Psychiatrist Diagnoses a Depression Med Induced Bipolar Disorder in College Professor

Paragraph three reads:  "I couldn’t write another lec­ture on  'early mod­ern Europe, 1500 – 1815'  that week. I might drag myself to Queens Col­lege, but I couldn’t drag myself from behind a net of anxiety and depression that partly coincided with the moment teaching responsibilities had been shov­eled on my 23-year-old corpse. My equally young psychiatrist planted pills over my grave, resulting in me coming alive with frightening, whip-like intensity, only to collapse back. I was suffering from what a later practitioner called  'medication induced Bipolar Disorder,' an illness not yet recognized by the field or by my doctor at the time.

http://www.gcadvocate.com/2008/03/catching-more-flies-with-%E2%80%A6-butter/

Catching More Flies with … Butter?

by TRobey

I don’t know why I thought teach­ing my His­tory 101 class to make but­ter would be a good idea.

In April of last year I packed two glass mason jars, a pint of heavy cream, some spoons, cheese­cloth, bread, and salt before mak­ing my long trek to Queens Col­lege. As I switched between local sub­way and express sub­way, then sub­way to bus, the jars clanked against each other. I adjusted the cheese­cloth to pro­tect my les­son from break­ing. I wished I had writ­ten a lec­ture instead.

I couldn’t write another lec­ture on “early mod­ern Europe, 1500 – 1815” that week. I might drag myself to Queens Col­lege, but I couldn’t drag myself from behind a net of anx­i­ety and depres­sion that partly coin­cided with the moment teach­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties had been shov­eled on my 23-year-old corpse. My equally young psy­chi­a­trist planted pills over my grave, result­ing in me com­ing alive with fright­en­ing, whip-like inten­sity, only to col­lapse back. I was suf­fer­ing from what a later prac­ti­tioner called “med­ica­tion induced Bipo­lar Dis­or­der,” an ill­ness not yet rec­og­nized by the field or by my doc­tor at the time.

When I reached the office I shoved my but­ter sup­plies under my desk. I read memos from my mail­box. Checked e-mail. Made cof­fee. Talked to the sec­re­taries. Smiled, or rather tried to pull my face into some­thing resem­bling hap­pi­ness, at the depart­ment chair when he men­tioned he enjoyed the class on early mod­ern fairy tales that he had observed the week before. I won­dered what he would think if he real­ized that instead of talk­ing about Lit­tle Red Hood tak­ing but­ter to grand­mother we would be mak­ing it that day. I felt like a wolf, that if cut open, would reveal 90 stu­dents des­per­ate for a lec­ture on the Thirty Year’s War.

That spring culi­nary trea­tises like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cook­ing and Jacques Pepin’s Com­plete Tech­niques guided me; I had lit­tle use for the self-help of Feel­ing Good and Oprah. I cel­e­brated thick­ened béar­naise, stud­ied the mol­e­c­u­lar struc­ture of goat’s milk, and put shame­less wed­ding reg­istry abusers to shame with my kitchen tool pur­chases. I sus­pect that I found instruc­tions for mak­ing but­ter online, since I don’t own Turn the Kitchen Clock Back 500 Years.

Mak­ing but­ter at home is sim­ple. Leave heavy cream out overnight to warm and allow the fat mol­e­cules to become imper­cep­ti­bly ran­cid, giv­ing the but­ter a more com­plex fla­vor. Dump the warm cream into a jar or water bot­tle about dou­ble its vol­ume with a very secure lid and shake for about 20 min­utes. The agi­ta­tion dam­ages the fat mol­e­cules, which are oth­er­wise sus­pended in liq­uid. After enough shak­ing you will pro­duce a glob of but­ter sit­ting in real, uncul­tured buttermilk.

Now in the class­room, I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. I chas­tised myself for spend­ing days star­ing blankly at Mario Batali and Giada de Lau­ren­tis on the Food Net­work instead of typ­ing up the page and a half of notes that would have main­tained the illu­sion that I could han­dle teach­ing. I held the big mason jar of cream over my shoul­der and moved it like a mar­tini shaker so that my stu­dents would replace their looks of dis­be­lief with laughs. I handed the jar to the near­est stu­dent and instructed them all to shake for a few moments then pass it on. I talked dis­tract­edly about career pos­si­bil­i­ties in pub­lic his­tory for peo­ple who like to con­vey his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge in less con­ven­tional learn­ing set­tings like “liv­ing muse­ums” and Civil War battlefields.

I could have writ­ten a soci­o­log­i­cal study on how stu­dents reacted to The Jar. The girls in Uggs boots made faces, wrapped their man­i­cures around the jar, gave it one shake, and passed it on. I felt bad for their boyfriends. The boys on the base­ball team, which I liked to con­flate with the soft­ball team, shook so vig­or­ously that they seemed to stop breath­ing, leav­ing their faces flushed deep pink. I reminded myself to dis­cuss early mod­ern gen­der roles next meeting.

The stu­dents who kept up with the read­ing, took notes dur­ing lec­ture, and answered ques­tions thought­fully dur­ing dis­cus­sion shook the jar exactly as I did for a few moments, then passed it on. There were the peo­ple who looked unshak­ably unin­ter­ested ­ they passed the jar as soon as it was given to them.

By the time the jar trav­eled halfway across the room of 45 stu­dents some­thing was hap­pen­ing. The shak­ing started look­ing like a vio­lent stab­bing motion rather than bour­geois cock­tail con­struc­tion. The soft­ball play­ers, Uggs girls, and my pets stared into the jar, some of them mak­ing noises as they imag­ined our project going straight to their hips. Some of the stu­dents slowly turned the jar to watch the glob of but­ter splash in the but­ter­milk that remained. The pub­lic his­tory dis­cus­sion died as stu­dents stood up to see their jar transformed.

As I took back the jar from the last stu­dent and poured out the but­ter­milk I fielded ques­tions. Is this safe to eat? ­ yes. Are we going to die? ­ yes. But not from this. Is this the way peo­ple made but­ter in early mod­ern Europe? ­ yes, although they had other, big­ger ves­sels for agi­tat­ing the cream. Isn’t but­ter what Lit­tle Red Hood was tak­ing to her grand­mother in the sec­ond ver­sion of the story that we read?

Yes. In an instant, the net of ill­ness that had secretly sep­a­rated me from them was gone, and off we went, rac­ing to com­pare the ingre­di­ents of Miss Hood’s bas­ket in each of three ver­sions of the tale, talk­ing about respec­tive value of the food­stu
ffs in her bas­kets, and how the richer ingre­di­ents in later ver­sions betray the move­ment of fairy tales up the social ranks to the King of France’s own sec­re­tary. I shared the­o­ries about the trans­mis­sion of cul­ture in early mod­ern Europe. Hands bobbed for atten­tion, voices blurted out ques­tions and answers, and I scrib­bled some quick notes on the board.

We talked about house­hold econ­omy and the over­looked role of women as house­hold man­agers in his­tory. We passed through chalk and cheese Eng­land, the early mod­ern mar­ket, and social divi­sions that resulted in some peo­ple eat­ing roasted pea­cocks dressed in a robe of their own uncooked feath­ers while oth­ers ate so much gruel or polenta that their facial struc­ture changed due to malnutrition.

I used water bor­rowed ear­lier from the depart­ment foun­tain to wash the remain­ing but­ter­milk from the wad of but­ter. I explained that but­ter­milk left in the but­ter would make it smell and taste musty after a few weeks. Then I flopped our but­ter onto a square of cheese­cloth ­ gross! ­ and used two wooden spoons as pad­dles to squeeze any pock­ets of water and but­ter­milk from the inte­rior of the but­ter. I scooped up our project, set it in a bowl and added salt. In this case, the salt was fleur de sel, the salt once col­lected from the sea for the kings of France. Salt was also impor­tant at the time because of forced salt taxes, includ­ing the French gabelle that would play a role in the French Revolution.

I sliced bread, stuck a knife in the but­ter, and invited my stu­dents to sam­ple their work. They approached me like I was a plague vic­tim offer­ing a bowl of fluid from a lanced buboe. One bold, prob­a­bly hun­gry stu­dent finally grabbed the knife, smeared the soft, faintly yel­low but­ter onto a crust of bak­ery baguette. And another. Some stu­dents came back to the table a few times, oth­ers took sam­ples to their friends and relatives.

After the classes ended I packed my bag with the jars, cheese­cloth, knife, and spoons. The load was lighter now that the cream and bread were divided among the stu­dents. As I glided home I let the jars clank against each other; it sounded like music to me.

I didn’t reach every stu­dent that day. Some of them left the room as quickly as they could, unin­ter­ested in the class’s hand­i­work or pro­long­ing their stay in His­tory 101. But I could see that oth­ers were now bonded to the study of the past. In later class meet­ing they exclaimed over their new knowl­edge. Some made but­ter at home for their fam­i­lies. I like to imag­ine them telling the old ver­sions of fairy tales to unsus­pect­ing rel­a­tives and regal­ing them with the his­tory of the Renais­sance as they take turns shak­ing the jar.

In the year since my exper­i­ment, I’ve found ways to bet­ter inte­grate it into the cur­ricu­lum. I’ve included pri­mary source read­ings from an actual sixteenth-century cook­book on the day that we also use a Renais­sance diary to talk about home life. But my ped­a­gog­i­cal ideas are not with­out their detrac­tors. One col­league sug­gested that per­haps next year I would dis­cuss the Black Death by bring­ing in a rat infected with Yersinia pestis and hav­ing the stu­dents watch it die. I agreed that teach­ing 90 stu­dents in His­tory 101 to make but­ter does not, on the sur­face, seem nearly as impor­tant a lecture.

I wor­ried the next semes­ter about my fail­ure dur­ing the pre­vi­ous year to con­sis­tently lec­ture. I com­pared myself to my inex­pe­ri­enced psy­chi­a­trist, arti­fi­cially leav­en­ing my stu­dents then leav­ing them deflated in the classes of instruc­tors who might expect them to know who signed the Peace of West­phalia. So I started replac­ing dis­cus­sions of sleep­ing arrange­ments and Mar­quis de Sade read-a-longs with lec­tures. I poured dates and names into my stu­dents and they gave them back to me in their quizzes.

It turned out that lec­tures in my class are like oxy­gen and the human body: a bit of it keeps the sys­tem pump­ing, but too much kills. When I couldn’t stand that I was cov­er­ing glow­ing curios­ity with chalk dust and turn­ing faces down to sheets of notes I packed my jars, cream, cheese­cloth, and spoon again.

I sus­pect that mak­ing but­ter may be the best idea I’ve had as a teacher. It reached kines­thetic learn­ers, chal­lenged the assump­tion that his­tory doesn’t teach use­ful infor­ma­tion, con­nected mul­ti­ple lessons into one very tan­gi­ble activ­ity, and was a trans­mis­sion of my love for my cho­sen field, in the pack­age of my life-giving hobby, to stu­dents, some of whom now shout to me across the quad that they are his­tory majors. And if, as post­mod­ernists argue, his­tory is lit­tle more than lit­er­a­ture, shouldn’t study­ing it be fun?

    Jan 4, 2010 at 11:25 pm […] Catch­ing More Flies with … Butter? […]