Dec 31, 2009

On the NFL Playoffs and Massive Online Communities

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I visited the website for the National Football League a few minutes ago to check out the playoff scenarios as the NFL teams head into the final game of the season this weekend. Since my Detroit Lions found themselves out of playoff contention by about Week Eight, I have had to amuse myself by cheering for other teams. I find the New Orleans Saints, the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Diego Chargers, and the Cincinnati Bengals to be the most interesting playoff contenders this year, though I also have a soft spot for the puzzling Houston Texans.

My early picks for the Super Bowl are the Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles, though admittedly there are plenty of hot teams right now who could make a run in the postseason. The Eagles have posted six straight victories, though the talent level of some of these opponents has been less than top notch. Still, you want to be playing your best at the end of the season, and the Eagles qualify here.

While surfing the NFL website I also came across a comment forum on the same page as the playoff scenarios. Since this page was posted about a month ago, thousands of visitors have logged over 31,000 comments related to the playoffs, their favorite teams, and the utter contempt with which they hold stars on opposing teams or any poster who disagrees with them.

Which is to say that the NFL Playoff Picture forum is like most Internet forums, with the exception that it is exceedingly difficult to build some sort of community in a place where new posts appear within seconds of each other. An attempt to discuss matters related to the NFL is going to be buried with a minute or two, and the sheer volume of posters means that every conversation will wind up being joined by dozens of posters.

Or like having a conversation with a few friends only to be joined by the entire city of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Dec 30, 2009

Blocking Google Follower Profiles on Your Website

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Google Followers A regular site visitor sent me an email and informed me that one of my Google Followers was actually a dummy profile advertising porn. Now, I am pretty much a live-and-let-live sort of person, but at the same time I have no interest in allowing my websites to be used as repositories of spam links to pornographic sites, especially sites that promote such fare as "Hot Young Asians." Even more objectionable was the profile image, which was a picture of female genitalia.

Anyways, I was a bit perplexed about the method for eliminating from my website the presence of questionable Followers. I surfed a bit and learned that blocking Google Follower profiles is accomplished in the following manner:
1. Go to your Blogger dashboard.
2. Click on the Followers icon for the blog.
3. Click on the Follower in question.
4. Click on "Block this user."
This simply removes the profile from your public list of Followers, while the Follower can still receive your RSS feeds and/or updates. The Follower in question can still visit the site and keep the problematic profile, but your other site visitors do not have to see the offensive profile.

Readers with more than a dozen Followers would be well advised to regularly scan the Follower list to make sure that legitimate site visitors are there, as spammers have been using the Followers tool to promote all sorts of dubious websites.

Dec 29, 2009

Saying a Weary Goodbye to the Decade of the Aughties

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As I left Costco this afternoon with my wife, the receipt-checking employee scanned our items and wished us a "Happy 2010." It was at this point that it dawned on me that the end of the decade is almost upon us, and I started to ruminate about the period that may become known as The Aughties.

The BBC, by the way, has been pushing for wider use of the term "The Noughties," but this is a bit too cheeky for my liking. As something of a traditionalist (at least in terms of historical continuity), I prefer The Aughties to stay consistent with the trend at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This has been a difficult decade for most people on the planet, as the numerous wars and a severe economic downturn were among the most significant components of the decade. Add to this some killer hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and viruses, and there is much that is worthy of leaving behind in this decade.

To this 45-year-old, the decade seemed to travel at an almost blindingly rapid pace. I spent almost the entire decade working full-time on my academic endeavors, while simultaneously working 40-60 hours a week and raising a family. The rare down time was usually spent on vacation, leaving little time for rumination on the significance of The Aughties.

In short, I lived it, man.

Yet even my moments of enjoyment and accomplishment seem overshadowed by the specters of unending wars, painful recessions, and natural calamities. I find it difficult to locate and focus on the positive developments of the past decade, and I look forward to the next decade if only for a change of pace from what has been a 10-year period of widespread death, catastrophic destruction, and diminishing returns.

Oh, and before anyone crows too loudly about The Aughties, I want to utter just two words: Lady Gaga.

Dec 28, 2009

On Narrowly Avoiding a Serious Accident

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One moment last evening we were driving in our Suburban on southbound US-23 about 15 miles north of the Ohio border, returning home from a holiday gathering of the far-flung members of the Brooks clan. The next moment the vehicle and its five occupants began a white-knuckle slide over black ice on a stretch of deceptively slick and unsalted Michigan pavement that threatened serious injury.

Or worse.

The episode lasted perhaps 15 seconds, and it began as my wife started to pass a slow-moving vehicle about 50-60 yards ahead of us in the right lane. She was traveling about 50 mph, but the person in front of us was driving much slower, and when the slide commenced it appeared that we might actually sideswipe the rear of the car ahead of us.

Slide left, slide right, slide left, slide right.

My wife demonstrated a cool head and quick reflexes in the harrowing moments when the Suburban no longer gripped the road, and she instinctively turned into the direction of skidding and resisted the urge to slam on the brakes. It was probably fortuitous that she was behind the wheel, as I think she is a better driver than me in extreme weather and in moments of chaos.

She managed to avoid hitting the slow-moving car, kept us out of the median, and she even did all this with an element of panache that would have been the envy of Richard Petty. After prying my fingers from the overhead handle, I gave her a high-five and said a silent prayer.

And yet the incident happened so quickly that the adrenaline did not have enough time to kick in. I certainly appreciated that we managed to come through the close call unscathed, but I have to perform this intellectual exercise in order to remind myself how lucky we were last night.

Dec 27, 2009

My Holiday and Viral Hiatus, Plus a Resolution

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I originally planned to jump-start my blogging during this holiday season, now that I have finished my doctoral quest after several months of furious dissertation-writing, but a combination of a busy holiday schedule and a pair of moderate viral illnesses have sapped both my time and energy the last nine days or so. I hope to get back to the business of writing tomorrow, and my goal for 2010 is to reinvigorate this blog.

Over the past year the blog has lost a sense of focus, at least from my perspective. One of the sources of frustration for me has been my failure to keep up with reader dialogue, which is really the heart of any successful blog. The two-way conversations have always been more important to me than standing at the virtual podium and pounding my fists, and in 2010 I plan to return to a more active role in the blogosphere and other virtual communities.

After all: now all I have to do is work a full-time job like everyone else. This will be the first time since the year 2001 that I have not been juggling full-time school and work (plus my busy family life), and I suspect that some of the "found" time will be filled with blog-related activities.

But for today I must travel and see some relatives, pausing only to gorge at the holiday table. I hope that your holiday weekend is equally joyous!

Dec 24, 2009

On Words of Wisdom from My Grandfather

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I just wanted to jot down a humorous-but-salient bit of commentary my 92-year-old grandfather passed along this afternoon. We were discussing the lamentable fact that many young women these days are too willing to settle for boyfriends or husbands who, to put it politely, lack the desirable qualities one might seek in a long-term mate. In impolite terms, this is what I have described as the rise of bitch and jackass culture.

Here was his colorful reply:

"I gotta think a fellow with shiny shoes and a convertible has a little more going for him than some fool peddling a rickety old bicycle down the street."

The statement reflects his Depression-era values, of course, as well as a time when young men would actually dress up and polish their best shoes to impress a young woman. These days young men do not have to make much of an impression, either for the young women or their parents. While some might cheer at the concurrent emancipation of women, I do not think that expecting young women to be treated well is a mutually exclusive proposition with equality.

Heck, even in my heyday of wooing young women way back in the distant 1980s one still had to spring for dinner at a quality restaurant now and then, and putting on at least a shirt and tie was de rigueur to make a good impression with a girl's parents.

This was not patriarchy or oppressive chauvinism - it was good manners and common sense.

Dec 23, 2009

Book Review: The Enemy I Knew - German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II

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Karras, Steve
Zenith Press, 2009


As a historian of modern European history I should know better than to assume that there are any topics - even the well-traveled fields of World War II and the Holocaust - that no longer offer opportunities for new contributions. Yet I admit I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the The Enemy I Knew covers a relatively untapped source of information, in this case the oral history of Jews who served in Allied units during the Second World War.

This text presents 27 first-person accounts from Jewish soldiers who served in combat roles against Hitler's Wermacht. Some of the narratives are based upon personal interviews that Karras conducted with the veterans between 1999 and 2002 in preparation for his documentary About Face, while others have been collected from previously unpublished sources.

Karras noted that the interviews led him away from his original premise, which was the idea that the Jewish soldiers in Allied military units took up arms out of a sense of revenge. Instead, the author found that many of these individuals became motivated after "their national identity was taken away and they became hate objects and then refugees" under the regime of the Third Reich. Fighting for American and British objectives allowed these soldiers to regain a sense of individual purpose and political coherence after being stripped of identity in Nazi Germany.

There are many haunting memories in the book, such as Eric Hamberg's recollection of Kristallnacht:
The night of Kristallnacht I was very sick, but I remember going to the balcony and looking down, and across the street was a Jewish store. They destroyed the store, they broke the windows, and they threw everything out in the street. The brown-shirted SA men went up to our neighbor's apartment on the second floor and took that nice family's bedding, threw it all out into the street, and set it all on fire. I saw people laughing and dancing and being so happy that the Jews were getting something that they didn't expect.
The Enemy I Knew is an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and I recommend the book to scholars and general readers alike. The book contains quite a few fascinating images not previously published, and readers will gain a much greater sense of this form of Jewish resistance to Nazi efforts to exterminate Jews and their culture.

Dec 22, 2009

Rescue Puggle Looking for a Loving Home

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I am re-running the post about Louis, who must be the most unlucky dog when it comes to adoptions. Louis has had two adoptions fall through, but he really is a sweet dog.

On your left is the one and only Louis, a 24-pound male Puggle we rescued from a local animal shelter. He was previously adopted, but his new owner had trouble with Louis scaling a four-foot cyclone fence, so anyone who adopts Louis should have either: a) a five foot or privacy fence; b) a tie-out; or c) lots of patience in training him not to climb the fence.

Louis is a younger dog, probably just over a year in age, and he has the higher energy level typical of Puggles, though he is not overly excitable. Louis gets along well with our other dogs, especially our younger Puggles, and he loves to run around the yard and chase anything that catches his attention. Louis is very affectionate, and he seems to crave being hugged and petted, suggesting that these were somewhat lacking in his previous home. When we first got home he ran and played for an hour with the other Puggles, but as soon as I started rubbing his chest, he rolled right over on his back and was mesmerized by the affection.

I just started working with Louis on training, and it appears that he has had little to date, so his new owners will need to be patient as Louis gets accustomed to a leash. Louis is completely housebroken, usually chews only dog-appropriate items, loves children, and is a perfect dog in many ways (save his love of exploring beyond fences shorter than four feet).

To learn more about adopting Louis, or if you want to help financially support Planned Pethood's mission to rescue dogs and cats in Northwest Ohio, visit the Planned Pethood website for more information.

Dec 21, 2009

On the Appointment of Shirley Green as Safety Director

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Photo courtesy of Toledo Blade

I have been busy the last few weeks and did not have the time to pen a post about the nomination of retired Toledo Police lieutenant Shirley Green to the post of safety director in the new Mike Bell administration. In short, there have been few times in recent history when I was actually excited about any political appointment, and the candidacy of Shirley Green is one of those moments of personal enthusiasm.

I have known Shirley for about seven years, mostly in her role as a graduate student and instructor at both the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University. In that time I found Shirley to be a first-rate scholar and teacher, and her intellectual abilities will match or exceed anyone in city government.

Yet it is Shirley's intangible skills that will best serve her and the city in her new role. She is as sharp of a reader of personalities and situations as anyone I have known, and I enjoyed many thoughtful conversations with her over the years about the police department and city government. Moreover, Shirley will strike a healthy balance between forcefulness and diplomacy, and the other officers I know describe Shirley as as a no-nonsense leader with a ton of common sense.

These, of course, have been quantities in diminished municipal supply the last four years, I am afraid, especially with the likes of Jon Stainbrook purporting to act in the public interest.

It is my measured opinion that Shirley Green was a phenomenal pick as Bell's new safety director, and her selection is even stronger due to Shirley's non-partisan background. I look forward to reading of Shirley's steady leadership in the coming years at the helm of this important post in Toledo city government.

And as someone else said: Shirley's new job means that there is one less competitor in the pathetically oversaturated job market of history professors. :-}

Dec 20, 2009

Quirky Website - The Fake Name Generator

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The Quirky Website of the Week is a semi-regular feature on this site. Feel free to recommend other quirky websites in the Comments section.

While trying to rekindle my interest in some fiction writing, I found myself struggling for a name to give a male character. I hopped over to Google and found the Fake Name Generator, which is billed as the "most advanced name generator on the Internet."

Visitors might also use the site to generate fake identities, and the Fake Name Generator also provides an address for your character. This was an example of a female name the site generated:

Savanna L. Ruvalcaba
511 Marigold Lane
Pompano Beach, FL 33069


Of course, I wound up spending 15 minutes laughing at some of the odd names, so my efforts to compose the Great American Novel took a back seat to Net-tomfoolery, but if you need a random name this is the site for you.

Taking a Moment to Bask in the Academic Limelight

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Left: Dr. Glenn J. Ames adjusting my hood

I am not one who has much use for ceremony, but I did find quite satisfying my trip across the stage yesterday at the University of Toledo's John F. Savage Arena to be hooded by my advisor and to enjoy 15 seconds worth of public recognition for my PhD. I skipped my MA ceremony due to family and work obligations, but there was no way I was going to miss this moment.

After all, I re-ignited my academic journey almost a decade ago, and without question my pursuit of a doctoral degree was the most challenging sustained work in which I ever found myself. I have been enrolled in college full-time and non-stop (including summers) since 2001, and it was gratifying to hear my assembled posse holler when my name was announced.

Still, at the end of the day the diploma is just a piece of paper that merely opens a few more doors for me. Any successes I enjoy in life I owe more to my wife, family, and friends than to my own efforts, and it was through the process of seeing and hearing so many congratulatory comments that I was reminded how much I relied on the encouragement of other people along the way.

God, this post is sounding like another of those academic speech clichés.

I am mostly glad this is over, though I am still finding it difficult to be officially saying goodbye to the University of Toledo. So many friends, so many excellent instructors, and so many years of my life have been spent there, and though I have been itching to graduate, there will be some emptiness at leaving my academic home.

Dec 18, 2009

Loading the Rear Window With Junk

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I suppose there are worse problem drivers on the road than people who load up their back windows with useless knick knacks, but the elderly woman in front of me the other day seemed to take this habit to excess. Blocking her rear view were at least nine dolls approximately 15-18 inches in height, artistically arranged on the platform under the window.

To give her some credit the driver put the tallest dolls toward the side, meaning that the middle was less obstructed than the sides. Still, her ability to see behind her vehicle was quite restricted, like when she tried to back up behind the pedestrian lines at the light at Flanders and Laskey.

Perilously close to my trusty-but-rusty Hyundai.

I assume that the auto-dolls are an attempt to reflect the driver's personality, like the way that testosterone-laden young adults trick out their Hondas and Impalas. Personally, though, I prefer my own windows to be clean and free from obstructions, so that I can see impending death quickly enough to say a prayer or cuss word.

Who wants to get smoked without getting in a quick F-bomb first?

Dec 16, 2009

The Flu Stops Here

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That is, I intend to make it through the entire 2009-2010 flu season without contracting influenza. Yesterday I took advantage of a free H1N1 vaccination program at BGSU to cover that strain, and today I received the seasonal flu shot at a local Kroger's location.

Yes, only in America can you get a flu shot while stopping to get a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, although I did have to wait 45 minutes for a pharmacist to have a free moment.

There are a few reasons why I have been more vigilant about receiving flu shots the last few years. The first is that I have been simply too busy to afford missing even a few days of work due to a temporarily debilitating strain of the flu. In addition, since my wife has been warned by her physician to avoid the flu shots due to some autoimmune issues, I figure it would be better if only one of us was knocked out by the flu at once.

Last year we both got nailed by a wicked case of norovirus
within about 24 hours of each other, and let's just say that two spouses being simultaneously sick is a difficult situation - there is no one well enough to play caretaker.

I think my overall track record in the years I received flu shots has been successful. In the past decade I have probably received the flu shot seven times, and I recall only getting a severe flu case about two or three times in that span. By "severe" I mean one of those lay-you-out-dead-on-the-bed-for-48-hours flus, not the kind where you can still somewhat function, albeit slowly and miserably.

Of course, since much of my teaching is with online classes these days, I suppose I would be better served by worrying about virtual viruses instead of airborne ones, but that is another story.

Dec 14, 2009

Department of Hilariously Lame Business Names

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Years ago I knew a person who opened a frozen yogurt business in Dearborn Heights, MI. The place was clean, inviting, and had a decent-tasting product, but I am convinced that the unimaginative name ultimately sank the business: "YoCreme N Stuff."

For years I used to hold this up as an example of a worst case scenario in choosing the name of a business, and I would have sworn that this uninspired moniker could not be topped.

That is, until the operators of a new consignment resale shop in West Toledo unveiled the signs for "Stuff 'N' More", thus providing me with a even more ill-conceived business name.

I have two theories on how the decision making occurred in the choice of the name "Stuff 'N' More." The first is that the owners locked a dozen people in a room with 10 cases of beer, and that after all sentient thought had been erased via massive consumption of Budweiser, the besotted focus group leader crawled to the door and belched a drunken "Stuff....N....More" before passing out.

The second theory is that the owners deliberately chose the worst possible name for a new business with the hopes that enough people - like me - would talk and write about the lousy name choice. This would be akin to producing a radio advertisement so horrible that people would laugh and the marketing message would subversively infiltrate the brains of listeners.

Unfortunately, the name "Stuff 'N' More" is just dull, lame, and pointless.

To their credit, the owners have designed an attractive looking logo and website for their brainchild. They will also benefit from the fact that the new business is in the same spot as previous resale businesses, so they might draw some consumers familiar with the history of the space.

Yet the creation of a public image for a brand takes a great deal of intellectual and financial capital, and burdening a business with a useless name is like trying to go 15 rounds in a prizefight with both gloves strapped together and while wearing a tin bucket over your head. When a new enterprise starts out, it is critical to develop a catchy name that quickly communicates the nature of the business.

"Stuff 'N' More" succeeds only causing me to scratch my head and wonder what, exactly, the owners were thinking when they came up with this generic and forgettable appellation. For their sake, I hope that these consignment connoisseurs have one hell of a marketing budget set aside to overcome their stillborn nom du commerce.

Neil Rackers: Be My Fantasy Football Hero

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My annual obsessive passion for fantasy football is currently at its neurotic peak, as my big-money league is now into the fantasy football playoffs. At the moment my team is down by 11 points, and my season hangs in the proverbial balance on the legs of kicker Neil Rackers of the Arizona Cardinals.

The scoring possibilities are too numerous to mention, but I need a couple of field goals in excess of 40 yards and a few extra points to beat my rival. Oh, and no missed field goals, which will cost my team points.

In this league my teams perennially play well in the regular season and fold at playoff time. The Brooks Bombers have been to the fantasy Super Bowl several times, but have never won the coveted league championship in 15 years.

Just one championship before I die, Almighty God.

Of course, perhaps God is teaching me the value of patience. Maybe when I finally win the blasted championship I will appreciate the victory more, given my record of futility. I am like the Detroit Lions of fantasy football, except I win my share of regular season games.

And Neil Rackers: I am counting on you, mister. Win the game for me and I will draft you forever, but if you play poorly, I will never draft you on my team again.

I mean it, pal.

Dec 13, 2009

Found: Female Poodle, Secor-Laskey Area

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Lost small white female miniature poodle in West Toledo who wants her mamaPictured on your left is a small white female miniature poodle who found her way to my house yesterday in West Toledo. She has some significant vision problems and she is very sad, whining to be returned to her lost owner.

Contact me at mebrook@bgsu.edu if you think you might be the little dog's owner.

Dec 12, 2009

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Far away across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell.


-- Pink Floyd, "Breathe (Reprise)"

Dec 10, 2009

Unnecessary Agitation

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I found myself stuck in a mile-long traffic backup this morning on Secor Road, as Columbia Gas crews repaired a half-dozen problems between Laskey and I-475. I grew increasingly agitated as my usual 8-minute trip to work turned into a 25-minute odyssey of aggravation. Of course, had I left for work at an earlier time that allowed for unexpected delays, I would not find myself facing tardiness at work, but that is another story.

After inching along the one-mile stretch for 15 minutes and growling in frustration, I finally passed the last of the obstacles and surprisingly made every light the rest of the way. I pulled into a notoriously busy University of Toledo parking lot fully expecting to find a lack of spaces, but there was a spot right in front and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Then I arrived at the Writing Center and found that the student with whom I was scheduled to work was stuck in the same traffic jam. Yes, I was still 10 minutes late for work, but I managed to avoid inconveniencing my client, and everything worked out in the end.

No need for cussing, no need for pounding my steering wheel. Chill, dude.

Dec 8, 2009

Open Letter to an Idiot Who Stopped While Entering the Freeway

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Dear Vehicular Imbecile:

I am not sure what was going through your gnat-sized brain when you reached the end of the on-ramp to westbound I-475 and stopped your Acura this afternoon, but I suspect your mental activity at the moment bordered on the sub-cognitive. Still, even a drooling simpleton has enough common sense to figure out that the best way to merge onto freeway traffic is to attain a rate of speed equal to or slightly in excess of the other vehicles on the interstate.

This, of course, ignores the fact that most sane drivers anticipate that the person in front of them on the on-ramp understands how to properly enter the freeway, like I did. Luckily for you, I noticed your brake lights a few seconds before my Hyundai slammed into the rear end of your almost-parked car, and I skidded to a halt six feet or so before creaming you.

I cannot even blame cell phones or new technology for your stupidity - you simply stopped, looked around, waited for a break in traffic, and accelerated onto the now-empty freeway.

Thus, I curse you: May the hairs on your arse turn into nail-studded clubs that beat you into a bloody pulp, you mindless cretin.

Dec 7, 2009

A Moment in Commercial Radio Hell

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Please: stab me in the eardrums and make the noise stop

Since my lovely wife bought me an iPod last year, I spend little time listening to the limited selection of commercial radio stations that can be picked up in Northwest Ohio. However, the other day I left my iPod at home and I had to spend an hour in the car with nothing but local commercial radio.

I found commercials on the oldies and hard rock station, and I was in no mood to listen to Lady Gaga on the Top-40 station. The other stations were either blasting a relentless wave of Christmas music or bland modern country music, neither of which fit my listening interests.

I ended up at our local classic rock station, which was torturing listeners with the moldy and tepid "Radar Love" by Golden Earring. I gritted my teeth and decided to wait out the last three minutes of what must be one of the most overplayed album rock songs from the 1970s.

Then the song faded out, the DJ came on, and I breathed a sigh of relief, until in his silky-smooth voice he announced that this was a "Double-Play" or "TwoFer" or "Two-for-One" weekend or some such mindless programming rot. This, of course, meant yet another forgettable Golden Earring song, this time the even more useless "Twilight Zone" ("when the bullet hits the bone....AHHHHHHH....when the bullet hits the bone...").

I staved off waves of nausea and listened for a minute, trying to understand why this horrid song could ever be released, let alone why this song - one that rightly deserves to be flushed down an American Standard toilet -
could rise to the number one position on Billboard's Top Tracks chart. Giving up, I scanned the lame and limited Toledo-area radio stations one more time before simply turning off the radio.

To my assaulted ears and weary mind, listening to nothing was better than being subjected to crappy music and idiotic commercials. I decided to amuse myself by singing an old REM song at the top of my lungs, and life was infinitely better.

Dec 5, 2009

Advice on How to Become a History Professor

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Over the past few years as I started my climb up the academic ladder, a few students have approached me with questions about how, exactly, one goes about teaching at the college level. I received another query from a former student today, and after an exchange of lengthy emails between us, I decided to convert the conversation into a blog post on the topic, one that likely will find itself replicated in web directories across the Internet.

Part of the reason that students ask professors for career advice is is because of the unpleasant fact that much of the information about the world of academia is almost hidden away, sort of like there is a secret society of academics conspiring to keep locked away this precious knowledge. For people just starting their college careers, there are few "how to" books on becoming a professor, and in fact many of the traditions are almost medieval in nature (master-apprentice relationships, Latin terminology, the hooding ceremony, to name but a few). I think that globalization and the Internet are beginning to tear down some of the artificial barriers that create the co-called "ivory towers" of academia, but this is slooooow change.

Here, then, is my advice on becoming a history professor.

Avoid being a timid student: Raise your hand every time you are stumped, and be one of the students who get their money's worth out of their education. If a professor is vague, ask for clarification, and if a professor tries to slide by with a flippant response, press further. Never let yourself get intimidated by academic titles or pompous windbags who are full of themselves because they have an advanced degree. As someone who grew up in a blue-collar Detroit neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, I was quite overawed at the whole world of the university, and it took me decades to figure this out. Of course, this was an era when even women and minorities were rare sights in many tenure-track universities (let alone blue-collar urchins like me), though there are still vestiges of the exclusive "old-boy" networks in some universities. When you run into the occasional stuffed shirt who tries to buffalo you, be respectful but persistent and demand your money's worth.

Vary your educational experiences: Many people in the field recommend getting at least one of your degrees at a different university, as there is a perception in the discipline that getting all three degrees at one university breeds a sort of provincialism or narrow-mindedness. However, for me geography played the determinant role in where I obtained my degrees, as I had children to raise. I say this because it is always useful to learn how other colleges and universities operate, and in my short time at BGSU I have realized that I would have benefited from greater exposure to a wider range of scholars. Still, this can also be obtained by working at a wide variety of places, as I have, and I have taught at six different schools in my short teaching career.

Work hard every day: I am fairly bright, but I have known quite a few students at both the undergraduate and graduate level whose brains performed at levels far beyond mine. However, I do pride myself on being one hardworking S.O.B. who makes up for any intellectual deficiencies with extraordinary effort. I attended every possible class, studied late into the night and beyond, and kept plugging away at even the most difficult books until I mastered them. I also went to school full-time, enrolled in more classes than I needed to graduate, and signed up for at least six hours of classes every summer between 2001 and 2009. At the risk of sounding boastful, my successes owe much more to hard work than brain capacity.

Choose useful areas of specialization: At the BA level, students do not usually declare a specialty, though most history majors have some idea of fields that interest them by the time they finish their undergraduate education. At the MA level, students often do not have an official specialization, though people usually take courses that have some bearing on their research (i.e., U.S. history courses for someone who has research interests in American topics, though a broad selection of some other field is always a good idea). At the doctoral level there is much greater specialization, and PhD students typically declare a major field, a minor field, and an area of special concentration. I strongly encourage people entering the field to choose at least one of these specializations in a field that is expanding. Unfortunately the world has far too many U.S. and European historians, and students who gain experience in fields such as Latin American, African, Middle Eastern, or Asian histories have greater opportunities when they hit the job market. Also, with the growth of online learning environments, be sure to develop some distance learning course design skills along the way.

Work with a variety of professors: I encourage students to work with a wide variety of professors along the way as opposed to finding two or three "favorites" and sticking with them. I learned from every history professor under whom I studied - even the not-so-great ones - and each professor has valuable perspectives that will contribute to the development of your own unique view of history. Even if a particular professor is a complete jackass, find ways to make yourself be seen as an excellent scholar and someone who will contribute to the department and the university. Sometimes those jackasses turn out to be much better over time, and they often surprise you with the most heartfelt and persuasive letters of recommendation. Also, if you go out of your way to speak well of even the most difficult professors and classmates, you gain a reputation as someone who gets along well with others, a quality that is highly prized in academia (remeber the connection between "college" and "collegial"? It matters). Avoid being the typical student who gripes about the impossibly tough professor, and instead be the hardworking geek who tries to get that rare A in Professor Pompous A. OldSchool's class.

Seek assistantships and fellowships: Assistantships are awarded by universities with graduate programs to promising grad students, and typically they pay a small annual stipend (typically around $10,000-$15,000) plus offer free tuition in exchange for that student working in the department. Teaching assistants (TAs) assist professors with large classes, and later get opportunities to teach their own unsupervised courses. Research assistants (RAs) work with a professor on a heavier research assignment, sometimes in archives and sometimes with databases or editing. This is an excellent way to keep costs down on obtaining a Master's degree and especially a PhD. I paid almost no tuition to UT for my two degrees, though they still make you pay for institutional fees and course textbooks. However, my 5-1/2 years of graduate school represented about $60,000 in tuition absorbed by the university. Fellowships are the next step up; in my case, I won a three-year UT fellowship that paid a higher stipend, all tuition and fees, and I had no teaching responsibilities. Essentially this was being paid $14,000 or more a year plus the $15,000 in tuition and fee waivers to read, write, and research.

Develop an academic network: Your hard work and accomplishments mean very little unless others know about your talents, and the best way to make this happen is to know people in the field. This is not case of sucking up to professors or bragging about your awards, but rather becoming part of a larger academic community. The professors under whom you study can write valuable letters of recommendation, and they can also help you in unexpected ways, like mentioning your name when an opportunity for a scholarship, fellowship, or job opening occurs. Also: I cannot underestimate the importance of humility and helping promote other students. There is a perception that academia is a cutthroat business (and at times it is indeed malignantly political), but the best way to get noticed is by praising the work of other students and the professors who teach your classes: not in a sycophantic way, but by finding legitimate examples of excellence. Over time others will return your goodwill tenfold: trust me on this one.

Say "yes" to every opportunity to teach: Once you get to graduate school, there will be many opportunities to develop your teaching skills. Be sure to maximize these chances, even if they are as simple as delivering a single lecture in someone else's class. Several times as an undergraduate I delivered short lectures in classes, and most professors enjoy some form of student presentations as a way to critique important skills (as well as being a break from lecture prep). After you earn a Master's degree, opportunities will arise to work as a part-time adjunct, and I learned to never turn these down. One semester I strung together six adjunct courses at five different colleges and universities, which was crazy-busy, but the upside of all this experience is that by the time I finished my PhD I had taught over 30 courses, including a number of upper-level undergraduate courses. I have taught history related to every continent except Antarctica, and if someone wanted me to teach HIST 4000: History of Antarctica, I would design a course in two weeks. Also: never let your prior lack of experience stand in the way of teaching a new course. You will learn along the way, your portfolio will be stronger for this, and you will develop a reputation for being a can-do instructor who is invaluable to the department.

Help others along the way: For me the most important aspect of teaching history has been the students I have helped find their way, much like I am doing in this letter. This sounds clichéd, but those of us who teach for teaching's sake derive great benefits from helping students succeed, and every semester there are at least one or two students in every class who emerge as true scholars with just a little guidance. Of course, many students are just attending for other reasons, like meeting a college requirement, but there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the metaphorical light bulbs above someone's head. Yet you do not have to wait until attaining a degree to help other students - join or create study groups in classes, work as a university tutor, or offer your notes to a struggling student. I have found that the help I passed out seemed to be dwarfed by that which I received over the years.

Involve yourself in the field: Follow your instincts on what seems to work best for you along the way. Read as many books as you can stand, get as much feedback as you can on your research and writing, network with other students and professors, attend colloquia and conferences, read history journals, visit H-Net, be familiar with (and someday join) the American Historical Association (AHA)and other disciplinary organizations, become a Wikipedian and make Wikipedia a better place for history articles. Most importantly - have fun! Along the way you will undoubtedly find areas of history never previously explored in any significant way (trust me - there is an unlimited amount of unwritten history), and if you stick around long enough, you will make lasting contributions to human knowledge.

Meet Louis, a Rescue Puggle With Lots of Love

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On your left is the one and only Louis, a 24-pound male Puggle we rescued from a local animal shelter. He was previously adopted, but his new owner had trouble with Louis scaling a four-foot cyclone fence, so anyone who adopts Louis should have either: a) a five foot or privacy fence; b) a tie-out; or c) lots of patience in training him not to climb the fence.

Louis is a younger dog, probably just over a year in age, and he has the higher energy level typical of Puggles, though he is not overly excitable. Louis gets along well with our other dogs, especially our younger Puggles, and he loves to run around the yard and chase anything that catches his attention. Louis is very affectionate, and he seems to crave being hugged and petted, suggesting that these were somewhat lacking in his previous home. When we first got home he ran and played for an hour with the other Puggles, but as soon as I started rubbing his chest, he rolled right over on his back and was mesmerized by the affection.

I just started working with Louis on training, and it appears that he has had little to date, so his new owners will need to be patient as Louis gets accustomed to a leash. Louis is completely housebroken, usually chews only dog-appropriate items, loves children, and is a perfect dog in many ways (save his love of exploring beyond fences shorter than four feet).

To learn more about adopting Louis, or if you want to help financially support Planned Pethood's mission to rescue dogs and cats in Northwest Ohio, visit the Planned Pethood website for more information.

Dec 3, 2009

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Creed Bratton has never declared bankruptcy. When Creed Bratton gets in trouble, he transfers his debt to William Charles Scheider.

-- Creed Bratton

Dec 2, 2009

Drained, But Now I'm A Doctor

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I spent most of the past 48 hours fretting about my dissertation defense, an event that occurred this afternoon. After hearing of the horror stories, I feared that the defense would be a grueling exercise of academic torture, but my committee was much more supportive and helpful than I could have dreamed. They provided quite a few useful suggestions and relevant critiques of my work, and I am sure that the published version of my dissertation in book form will be all the better because of their input.

And no: I do not write this because committee members might venture onto this blog. I was pleasantly surprised at how non-confrontational and, well, collegial the process turned out to be. No tuxedo jackets or pompous personalities, just helpful advice.

So the next 12 hours will be spent making last-minute formatting changes and rhetorical tweakings to keep the Graduate School happy. In some ways there is more work meeting the plethora of university dissertation specifications than there is in meeting the approval of the committee members who judge the dissertation on its intellectual merits, but at least this is the real home stretch. Still, the Graduate School can be quite tough to pacify, starting with the paper specifications:
The paper requirement for both the original and all copies submitted to the College of Graduate Studies is white, at least twenty-four (24) pound, acid-free, 8 ½” x 11” paper. The paper must be of good quality; a texture or quality feel to the paper must be present.
Or how about the requirements for page numbering:
Page Numbering: All pages must be present and numbered in the proper sequence. Do not use periods, brackets, hyphens, etc. before or after page numbers. The title page is page one (i) of the document; however, the page number is not printed on this page. If a copyright page is included in your document, it should immediately follow the title page. It will be page two (ii) of your document. However, the page number is not printed on this page. Other preliminary pages such as acknowledgments, table of contents, etc., should be numbered separately using lower case Roman numerals (ii, iii, iv, v, etc.). The preliminary pages begin the numbering at page ii or iii (depending on whether or not a copyright page is included). For engineering students this may begin at page iv due to the college required signature page. The lower case Roman numerals on all pages of the preliminary material (other than the title page and copyright page) are placed in the center of the page and spaced ¾ ” from the bottom edge. The first page of each chapter should be numbered at the center of the page ¾ ” from the bottom edge. Arabic numerals are to be used. The first page of the first chapter will be numbered page one (1) with an Arabic numeral. All other pages of the document’s body including plates, blueprints, appendices and bibliography references must be numbered consecutively with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.—please use the same font style as your text). The page numbers should be placed either in the top center or top right side of the page and spaced at least ¾” from the edge of the page , or it will also be acceptable to print all page numbers centered at ¾ ” from the bottom edge of the page.

Phew!

Finally, the answer to the as-yet unasked question is yes: I will make the next pizza delivery guy call me "Dr. Brooks," at least if he wants his $5 tip.