Friday, November 30, 2007

Fixing What Rabbits Have Wrought

Some months back, one of my roommates gnawed on the cord to my Wacom tablet, rendering it inoperative. At that point I didn't realize that the power part of the cord (the chewed section) was separable from the part leading from the computer to the tablet, so I suspected the whole thing was kaput. Still, since I had paid $200 for the thing (even if that was ten or more years ago), I was reluctant to throw it out, just in case there was a chance of fixing it. Like with a wire-stripper and some electrical tape, something I can do but not do remarkably well.
Last week, the phone got chewed. I knew I could replace the phone cord itself, but what about the power cord for the answering machine part?
(We pause to respond to vehement scratching at bedroom door, demanding entrance. Enter Spotted Pair with great force, having been denied bedroom for at least twelve hours.)
I examined the pieces and discovered that we were dealing with a couple of AC adaptors with pretty identical-looking plugs. One, however, was 12volt, 6 watt, 200mA, and the other was 9 volt, 10 watt, 400mA. Evidently I had better take the pieces with me.
As it turned out, I needed to take the phone and the tablet with me well, so there were two trips total. Apparently the plugs on the appliance end come in a bewildering variety of sizes, sometimes with but a millimeter difference.
Radio Shack, however, does stock all the parts. You buy the correct AC adaptor and then you get the plug that fits your appliance separately but included in the price.
Complicated. I thought we were never going to figure out for certain which plugs these things took, because there seemed to be several candidates for each.
Eventually, however, we determined that both items took a size M plug.
I then took it all home and stuck it all together and Lo, my phone and tablet are functional again.
I'm always pleased when I can fix something mildly bizarre like this. But it would be nice if Orion (chewier than Ms. Spots, so the probable culprit) would stick to gnawing on junk mail and my dissertation drafts. And the outdated phone books that Kristen so kindly donated for his pleasure.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Those Old Evals

Not just postdoc proposals, but also job applications, have to get put together in the next few weeks. College Art Association has been listing a gratifying number of possibilities in my general field, and my advisor (who seldom recommends my doing less of anything, other than my dissertation itself) has counseled that I go wild and apply to many.
This means putting together a packet unlike anything I have ever compiled before, which is interesting in its own strange way. Many schools request a Teaching Statement (aka Teaching Philosophy), so I have been slaving over that.
A few schools even want to see, right up front, how my students have evaluated me. This led me, during a break from the Teaching Philosophy, to dig up my most recent set, which arrived when I was packing to move to Prague and therefore had never even been read. Since I had had a pretty good group that semester, I was optimistic, although I was well aware that one's best students have a way of staying home on evaluation day while one's worst students tend to show up for once. (It may, actually, be best only to read the evaluations two years after the fact, when they are not of the strongest personal interest.)
I was relieved, however, to see that the 67% of registered students who showed up to evaluate me did so pretty fairly and nicely. Nearly all of them, in fact, were certain that the class was presented in a more-than-usually organized manner (this was a surprise to me), and they all said I was more-than-usually accessible to students (even though no great number of them had come to my office hours). Of course, some of them did not especially care for me or the class, but this is normal, so I was glad that even those who were less happy tried to make useful comments. I will take into account that the textbook struck them as unnecessary and expensive, for example (if I use it again, I will suggest they share it with a friend or read it in the library, but I do not plan to give up using a textbook at all for my introductory courses, thank you). I liked the suggestion that I post the PowerPoint slides ahead of time, and sometime when I have everything prepared well in advance, I will be happy to do this. (Of course, we cannot guarantee that I will ever be that well prepared.) I am intrigued by the suggestion that more exams with less material would be preferable to a midterm and a final, and will consider this idea. I will not, however, be taking the suggestion that research papers be less than 8 pages. We can have other types of shorter paper. And, in response to the suggestion that I give examples of good comparisons, I can only say "read the handout."
There was general agreement that having the PowerPoint slides up on Courseweb was valuable. Several people, not unreasonably, thought I went too fast or included too much material. Reading and discussion of articles got a mixed response, which was not surprising as some of the class clearly loved this and some of the class seemed to find it heavy going.
All in all, it was nice to be reminded of a group of students who mostly tried hard and did a pretty good job. Some were astonishingly good and others really struggled, but overall it was a good class.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ghost in the Cell Phone?

I was under the impression that, unless one gave out a cell phone number to lots and lots of people and businesses, it was pretty certain that the only incoming calls would be from one's familiars. Maybe a misdialed number once every six months or so, but nothing more.
During my trip to Washington and New York, however (that trip about which I have said next to nothing despite good intentions), I discovered otherwise. While I was sitting quietly listening to talks about Central European Modernism, my cell phone began to collect messages to someone named Lee! People kept telling me that they had received my (Lee's) email about a contract and would email back, or that they wanted to discuss plans for a vacation in Jamaica that would involve their spouse and children.
I was sorely baffled, because I have almost never met anyone named Lee and very few people have my cell phone number. I could only conclude that Lee had accidentally given these people my number; perhaps Lee was dyslexic or something.
When I went to New Orleans the following week, the problem continued. Quite a few calls came in, especially at times between panels when I was expecting to hear from Kristen, Jesse, Shawn, or Deanna about plans to meet somewhere. It was difficult to train myself to look and see whether the call was coming from anyone I knew, because I am accustomed to answering if that won't be a social error. The weirdest part was when Lee herself called in the belief she was calling her voice mail or some such thing. Had I been more alert at the time, I would have said something intelligent and pointed out that I was getting a lot of her calls, but no, I was too befuddled to do that. After that, every time she called and got my voice, she hung up before I could say anything. This grew rather tiresome.
After a few days, the barrage ceased, and I assumed the problem (whatever it was) had resolved itself, but more mystery calls came in today. No, I don't know about these contracts or about the computer repairs Lee would like to have done or the house she is thinking of buying. I am learning to hit the Ignore button and hope that some of these people will actually listen to my voice message, which expressly tells them only to leave messages for ME and not anyone else.
Hmm. Is my phone number on hundreds of business cards, or is the phone company confusing the two humbers and sending my incoming calls elsewhere? Inquiring minds want to know.


Saturday, November 24, 2007


Thanksgiving has come and gone in its usual unremarkable way. It is a holiday that I enjoy, yet never feel obliged to celebrate. Over the years, I have gathered that this is a rare attitude among the American populace; while one always reads of how painful big family holidays are for members of dysfunctional families who have lots of bad memories of past holidays, I have yet to meet anyone, even from an awful family, who claimed to detest Thanksgiving. It seems to be a general favorite, perhaps because Thanksgiving is often celebrated with friends rather than family.
I like to host Thanksgiving dinners, but this is not generally practical for me, so I was pleased that this year Travis took on the job for our department. As Travis is vegan, this meant I used margarine instead of butter in the sweet potatoes. But as I'm perfectly content with vegetarian Thanksgiving, it was not much of a stretch to go in a vegan direction. Most of my favorite Thanksgiving foods are not dairy-focused, or can use margarine.
We met on Friday so that more people would be able to attend, and we ended up with a pleasant group of four art historians (Travis, Kathy, Leslie, and me) and one visiting Czech psychologist, Daniela. Additional people had planned to come, but for one reason or another bowed out. The Friday timing meant that Daniela was able to experience a traditional Thanksgiving on Thursday, and as an observer of American culture, she quite enjoyed seeing both the traditional and non-traditional forms. Our most traditional foods were the sweet potatoes, mulled wine, and mashed potatoes, but only the first two turned out to have their traditional form, as Travis had put the potatoes in the food processor and this gave them an unusual consistency. They tasted fine, but they were very sticky. We have christened them Potatoes a la Travis, and Leslie says she thinks this new recipe will please her father, who wants his potatoes exceptionally smooth.
I meant to take pictures, but left the camera in the car. While we enjoyed ourselves, the main notable item other than the food was Daniela's revelation that her family has a house rabbit. This is not the Czech norm. She said that he is very patient with her younger son (who tries to treat him like a stuffed animal) and has taught her how intelligent rabbits are.

Usually I find Thanksgiving break an excellent time to get a lot done. Past Thanksgivings have seen the composition of entire short stories. I am not sure that this year will be typical in this regard, however.
It is not that I do not have plenty to do. As I sat in the airport Monday night waiting for my flight back to Pittsburgh, I contemplated the rather long list ahead of me. It involved things like writing my College Art Association conference paper, writing a proposal for the upcoming Czech workshop, writing an abstract for a book chapter that I hope to contribute, writing the next postdoc application, and fixing an article that allegedly had developed problems in the course of emailing. These all had to be done in the next two or three weeks maximum, not to mention making some progress on my dissertation for a change.
The airport happened to have free wifi, so I took it into my head to check my email, and discovered that my advisor had finally read my first two chapter drafts (she had warned me that this would happen shortly) and that as a result she had decided it was time for me to start cutting and reorganizing. No dissertation, she assures me, should be more than 300 pages.
While this news did not actually depress me, it did distract me from dealing with any of my other projects during the flight. On Wednesday, then, I bravely wrote up the chapter abstract and a proposal for next year's AAASS paper (admittedly, these were revisions of documents I already had on hand) and took care of various other things, which made me feel productive. I also cut significant amounts of Chapter 2. I felt very productive indeed!
Unfortunately, I was nearly out of printer paper, so I could not really work out many more cuts.
On Thursday, the mouse for my desktop computer began to behave very strangely. Rebooting was of no use. Changing the batteries did no good. When I tried removing it to reinstall it, it failed to reinstall. There is not much one can do with a computer without a mouse or similar device; I am pretty good at using keystrokes, but Microsoft and the other software companies make it pretty difficult to use a computer solely via keystrokes. Meanwhile, although the laptop was working, I couldn't use the internet from it since (as the Verizon software had screwed it up once and caused me to have to reinstall Windows) I don't use it with my home internet connection.
The annoying thing about such irritations is that, although one can work around them, one would rather fix them. Attempts to fix such things quickly eat up hours of one's valuable time. Nothing is convenient. One cannot simply settle down and work smoothly.
Perhaps, too, it is a bad weekend for technology. My Sibling has experienced what will prove to be either a dead motherboard or dead hard drive on his laptop, which (naturally) is the home of a major project. And this morning I discovered that an unidentified lapine had chewed no less than three cords connected to the telephone. While phone cords are easily replaceable, I may need to get a new phone if the power cord can't be replaced. It is just as well that I don't know which rabbit perpetrated this particular mischief, although I suspect Orion was to blame.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Life in the Warren

The rabbits seem pleased that I am back from all my gadding about, but while Calypso Spots takes this as an opportunity for increased petting, Orion appears to have mixed reactions. He wants to be near me, but avoids attempts to pet him. I think this means that he hopes it is really me but has suspicions that I am actually a monster in disguise.
Travis inquired recently whether rabbits are hierarchical. It's generally said that they are indeed, but I think it is more accurate to say that, as with humans, lapine interest in hierarchy depends on the individual. It seems unlikely that anyone (human or lapine) genuinely wants to be at the bottom of the heap, but beyond that, I suspect that many individuals of both species spend most of their time in relative indifference to hierarchical niceties. Certain individuals want to be on top, but may or may not get what they want. The deceased Penelope clearly wanted to be the dominant rabbit, and had she treated George nicely when he was the new rabbit, he might have been happy to let her take that role (he was much enamored), but she was nasty to him, so he had to show her who was boss, and during their lives together she only occasionally managed occasional bouts of week-long dominance in a relatively equal relationship.
After Penelope died and Ms. Spots entered the scene, she rapidly developed a deep attachment to George and recognized that since he could no longer take care of himself properly, it was her job to be Dr. Spots and do her best to keep him happy. This did not seem particularly hierarchical at the time, merely affectionate and generous, but now that George has been succeeded by Orion, it appears that Ms. Spots takes the view that as she took care of George, it is Orion's job to take care of her. She is not, of course, in any way disabled, but merely seems to regard herself as Senior Rabbit, so while she does lick Orion's ears, she does so rather infrequently. It is my impression that Orion, who courted her with great sensitivity and skill, has concluded that his beloved is a bit spoiled and does not really give him all the loving he would like, although this does not keep him from lavishing affection upon her day and night. A bit of hierarchy seems involved here, but Orion does not strike me as a lower-dominance rabbit. Instead, as with many human couples, the two seem to be of similar dominance but have worked out a relationship where one is mildly subordinate in specific areas of life. Ms. Spots is quite fond of her beau, and he knows it, but as Junior Rabbit he supposes that he should usually respond to her requests for grooming even though she tends to ignore his.
Of course, Orion may have simply set up a precedent when, at the outset of their relationship, he licked her nonstop for twenty minutes.
Meanwhile, they are indulging in considerable lapine cuddling and grooming. Orion can groom Ms. Spots pretty much endlessly. As my parents have observed, his tongue never seems to get tired.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Another Night in New Orleans

Well, AAASS (giganto Slavic conference) has ended. Kristen has posted her photos of New Orleans and gone home, and as my plane ticket is for a day later, tonight I'm bunking with Jesse and a couple of other guys at a less grandiose hotel. Interesting how the conference hotel charges extra for internet, has no full-length mirror in room (that I noticed), no bathroom fan, and has but one towel bar which is located inside the shower (?! how do you keep track of whose hand towel is which between maid services?). Other hotel has free wifi, full-length mirror in closet. Haven't checked the bathroom situation. But I will say that the conference hotel was 100% nonsmoking, which meant it actually smelled relatively fresh.
On the whole I have a good opinion of the whole thing. Though my panel experienced some anxiety over our absent discussant and the fact that the program listed a panelist who had dropped out back in August, it actually went quite well. I did not get laryngitis as feared, nor did Jesse although he had a cold that did interesting things to his voice, and Shawn appeared to be in perfect health. Even though the panel began at 8:00 in the morning and none of us were exactly famous, we drew a respectable crowd of at least 11 people (there were over 30 other panels competing with us for audience, and the day before I had been almost the only attendee at a very good panel). The audience was attentive and there was a satisfactory amount of discussion, so the three of us feel very pleased with ourselves.
I attended a good sampling of other panels and went to some conference-related events of the reception and business-meeting variety. While I would appreciate it if the people who speak on Russian topics would recognize that not all Slavic/Eastern European scholars know Russian and aren't going to get much out of big chunks of spoken Russian, I suppose that this situation is unlikely to change. It did make me rather less inclined to attend panels on Russian topics and more inclined to seek out panels dealing with places whose languages are more obscure. After all, while my knowledge of Czech means I can guess at a surprising number of Russian words, I really don't follow chunks of Russian verse or film dialog.
I did, however, feel generally impressed with the quality of the papers I heard and with the professionalism of most of the chairs and discussants. I kept track of certain people whom I would be glad to have as my discussant in the future, for instance. I enjoyed learning more about such topics as post-revolution journalism, Tuzex stores and Bulgarian luxury cigarettes, Czech decadent literature, Polish fears regarding syphilis among the intelligentsia, and avant-garde Russian picture books. I met some interesting people, some of whose work I had admired, some of whom are old friends of My Sibling, and some of whom were previously complete strangers to me. And, considering that it was my first AAASS conference, I saw quite a few people I already knew.
I have not seen all that much of New Orleans, but Shawn and I did venture onto Bourbon street the night of our arrival and, along with Czech and Hungarian colleagues, drank some overpriced cocktails to the accompaniment of a good jazz band. I also joined Jesse on a couple of exploratory missions, and this afternoon the three of us sampled the legendary Cafe du Monde coffee and beignets, which met with our approval. I will be relying on their photos since I left my camera at home, but I can state that the French Quarter has recovered pretty well from Hurricane Katrina and is indeed an attractive neighborhood with courtyards, wrought-iron balconies, and appealing gardens. This evening Jesse and a Turkish grad student are off hearing jazz at Preservation Hall. I would have joined them but wasn't sure my energy was sufficient.
Meanwhile, now that I finally have internet access again (hotel #2), I have learned that my friend Travis, who will be teaching at St. Olaf next semester, was wondering whether I knew where to lay hands on reproductions of Toyen's illustrations for the Marquis de Sade's Justine, which I gather he would like to use in class. We had previously talked about various art and popular culture images he might want to use, but I hadn't realized that he was going to want to regale his students (who may, for all I know, include some of our Minnesota kin) with Justine. I admitted that I do in fact own a reprint of the book and have scanned the illustrations for my dissertation, so he can show them all if he so chooses. I will have to tell him about the Czech decadent art discussed at the final panel, which included a fine self-portrait of Karel Hlaváček in the form of a spider.
Travis is tending Ms. Spots and Orion in my absence, so he was able to assure me that they have been stealing one another's lettuce and, I suppose, offering to chew on Justine if it is left on the couch.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Theory or Narrative?

In the midst of my preparations to fly off to AAASS (the gigantic Slavic conference), I stopped to check my email. One email informed me that the discussant for my panel won't be able to attend, which was decidedly not welcome news.
A rather more agreeable item was Rob Breszny's take on my horoscope for the week:
LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): Stories interest me more than beliefs. I'd rather
hear you regale me with tales of your travels than listen to you recite your dogmas. Filmmaker Ken Burns agrees with me. He's worried about the increasing number of people who love theories more than stories. "We are experiencing the death of narrative," he told the *San Francisco Chronicle.* "We are all so opinionated that we don't actually submit to narrative anymore. That's the essence of YouTube: Abbreviate everything into a digestible capsule that then becomes the conventional wisdom, which belies the experience of art." Your assignment, Leo, is to help reverse this soul-damaging trend. Spout fewer opinions and tell more stories. Encourage others to do the same.

I like this. While I have plenty of opinions, I don't think they're as interesting as a good story (though a good story can be wrapped around an opinion). And I certainly don't think theories are, as a rule, as interesting as stories. Some theories, yes. Not all. And who wants to hear "I'm going to tell you a bedtime theory..."?
The scholarly world often prefers theory to narrative, when actually it needs both. Narrative with no analysis is usually just raw material, but theory with no narrative quickly becomes indigestible. I suspect that's true even in the sciences.
As a primarily story-telling animal, I always imagine that it will be hard to inject the required amount of analysis into the work, but usually I find that if I tell enough story and get in enough description, the analysis follows in a surprisingly natural fashion.
Of course, it might be that this horoscope is really a call for me to write more fiction. That might be a bit difficult to do during a week in which I'm mostly exploring a major academic conference and maybe glancing over a dissertation chapter or two on the plane, but you never know.
At the moment, I'm mainly hoping not to get real laryngitis. I can talk, but my throat has that ominous laryngitis-feeling. That would be bad for both my panel and for storytelling with my various Slavic-specialist friends.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Back for a Moment

The rabbits were a bit skittish when I returned from my adventures in Washington DC and New York (Ms. Spots bolted when I opened the door), but they have now calmed down. While both are eager to be petted, Her Spottedness has been exceptionally desirous of long petting sessions this evening. A moment ago she was so overcome with happiness and relief at my return that she licked my hand repeatedly. I feel considerable remorse that I'll be leaving for another near-week-long trip on Wednesday.
I do wish, however, that they hadn't felt compelled to jump on my bed at 4:30 this morning. Their fondness for leaping onto the bed and bouncing around while I try to sleep is a prime reason I usually close the door at night. Surely they don't expect me to get up and feed them before it gets light out?

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Maneuvering in Western PA

Most of the time, when I am in greater Pittsburgh, I feel pretty confident of my ability to get where I need to go and accomplish at least a good share of what I need to get done. Signage on the city streets is pretty good and the people I encounter at school, in stores, and on the street are usually abnormally helpful.
There are times, however, when I do have the sensation of being, perhaps, lost in the Bermuda Triangle.
The first instance of this since my return was when I took Ms. Spots to the emergency vet last week. We had been there a few years ago, and I remembered that it was a bit hard to find, so I made sure to print out directions.
Of course, I then left the directions at home. We spent at least half an hour going back and forth on Hwy 8 (also known as Butler) trying to find the place before I stopped at a convenience store and got directions from the police. Technically it was indeed on Butler, but actually you go into the K-Mart parking lot (where the Long John Silver sign is larger than the K-Mart sign) and then over a little bridge to behind a filling station. I was very glad that the Spotted Character wasn't experiencing an immediate sort of emergency and that half an hour or forty-five minutes didn't really make a huge difference.
This adventure was a mere dress rehearsal for Saturday night's odyssey. Cindy's husband decided that she deserved a proper celebration for passing her dissertation defense, so they invited all and sundry to come out to the house. I would have known my way there by now, but I was sick for a previous party and for some reason they have cut back on their entertaining since becoming parents.
I went to Mapquest and printed out both a map (which did not print legibly in black and white) and street-by-street directions. It was allegedly about 10 miles and Mapquest opined it would take me under half an hour.
The directions looked plausible enough. One was to go toward the emergency vet and then veer northwest.
I am unsure whether to put more blame on Mapquest or on the peculiar ways of the Western Pennsylvanians. Let's just say that outside of Pittsburgh proper, it is not wise to trust to Mapquest, nor for that matter to one's AAA map of the area. What I learned on this expedition (which I should have begun to grasp the week before) was that if it is possible to give a Western PA road multiple names, it will have them, and if the road in question is any kind of main road, there will be no signs identifying it. After all, everyone knows where Evergreen is, don't they? (Every last bit of it in every possible part of the region.) Everyone knows where Babcock Blvd is, don't they? And Perry Hwy doesn't need many signs to identify that it is the true Hwy 19 after one has been led astray on Truck Hwy 19 which is better marked. Yep. And how many Birch Avenues ought there to be on the way from my place to my destination (which was on one of these Birch Avenues)? Somewhere along the way I despaired of finding Babcock or Three Degree, and concluded that the Birch Ave. nearest me surely ought to be the correct one. Of course, it was located in a rural maze of streets which had very few street signs, so finding this Birch and discovering it didn't have the correct house numbers took another half an hour or so. And I don't want to know how many times "Old Perry Hwy" intersects with the newer Perry Hwy.
Suffice it to say that after close to two hours, I found the party and we all had a fine time. Cindy says that she has a hard time giving directions because, due to the lack of signage, she doesn't know what most of the roads are called and has to resort to locutions such as "turn left at the BP station." She says that the natives use this method exclusively, but prefer to say things like "turn left where the old J.C. Penney's used to be," which is of no use to people like us who haven't got the faintest idea where the old J.C. Penney's used to be. She is quite correct, though. A guy I encountered on Birch Ave. the first gave me detailed direction that began with "You know where the Giant Eagle is?" (No, I've never been here in my life. I know where four Giant Eagles are in Pittsburgh itself.) These directions were replete with references to various stores and restaurants that I had no hope of remembering.
I experienced a different version of the Bermuda Triangle this afternoon. Next week's AAASS conference, which I assume must be the largest Slavic conference in North America, regards digital projectors as too expensive for their budget, meaning that presenters have the choice of regular slides, overheads, or handouts. Well, being an art historian, I said we would do regular slides for this panel. I knew that the university's photo people could make slides from PowerPoint images because their website told me so. And, being an art historian, I used to do all my talks using regular slides, but as everyone was switching to digital and I don't like carrying two carousels everywhere, all my dissertation images are digital.
So... I spent this afternoon putting together my images and put the whole thing onto a CD, and then hastened over to the photo people. The website said they had 48-hour turnaround, but since I'll be out of town from Tuesday to Sunday, I wanted to get this underway.
Imagine my horror when the photo staff informed me that they haven't done this for years and that the machine they used to use is broken. They did call someone who does still do it, who provided a quote of $5.99 per slide, or 8.99 per slide for rush service.
One of the photo lab people suggested that I rent my own digital projector, as this was doubtless cheaper than having slides made. Dang, I could probably almost buy one, although not a very good one, and why would I want to buy a low-end digital projector when image quality is vital to what I do?
I ask you, am I some sort of plutocrat? Certainly not, I am a graduate student on a limited income! Going to conferences is expensive enough and I might not do it were it not a professional necessity. If worst comes to worst, I suppose I will print out handouts on the departmental color printer, although I have no idea how many people might show up to our panel.
I will retreat into that other Bermuda Triangle of trying to get everything packed and ready for me to take the very VERY early train to Our Nation's Capital.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Penultimate Romanian Film

The Romanian film festival here is drawing to a close, and tonight's California Dreamin' (endless) will be the last screening. I've now managed to attend three, Stuff and Dough, The Paper Will Be Blue, and then last night's Occident.
Occident was, perhaps, my favorite of the three. It presents three intertwined narratives (or was it four? I'm losing track) about urban Romanians in the very recent past... set right around 2000. The characters are likeable, if often foolish, and all are trying to come to terms with post-revolution Romania. Some are determined to leave, some think it's better to stay, and one has left and returned.
I admit to a weakness for tales told in this multiple-story manner; I have always liked, for example, Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, which combines changes of narrator and progression of time to provide an added, surprising dimension to novels which are already rich and subtle in themselves. Robertson Davies' several trilogies also work somewhat in this manner, although they are not designed as quite such puzzles. Occident weaves its interlocking stories and perspectives quite well for a feature-length film, and conveys the stories with a charming sense of humor while nonetheless dealing with some sad events and intense emotions, but here and there I did wonder whether bits of information got lost on the cutting-room floor.
Altogether, it is decidedly to be recommended.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Inside a Defense

I am delighted to say that yesterday one of my esteemed colleagues defended her dissertation with great intelligence and poise.
Our defenses are open to the public, but I had not actually had the chance to attend any prior to Cindy's, as most of the graduates I know finished up while I was in Prague. Cindy's was also a defense I took a particular interest in, since on the one hand she has always been an admirably calm, stable, and helpful colleague, and on the other hand her work on Meyer Schapiro is completely different from what anyone else I know is working on (Schapiro being a major art historian rather than an artist). For that matter, it turned out that Cindy and I have three of the same committee members, including the same advisor, so this was an opportunity to see how they all operate during a defense.
First, somewhat like comprehensive exams, the student (and audience) must leave the room while the committee confers. This went on for quite some time, and Cindy and her audience (three fellow students) became somewhat restless, which was only slightly alleviated by cups of tea. After all, one can only wonder what on earth they are saying in there and why it is taking them so long.
When we were invited back, they announced that Cindy's dissertation had passed and that the discussion ahead would focus on how the work could further be developed, and agreeable things like that. (This is the kind of announcement I want to hear at my defense.)
It was extremely interesting and on the whole enjoyable to hear everyone discuss the fine points of Meyer Schapiro's relationship with Erwin Panofsky and whether there was much archival data regarding what he thought of Gombrich's work. One of the things about research on Schapiro is that currently only a limited amount of his papers are actually available, as most of them still need to be catalogued or something like that. Therefore, many things the committee would be interested to know could only be answered in terms of what it had been possible to find out at this stage of the game. In a few years, considerably more material will become available, and Cindy looks forward to sifting through it.
One of the few similarities between Cindy's topic and my own is that both of our people really need to be researched in relation to their network of friends and professional colleagues. While Schapiro left a vast paper trail and Toyen seems to have left very few papers of any kind, in both cases the researcher is constantly discovering new people who ought to be looked into. Perhaps there are few historical figures who can be effectively researched without research into their associates, but it seems that Schapiro and Toyen are particularly clear exemplars of the importance of researching the larger network.
Overall, this was the kind of defense that impresses one both for the intelligence of the discussion and the civility of even the most critical comments. We have all heard stories of horrible defenses in which one or more professors take pleasure in skewering the candidate, whether for the fun of it, to annoy another professor, or because someone did not ensure that the candidate was sufficiently prepared and had written a good enough dissertation. This was quite the reverse, and I think it is a tribute to all concerned.
Afterwards, we all drank some champagne, and then Cindy had to run off to take her older son (born shortly before I went to Prague) trick-or-treating.

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