Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Within five minutes tonight, I was asked for recommendations twice. First was a recommendation of the sort to be expected - a book recommendation for a student. My (as of tomorrow, former) boss emailed asking for recommendations of good books on the Spanish Civil War for a student who had read fictional accounts but wanted to get into the actual historical accounts of the war. Since I am one of only two modern Spanish historians at the university, this is a reasonable request.

I suggested four different works of varying degrees - Sheelagh Ellwood for a basic introduction and easy read; Esenwein and Shubert's collection of essays for a broad understanding of the background and meaning of the war without intense detail; and Jackson and Thomas' tomes if you really want a step-by-step accounting of the war in gruesome detail.

The second request I am much more excited about. A former student, a young woman who took a class I worked in this past spring, sent me an email tonight. I recognize her name, remember her work, but honestly cannot remember her face. [Side note: I do not know how professors who can remember every student for decades do it. I have been teaching for 5 years, have taught well over 600 students since the fall of 2004. I recognize my students, but their names, or their names with faces, flee my fragile memory quickly.] As soon as she mentioned the term paper that she wrote, I remembered it. It was by far the best paper I read all year. Perhaps the best paper I have read in 5 years of grading.

The class was on American foreign policy in the 20th century, dealing especially with cover operations, and her paper dealt with American involvement in Chile during the Allende period. She argued that the American involvement in this particular coup was in part due to their desire to change Chilean economics, which was achieved by placing into power Chilean economists whom had been trained at the University of Chicago and then brought back with aid from the CIA. It was an amazing paper, well-researched, and extremely sophisticated. My only comment was that if she had not considered continuing on into graduate school, she really should do it.

Well, tonight she emailed me saying that she has majored in politics (I'm guessing political science) but now is trying to apply to our graduate program in history. She has written to the American history professor who taught that class, but since she is not sure he will necessarily know who she is, she is hoping that I can put in a good word for her in the hopes that he will write a letter of recommendation for her.

It's the first time a student has asked me to "put in a good word for me" before! So in the past week, I had a student cite me in a paper, and now is looking to me for recommendation help.

It makes me happy, because I feel like perhaps I might actually be making a difference. Maybe some of them really are learning something. Maybe I can be a positive factor in their lives. I hope so. That's part of what I love about teaching. It's the hope of change, the possibility that, beyond teaching them what happened in Europe or in Asia or Africa in the 19th century, they might come away with a greater understanding of themselves, of each other, and might be better for it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Those crazy kids

This weekend was a whirlwind 48-hour grading extravaganza. My university demands that we grading all exams and calculate final grades within 48 hours of the end of the exam time slot. Since my students' exam was on Friday, I get a slight extension, having until tomorrow morning technically. (This all stems from when we were still using hand-written, scantron bubble sheets to submit final grades. Obviously you couldn't physically hand in grades on the weekend, since all of the university offices are closed. This was, oh, two academic years ago? Yeah, not really in the 21st century yet.)

A few times I broke out into song, thanks to Lerner and Loewe - "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak? Norwegians speak Norwegian, and Greeks are taught their Greek. In France, every Frenchman knows his language from 'A' to 'Zed'.... Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning. And Hebrews learn it backwards which is absolutely frightening. But use proper English you're regarded as a freak. Oh why can't the English, why can't the English learn to speak?"

So, in honor of 'Enry 'Iggins and his lamentations regarding the non-usage of the English language among native speakers, here are some funnies gleaned from my 2 days of marathon grading:

Students know absolutely no geography. Here are some of my favorite labels from their map quiz.

1. The Black Sea - labeled variously as Montenegro, Slovakia, Lithuania, Macedonia, and Serbia. In my sleepy head, I can only assume that these sea-based states are either the mythical Atlantians or else are canoe-based societies.
2. The Adriatic Sea - labeled as Croatia and Serbia
3. The North Sea - is the Czech Republic
4. Germany - is actually Montenegro
5. France - is either Bosnia or Macedonia, depending on who you ask. These just make me sad. :-(
6. Ukraine - is Bosnia, Serbia, or Macedonia
7. Belgium - is actually Lithuania
8. Denmark - is Croatia
9. Poland - is either Czech Republic, Lithuania, or Slovakia
10. Switzerland - is either Estonia or the Czech Republic
11. My favorite - Austria as the Czech Republic and Belarus as Slovakia - which would have meant a fascinating history of the unified state from 1919-1989, since they were separated a few states...

1. “The Ottoman Empire was defeated by the Japanese in the early 18th century.”

2. “Another imperial problem that Europe faced was the Boxers Rebellion. This conflict started because the Harmoneous and Rhitious fists of China wanted to stop British and western influences on their country. There were also the Indian Muntainy, in which the Indian people fought for their own indepences from European influences. After WWII Europe as a whole was mixed and manggled.”

3. “The rivalry between France & Great Britain since 1789 is like the great college football rivaly of UofA & ASU." ... “The Ottoman Empire was the big man on campus.”

4. In the First World War, the United States “teamed up with France, Germany went with Britain. Prussia even got involved because they were already upset at France.”

5. “The Austrian-Hungarian empire was originally the Ottoman Empire.”

6. Bismarck forced France to give up “Asslance Lorean and sign the Treaty of Versali.”

7. “Tsarist Russia fought on Britian’s side during World War Two, but Russia became a communist country shortly thereafter. Britian strongly disliked communism, and Britian and Russia ended up fighting each other in the Cold War.”

8. Because the French lost the 7 Years’ War, Spain got Canada.

9. Russian imperialism spread to the East, and they conquered the Netherlands.

10. German unification was “done by a genius man named Bismark.”

11. “Imperealism had been a new concept to all the empires but World War II put an end to this.”

12. “The Ottoman Empire rained supreme for nearly 500 years.”

13. “Germany had difficult times in war, because of their lack of embracy of technology.”

14. Russia tried to “go through Afghanistan in order to get to India at the Black Sea.”

15. “From the begging of history, the French and the British have had their differences.”

16. Britain and France signed the “Entente Contical, which in simple terms meant they wouldn’t fight.”

17. “The unification of Germany and Italy was a major event in history. The Germans with Hitler and the Italians with Mussolini. These two powers united seemed undestructrable.”

18. “The American Revolution was not long, in fact once Britain found out that France had funded the American troops and helped them fight, they backed out.”

19. “In 1948 Otto Von Bismarck passed a new constitution, and became unified.” Germany wasn’t Germany until 1948? Dude…

20. “It doesn’t seem Russia ever got their warm water. Poor, cold Russia.”

21. “Europe has had a very long history within itself and outside.”

So many students, so many completely wrong statements! I'm sure the Austrians and Turks would be interested in knowing that they are, in fact, the same people - and so all that fighting they did for 500 years was actually just fighting themselves. And the fact that Bismarck unified Germany in 1948? Wow... I'm especially excited to learn that Britain simply ran back to England - all it took was the basic knowledge that the French were involved to make them run home! As for geography... *sigh* I can't even begin with that. As for their spelling, well, these aren't all that bad, except, perhaps, for Asslance Lorean (Alsace-Lorraine), Rhitious fists (Righteous Fists), manggled (mangled), and whatever the heck "embracy" is. Ha.

Hope these were enjoyable. :-)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fed up

I try really hard to not show my frustrations with my students. I never liked it when professors took stuff out on us when I was a student, so I try not to do it to my own students. But the last few weeks I have been reaching the end of my rope with them. Part of it is due in part to my hellish migraines of late, and so I understand that my mood has been a bit unpredictable.

But lately I have been appalled at my students' complete lack of regard for what I say in class. My students have had two important assignments due this month. The first was a very complicated paper that the professor decided to grade, and that I tried to discuss a few times, and he discussed in class. The second is a much simpler, 2-3 page paper based on the reading of a primary source in their textbook. For a good three weeks in a row, I told all three of my classes that I was going to give them the option of choosing any of the sources they had left to write about. For the first paper of this sort, I made them all write on the same source and answer a specific question. This time, I told them to pick one document and then just pick one of the reading questions connected to their document to answer so they'd have a coherent thesis statement.

That's it. Simple, open-ended, easy to do, right? Choose any of the documents you have liked, pick one question to answer, write the paper. And it's been explained at least three times in class.

You'd never know it was that easy by talking to my students. I would say that a good 50% of my students have emailed me or come up to me in class to ask about this last essay. Some of my favorite questions are the ones that sound something like this:

~ "I've looked in my notes and can't find anything about this last essay. So what do we have to do?"
~ "I know you talked about the essay before, but I don't remember what you said. Could you tell me again, because I need to write the paper tonight."

What I *want* to say are things like, "Notes do not magically appear when I speak. You have to be actually paying attention and writing for that to happen. Therefore, your lack of notes about something I said is not actually my problem. You should have been paying attention."

What I really do not understand is how it became acceptable for students to completely ignore their teachers, repeatedly, then write emails or come in person, admit that they ignore their teachers, and fully expect to get whatever information they need. I refused to answer or told some students that I had already explained this multiple times in class, and they responded that their grades really couldn't handle another bad grade if they did this wrong so couldn't I please help?

Again - NO! Yesterday in class I probably told ten students in a row that what I had said in class still stood - they had no idea what I had said in class, even though every single one of them had been in class. One of them responded, "But I haven't missed any classes. I was there every week."

That's supposed to make your case stronger??? By reminding me that you were never absent, that you were always sitting less than 10 feet away from me, and that you STILL do not know what I said?

I simply do not understand. I have the great urge to tell them on Friday that anyone who emailed me asking what the assignment was will be losing 5 points for stupidity.

I often tell my coworkers that I have no problems with true ignorance - with people truly not knowing something, or not understanding, or even with those few students who really do not have the ability to comprehend something (because sometimes you do get a student who isn't at the same level intellectually, as much as you wish they could be). But what makes me angry is what I call "preventable stupidity" - students making choices that lead to them getting lower grades, failing assignments, or just not understanding things because they don't pay attention, don't work, or do something else that could with a tiny bit of effort have been changed to lead to a positive outcome.

So this week, being sick, being in pain for most of the last two weeks, and preventable stupidity abounding in my students is just making me fed up. I want so much to help them, I want them to do well, I want them to thrive, and I want them to love history. But how can they do that when they don't care enough to even pay attention when I tell them, "You have a paper due in two weeks. This is what I want:.... "?

:-( I love my students, and I want the best for them, but their total lack of caring is getting to me this semester. I fear that I am a poor teacher. If I can't inspire them to care, how can I teach them anything worthwhile?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

3 more down, many more to go

After an insanely large amount of time actually reading today - I started around 9:30 this morning and am only now done - I finished three books today:

Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939
* Yet another in a long list of older treatments of the war, Jackson argues that the Republic should have been able to solve most of their problems (except agrarian reform) democratically until 1934. Like Malefakis, Brenan, and a few others, he argues that land reform was probably the biggest problem the Republic faced. According to Jackson, the Republic failed because the civil servants weren't loyal to the Republic, but were to the King; political discipline was hard to come by; the people had not been schooled in the democratic process thanks to a long history of anti-democratic practices; the anarchist uprisings were threatening the stability of the Republic; and the army still saw itself as the protector of the people.

Carmen Martin Gaite, Usos amorosos de la postguerra espanola
*Ugh. This was supposed to be the "easy read" that would be "fun." Ha. I'm not sure if it's a matter of colloquialisms and/or dialect, but I cannot understand this woman's writings. It took me over 6 hours, and I'm going to check tomorrow or Thursday with the English-language translation to see if I've gotten anything right - but I think her basic discussion is about the ways by which the Francoist redefinition of male/female relationships not only repressed sexuality, but demanded a culture of ignorance about the opposite sex. Through a redefinition of femininity (exemplified by Pilar Primo de Rivera and the Seccion Femenina), gender segregation in schools, a cultural taboo against both overt sexuality and singlehood, young men and women often only began to learn about each other during the engagement period. If she said anything more, I was too frustrated to catch it...

Sandie Holguin, Creating Spaniards: Culture and National Identity in Republican Spain
* One of the best books on the Republic in a long time, Holguin talks about how the Republican-Socialist coalition, anarchists, and (at times) the conservatives (eventually the Nationalist leaders under Franco) tried to create a unified populace via cultural programs - theater, literacy campaigns, film, and literature. Even during the war, groups with competing hegemonic projects sent travelling culture troops to educate, entertain, and try to unify. They were all trying to "invent traditions," but the Republic was unable to prevail, partly due to time, partly due to their own internal debates over how exactly to proceed.

Me terribly sleepy now. I've read 20 books, most of them for my major field, in 11 days. *curls up in ball on couch and sleeps for a week*

Monday, November 17, 2008

Comps, comps, comps!

I have been suddenly back to working on comps, and working hard, at that.  In the last 10 days, I've read 17 books, most of them for my dissertation adviser's list.  Three were on environmental history, but the rest have been about Spain, generally between 1875 and 1940. To keep things straight for me (and maybe even help later on), I'm going to list them and provide my own quick summary.  So feel free to stop reading if you are not interested in a bunch of Spanish history book summaries!

Stephen Pyne, Vestal Fire - shoot me now. While I'm sure there are interesting arguments here, this 600+ page book bored me to tears. Literally. I ended up reading a few reviews and the section on the Mediterranean and giving up after about 3 hours. Blah.

William A. Christian, Jr., Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ - unfortunately, like Pyne, this book is far too long (around 500 pages) and has no real argument. After I got through part of it, I read some reviews by three of the giants in the field (Lannon, Ringrose, and Payne), and none of them could find the argument. Lannon, in particular, ended his review with something along the lines of, "So, the retelling of the story is great, but I'm still left wondering - what does it mean?" Not a good sign when the giant who focuses on Catholicism and religion in Spain has no idea why your 500-page book on visions of Mary in 1931 in the Basque regions matters.

Diana K. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa - Excellent work on the French use of a declensionist environmental narrative as a means of justifying the imposition of imperial rule over the Berbers and Arabs of the Maghreb.

Walter Rodney, How the West Underdeveloped Africa - I swear, he could have saved me a lot of time by just saying, "Read Marx. Now apply it to Africa and Europe and their relationship. The End." -.-

Temma Kaplan, Red City, Blue Period: Social Movements in Picasso's Barcelona - Excellent book that shows how, in Barcelona, festivals and street performances of various kinds were used both to express solidarity and to challenge the central authority in Madrid. These festivals and rituals were coopted and transformed over time by various groups (unions, women, the Church, the regionalist league, etc.) and together they helped shape Barcelona's unique identity in the early twentieth century.

Sheelagh Ellwood, Spanish Fascism in the Franco Era: Falange Espanola de las Jons, 1936-76 - I'm sure this is a good narrative history of the institution of the Falange Espanola, but it bored me. A lot. I got to where I didn't care what was happening to the FE at any point. Again, she's a good writer, and her work on Franco is always well-supported. But I don't like the Franco era. It bores me.

Michael Richards, A Time of Silence: Civil War and the Culture of Repression in Franco's Spain, 1936-1945 - Interesting idea - that the focus on "autarky" in the immediate aftermath of the civil war was not truly just about economics, but was actually part of a larger process of isolating Spaniards, "purifying" the nation of that "anti-Spain" crowd (aka, those who supported the Republic); and that poverty, self-denial, and hardship were all encouraged as your due sacrifice to the New State, which was continually reinforced by violence and the threat of violence.

Alun Kenwood, ed., The Spanish Civil War: A Cultural and Historical Reader - Primarily a primary source reader, but using literature to explore Spanish, American, French, British, and German experiences and reactions to the civil war. Fun read.

Helen Graham, The Spanish Republic at War, 1936-1939 - Very long book... and right now I can't remember what she argues. Probably because I couldn't find a real thesis statement anywhere... in the 500-page book!

Ronald Radosh, et al, eds., Spain Betrayed: the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War - Primarily a collection of around 80 Soviet documents, taking up most of 500 pages, regarding the Soviets' involvement in the war, the editors argue that the Soviets wanted, from the very beginning, to control he situation in Spain. They contend that the Soviets wanted to turn Spain into a version of what they'd use in Eastern Europe after WWII.

Gerald Howson, Arms for Spain: The Untold Story of the Spanish Civil War - Using primarily diplomatic records from around the world, Howson argued that the Non-Intervention Pact condemned the Republic to defeat, in part because, in practice, the Nationalists were able to get all they needed from Germany/Italy, and because the Republic was reduced to trying to smuggle arms in from around the world. In this smuggling scheme, they were taken advantage of by pretty much everyone, though the Soviets were especially ruthless in manipulating the exchange rates to obtain as much Spanish gold as possible. He also points to the general ineptitude of all of those involved as one explanation for the whole fiasco.

Pierre Broue and Emile Temime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain - A lovely little Marxist book that argues that there was a social revolution going on in Spain at the beginning of the Civil War, and that this Revolution was, in large part, the enthusiasm and lifeline for the Republic. They seem to think that The Revolution could have saved Spain, but that the Republican leaders, especially the communist party, sacrificed the Revolution in order to fight the war; by doing so, they ended up losing both the Revolution AND the war. Fun, huh?

Adrian Shubert, The Road to Revolution in Spain: The Coal Miners of Asturias, 1860-1934 - His doctoral dissertation from the 1980s, Shubert argued that the miners in Asturias who revolted in October 1934 had radicalized primarily due to the economic crisis in the industry after WWI and the inability of the unions or the Republic to solve the problems. The Spanish coal industry boomed during WWI, as British coal, especially, faltered during the fighting. But after 1918, the British industry rebounded, with the effect of sending the Spanish industry into a bit of a depression; Spanish mining companies responded by trying to cut wages and social provisions, instituting greater mechanization, and in general sacrificing working conditions for greater productivity and profits. The miners turned to their syndicate, the SMA, but it chose a route of moderation, relying on the government. When the government - both the Primo dictatorship and the later Republic - were unable to mitigate the effects of the depression, the miners radicalized even more. So when the Socialists sent the word for a general strike and uprising, the Asturian miners were especially ready.

Edward Malefakis, Agrarian Reform and Peasant Revolution in Spain - A bit of a beast to get through, mainly because endless tables and statistics kind of get boring after a few hours, Malefakis argued that it was the failure of the Republic to pass truly radical land reform between 1931 and 1936 that led to the radicalization of the Spanish peasant, especially in Southern Spain (i.e., Extremadura and Andalucia) where the latifundio system was so prevalent. By not addressing the land question, the Republic doomed itself.

Robert Kern, Liberals, Reformers and Caciques in Restoration Spain 1875-1909
*I never quite found an actual thesis... but he argues that the failure of Spanish liberalism to reform the agrarian situation and provide real relief to peasants and workers explains why liberalism as a political option failed after 1875. Because liberalism was so closely associated with the power of the caciques, especially since Canovas did not trust the general public to be true participants in government, and because of the crises after 1875 (the disaster of 1898, the Semana Tragica (which killed the possibility of regionalist reform), liberalism failed to adapt, reform, or modernize.

Pamela Radcliff, From Mobilization to Civil War: The Politics of Polarization in the Spanish City of Gijon, 1900-1937
*Her doctoral dissertation, this is an excellent work that uses both Habermas' concept of the public sphere and Gramsci's discussion of hegemony to argue that in the early twentieth century, there were three hegemonic projects competing for dominance. These were the republican project, the labor movement's project, and the traditional narrative (Catholic, monarchist, etc.). Dissension within the republican ranks, and the conflict between the UGT and CNT in the labor movement, helped prevent either side from fully winning over the working class - and so neither side was able to unify the masses under one coherent hegemonic project. They tried to co-opt the public sphere, through education, processions/festivals, rituals, symbols, but none of the hegemonic projects dominated. Again, the lack of real reform under the Republic of the 1930s doomed the republican project for good.

Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth: an Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War
*Blech, this was my main project today. I finished with Radcliff around 11 a.m., and spent most of the rest of the day (when trying to work) reading this. After 300+ pages, I think the main argument of this 1940s work is that the agrarian problem (minifundia in the centre/north, latifundia in the south, regional diversity and constant struggle between peasants/workers and elites) was the primary factor dooming the Republic and leading to the war. There's a lot more in here, but I think this was the main contribution.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ups and downs

I'm a little disappointed.  I've been grading short essays (2-3 pages) and quizzes for the last two weeks.  It was my students' first essay and second quiz. 

Class #1 - quiz average went from 77% on the first one up to 81% on the second one, and their paper average was 83%.  

Class #2 - quiz average went from 76% to 87%, and the paper average was 81%.  

Class #3 - quiz average went DOWN from 78% to 69%, and the paper average was only 76%.  

What's frustrating is that that third class is my favorite.  I love talking with them, they try really hard, and they are just fun to teach, in general.  And yet their grades are going down.... And I'm not terribly sure what to do for them. *sigh*

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My (former) kids

When I was in high school, I had to do a certain amount of volunteer work for school. I think, as an honor's student, I needed to do something like 30 hours per semester. It was rarely a problem to reach the magic number, especially all the things I did through my church. But I wanted to do more than just the church events, and so I decided to talk with the County of Parks and Recreation and see if there were any possibilities there. 

It turned out that they had a program for autistic children ages 7-12 that met for about an hour and a half every Monday (or Tuesday) night. The idea was to give parents of autistic children a night off and, through games and crafts, work on the kids' motor skills, communication skills, and direction-following. I knew next to nothing about autism at that point, but I quickly learned a lot. I even read an autobiography of an autistic woman (Donna Williams, Nobody Nowhere: the Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic, 1994) and was thoroughly amazed at her experiences. I interviewed with two people - who were, I'm sure, a bit wary at first that a 14-year old could handle it all. But they quickly asked me to come on board. For three years, until the county eliminated the program, I went every week to help my kids.  

The kids would arrive around 6 p.m., and we'd immediately do some physical activity. We typically met at a school gym, and so they had balls and jump ropes, and we would do a lot of running/walking laps (to try to get them both active and following directions). After perhaps 30 minutes, we would then take a little break and give some snacks. Once snack time was over (usually 15-20 minutes later), we then did arts & crafts until their parents all arrived.  

As the only worker under the age of about 35, I was designated the one to catch the "runners." My favorite runner was a 10 or 11-year old girl named Mary. Mary was tall, almost as tall as me, and skinny. She couldn't have weighed more than about 70 lbs. She was nonverbal, though I'm convinced she understood more than she let on. Her favorite thing to do - anytime, anywhere - was run. We would try to sit down for snacks, and off she'd go. And I'd go after her, help her slow down, and try my best to bring her back to the table to join the others.  

Mary was just one of the kids who still have a special place in my heart. I don't remember all of their names anymore, though their faces are in my heart. One girl was very tall for her age - a good 4 or 5 inches taller than I was at the time - and decently verbal. The thing I remember most is taking her to the bathroom. She could do everything herself, but someone always had to take her. I remember that she would constantly be shaking her hands while we walked, and would talk the *entire* time. I would try so hard not to laugh while she was in the stall, because she would be telling me all sorts of things I didn't need to know. :-)  

Then there was this little red-head. I can see him, but his name is lost among a sea of students. He came my third year (the last year the program existed), and, boy did he make an entrance! Mary's sister often accompanied her to the program to give her parents a real night off. She was perhaps a year older than Mary, and a very pretty little girl. This little kid - and I do mean "little"; he was no more than 3 ft tall at the time - walked up to her and gave what we soon learned was his constant pick-up line: "You're pre--tty. Are you a Chris-tian?" (The "pretty" and "christian" were both drawn out and emphasized greatly.) The line changed every so often - "Your mommy's pretty. Is she a christian?" or "Mary's pretty. Is she a christian?" We laughed so much with this kid. His parents were, of course, mortified that their teeny 10-year old son was hitting on every female in sight. :-p  

There were others, of course. One boy who was moderately verbal; he could talk about his day, but he couldn't stand to be touched. He seemed to be in his own world through most of the day. Until we got to arts and crafts. This kid was an amazing artist. He could create the most amazing pictures, his crafts were always absolutely perfect (with no help from us), and he would sit and draw with perfect concentration until we made him leave with his parents. 

My favorite, though, and the one I loved most dearly, was a tiny big man named Artie. He was the oldest of the kids there - turning 13 or 14 by the time the program ended - and was completely nonverbal. He came up perhaps to my shoulders, and was at least twice my weight. He made two basic sounds - a siren noise when he was upset or angry or didn't want to do something, and he hummed when he was content or happy or enjoying himself. Because of his weight, he was our worst runner. Sometimes, when I was tired of running after Mary, I would slow down and walk with my arms around Artie. While we made our laps, I would talk to him the whole time. The other workers laughed that I talked to him like a regular kid. I supposed that I was too naive to treat them any differently from any other kids. I told Artie how much his parents loved him, how much I loved him, how much God loved him. Despite my coworkers' laughter, I talked to Artie every week, no matter what. After two and a half years of talking to Artie, one night something great happened. Everyone assumed that because he couldn't speak, he probably didn't understand much of what we said. So this night, he was playing somewhat dangerously on one of the posts that would hold up a volleyball net. He was walking in circles on the base, making it tilt dangerously. I yelled his name, said no, and then firmly took him by the hand and led him to the other side of the gym and gave him a ball to play with. He went straight back to the post. I said "no" again, and led him away again. He returned once again. This time I yelled his name, and he turned, looked straight at me, and gave this evil "heh heh heh" and went back to swinging. Everyone was shocked, because it was the first time he had ever shown that he understood exactly what it was that we didn't want him to do. Half laughing, half being firm, I told him no, told him he was a little stinker, and that now I was on to him, and made him leave the post a final time. I have never forgotten that little laugh.

I was watching a program tonight that included 5 autistic children (or at least autistic spectrum children), and thought, once again, about my former kids. It's been a long time now, and so those children are in their early 20s now. They'll always be in my heart. No matter how many students I have over the years, I think my heart will always be with that group of kids. I wish I had the time to work with kids like that now.

Maybe not right now, but hopefully soon I'll be able to give some of my time to those children. Remember, all children are special and deserve your best love. Some just tug at your heart strings a little more.

Here's to my kids.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Just a quick thought: In watching the presidential debates, I wonder if listening to political crap-speak is where my students learned the art of writing entire essays that say absolutely nothing.  

The only problem is that they admit to me that they don't watch debates, don't read or watch the news, and don't pay attention to what's going on in the world (outside of facebook, myspace, and twitter, at least).  

After the debate, I need to get back to my students' papers.  I'm almost done reading and commenting on one of my three classes' papers.  So far, I am not impressed. 

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Slight detour

I'm so excited, I have to take a small detour from writing about teaching/grad school.  This morning I completed my first 20-mile bike ride!  

It took me 1 hour 33 minutes, my average speed was 12.9 mph.  

I'm so happy!!! 

Friday, October 3, 2008

Representing yourself

Sorry for the long post, but the migraine medicine is keeping me up against my will tonight.

After a bit more angst, I completely rewrote my personal statement for the Fulbright, slightly revised a few parts of my proposal, and turned the whole thing in today - one day earlier than the if-at-all-possible deadline, and 11 days earlier than the absolutely-last-day-possible deadline.  I still have to translate both items into Spanish - and if at all possible I want to have those done by next Wednesday.  I hope to have it done by Monday night or Tuesday morning, get a few native speakers to read over them and make sure I'm saying what I think I'm saying, make revisions, and turn it in on Wednesday. 

I probably am most concerned about the personal statement.  To be blunt, I had no idea what I was doing with it.  Last year, I was told to explain why I study Spain, why I love it, how I got there.  So I traced my journey to studying Spain through high school, college, and graduate school.  The only response I got - show us more about you loving Spain.  

So this year I wrote a new personal statement and tried to show my passion for the people, place, and histories.  I spent much more time talking about my time in Madrid in 2006.  The response I got - it's too "intellectual" and we want more of your biography.  

So I went back to the drawing board.  I started getting frustrated because people kept talking about sharing your story of how you overcame things to get where you are.  But, really, I don't have a come-from-behind story.  I'm more the tortoise in the story - slow and steady, moving up little by little, keeping an eye on the goal.  I don't have a bad home life - my parents are still together after 35 years, my grandparents have been married for 65 years, and my other grandparents were married 52 years before my grandfather passed away.  I always was a good student, had no learning disabilities, didn't live in bad neighborhoods, etc.  

I talked with one of the only people in the office who had applied for this grant, and we talked about how they want a little bit of everything: your family background, interests, intellectual biography, career goals, how you'll be an ambassador, etc.  She said something that I think helped lead to a breakthrough: "Remember that you are writing for the National Committee and the nation's committee.  They don't have the benefit of meeting you in person, so you need to try to get across who you are, your personality."  

With that piece of advice in mind, I decided to just write a brand new statement.  I thought about who I am as a person - if someone hadn't met me, how could I try to help them see *me*?  I came up with a few things: my family, my faith, my travels, my studies, and teaching.  So this time, I started out talking about my parents - their dedication and hard work, my dad's love of history, our history-based vacations (of which there were *many,* trust me!), and my dad quizzing me before history tests (and telling me more stories to make things more exciting).  Then I talked about my parents' encouragement for my brother and me to explore the world and give back - primarily in the US through our church and through missions work abroad.  To try to get in some of my "outside interests," I talked about how my fascination with history began infiltrating everything - so much so that I was even slightly distracted by the living history around me while singing in St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, or in the abbey on Iona, or at Stirling Castle - and so I chose to study history.  I actually only discussed why I study Spain in a few sentences, and then spoke about my goals as an educator, trying to explain why the Fulbright is vital for me as both a student and a teacher.  

I showed it to my advisor, who responded quite positively.  He thought that it did a good job of representing me as a person and not just a scholar.  Of course, I won't know until the last day in January if it gets me past the first round.  But I think my colleague's advice is the best I've ever received.  Hopefully it will serve me, and others, well. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


A note to all students: 

If you want a surefire way to confound, annoy, and generally anger your professors, there is only one thing to do: don't listen.  

I am constantly perplexed by my students.  Three weeks ago, I had to announce a major change on an assignment to my students.  The professor's syllabus was quite vague and ambiguous, and so the TAs decided to make the assignment much more focused.  We narrowed down their choice to one particular primary source and created a specific question they should answer for their essay (rather than trying to formulate an essay based on random discussion questions in their book).  I announced this change.  I wrote it on the board.  I reminded them the following week.  

Their paper is due in 48 hours, and I have received no less than twelve emails from students in the last 20 hours asking what they are supposed to be doing.  

Perhaps this is my own fatigue coming out, or my frustration that I am spending at least two days per week trying to figure out how to teach them what they need to know, but I do not want to answer these emails.  Here's how I see it: 
1) I gave them all the information they needed weeks ago. I write it out on the board, explained the entire thing, and specifically told them they should write this down.

2) They have had 19 days to ask about the paper if they did not do #1. 

3) Whether or not they act like it, they are adults.  It is their responsibility to obtain the information they need, and asking the instructor 48 hours before the paper is due - especially when I *know* that every one of these students was in class when I gave them the question - seems irresponsible.  How do I know that they were in class? Because the day that I explained all of this was the day they took their first quiz, and only 1 student still enrolled in my classes did not take the quiz.  

All of these combine with my own exhaustion to make me a not terribly accommodating professor this week.  They need to learn some responsibility, and they need to learn it fast. 

Speaking of these emails, I really wish someone would teach their kids how to write formal emails.  Did no one ever teach them that you should probably not write your professors using the same (bad) grammar as when you text your friends?  Some key faux pas in these latest emails: 

1) No salutation and no signature - which implies, respectively, that the student does not know either who I am or who they, themselves, are.  I actually told one student that I generally will not answer an email if I do not know to whom I am writing. 

2) The use of all lowercase letters

3) Confusing "your" and "you're"; "there" and "their"; and "cite" and "site"

Argh.  So my suggestions to students: Listen.  Pay attention.  Proofread.  Stop writing to me as if you are writing a text message or instant message.  And if you find yourself a day before a major assignment is due and you have not paid one bit of attention to me all semester, do not expect me to bend over backwards to tell you everything you need to know.  Be an adult; be responsible! 

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


"Beneath blank surfaces, young minds absorb the world." 
~Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era (26)

As the Jewish world celebrated Rosh Hashanah today, I was reading about the Holocaust.  I'm still not quite sure if that is apropos or if it is somehow wrong.  I came across the above quote in the midst of a historical biography of a young German Jewish artist who created an amazing 765-painting exhibit of her life in the midst of life in Nazi Germany and in exile.  

It made me stop.  I - and all those who teach, I suspect - know the image of blank, glazed stares quite well.  There is something that happens when students enter our classrooms at times.  I'm not entirely sure what occurs, but you can point out the ones whom you just know will get nothing out of the class.  Their bodies are present, but you look into their eyes and it's evident that they are far away.  Perhaps they're in dreams, perhaps in last night's party, perhaps in tomorrow's date, or perhaps in utter oblivion.  But they are assuredly not here.  Not now.  

What struck me about the quote above is the admonition it implies - an admonition not to give up on those 'space cadets' as one colleague calls them.  It is an admonition to remember that minds can take in information even if on the surface they are blank.  

I have this picture forming in my head of a sponge that on one side looks totally dry, but on the underside is slowly seeping in water - water that will eventually overtake the whole sponge and ooze back out.  Perhaps some of these students are like those sponges.  It takes time, but perhaps they can eventually produce results.  

Among some of my colleagues, I am unusually optimistic concerning students.  Thanks in large part to my undergraduate advisor, I approach students with a fundamental belief that they can understand, they can grow, and they can achieve whatever goals are placed before them.  But I must confess that these blank students often frustrate me.  I want so much for them to engage me, each other, and the material, that I get frustrated when they do none of these.  

But tonight I've been reminded of those fundamental beliefs, of that basic faith that students are not a lost cause.  So on Friday, when I see my students again, when I see those blank stares and the admissions that they have done absolutely no work to prepare for my class, may I remember Charlotte Salomon and her biographer's assurance that there is hope even those students.  To quote Winston Churchill, "Never give up.  Never give up.  Never give up."

Monday, September 29, 2008


A quick note - I must proclaim my praise and thanks to God tonight for getting me through the day.  The Fulbright interview was 180ยบ different from last year's.  The professors were courteous, they seemed interested in my positions and asked legitimate questions that I could actually answer quite easily, and they offered a few suggestions for both the personal statement and the proposal.  

I was so nervous beforehand, I thought I was going to wring my hands to death.  I barely slept for more than 5 hours last night, and I almost forewent any breakfast due to nerves.  Last year's experience was so traumatic, I seriously considered not going through with this a few times.  I know I had a number of people praying that I could remain calm and focused, and I could certainly feel the effects of those prayers.  I was unusually calm when I finally got there, I didn't shake or stumble over my words - I felt confident.  It was a radical shift from last year.  

Now I get to make some revisions and translate everything into Spanish for the final drafts.  Whoo-hoo.  Thanks for the support/prayers.  

And here's to all of my fellow Fulbright applicants.  I wish you all the best with the applications and interviews.  And remember to be happy you're not applying to Spain and so don't have to translate your proposal into a different language. :-) 

Sunday, September 28, 2008


While reading a series of review essays on the historiography of modern Germany this afternoon, I was reminded again about the importance of periodization.  

All of us create discrete units of time within which history supposedly makes sense.  We find "really important" events and those anchor the stories we tell.  These major events often serve as what historians call turning points: they either started something new or stopped something old, ripped people and states apart or brought them together.  Think of how you think about history.  If you had to explain to your child, or partner, or friend what the basic course of Western history was, for example, you would probably atomize the last 2000 years into some discrete parts: ancient history (up until the fall of Rome in the 400s AD), medieval history (until perhaps 1492), early modern history (from 1492 until the French Revolution), and modern history (from the French Revolution to your present).  

The way we talk about history changes when we reach those moments, but they also affect how we understand the stories we tell.  

An example: in modern European history, the French Revolution is almost always discussed as the major turning point, the major breaking point that marks the birth of the modern nation state, of modern history.  Historians describe not just French politics, but all of French society before the Revolution as the ancien regime.  This "ancient regime" fundamentally breaks in the revolution.  Who has power, who wants power, the structure of class/group relations, the structure of politics, civil rights - all of this changed through the revolution.  Rare is a book that covers the 1700s and 1800s in France without breaking at the revolution.  

For Spain, the birth of "modern" history is a bit later - many people use 1808, when the Napoleonic Wars began, but the "old regime" in Spain persisted in power for a good deal longer.  Therefore, there are reams of papers in which historians argue whether Spain was truly modern, whether and when the old regime actually died, etc.  

But what happens when we break with accepted divisions?  What happens when you begin to argue, as this review essay did, that the Third Reich was not, in fact, a true breaking point and should not be considered as a discrete historical era?  What happens when you argue that the interwar period was not, in fact, a separate era but was the connective tissue that connects WWI and WWII?  What happens when you argue that American history should not be considered in terms of Presidential regimes, but instead in terms of the history of voting rights?  

Graduate school encourages people thinking "out of the box," but I have noticed that most of us tend to simply accept the time divisions that previous historians and textbooks set out for us.  I concluded about a year ago that one of the reasons why European historians have such difficulty connecting the Iberian (Spanish/Portuguese) experience with the rest of the Continent is because the periodization does not match very well: 
Europe: 1789-1815, 1815-1871, 1871-1914, 1914-1945, 1945-1989, 1989-present
Spain: 1808-1830, 1830-1868, 1868-1875, 1875-1923, 1923-1930, 1930-1936, 1936-1939, 1939-1975, 1975-present

As you can see, almost none of the dates match up.  Two major problems are that Spain did not participate officially in either WWI or WWII, and so their experience of the first 45 years of the 20th century were markedly different from that of their continental cousins.  But even in the 19th century, Spain was slightly insulated - and though they were going through the same or similar processes as the rest of Europe, the Spanish experience usually came a few years earlier or later, and had somewhat different results.  

Sorry for the Spanish history tangent... can you tell I am studying for my doctoral exams??? :-) I wonder how much historians could change people's perspectives if we simply started and stopped the history at different points.  Perhaps the next class I get the opportunity to teach, I should try to shake things up a bit.  

But don't worry - I won't try to tell them that modern history begins in 32 AD.  :-)  

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Usefulness of History

Why study history? What's the point?  

This question seems to be asked more often these days, as we all face national economic crises, state budget crises, and university budget cuts.  My own university has to cut between 6 and 10% of its overall budget and is proposing a massive "restructuring" to try to make the university more efficient, cost-effective, and of higher quality.  As part of this whole process, our department needs to submit a white paper to the administration that justifies our existence, explains our importance, and offers proposals that we could live with.  

So we have the question: why study history?  The department does not get huge federal grants like the sciences, or corporate grants like many of the engineering departments.  Many of our professors are quite well known in their fields, but the nature of historical research is such that we rarely receive large federal grants or work on nationally-recognized projects.  So why history? 

I came up with a few simple answers for my students this summer, when I was teaching a European history course.  My basic answer is this: 
  • History is, at its heart, the stories we tell about human beings - their thoughts, their actions, their words, their creations.  These stories can appear in a thousand different forms - stories of businesses, economics, literature, music, ideology, politicians and kings, men, women, children, religions, battles, etc.  But ultimately, we tell these stories in the hopes of understanding the people who came before us.  As we tell more and more stories, as we understand more about these people, we understand, ultimately, who we ourselves are.  Because no matter whether you "learn" from history, or even remember it, every individual lives in context.  Your values, your experiences, your family, everything helps shape who you are, for good or ill, and those were, in turn, shaped by what came before them.  
So why study history?  It probably won't make you (or your university) a lot of money.  It probably won't get you an interview on Larry King or whomever the most desirable interviewer is at the time.  It probably won't make you famous.  But there are consequences for not knowing or understanding history.  Those who do not know rarely understand complicated current events.  But, even more important than not understanding why the Middle East is so contentious or why factions in Iraq or Afghanistan are still fighting each other, if you do not understand history, if you do not understand your own context, you cannot fully understand yourself.  Why you are the way you are, why you have experienced what you have, why your life is what it is.  

So to those who question the need to have history departments, or who propose cutting funding/positions/courses in those departments, I offer this: We historians are dedicated to the past because it is fundamental to understanding the present.  We endeavor to teach students not just to recite, but to truly analyze and understand the world.  For us, regurgitation is not the goal.  The goal is to think and to understand.  

In the temple at Delphi the words "Know Thyself" were inscribed.  Socrates argued that self-knowledge was the key to wisdom.   I'll stick with Socrates and the Oracle at Delphi, but I'll add that knowing the past is one of the keys to knowing yourself.  

So know the past.  Know yourself. 

Friday, September 26, 2008

Grant Season

I think one of the most frustrating parts of academia has to be the process of applying for grants.  My first experience with grant-writing was quite positive.  I applied for two important grants in 2006 to try to fund an exploratory research trip to Madrid.  I received the first field grant through my university, which funded my airfare from the US to Madrid and back.  I also received an important grant from the Spanish Ministry of Culture - nicknamed the PCC.  It didn't cover all of my costs, since it is a matching-funds, 3-months maximum grant.  But it certainly helped to offset the living expenses a bit.  

Last fall I went through an intense grant-writing semester.  Beginning at the end of August 2007, I worked furiously to try to develop my dissertation idea into a real, workable, coherent proposal.  It was quite difficult, and took up the majority of my time.  But by mid-September I had what my committee thought was a decent proposal and so grant-writing was my next step.  I spent most of September and half of October applying for the IIE Fulbright Full Grant - first writing the proposal and personal statement, then enduring a horrendous and traumatic on-campus interview, and then having to not only make changes to the proposal/statement but also translate both into Spanish in the event my application made it to the second round.  I spent the rest of October writing a proposal for the Social Science Research Council's Mellon Fellowship.  And most of November was spent writing a proposal for the Council for Library and Information Resources' Mellon Fellowship for Original Sources research.  I spent part of January 2008 on a proposal for an AHA grant, and then in March applied for another PCC grant.  And somewhere in there I also applied for an internal Social Science research institute grant at my university, as well as funding from my department.

After all of that work, I ended up with three grants - an $800 internal research grant to fund a trip to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in July; $2000 from my department from various funds; and $4000 from the PCC.  Everything else fell through.  Which, in hindsight, is probably good, because I was nowhere near ready to take my exams last spring.  I have had next to no courses in my major field thanks to being the only modern Europeanist in the program right now, and trying to read 600 books in less than 3 months (plus grading, and grant writing) was insane.  

So here we are in the fall 2008, and everything that I had to do last year, I'm having to do again.  
1) Grant writing - I have just applied for the IIE Fulbright again, after a good deal of stress and debate about whether it was worth it.  I have my on-campus interview on Monday and am just praying it is a better and more productive experience than last year's.  I seriously considered just not applying for it, despite the fact that it is my best chance at funding for my dissertation research year.  I get to apply for the two Mellons again, and I have submitted a pre-application for a grant specifically for women scholars.  I won't find out until the end of the semester if they are going to invite me to submit a full application.  

2) Teaching - I will probably talk about this a good deal, but I am currently teaching a freshman-level course with a horrible adjunct professor, and it is causing great stress.  The adjunct gives horrible lectures that either do not tell the full stories (like not explaining the long-term explanations for the French Revolution, but simply saying it happened because France was bankrupt and the "middle class/aristocracy wanted more power") or get things blatantly wrong.  So I am struggling to find the balance between not challenging the professor's authority while still teaching my students the immense amount of material they need so that anything makes sense.  

3) Comps preparation - yeah, this has been the thing that falls by the wayside.  It doesn't help that my physical health makes the 25-hour work days that graduate school is so well known and hated for virtually impossible.  But I still feel wholly inadequate when it comes to my doctoral exams.  They should be occurring later this semester, but, again, we'll see how that goes... 

The grant writing is made even harder by the fact that I am applying for the same exact grants as last year, but since I had no feedback on where my proposal was perhaps too weak or difficult for examiners to understand, I have been making changes somewhat blindly.  I have no idea if the changes I made were the best choices, and that's a slightly frustrating place to be.  My committee seemed to be exceptionally pleased with this new incarnation of my dissertation, so I can only hope for the best.  

Here's to all of us who are spending 20 hours a week preparing grant applications, begging for consideration in a shaky economy, trying to get someone else to care about our research.  Best of luck.  Unless, of course, you are also applying to go to Spain on the IIE Fulbright. :-p 

Opening statement

While I've used blogs in other places, I am a bit tired of some of them.  I started them primarily to keep up with friends, and most of them have stopped updating now.  So I'm beginning anew.  This will be, primarily, a place to write about work - navigating between grant writing, teaching, grading, comps preparation, and the dissertation.  I reserve the right to talk about life in general, too, but for the most part this will be about the struggles and joys of being a Ph.D. student in history.  

Read if you like.  If you decide to comment, know that I reserve the right to delete any comments that use foul or obscene language, any that are insulting or attacking.  In short, be nice, or go away.