Monthly Archives: May 2014

How to Write an Academic Abstract in ten easy steps


You read that Call For Papers from Fussypants Academic Conference Society Association X some time ago.  Months?  Weeks?  Days?  No matter.  That’s was just the starting point.  What’s next?  Glad you asked.

1. Fill the time between your discovery of the CFP and the deadline with consideration, musing, reflection, rumination, cogitating, and contemplation.  Avoid general malaise and anxiety.  Surely you had a moment of inspiration when you read the CFP. You’re not procrastinating by not putting it down on paper; you’re allowing your inspiration to age, to achieve a certain fine vintage.  No shame there.

2. In the hours before deadline, focus carefully on the requirements. Open a new document.  Format your new document.  Whatever font you used for the most recent proposal is probably not good enough for this one; choose wisely.  Take some time.  Is this a Garamond kind of group?  Does the conference emit a kind of Ariel vibe?  A lot depends on these considerations.  Brew another cuppa.

3. No doubt they want a c.v. of some length.  This is an excellent time to revise your resumé.  Perhaps this organization deserves something rather different.  Who knows, you might be more successful with bold-face headings rather than italics.  Better try them out.  What other formatting bells and whistles does your software offer?  Investigate.

4. Everyone knows you can’t write in an unproductive space.  Clean your desk.  Straighten your files.  Remember that picture in Dwell with the shelves arranged by color, so that the books made a rainbow? Give it a whirl!  This might really heighten the productivity of your space, benefitting not just this abstract, but so many in the future.  Investment!

5. Recall PHIL101: Mens sana in corpore sano.  The ancients knew to have a sound mind in a sound body, and who are you, modern academic, to counter their wisdom? Walk the dog.

6. Wonder if the group’s midnight deadline to submit is midnight in their time zone, or yours?  And where are their headquarters, anyway? Find out it’s many hours east of you.  Panic.  Rename your panic as creative juices.  Feel the power.  Discover that the submission process is via an online interface.  Despair.

7. More coffee.

8. Test out some ideas on the paper. Message your friends: are these good ideas?  And how about lunch next week?  Catch up on Twitter.  And just a few minutes of Flappy Bird to clear your mind.

9. Blog.

10. Finally unload a paragraph in 7 minutes flat.  Spend the next 42 minutes–right up to deadline–carving it to meet their word-count limit.  Feel good about the fact that you spent 3 hours sprucing up your c.v. earlier today, since that is already a PDF and ready to go.  Really, you are so good with time management.  Submit paper; celebrate your accomplishment.

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Excursion to Mechanicsburg

Given the funky start of summer, divided as it is with cool opportunities to travel (one conference has passed, one cultural program is coming up and one workshop is scheduled for July), I’m not quite ensconced in the real intellectual business that will dominate the year to come.  And so I have diverted my path on the way to Sabbatical-land to include a few stops in Mechanicsburg.  During these weeks between trips abroad, recovering from one and preparing for the next, I am taking some time to allow the work of my hands take over for the work of my head.  Today (and yesterday) I was in the woodshop on our campus, where I am building some small gifts to take on the next trip and working under the supervision of the university’s woodshop supervisor.  And when I say “I am building” these things I mean that I am doing a few small tasks suited to my skill set as directed by woodshop supervisor, who is doing most of the heavy lifting, and who also happens to be my husband.  David is an engineering school dropout (God bless him) and former architect (ditto), who has found his bliss running the woodshop associated with the school of architecture and design where I am also on the faculty.  Although I recognize his manifold and diverse gifts as a philosopher-mechanic, I (as the wage-earning academic in the house) find a certain enjoyment in reminding him of the mechanic part of that description once in a while.  Seriously, I am grateful for his greater gifts that help steer me through this process that allows me to exercise manual skills that have lain dormant for many years, although, once upon a time (especially when I was an architecture major), they were pretty profound.  Although I miss neither architecture school (well at least being an enrolled student in architecture school; being a prof is a pretty great gig) nor architecture practice, I do miss making stuff with my hands on a regular basis.  Back in the day, I took all the required classes in design and drawing, plus some bonus classes–the best being set design and metalworking.  It’s good to get back to that stuff–hand-making stuff–once in a while, for its own sake, but also as a break from my primary activity of head-thinking.  It’s refreshing to get away from the very different demands of reading and writing and talking that constitute the greater part of my life to imagine things that take form as lines run out of a pencil, and use equipment to turn raw materials into those imagined things, be they pretty and/or useful artifacts.  The same urge is part of what compels me to spend more time in the kitchen than a lot of people, I suppose.  While I must admit that the latter has much more immediately satisfying results, the former has more lasting ones.


Memorial Days


Memorial, memorialis, memory.  The last, both a mental faculty and activity.  All of them words with roots associated with different languages that show this is no mere passive cognitive function.  The Anglo-French memorie may indicate the simple act of remembrance, but the Greek mermeros and Welsh marth suggest thought that prompts anxiety or sadness, while the Dutch think of mijmeren as a kind of pondering state that one falls into.  Old Norse applies the term to a mythic creature, as Mímir is the giant or demigod who guards the Well of Wisdom.*

The American holiday that has just passed seems to key into these many concepts, and although Memorial Day is a national holiday, many people experience it on a very personal level and in different ways that the complicated etymology offers.  This weekend I found myself reflecting on these different sorts of memorialization, as well as the nature of memory and how it relates to history, or actually histories: from the big impersonal narratives that we all study in school to the more personal versions of those epic stories as they intersect with our family histories, and also the immediate family heritage that is the record and/or mythology of a small number of people, retold around dinner tables and passed along from generation to generation at graduation parties, weddings and funerals.

It is true, for each of these three “scales” of history, that history is not equivalent with the past.  It is an interpretation, or understanding, of what has happened some time before now.  History is in the present-tense.  We own it, name it, shape it.  It is mutable, to a greater or lesser extent, from person to person and from time to time.  I’m well aware of this in my role as a historian who studies, interprets, and writes about big global narratives that unfolded across the last few centuries.  What I write, and what I read, is not the perfect, final, static word on anything.  It is the best, most reasoned illumination of long-ago people and events that I can offer within a particular dynamic time.  I’ve changed my mind about the main subject I work on during the last 15 years and I expect that future people will challenge or change what I work out today about great big history.  And that’s OK.

But the same kind of revision on the smaller, more personal family histories, seems less OK, because it is more immediately challenging.  This past weekend we had house guests: family members from an older generation who reminded me how good it is to hear the diverse and interesting things that happen in and around a family. But they also revealed news about a person who held a rather central role in our family dynamic, and who is now deceased. Their revelations changed the way we understand her.  And that’s unsettling, I think, not because she somehow becomes a different person with this new story, but that we have to face the fact we didn’t know everything about her when she was alive, and still don’t, won’t, and can’t, now that she is gone.

We (“we” people, humanity) like to know, and be right, about what we know; there is a great comfort–and arrogance, no doubt–shared by human people who think they really know and understand what has happened.  But that’s where we need to remember that the nature of memory itself is a slippery business, and real memory, truly understanding the past, is not easily won (even Odin had to pay a high price to drink from Mímir’s well).  Maybe we should instead own up to the fact that we, by necessity, fill in the blanks with creative storytelling and intentionally selective recall.  These narratives, invented by us, or by others before us who pass them down as family legends and national epics, may not be iron-clad in their accuracy; but in what they reveal about what we’ve lost, and try to reclaim, they may have all the more value for our efforts to fill in the gaps.

Jasper Johns, Flag (1957)