Monday, December 31, 2012

doing math

By my not-so-loose reckoning, I have 160 books left and about 90 days in which to read them.  This amounts to about fifty-four books per month, which means 8 hours or so of reading per day.

Today I am (annoyingly unsuccessfully) researching labor history.  Tomorrow, I'll probably make up a reading schedule for the next month.  On the second, it's go time.

Friday, December 28, 2012


I have spent several hours now reading about the jobs situation for Humanities PhDs - yes, partly to keep from reading the book on Long and the Great Depression that I cracked open yesterday, but also because I've been suspecting lately that something fishy is going on with my post-grad-school employment opportunities.  And if there are really no jobs, then surely there's a better use of my time than preparing for jobs that don't exist.

Plenty of other people have written eloquently on the actual numbers, so I'm not going to wander much into quantitative analysis, and anyway, my stats are kinda rusty.  But let me say that even my (extremely) cursory research has me relieved: it looks like somewhere between a quarter and a third of history PhDs are still finding tenure-track jobs, and yes, there are many, many people adjuncting, but there are also people in government, the military, non-profits, the tech sector - lots of things that put research, writing, and teaching skills to good use.  (This article from The Chronicle is probably the most hopeful thing I've read in a while, and it has charts!)  In other words, considering that my background is in retail and trucking, grad school really is pretty likely to help me change careers.

Since I would rather like to buy a house in the next ten years, I've also been poking around in salary and cost of living information.  The Chronicle has a lovely interactive piece on faculty salaries for more than 1200 universities, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists wage data by county for a ton of occupations, and provides approximate housing cost data for everywhere I've ever searched (so, er, major cities in the US, anyway.)  As a rule of thumb, I like to keep fixed costs (rent, bills, phone) to one two-week paycheck... and so after a little crunching for some of the occupations in the Chronicle article, I think that (in Austin, anyway) most of these professions would put me in house-buying territory within the decade.

So far, so good.  As long as I play my cards right, getting a PhD in the humanities is not a bad idea at all - it's actually a pretty good way to get an interesting job and haul my ass up into the middle class.

Playing my cards right, though, is the part that's still a bit baffling, because I don't quite understand what's going on here.  As I read through a few "post-ac" blogs and gloom-and-doom employment predictions, a few patterns stand out: people who are staking their whole identity on getting a tenure-track job, people who are afraid to talk about non-academic career paths lest they be shunned or kicked out of their programs, people who feel cheated by the system when they don't get their dream job at a prestigious university, people who need support groups to help them down from the ivory tower.  Maybe I'll feel this way in a few years, but right now, these people read like the lost souls in Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch, stuck in some kind of unemployment purgatory.  Or, perhaps more aptly, like disgraced and brainwashed members of a secret cult.  And for the record, I've been the latter, and good lord I don't want to go back.

I hope there is room in this system for people who just want normal things like job security, an interesting career, and enough money to make a comfortable living.  And I hope these disgruntled folks are the exception rather than the rule, because I, for one, would like to think this whole shindig is about opening options up, not closing them off.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

vacation/procrastination (so would that be... procrastication?)

School has been out for almost two weeks, and I haven't read a thing.  I mean - I have a book open in front of me, and I intend to read all about Huey Long and the Great Depression tonight, but I have more pressing things to do first, as I have for the past couple of weeks.  Right after I turned in my last grades and responded to the last student email, I did many of the little nagging things I haven't been able to do all semester: I cleaned my house, shuffled around the furniture, took a load to Buffalo Exchange.  That done, I baked some cookies and watched a little TV; during the next few days I went for runs, and I dared to sleep in and lounge around until noon.  I went dancing multiple days in one week and saw people enough to remember their names and ask them about things we had talked about just a few days earlier.  I went to work often enough that the same thing happened - and for a moment I remembered the thing I really loved about retail and my world before school: the closeness and amiability, and the repetition and teamwork and fascination with the everyday that fostered it.

Sometime that week I had a drink - ok, three - reasoning that even if I did wake up with a hangover, I didn't have to do much thinking the next day.  The boy and I went out to our old late-night haunt and had greasy food and joked around with the late-night servers.  We slept in.

And then, finally, the luxury of having time to do laundry and take three hours to pack for a week back home in the motherland, where getting to know my niece and nephew and cooking my sister- and brother-in-law a couple of home-cooked meals trumps reading about long-ago events, hands down.  Tonight, we had roast chicken and cheesy polenta; tomorrow I'm simmering chicken soup from scratch, since everyone has the flu or is recovering from it.  And when they're asleep (they crash out early), I get to tinker with Photoshop and watch movies and read a novel and finally - finally! - decompress enough to start thinking about what I want to do when I grow up and whether the path I'm on will get me to where I want to be. 

I wrote a little while ago about how in school, we need to protect our free time for the unpaid work that will get us out of here; after two weeks of break, I'm remembering just how protective I was of my free time before I came back to school.  I read novels; I learned about baking breads and cookies and cakes; I studied knitting techniques and designed and knitted sweaters with increasingly elaborate lacework.  I watched a lot of film noir, and spent whole afternoons wandering in and out of junk shops and bookstores.  I went on ridiculously long bike rides.  I had time and energy to really be with my friends when I was with them - and I had a lot of time to be with them.  I think if I had that much time again I would spend more time writing and more time volunteering, but otherwise these are things I miss - connecting with people and learning how to do things and just generally absorbing the world we live in.

My concern now is that academia, if I stay in it, won't afford me the work-life balance that allows me to be a real person, with varied interests and a strong attachment to the real world.  It hasn't yet, and after almost four years, I'm beginning to worry that it won't.  Hence the procrastination.

Monday, November 12, 2012

aaaand we're back.

And it's November.  It's finally chilly out.  And since August, I've managed to read not 8 books a week (as I should) but roughly 8 books a month, which is not exactly helping me get to the magical unicorn of 300 books by April.  One of the (many) things I am learning the hard way about grad school is that unlike the working-class world, where you say yes when people ask you if you want to work harder and make more money, here you need to safeguard your time for unpaid labor.  Truthfully, if you're not on some sort of fellowship, the idea is to work as little as possible and make the least amount of money you can survive on so as to have the most time possible for pursuing your degree.

I am terrible at saying no to more money.  Employment opportunities abound during the school year but are scarce over the summer, and I like to pay my rent year-round.

So this semester, when I should be spending 6-8 hours a day reading, instead I am working five jobs.  Yep, five.  There's the 20-hour appointment in my department with an awesome prof that pays my rent and bills in return for 30 hours of grading every couple of weeks; the 10-hour appointment in another department that pays more per hour and provides close contact with another awesome prof in return for 12 hours of grading every month or so; the teacher training program I lucked into that only pays an additional grand a semester but that provides awesome pedagogical support; the 8 hours a week I work at my retail gig; and the 5 hours or so I spend making posters and teaching two-step lessons every Saturday. They're all awesome jobs, I'm learning a lot, and four of them pay well, which is why I had a hard time saying no.  And more importantly, summer isn't going to hurt.  But good lord that's a lot of time spent working for other people!

I guess the good part is that instead of a chore, reading has become a rare and delicious treat?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

George Mariscal - Brown Eyed Children of the Sun

George Mariscal’s Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun responds to critiques of the Chicano Movement (the Movimiento) as a failed, regressively nationalist social movement by reconstructing it in terms of postmodern discourse.  Using Raymond Williams’ claim that ideology and material practice/ discourse are mutually constitutive, and Foucault’s claim that “overlapping ideologies and discourses produce figures, practices, and languages functioning under a generalized rubric,” Mariscal analyzes a variety of texts, including images, poetry, speeches, student essays, newspaper articles and writings by both English- and Spanish-speaking activists to “map the complex ideological field that was the Chicano Movement of the Viet Nam war era” in terms that he hopes will help 21st century Chicano/a activists form their own context-dependent identities and social movements.  (23, 21)  Because he is interested in the relationship between discourse and ideology in the Movimiento and in constructing a Foucauldian “archaeology” rather than a chronological historical narrative, Mariscal refuses to develop a linear narrative or to reify the Chicano Movement around a single ideology, group, or even defining feature.   Instead, he analyzes primarily written and visual texts by both participants and contemporary observers  to complicate key movement concepts and symbols (or people) such as nationalism, race, Che Guevara, Cesar Chavez, Aztlan, and UCSD.  The end result of this discourse analysis is a conception of the Movimiento as a fragmented ideological fabric whose participants are themselves fragmented, multiple, and heterogeneous.   

Monday, July 2, 2012

Hasan Kwame Jeffries - Bloody Lowndes

Jeffries’ Bloody Lowndes, which both chronicles and contextualizes the Lowndes County freedom struggle of the late 1960s, uses a combination of interviews, archival sources, periodicals and histories to argue – against the canonical view that black militancy destroyed the civil rights movement – that black militancy and separatist ideology, at least in Lowndes County, was a necessary ingredient for the success of the freedom rights (vs. voting rights) struggle.  Although he argues that his thesis holds for the Black Civil Rights struggle as a whole, he centers it around a painstakingly constructed microhistory of Lowndes County, beginning with post-Civil War separatist efforts to build black churches, landholding collectives, and schools; moving through the “Lowndes  Diaspora” and the formation of a strong, geographically diverse social network (whose Detroit arm provided critical fundraising for the LCFO and other local organizations); detailing the interconnections between this local network and SNCC’s unique combination of intensive local activism and political and media know-how; and tracing the eventual corruption and failure of the movement to the departure of SNCC and the integration of its main activists into the local political machine.  Bloody Lowndes shows how the development of Lowndes County’s black community into a strong, grassroots network, in combination with the organizing skills of experienced activists from SNCC, constituted the seeds for a radical democratic revolution.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

the museum of endangered sounds

They have Gameboy music, the Nokia ringtone, and dot matrix printers.  I'm sold.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

the unabomber as a radical philosopher of technology?

David Skrbina and Ted Kaczynski have been corresponding since 2003, and they have a lot in common - intellectually, I mean.  Both come from educational backgrounds in mathematics; both have since turned from math to philosophy; and both are fascinated by the relationship between technology and society. Skrbina has also written a good bit on panpsychism, a philosophy which sees 'mind' in all things and which he relates to eco-philosophy, so it's not entirely unsurprising that in 2010 Feral House published a collection of Kaczynski's writings as Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. "The Unabomber," with a supportive introduction from Skrbina.  Like Skrbina, Kaczynski develops a critique of technological society from a perspective of mind/ psychology rather than from more (academically) conventional dialectical or social constructivist approaches; also like Skrbina, he questions the levels of dependence on technology in 'advanced' societies.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

J. Nicholas Entrikin - The Betweenness of Place

Basically, Entrikin is arguing that narrative representation in general and emplotment in particular is the trajectory that geography should take, because it mediates between pure objective representation of the material world and subjective experiential interpretation of that world.  Narrative creates relationships and a trajectory – in other words, it creates meaning out of otherwise disconnected parts.  Since narrative is tied to a narrator, there are many narratives that could be told about a place and all would have equal value, BUT: geographers are in the unique position to tell geographical narratives, because they are trained to be objective, but they also live in the world and thus are subjects – they can describe and explain simultaneously.  

As far as Modernism goes: modernity is a dialectic b/n the Enl binaries of obj and subj, and our goal is to mediate between the two and stop swinging back and forth between binaries.  Would it be fair to say that he’s one of those people that sees PoMo as part of the larger picture rather than its own thing? 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lewis Mumford - The City in History

 Mumford is such a lovely writer, and it's easy to think that what he lacks in primary research he more than makes up for in thought-provoking speculation.  He's a utopian thinker who advocates a balance between humans and their environment in the form of decentered, thoughtful, federated social structures. He also writes a lot about the relationship between space and technology.  This book is a ginormous grand narrative of "the city" in Western civilization, from the very dawn of time to the present, so here are just a few of my notes:

In an era shaped by white flight, deindustrialization/ suburbanization, not to mention the fear of nuclear war, Mumford calls for a return to city building instead of destruction.  He argues that cities serve two main purposes: religion and the state.  Biology is a (distant?) third, though really cities are for the people, so people should come first.  The shrine and the citadel are its two dominant structures, carried over from villages.  The city exists to nurture human biological and cultural reproduction, not to use technology to tame whole populations into submission.  The city is the stand-in for society, and he is very adamant that spatial forms and social forms interconnect.  Also, space and the built environment are articulated with technology; humans shouldn’t be afraid of their own inventions or let a few wackos use technology to control them.  The city should be humanity, magnified; communality, nurturing, love.  I sense Hardt & Negri here, where a surplus of love and community lead to a radical democracy, and also the dread fear of totalitarianism and technology, which apparently went hand-in-hand in WWII, what with the Nazis and all.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

on conferencing

This past semester, I presented at my three very first academic conferences EVER: a graduate student history conference in Michigan, a social theory conference in Boston, and a food studies conference here at UT-Austin.  Since I’m still pretty new to this business, these were also the first three academic conferences I’ve attended, which means that I spent at least as much time soaking up what academic conferences are like as I did presenting and learning about what other scholars are up to.  (And don’t even talk to me about logistics!  I spent so much of April navigating transportation systems in different parts of the country that I could write a whole article on bus culture alone.  Just going from Detroit to Boston was seriously like travelling between different planets – technologically, culturally, spatially, awesomely…!)

Anyhow.  Transportation issues aside, going to three radically different conferences in three different parts of the country was even more instructive than I’d hoped.  Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past few months:

1.      Different kinds of conferences have different purposes, so choose accordingly.

The first conference I went to was a food studies conference aimed at both academics and foodies; the purpose here was mostly to promote our oral history project and get people interested in it, so we set up our presentation so that the oral history subjects, via video and audio recordings, did most of the talking.  The history conference, by contrast, was a graduate student conference aimed at providing inexperienced grad students with a supportive environment and a great deal of feedback.  And the social theory conference was designed to help professionals in a specialized field get together and network.  Because my goal in going to conferences this spring was to learn how conferences work and how to present at them, the grad student conference was by far the most useful for me at this stage in my career (and coincidentally, it was also incredibly well-organized and well-run!), and bigger, discipline- or field-specific conferences will be more useful later, when I’ve got the conferencing thing down and am looking to network with folks in my field.

2.      Presentations are performances.

It’s one thing to present your final paper to ten fellow grad students at the end of a seminar or to lecture 15 undergrads for a few minutes; it’s entirely another to get up in front of a hundred and fifty foodies and talk about your oral history project or to try and interest a group of tenured professors in your dissertation research.  These are performances more than they are presentations, and – if you’re anything like me – they therefore require a good bit of prep to calm the nerves and keep the stage fright at bay.  And yes, this includes planning well in advance, rehearsing multiple times, knowing where the holes in your research lie, and thinking about how you’ll answer the inevitable well-meaning – or not so well-meaning – questions from the audience about them.

3.      The humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.

As I was preparing for the history conference, I thought to myself: ‘I know the idea here is to present a paper, but people can’t possibly just get up there and read papers.  That would be horribly boring.  I bet they make presentations and just hit the high points of the paper.’  So I made a simple Prezi outlining my argument, picked out a few key scenes to talk about, and went to the conference.  Where everyone read papers.  Often without visuals.  And sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, and the best speakers were able to combine ample detail with good storytelling techniques.  By comparison, my presentation, which I had constructed to be direct and to the point, seemed a bit empty and unromantic.

So, a week later, while I was preparing for the social theory conference, I thought to myself: ‘The papers I really liked at the history conference had a fair amount of detail and a good story to them, and no one really bothered with visuals.  I’ll just trim my paper down a bit and read it.’  So I cut my paper down a bit and went to the conference.  Where everyone had very structured, scientific presentations. And professional-looking visuals.  With lots of diagrams.  And again, sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, but this time the best speakers had clean, easily intelligible graphics diagramming their arguments.  And they had very little interest in having stories read to them.

Now you know: the humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.  Prepare accordingly.

4.      Talk to people!  It’s fun – and important.

You know what’s awesome about conferences?  Meeting new people and learning new things.  In Michigan, I had the good fortune to be on a panel with a gentleman who was working on a similar project, but focusing on a different city, and to have lunch with a soon-to-be-graduate who was using similar methods to mine.  In Boston, I stayed with a well-travelled artist and bookseller who turned out to be incredible resources on the city’s public transportation, and I learned more about social movements in a single day of conference sessions than I could have in a year’s worth of reading.  And in Austin, our presentation sparked a flurry of questions about tourism, growth, and networks among restaurateurs, all of which provided ample food for thought.  In other words, the presentations are important for sure, but getting to know people informally is what these things are all about!

5.      Travelling is expensive, yo.

I do like travelling, I’m psyched that I got to go to so many different places, and truthfully I needed to get a few lines on the old CV, but jetting all over the country is not exactly the most efficient or the cheapest way to get conference experience.  All told, I spent about a thousand bucks to go to two conferences, which isn’t exactly cheap when you’re on a TA salary.  And frankly, grad student conferences and small regional conferences happen all over the country, so why not go to the ones close to home and save your money for big national conferences (you know, the ones that look good on your CV) instead?  Unless you’re just looking for an excuse to visit friends or you’ve got an expansive travel budget, that is.

In sum: Know your discipline, prepare well, and try as best you can to match up what you want to get out of a conference with the kind (and location) of conference you apply to.  That, and take the time to talk to people.  Business school long ago cured me of ever wanting to use the word ‘networking’ again, but that’s what it is – and it’s important.  And at the grad student conference I went to, it’s also surprisingly fun.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

virginity, guilt, and suburbia?

The virgin sidewalk – the physical embodiment of sprawl’s guilty conscience – reveals the true failure of suburbia, a landscape in which automobile use is a prerequisite to social viability.

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.  Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.  New York: North Point Press, 2000.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

in defense of the humanities

In the larger view we know that attitudes and beliefs cannot be excluded even from the practical approach, for it is practical to recognize human passions in any environmental calculus; they cannot be excluded from the theoretical approach because man is, in fact, the ecological dominant and his behavior needs to be understood in depth, not merely mapped.

Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, p. 2.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

inefficiency makes people grouchy

In sum, according to these visions, water should return to the height from which it falls, motive power or force should not be wasted, machine theories should address mechanical practice, workers should do as they are told, struggle should yield better-adapted forms of life, people should control themselves, and inhumane practices should be inefficient.

Alexander, Jennifer Karns.  The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, p 164.