Friday, 6 May 2011 § 2 Comments

All But Dissertation.  (Or, in the re-wording of a friend, All But Dead.)

You say Masters, I say Mistress.  This is what a mistress of history looks like:

Why yes, that is tequilla behind me.

After the exams, I invited some fellow historians to my adviser’s office for a little drink.  Eileen brought a fabulous hat from the theater shop, which will make a repeat appearance at tomorrow evening’s Harlequin Romance themed party.

The weird thing about these exams, and that I guess nobody can ever know until they’re over, is that the anticipation is so much worse than the actual exam is.  The couple of days before my orals were hellish.  I went through approximately a third of a box of tissues.  I re-read my essays and chased down citations and rehearsed answers to questions I imagined might be posed to me.  I frantically re-read notes on Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the Bourbon restoration and the 1905 Revolution and Flaubert.  I read book reviews for some of the books I skipped.  And I cried.  A lot.

And then the exam came.  I wore my ass-kickin boots.  There were moments that really sucked.  The Absolute Professor asked me one question that I really should have known the answer to — it’s [apparently] crucial for my dissertation.  And I had no. godforsaken. idea. what the answer was.  She said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe you don’t know this.”  I hung my head in shame.  We moved on.  There were other moments where I felt totally in control.  There were a few where I was frustrated by what was going on but knew it wasn’t actually about me.  And there were even a couple of really funny moments.  Like when I was sort of fumbling a question, and one of the people on my committee, who is fabulous and was clearly thinking along with me,  made a comment about an idea she had.  The Absolute Professor turned to her and said, “[that prof’s name]! You already have your PhD! Keep your mouth shut!”  It was hilarious.

And so anyhow, we spend three years in reverent dread of these exams.  And then they happen.  And then they’re over.  Weird.  Maybe the worst part is knowing that you won’t fail, but still feeling like maybe you actually deserve to.  I said this to a professor yesterday, and he said anyone worth their salt feels that way.  Which is sort of reassuring, I guess.

The Barefoot Rooster became a mistress of history today, too.  This is what the lush life of mistresses looks like:

Best. Fries. Ever.

And this is what te world looks like:

Here comes the sun, do-do-do-do



Tuesday, 19 April 2011 § 2 Comments

Scene: The gloomy, rainy sidewalk in my neighborhood, this morning around 10:30.

Ethel Louise, carrying a grocery sack over her shoulder, crosses paths with The Absolute Professor.

TAP: “Fancy meeting you here!”

EL: “I know! I should be studying! But I’m having one of those mornings where you pour your milk into your coffee only to discover that it’s gone bad!  The kind of morning that will make getting back to the Weimar Republic seem uplifting!”

TAP: “That’s really depressing.”

EL: “I know.”


Historical Twitter and Colloquium Games

Thursday, 7 April 2011 § Leave a comment

So, in my last post I was bemoaning the fact that there wasn’t Twitter during the Revolution of 1848 in Germany.  Now, this is probably an inappropriate confession for a wannabe-historian to make, but I get really worked up about that revolution.  (1918/1919, too, but for different reasons.)  They get SO. CLOSE.  And then bam!  Revolution thwarted by the resurgence of elite and military power, which had never receded as much as the revolutionaries seemed to think, and by the fragmentation of the broad, piecemeal revolutionary coalition.  And then the Badenese try to give it one last go!  But then the newly-formed Imperial Troops come in and bam!  Dead dead dead. Repression repression repression.  Ugh, it’s just crushing, not least because it is so. easy. for flat-footed observers to draw a straight line from that crushing of the liberal bourgeois movement to, oh, I don’t know — the Nazis.  I’m not so much about lines as threads.  Maybe it’s because I can’t cut in a straight line?  Anyhow, back to the revolution — there wasn’t twitter.  But you know what there was?

Caterwauling.  Or, in German, Katzenmusik (cat music).  Like the French charivari, or English rough music.  And it is so. much. better. than Twitter.  Why?  Oh, let me count the ways.

First, as a form of social commentary and control — Katzenmusik happened when the general public wanted to reproach individuals who had transgressed social mores, like in cases of infidelity, or a widower marrying a young woman much younger than himself, or, as in 1847/48 in Germany, bakers engaging in grain speculation — it lacked the passive-aggressive quality of Twitter.  There was no 140-character, “Isn’t it a shame when people have no sense of propriety? #cradlerobbers”  No, caterwaulers owned it (and maybe pwned it, too):  it was outright aggressive.  They’d show up at your house one night, noise-making gear at the ready, and sing and screech and generally humiliate you the good old fashioned way.  The caterwaulers’ acts themselves were scandalous — disrupting the peace! singing tawdry songs! breaching the sacred divide between public and private (are you listening, Habermas?)! — but their scandalousness functioned to call out and correct someone else’s.

Second: It understood itself as a form of the carnivalesque, unlike Twitter, which just takes itself way too damn seriously.  Actually, the carnivalesque thing is more complicated than straightforward. If we borrow Bakthin’s formulation, which involves turning the world upside down, mixing high culture with the profane, the subversion’s demand of equal dialogic status vis-à-vis the norm, we have to recognize that his theoretical point of reference is the Mardi Gras/feast of fools acts of resistance and transgression that nonetheless are circumscribed within the knowledge that this is just one night and that tomorrow, today’s “jolly relativity” aside, things will still return to normal.  So it’s a kind of acting out/working through that consciously acts within its own limitations, even as it claims to contest those limits.  So back to the Katzenmusik:  it was definitely, in its earlier manifestations, more carnivalesque, and in fact functioned precisely to reinforce norms (don’t be a cradle robber, asshat!).  But later, as in the food riots of 1847/48, it was less so.  It didn’t play at destroying boundaries of proper behavior and hierarchy, it actually did: lower- and middle-class burghers showed up at millers’ and bakers’ and lords’ houses and behaved in ways that irrevocably upended the Vormärz social order.  As they got more ballsy, so to speak, they pushed even further: ransacking bakeries, breaking windows, burning manors.  (Note to Revolutionaries: you thought that because there wasn’t an immediate and violent crackdown, there wouldn’t be at all.  That was not the case.  #revolutionfail)

Third: My unsavory reference to ballsiness aside, one of the coolest things about Katzenmusik is that it was one of the few arenas of political action or demonstration in nineteenth-century Germany in which women and men participated on relatively equal footing.  In fact, women often instigated the Katzenmusik (the gendered implications of women’s “shrieking” and the yammering of cats is clear, no?).  Men participated, too, and when it devolved into violence against people or property, it was almost always the doing of the men.  But women were the driving force, and an example of actual proto-political agency in a story that, in the historiography, is often just a sausage fest.  (Well, to be fair, women usually get one page toward the end of the chapter on “others,” either right before or right after the Jews.)

Fourth: The pictures are so much better.  To wit:

Take that, twitter blue bird.

Anyhow, I could go on, but alas! I have to go prepare for colloquium.  I’m presenting my dissertation prospectus today, or at least a draft of it.  The Absolute Professor won’t be able to make it because of a meeting she can’t get out of, but she sent me a long email in response to my draft.  It started out: “This is a big improvement over the first try.  It is much more coherent and interesting.”  Which is generally how her praise goes (for me, at least): it makes reference to your previous shitshow of an attempt, and tells you what you did well and what you could do better.  So I’ll take it.  This round of feedback pretty much lacks the snarkiness of the last one (“You can’t seriously think that the theory/practice thing is a legitimate objection.  Kant would blow that to smithereens. “)    The receding of the snarkiness is pretty much tantamount to high praise.  (At my last colloquium, she pretended to shoot me with an imaginary gun.  Apparently I really flubbed a question on interwar German conservatism.) So, anyhow, off to re-read her comments as a way of cribbing my own paper.

Oh, but sticking with the theme and the title: The colloquium carnivalesque.  In years past, my close friends and I played this [really immature but still absurdly amusing] game where the discussant had to work a certain bizarre phrase into their answer to a question, but in a believable way that didn’t draw attention to itself or seem ostentatious to anyone not in on the game.  The prize was the grad school standard: a drink.  So, one time, a friend had to make reference to “street cred,” and once to “the non-human animal,” (she blew that one), and I had to make reference in my first colloquium to the movie “The Sandlot.”  Now we’ve got a new game; one so wrong I can’t even describe it.  But oh, will it be fun. I hope I can keep a straight face.  If not, I’ll just caterwaul.

Gender Trouble.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011 § 1 Comment

The NY Times (which is actually doing me a favor by cutting off my supply access to their articles come 28 March, since mainlining the lede does tend to get in the way of studying) had this article on gender, the professoriat, and the academy yesterday.  I have a lot of things to say about this, but the for today I’ll leave it at this: I am so grateful that I was raised, academically, by fierce, feminist women.  At Unicorn University, where I went to undergrad, the majority of my professors were women, and I was lucky to be surrounded by so many women who were honest-to-goodness role models in every sense of the word.

I’m lucky here, too, though I experience the gender politics a little differently (more — much more — on this later).  One of the professors on my committee, The Absolute Professor, was one of the first women hired into this department.  I wish I could sit down with her and just chat some day about what it’s been like for her to be in the academy for the past 30 years — what’s changed; what hasn’t.  Maybe The Absolute Professor isn’t exactly a heart-to-heart kind of person, but she’s certainly not without compassion and empathy (she has this uncanny ability to dish out the best advice, even if you didn’t know you needed it).  When I started here, I was terrified of her.  But now it’s more like a healthy fear of god.  And I adore her.  Even as I fear her wrath.  I can sort of get a sense for what it’s been like for her through the ways she mentors me.  She’s tough — boy is she ever tough — but she’s also wry and insightful.  In my first year teaching here, she gave me some of the best teaching advice I’ll ever get.  I was TA’ing a class that was — how to say this politely? — problematic at best.  I was responsible for two weekly discussion sections (out of 6 total in the course), in which attendance was optional on a weekly basis.  And we had to teach parallel “mini-courses” within the sections.  And the class was neither chronological nor thematic.  Where was I?  Oh, right: The Absolute Professor.  I went to her one day early in that semester for tips on how to establish some sense of structure and normalcy in a sections that were — almost by design — unstable: how to make students want to come, how to convince them that they really should come prepared, how to make section worth their time and mine.  But I also had this problem: there were these two students — male — in one of my classes that seemed to be challenging me on everything.  And, of course, mostly through references to the History Channel — references that in general had nothing at all to do with what we were talking about.  I figured there were several things at play: age (I was definitely on the young-ish side of things), the usual early-semester boundary-testing, the fact that people act out when they don’t have structure, and, yes, gender.  So I asked The Absolute Professor what to do.

She dispensed her wisdom thusly: “Ethel Louise, you will encounter misogyny in your career.  And you need to be on the look out for it, whether it’s directed at you or your students.  But first you have to figure out exactly what’s going on.  Pay careful attention.  Because what might be going on is that these students are boys.  Boys with no social skills who don’t know how to interact with their instructors or their peers in this kind of setting.  Boys who are awkward and actually just need to be socialized.  Who need to be shown how this is done.  And maybe messed with a little.” (This actually ended up being the case.  More on that another time.)

She paused.

“But if you’re sure it’s misogyny — you must crush them.”

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