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.