A professor's day
This is an autobiographical account of one, more or less, normal day in a senior professor's week.
Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002
5:30 a.m.: Up (normal time) to think about the day's teaching. My seminar, History 448, deals with the art and craft of history in the 20th century. It is aimed at seniors most, though not all, of them in the history department and is meant to help them think about their own theses, as well as the larger field it covers. This week we're looking at one of the big innovations of 20th-century history writing, the effort to ground human history in its natural environment. To keep the course fresh, I assign several new books each year. This year, we'll be reading Richard White's "The Organic Machine." I spend an hour planning seminar tactics: my introductory talk, questions to pose, aspects of the book to concentrate on.
6:30 a.m.: Make coffee, wake wife, skim newspaper.
8 a.m.: Arrive at office, answer most pressing e-mails. Five of the least pressing remain unanswered.
8:30 a.m.: Two-and-a-half-hour space meeting with the provost and several others. In my capacity as chair of the Council of the Humanities, I want to make a pitch for turning a central space in the new humanities center into a splendid, comfortable common room for students and faculty, where we can have occasional scheduled talks and concerts, receptions and, a couple of times a week, informal teas. Princeton's campus lacks spaces of this kind; a comparable one recently redone at Harvard, the Barker Center common room, works very well. The meeting which includes a walk-through of Chancellor Green and parts of East Pyne, all under construction goes wonderfully, as colleagues and the provost come down on the same side. I even manage to get plans for the new humanities building going up next to the Joseph Henry House.
11 a.m.: Back in the office, meet a senior who is working on her thesis (on French intellectuals and the war in Algeria as so often, I am learning a great deal from my pupils). Answer most pressing e-mails (but am now farther behind than this morning).
11:30 a.m.: Call former student (now an associate professor at Stanford) who has left message asking for career advice.
11:45 a.m.: Answer most urgent e-mail messages. Am now behind by 10 or so.
Noon: Meet the students from my seminar in the library. Over lunch, four times this term, a member of the history department gives them an informal talk about his or her research methods. This adds an element that the course previously lacked; the students not only read major historians, but hear and question them. Robert Darnton, the first speaker, set a high standard, but I have great confidence in this week's speaker. Graham Burnett, a Princeton alumnus ('93), a Pyne Prize winner and now one of our assistant professors, fascinates the students with a description of his work on the development of cetology (the formal study of whales) in 19th-century America. They ask dozens of questions, and it's hard to move back to Dickinson and start the actual seminar.
1:30 p.m.: History 448: a wide-ranging discussion, with much precise dialogue about how Richard White uses evidence, poses questions and writes these students are very attentive to historians' styles. Discussion never flags, and students show clear evidence that they have read the text very closely and that they can judge it in a critical, fair and informed way. They have also done assigned background reading from JSTOR (the Mellon Foundation-supported electronic system for storing and accessing articles from scholarly journals), and bring in much of that material as well. Web readings clearly work much better, for this generation, than print readings in Firestone Reserve.
4:30 p.m.: Latin reading group three graduate students work through a hard piece of late 16th-century Latin with me. Good for me too, since I don't teach elementary Latin, as my colleagues in classics do.
5:15 p.m.: Join the department's picnic for new graduate students in McCosh courtyard. Despite a bad market for historians, dull weather and burnt burgers, spirits seem high.
6 p.m.: Dinner at nearby restaurant with a colleague from comparative literature, Leonard Barkan, my wife and son and an old friend now teaching in Rome, Ingrid Rowland. It's a pleasant, informal occasion Ingrid was the den mother of my son's freshman dorm at the University of Chicago, and they enjoy the reunion. She and Leonard are old friends as well. But it's also business: Leonard and I have hopes of luring Ingrid a superb classicist, Renaissance scholar, prize-winning teacher and writer for The New York Review of Books to spend some time at Princeton at some point in the future.
8 p.m.: Public lecture on Machiavelli by Carlo Ginsburg, an Italian historian who wrote his most famous book, "The Cheese and the Worms," while in residence at my department's Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies. He has a new theory about Machiavelli (there have been thousands of others), which provokes a lively discussion. Good crowd, even though [author and scientist] Jared Diamond is speaking at the same time.
10 p.m.: Home, writing more e-mails I have to answer the most urgent messages, but some take longer. Two graduates of the class of '02 need advice. One is now working in New York and applying to graduate schools in history, the other now living in Athens and applying for a Fulbright to stay on there. Also, I have to send comments to Megan Williams, a recent Ph.D. from Princeton's religion department, who worked with Peter Brown and me on her thesis. This coming Sunday she and I will be making a joint presentation on collaborative research to the Princeton Group for the Study of Late Antiquity. Megan (who is now a member of the Society of Fellows, a postdoctoral group like our own society, at the University of Michigan) has reduced our talk to PowerPoint slides and put them on her Web page. I work through them and send final comments, so she can edit the slides one more time before we give our talk. I am now at least 10 e-mail messages behind on the day.
11 p.m.: Rereading notes on dossiers, in preparation for a meeting to award fellowships. To prepare for this I have read several books, dozens of articles and heaps of letters of recommendation; now I'm trying to draw preliminary conclusions so I can sleep on them.
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