Research vs Teaching

Research in academia is important. I would be uninterested in working with a scholar who was themselves uninterested in being involved in their field. For one thing it displays hesitance on their part to participate in something I would like to do, which raises questions about both the field and the mentor. For another, the proof that they are knowledgeable in the field is their publication, which can then be judged by and next to their peers. For a third, a well respected scholar is more likely to have the requisite sway to secure appointments and acceptances for their students. Then there is the reputation of the department, income for the department, and so on.

No, research is an indispensable part of academia, there is no question about that. The question is where it falls in comparison to teaching.

During orientation I was told in no uncertain terms that research at the University of Missouri is more important than teaching. On one hand, I have a certain level of respect for that dedication, and one of the reasons I have come here is to work with a world-renowned scholar in the field. On the other, I am almost appalled, especially in that there are fewer professors, teaching more undergraduates and I firmly believe that professors, as with all teachers, have a primary duty to the students.

I beleive, and when I reach the point where I am teaching, I hope I can live up to this, that professors should teach a minimum of three courses per semester, preferably four. I understand that they have to grade and prepare lectures and do research on the side, but students routinely have to take up to five classes per semester, so the least a professor can do is provide options. This will also force professors to break away from specialization, because there are only so many classes on Alexander the Great that can be taught any given semester. Further, it would force a greater variety of courses over the span of years, as it would be poor form for any specific course aside from requirements to be taught more than once every year or two.

Now I feel obliged to add a caveat to this. If a professor runs a lab, especially one that involves graduate and undergraduate researchers, their course load should be reduced because they are teaching in another form. If they routinely teach independent studies and mentor other student projects, they may be able to teach fewer courses. If they are the director for, say, a student run research conference, they may be able to teach a lighter load. In each case the common denominators are that they are still teaching and that they are involved in the academic development of students in a tangible form outside of the classroom.

Thus reward should primarily be based on teaching ability, rather than research. There does need to be balance, though, as the complete lack of reward for research, aside from employment in the first place, makes research not worth the time of the professors.

To bring this full circle, it was made absolutely clear that the teachers earned their salary and their raises by publication alone. As I have said many times, there is a lack of good history teachers in the world and while such a focus on research does not preclude them from being good teachers, it certainly does raise a red flag.

Several of the ideas in this post were inspired by the book Who Killed Homer? by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. While it was not well received by Classicists, and presents some ideas that are entirely unfeasible, it is a book all historians, academics and educators should read and think about.

Circular History: Unsolved problems or all too human failings?

While thinking on Voltaire, it struck me that many of the broad themes he comments on would be the same if he were writing in modern society. This prompted the thought: “What if history really does just repeat? Different people, same issues.”

One of the problems here is that there may be striking similarities over time and space, but no two events are exactly alike. And, despite the oft quoted mantra, history can not provide all the answers for the future, just helpful suggestions, but I digress.

When it comes to social ills, be they religious, racial, economic, nationalistic, or other in nature, there are two reasons that these appear cyclical: human nature and inextricably linked and that they were never truly resolved. They are inextricably linked and there may never be an answer or solution. Remember: for all of its glory and majesty, utopia, by definition, can never exist.

So many ills are common throughout all time that they can only be lain at the feet of human nature. Jealousy, fear, ambition, et al. provide inspiration for so many events, both good and ill in the world. Further, for many repeated issues, especially in religious and ethnic issues, they are little more than unsolved issues.

These combined provide the the appearance that history is cyclical. In many ways repetitive and certainly there is value in history, but it is anything but cyclical.


Though not truly historical in bent, something that has come up more than once in the last two years is the concept of signs, and what their purpose is. Sure, they either are alerting the reader of something, suggesting that the reader do something or commanding the reader to do something or all of the above. Think about the typical tri-colored stoplight for a moment.

The green signals someone to go, the yellow warns them that they must soon stop for it is the next person’s turn to go, and the red commands the driver to stop. Now the purpose behind the system is to regulate the flow of traffic so that people from all directions can get where they need to go with the least confusion, but there is also the implied fear that there will be accidents if that sign (or a host of other road signs) are not placed where they are. Thus the signs are placed for one of two reasons: problems were experienced in the past or are expected or feared in the future.

How is this relevant to history? Well, we have no evidence for much of went on over the course of history in day to day activity. Sure, we have information on generalities, but not specifics, so when we find a sign in a prominent public location, we can speculate on what happened, or what there was a major fear of, and hence extrapolate on what everyday life was like.

To give one specific example, we know that Herod’s temple contained signs warning pagans that if they stepped beyond a certain point in the compound, their lives were forfeit. Was there a rash of pagans running in the temple? Probably not, but the founders were fearful of the prospect, which suggests that there was a large “pagan” presence in Herod’s kingdom and it would be poor form to start executing them. Therefore the signs warning people to stay back out of the proscribed area. This needs to be (and is) corroborated with other sources, but provides a glimpse at how a few words written in stone can help shape how one looks at the past.

Eumenes of Cardia

One of the more atypical characters from Alexander’s succession was Eumenes of Cardia, a court scribe who had a gift for command. Besides holding commands late in Alexander’s life, Eumenes routinely beat some of Alexander’s best commanders in the years following 323.

This is not meant to be a biography of this man, but rather a suggestion to read the book Eumenes of Cardia: A Greek among Macedonians. Unlike most of the books on Alexander which focus on that one man, this breaks down into two sections. First, a recounting of Eumenes from birth to death, followed by a discussion on citizenship in Macedonia and Greece, wrapped up in analysis of what it meant to be Greek or Macedonian. As one of the ongoing scholarly debates in the field, and one of the ways in which scholarship on Macedonia can progress, this book is top notch.

The objective of War

It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.
~R.E. Lee

I had a brief chat with the professor I will be grading for yesterday, during which I noted that I like Horatio Nelson. He responded that when Nelson was at Copenhagen, he not only destroyed the Danish Fleet, but also shelled the city, in his words: “A blatant act of terrorism.” Two thoughts stem from this: in the eyes of the offending nation, this does not necessarily diminish anything; and in some sense, all war is a blatant act of terrorism.

There reaches a point in a war that one nation is defeated and the other victorious, but, in theory, the defeated always has the option of holding out. What stops them is a realization that they have already given in below a stronger force, hundreds, thousands or millions of their people have already died and the horror–of continued resistance, or past slaughter–is too great. Even the “bloodless” conflict is nothing more than overawing the opposition by the terror of what could be visited upon them.

True, shelling towns like Copenhagen and Tripoli, firebombing Dresden and Tokyo, dropping nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, launching missiles at London, burning Persepolis and Carthage, ravaging Georgia and Nanking and selling Tyre into slavery generally are considered going beyond the acceptable level of horror for “civilized war,” but war is not civilized. War is brutal, war is savage and war is terror.

Conquest is easy. Control is not.

“Conquest is easy. Control is not.”
Captain Kirk, Mirror Mirror

Alexander III of Macedon was, in truth, one of history’s greatest conquerors. Over the corpse of his murdered father, Alexander solidified his European kingdom, sacked Thebes, secured the allegiance of the League of Corinth,1 conquered Persia, invaded India and died having been almost entirely successful for thirteen years. His conquests, everything from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River, seemingly in the blink of an eye, have captured the imagination of people ever since.

Despite his success, Alexander died young.2 He was remarkably successful during his life and seemingly accomplished any objective he set his mind to. This aura of perfection has led to a mythic reputation for Alexander. An Alexandrian Utopia, a golden age of man that promoted peace, stability and equality for all. Since Alexander left no written record of his own, it is impossible to entirely discount this possibility, yet it seems improbably.

Conquest was the easy part. Even before Alexander’s death there were a series of revolts, corruption and dissent. These first failed attempts at governing the conquered peoples were resolved through brutal suppression and replacement. Not all governors were corrupt, but enough were that the so-called reign of terror received much attention. The same governmental power struggles and corruption continued after Alexanders death; the most notable example of this was in the outbreak and repression of the Lamian War, funded by the defection of Harpalos.3

Even if Alexander set out with the ideals of equality and a brotherhood of mankind, as Toynbee would say, is methods suggest anything but. Overlooking the murders of Parmenion, Philotas and Kleitos, the fires of Persepolis, slavery of Tyre and Gaza and the massacres in India and Thebes, Alexander relied on fear and suppression as much as rewards to control his subjects at all points during his reign.

Suppose for a moment that Alexander succeeded in expanding and solidifying the heterogeneous empire into a stable and unified state, his successors would have had to be as capable to continue its hold. Compared to China and even Rome there was no central bureaucracy in either Persia or Macedon.4 This meant that the local powers retained much more independence, so when the poewr at the center waned, they broke free. Perhaps the result would have been similar to the Hellenistic Kingdoms, wit hthe progeny of Alexander leading one state.

Alexander went into Asia with the goal of conquering Persia, and may have even expected to defeat the PErsian navy by land from an early date. What he did not have was a plan for administration. As the campaign drew on, the administration changed, each “solution” was that which seemed most appropriate for the circumstance. This does not make each solution bad, per se, but it demonstrates that he had, at best, a bare outline of what he was doing. Alexander also had no idea how far his conquests would go. Definitely Asia Minor, probably Syria, Palestine and Egypt, hopefully Babylon. Beyond that Alexander may not have known what there was. New enemies arose and Alexander conquered them; permanent administrative solutions could come after the conquests stopped. If the conquests ever stopped.

Then, once forced to pause, Alexander must have realized that his empire was that of Persia. Whether this was a gradual realization or an epiphany can not be known, yet it happened. Alexander was the new Great King, and to cement the ruling class, the Macedonians would marry into the Persian nobility. Thus the next generation would be the best of both worlds; of the conquerors, yet also of the traditional powers. Now neither side seemed to embrace the unions, but, as always, Alexander succeeded. The marriages were political. If Alexander considered the equality and brotherhood of mankind supposedly proclaimed by the weddings, it was in that happy, placated subjects are easier to control, not altruism.

In the end Alexander died, but with him did not go ideals of equality. In fact his final words were supposedly hoi krateroi, or ‘to the strongest.’ From a young age Alexander was a man of action, a conqueror. Any number of reasons make Alexander great, but he died a conqueror, even as he lived. The effects of his conquests were extraordinary, spreading through time and space to this very day, but the empire itself was fleeting. The impromptu solutions were far-sighted and likely would have helped, but this assumes Alexander would have remained to enforce them. Most likely it would have been a break long enough to raise a new army, then more conquests. Once a conqueror, always a conqueror. The Hellenistic Age was inevitable. Alexander simply formed the boundaries.

1 An organization of Greek states for the common goal of defeating Persia. Alexander’s father was the hegemon of the league at the time of his death.

2 Although not as young as sometimes thought.

3 Harpalos took 5,000 talents and fled Alexander’s retribution. This money was taken by Athens.

4 Instead the power of the government largely lay on the strength of the King.