History and humor

Sit down and let me pour you a cup!

As you may have noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, I like teh funny, and even if my sense of humor ain’t exactly your cuppa joe, I like to write to amuse myself, at least.  My problem now is that I can’t find a lot of humor in the book I’m writing.  I wrote a book about guys and guns and warfare in the Northeastern borderlands of what’s now the U.S. and Canada, so although that wasn’t a happy story for most of the people I wrote about, there were a lot of really fatuous English men and women I could mock in that book.  I realize it’s a low trick, but having a mockable bad guy or set of bad guys in your book is one way to leaven the story and add a little humor.  After writing about warfare for the better part of a decade, I looked forward to what I imagined to be a retreat into the relative safety and comfort of the cloister in order to write about a little English girl (Esther Wheelwright, 1696-1780) who was taken captive by the Indians at 7 and wound up in the Ursuline convent in Quebec at the age of 12, where she remained for the rest of her life.  

But, the problem for me right now is that there just isn’t a lot of humor in the story of a little girl whose life was filled with warfare and trauma for her English family, and the starvation, disease, and eventual destrution of her Indian family.  She arrived safely at the monastery and lived to the age of 84, but early modern nuns are just so earnest with their apostolic missions, such do-gooders that I haven’t found a lot of humor or texture in that part of the story, either.  They were not late medieval mystics who wrote long, fantastic narratives or offered descriptions of the various ways in which they mortified their bodies.  They were not aristocratic European nuns who flaunted their wealth and had men jumping in and out of their cells in between secret plots to make another Borgia prince the Pope.  They were teachers!  I’m a teacher, and many of you reading this are teachers–you know how boring and earnest we all are!  Who wants to read about about a bunch of teachers?   

In short, I have a humor problem with this book, and no really obvious bad guys to target for the cheap yuks.  (At least I’m having a hard time making scurvy and smallpox variola take the fall for everything.) Continue reading

Wyoming: a Not-So-Happy Meal but a cowgirl's dream

Wyoming is a big, freaking, windy state.  490 miles in 8 hours and 10 minutes:  how’s that for a cattle drive?  Yee-haw!  Man, am I saddle sore!  Since I don’t have any relations in nearby states, I’m no longer accustomed to long car trips or crossing state lines in anything smaller than a DC-9.  Now that we have friends back in Salt Lake City, I imagine I’ll be saddling up and riding out to visit the Double G Ranch again before too long.  (Thanks, friends!)

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and as you might imagine, there are not a lot of culinary options while traveling I-80.  I bought a McDonald’s “Happy Meal,” because I figured that less bad food was better than an adult-sized portion of bad food.  My traveling companion. who also had a Happy Meal, wanly regarded a Chicken McNugget and announced, “I’m not loving this food.”  We agreed that they should be called “Miserable Meals,” although the Littlest Pet Shop toy inside provided some entertainment.

Fratguy and I joke about having four children and naming them after the major towns of Wyoming.  Can’t you just picture it?  “Cody, Casper, Cheyenne, Jackson–get in the truck!”  Continue reading

Where in the world is Historiann?

Famille Historiann is on a little road trip this weekend for a mini-spring break.  Here’s a little something I saw while we were making a pit stop Thursday night–I couldn’t resist sharing this with fellow academic blogger Undine at Not of General Interest, who is always delightfully cranky about the shocking amount of teh stoopid that infects our national and local conversations about higher education and education policy.  (For example, see her latest post on college students “Actually Going to Class?”  Surely not!)  I have no idea why this park is called Undine–perhaps it’s named after Undine Spragg?  (Perhaps Undine the blogger is too?)

So where am I?  I suppose all that I can say is, where the hell are all my brother husbands? Continue reading

"A lot of money would make things better."

Finally, a high-profile review of these “crisis in higher education” books that calls them for what they are:  bull$hitte.  (H/t to my colleague and occasional blog contributorNathan Citino for the link.  He reads the New York Review of Books  so I don’t have to!)  Go read the whole thing by Peter Brooks–but here are some parts I thought particularly choice:

On the one hand, all the critics of the American university claim to be partisans of the liberal arts, to want students to study philosophy and literature, even the arts, and to learn “critical thinking” (the currently accepted mantra—not a bad one). On the other hand, the tests proposed always seem to have to do with job preparation—even as the critics in the same breath deplore “vocationalism” and point to the impoverished education that many majors in business or accounting receive. And one would like to know whether the level of higher education attainment measured by the OECD is in fact liberal education or simply technocratic training at a high level (a point raised by Martha Nussbaum in Not for Profit, the welcome outlier among the books under review).

[Claudia] Hacker and [Andrew] Dreifus, in their self-consciously iconoclastic (and sometimes cranky) book, identify a “Golden Dozen” colleges considered the most desirable: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, Williams. They find it hard to obtain “solid information” to gauge the success of Golden Dozen graduates. So they turn to Who’s Who in America, to track one class (‘73) from Princeton—to find that national eminence has been achieved by a disappointing percentage of them. From this and some other equally shaky research, they conclude: “We found that most Dozen graduates do not create distinctive lives and careers—at least not to the extent one would expect from colleges that claim to find and nurture unusual talent.” The exercise is trivial—to judge the successful life requires far greater depth of knowledge—and its conclusions lightweight.

Terminal Preppies

Hey, social scientists:  how ’bout that methodology?  I’m sure they have some super-scientific formula for determining “national eminence.”  And who cares about the Class of 1973 from Princeton–did Hacker and Dreifus consider that the uni was still being churned by co-education for undergraduates, which had only begun in 1969?  Princeton’s largely male class of 1973 likely still was reflective more of ancestral privilege and old-boy networks rather than a more meritocratic admissions system.  Gee–no wonder so few (by their measure) are “nationally eminent!” Continue reading

Using Facebook to stalk former professors

Have any of you faculty-types received hate mail from former students via your Facebook account?  Here’s a little something that landed in the Facebook “message” account of a friend of mine.  (She has since moved on to another professional calling.)  
Hello, i had you as a professor for Greek Philosophy at the University of D*****.  I mean no disrespect here but you actually kicked me out of a class for calling some girl a name (that i never called her and would ever call her or anyone) simply because she told you i did. To this day me and my best friend Jay are still bothered by the fact you did that. You made my college experience way more difficult than it had to be. You are one of the most difficult people i have ever dealt with and am so glad to see you are a “former” philosophy professor mainly because no other student will have to deal with your bullshit again. Didn’t surprise me you would take a woman’s word over mine. You pushed your hardcore feminist BS on everyone. The thing was i tried so hard to be accepted by you in college i guess it took years of realization that you are in fact a horrible professor and probably not that much better of a person.

Well, then:  I’m glad he meant “no disrespect!”  Continue reading

Horrific high-speed, car-flipping crashes

I am not using “car crash” as a metaphor like “train wreck,”–this is a post about the fact that I have been driving the first car behind two different cars that crashed horrifically in the past six months.  Both accidents were on the U.S. Interstate or state highway I travel every day to and from work.

In late September as I returned from an evening lecture on campus after nightfall, I was in the travel lane and was passed by an older car (like a 1970s sled of a sedan) in the left-hand lane heading southbound on I-25.  The sled veered in front of me into the travel lane, so I kept my distance.  It then careened off to the right, past the shoulder (to the point beyond which I could still see its taillights), and I saw sparks.  Then the car reappeared, flying to the left back onto the highway and into the stream of traffic, when it then went flying into the median which (fortunately) was a steep uphill, where it then rolled a few times, stopped upside down, and the engine burst into flames.  I pulled over to call 911, and other motorists got out of their cars, ran across 75-MPH traffic, and pulled bodies from the flaming vehicle. 

The accident I saw yesterday morning was almost identical, although the car was a late model and there was no indication of mechanical problems.  Continue reading

"Survey says. . . !" Historiann takes the Career Paths of Historians survey, again.

Greeting me in my e-mail in-box first thing this morning was a request that I fill out a survey by Robert Townsend, the numbers guy at the American Historical Association.  Having nothing terribly interesting to do at the moment, and lots of uninteresting work that could stand a little more procrastination, I filled it out and “shared” lots of opinions in the “your thoughts please” text boxes where available.  I don’t know if I’m on some kind of permanent list of 1990s Ph.D.s who bother to fill out surveys, but I think I’ve answered previous generations of this survey before.  (I’m happy to provide another set of crunchy data points for the AHA–why not?  After all, you all know that “I like to share.“)

Here are my impressionistic memories of the survey:

  1. They asked how many total blog posts I’ve written (answer:  1,117, until I published this one.  How did they know?), and how many in the past two years.  (I guessed about 800.  That may be a bit high now that I think about it, but it’s not far off.)  In any case, I don’t remember blogging being a part of the survey before.
  2. I pointed out once again how pathetic it is that most people get only 6 weeks of paid maternity or parental leave, and most are left to negotiate coverage for their classes by themselves, as though universities still haven’t caught on to the fact that women are on the faculty now and are no longer only staff members.  How many parental leaves will most women and men in academia take in practice?  I know of only a few overachievers who have 3 children, but the vast majority of academic women and men have just one or two children, and frequently they’ve already had them before they’re employed in a tenure-track line anyway.  In all of its history, two women in my department have taken a maternity leave from a tenure-track position to give birth to two infants.  Two.  And the first maternity leave for a tenure-track historian wasn’t taken until 2003!  (Yes, Baa Ram U. is an institution founded in the nineteenth century that apparently missed entirely the appearance in the 1920s-40s, then disappearance in the 1950s-60s, then re-emergence of women on the faculty in significant numbers in the later twentieth century that is the usual pattern for American colleges and universities.)
  3. The survey asked what they should do with the data it yields to the AHA.  I asked them to find a trillion dollars to fund higher education at appropriate levels, given the burden for the economy we bear as the creators and preservers of what’s left of the American middle class. Continue reading