Archive for May, 2009

End of the semester

May 20, 2009

Last week was a busy one for me. On Tuesday, E. and I went out on a day-long shopping trip. The biggest thing we did was to do some shopping around for a new mattress. I tend to move around a lot as I’m falling asleep and the motion bothers E., so we were looking for something that wouldn’t translate movement from one side of the bed to the other. After lying (and bouncing) on a couple dozen mattresses we finally found something that we like and made arrangements to have one delivered to Heather House.

On Wednesday we took a road trip to Ikea. E. is organizing her office and needs lots of storage, as well as a big desk and sewing table. We collected a good assortment of furniture for her and a few more things for our living room and dining room. We also happened upon some outdoor furniture that we liked very much. Of course, that was too much for us to carry home in the back of the car, so we arranged to have most of it delivered, too.

Thursday, the history department held its annual retreat. We didn’t retreat very far, just to another building on campus, but we had a catered breakfast and lunch and dealt with a huge amount of departmental, academic, and administrative business. Unusually for a departmental meeting, we managed to mostly stay focused and get things accomplished. One of the things that got accomplished was that my proposed courses got approved.

In the afternoon I attended the graduate graduation. It was long and rather tedious, but the commencement speaker they had was terrific. He was quite an old man, someone who has been teaching in public schools since the fifties and writing about his experiences. He did not so much give a speech as tell some stories from his experience, but all with a point: that the best teachers are those who let their students see them as the people they are and who try to see their students for the people that they are, and that all of the testing and standards and curricula that administrators get so obsessed about just get in the way of simple act of making contact from one human being to another that teaching is all about. It was a powerful speech and well worth being around to hear.

On Friday there was a teaching conference on campus. I went to a couple of sessions and the keynote address. The first session was given by someone in the business school about her experiences teaching business writing. The kinds of assignments she gives were not very applicable to history, but her description of the process of developing and refining an assignment was interesting and quite useful. The keynote speaker was a professor of African-American studies who gave a great talk about dealing with emotionally difficult subjects in the classroom.

On Saturday I attended the undergraduate commencement. That was a truly long and tedious affair, but still I considered it my responsibility to be there. And that was the end of my obligations to SSC until the fall. Now my summer is here and, although I have plenty of things to do, I can also take some time to really relax.

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New growth

May 11, 2009

The woods behind our house run down in a gentle slope to a wet spot—it’s too big to call it a puddle, but hardly a pond. The forest floor has been covered up with green now. Higher up the slope it’s full of mayflower and lily-of-the-valley. Lower down it’s covered with pale green ferns. Up above the leaves have been filling out over the past couple of weeks so that now we have a lush green canopy in the trees.

Ferns in the woods

Ferns in the woods

We’re working at putting in a few trees of our own, as well. Over the past few days I’ve been digging holes in the back yard and today we went to the local nursery to pick out a couple of pear trees and a couple of cherries. Hopefully we’ll get them to grow and be able to enjoy the fruit.

Teaching about teaching

May 8, 2009

Today was the last exam day. Now I have a pile of grading to do and next week I have some meetings and two graduation ceremonies to attend, but after that I will be all done with SSC until the fall. I am really looking forward to the summer. I have some writing that I want to work on and plenty of work around the house to do, but it will also be good to able to relax. For almost as long as I can remember, I have lived my life on the academic calendar, first as a student and now as a teacher. The rhythm of it feels natural to me and I feel sorry for people who have to go on working right through the summer. I wouldn’t want to live without my nice long summer vacation. It certainly is something of a luxury, but on the other hand, the nature of being an academic is that during the school year I never really stop working; even when I’m out of the classroom doing something else, my mind is always working over what I’m going to teach next week. Without the ability to take a nice long break, I don’t think I could keep it up.

Yesterday I had lunch with one of my history department colleagues. She’s an early modern historian, but she has been stuck teaching World History 1 (to 1500) and she wanted to talk about it with me. We had a very good conversation about teaching, but it was also a little unusual for me. She has been at SSC for a few years and was on the search committee for my hiring, so I have always seen her as my senior, but in this conversation she revealed a lot of her insecurities about teaching outside of her period and I tried hard to show her how I teach and why I do what I do. At a few times I realized that I was talking to her the way I talk to my students. It was a strange reversal, but it also made me realize how much my style of teaching has been shaped by the nature of ancient history.

If someone wants to study, say, interest rates in European economies 1850-1950, they will go to the government archives, the newspapers, the financial records, etc. They can study the topic by looking directly at the evidence for that topic. Even for more difficult or obscure topics, in the modern period there is usually a substantial corpus of direct evidence. If you want to study interest rates in the Roman republic, however, you need to look at private letters, stage comedies, inscriptions, coin hoards, courtroom speeches—all different kinds of indirect evidence. An important part of studying ancient history is figuring out how to get the information you need out of the evidence you have. It means being able to make connections between very different parts of human culture. That kind of thinking is very much behind how I teach world history: rather than trying to teach a lot of content, I try to teach my students how to work with a limited amount of information and ask the right questions to figure from that information how a certain society works.

I tried to explain that to my colleague and it was something of a new idea to her. It was very satisfying to be able to teach something to one of my fellow teachers.