First Day Fragments

Last August I posted some assorted thoughts going into the new academic year. One post does not a tradition make, but I liked the reflective practice.

Going into my third year of teaching post-PhD, I have been reflecting on the mismatch between the stated learning objectives and the way many, though certainly not all, history courses are taught. Lower-level surveys particularly suffer because they often have higher enrollments as students are required to take them by outside forces that agree in a general about the importance of history, but have little idea what that actually entails.

The result is that the students are tossed into a lecture hall where they receive an information dump from a knowledgable person and (maybe) some time talking about primary sources. In a perfect world with a good lecturer, students who do the reading, and invested TAs, this system offers a way to scale up the mandate for students to learn some history.

But the world we live in is not perfect and these courses can resemble an information dump that students recall just long enough to take the exam.

There are a number of guides for how to improve the “dreaded survey course” that often boil down to “do less” so that the students can do more. This is good advice that I start the semester following and invariably end up clinging tighter and tighter to the sound of my own voice as the semester spirals beyond my ability to adequately manage a full discussion every day.

Nevertheless, I have be changing the format of my lectures to better model historical practice. For instance, I have begun thinking about my classes in terms of narratives and arguments, both in the big picture and in individual classes. The overall syllabus has a trajectory and each individual class has its own thesis. In the slideshow I will often include the thesis at the outset and then use subsequent slides to lay out the evidence for that thesis, taking the time to explore the consequences of this evidence as a class.

Thinking about the class in these terms also embeds a structure that both focuses the content to prevent sprawl and allows it to build on itself as the semester goes along. The further my classes are from my field of research, though, the harder it is to articulate these narratives ahead of time.

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Since around midsummer I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, and even commented on it with regard to my writing. Since then, I have written a few #AcWri threads on Twitter about approaching writing as a discipline and a practice and equating it to physical workouts.

For years now I have been making sure to prioritize my physical wellbeing, using the basketball, running, lifting weights and other exercises to work out stress and stay healthy. My workouts change periodically (recently I’ve been working on flexibility with regular yoga routines), but I make a point of staying active even when the semesters get busy. This year I added mandatory downtime, resolving to take at least one day entirely away from work each weekend.

With this semester poised to be even busier than usual, I need protect time for writing for reasons that go beyond professional output. The hard part will be doing it in a way that preserves balance; simply adding one more obligation to my already full dance card is a recipe for burnout.

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I teach five courses this semester, two of which are entirely new and a third that is substantially overhauled from a summer course to a full semester. As a result, I teach everything from the first half* of the world history survey to colonial America, to a survey of American history after the Civil War, to two seminars on Classical Reception.

(The colloquialisms for these surveys are ludicrous. To call all of human history from the earliest civilizations through Columbus’ voyages “half” is patently absurd, even if it is half of the class time dedicated to the world history survey.)

This many classes, and particularly this many *new* classes, takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but they also provide me opportunities to indulge my interest in times and places I don’t usually work on. I may not be the best qualified person to teach every course going into it, but beyond knowing how to craft assignments, find readings, and help students develop their analytical skills, I hope that my own curiosity proves infectious.

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The weather in Missouri turned hot and humid just in time for classes to start. The heat index currently sits at 106 at the end of the first Monday of the semester, making it hard to believe that summer has ended. But time flies and I have a lot to do, so here we go.

The Invisible Gorilla

The first viral video I remember in college is the eponymous video from this study, the invisible Gorilla. It came from a psych study of the same name where the researchers showed their subjects a video of people passing basketballs back and forth, some wearing white shirts and some black. They asked the viewers to count the number of times the people wearing white shirts passed their basketball. Then they asked them if they noticed a person in a gorilla suit. About half of the participants missed the gorilla, who walks through the middle of the game, turns to the camera, and beats its chest.

The experiment tested selective attention, showing how when the mind is focused on a particular task, particularly when that task involves tracking unfamiliar patterns, people are much more likely to miss what they are not explicitly tracking. When I watch the video I see the gorilla, but sometimes miss at least one of the passes.

In Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other experiments, supplemented with real world examples, to give an engaging explanation for how the mind works, covering issues from attention to confidence to the potential for growth.

If I had to put a thesis to Invisible Gorillas it is that the human mind is extraordinarily well adapted for pattern recognition and focusing on individual tasks, but is easily overwhelmed.

Invisible Gorillas offers an exceptionally compelling discussion of (relatively) recent developments in the science of memory and intuition. Some sections of the book dated themselves. While talking about the illusion of patterns and predictive behavior, for instance, they praise John Roberts’ explanation in the Shelby County supreme court decision that struck down the Voting Rights Act, which has aged poorly in ways that were entirely predictable for reasons cultural, historical, and political. If these case studies can be misguided, I can only imagine that the science has developed since the original publication in 2010.

In general, though, I have little negative to say, and found that it offers a few practical lessons. Given the title of the book, the top-line takeaway is the dangers of divided attention. Chabris and Simons spend a significant amount of space talking about driving and other activities that people can do while distracted under ideal circumstances, but explain that distraction primarily interferes with the ability to adapt to the unexpected.

Secondarily, they explain, people overestimate their ability to multitask. I have noticed this when it comes to my writing. I often multitask when writing blog posts, with something on a second screen that I can passively absorb but don’t care if I miss anything. By contrast, when I’m working on projects I hope to publish, I have to eliminate distractions by closing down social media, turning off podcasts or anything visual, and often turn up music on my headphones.

(Chabris and Simons debunk the urban myth that listening to classical music makes one smarter in the illusion of potential; the music I listen to while writing varies, and I find the beat matters more than the genre because I usually tune the songs out.)

But as much I already knew and/or had discovered the issues with illusions of attention, the two studies I found particularly valuable were the illusion of confidence and false beliefs about memory.

On the former, people trust those who express confidence more than those willing to express doubt. In 2019, this is more important than ever. It would be easy to tie this illusion to any number of political and media issues, but I saw a relevance here for academia, too. I have long believed that one of the greatest disservices the US educational system does to students, particularly through standardized tests, is to make them believe that they need to have all of the answers. In turn, this means I try to model for my students how to not-know the answers; that is, to teach them to place confidence in being able to find explanations rather than in feigning them through confident bluster even though, as Chabris and Simons explain, society generally values the latter.

The latter caught my attention because I have been working with memory as a historical construct. I introduced this post with a memory of watching the invisible gorilla video in college, which I thought was a viral video, perhaps on Youtube. The facts line up: I was in college around the time the video made news and Youtube and Facebook both existed. In truth, though, I don’t actually know that this was when or how I saw the video, only that I have been aware of the video for a long time. This inconsistency is exactly the point of Chabris and Simons’ section on memory: memory is malleable and flawed, connected to our emotions and experiences, and highly impressionable. My reading of historical memory is that the same holds true, except with more intentionality behind the shaping of memory.

There is also more to Invisible Gorillas that is worth consideration, including discussion of why we believe so strongly in the potential to improve ourselves quickly and the way in which people tend to misunderstand probabilities. In short, this is a worthwhile read on a number of levels, from simple curiosity to practical applications in a range of settings.

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I just started Toni Morrison’s Beloved because her passing reminded me that I had never read any of her books even though I’ve been trying to read more African and African-American authors. I am only a few chapters in, but am so far finding it viscerally affecting and awkwardly voyeuristic in a way that is making me particularly conscious of my whiteness. The last part is heightened by having seen clips of Morrison commenting on tone deaf critiques of her literature as not addressing white audiences.

The Farthest Shore

“The traitor, the self; the self that cries I want to live; let the world burn so long as I can live! The little traitor soul in us, in the dark, like the worm in the apple. He talks to all of us. But only some understand him. The wizards and the sorcerers. The singers; the makers. And the heroes, the ones who seek to be themselves. To be one’s self is a rare thing, and a great one. To be one’s self forever: is that not better still.

“What is a good man, Arren? Is a good man one who would not do evil, who would not open a door to the darkness, who has no darkness in him? Look again, lad.”

Decades after the events of The Tombs of Atuan, Prince Arren of Enlad has arrived on Roke, the island of the Wizards, with dire news: magic is disappearing from the world. Signs of this impending doom haven’t reach Roke yet, but the Archmage Sparrowhawk (Ged) who watches the balance of the world decides to trust Arren and venture out into the world to see what is happening.

They go first to the Southern Reaches where magic has indeed vanished, and with it most restraints of social connection. The disappearance of magic from the world of Earthsea so disrupts the fabric of society that it begins to unravel as people turn to drugs to cope. People alternate between despair and succumbing to a destructive, addictive promise of oblivion where they are being told that they can find eternal life. The mage and his guardian then head west, encountering the people of the open ocean who live on rafts where the magic of the song is also vanishing, before heading past the islands of dragons and to Selidor where they have to cross over into the land of the dead to find the source of this darkness.

The best thing about Le Guin’s Earthsea novels is her oblique and nuanced approach to themes. Where most fantasy literature relies on supernatural or eternal evil, these novels have grand stakes through intimate stories. A Wizard of Earthsea tackled taking rash actions and overcoming an internal darkness. The Tombs of Atuan took on issues of gender, power, and uncritical belief. The Farthest Shore is no different. Here she tackles the banality of human evil and, ultimately, the ordinariness of heroism when individuals have the courage to take action even at a cost to themselves––regardless of whether the person is young Arren or Ged, the most powerful mage alive.

The themes in The Farthest Shore turn it into a thoughtful meditation on good and evil, but it was my least favorite of the first three Earthsea novels. As usual, Le Guin’s new afterword is an engaging read, here focusing on dragons, the human face of evil, and why the novels seem to skip forward in time at irregular intervals. Contrasted with the first two books, though, I found the plot and most of the character development got lost for the meditation on good and evil. I had this same problem to an extent with A Wizard of Earthsea, but the fact that it was also a story about Ged’s coming of age, character came to the fore.

Here, we get a glimpse of Ged at the height of his powers, something we know because he have heard the tales about his deeds even when we haven’t seen them, but much of the story hinges on Arren, who Ged mostly takes under his wing. So far this isn’t a problem, and Arren even has his moments, but then he is revealed to be the descendant of Morred, one of the good kings of old and therefore a candidate to take up the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and justly rule the land. Where The Tombs of Atuan revealed “reincarnation” to be the work of a dangerous cult and A Wizard of Earthsea showed the nobody Ged to be a hero because of how he used his prodigious gifts, The Farthest Shore offered us an entitled heir if only he has the courage to claim it. For me this undercut much of Le Guin’s otherwise incisive story.

The fourth book in the series, Tehanu, won the Locus and Nebula awards for best fantasy novel in 1991, so I am looking forward to reading it despite my issues with The Farthest Shore.

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Next up, I just finished Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us, pop-science book about the psychology of intuition. I haven’t decided what to start next. I have a copy of Tehanu, but may need to read Beloved first, in light of Toni Morrison’s passing.

The First Crusade: The Call from the East

I first encountered Peter Frankopan’s work a few years ago when I read his global history The Silk Roads, which aimed to understand the world along an axis unfamiliar to most people: the pathways of exchange that linked Europe and East Asia known collectively as the Silk Road. While reading that book I came across a reference to this one, Frankopan’s first, and made a note to read it at some point. Preparing to teach a survey of world history before 1500, it seemed like an appropriate time to pick it up.

The First Crusade hinges on a simple conceit: historians of the crusades get swept away by the stirring oratory of Urban II at Claremont and the remarkable victories of the western knights that established crusader kingdoms and so miss the forest for the trees.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus (r.1081–1118) sits at the center of Frankopan’s retelling. When Pope Urban II issued his call for crusade and began preaching across most of Europe, he fired up his audiences with stories about the collapse of the Byzantine frontier and the horrors that the Turks visited upon their Christian brethren. Byzantium, the great Christian empire and one-time protector of Jerusalem, he said, was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, a Seljuk army under the command of Alp Arslan had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV in 1071. The empire had suffered additional setbacks in the two succeeding decades, including invasions by Norman knights who would go on to be Crusaders, and by the early 1090s a sudden turn for the worse in Anatolia that included the loss of Nicaea, a strategically-located and heavily-fortified city, prompted Alexios to make his appeal to Urban.

But neither was the Byzantine Empire decaying anachronism. Frankopan contextualizes Alexios’ actions in the institutional and diplomatic traditions of the Byzantine Empire. In this light, the beleaguered empire of the 1070s had recovered under Alexios’ careful hand in the 1080s, thwarting repeated invasions of the Balkans from both Norman knights and nomads from the north, while also choosing careful marriage alliances at Constantinople and stabilizing the situation in Anatolia through careful diplomacy that brought the Turkish leader Malik Shah into the imperial orbit. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 unravelled Alexios’ hard work and ultimately led to a attempted coup in the capitol.

These conditions, Frankopan argues, prompted Alexios to again turn to Byzantine diplomacy for a solution: the call from the east. In Urban II, he found an ally quarreling with the German Emperor Henry IV, who had installed his own Pope, Clement III, in Rome. Alexios’ appeal presented Urban an opportunity to claim legitimacy as the true pope. Urban’s call to arms promised knights wealth and the forgiveness of sin, thereby completing the necessary conditions for the crusade. In short order, thousands of soldiers gathered for war.

Compared to explanation of these machinations, Frankopan’s account of the campaign itself is almost perfunctory. He mentions the preparations in passing, offers explanations for the near-defeats turned spectacular victories won by the Crusaders, and duly mentions the thousands of crusaders who died along the way, but only briefly mentions People’s Crusade and does not explore the social or cultural sides of the campaign.

Instead, Frankopan keeps the focus on the Crusader leadership because that allows him to keep focus on their relationship with Alexios, who had hoped to regain Byzantine possessions in the East. All of the Crusader leaders swore oaths of fealty to the Emperor throwing their support behind his cause, but as the campaign surged forward they began to feel betrayed––because Alexios continued to negotiate with the Turks and, particularly, because they believed he was deliberately late with supplies––which ultimately led to the creation of independent Crusader States in the Levant. That is, with the exception of Baldwin, who spent two years ruling Edessa as Alexios’ delegate.

The First Crusade is a slim monograph, coming in at just over 200 pages before notes, meaning that it is not a new synthesis or a magnum opus. It is a relatively narrow thesis that achieves its aim, showing that the Byzantine context is the key to understanding the crusade. This diplomatic focus means that it is at times dry and the fact that the prose is rife with passive voice made certain chapters read like running into a stiff wind, but these are both superficial concerns. I already understood the legacies of the crusades (both the traditionally-numbered ones, as well as the Northern and Spanish crusades) in a global context in terms of trade, diplomacy, culture and religion, and I went into The First Crusade looking for a way to understand the start of the Crusades in the same light. Frankopan offers just that.

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I have since finished The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and begun Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla, a pop-science bestseller about how intuition and memory can deceive us.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Welcome to Camorr, a city state built on the twin pillars of the ruins of an ancient civilization and commerce. Officially the Duke Nicovante rules from the luxurious heights of the Five Towers, his city guard patrolling the streets in yellow tabards and secret police skulking in black. Unofficially, Capa Barsavi rules. Barsavi controls the city’s criminal underworld, keeping the duke’s Secret Peace that keeps the gangs from targeting the aristocracy and city guard and keeping their actions from spilling into public riots.

The Gentleman Bastards, trained by the blind priest Chains and led by the silver-tongued Locke Lamora, are one of the gangs sworn to Capa Barsavi. A small gang, the Gentleman Bastards let Barsavi believe that they are pretty thieves when, in fact, they specialize in elaborate, non-violent confidence games that flaunt the Secret Peace.

Their target now is Don Salvari. Posing as Master Fehrwight, a foreign merchant, Locke intends to relieve Salvari of a sizable portion of his estate by getting him to fund the rescue of “his” family’s brandy business from an unstable political situation in return for a stake in all future profits. To grease the wheels, they give Salvari a push from the opposite side, posing as the secret police to enlist his aid in capturing the Thorn of Camorr, a thief who has been terrorizing the aristocracy––all Salvari has to do is play along until all of the Thorn’s compatriots can be identified.

Thus The Lies of Locke Lamora begins, a tightly written heist that alternates the Salvari con with interludes that flash back to Locke’s origin and training, as well as introducing the rest of the Gentleman Bastards, the twins Calo and Galdo and Locke’s antithesis, Jean Tannen––large where Locke is small, meticulous and rational where Locke is impulsive and intuitive.

If the novel ended there, it would have been a largely insubstantial book, but a rollicking good time. The Gentleman Bastards are lovable, genteel rogues who steal from those who can afford it and do so without violence. They hoard their money because they haven’t considered what they could do with the money. The deft touch of this plot line conceals a darker setting, which are foreshadowed with brutal revels and the blood that stains Locke’s glib tongue from the time he was a youngest.

This darkness rushes to the fore in the back half of The Lies of Locke Lamora when an ambitious new player arrives in Camorr. The Grey King threatens to upend the balance of power in the Camorri underworld by targeting the heads of the gangs and undermining Capa Barsavi’s organization. Nobody knows the Grey King’s identity, let alone what he wants, but it is only a matter of time before he is going to come after Locke.

Characters can make or break a book of this nature, almost as much as the pacing. We need to buy that our protagonists can plan, prepare, and execute a plan of this scope, while making their marks competent enough so as to not be pushovers. On this point Lynch has an overwhelming success. He populates Camorr with competent, dangerous individuals, while using the interludes to demonstrate how Locke and his friends acquired the necessary skills to outwit them. These characters skew male because of the composition of the Gentleman Bastards, but Camorr is more balanced; I particularly liked Dona Salvari who is a canny partner for her husband and we are given tantalizing hints but never see the one woman Locke loves.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is an immensely satisfying book. Adding to the success of the structure Lynch achieves an effective balance of stakes by balancing the lightness of Locke’s gang with the darkness of the setting.

In fact, there was only one feature of the Lies of Locke Lamora that I *didn’t* like, a seed buried in the world building.

In most of its formal aspects, the world of this novel is a spin on Renaissance North Italy, with Camorr taking the place of Venice. In addition to Camorr being a city of canals and the italianate vocabulary, other aspects of the world reinforce this impression: the bones of the lost civilization that Camorr is built upon is Rome, there are other city states at odds with an empire to the north with an uncouth tongue (Germany), and Emberlain as a poorly-defined place that could be France. Similarly, instead of inventing the epigraphs at the start of each section, Lynch chooses real quotes, first from Shakespeare and then from Jean-Jacque Rousseau.

Over time Lynch developed the world away from this seed––the lost civilization, for instance is both more magnificent than Rome and utterly wiped away while Renaissance Rome was the Papal Seat––until the maps of the world bear little resemblance to the real world, but the underlying disconnect remained.

Using a seed like this doesn’t have to be a problem. Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, for instance, steers into its second-world European setting to good effect. Where complications emerge is when the setting gets caught between a the historical setting and a fully fictional world. As I have previously written, history has advantages: it can imbue a setting with social, cultural, and environmental depth created through the slow processes of geological formation and trade where fictional settings can be unnaturally static, with each region being both a curious mishmash of features and oddly-siloed away from each other.

The fact that The Lies of Locke Lamora remains so tightly focused on Camorr avoids most of these pitfalls. Lynch is able create a richly-textured city while leaving the lands beyond largely undefined. Cracks only occasionally showed, such as the arrival of a frigate constructed after the model of Emberlain, a ship style most associated with eighteenth-century France.

In the end, though the triumphs of The Lies of Locke Lamora more than compensated for any concerns I had with the setting. This is a deeply satisfying fantasy novel that begins as a fast-paced romp before taking a sudden dive into emotional depth.

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I have also finished Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call From the East and am now using the last gasp of summer to continue Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I am about a quarter of the way through The Furthest Shore.