Saturday, March 12, 2016


3000 views came and went and I didn't even notice.

Is the MA dead?

I presented this paper at Drew University's Crossroads: The Future of History Graduate Education

The call for papers for this (thus far fantastic) conference asked for graduate perspectives. I am a first year PhD student, and this is my perspective. Or rather, my story, from which I hope a very familiar perspective can be seen. I would like to give you a bit of my history as a student to show why a terminal MA program was both necessary and beneficial for me, even though when I entered my MA I intended to continue on. Perhaps less entertainingly, I will present some of the issues students seeking MAs face, and the value I see in the masters as a separate degree.

Yesterday, Dr.Cassuto mentioned that most students who go on to graduate school did so because they were inspired by a professor. I am no different. Six and a half years ago, I returned to academia after an interlude in horse farming (long story). I was, officially, a psychology major. That is what I had been six years before that when I was barely managing to not fail out, simply for lack of caring. That first semester back, I took a medieval history class. For fun. Literally. I called it my fluff class. It happened to fit my schedule. And, hey, I liked the renn faire as a kid.

Well, it was fun. But, more than that, it was inspirational. There was something I cared about studying. I walked out of that class, into the history office, and immediately changed my major. Even so, I had no further ambitions. I was in school because I’d always felt bad about leaving my degree unfinished, and I needed something to do. But after a year or so in the program, I started thinking about teaching. I had taught riding lessons, and loved it. I was enthralled by my history classes, and admired professors that could somehow marry critical thought with technocolor storytelling, and who could engage with difficult topics through the lens of the past. But, I had many, many friends who taught high school, and they all told many of the same horror stories about the job market that we have heard here. And, more importantly, I didn’t really want to teach high school. I didn’t even consider graduate school ­– I am a first generation college graduate. But I kept taking classes with the professor from that first medieval class, (I was not alone. There were a few of us who joked we majored in Dr.Lipton, not history) and realized that I would really love to be able to have a job like hers. So, at the tail end of spring before my senior year, graduate school was very suddenly something to consider.

There was one problem.
I didn’t know Latin. And Latin wasn’t offered that year. I was a medievalist. This was a death knell.

There was no way I was getting into a doctoral program without Latin, and with my initial, though far out of date, poor grades. I had been considering my school’s 5-year BA/MA program, which might have helped me solve these problems, but I was advised by several faculty members that I would benefit both as a scholar and on the job market if I went to a different school for my MA. They also suggested that going to separate institutions for my MA & PhD would be an advantage, even if I was lucky enough to be admitted straight to a PhD.

So– I had a plan! I finally had a goal for my own education. I started gathering information on masters programs.

And was very distressed by what I found. There were very, very few stand alone History MA programs out there. Even fewer that weren’t tailored exclusively to high school teachers. Only a handful of the rest had medieval programs. And forget about funding, so that further limited both the number and quality of programs I could apply to.
Sounds a little grim, right?
It got grimmer.
Several programs I contacted, who did have MA programs listed, apologized and informed me they were no longer offering terminal MAs. One told me directly that “the MA was dead” and /all/ separate MA programs would soon be closed.
I ended up applying mostly to California State Universities, which did not at all upset me, and did receive a few admittances- though San Jose’s came with apology that they were no longer offering a medieval program, though they would be happy to have me in world history since they closed the program after my application was in.
Despite the daunting search, I did land in an MA program, at California State Universtiy, Fresno (where I met my co-panelist Greta Bell). And of course, I did take Latin and had a much cleaner transcript to send with my PhD application, so my goals were met. I am far from alone in not considering graduate school until late in my undergrad career, and many students have these gaps that MA programs fit perfectly.
So, were they right? Did it benefit me on the job market and as a scholar? Well, as to the first, I don’t know yet, though it seems likely from everything I have heard here, and from speaking with job candidates interviewing at UC Riverside. As a scholar? Without a doubt.
            I had new professors to work with and learn from. But I also had new students, and their perspectives had just as much effect on me as a researcher and as a student. My partner was in the English program at Fresno State (I know we were beyond lucky to get in to the same school in the same year). The English students, being for some reason more interested in writing than History students, had an MA writing group. I tagged along one day, and they very kindly let me stay. The lone medievalist in the group was actually thrilled to have someone who had some context for his writing. Eventually, since my research relied very heavily on literary sources, I even submitted my own writing. Having their extra-departmental comments on my work helped me immeasurably.
 …Now, I had a writing group at the end of my BA, and my current cohort is putting one together. So that wasn’t really unique to the MA. Except each one has been different, and as Greta has discussed, simply getting out and talking with other students is invaluable. The more perspectives the better. Through that writing group, I got a job at the Graduate Writing Studio, and encouraged Greta to apply there as well. Good programs talk about networking at conferences, but often these internal networks are taken for granted. From one day of having an hour to kill and attending another department’s writing group, a cascade of connections was formed. The following year we put together both a history writing group to focus on our own discipline, and a humanities writing group where we came together to make sure we weren’t living in an echo chamber. At the time it was just English, history, and a lone classicist I had met TAing for my Latin professor– another network connection–, but we all had something to add, and so much to learn.
What was more unexpected was how the MA prepared me as a student. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. There is a large difference between a terminal MA, and an MA enroute to a PhD.  The step from my intensive senior year with my undergraduate thesis into a masters program was very manageable. The step from my MA to my first year in a doctoral program has been manageable. I think, had I leaped directly from undergrad to PhD, I would have broken something. I am lucky that my current department is fantastic and supportive and cares about its students, and my undergraduate program was rigorous, but even so the difference in culture, in responsibilities, in research skills, and in writing skills, is immense. I look around at the other students in my cohort, and though we are as yet all staying afloat, most of those who came straight out of BAs are struggling and stressed almost to breaking. Those who have come out of MAs or postbac programs have largely hit their stride, only two quarters in.
MA programs, thankfully, are not actually dead. However, they are dwindling, and often the unique needs of MA students are overlooked. MA students, even more than PhDs, are there for a multitude of reasons. Some want to teach k-12, some want to fill gaps in order to prepare for a PhD program, some want to do public history or go into business. Many of the remaining MA programs seek to specialize in just one of these tracks. I find three problems with this. The first is that this prevents MA students from learning from those in other tracks, or broadening their professional skills­– something that is critical in the current unpredictable job market. The second is that some MAs have goals entirely outside these tracks. And the last being that some MA students don’t know what they want to do, or don’t have a clear idea of the options when they enter the program.
For example, our third panelist, Katy Hogue (who was not able to make it) had gone into the MA to teaching k-12. However, through an internship with the Fresno HistoricalSociety, at the time just a way to earn a few dollars, she discovered she loved public history and had a lot to offer the local community. That internship turned into a full time position, which is why she is not here today.

MA programs are a valuable part of both graduate education and community development. They serve a unique purpose for both “traditional” and professional track academics, and deserve to have their own renaissance.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Grinding Peas Sounds Like Death

   As some of you know, I am researching horsebread. A friend sent me this fantastic article by William Rubel last year, and off down the rabbit hole I went. Because there are a few questions (or theories) I have that the textual sources can't answer– like, say, the actual caloric density of late medieval bran-rye-fava horsebread– I get to destroy the kitchen and reconstitute some history.

   For today's experiment, I had but one question: can legumes hold a loaf together?

   You see, Rubel suggest that a strike of beans is equal to two bushels. This seems entirely reasonable, considering the range of measurements a strike was used for, from two pecks to four bushels. I, however, am accustomed to a strike being one level bushel.*

   For Rubel's purposes, it doesn't make a large difference. However, since many of my questions revolve around nutritional content (specifically calories, crude protein, and certain mineral ratios), that is a critical difference. And, looking at the recipes, I thought it unusual that Gervase Markham's (1607) first two recipes called for more than twice as much, by volume, of beans than of grain, while his third called for three times more grain than beans (if the measurement of a strike as two bushels were used). If you consider a strike to be a single bushel, it is a much less drastic change (being then 4:3 to 3:1, rather than 8:3 to 3:1).

   I was also convinced that legumes couldn't bake into a loaf without more grain flour.

I was wrong.

Benefits of reconstitution, eh?

So, on to my adventure in culinary history:

First, my local market does not carry horsebeans. How dare they, right? I guess dried fava beans aren't really a staple of the modern southern California diet. They did, of course, have dried split green peas, which were also commonly used in horsebread. So I got out my trusty Ninja (I love this thing, it lets me abuse it so much), and set out to grind my peas.

Grinding peas sounds like death.
Seriously. It is awful. Alyse hid behind two doors. I recommend earplugs. About two 20-second bursts seemed to do the trick. Set a timer, it seems like So. Much. Longer. Ok, so I'm a little sound-sensitive, but still. Loud. I found that not filling the Ninja so full was helpful.


I don't actually own a bolter, but this steamer tray was very effective. I have a nice bowl that fits it exactly, which cut down on the mess. Though...if you do try this for some insane reason, be prepared to breath pea dust.

First Grind
After first bolt. If i had a sieve (or, say, an industrial bolter with proper screens), I could have gotten a more consistent product with fewer bolts. But, hey, it's supposed to be coarse.
       I separated the flour from the chunky bits (I'm sure there's a name for them), and reground the bits. I did this a few times, and set aside the last of the bits that wouldn't fill the blender enough. I'll probably make soup later.

       Next, I added pea flour, all purpose flour, and bran together in my makeshift bolter (Markham's recipes call for the flours to be sifted together). Now, I did track down some mills that will custom grind heirloom grains for flour, but at this stage that would just be overkill. After all, I was concerned with whether or not pea flour could hold a loaf. I did mix some bran into my AP flour to better approximate flours used for horsebread. 

Tiny amount. I didn't expect this to work, and didn't want to be wasteful. 8 tbsp. pea flour, 2 tbsp. AP, and 1tbsp. bran, based on Markham's "ordinary" horsebread. 

      Then a splash of beer (I don't have ale barm handy) and hot water (160º). Markham specifies the use of hot water to “take the savour from the beans.” Both split peas and fava beans have an intense, sour, sulfurous smell. This would be very unappealing to the horse. The unspecified sideeffect is how much water the ground beans would take up. They absorb moisture very slowly, and hot water hastens this and increase the total intake. A tiny splash. It was too wet. i sprinkled on a bit more of each flour in proportion, until it wasn't so sticky.

Like glue

    And formed my mini-loaf.

    It really doesn't look appetizing, does it? Good thing it's not for me. Medieval ovens were shockingly hot, and presumably didn't get cooler in the early modern period. I have found no hints as to what time of day horsebread was baked (ok, morning, but for bakeries anywhen that leaves a large window), or what part of the oven was used. I played it safe and used a standard 350º, starting at five minutes, then another five, then a few more...maybe it was done?

The H is for horsebread. The hole is from me trying to determine if it was done.
   Well, it seems to have held up. I'll see what it's like in two or three days when it's correctly stale, but apparently at least peas can form a loaf. Very well actually, since it didn't need a loafpan. Of course, that makes sense, as they wouldn't have used loafpans.

On to the second loaf! I made this one larger, more loaf like.

Looks like it needs more liquid, right? Nope. Just a whole lot of kneading. The pea flour turns to glue at the barest hint of moisture, but it doesn't absorb much.

I sprinkled the top with bran (tradition, y'know) and rolled it in plastic like rolling sushi (because ew it was sticky). This one baked for 15 minutes, and then I turned the oven off but left it in while the oven cooled. And stuck the small loaf back in, too. They seem to get very brick...on the outside quickly, but seem squishy inside if you flex the crust.

Hardly looks different after baking. Forgot to incise the H. Oops. Thats a fine.
I believe Rubel chose the two bushel measure in order to line Markham's recipes up with John Halfpenny's (1696), who he also discusses. Halfpenny appears to have based his recipes on Markham's. Thomas de Grey (1639) clearly favors a large amount of grain compared to legumes, but he references the fact that more legumes had previously been traditional. 

*a strike was also the name of the tool used to level bushels.