Research


  • PowerPoint: fine, if not required.
  • Clip art of flag of country under discussion: sure, why not.
  • ANIMATED clip art of waving flag: oh, hell no.

This is the second conference I’ve been to where the PowerPoint flipped out of slideshow mode in the middle of a paper and instead shows the program in the mode where you write slides, only using about 80% of the screen to show the actual slide. And the speaker looks at the screen and doesn’t seem to notice anything wrong. What is up with that?

Required my grad students read a book I agreed to review!

I don’t usually have grad students at all so this is very exciting.

Is there a way to work in the two encyclopedia entries I also agreed to write, I wonder?

Instead of taking a couple of obvious points off the surface of the topic and then circling warily around them for six paragraphs, you work in and explore, figure out the details. You illustrate. You say that fast driving is dangerous, and then you prove it. How long does it take to stop a car at forty and at eighty? How far can you see at night? What happens when a tire blows? What happens in a head-on collision at fifty miles an hour?

Pretty soon your paper will be full of broken glass and blood and headless torsos, and reaching five hundred words will not really be a problem.

Other things being equal, avoid phrases like “other things being equal.” Those sentences that come to you whole, or in two or three doughy lumps, are sure to be bad sentences. They are no creation of yours but pieces of common thought floating in the community soup.

The writer builds with words, and no builder uses a raw material more slippery and elusive and treacherous.

How to Say Nothing in 500 Words

hat tip Big Contrarian

Except, in history, it is. Isn’t it?

How many academic histories are just a bunch of stories put together into recognizable patterns? Isn’t that considered legitimate historical proof? What else do you do before statistics become reliable? What other sort of data is there?

I hardly think that studying the Norman Conquest — an important, domino-knocking example of colonialism — is going to change a single vote, but it certainly gives us all a broader understanding of the subtle processes of power.

How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going? … The Muse visits during creation, not before. Don’t wait for inspiration, just plunge in.

These rules have saved me half a career’s worth of time, and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I just spend less time not writing.

From Roger Ebert.

Bonus:

It was he who encouraged me to be a writer in the first place. He was an electrician for the University, who refused to teach me a thing about his trade, but told me: “I was working in the English Building today, and saw those fellows with their feet up on their desks, smoking pipes and reading books. Boy, that’s the life for you!”

Easily Distracted on how historians answer the “so what” question. (Lovely, pondering how best to use it in my class next semester—it might replace this book, which I’ve been happy with, but a free short alternative is always nice.) The Cliopatria version, with different comments.

My personal preferences are:

5. The past helps us make N as big as possible: it is a source of data for making generalizations, formulating models, constructing claims about human universals. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel; David Christian, Maps of Time.
6. The past challenges generalizations, models and universals through attention to particulars and microhistories. Carlo Ginzberg, The Cheese and the Worms.
7. The past is procedural: we study it to learn how dynamic processes or change works out over time (without worry so much about the consequences of the history we are studying)

a little bit:

8. Hindsight is 20/20: we study a frozen moment in time because we can understand far better the total spectrum of social relationships, causal relationships, etc. than we can understand the present (here we choose richly knowable examples to study).

and also:

12. The past is detection: we study it because we like solving puzzles and mysteries. Charles Van Onselen, The Fox and the Flies.
13. The past is entertainment or personal enlightenment: we study it because it has great stories, or because of the pleasures of narrative. John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive.

The Doctor Isn’t on making parallels to the present when discussing the past.

The amount of money I have neglected to submit for reimbursement yet. I’m really really bad at paperwork. Feel free to submit guesses in the comments.

Yes! I’m loving Linda Kerber.

She’s got a piece in the Chronicle on how to be a good chair, promising a sequel on giving papers. But this older piece on giving a good talk looks fine to me. (Update: Here’s the Part II. But no answer to the question from Academic Cog about what a conference paper should do intellectually.)

I have only one small disagreement with the excellent advice to chairs. She writes:

Sometimes you may try to limit a speaker who is taking up too much time but find that the speaker ignores you. You may feel uncomfortable pressing the issue. Remember that you are a host; follow your own good instincts and don’t get into a major struggle that will distract from the goals of the session. It’s important for people to see that you have tried to keep the session on track. But having made a reasonable attempt, you’re not at fault if someone violates the ground rules. Stay cheerful and hospitable; usually the speaker will wind down soon, and maybe what he or she has to say will have been worth it.

Forget that. Crack that whip. It is fine to say firmly, “I”m sorry. You need to stop and allow time for the other panelists right now.” Unless, of course, you can already tell that what the panelist is saying is worth it. But it seems to me that overtime talks and rambling boring talks often coincide, and are often riddled with things that sound like conclusions but aren’t.

I’ve been attending a lot of talks lately. Some random thoughts on things that worked well, in my opinion.

1. Someone passed around a copy of their book before the jobtalk began, which I had never seen before, but was interesting.

2. I attended a one-day mini-conference where the format was a 20-minute talk, then 10 minutes for Q&A, then a break with nice snacks and drinks. This worked really well. The conference was linked by a very broad theme and pulled people who were somewhat familiar, but not all specialists. This format took longer than two panels of three papers each would have, and possibly cost more money for the food, but it was not tedious at all. Each talk was greeted with excitement, as people maintained their energy with the frequent breaks. Everyone received focused discussion of their work. People from across JPU were able to easily attend only the papers that interested them, adding to the energy as people meet different acquaintances at the break.

3. An anthropologist did something neat that I had not seen before. As ze told a story of something that had happened, hir presentation showed a picture of the place where it had happened, so that we could imagine the story with its proper background. It was maybe a bit History Channel, and I hate it when the news does the same thing, but in this presentation, it worked well, and avoided the risk of making anthropology abroad look like slides from your summer vacation “and then I met….”.

4. One person ended hir presentation with a slide that diagrammed hir scholarly interests, and how they fit within some fields, yet overlapped with others. Possibly you had to see it, but I found it very enlightening and it made me want to write my own diagram of my interests.

5. The same person covered a literature review by simply listing subfields and topics while ze discussed it more informally. Ze talked about where his research questions fit in the field while the slide showed four entries something like this:

1. Mathematical Forestry
Are trees too big? How much does the sun matter? Green vs. brown trees?
(Ianqui 2007, Dr. Virago 2008)

What have you seen that works?

September Blue’s recent (uh, not so recent anymore) post about her viva reminded me that I could stand to blow off some steam about my dissertation defense, even though it was years and years ago.

I was having a good old time, lovely conversation, excited about making changes for the book, totally enjoying it—when thirty minutes in, my most supportive advisor (the one whose office everyone cried in) asks a question that totally undermined all my premises. Like, say I am investigating why the sky is blue, and he said “but, does the color blue really even exist?”

From that point on, I was on the edge of tears the entire time. Totally sucked.

Later my other advisor attacked me on not visiting an archive, which did not make me cry. Instead it made me mad. I had a good answer, but you know, if he’d been any kind of a decent advisor, he would have already known the answer.

Back in the day, we had old-style elitism. The earlier your ancestors came to the US, the “better” you were. “My ancestors came over on the Mayflower.” “I’m descended from soldiers in the American Revolution.” Etc. Those attitudes themselves are very tied up with beliefs in aristocracy and breeding—“blood will tell”—and are kin to the tragic and problematic early modern transition from seeing skin color as a mark of culture, to seeing skin color as a mark of permanent, inherited, biological characteristics. I’m pretty fundamentally uncomfortable with that paradigm.

Contemporary interest in family trees and genealogy, in my opinion, is not a challenge to that paradigm, but simply an outgrowth of it. Opening up the tracking of family trees to everyone—so that anyone can have “breeding” and a long family history—doesn’t combat the fundamentally problematic notion that “blood will tell.” I’ve run into a few people who have done their family history, and the way they talk about the people, characters, or stories that they’ve found suggests to me that they still buy right into these ideas of inherited characteristics passed down along the generations.

Re-inventing this paradigm for the twenty-first century—by using DNA testing to purportedly overcome the difficulties of tracking ancestors through the middle passage—still doesn’t change the essential paradigm. Technology, I think, fetishizes the basic family tree even more, because it makes the essential elements of a family tree—census, parish, immigration records, etc—more easily available.

I see a valued and respected role for researching the history of members of your family. But I fear that most people doing what’s called “family history” are just doing genealogy.

Triggered by discussion on an earlier post, backstory in those comments—that post was a jumble of my prejudices against genealogy and against heritage tourism (which I’m pondering for a future post).

[post edited in first hour of existence]

Back in the mid-1990s, MasterCard began the “Priceless” campaign with a story of a woman who took her mother back to Ireland to re-discover the old country. One of the scenes was drinking Guinness in the local pub that she had always heard her mother talk about.

So, now CitiBank is running a credit card campaign “whatever your story is, we can help you write it.” In one ad, a man takes his father to Norway to discover the old country, and they see a fjord and eat lutefisk and go visit the city hall to find their family records and realize they are actually descended from Swedes.*

Okay. That right there, that’s crossing the line. Genealogy means nothing if you don’t have real people, real stories, real memories to back it up. Constructing these stories, from dusty old documents—then that’s history, and you better do it right. You don’t get a pass just because you are related to people you have no real conception of.

* This commercial came on at my mother’s house, and family said “oh, I think this is cute and funny. Don’t you like it, Dance?” and I said, “I hate it” and launched into a rant. Ranting about commercials is one of my favorite activities.

Chairs should introduce speakers just before their papers, rather than all at once. Throwing in a “thank you, professor X” after a paper will also help those who arrived in the middle of the paper.

If you are an international scholar who is not confident in your command of English, then a “bad” powerpoint is good. The type of powerpoint that everyone scorns? the one with loads of text that replicates your paper? Go for it. Worked great. Won’t even matter if people can’t understand you—although, in fact, I had no problems with any of the international scholars I heard. But people seemed worried.

It’s okay to ask random questions about tangential trivia, even when there’s a 99% chance that no extant evidence speaks to the question and the panelist will have to wildly speculate. But it’s not okay to ask those types of questions of people who have just finished rambling for 35 minutes. Let’s not offer free license to people who have already proved themselves inconsiderate of their co-panelists and the audience.

Try to predict who your audience will be. This one is really tricky (and it’s for me, too). It depends on timing. On Sunday morning, at 8:30am, I think you can assume that everyone in the room knows the vocabulary of your field. But on Thursday afternoon? When friends haven’t yet arrived in town to tempt people away? You are right down the hall from registration and it looks like people are browsing the signs outside and drifting into panels? Yikes, who knows who is in the room. So many fields are unrepresented there must be people branching out. And it depends on the panel. A focused panel is probably more likely to have a specialist audience—a wide-ranging panel, or one full of big names, probably doesn’t. I went to one panel, where the outlier on the panel recognized that she needed to explain a lot more narrative, while the others went heavier on the theorizing. It worked well.

At my very first AHA, years ago, I walked into the lobby and had a full-on panic attack. It was full of historians—generally about 5000 attendand they all looked alike.

Luckily I saw a grad student in my department within about five minutes, and immediately glommed onto him, or who knows what might have happened to me. Or possibly to the people around me. Anyhow—what struck me this year:

Five thousand historians in one place doesn’t panic me anymore.

I’ve normalized it. Oh, sure, I make snarky comments about “infested” and pretend I’m running away. And by Saturday, getting some peace was worth walking the 15-20 minutes from the Marriott to the Hilton, even in heels, rather than taking the shuttle. But I wasn’t bothered enough to actually go out into DC instead of attending panels.

Not only that—to grad students attending their first AHA, I think I might look like one of those well-networked people. I’m certainly greeting a lot of people with hugs and cries of surprise.

It’s all pretty creepy.

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