HIST 4516: Early Medieval Chronicles

I’m teaching a seminar in the autumn term on early medieval histories. (The course title uses the word “chronicles” not to focus particularly on those works but to reduce confusion with the second-year survey on early medieval history.) I went through a wholesale course redesign this summer to better intermix scholarly chapters and articles with the wealth of primary sources I rely upon. The course focuses on the early medieval genre of history and how histories were made and used in the period. One goal of the course is to open students’ minds to how immediate was the world of early medieval history. At the same time as they hearkened back to ancient Rome or the early church, much of the history that they crafted was about their own time or their near-contemporaries.

You can download the the PDF course outline. If you take a look at the first class topic, you’ll probably also figure out one of the current cultural influences I’ll be drawing on in the class. If not, the video segment below should clue you in!

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I’m Ba-ack!: A Report on My Blogging Break

Wow. How long has it been? Ten months or close enough that this blog has been quiescent. Now with the new academic term just around the corner, why am I reckless enough to start my blog back up?

Maybe it will help if I explore a bit about why it dried up. I think there are two reasons: the first is that I’ve been blogging for more than fifteen years on one platform or another. I have blogged about fandom, about parenthood, about history teaching and research, feminism and so much more. I’ve blogged a little bit of everything in my life for a very long time and it’s become a bit unclear where the blogging stops and the living starts.

Steady blogging also takes a steady bit of time out of your life, doesn’t it? So this past year, when I started up a gym membership to accompany our younger daughter during her personal training, I let blogging go out of all of the other things in my life. The upside? My fitness levels have greatly improved and I’ve found several podcasts that I adore to liven the time on the treadmill, the elliptical or the weight machines including Dan Snow’s HISTORY HIT (On which I appeared last December), Smart Podcast, Trashy Books (for the romance reader in me), Ben Franklin’s World (for wide-ranging coverage on American history & historical research topics), and Teaching in Higher Ed (which inspires me to be a better teacher). I’ve also used podcasts to work on my French fluency (aha-aha, but it has improved this year) and to occupy my mind while engaged on daily dog-walks with Xena. But woman cannot live by podcast alone, so here I am.

The second reason is that before I could blog again, I needed to think about what I wanted to blog about here. I don’t think it will become a very fannish blog or a place full of personal introspection, although I probably will share some fun reads from time to time! No, it’s going to be rededicated to my life in history as an educator, researcher and explorer. This doesn’t rule out the personal – far from it! – but expect more history, whether it’s notes from the classroom, my early modern women or something out of the pop culture projects!

I’ll finish this post with the bemused observation that this year we watch younger daughter take up the life of the university undergraduate and that I celebrate my twenty-fifth anniversary in the Laurentian University Department of History. My how time flies! How has yours been bowling along? Leave a comment and let me know.

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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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Hot Fuzz & History (this Wednesday)

I’m pleased Hot Fuzz and History 30 Sept, 11:30 to announced that my esteemed colleague, Dr. Dave Leeson is helping to launch the 2015-16 season of our colloquia with his exciting talk: “This Doesn’t Make Any Sense: Hot Fuzz & the Philosophy of History”. Come join us in Laurentian University’s Parker Building (the Tower), L-324, at 11:30 on Wednesday, September 30.

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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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How Empires Endure: TFA and History #3

A brashly overconfident emperor Emperor Valens, d. 378races to spring a trap on his foes and ends up falling in battle to a ragtag group of unsophisticated adversaries. This isn’t just the (highly condensed!) story of The Return of the Jedi‘s climax, it’s also the story of the Battle of Adrianople, in 378. There, the Roman Emperor Valens presided over the annihilation of sixteen regiments of Roman soldiers: two-thirds of the Eastern army. Of Valens, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote: “he was ready to gain advantage and profit at the expense of others’ suffering, and more intolerable when he attributed offences that were committed to contempt of, or injury to, the imperial dignity; then he vented his rage in bloodshed.” (The Roman History, Book XXXI, Chapter 5)

A bad emperor, he was less skillful than Palpatine, Emperor Palpatinewho perished during the Battle of Endor, victim of his own overweening confidence in the power of the Dark Side and the Death Star.

Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design. Your friends, up there on the sanctuary moon, are walking into a trap, as is your Rebel fleet. It was *I* who allowed the Alliance to know the location of the shield generator. It is quite safe from your pitiful little band. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them. Oh, I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive. — Emperor Palpatine, The Return of the Jedi

But whether capable or not, both emperors died and dealt a great blow to the empire that they ruled. However, was it the end of the empire? If we follow Adrianople, history tells us that, no, the death of a ruler in battle doesn’t guarantee the end of his empire.

To the contrary, Rome’s empire far outlasted Valens’ own humiliating end at Adrianople. Goths and Romans at Adrianople(Depending on which account you prefer, he either perished of an arrow wound in battle or retreated to a stone building near the field which the enemies, seeking to overrun, then burned down with all in it.) 378 saw his co-emperor, Gratian, rally the empire with the assistance of a new co-emperor, Theodosius I. Constantinople, the imperial capital, withstood a Gothic assault and endured for over a thousand years longer as the empire’s chief city.

While Coruscant seemingly celebrated the empire’s overthrow in the final scenes of Return of the Jedi, in truth, what happened to the imperial fleet and its ruler at the Battle of Endor Space ships at the Battle of Endorwas hardly a game-changer. Even with many imperial ships destroyed and the new Death Star obliterated, what the Alliance defeated was only a portion of a vast, well-supplied and deeply entrenched imperial force. All of those planets, all of those starships and bases, all of those forces ready to rally at the call of the emperor or someone invoking his authority? It would be easy for the Empire to endure.

We’re already seeing from casting information and spoiler discussion that, in The Force Awakens, the Empire is not forgotten, even many years after the battle. New stormtroopers fight on behalf of an imperial cause that is further supported by a Force-sensitive warrior. With generals and Sith, it’s easy to expect that a new emperor will also arise. . . .

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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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