Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Office Space

I loved a recent article in the Chronicle about the impact of office space on student's perception of professors and how professors view themselves and their standing in their school department. I remember my first office as a full-time teacher was a rather nice once with a great window view, lots of bookcases, and a big desk. I had taken over the office of a professor who trying to finish a book while on sabbatical. The office was in a nice location surrounded by other professors in the department, which helped integrate me into the life of the school despite my 1-year status.

My first office at current institution was a miserable library carrel that was only large enough for my chair, a two drawer filing cabinet, and a chair for any students who came by. Most of the time, however, I tried to encourage my students to talk with me in the big comfy chairs outside my office so that there would be more than a foot of space between their knees and mine. I was completely out of the loop, didn't get invited to lunches, and it took me over 1/2 a semester before I realized that there were school meetings I wasn't being invited too, because I had been left off some email list (whereas if I'd been in a building the actually housed my department I might have caught on earlier when I saw everyone walking down the hall to the meeting room).

Luckily, right before the next semester started I was able to move out of the carrel and into the building that actually housed the history department. My office still was probably one of the worst in the building, but compared too where I had been it was a palace. I had room for two small desks, two chairs, I had 2 four-door filing cabinets, and even space for a small fridge to store my sodas. I was in heaven. Despite having no window, I was happy in my space for several years. The only time I started to being to growl about my location, was when people with less seniority than me began to move into offices with windows. Than I began to gripe and growl about the lack of respect the dean had for the history department in general. I even began to make idle threats of conducting a research study that would add up the entire office space by square foot assigned to each department and publish the rankings - figuring that history would come out near the bottom.

I am now happily ensconced in a big office with a great window that looks out on beautiful part of campus. I have 3 desks in the room, 4 filing cabinets, my little fridge, an entire wall of book shelves, and even room to store my bike. I am sure I could be happy here for the rest of my career. At the same time, however, I know that once some of the older faculty members begin to retire and move out of their offices, which have two windows and even more space, I will begin to judge my value to the college based on when I get offered those places.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Historical Musings

1. I think Steven Sage's book, Ibsen and Hitler, sounds like a brilliant piece of historical scholarship/detective work. I love history books whose findings seem to jump off the page and shout 'Look what I found!' I know the 'so what' question is important... but what got to me in undergraduate history courses and what still turns me on is the discovery of something people never suspected about the past or finding a new and better (and probably ironic) explanation of why something occurred.

2. I was very disappointed with the concluding episode of the West Wing. That show had been one of my favorites since it started and I especially liked the way it incorporated historical anecdotes into its dialogue (something you can't say about most prime time TV). The final episode about the inauguration of a new president was no different. They made two references to past inaugurations. The first was a reference to William Henry Harrison's inauguration address which was the longest in history and helped lead to Harrison's death from pneumonia a month later.

The second reference, and the one that upset me, was a discussion between President Barlett and his wife, where she asked who thought it was a good idea to hold an outdoor inauguration ceremony in January. The president replied - 'Jefferson, Madison, Adams.' I wanted to scream - No they didn't! This anecdotes was wrong on two counts. First, the January inauguration did not become the standard until 1933. Originally the inauguration was held in March. But since the winter of 1932-1933 was one of the worst of the Great Depression and Hoover was a lame duck president for much of that period, Congress and the American people decided it was best to speed up the changeover process. The second way in which the anecdote was wrong was that most of the first presidents, including Jefferson, Madison, and Adams did NOT take the oath of office outdoors. It wasn't until Jackson became president in 1829 that an outdoor ceremony became the custom. Shame on you West Wing writers - no wonder the show got cancelled.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Longing for the Good Ol' Days

The early 1960s must have really been an idyllic period in American history if the FBI had nothing better to do than try and figure out whether or not the lyrics to the Kingsmen's song 'Louie Louie' were obscene.

I glad that between tailing Martin Luther King, Jr. and keeping track of the Kennedys' love lives, Hoover had the time to tackle something really important.

See the documents for the 'Louie Louie' investigation here.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Messing with my Template

Every time I try to personalize this pages template (add a list of bookmarks, add a counter, etc.) it messes up the spacing on the page so that all my left column information doesn't appear until the bottom of the blog. That was the entire reason I switched to this template. With my old template, which had the small column on the right, all my right hand information was appearing at the bottom of the blog. I never had this problem before. Anyone else experience this?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Mad Historian Party

My 3 year old had a party at school today. The theme was 'Mad Scientists'. The kids dressed in lab coats and thick glasses, did science type experiences, and then ate gummy worm cupcakes. While eating dinner tonight with a couple of guys in the school of science, they wondered when the "Mad Historian Party" was going to be. While I am not conceptionally opposed to the idea of a mad historian party it is hard to imagine what would go on a such a party. Moreover, historians have never captured the imagination of novelists or movie-makers the same way as scientists - Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Strangelove, Dr. No, and David Banner - all scientists with a streak of madness, I can't think of any historians who have played the same role.

Even to come up with a list of real-life mad historians is a bit of stretch.

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh?

It still sounds like a bad party idea.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The History of School Desegregation

An article in the Chronicle today got me thinking about what college students know about school desegregation. I know that when I teach the 2nd half of the American History survey, I only have time to mention Brown v. Board of Education and then discuss Little Rock as an example of how desegregation played out on the ground. But I am left with the impression that students just assume that Little Rock was an anomaly and that elsewhere around the South desegregation proceeded quickly and smoothly.

To try and disabuse my students of this notion, a couple of years ago, I put up a bulletin board that described the process of desegregation at our school. Before the board went up the common perception of students was that our school was the first private college in state to admit African Americans. The board, however, showed that this was not true and that our school did not begin the process of desegregation until after the passage of the 1964 Civil Right Act, which threatened to withdraw federal funding from schools that didn't desegregate. Moreover, the board showed that not all students and alumni welcomed this change.

The bulletin board got a lot of attention and since then I've had a number of history majors who have researched and wrote about other desegregation issues. I think once their eyes are open to just how difficult of an issue this was, not just in Little Rock but across the South, they are fascinated at how long it took to bring about real change. I often wonder if there are other issues that if presented in a similar way could help revise the common perception of certain historical incidents.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Bad Textbooks

Interesting article on about how textbooks get adopted. It claims that most textbook companies (I assume they are talking about elementary and high school textbooks) write their texts to appeal to the politicized school boards of California and Texas, the two biggest markets in the industry. Because of this, textbooks are light on analysis, present a skewed view of the importance of certain events, and a times make dubious claims to mollify critics. The consequence of this is that student learning is rarely at the center of the discussion about what to include in textbooks or which textbooks to adopt.

Given this situation, it is no wonder so many of my freshmen students come into the classroom thoroughly under-prepared. Some of them are determined to focus on trivial issues, most of them are anti-textbook, and many of them hate being made to think. They want to know what is the correct answer and just memorize that. This leaves me to spend the first half of the semester trying to break down their resistance to learning, before I can really begin to teach.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Summer Days Wasting Away

I have limited myself to 3 main things on my summer to-do-list. They are all writing intensive projects, which I rarely have time to do during the school year. However, with the summer stretched out before me I am having a hard time getting motivated. I am sitting at my desk, I have my note cards spread around me, the word file is open on my computer, but I swear I've been working on the same paragraph for the last 2 days. It is so annoying, especially because I am not even sure the paragraph is getting better.

I need some plan for how to not only look productive (sitting at the computer, etc.), but actually be productive.