Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Monthly Archives: January 2018

So you want a doctorate in history….

In the field of history, all doctoral programs are built on the intentions of the first mitzvah in the Torah — Pru Uvru — be fruitful and multiply. The idea is to produce the next generation of faculty to take off when we all, I dunno, die, I guess. If the Talmud’s Sages were to rule on a doctoral program they might conclude that a faculty member has fulfilled this professional mitzvah once they have hooded one student—or better yet, when that one student has a tenure tack job. In fact, many faculty reproduce more like Ghengis Khan than like a pair of well-to-do physicians in today’s Frankfurt or San Francisco. MyHorseFeathers-Groucho dissertation director oversaw somewhere in the range of 75 newly minted PhDs in his long career. Virtually all of them hatched into good academic jobs. Few today though could claim such professional fecundity—the world has changed so much in such a short time. Forty years of budget cutting, maligning, and beast starving has turned what was once a somewhat prestigious pathway to modest middle class comfort into a medieval cast system where all rewards accrue to a few while armies of overqualified contingently employed souls toil trapped in a dead end that makes the title “professor” a painful insult.

Each year people like me have to sit with ambitious, intelligent, motivated budding scholars and are called upon to smash to pieces their dreams of an academic career—no, I cannot fulfill the mitzvah of professional Pru Uvru on your behalf. Larry Cebula put it more bluntly in his noted 2011 post “No, You Cannot be a Professor.”

While I share much of Larry’s outlook, I am not totally on board—and that is why I wanted to write this here so that I don’t have to do it over and over each cycle. Each year I have more or less the same exchanges about how to get into a program and what to expect. I am restricting myself here to the front end–this is not meant to be a post about the job market–but obviously the market and admissions blend. My own experience with students denies me the ability to say that they cannot be professors—I know for a fact that they can be–real ones, tenure track and all. But—and this is a big one—they have to be pretty exceptional. By that I mean that there is a magic combination of ambition, stick-to-it-ness, and raw talent that also needs to fuse with some other sort of off-screen alchemy—skills, background, experience, and so on—that can make one stand out. On top of that, one had better be ready to publish, attend, and self-promote from the start. Long gone are the days when one could wait out an economic storm by hiding in grad school.

These days, that is like hiding from the rain by running into the nearest house. But the house is inhabited by a human flesh eating Minotaur, and is a working abattoir with massive sharp blades spinning and skittering every which way, and is on fire. All told, you are better off staying in the rain. So, take a deep look into your soul dear applicant and ask yourself the hard questions. What did you write in your Statement of Purpose? Did you share your life-long love of history? Did that begin when your family visited historical sites? Did [fill in topic here] fascinate you even from childhood? If the answers here are yes, then thank you for playing—Doris will meet you at the door with some lovely parting gifts (who am I kidding? As if we would have the budget for parting gifts! We don’t even have the money for cookies in a monthly meetings!).

Lesson One: Grad School is a Job. You are asking the state or a private institution to fund you to be a student—that funding comes in the form of small stipends and in the form of tuition waivers. If you are not in the running for funded education, or have been accepted to a program that wants you to pay for the privilege, well, I see Doris coming with your parting gifts.


Past performance is the only visible (albeit imperfect) measure of future success. What have you published thus far (I had a history magazine article under review when I applied)? What projects have you worked on that bear on what you intend to do with the school’s money? Conferences presented at so far? As the old saying goes—dress for the gig you want, not the one you have. So, show us how you have been dressing up as a working scholar already. A good statement of purpose needs to read more like a research grant than a personal bio—since from the school’s perspective you are asking for its money. So unless you can muster that sort of letter, save yourself the trouble. Doris…..?

Lesson Two: Doctoral Study is Relational. As a doctoral candidate you will be building, ideally, a fairly close and long lasting relationship with another human being—preferably one whose work you find influential. That is not to say that you need to be a clone, but the mentor relationship is the core of the experience. It is your mentor’s name you will cash in on at first and it is their contacts list that will constitute your first line of professional allies. In most cases, your first opportunities will come from their projects, and of course you will spend years learning to write to their standard. It is surprising how many people apply without even so much as a mention of the name of the person their interests suggest they will be working with. Astounding! If that is you, you have failed Test One—and it is a biggie.

You are asking the school to pay you to do research, and yet you failed to even research the department enough to convincingly talk about how Professor Magic has shaped your thinking on Your Chosen Topic, and how she/he is an ideal match for your work. On top of that, what sorts of university resources, ancillary programs, library collections, and so on are vital to your success in Your Chosen Topic? If the best you can muster for a reason to attend a program is proximity, well, Doris is ready with your basket. There is also a secret punch line here. Grad school is not undergraduate education, and admissions do not work the same way. Sure, past grades and all that are important. But more important is if Professor Magic wants to take you on as a student! Yes, that’s right, this is a buyer’s market and the merit of a student’s interests are central to admissions. It is not an issue of snobbery—it is one of workload and realistic expectations. Will Professor Magic be on leave? Does she/he have too many students now or a book deadline they are pushing? Is what you want to do close enough to Professor Magic’s work that they feel they can help you in the first place? If you have not researched these questions before you apply, and even perhaps met with Professor Magic for coffee to talk this all over, then Doris is tapping you on the shoulder.

Lesson Three: History Programs Train You to Be a Historian. Not Much Else. No Plan B (formerly known as Plan B) has been a big topic in virtually every academic historical society. Departments all over the land are soul searching and head scratching to see what else new PhDs can do other than being professors. In truth, I don’t think the news is great here. People trained to be professors and who have been successful in that role are not the best positioned to teach you to work in business, say for example. Ask yourself this question: what skills can I learn in a doctoral program that I cannot gain in some other more time and cost-effective way? In most cases, there answer is not many. No matter how much we fret about it, doctoral training is still Pru Uvru—we are still training people to be professors. These days that means much more attention to digital media than a decade ago, and that is good news. But the computer training one might get in a history department is a pale shadow of what you might get elsewhere or even on your own. The challenge of digital media to the way history is practiced is really one of disrupted information delivery systems and author credentialing. There is not a mini job boom in digital history outside of a few job listings—at least not one outside academe large enough to set a career upon, and probably not one for which you need a doctorate. The centerpiece of doctoral education is still the dissertation—and that remains a book- length written work resting on original research. We are approaching a time where it may be commonplace for dissertations to be digital projects, and some of those projects might be patentable software or marketable digital projects.

I for one welcome that—and I am working with students who see the world that way. But—if such a project is to be successful, it will rely on coding skills and computer knowledge gained well before doctoral study began. Class work will be working towards prepping candidates for an average of three comprehensive exams in various fields each resting on a reading list of between 60 and 100 books. There is not a lot of time to become masterful at coding in that preparation period, and so far, few in any programs have been willing to throw away the old models to make room for something new. But then again, if you are applying I am sure you have done all the research to understand upfront just what the program will be asking of you….! Is there an ongoing digital program or project at your chosen school that is central to what you propose to do? Again, I am sure you will have noted that in your researching the program. If not, Doris is waiting.

Lesson Four: Just Because You Like it Does Not Make it a Field. Sorry boys, WWII is not an academic field. Modern Europe is, but not a war—no matter how much TV seduces you over and over with endless press-molded documentaries. From the very beginning you need to be defining yourself and your interests in terms the field understands. This is a guild, and you are a supplicant asking the guild to dispense resources to recognize you as one of its own. It is a quirky guild—we love nothing more than a member who can shake things up. But it is also a classic case of needing to know the rules before you can break them. If you cannot define yourself in terms the guild recognizes, then it will have a hard time seeing you as a prospect.

One way to get in the swing is to look at the current job adds posted by H-net and the AHA. But of course there is a catch. The discipline is super fashion conscious. I won’t say that we mindlessly chase shiny objects, but since we are always looking to up turn the world, or to have our worlds up turned, we are sensitive to new ideas—and pretty into them. So even though it pays to know what is hot at the moment, know that while also knowing that there will be something else hot in a few years or even less. And nothing is less hot than last year’s fashion. The ideal topic is one that seems cutting edge at the moment of proposal, but has the elasticity to morph into the new cutting edge six or seven years from now. That is one heck of a challenge—but Doris is waiting if it is too much.

Know this though. None of us on this side of the line are happy about the current situation. We want to retire, eventually, and at our retirement dinners we want to be surrounded with friends and family—and especially by the many students whose careers we helped start. Setting a promising student’s career in motion and watching them mature into a confused, overloaded, and bitter faculty member is one of life’s great pleasures. If we had our druthers, programs would be fully funded and there would be scads of creative opportunities—we could get back to pretending that academe was a meritocracy. Ah, the old days! But others have set us all on this path and we are just along the dismal ride. So am I saying Nevermore? Not really. What I am saying is tread softly and advisedly in the minefield, and put yourself through the wringer before you put yourself through the wringer. But, you should probably just not put yourself through the wringer. Here comes Doris with some nice gifts and nice life outside academe.




Best Bikes of New Orleans, Jan 2018.

A week in New Orleans to attend the Society for Historical Archaeology annual conference. It was the coldest week in ages and that simple shivery fact shaped everything–including the frozen yard fountains. I accept that many of the best bikes might not have been out and ready for me to see and review. Most of my time was in the French Quarter at Cafe Envie–my fave NOLA spot. But the walking back and forth allowed ample time to see what cyclists had to share. There were lots of bikes, but mostly meh. Riding is not a priority here–perhaps because one should be sober while navigating traffic. Philadelphia was a smorgasbord, true, but I had higher hopes for New Orleans than the po’boy it turned out to be. Never the less, I found five I happily would have ridden off with if asked (my standard for judgement).

NUMBER FIVE: Sticker Mixer.2018-01-02 14.34.16-1

Hmmmm. I know you. You are a Dawes cheapy fixie. I know this because there is one in my living room. These are not too bad, but the components are not delectable. This one is pretty stock (even the silly bars, crap seat post, and garbage bar tape), but with after-market wheels. But–Dawes makes a fine beater and the stickers on the white have some panache. How does this make a discerning list though? Chalk it up to how desperate for speed I was after seeing dozens of depressing department store mountain bikes! It was that bad.

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NUMBER FOUR: The Bars Are Open.2018-01-02 19.13.39

Someone is from the Northeast (or has a computer). Unbadged big sticker steel. Sugino cranks horrible horrible horrible saddle, and those bars. I dunno, I’m sorry. Can there be a hipsterhood of one? Front end brake means Mr Bars is going careful fixie, and that is special here.

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NUMBER THREE: Hidden Wisdom.2018-01-02 13.02.16

Do I know you? I see what you are doing though–and I LOVE It. Mercier Kilo TT is a nice cromoly frame with good goodies stock–a well regarded affordable ride. BMX pedals in terrible colors make me happy. Bull horns are never my faves, but ok, I won’t judge. Natural color Brooks B-17 tops it off and shows that you, my friend, know exactly what you are doing with your sticker bomb. Air kisses!

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NUMBER TWO: Oldies are Goodies.2018-01-06 19.18.13

I saw little vintage steel that was not depressing dreck. Here is an exception. Unbadged, so, search me for what it is. did not look closely, but a convesin from a road bike obviously. Shimano 600 cranks (?) and older 105 front calipers–again, a rider that is looking to see the view from over the bars–which, BTW, look great in the raw. Mismatched tires just makes me so happy too. I am too timid to do it moi meme, but here is a tip: label match the tires to the valves, and you will be doing cool in a big time way, babydoll!

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NUMBER ONE: Class. Photo Jan 07, 12 26 49

Yes. I know. A comparable Cinelli bike made Number Five in Philly and here it is Number One in New Orleans. That is mean, I know. I really do. But let me defend it. This is a Gazetta, which I submit is far hotter bike than the older Philly ride. Now–look a bit closer. No brakes, old school toe clips, black Origin 8 cranks in a “spin me baby” sub 40T variation, hardshell old ride saddle, 110mm stem, and, wait for it…New Orleans’s only pair of skin wall tires, and  in juicy 28mm to boot. See what I mean? Not too shabby. And in context? Magic!

Take a look at the delicious Cinelli details on the seat tube and the logo. Class. I could snap that crap kryptonite U with baguette, but hey, if Dude is not worried, then I am not either. Like I said, it pays to be sober.

Photo Jan 08, 01 03 58

Best Bikes of Philadelphia, Nov, 2017.

Research takes center stage in the last few weeks of leave, and where better to get the President’s House chapter’s ducks all rowed up, than in Philadelphia, where the President’s House was in the first place. I was here last year for a talk, but this was a longer stay with a full schedule. I won’t go into my emotional baggage with this city, but I am settling some long standing issues–it feels good. When not photographing records, watching the Flyers play terribly, writing in coffeeshops, eating falafel at Mama’s Vegetarian (כשר), cooking lentils, or sleeping, I am walking between places. Two weeks away from home means two weeks off the bike. That is not good–either physically or psychologically.

But there are many engaging bikes to see on the city’s streets. I posted many of my faves on Instagram, but here is my rundown of the bikes in Philadelphia (as drawn from my completely random, localized, and unscientific sample).

NUMBER FIVE: Cheap and Stylish. IMG_0459

KHS is afforable, but you can magic it up with a vintage Colnano or Colnano-esque stem and some untaped droppies. The silver finish just glows. Touching my heart with the Hal Ruzal style seat lock chain–but, why are you giving away your rear wheel? Hal would not approve.

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NUMBER FOUR: Something Old, Something New. IMG_0739

Smooth gloss black finish, butt hugging vintage style hardshell saddle, eight degree nose down quill stem, oh so delicate chromed lugged fork–our fifth place winner is this charming classic style Cinelli Pista lovely as spotted on Market St. No brakes means no brains in traffic, but what a ride. I can only assume that the unworthy wheelset is a result of having the good ones stolen–since it it clear that our friend is not great at locking up a bike. Ride in peace amigo!

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NUMBER THREE: Aluminum and Bull Horns Count Too. IMG_0268

Unbadged but heavily stickered, this light and fast raked Mapei(ish) looking critter might just be a Motobecane Bikesdirect redone in urban camo. But let’s leave lineage aside for a moment to say–hey, stem! Magic. The brakes take a bit away from the “Look at Me,” but at least you get to live to tell the tale. Bull horns would not be my choice–not when Pistas are an option–but I bet the ride is all fun.

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NUMBER TWO: A Gift From the Land of the Rising Seat Post.IMG_0721

It’s a Panasonic/National. Nothing super fancy in its day, but time makes things special. there–but a nice silvery finish. Style counts though and the steep quill stem, charming Pista bar curves paired with maxed out seat post and no brakes made this Chestnut Street steed a thing of beauty. Take into account as well the Champion Tubing which could be magic, or it could be Cromolly. In either case–this is a special find.

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NUMBER ONE: Hipster Takes the Day.IMG_0226

20th St by Chestnut. Is there a hipster cliche not included here? Mismatched wheels look casual, but you KNOW that a lot of thought and searching went into making sure a carbon wheel was on the front end. If nothing else, it was needed for the sticker space. Skinwalls too, but on only the front to make it look like you stole it! And speaking of stickers–stickers! And speaking of spoke cards–yes, more spoke cards. And before you can say “oy! alleycats of course,” let me say, of course. Alleycats. Oy. Unbadged steel frame but who cares who made it–it is the rider’s taste that makes it. Hardshell retro saddle with string of magic beads, droppie quill stem matched by the droppie Pista bars. No brakes–natürlich–and padded top tube nut protector. That makes sense. Since your knees won’t be with you for long, might as well hang onto the gonads. Laugh all you want though, this bike was all character and vibe and I would have ridden it off proudly if asked.

Here is a second view. Enjoy.


Remnantology Manifesto

I have been considering this for some time. Alena Pirok and I have discussed this for ages and this last fall she had her Armstrong State undergrads explore the remnantology concept. They posted their images on Instagram and it was a real treat to see them play with the idea. But what is the idea? Obviously, I think enough of it to have named my blog after it. But I have yet to fully put into words just what I mean by it. It was one of my only attempts to coin, or re-coin a term. The word itself comes from a subfield of botany and biology, but I see huge material resonances in it. I am working on the chapter ideas for the book on this, but for my own clarity, and for others’ as well, I have sketched out the start of a Remnantology Manifesto that begins to put in words what I can see in the periphery.

The Remnantology Manifesto

Human beings have been busy changing this planet to suit their needs ever since the two Remnant001first met. Those who know, inform us that the human species’ ability to manipulate its environment to suit its specific needs is the principal evolutionary advantage these animals have had over others. This has meant that human history has been filled with the making and remaking and remaking yet again of the places humans have called home. This endless game of revision and modification has left the world littered with remnants—each change large or small displaces something that was there first. In some areas, the change can be dramatic—say for example a farm field transformed into a subdivision. Other times though change can be as light as simple reordering, a shifting around of elements, a layering of one way of using a space atop another. Uses, ornaments, components, can be swallowed up by remaking, renovation, and host of other intentional changes. But there is a separate class of artifacts that just stay where there are unchanged, un-reused, and overlooked. These bits are not in the way enough to cause trouble to how things are being reordered, nor do they need to change to be part of something new. They no longer matter—and at the same time, they are in no one’s way so they illicit no fuss or concern to remove or change them. These objects are Remnantology.

Principle One: Remnantology is a species of Stratigraphy.

In archaeology, the concept of stratigraphy rules the roost. This is the idea that layers form over time and in the perfect conditions, as you move down through the layers, you move “back in time.” The fundamental principal of excavation is the removal of layers (as well as other fills and features) in an orderly fashion to record each and in so doing go deeper in space and deeper in time. Not so with Remnantology—it can be observed, but it cannot be removed to reveal more. It just exists. Yet, Remnantology shares stratigraphy’s understanding of accretion, but the implied horizontality is not there. Remnantology has no layers, but it has superimposition.

Photo Dec 02, 13 49 41Principle Two: Remnantology is Material.

It must exist. It must be a thing—you can touch it, break it, throw things at it. It can be painted, crushed, or stepped on. It must be observable. Remnantology is composed of the things left behind, things that once were vital to how life worked, but have been left behind in some version of their useful state.

Principle Three: Remnantology Hides in Plain Sight.

We are all surrounded by Remnantology—it is fundamental to how the material world is ordered. The challenge is to re-orient how we see what we see, and what we understand of what we see. In that way, Remnantology is way of seeing the world.

Principle Four: Repurposing is not Remnantology.

Repurposing is an act of intentionality. To take a thing, tidy it up, and find a new use for it is really to reintegrate it back into how life is lived. This is fine—valuable even. But it is not Remnantology.

Principle Five: Hate is not the Opposite of Love—indifference is. Remnantology resides in Indifference.

Being overlooked is crucial to being Remnantology. Hatred leads to removal and demolition. Love leads to fetishizing and repurposing. Remnantology is in the middle. Forgotten.

2017-12-02 10.39.29Principle Six: Abandonment is not Remnantology.

Many Remnantology objects seem to be abandoned—and indeed many are left behind. But abandonment is a category unto itself. Garbage is abandoned, a burned out car is abandoned, a home can be abandoned. None of these though are Remnantology. Like Remnantology, abandonment entails a thing no longer being needed for its intended purpose. But, something abandoned is in some way hindering something else’s function. Garbage will eventually be cleaned up. The burned out car is blocking a street or a parking space and is itself a species of nuisance. The abandoned home is in a transitional state—on its way towards demolition or rediscovery—and in the meanwhile is stopping something else from occurring. Remnantology on the other hand, impedes nothing, interferes with no vital action or activity, and not in a transitional state. It just exists.

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