A New Kind of MeMe
New Kid has tagged me, at my request, with the following questions. I really like this game; it's different than your conventional memes in that the questions are personally tailored. So, if you would like me to tag you with five questions, drop me an email and I'll see what I can do!
- What do I like most/least about Harvard? Harvard is a place I ended up in almost accidentally. When I was applying to graduate school, I didn’t really think about the process in the same way many prospective graduate students do, in that I wasn’t assiduously comparing programs and aid packages, or making lists of potential advisers and departments. I wasn’t wise about it at all. I had met Laurel Ulrich at a conference, I liked her book, and I thought it would be fun to go to Harvard and work on learning to be an historian. I never even stopped to think what the job market was like! I also didn’t really believe I would get in. It was a shock when I did get in, and, as it turns out, Harvard is the only place that gave me a real aid package. (Both Brown and Penn expected me to take out loans for the first two years, and Yale rejected me outright.) So, Harvard it was. And things have turned out nicely. The Big H has fabulous resources. Widener Library, where I lurk now on a daily basis, has pretty much everything I need, and if it doesn’t have it, the helpful librarian folk will order it for me. And Harvard is probably the best place in the country to be an early Americanist. The History Department Faculty alone boasts not only Laurel Ulrich, but also Joyce Chaplin, Jill Lepore, and Vince Brown. My graduate cohort is a truly delightful bunch; we have a stimulating and engaging dissertation group and aside from the intellectual stimulation, Harvard Square is a fun place to be. Shops, restaurants (some of which I can even afford to eat in), bookstores, and Boston only a little ways away, with a symphony and a ballet company...In other words, I’m happy as a clam here.
But Harvard, like any place else, has its issues. I suppose the thing I like least about Harvard is that gets crushed under the weight of its very own Harvard-ness. Harvard has a cultural sense of self-importance that I sometimes find nauseating. Recently, Harvard started allowing undergraduates to spend a year abroad during their junior year, but I still hear from undergrads who say that they’ve been told not to do it, that no other university can provide as sound an educational experience as Harvard can. That’s just poppycock, in my humble opinion. An undergraduate can have extremely valuable experiences elsewhere; Harvard cannot and should not be the be-all-and-end-all of higher education. Likewise, those in the administration are liable to respond to criticism with statements like, “you should just be glad to be at Harvard,” or “well, we’ll work on that, but you know, funding is scarce....” I’ve gotten both of those responses when I’ve asked pointed questions about the grad students’ substandard health care insurance and the cancellation of grad students’ dental insurance. For a university with the amount of resources this place has, it does a lot of corner-cutting when it comes to taking care of its students and employees. (Of course I realize that grad students in other places have it much, much worse.) The idea that one should just be grateful to be here rather irritates me.
But, when all is said and done, I have spent five very happy years here and gotten a lot out of the process.
- How did I choose my dissertation topic? I didn’t choose it; it chose me! Seriously, I came to Harvard thinking I would work on Revolutionary War soldiers’ diaries. I was all set to commence work on that project when I enrolled in a required Early American research seminar centered on race. I was peeved, but went along with it. I decided to work on something south of New England for a change, and in the hunt for a topic looked in Hening’s Virginia Statutes at Large (1823). This is the most reliable compendium of colonial Virginia law. I started noticing that legislators constantly transposed the words “heathen” and “African” or “Negro,” or “heathen” and “Indian” or “tawny.” They also consistently transposed “Christian” and “English.” By the end of the seventeenth century, they were transposing “Christian,” “English,” and “white.” So I wrote a paper about the religious criteria Anglo-Virginians used to formulate an idea of heritable inferiority (race) and to justify slavery. I postulated that Anglo-Virginians believed both Africans and Indians, but Africans especially, to be “hereditary heathens.” This was much more exciting than all those soldiers’ diaries. I was hooked, and the rest, as they say, is history! You can read an abstract of my dissertation here.
- What are your favorite non-work activities? Well, like most academic types I read in my spare time. I like reading European hsitory for fun, since I don’t study it. I also enjoy memoirs and biography. (Currently on my nightstand: Lorna Sage’s memoir Bad Blood and George M. Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards.) I read a ton of fiction, both “serious” fiction and “fun” fiction. (Right now: The Rule of Four and Faulkner’s Light in August.) I also adore science fiction and fantasy but I’m not reading any of those right now. (But hey folks, the next Honor Harrington novel is due out in November! Hurrah! For those of you not in the know, David Weber’s Honor Harrington books are like Horatio Hornblower, in space, with nuclear warheads. Start with On Basilisk Station. Have fun noticing the little Napoleonic references he sneaks in.)
I also enjoy back episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve recently joined Netflix and so get a lot of DVDs that way. (On tap for tonight, after dinner, is Good-bye Lenin!)
I like going to the ballet and the symphony when I can afford it. I have plans to spend a weekend in NYC early in November so I can go to the Met (oh happy day!).
I’ve recently returned to an old hobby of mine—swimming. I swam competitively all through high school and really enjoyed it, but dropped it in college in favor of other activities. I joined the Cambridge Masters’ Swim Club and I’m now swimming twice a week. It’s been hard finding my sea legs again, but I’m really enjoying the physical activity. It sure beats sitting on my rear end all day in the library, staring at the computer screen and waiting for my dissertation to pour forth in all its brilliance.
- Cats or dogs? That’s easy: both! Also, horses, llamas, and chickens. I would also like to have a push-me-pull-you someday.
- What one thing do you most wish you could change about the US right now? Do I have to limit myself to one thing? I suppose if I take the easy way out of this I would say, get rid of Dubya and supplant him with a President with at least half a brain. But, Dubya is only one symptom of a much larger problem. I suppose I would like the US to be less chauvinistic, less militaristic, less inclined to think invasion is the answer to the terrorism problem. I would like the US to be more internationally-minded, more courteous towards its allies, more respectful of the rights of its citizens at home, and more respectful of the treaties it has signed. I envision a US less muscular in its export of “democracy” and “freedom” and more understanding of the political, economic, and social challenges other countries face. There. That would be my soapbox for the day!