Residency Reflections: Nerd Alert

I’m at my residency week for graduation, and a lot’s been going on already.  I got here yesterday afternoon, and today was my first full day of classroom-type activities.  I have a lot of thoughts swirling around, and at first I thought I’d reflect on it here, but now I see it’s going to probably be several posts because there’s just so much to cover.

First are my thoughts about the lectures because I just walked out of the building and I have so many ideas that I can’t keep them all in.  You’ve been warned.  It is about to get all sorts of history nerdish up in here, so if it’s not your flavor, visit again another day.  I won’t be offended.

I went to two presentations today.  First was an amazing session about using non-traditional sources (like tapestries, pottery, paintings, illuminated manuscripts) to study medieval military history.  It was given by Professor Kelly DeVries of Loyola College in Maryland.  He is such a cool guy. and you can tell he really enjoys his area of study.  It very much sparked my interest in the area, and I wish I could take more of his classes.  Here’s a short and really unrelated interview he did, but it gives you a flavor of his style (I can’t embed video for crap–sorry).  He is a fricken brilliant historian.

I mentioned that I loved his lecture so much that I was thinking about attending another session of it tomorrow.  One of my fellow military historians called me a history nerd.  Ouch.  Seriously, how nerdy do I have to be to be shunned by other nerds?  I’d be embarrassed if I wasn’t a tad bit proud.  And if you’d sat through Prof. DeVries’ lecture, I think you’d agree with me.  There are more sources on the Iran-Contra Affair in the 1970s even after so much was destroyed than on everything that happened before 1500 combined.  So much is coming to light now, and so little is written down, that the stuff that is emerging is coming from stuff like tapestries and carved religious relics and archeological digs in Europe.  He talked for an hour about what we know about chain mail and armour from the period around the Crusades, 1000-1200ish.  It blew my mind.  I used to do a lot of this type of stuff when I worked in the museum and archives, and I would teach how to do this type of research on a basic level to undergrads.  I loved it.  I would love to do more of this in my career, whether it’s for my own research or helping others learn how for their projects.  It’s so fascinating, and Prof. DeVries does it on a ginormous scale that I can’t even imagine.

The other lecture was about race and gender in military history, specifically about how the program at this university is being developed further to make it truly an innovative program in the history field by focusing on theory.  For non-history folks who are for some crazy reason still reading this post, military history is often sort of segregated from the rest of history.  True, traditional military history is supposed to focus on battles and weapons only.  As such, it tends to look down upon the wider history world that is shifting toward examining history in the context of gender and racial studies.  It creates a lot of conflict, but inroads are being made into military history, and new historians like myself are increasingly incorporating it into their research.  This university wants to be on the forefront of that to prepare students who go on to a PhD program or back into the “regular” history world.

The lecture was a little less thrilling than medieval warfare, I’ve got to admit.  I am an advocate for gender and race studies already though, which furthers labels me as “one of those” in this field.  There’s already only a handful of women who are military historians.  Now I’m a woman who wants to study gender–could I seem any more stereotypical to these old farts?  The professor, Bob Wintermute of Queen’s College (who doesn’t have a spiffy bio page–what’s up with that?), didn’t start out pro-gender and race, but is amazing in the field now.  He modified the version of the course that I took into something way cool, and I’m so jealous that I can’t take the new version.  He made the amazing point that I want to remember forever, that gender and race are completely social constructs that change over time.  That’s the big argument against including them in military history.  But “war and military institutions are at their core social phenomena and organizations, driven and shaped by the social values of the cultures engaged.”  Doesn’t that just blow your mind?  I sort of feel like it’s so obvious that I should be embarrassed that I hadn’t seen it before now.

I’m torn.  On one hand, I like having all the time to come and go, and the small class size created by most people also coming and going fosters an intimate discussion group.  On the other hand, it’s almost too much free time.  I took a week off work and flew up here.  I want to be a tad more active.  There’s five presentations and nine slots.  I’m only interested in three lectures.  That’s not much.  There are other things going on this week, but I would have liked to hear more from my professors.  It’s a great start to the week though.  I was hesitant (more on that later), but today was good.

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