Category Archives: writing/editing

Star Wars and History

Star Wars and History cover

I can finally share the gorgeous cover for Star Wars and History that should be out in bookstores this November. A lot of talented people have contributed to this collection and you’re going to have such fun reading the histories as well as reviewing the illustrations drawn from historical and Lucasfilm images.

It’s been a lot of work (and there’s still some to go as we’re in the midst of copy edits) but so very rewarding. Fourteen-year-old me, who fell hard for Star Wars even before the film hit the theaters thanks to an early look at the novelization would have been so excited to know that someday I’d be working on this project.

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Unexpected Alignment

This week I’ve been working on a conference paper that I’ll be presenting at the end of the month, trawling through rafts of inquisitions post mortem and trial cases, looking for information about women’s interactions and women’s networking.

It’s going well, maybe even better than I’d expected, because I was reminded of a local colloquium paper I’d given in 2010 on the question of reputation in criminal trials and among the poor and dependent. That had seemed a bit of a dead-end at the time, interesting but there wasn’t quite enough information in and of itself to warrant an article. However, reputation combined with women’s networking starts to ring all sorts of bells. Women were often being called upon to attest for another’s character. Women accused at the Old Bailey needed someone to attest to their honesty and their virtue. When we’re dealing with unmarried women, it was even more critical for women to enjoy the support and testimony of other women.

And, yes, I know that reputation was important for men but not in the same way – their character as upright, honest men didn’t delve into the complexities of sexual reputation. A woman testifying to a man’s reputation seems unremarkable. I’m still waiting to find a case where a man attests to a woman’s reputation excepting in the case of an elderly widow.

This (re)discovery of this preliminary research and how it relates to my current work has cheered me up. I’ve been following my own advice to write early, write often but it’s even better when what I’ve written before adds to my current project.

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Out with the Old

Ding, dong, the term is dead. Well, except for one last grad course assignment to wrangle. I have to get the chair to sign off on the big survey class’s marks tomorrow morning, as well, but, really, it’s done. I taught two undergraduate classes, one graduate directed readings for two students (so two separate classes but we kind of mushed them up by finding common ground for this past term) and yet one other graduate class that actually integrated in with my senior seminar. Officially four classes on my plate with just over a hundred students between them all.

This term, I’ve also written two short chapters (well, solo-written one, and co-written the other) as well as prepared and submitted a research grant. I’ve edited so many chapters, I’m no longer able to keep count of those!

No time to rest: I’m already knee-deep in the thick of other projects. We’re copy-editing STar Wars and History (which is a fascinating process in and of itself), I’m back to draft-editing chapters for The Hobbit and History and putting in a few hours on my regular research agenda, each week until our July vacation.

Oh, and there are book orders for the fall. And a personnel committee meeting. Oh, and I need to follow up on that research grant application. And get working on the next one. And there’s the conference paper for the end of the month, I need to pull that together, too!

Oh, lordie. I’d better stop thinking right now. I promised Mike I’d take off a day or two. Maybe Friday?

How’s your May shaping up? Crazily busy with conference trips, grading galore and classes still to meet? Or are any of you wrapping matters up already. Take a break from the grind and let us know!

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Thoughts on Grant Applications

First off, the good news is that I finally have a version of this grant application that pleases me. It’s taken too damned long and involved an awful lot of wailing, but now I have something that I believe both fills the requirements of the format and also intrigues me as a research proposition. That’s not an easy feat to achieve!

Part of the challenge with this grant and others yet to come is that I’m being forced out of my lone-wolf mode. Employing students is the key priority and that’s always been a bit scary for me. Not that I don’t admire my students: I’m fortunate to have some of the finest junior scholars working with me and others in my department. No, it’s more a fear of how do I properly employ them without exploiting them or pushing them somewhere unsuitable in the demands of the research program.

I don’t know about you but it’s rare for me to supervise a student researcher whose work closely aligns with mine. This might be different in the sciences, but in the humanities and social sciences, students and faculty are often only connected by one link in a chain of interests. So my research focus right now hits up subjects in sixteenth to eighteenth century social, family, legal and gender history. The closest we come in the current crop of grad students is one who’s working on late sixteenth-century historical memory in literature, sermon and on stage. That’s not really much of an overlap, though!

When it’s teaching, the matter feels oddly easier: learning how to prepare, present, assess and mark are clearly transferable abilities. I can even, with enough warning, work in course elements that allow a graduate student to teach topics that play to his or her own strengths or ambitions. But research pushes that to a higher level – if the object of this is to for me to come out with more scholarly publications, the work has to be directly related to my scholarly program and it has to come together in such a way that I’m able to digest what they’ve put together and apply it in my writing. All of this on a maximum of 10-2o hour/week – not enough to truly support them as they do both their work and mine!

So when I pencil in thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours for prospective student research work, I worry – how far off their own tracks am I taking these junior scholars? How can I balance what needs to done against their skill sets, availability and interests? How can I make sure that they reserve enough time and energy to build their own skills and pursue their own research during the rest of their time?

As it stands, I’m coming to appreciate the difficulties of managing employees and collaborators as well as realizing how big an industry university research has become since I started on the tenure track. The application process has become far more structured, maybe even formulaic: structures that try to be appropriate for every discipline but are a good fit for none. Spending so much of the month of March trying to articulate my research program in ways that fit the grant structure instead of just getting on with it hasn’t been easy, either, particularly as I contemplate the chance that I won’t be awarded the monies.

Will I be destroyed if my application is unsuccessful? No, I’ll chalk it up as a learning experience, schedule some time with a colleague who can advise me how to improve for the next go-round, just a year away. And then there’s the next even bigger grant deadline coming up in a few months. Got to get myself ready for that!

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With a Little Help from my (Writing Group) Friends

I finished up the emergency chapter draft on Sunday of last week, hooray! 5200 words in less than a week was one heck of a challenge. Now I’m editing after conferring with my co-author but I’m also moving onto the next projects.

A lot of this progress I credit to the support and accountability that comes from participating in an online writing group. This go-round’s being hosted by Dame Eleanor Hull who’s been fabulous about doling out advice as well as reminding us to keep on track.

For all that writing can be quite a solitary activity, it’s better when you have that support system to both keep you honest and give you some feedback, even if it’s not about your writing in particular so much as your progress. As a couple of other members in this writing group have commented, knowing that someone’s expecting to hear how you did, you push to squeeze in a bit more writing time. You make it a priority because you know that someone outside of yourself and your institutional colleagues will care about what you’re doing. You know that they will commiserate when you detail the week’s tragedies and cheer for the week’s triumphs.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got some more writing to do!

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Writing Midterm

Not writing a midterm exam, but writing in the midst of a term. I have a new and urgent project to complete this week so it’s nose to the grindstone and all that. Three observations as an academic author:

  1. Though shalt not fiddle: to make this miracle occur I went to minimal mode with regards to my teaching. I have great preps from the last time I taught the Ancient Near East survey so I’m not revising any of the preps for next week’s classes. I’m also not going to get their quizzes back for Thursday, even though my TA’s helped with marking everything but the essay part. My seniors need their paper proposals back on Friday but other than that, marking waits for the end of the weekend.
  2. Though shalt not be distracted: During Thursday’s office hours, my door will be closed and a sign will invite visitors to please knock. Otherwise, I know I’ll be distracted by the noisy passage of hundreds up and down the busy hallway. I’m also not paying any attention to extraneous emails. If you’re not mission-critical, you’re waiting until Monday!
  3. Though shalt not blog (much!): Of course, the final, rueful truth: blogging will continue to languish. Hope you don’t hold it against me. I will return.

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Fear of Feedback

Now that another chapter’s out the door, I can confess: I’m afraid to look at feedback on my written work. When I get a chapter back from my editor or comments on a proposal for a conference, my adrenaline surges as I stare at the item in the inbox.

I’m afraid to click on it. Utterly, wildly terrified.

Isn’t that sad? A bit embarrassing, too. I’ve only rarely been savaged as a writer and never by an editor. My submissions have been rejected a few times, but not too often. I’ve even received a healthy share of compliments on my writing, historical research and argumentation. After all, I’ve been doing this for more than twenty years.

In fact, I realize that I love to write. I love to write my popular culture and history pieces. I love to write professional history for more sober venues. I love the thrill of trying out a new interpretation or putting together some sources in a novel argument. It’s fun, it’s rewarding and even a little bit exhilarating. When a piece is in pretty good shape, I’m even quite happy to send it off to a journal editor or in response to a call for papers. There’s a real thrill that accompanies that moment when I click “SEND” on the email submission.

So you’d think I could handle clicking on the link to an email with feedback about my writing without breaking a sweat, right? Wrong! I steel myself to do that, reading through the response as fast as I can. Do they hate it? Do they want to forget they ever read it (or knew me?)? Do they just have a few problems they want to fix?

Sometimes that notice that they’re requesting revisions can be even worse for assuaging that horrible roiling in your stomach. Then you have to open up the attachments, be they readers’ reports or editorial mark-up, and see what’s really required. Which often isn’t all that daunting – change this, cut that, expand this – had I considered revising the argument here to use X, Y or Z to illustrate the point more directly?

I read the comments through to the end and, invariably, I perk up. I think, “I can do this! I can take this criticism and use it to improve my piece.” I might also grumble a bit as I think that asking to cut that one super-cool example or comparison from my magnum opus is so unfair. Occasionally, I will push back and fight to retain an element that’s been challenged. But if my editor is someone I trust to know the field, the professional expectations and the audience, I usually just sigh, give into their criticism and pile up the outtakes for future blog fodder.

But the long minutes that pass while I try to stare down the unopened email from the editor, sitting there in all of its bold-font urgency, wondering what’s in the feedback? Those are still some of the most difficult moments in my professional life.

How does it feel for you?

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Return of the Term

It’s ba-ack! The term, that is. Run and hide in fear!

Actually, this term isn’t half so bad as last term. Half the classes, pretty much, and nearly down by half the enrollments. One class is brand-spanking new: a seminar on later medieval chronicles. However, since I’d planned and proposed this course several years ago as a logical extension of my existing seminar in early medieval chronicles, it feels familiar. The other undergraduate course is my survey of the ancient Near East and that course really is a well-oiled machine thanks to a fabulous textbook and a lot of planning in the past. It takes relatively little time to update material when it’s this well-organized. Finally, the graduate reading course appears like it will continue to be a rewarding class that I have two students working on overlapping material so they can support each other more readily.

The best part of this term, however? Not teaching five days a week. Really, if I’m going to be ramping up my research and publishing the way I’m supposed to do so, I need a day to step back and really get things done without interruption. Even if I leave myself copious “bread crumbs” in the form of notes, it takes some time to get the writing and research back on track. That’s why I’m loving Mondays, now!

Of course, Murphy’s Law meant that I had to make an unexpected trip into campus to ensure a student’s letter of recommendation got in on time. Oh, well. The day was still pretty darned productive as I simply zipped on and off campus as quickly as possible so I could get back to my revisions. I’m happy to report those are done and hopefully there will be many more productive Mondays in the weeks to come.

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Home Stretch

I’m at that stage with a chapter draft that the decent resolution is so close that I can taste it. It’s revising time and I’m pushing everything else to the back burner over the next few days so I can focus on this. Obviously, that includes blogging. Between the marking, the meetings and the regular run of classes, I’ve been too frazzled to even think of a good blog post. I do promise something fun and entertaining in the next week. But for now? Nothing much.

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Ideals and Realities

This has been reading week: a break from teaching at the U. Ideally, all of the hours freed up by that (and we’re talking a buttload of hours since I’m teaching three undergrad classes, one grad seminar and a graduate directed readings course) would go straight into marking and writing.

Funny thing about plans: they sometimes run smack-dab into the evil force we like to call reality. Or, as the Another Damned Notorious Writing Group’s dubbed it, I’ve been OBE: Overcome by Events.

The furnace is dying. This necessitates a surprising amount of work on the part of homeowners who have to research furnace companies, wait for their visits, sit through long listings of options and ponder the results. Extra bonus points for homeowners who live in Canada where there’s a current government rebate program for energy efficient home upgrades. Our house got an energy audit this week which was an interesting an informative exercise that comes with some homework. I get to learn how to replace the gasket on the attic door while Mike replaces the sweep on the front and garage entry doors, among other things.

Then there was a large piece of furniture that committed suicide, requiring replacement. One kid called in sick after another had to be ferried around town on a bureaucratic outing to do with medical coverage.

This afternoon was the long-term service celebration at the university where yours truly was commended for twenty years on the job. Which is nice, and all, but I’ve got to write like the wind to meet my deadline now! And let’s not even talk about how some of the students will likely feel a twinge of disappointment that I’m not going to have their essays back on Tuesday (although I’ve finished marking the grad papers and am almost done with the midterms for Monday).

How have your ideals and realities been matching up this week?

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