Archive for the ‘academic’ Category


It’s a dreary, gray day and I can’t seem to make myself do the things I should be doing. Often, writing a blog post helps me to get started. Today, though, I’ve been staring at this blank, text-less space for longer than I care to admit.

There’s a dumpster outside one of the houses I can see from my study window—I’ve been watching it fill with heaps of who-knows-what, dragged out from what appears to be a rather unassuming little house. Apparently, though, it manages to contain quite a mess.

It may just not be a writing day. It may be a taking-pictures-of-lockets kind of day. But really, for me, that’s just about every day. I chose the book for my backdrop quite carefully. It’s a favorite of mine—and not just because it has beautiful, deep purple covers. It’s a book I’ve actually read—which, among the piles of pretty old volumes in my house, is rather unusual. I don’t really have any intention of ever cracking the pages of Susan Clegg and her Friend Mrs. Lathrop. Unless, of course, I need to take a picture of a locket.

And, just like that, I’ve written something. Maybe there is hope for this gloomy day after all.

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Um. I should probably post about my trip—I have some pictures of New Orleans and of College Station, though not many— but this just arrived in the mail. And I think that I am ashamed. It’s like the grad student version of that silver card that the George Clooney character in Up in the Air gets for flying constantly— suitably less impressive. As far as I can tell, this shiny card gives me nothing that my other registered Starbucks card doesn’t. But my other card has birds on it. . .and this one has my name. It’s a sad looking thing, really.

It’s very uncool in Madison—and probably in grad school in general— to like Starbucks. But I do. I like the free things that I get with my registered bird card. Sometimes I feel compelled to get free syrups even though I don’t really like them, just because I can. I like that I always know what I’m going to get. I’ve been burned too many times (not literally) by lousy lattes at some of the other coffee shops that are clustered around the university, the employees of which are often more than a little surly. I have my local favorites— places that I’m happy to patronize when I have a long day of work and when I want something better for lunch than the frightening baked goods* that Starbucks seems to truck in from who-knows-where— but for coffee, I almost universally prefer Starbucks. Or Dunkin’ Donuts, but those are sadly lacking in this corner of the world (but not for long, I hear).
And so I got a lame little gold card in the mail and then blogged some free advertising for the corporate giant. Starbucks, you own my soul— you win.
*those tiny sparkle donuts are kind of awesome, though. in moderation.

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the world unseen

I’ve been reorganizing my writing space lately. When I came to Madison, my grandmother’s 19th century French secretary came with me. It’s a beautiful desk, but it’s not the best writing spot. I bought a small desk at Ikea and put it under the window–much better for hours of blank stares. And then, of course, I constructed a little vignette (because these things must be done before one can write). A ceramic deer for a muse. A jar of oh-so-inviting pre-sharpened pencils–left behind by Ricky two years ago–because I love the color. And a plant. Because I have too many (as you shall see).

Recently, a friend and I ended up talking about the apparent order of my house, how things seem to always be in their places. I don’t function particularly well amidst disorder, and organization is one of my primary methods of procrastination (see: jar of pencils). But I’m also pretty good at shuffling disorder around and getting it out of the way, to be dealt with at some distant point in the future. The picture above shows you the part of my study that I’m happy with and that I want/have to see all the time. The picture below, taken by my mom while she was here this weekend, shows the other half of the office, the part where less appealing things are happening:

I’m writing, starting at my orderly little deer-and-plant-and-pencil arrangement, apparently totally unaware of the fact that an entire rainforest seems to have taken root behind me. Because this room is so small, I’ve never really figured out how to arrange the furniture. . .so I put the new desk in place and then kind of gave up, for now. The plants are all huddling back here because this is where the best light is–the living room is just too dark in the winter to support tropical things. I don’t really mind their company–my house contains way too many carbon-based life forms, but at least these ones are silent. And still.

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(un)finished things

I have a hint for all the homeowners out there: if you really need to finish some of those nagging, incomplete projects around the house, all you really need to do is try to write a dissertation. Better yet, try to write a dissertation proposal, which is even more nebulous.

This is just to say…that after four years of being unhappy with the situation next to my stove, I made a series of impulsive decisions: (a) drive to the Bolingbrook Ikea with Ricky on Valentine’s day (b) purchase a tall cabinet that I’d never seen or thought of or measured before (c) build said cabinet, buy wood and trim at Home Depot, buy chalkboard paint at Walmart (d) create a divider for my kitchen. I’ll have to show you the front of the cabinet later (it has glass doors and a drawer on the bottom), but here’s the interesting part:

(1) kitchen before I moved in (for those of you who have been to my house in real life, note the linoleum floor that I ripped out, the tiny stove where my dishwasher now sits, and that damn persistent peach and blue tile)

(2) the decision that haunts me: ripping out the wall between the kitchen and the living room. I had wood floors installed to unify the spaces, and everything is, of course, now a pale aqua rather than shiny burgundy and dark brown enamel. Taking out the wall vastly improved the quality of the light in the living room, but created all sorts of spatial issues with the stove (which now sits in that blank spot on the left) basically ending up next to the couch.

(3) things as they are now: the new stove (electric glass top, a decision that I had to make when it died during the summer I took the MA exam and have made peace with despite my preferences, as one who cooks all the time, for gas ranges), the chalkboard divider, and an Ikea rail system that I bought a year ago. After I finished the divider, I took the plunge and drilled some more huge holes in my wall to hang the rail. I  really love it, and it’s surprisingly secure even in my annoyingly brittle plaster walls. I drilled in three two-inch metal anchors.

So, there you go. And here I go, blogging about the kitchen things I’ve finished when there are still many left to finish: I’m keeping the fifties cabinets that you can see in the first picture, but the tile is going, and I need a new countertop to extend over the new-ish diswasher and a new sink. Oh, and I need to finish my proposal. Like, now.

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One of the last, and one of the greatest, was the shell collection amassed by the English conchologist Hugh Cuming (1791-1865)….No sooner had the collection been moved to the British Museum than Mrs J.E. Gray, wife of the Keeper of Zoology, carried the open drawers of shells across a courtyard in a howling gale and all the labels blew away. The Cuming collection has been a source of vexation and controversy to conchologists ever since.

(Lynn Barber)

(poor Mrs J.E. Gray)

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In the instance of Dr. Leach, certain peculiar eccentricities and crotchets were mixed up in close union with undoubted learning and skill. In not a few eminent naturalists a tendency to undervalue the achievements of past days, and to exaggerate those of the day that is passing, has often been noted. Leach evinced this tendency in more ways than one. But a favourite way of manifesting it led him many times into difficulties with his neighbours. He despised the taxidermy of Sir Hans Sloane’s age, and made periodical bonfires of the Sloanian specimens. These he was to wont to call his ‘cremations.’ In his time, the Gardens of the Museum were still a favourite resort of the Bloomsburians, but the attraction of the terraces and the fragrance of the shrubberies were sadly lessened when a pungent odour of burning snakes was their accompaniment.

(Edward Edwards)

(what a name)

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It’s that time again—the time when I start baking like a maniac in order to avoid writing my final papers. Last year, I went nuts and baked dozens of perfect little gingerbread men, all identically iced with buttons and faces. The decorating, I think, really shows my commitment to bakecrastination. This year, my workload is a little calmer, but that doesn’t mean that I should be making cookies right now instead of writing. I’ve clocked out early this year—I think that the reindeer are further proof of that fact—but I still have three days of class, a paper, a presentation, and an exam to take. And grading! Clearly, it’s time for cookies.

I did try today, I really did. I got in my car right around nine this morning, after twenty minutes spent trying to move the heaps of ice left behind in my driveway by the plows. I’m glad they came; I really am. But the end of my driveway is a nightmare, sometimes filled with four or five feet of heavy, icy chunks. But I did it, and set out on my way to the coffee shop where I was finally going to start this paper.

This was not a good idea. It’s been days since the blizzard, but the roads this morning were still thick with ice—very rarely could I even see the pavement beneath it all. It’s been so cold—windchills around -18—that the ice has just stuck around. I realized almost immediately that I needed to turn around and go home, but even that was a frightening prospect. So I made it all the way down Monona Drive, watching car after car fishtail, spin out, and struggle to start again at stoplights atop hills. The beltline was nearly clear, but on John Nolen I watched a car in front of me skid across four lanes (and my car) and end up facing the wrong direction. At that point, I abandoned my plans, made a quick stop for milk and some fresh ginger (you’ll see why in a moment) and slowly made my way home down Willy Street.

Obviously, you can’t just get down to working after a trauma like the one I sustained this morning. No; you must make cookies. These cookies. I love ginger in just about anything, but I will say that the amounts in this recipe scared me a bit at first—four and a half teaspoons of ground ginger (almost half the jar) plus a pretty big piece of fresh—but it’s perfect. The proportions for the chocolate also seemed a bit off to me. To get six ounces, I ended up using an entire large bar of Ghiradelli’s bitterweet plus half a bar of Valrhona 70%. I really had to cram the chocolate shavings into the dough, forcing it past what seemed like the saturation point.

But I am in love with these cookies. If you make them, don’t change a thing, and definitely don’t skip the coating of turbinado sugar. I was worried about having too many of these—I plan to split the batch between a little get-together tomorrow and the department holiday party on Tuesday—but now I’m not sure that I want to share. I might just make myself ill eating dozens of them here in front of the space heater….because I am never leaving my house again.

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day 30: at last

I realized tonight that it’s probably been ten years since I decorated a Christmas tree. I have the most ridiculous ornaments, amassed over the last four years from the post-season sales at Anthropologie and Pottery Barn. Like almost all of the art on my walls, most of my ornaments represent some type of animal. A lot could be said, perhaps, about that animal-collecting impulse of mine—I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s so deeply rooted that I have a hard time even imagining why I would buy landscapes to hang on my walls or stars and snowflakes to hang on my tree. Do the the tiny mushrooms or the pom-pom Santa do anything to mitigate the level of crazy? Perhaps not enough, but my tree definitely looks like an explosion of crafty things. Perfect! I’m terrified for the fate of these crunchable ornaments. I have the most wonderful gray wool goat wearing a tiny fringed wool scarf—I took it out of the box and all of cats went crazy. I put it back. Maybe someday.

I spent all day writing—and some of the evening patching more concrete with my dad (or holding the flashlight while he patched). I’m starting to like the vegetable lamb thing again (more animals), which is good since we’ll be spending a lot more time together in the next few days. I’m having a hard time telling how and if this will actually turn out to be any good, but at least I’m working. It took me five hours to write one paragraph—the first one. When I closed my computer to go home and realized how few words I’d actually written—even if they did finally feel like the right words—I thought of one of my more disastrous sections last year, when I tried to get my students to discuss the first line of Mrs. Dalloway. They were unmoved, arguing that the one line didn’t matter any more than the rest of them, and that the story could have started off some other way. But it doesn’t. And those first lines are hard.

And with that, here is my last line of (unofficial, kind of failed) NaBloWriMo.

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day 20: classes were taught

What about wearing things that are the same color as your t.v. cabinet? and your walls? and just about everything else in your house? I’ve had this sweater longer than I’ve had this house. Maybe this was beginning.

Friday is a long day. I go to class in the morning—today, a lecture on waistcoats, cotton dresses, and fabric albums kept in Victorian foundling hospitals—and then I have about an hour before I teach. I sat in Starbucks and tried to avoid making eye contact with a nearby forty-something, philosophical-hermeneutics-reading man who really seemed to want me to look up from my Pauline Hopkins. And then I taught—and taught—and taught. I still find it strange to rehearse the same lesson plan three times in a row. I have a sore throat from explaining the passive voice over and over again. I’m always amazed, though, at how students take to discussing the things that you can get away with by using passive voice, and the ways that it changes the meaning of what you’re trying to say. It’s a pretty fascinating thing. People are fascinated by it. Or maybe I just get so excited about it that they can’t help but get just a little bit excited, too. Or laughing at me. I’m fine with that.

After some suburban errands and a little bit of happy-birthdaying for a friend, I’m listening to some new-to-me music and just enjoying being at home. I brought an antique rocking chair—from a long-ago estate sale in St. Louis–up from the basement. Is there anything more homey than a rocking chair?

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day 17: clouds and columns

After lecture this morning, I walked up State Street to meet some lovely women for crepes. Then I snapped some pictures of clouds and columns and spent the afternoon working on a revision in the shadow of the Capitol. I came home and made soup for dinner. This recipe comes highly recommended from my friend skaalastic. I was a little hesitant to try it out since it relies so much on vegetable broth (the heavy, salty taste of which I usually don’t care for), but I bought the brand of bouillon cubes recommended in the recipe and it was wonderful. I went the almost “instant” route and just poured about two cups of boiling water over a scaled-back portion of the ingredients, covered the bowl, and let it sit for five minutes. Even though I was missing three of the ingredients in this very simple recipe—no sun-dried tomatoes, scallions, or goat cheese—I liked the basic idea so much that I’ve made it twice this week, once with some cooked and sliced Quorn added in at the end. I think that the pared-down version is probably more to my taste, actually. And now I will eat some more pie.

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