Tuesday, March 31, 2009

You're the Historian: Wash U love

So, although this post isn't really about my current academic life, it certainly is about my previous one. A little sister of one of my close friends is trying to decide where to go for college and is considering Wash U, my alma mater. She asked me "if you had to say one thing that you didn't like about it, what would it be? and what is the absolute number one reason i should go there?:

Here's my plodding attempt at a response: (any Wash U readers have your own thoughts to add?)


First, I'll address the absolute number one reason you should go to Wash U, because that's the sort of question I love answering. (Also, since I don't know that much about what sort of things you're looking for in a college, where else you're applying, what you might major in, what you like to do for fun, etc., this is the sort of standard answer I'd offer to anyone. I'm sure there are a lot of more specific pros and cons about WU relative to your specific needs, and I'm happy to go into those more if you want to offer me some of your criteria, but I'll give the general for now...):

Basically, I think the term "community" gets thrown around a lot in different circles to mean different things. But of all the places I've ever been, all the organizations I've ever been part of, all the groups of people I've ever known, Wash U embodies my idea of "community" better than any other. There's this sort of "we're in this together" feel about the place, the kind of assumption that pretty much anyone who's gone through the Wash U experience comes out the other end with a common set of values, a common set of ideas, and a feeling of immense pride in being a WU alum. This comes from a number of factors, I think. First and foremost is the residential life community. Although I may be a little biased since I was an RA for three years, I think that the cohesiveness of the res life staff and the importance of your freshman floor, your dorm, and the group of friends and acquaintances you build through your residential college is unparalleled. Then there's the kind of "rising star" nature of WU--it's not an Ivy Leaguer, but it's also really in competition with the best and the brightest in a number of ways (as my freshman roommate put it, the snobby smart people go to the Ivy Leagues, while the nice smart people go to Wash U). I think this aspect of the place makes people critically think about what they love about the university and what they could do to make it even better--so there's a lot of investment on the individual level (among students, among faculty, among staff, and among the administration alike) into the larger vision of WU's future. All of this stuff was very subtle while I was there--it wasn't like I thought about these ideas all the time and palpably felt all this at this level of analysis. It wasn't until after I left Wash U, until I'd been here in Madison, at the University of Wisconsin, for a number of years that this appreciation for the WU "community" came flooding over me. Most of my closest friends here in Madison are WU alums--but not even people I knew that well in college. It's just that when I got here, I found that WU alumni sought each other out, that I felt instantly comfortable around them in a way I didn't with people from my department and others I met. Just meeting someone who went to WU is often enough for the basis of a friendship, because there's the acknowledgment that we developed a common core of values and commitments to intellectual rigor, to community building, to Midwestern warmth, and to being part of something bigger. (Of course, this isn't to say I love every single person who ever went to Wash U, but as a general rule, it applies). As a point of comparison, I haven't seen this sort of mutual camaraderie from any of my friends who went to other institutions. When I have two friends who both went to, for example, UPenn, I always have this urge to introduce them, assuming they'll want to hang out as I do with any WashUer. But then I find that alumni of other institutions (across a broad range of other colleges) don't seem to have that same sense of community, that same desire for connection, that same assumption of shared values. So. That's a long-winded answer, but it really is the best thing about WU from my perspective, especially in hindsight.

As for my least favorite thing... I think this has more to do with criticism of myself and my decisions in college rather than the institution as a whole, but I do regret that Wash U didn't have more or an activist mindset, that there wasn't more support for activism around environmental, political, social, and progressive goals. People in St. Louis sometimes refer to the university as the "Wash U Bubble" because they see the fairly elite students inside WU as being uninterested in the community as a whole, somewhat spoiled, and too stuck inside an ivory tower sort of community. Although I think that is certainly a stereotype and doesn't apply to a large percentage of the students, it is true that being at WU sometimes makes it easy to forget that there's a larger world around us. And the studious nature of so many of the students often lent itself to a real focus on academics and the pursuit of a secure professional future over an engagement with important issues outside of academia.

I hope this all is somewhat helpful. Let me know if you have any other thoughts. And most of all, good luck in your decision!*


*Honestly, when it comes down to it, as much as I think WU is an awesome place--a college to beat all colleges--I also think that any intelligent, friendly, well-grounded, curious, engaged person can find a good university experience just about anywhere (or at least at any of the colleges I assume you're applying to). So, the bottom line is, don't worry about it too much. Don't ever feel like if you make the "wrong decision," your whole life will somehow be compromised. That is not the case.

Making Frozen Burritos

Justin really loves burritos. He and his brother Jason spent their childhoods lusting over tortilla-wrapped goodness. Although burritos are generally a speedy thing to make, in our whirlwind work of school and stress, Justin particularly appreciates the quickness and efficiency of a frozen burrito. Out of the freezer, into the microwave, and into the belly in five minutes flat. But the Amy's burritos we usually buy, although delicious, are also pretty pricey.

So, for a while now, I've had it in my head that I would try my hand at my own frozen burritos to give to Justin as a gift. I scouted the internet for ideas on how to do this, but finding little of use, I ventured out on my own into the world of burrito making. Here's what I found: It's pretty easy to do. Just gather your ingredients (whatever makes your tummy happy), wrap them up in some tortillas, place the wrapped burritos on a cookie sheet so that they're not touching each other (otherwise, they stick together, like Jeff Daniels's tongue to that pole in Dumb and Dumber), and put in the freezer for a few hours or overnight. Once they're good and frozen, you can take them off the space-hogging cookie sheets and put them in a ziploc bag, all piled together. After that, at your leisure, you can just remove a burrito, put it on a plate, microwave for 2ish minutes, and have yourself a great snack! Justin has found that because of some mysterious alchemy during the freezing process, the tortillas hold together really well after re-heating (even better than fresh!), even though I didn't do such a great job of wrapping them in the first place.

So, without further ado, photographs of my burrito-making process (although I'm sort of embarassed by the mediocrity of my food photographs, especially as compared to Heidi Swanson's of my favorite cooking/food photography blog, 101cookbooks):

My first burrito in the process of composition: refried beans thinned with soy milk, frozen corn, black beans, and mashed sweet potatoes creamed with a little sour cream.
Scrambled eggs and fried pieces of Gimme Lean, ready to go into my breakfast burritos (I made lunch and breakfast versions, on both white flour and whole wheat tortillas):

In most of the lunch burritos, I put this mashed sweet potato mixture, which also had some black beans, soy milk, cumin, coriander, garlic, cayenne pepper, and salt mixed into it. In the colander you can see the wealth of fresh cilantro I used in just about every burrito:

Here are the refried beans and sauteed onions and garlic that I used in most of the burritos, along with my two piles of tortillas (both wheat and white versions from Trader Joe's--which are among the only tortillas I've found that don't have partially hydrogenated vegetable oils):

And finally, the homemade salsa that was in all the burritos (and, I think, the real key to their yumminess). The salsa contains Muir Glen fire-roasted diced tomatoes, fresh diced onion, lots of fresh cilantro, a few chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, and a little sea salt and freshly ground black pepper:

A photo of the whole work station:

I just realized I don't actually have photos of the finished product. Sorry. But, happily, Justin loved his surprise frozen burritos and has been enjoying them for the past few weeks!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Happy Birthday Papa!

Today is my Papa's 72nd birthday, and for that reason, I'd like to say Hooray! When I talked to him this morning, we reflected on how much he has to be thankful for on this day, as on many others--his new grandson who he now lives near, his adoring children, a devoted wife of (almost) 28 years, a super-fulfilling career throughout his life that continues to be a source of stimulation and pleasure, and woods nearby in which to walk everyday. Although I can't be with him today, I can offer a little online tribute:

And, from the archives, a biographical paper I wrote as a junior in high school about my Papa's emigration, and another one--this one from my senior year in high school--based on an interview I did with him. I guess you could say he was my muse... (and continues to be!)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

You're the Historian: Rich gentlemen have it boys...

So many great articles about food in the New York Times lately, all spurred, perhaps in part, by Michelle Obama's vegetable garden on the White House Lawn:

From the archive, 1991, Op-Classic: Abolish the White House Lawn (Michael Pollan)
March 10, Michelle Obama’s Agenda Includes Healthful Eating
March 20, Sugar Is Back on Food Labels, This Time as a Selling Point
March 20, Food, Glorious Food Myths
March 21, Washington’s Not-So-Secret Garden
March 21, Eating Food That’s Better for You, Organic or Not
March 21, Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?

More thoughts on all of them to come...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

You're the Historian: With gratitude

I have a confession to make: Sometimes when I'm reading books for my prelims, I spend more time reading the acknowledgments section than the whole rest of the book. (But shh... don't tell!) It often feels like the best way to get to know an author is not through their well-crafted analytic arguments, but through the way they express thanks to their families, friends, and mentors. I love reading these sections and imagining the personal struggles that went into the creation of every book I read, the many lives that were affected by a father staying up late typing at his computer, by a partner spending months away from home while visiting just one more archive, by the daughter who never gets to talk to her parents for quite as long as she'd like because she just has to finish one more chapter. And because I think about crafting my own acknowledgments section some day, I thought I'd begin that process by collecting some of my favorite acknowledgments here. (And it's probably no coincidence that my favorite acknowledgments come from my favorite books.) To begin:

From Aaron Sachs (of the "most disgusting pronoun" fame), in his Humboldt Current, a tribute to his wife and son:

"Christine Evans accompanied me on every step of this journey, and I am eternally grateful for her companionship--and her love. She also put in a great deal of hard work on various aspects of this project and put up with all my obsessions and compulsions, in a spirit of bemused goodwill. She's the strongest person I know. Samuel Evans Sachs came along while this manuscript was still an unfinished dissertation and I was a seemingly unemployable grad student. He immediately made it all worthwhile. Taking him on various expeditions has been my greatest pleasure in the past couple of years. Christine and Sam also provided excellent motivation to finish the writing. They are my cosmos as well as my hearth...Finally: my parents, Miriam and Murray Sachs, are the ones who got me into this mess in the first place. I can never thank them enough. And I can't help but think of this book, if it has any merits at all, as owing its existence to thirty-five years of their incredible nurturing and cultivation."

Another from Thomas Dunlap, in his 1982 book DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy. I particularly like this one, because it reminds me of the role of secretaries in preparing manuscripts before everyone used a computer and word processor, and of how often mothers and wives and female secretaries did the grunt work for their sons and husbands and bosses:

"My wife and colleague, Susan Miller, who never typed a page for me, has my special thanks. She has been a relentless and perceptive critic of my work, a patient auditor, and an invaluable support."

This one from Sarah Igo's impressive book The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public , to her parents and husband:

My parents, John and Mittie Igo, have my gratitude for just about everything, but above all their unstinting stores of generosity, love, and confidence--not just during theses years of researching and writing but for my whole life. They provided the sturdy foundation upon which everything else was built. As for my husband, Ole Molvig, what can I say in mere words? His steadfast support, his stunning intelligence, his sustaining sense of humor, his quest for the good life, his dissection of my work but also his many and lovely distractions from it have made my life better in every way. It is to my parents and to him that I dedicate this book.

Ted Steinberg appreciating his editor, his mother, and (who I assume to be) his wife in Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America:

Susan Day was a pleasure right down to the last en dash...Helen Steinberg read over the entire manuscript and tried valiantly to save me from myself. Marie del Monaco, with her unparalleled sense of justice, is, for me, the final arbiter of all that matters in the world.

And finally, Louis Warren acknowledging the important role parents play in the graduate student's life, in his The Hunter's Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America:

There has been discussion in academic circles of the need to move degree candidates to completion more quickly. The best way to accomplish that would be to give every graduate student parents like mine. Throughout this endeavor, I have been the beneficiary of my parents' unstinting moral support as well as occasional, much-needed grants from the Claude and Elizabeth Warren Bank of Higher Education and Field Research. To them, a heartfelt thanks.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You're the Historian: Justice, in assessing environmental change

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the major questions that continues to confront environmental historians is how to assess environmental change if we acknowledge the deep roots of human manipulation of the landscape, if we give up the idea of Clementsian ecology (that there is some stable state that natural systems revert to in the absence of human interference), if the science of ecology can't offer us a clear way of describing a "healthy land." Upon taking a second look at Andrew Hurley's Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980 today, I realized that he offers a simple, but powerful new answer to this question, through the lens of environmental justice. Hurley writes in his preface:

"Thinking about environmental history in terms of social divisions also invites us to reconsider the way we assess environmental change. Environmental historians are well aware of the pitfalls encountered in evaluating ecological change. Recently, ecologists have thrown the concept of equilibrium into question, thereby making it difficult for historians to measure environmental change against any objective standard. The concept of social equity provides historians with an alternative. Thus, we can attempt to determine who benefited and who suffered when a particular society altered its relationship with the surrounding natural and built environment" (Hurley, xiv)

So, rather than worrying about, for example, whether we can call mountaintop removal coal mining "bad" because of the effects it has on native hardwood forests and on riparian ecosystems, we can just call it "bad" because it damages nearby homes beyond repair and decreases the value of surviving homes, because it undermines the local employment base by replacing labor with ruthlessly efficient explosives and machinery, and because it erodes the Appalachian culture. That is, rather than trying to convince others of the value of the natural environment--something which varies depending on individual viewpoints--historians can appeal to the value of human life, something which is more universally agreed upon (although not necessarily for any coherent philosophical reason).

I know that a lot of environmentalists don't like this sort of argument because they do, in fact, want to argue that the natural world has its own moral worth. But in absence of any clear explanation of where this worth comes from (a philosophical discussion not many historians want to get into), it seems that an appeal to human value is a pretty safe bet.