover Specifically, I’m finally digging into a colleague’s recent book The Black & Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence.

It’s quite a good read, even for someone whose knowledge of modern Irish history comes and goes after the Gladstonian era. In many ways, it reminds me of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, not that the types of sources or particular situations are much the same, but insofar as both Browning and Leeson write with particular interest in how the situations put unique stress upon the men involved.

Black & Tans takes the conventional wisdom that the Royal Irish Constabulary was a motley group of thuggish WWI vets just looking to spill some blood and cause maximum mayhem (or, conversely, that they were the tools of thuggish English politicians determined to brutally oppress the Irish through terror tactics carried out by the police). His argument, is that it wasn’t a fatal flaw in the people but that the situation of trying to enforce impossible police directives in what was constantly hostile territory where the Black & Tans found themselves virtually under siege (and their challengers vice versa).

You come to see this argument emerging early on. Dr. Leeson’s not in any way an apologist for the forces, but he’s a dab hand with archival sources and elegant argumentation. I’m just over 100 pages into the book now and have a hard time putting it down as I’m encouraged to read just one more section as I learn about the Auxiliaries and their somewhat chequered as well as occasionally inglorious pasts.

I’m proud to call him a colleague and recommend the book which comes out in paperback next month.

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Small World (a boardgame review)

Small World Board Game We’re a family of geeks. (Sorry, girls, but that’s how we raised you.) So, when Geek and Sundry rolled out last month, we were hooked. Web series of awesomeness, ahoy! Chief among these is Tabletop masterminded by Wil Wheaton: a smart and genial geek god. (Yes, he’s also the actor who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

One of the first games that he reviewed and played with guests on the show was Small World (tagline? “It’s a world of (S)laughter”) – a fast-paced board game of strategy, conquest and screwing over your opponents generally having fun.

How do you play? You play a randomly specialized fantasy race so you might end up with the Wealthy Amazons, Pillaging Tritons, Seafaring Elves, Diplomatic Giants from the mash-ups out on the table in any turn. Conquer and hold as much territory as you can, paying attention to special bonuses you can exploit (Humans get bonuses for farmland, Dwarves enjoy more revenue from controlling mines) and, when your opponents nibble away too much at your conquests, go into “decline” where you’re free to start a new combination in the next turn (meanwhile collecting some revenue from all of your old groups’ tiles still on the board).

We got a copy last week and have played, what?, about ten games so far? (A couple of these have been done back to back as it’s a short game, especially if you’ve gone with the 2-3 player option.) It’s addictive, absurd and adorable.

They have expansion packs. Maybe we’ll have to make a detour by another gaming store on our way down to the Congress to see if we can pick a little something up. Which reminds me, I really need to call it quits with the revisions to my conference paper. Maybe after one more game. . . .


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The Siege of Washington

Cover of The Siege of Washington Even though I’ve been buried so deeply in work that I can barely breathe, I stole some free hours to read this book. Correction: nearly devour. Even though the authors employ an annoying strategy of drawing out the slow, chronological progress (so that hours sometime read as if they were days and the actual days of story’s timeline read even longer), The Siege of Washington remains a good history, superbly grounded in both historical research and engaging narrative.

I’m not that much of an American Civil War buff. Most American history leaves me yawning: likely a result of over-exposure in my childhood and youth. But this narrowly defined topic was entirely new to me: the history of Washington’s perilous experience between the fall of Fort Sumter and the arrival of volunteer troops sufficient to defend the capital, all within a few days in April, 1861. The authors, John and Charles Lockwood, paint a picture of the divided city and its people at Lincoln’s inauguration. The juxtaposition of disgruntled supporters of the Confederacy with eager suppliants to the new Lincoln White House makes for an interesting backdrop. This crisis creeps up almost unseen on a city in the midst of transition from one presidency to another, given the wealth of patronage appointments.

The Lockwoods do a good job of setting 1861 Washington into a broader context of regional politics and economics. I’ll never look at Baltimore the same way after reading about its “Mob City” moniker and the ways in which its citizens reacted to the passage through of Union volunteer troops. The first battle may have come some months later, but the first deaths of the war occurred right there with troops attacked by townspeople.

The book is overflowing with delicious anecdotes, from the surly troops in the Capitol who were bayoneting Jeff Davis’s desk (until chided for destroying government property) to the story of Clara Barton’s life as a government clerk before she founded the Red Cross when she saw the need in the injured volunteers from her home state of Massachusetts. The newspaper reports and eyewitness accounts give the history a lively sense of urgency and depth.

The only annoying part of The Siege of Washington was the authors’ conceit that Washington would possibly, maybe, oh-wait-and-keep-reading! fall. I knew enough of the history to know that was a non-starter and I expect almost every reader will be similarly unsurprised. That said, their final chapter, tackling the variety of “what ifs” and “if only”s put forward by contemporaries at the time or soon after makes for fascinating historical reading. To see how people of the time recognized this as a key moment in their history was a clincher for me and something I expect others would equally enjoy.


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Review: Regionalism and the Reading Class

Regionalism and the Reading Class cover I got this book through recent sale held by the University of Chicago Press. While not a work of academic history (my usual term-time fare), I thought it relevant because of my graduate methods course teaching in which I’ve incorporated a history of media segment.

An accomplished interdisciplinary scholar (holding appointments at two universities in sociology, comparative literature, English and human geography), Wendy Griswold takes a synthetic, transnational approach to modern reading cultures. Refreshingly, this isn’t a work solely about the United States, although regionalism and reading cultures in the USA figures into her broader argument linking the local form of a reading class to the sense of regional identity. In Italy, Norway and the United States, Griswold tracks very different experiences of each of these elements: from Italy’s less-robust reading class coexisting with a celebrated and cosmopolitan literary culture to Norway’s effective use of state resources for promoting regional literature nationally to the way in which reader movements across

Griswold employs some fascinating models and arguments. I fell a little bit in love with her term for readers who’ve moved into new regions: cowbirds (due to that species’ ease in taking over the nests of other birds and settling right in). I also appreciated her approach to defining the reading class in which she’s clearly talking about not just literate people but those who both value the practice and dedicate time to it in their busy lives. Griswold challenges the accepted orthodoxy that more time on the internet means less time for reading, drawing on a range of research.

Griswold finishes her chapter on “The Reading Class” with three key points that form her prediction for the future of the reading class. First, that reading enjoys a long-standing prestige in almost every country. Second, that reading is intensely dependent upon social organization beginning with education and culminating in reader-driven interaction (in reading groups, which she studies closely as well as currently popular sites I’d throw into the mix such as Goodreads. Third, and for Griswold, one of the most interesting prospects, is a growing gap she documents between reading for practice and reading “as an esteemed, cultivated, supported practice of an educated elite.” [68]

Here’s where we differ. For this last part, Griswold limits herself dramatically. Those works that she deems particular to the reading practices of the reading class are literature, serious nonfiction, books “of the quality press”. And while those books are certainly important, is this enough to define the reading class? Elsewhere in the book she shows how genre fiction (mysteries, westerns, etc.) also are important works in regional reading classes – evoking a sense of place, community and shared experience that helps to build a strong regional culture. Yet, in this prediction we see those other literary genres excluded and this is a problem. As long as only ‘serious nonfiction, books of the quality press’ are going to define the reading class, much of the experience of devoted and socially-engaged readers will pass by researchers, even those as able as Griswold.
See also this lucid review by Tara Brabazon.

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Three Cleopatras

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes me hungry
Where most she satisfies. – Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, Scene 2

Roller's Cleopatra biography I’m working my way through three recent biographies of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. As a specialist in early modern history, I’m struggling to get past my reliance on superficial readings I’d done long ago or the considerable cultural legacy she’s evoked. Yes, I know Shakespeare and Taylor’s version, but for this project, I need to leave that kind of distant imagining behind and try to approach her story more directly.

The first biography I snagged was Tyldesley’s from 2008. Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt is, not unexpectedly, very “Egypt-focused”. Coming from a scholar who’s published noteworthy books on Hatshepsut and Egyptian women, that was exactly what I hoped to discover. Tyldesley does a great job of putting Cleopatra’s rule into the perspective of Ptolemaic Egypt’s relatively open avenues for women to exercise economic and political power. She also does the best job of evoking the urban history of Alexandria, the great city that was her primary residence. This isn’t to say that the biography doesn’t also give a good sense of the Hellenistic dynasty of which the queen was a part. It’s simply that Tyldesley does the best job of highlighting the Egyptian as well as the Greek elements in her queenship.

The second biography I read was Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life. Being as it’s marketed as a popular biography, I was a bit leery but Schiff has done a good job with her research in citing both classical and modern sources. Of course, she’s an accomplished biographer, so this was a flowing, easy read, full of dozens of pithy observations and commentaries from the author. That’s probably what struck me the most and not always for the best. As a historian, I remain just a bit suspect at her willingness to suggest motives for the various historical actors and come up with sweeping statements. But I have to admire her deft hand at taking the raw material (much of it out of Plutarch) and turning it into a compelling life story.

The last book, which I’m still halfway through, is Duane Roller’s Cleopatra: A Biography. Roller is a scholarly classicist and he uses his background in the Hellenistic period to paint a picture of a queen who’s part of this international, cutthroat politics. A few choices grate for anyone not steeped in the classics. For instance, his insistence on referring to Antonius instead of the more familiar modernization, Antony, will throw off some readers. (I know it’s classically correct, but so would be writing the work all in capital letters, with no spacing and so forth!) Despite my quibble, this thematically structured study of the queen is the most useful for my needs. It’s also, unmistakably, a work of a classicist who’s focused on the Hellenistic queen.

Am I done with Cleopatra? Not quite. I have a few other works on her life, reign and works still to consult for my project. But I’m amused that for all the sameness of key details, Shakespeare’s assertion about her infinite variety still holds true in the snapshot created by reading these three different studies. There’s as many Cleopatras, I suspect, as there are histories of her.


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The Ivory Tower’s Basement (A Female Perspective)

Professor X launched a tidal wave of commentary when he published an essay on his dispiriting adjunct experiences in The Atlantic in 2008.

I finally got around to reading the book this month and, for the most part, I found his sad story entirely comprehensible. There, but for the grace of a tenured position and a less hectic housing market, go I. I also experience shock at the sheer level of incomprehension my students display when asked to tackle basic concepts in the first year course (hint: not understanding what the words ‘Christian’ or “European’ signify is worrisome when you’re vaulting right out of the end of the Middle Ages in a Western Civ survey) but I freely admit that my work is never so challenging as that of an English instructor expected to remediate students who can’t write, period, in one or two college-credit courses.

It’s an interesting read, not just for academics. Caleb Crain’s NYT review suggests that this is, at its heart, a book about shame. I’d counter that almost every book about academia is, in one way or another.

My most visceral response to the book came Professor X related a story of a tenured professor who gave grades solely based on student improvement. This leads him to muse on the effect women have had on higher education:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1975, 31 percent of college teachers were female; by 2009, the number had grown to 49.2 percent. There are more women teaching in college than ever, and it is quite possible that their presence, coupled with out discovery of the postmodern narrative, has had a feminizing effect on the collective unconscious of faculty thought. Strong winds of compassion blow across campus quads. Women are more empathetic than men, more giving, simply more bothered by anyone’s underdog status. Many of the female adjuncts I have spoken to seem blessed and cursed by feelings of maternity toward the students. Women think about their actions, and the consequences of their actions, in a deeper way than do men. Women may not be quite as inclined to sigh and, with a murmured “fuck it,” half-angry and half-miserable, possessed by the fatalism of someone throwing the first punch in a bar fight, mark an F in the grade book. (153)

Now, he doesn’t pursue this line of thought any further but, oh really? Did you see that? We have feminized the faculty and, oh no!, brought in with us the corrosive forces of empathy and maternalism. Professor X is hardly alone in this assumption, so I don’t want to tar him with a broad brush. He’s a symptom more than a cause (very much a symptom in his contingent faculty status stuck in impossible tasks of remediation). But it’s all part of the fear that female faculty lower standards at worst or simply subvert academia to warm, fuzzy and anti-intellectual ends at the best. (120 years on and we’re still dealing with the same damned fears as women academics did in the late Victorian era.)

I don’t feel like a mother to my students, but some treat me more like a mother, or a K-12 teacher, than tmy male colleagues. They speak of their personal problems to me. They empty my tissue box repeatedly over the course of the term in teary office visits. They address me as Miss or Ms. My male colleagues are Professor or Doctor. (This is hardly unusual. See Takiff, Sanchez & Stuart, “What’s In a Name? The Status Implications of Students’ Terms of Address for Male and Female Professors” Psychology of Women Quarterly 25:2 (2003), 134-145.)

Professor X earlier admitted that he inadvertently benefits from the assumption that a male instructor must be a professor, much as he protests the improper use of such a title by his students. Now, I don’t want to be petty enough to deny him that or to make much of an issue of forcing students to recognize the fine differentiation of faculty rank, but I think those of us who teach at university should all be mature enough to step back and see these assumptions and behaviours for what they are: a reflection of how deeply-rooted gender roles are in this culture.

Women faculty haven’t emasculated the academy but I think Professor X might be well-served to consider how much the concentration of women in adjunct positions has done to reduce the prestige of that position he and others once saw as more an admirable sideline for a non-university professional. And he might be surprised how many of us women faculty quite easily say “Fuck it” as we mark that F in the grade book if a student has failed to do the assigned work, even as we recognize that their failure might be part of a larger problem.

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