My 2021: Resolutions

As is now custom, my year-end series ends with my resolutions for the new year.

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The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • Exercise to improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness. I made gains on this in 2021, but age, anxiety, and injury gave almost all of it back.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, including both yoga and meditation.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day each weekend not working, as defined by no work email, no grading, no preparing for courses, and no academic writing. This has been a really important habit for me in recent years.
  • Continue my daily yoga routine that I started back in 2020. Whenever I miss a day I can tell that my equilibrium is off.
  • Start running again and get to the point where I can do (the arbitrarily-set) ten miles in one session.
  • Lose five pounds. I aim to accomplish this both by eating a little less and by gradually increasing my activity levels.
  • Submit the completed manuscript for my first book—due in February.
  • Clear the back-work that I owe. Eep!
  • Draft one (1) chapter for an edited collection due in 2023.
  • Find (1) new academic book to review. I failed in this in 2021, but one book feels to me like the right goal: enough to be engaged and write something; not so much that I spend all of my time writing things that are not appreciated in the academic world.
  • I exceeded my target of reading (12) ancient history or classics books not connected to my research for the second straight year in 2021. I like the practice, so will re-up at at least (12), or one per month. I also have a goal to read more articles but hope to get that off the ground before talking about it.
  • I crushed my goal of 52 other books for 2021 along with most of my diversity markers, but will re-up at the same level:
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • At least (5) should be by African American authors
    • These books should represent at least (10) different countries and (7) different languages
  • I want to engage in more artistic pursuits this year. Writing is too obvious and measured in other ways and while I would like to do more drawing and/or painting, I don’t have a readily-available target. The obvious direction to take this is, then, is photography. In 2022, I am going to set up a Flickr account and use is to organize and post pictures I have taken over the years. This will also give me motivation to sort through my photograph collections and practice photo editing.

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Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas for posts in 2022, but, as usual, content here will reflect my year, what I have the energy to write about, and the fickle fortune of pursuing an academic career.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

My 2021: Using My Words

I don’t know what to write in these end-of-year posts anymore.

I’ve written in the past about the various struggles with depression and anxiety. Those are both still features of my life. The struggles of trying to forge an academic career are a recurring theme. Last year, I wrote at length about the pandemic and explained my skepticism at the idea that the Biden administration would be the magic bullet. That is not a prediction worth taking a victory-lap through the Omicron-haunted streets for, and I was hardly alone in making it.

Add in that pandemic generally contracted the number of activities I do and that I find my attempts at sincerity turn out saccharine, and I find myself flailing about for words.

For as much as 2021 passed in a blur, it was a big year for me.

I started a new job. I moved into a house in a new city. I took major steps toward publishing my first book. I accepted several positions within academic organizations. I started to travel a little bit again. While ultimately premature, these trips gave me a little hope for a trip abroad in the near future, which is both something I want to do and something that could help jump-start a few different writing projects I have in mind.

And with all of this going on I eclipsed 75 books read, the largest number since before I entered graduate school more than a decade ago, and generally managed to meet most of my fitness goals.

My personal journey over the past several years, starting even before COVID-19 plunged the world into a seemingly-perpetual state of emergency, has been one of coming to grips with my own limitations. Some of this has been the simple realization that I am now in my mid-30s and with the aches to prove it, but the larger part has been learning to accept the absurdity of trying to pursue a career as both a scholar and a teacher at the university level.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I might have started graduate school in equal parts because I graduated college at the height of the Great Recession and because I wanted to become someone who got to write history books, but, by the time I finished, I had resolved that I would do everything in my power to become an excellent teacher. (I have my strengths, but this is still a work in progress.) I love wrestling with ideas to put them on the page, provided that I am not pressed too much for time and I get as much satisfaction working with students.

But none of this changes the fundamental absurdity of it all. Sometimes that absurdity is comic. Sometimes it is tragic. Sometimes it is satyric.

Wait. Scratch that. I’m getting my typology of academic absurdity crossed with the genres of Attic drama.

The point is that I spent several years making peace with the possibility that an academic career might be something I wouldn’t never achieve, no matter what I did. I would be able to keep writing, of course, but there were just too many factors beyond my control to pin my hopes on it as a source of income. After all, when 2021 opened, I was in my fourth year of cobbling together part-time employment, barely being part of any department, rarely knowing what I would teach more than a month before the semester started. Only once in eight semesters had I been considered a full-time employee and only one other time did the aggregate employment add up to something approximating a full-time salary.

Nothing is guaranteed, even now, but that journey also makes appreciate my current job all the more. There were growing pains that came with starting a new job, of course, and the fifth consecutive pandemic semester made everything harder. But I am also part of a department where my work goes toward a larger program and I am encouraged to think past the current semester. This sort of support goes a long way toward offsetting the grind of a long semester.

Everything I had going on this year also meant that I had less time to focus on the world at large, for better and for worse. After the Trump era I also had less bandwidth to engage with the outrage. I couldn’t stop myself from following along online and remain deeply frustrated by the state of the world for pandemic reasons and in general, but I had to opt out of engaging.

In short, I am entering 2022 in as good as a place as could reasonably be expected. I am healthy, gainfully employed, and in a place to make meaningful strides on both my teaching and writing. Yes, the cumulative effects of the past few years are still present and I am still prone to bouts of anxiety, but I have a sense of optimism about what the year might bring, at least on a personal level. That is quite a privilege indeed.

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This is the penultimate post in my year-end series, following a roundup of my writing, best posts, and lists.

My 2021: Lists of Note

Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year, though I haven’t had quite the motivation for the usual slate of half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek series of posts this year. However, I did a recap of my Best* posts and figured I should at least put out my annual list of recommendations for various media that I enjoyed this past year (and assorted other lists).

6 favorite novels I read this year:

5 favorite non-fiction books I read this year:

5 books I’m looking forward to (maybe) reading in 2022 (three repeats from 2021)

  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine
  • The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Border, Kapka Kassabova
  • Speaking Bones, Ken Liu

5 Movies and TV shows I enjoyed watching this year

1 Podcast that I added to my regular rotation this year

  • 60 Songs That Explain the 90s

1 Video game I played this year

  • Ghosts of Tsushima

6 songs I listened to quite a lot this year, even as 2021 was mostly a year of listening to old favorites.

  • “Jump on my shoulders,” AWOLNATION
  • “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Honeybucket
  • “The It Girl,” Raye Zaragoza
  • “Put the Gun Down,” ZZ Ward
  • “Bible on the Dash,” Corb Lund and Hayes Carll
  • “Golden Child,” The Honeycutters

Find the past lists here: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020.

Adaptation and Authority: Some Thoughts on Amazon’s Wheel of Time

I only managed to watch a handful of episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones when it initially aired and have since seen a handful of partial episodes when my partner puts it on around the house.

This may come as a surprise given my affection for all things fantasy. While I can appreciate that the show is well-done, with good acting and investment in scenery, too much of what appeared on screen jarred with the story as it appeared in my head. In this sense, my deep investment in the books, which goes back more than a decade when the show came out (I started reading them in middle school), served as a barrier to my enjoyment of the show.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was what one might call hasty at that stage of my life and the adaptation lay in part behind a three-part rant about Hollywood that I posted to this blog.

In the aftermath of that experience I vowed that I simply wouldn’t watch adaptations of books I like. I don’t bear the projects any ill-will, but watching them made me unhappy and made the experience less pleasant for those around me.

Live and let live, I figured.

In the years since then, I have largely avoided such adaptations. I enjoyed the recent Dune film, but I read the book relatively late and so don’t have the same realtionship with it. Further, it is a story that is heavy on setting, atmosphere, and ideas and relatively light on plot and character. (For what it is worth, I also thought that the weakest point of the film was the characterization of the side characters who are the ones I gravitated toward in the book.) I suspect, for similar reasons, that I would enjoy the Foundation adaptation on Apple TV+ that I haven’t watched becuase I don’t have an account. Likewise, I have enjoyed the Expanse series on Amazon, but, since I watched the series before reading the books, I am getting to appreciate the world of the series expanding in complexity rather than collapsing.

If there is any post-Tolkien fantasy series that has been part of my life longer than Game of Thrones, it is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I read the first book in fifth grade, at an age when I found a lot of scenes terrifying. Eight books had been published in the series when I started reading it; by time the ninth book was released I was someone who would reread the entire series in anticipation.

I had a lot more spare time when I was younger.

All of this is to say that I mostly ignored buildup to the Amazon adaptation of The Wheel of Time. Then I started to hear buzz and I gave in.

I approached this adaptation with more of an open mind than I did Game of Thrones. This series has thirteen books that expand quite dramatically in the middle in a way that I love but that generally consensus found distracting, so of course the material would need to be reworked for length and to fit into the structure of a television show. And, to the show runners’ credit, the cityscapes are stunning, the casting works across the board, and there are numerous small touches, some suggested by Brandon Sanderson, that capture the atmosphere of the world.

And, despite it all, I haven’t managed to finish the first season. In the end, there were just too many disjunctures between the books and the series for me to overcome.

Some of these were small changes that I understand but did not love. For instance, Emonds Field in the books is a fairly bucolic place with small-town concerns, only to see that peace broken by the Trolloc attack. This allowed Jordan to complicate it later in the series when the now-worldly heroes (mostly Perrin) return to find their village not as they remembered it. By contrast, the show turned Emonds Field grittier and accelerated “character development” by giving Mat a broken family and Perrin a wife to kill (literally, unfortunately).

Other small changes were fine, but seemed superfluous to me. Hiding the identity of the Dragon Reborn, for instance didn’t add anything in my opinion (calling all of the main characters ta’averen was fine, though). Likewise, I didn’t understand what was gained by moving the introduction of Min Farshaw from Baerlon to Shienar.

Then there were bigger changes. Most notable was the decision to have the people go directly to Tar Valon (which doesn’t happen for some of the characters until book 2, others until book 3, and not at all for others) in place of going to Caemlyn. I have some sympathy for the show runners: introducing the White Tower and the Amyrlin Seat in the first season makes them concrete players from the start.

But this is also where my long familiarity with the books threw up a barrier for me. The Eye of the World is hardly a perfect novel, but it impressively well set up to 1) follow a single coherent adventure from beginning to end and 2) plant seeds that develop as the series goes along. No show can, or should, film a book shot for shot, but I became increasingly frustrated to see these seeds moved or, in some cases, ignored. So, when the show seemed to make a big change involving Mat near the end of Season One, I gave up.

I hope the show finds its audience. The scenery is gorgeous and if people can enjoy what it has to offer, then I wish them well. I just won’t be among them. I could do a point-by-point discussion of what Wheel of Time gets wrong and right, but that misses the point of adaptation and I have little interest in doing such an exercises even if someone wanted to pay me for the time and effort (please don’t).

In short, I find myself back where I started. These shows just aren’t for me. I will enjoy my books, other people can appreciate their adaptations, and that is just fine. These stories don’t belong to me.

The Veiled Throne

Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books are the best fantasy stories I almost never see anyone talking about, full stop. Yes, they have received positive reviews from outlets like NPR, but I very rarely encounter anyone who has read them, perhaps because in form they are so unlike most major fantasy novels currently available.

Set on Dara, a self-contained continent protected by the wall of storms and a pantheon of gods, the series begins with The Grace of Kings, which tells the story of the rise of Kuni Garu and his eventual triumph over his onetime friend, the Hegemon, Mata Zyndu. The second book, The Wall of Storms, appears set to turn this tale of banditry and adventure into one of courtly intrigue centered on Jia and Risana, Kuni Garu’s two principal wives. However, Liu completely upturns these expectations with the introduction of warlike Lyucu.

Under a previous dynasty the scholars of Dara discovered that the Wall of Storms intermittently opens, so the emperor Mapidere organized an expedition on enormous city ships in order to conquer this new land, called Ukyu-Gonde. Despite the apparent backwardness of the Lyucu, they nevertheless defeated the expedition and, under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryo, launched an invasion of Dara during the next opening of the Wall of Storms. This expedition seized the outlying islands of Dasu and Rui, but the forces of Dara turned them back when they attempted to invade the main island. This victory, won by the barest of margins, cost the people of Dara. Kuni Garu died, his first heir (Prince Timu, turned Emperor Thake) sacrificed himself as the bride of Tenryo’s successor Tanvanki, and the next in line, Princess Thera, engaged herself Takval of the Agon, the anscestral enemies of the Lyucu enslaved by Tenryo, and led an armada to Ukyu-Gonde.

Such is the situation in Dara when The Veiled Throne opens. Empress Jia holds the regency in Pan where she tries to maintain the delicate ten-year truce with the Lyucu while the emperor, her step-son Phyro, agitates for direct action. Timu tries to find accomodation for the people of Dara against their brutal Lyucu overlords, and Thera tries to stage a rebellion among the Agon.

The Veiled Throne actually starts with an extended flashback to Ukyu-Gonde before the Lyucu invasion of Dara. During the period of the Dara invasion, Goztan Ryoto had been one of the Lyucu women enslaved by the foreigners, and her “master” named her “Obedience.” However, Goztan was a plant, one of the women Tenryo persuaded to feign subservience in order to kill the men of Dara and so was rewarded by becoming one of the loyal thanes who would in time lead the invasion of Dara.

However, something unusual happened during her captivity. Goztan came to appreciate that not all men of Dara were abjectly evil. Eventually this led her to become particularly attached to one of the Dara slaves, Oga, even taking him to bed, despite her other five husbands.

Back in the contemporary timeline, Goztan is the leader of the moderate party in the Lyucu territory, preaching accomodations and even having her son Savo educated by an independent scholar of Dara. This is a capital offense, particularly when discovered by Goztan’s rival thane, Cutanrovo, who believes that the only good Dara is a dead Dara. This political conflict will kick off a chain of events that send Savo (also known by the Dara name Kinri Rito) spinning into exile on the mainland of Dara where he will be adopted first by the Widow Wasu, proprietess of The Splendid Urn, the greatest restaurant in Ginpen, and then by the Splendid Blossom Gang, a motley crew of vagabonds who wander Dara doing good deeds. It is at the Splendid Urn where he meets the beautiful and enigmatic Dandelion, a young woman who everyone seems to know the backstory of except him.

Events in Ginpen, and particularly a delightful culinary competition between The Splendid Urn and The Treasure Chest run by the awful Tiphan Huto that reads like an extended restaurant wars out of the TV show Top Chef, come to the foreground in the latter section of The Veiled Throne. This section culimates with the Splendid Blossom Gang’s true objective: the infiltration of the imperial laboratory and archive hidden near Ginpen. However, much like the first two books, the narrative actually whips between several discrete storylines that variously intersect in both themes and events, while each chapter is situated in time, with a countdown pointing toward the next opening of the Wall of Storms. Thus:

On Ukyu-Gonde, Thera establishes contact with the Agon and works to establish a joint society, even while needing to collaborate with her husband’s duplicitous uncle who might betray them to the Lyucu at any time.

In a secret base in the mountains, the emperor Phyro oversees the raising of Garinafins, enormous, flying, fire-breathing creatures that are one of the secrets to the Lyucu military supremacy. Phyro continually petitions the regent to build up an invasion of “Unredeemed Dara,” all the while dreaming of military glory.

In Pan, the capital of Dara, Empress Jia plays politics, holding the state together for an emperor with little experience or interest in governing, preserving a delicate peace, and making preparations that suggest she is not so oblivious to the need to reclaim the lost territories as Phyro might think. However, her secrecy leads to conflict with members of the court like the Farisight Secretary Zomi Kidosu, the daughter of a Dasu fishing family (Oga and Aki Kidosu), whose mother was killed during the Lyucu invasion.

The Dandelion Dynasty rejects many of traditional fantasy narrative beats. Each book spans years and many scenes feel like vignettes to a larger epic story that I once likened to the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Sometimes this means a particular storyline will just get one short scene before skipping ahead several years, while others, like the restaurant wars described above, will get multiple lengthy chapters. Further, each individual scene conforms to the demands of its subject, with Liu seemingly pulling from inspirations as diverse as heists to a reality television show, to the Chinese ancient dialogues like Han Dynasty’s Discourses on Salt and Iron. Far from feeling uneven, though, these imbalances allow Liu to build in depth to the world and often to imbue it with playfulness and life.

Reading all of that, one might be forgiven for being overwhelmed. This book, much like the two that came before it, are a lot, and I often had to refer back to the dramatis personae to keep the relationships between the various characters straight. However, since the reviews of the first two books in the series are among my least favorite posts I have ever written here, I wanted to give this book its full due.

Ultimately, each of the three books to date follows a single compelling theme. The Grace of Kings is the simplest: it is the rise of power of Kuni Garu, the bandit who would become king. The Wall of Storms is a story about the clash of civilizations and the lengths people will go to in times of desparation. The Veiled Throne, in turn, is about negotiating cultural fusion, particularly when faced with the twin challenges of history and misinformation.

When I wrote about The Wall of Storms, I framed one of my comments as a way to get ahead of potential criticism, saying that Liu has a way of addressing contemporary issues in fiction. This was the wrong way to frame the issue. These books feel fresh exactly because Liu deftly weaves contemporary issues into the larger threads of the story. That is, he didn’t write a story about homosexual relationships, women in the military, bigotry, ethnic cleansing, standardized tests, refugee camps, or disability, but he did write a story with each of these elements. Similarly, the “silk-punk” technology that is a hallmark of these stories is a fanciful reimagination of, for instance, the technologies found in the treasure fleets created for the Yongle Emperor in the fifteenth century. Moreover, in bucking many story patterns typical of a lot of Sci Fi and Fantasy books, Liu is able to create a world that is more interesting, more vivacious, and more true to life than those in a lot of other books in the genre.

In short, The Veiled Throne is an excellent novel that only builds on the achievement of the earlier books. While there is so much going on that I sometimes found myself struggling to remember what had happened in earlier books, that mostly made me want to revisit them. My only complaint here is that we have to wait for the conclusion of the story, which, while written as a single book with The Veiled Throne, is being released under the title Speaking Bones in June 2022.

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My reading over this holiday has been David Graeber and David Wengrow’s fascinating The Dawn of Everything, which looks to overturn a lot of the conventional wisdom about the early history of human civilization and ask critical questions about how we became frozen in a broadly similar set of social structures. This is a book that gives a lot to think about.

Hypothetically Speaking: a Greek History class reading list

One of my favorite things about my current job is that, despite being a contingent position, it has given me license to start thinking about the types of courses I might want to teach and provided a framework in which to conceive of them. As last semester wore down I started to mull over what I would assign for an 8-week summer graduate course on Greek history.

(An actual course would probably have to be “ancient history” or somesuch, more broadly construed, but indulge me here.)

The imagined audience for this course is aspiring history teachers with little or no background in the classical languages. My goal was to construct a reading list that a) gives a glimpse at some of what I see as core issues to Greek history as they emerge in recent scholarship, b) challenges traditional narratives about Greek history, and c) avoids leaning too hard on literary or linguistic analysis.

This is the reading list I came up with:

  • Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt (Harvard: 2017)
  • Naoise Mac Sweeny, Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia (Cambridge: 2013)
  • Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Duckworth: 2000)
  • David Yates, States of Memory (Oxford: 2019)
  • Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Immigrant Women in Athens (Routledge: 2014)
  • Kostas Vlassopoulos, Greeks and Barbarians (Cambridge: 2013)
  • John Hyland, Persian Interventions (Johns Hopkins: 2017)
  • Paul Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings (Harvard: 2014)

I particularly wanted to avoid any book that used as its focus one of the big wars in Greek history because those books abound, though I did consider Jenny Robert’s The Plague of War (Oxford: 2017), and, I was likewise leery of any book that too completely centered Athens, though Joan Connelly’s The Parthenon Enigma (Penguin: 2014). Rather, I wanted to steer into persistent misunderstandings about Ancient Greece, giving the (imagined) students material that they were likely going to be unfamiliar with and that they might be able to use in how they teach the subject. This meant books that situated events they might see elsewhere in a broader context or inverted what they might have learned elsewhere.

Two issues with this list as currently constructed:

First. Kosmin’s volume feels to me like a token Hellenistic book that might be better to given over to something like Clara Bosak-Schroeder’s Other Natures (University of California Press: 2020) or another book on historiography. I ultimately excluded Other Natures just because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Second. Slavery appears in these volumes as a secondary consideration rather than as the primary focus. Given the prominence of slavery in Greek society this might be a grave oversight.

Finally, a request. Tell me why any of my choices won’t work and, in the sense that I am always looking for bibliography, tell me what I missed.

My 2021: Best* Posts

It is time again for my end-of-year series. Previously: Writing Wrap 2021. Next up: my Best* posts from 2021.

I have published 68 posts so far in 2021, totalling more than 62,000 words (average length 921 words), and including some of the most popular posts ever to go up here. The list below consists of posts I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

This year’s selection is eclectic. It includes reflections on pain of the academic job market, expectations, and writing, two entries on teaching, one post about ancient bread, one post about recent media about Anthony Bourdain, and five that directly or indirectly touch on contemporary politics.

Previously: 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016

Writing Wrap 2021

Every year around this time I kick off a year-end series that starts with a wrap-up of everything that I published that year and sundry project updates. I never really know what to call this post, though, since I am not nearly prolific enough to focus just on publications that came out that year, as I have in past years (2020; 2018).

Once again this year I published very little, but I did take major steps toward a few different pieces:

  1. The manuscript for my first book, Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE, received positive feedback from reviewers at University of Michigan Press. I am now working to deliver the revised manuscript early next year. Gulp.
  2. I had an article on Ephesus in the fourth century BCE accepted for publication in Classical Quarterly, pending revisions that I submitted last week.
  3. A chapter I wrote for an edited collection on Athenian orators and the historical memory about the conquest of Samos in 366 BCE passed peer review and the volume The Orators and their Treatment of the Recent Past is moving toward publication with De Gruyter.

I like reviewing books, so I am disappointed that I did not do any this year—the few books I inquired about were already claimed—but I did publish or have a hand in publishing a few other things.

  1. Back in February, I published a piece in The Conversation on assessing and mitigating risk through the lens of ancient Greece. The thrust is that while the Greeks put great stock in divination, prophecy, and making appropriate sacrifices to the gods, none of those ritual actions should let people off the hook for taking adequate precaution. Rather, after taking both types of precaution you just have to accept that risk still exists.
  2. I also interviewed two people, Aven McMaster and Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon, for the Contingent Faculty series of blog posts on the SCS blog. Aven, in particular, highlighted how precarious a career in higher education can be, and I believe that the working conditions for contingent faculty are essential if fields like ancient history and classics are going to continue to exist except as elite antiquarian exercises. I was interviewed for the series in 2020 and wanted to carry the spirit of having difficult conversations forward into these posts. Both interviewees (as well as the two interviewed by my colleagues) spoke candidly about the myriad of challenges facing contingent faculty, and I am really proud of the work that we did to bring these conversations public this year.

Most of my academic work went toward my teaching this year, but I presented two papers at academic conferences. The first applied of post-colonial theory and specifically Third Space Theory to community identity in and around Ionia; the second offered a new interpretation of the so-called proskynesis affair during the reign of Alexander the Great, looking a synthesis between two recent approaches. I don’t have imminent publication plans for either, mostly because there are other things I need to finish first, but hope to come back to one or both next year.

Other projects are moving forward more slowly, but I hope to have big updates next year.

I have a complete list of my publications, with links to everything available online, here. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, contact me for a pdf or off-print.

Fall 2021: The Uncanny Valley of Normalcy

As I read a flood of headlines about schools going online in response to the latest COVID-19 spikes, I am finding it hard to imagine what it was like back in August when we returned for a fall semester masked, but back at full capacity and in person and all of the talk on campus was when, not if, the mask mandate would get dropped.

Now it is late December and I am sitting in my office trying to plan for a new semester that starts in less than three weeks without any sense of what it will look like and without having had a chance yet to process the semester that just ended.

Perhaps a nap would be a more productive use of my time.

More than any semester I can remember, I spent a lot of time and emotional energy trying to coach, support, and otherwise help struggling students through a very difficult term. Some of this can be traced to my new position at a new school that allowed me to invest in this sort work and a campus climate that made it more necessary. Yet, anecdotally, I also saw sentiments that this semester was harder than the ones that were more explicitly pandemic semesters. There are a variety of possible explanations—those other semesters came with more explicit planning and everyone’s mental and emotional reserves are empty after two years of a pandemic—but one that I particularly like came from Kevin Gannon on Twitter who speculated that this semester was the Uncanny Valley of Normalcy. That is, we were close to normal in a way that only highlighted that something was off.

After a lot of debate, I set up my courses so that students could use Zoom to attend remotely if they asked me for the link. I suggested they use chat to contribute to the class conversation, but also warned them that I might not be able to bring them fully into the course discussion. I am not happy with this solution, but after trying to teach language classes in a hybrid format last year I decided that this was just a battle I didn’t have the energy to fight. I still want to imagine something better but keep drawing a blank.

Other challenges I faced this semester come back to it being my first year in a new department. For instance, I came in with certain assumptions about the demographics of my upper-level course and then had to adjust on the fly to meet my students where they were. Going into next semester, I can have these adjustments built into the course from the start. Similarly, I came into the semester thinking that the my World Civ course (world history for non-majors) would be an iteration of a world history course I had taught before, but then found myself adjusting mid-stream when I saw the virtues of some of what the World History course did, before adjusting again when it became clear to me how many of my students were wearing down at a frightening rate. I suspect having a more regular assignment schedule will help this class immensely, and this is something that will be easier to accomplish now that I have a better sense of the students, campus community, and resources at my disposal.

This semester has also been causing me to reflect on three aspects of my teaching.

First, I like most of my class sessions, and, by extension, the course as a whole to have a big idea and an arc that allows each idea to reinforce what the students are learning. When I taught my monsters class, for instance, we go from primordial monsters, the interaction between monsters and humans, and finally asking whether human beings are the “real monsters.” In other classes, I often use a sort of ring composition that has the course return to the ideas we established at the outset of the semester at the very end. This method, along with a strong emphasis on reflection in the courses, allows the students to see what they have learned that semester and I have no intention of fully abandoning that model, but I am wondering if I wouldn’t be better to build in more compartmentalization.

Take this analogy. I often often have students go through drafting processes and peer review by way of scaffolding writing assignments. This semester when I tried a peer-review exercise in one of my classes, only half of the class had a draft for their peers to review. Now, I am going to change how I do these peer reviews in the future by requiring students to submit the drafts as a “graded” (complete/incomplete) assignment, but I also saw this as symptomatic of how many students were simply overwhelmed this semester. I had multiple students miss long stretches of class time where they seemed even more lost when they return, so I wonder if there might be virtue in finding ways to build in water-tight compartments so that if one ruptures the whole boat doesn’t sink, so to speak. Not that compartmentalization helps with any given writing assignment, though.

Sorry, mixed metaphor is where my head is at right now.

Second, I am once again questioning the value of tests. Not assessment, mind you, but tests. When I finished working as a TA for big US history surveys, I vowed I would never again offer a blue-book test. Basically, I think they are of negligible pedagogical value for what I hope to teach my students and I find in-class exams mind-numbing to grade. I have exclusively used open-book take-home tests in my classes where part of the assignment is learning how to synthesize and cite information from the various sources that we have used.

Some of these tests have worked better than others, and I am starting to think that a take-home test needs to do more than replicate the in-class test at home. That is, if you are doing a take-home test, it shouldn’t be a series of short answer terms followed by several essays. Some students do exceptionally well at these assignments, but others replicate many of the same issues I have with the in-class exams while the large number of individual components to the test often leads to divided focus. I have had more success with exams that ask fewer questions, expect more from each answer, and allow revision.

However, if I am going to take this approach, what is the virtue in doing one midterm and one final with two questions each rather than, say asking those same questions over three or four papers that go through a peer-review process? In this model, much learning ostensibly tested by the short answer portion of those exams would be done through weekly quizzes over factual materials and readings. Not every course needs to be writing-intensive, but this can be accounted for in the length of the assignments, while doing more frequent but shorter assignments that go through this process would likely result in deeper, more sustained engagement with the course material than the alternative.

Finally, the end of this semester has me again reflecting on compassionate pedagogy. I want to be the sort of professor who my students trust to support them. Right now this means finding ways to make my course policies flexible and respecting the demands put on their time. I don’t have access to my course evals for the semester yet, but I am particularly looking forward to seeing what they thought of my late policy that treated all major assignments as checkpoints and allowed them to get an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before that checkpoint. In particular, I wonder what messaging a policy like this gives. A lot of students wrote that they were taking my extension because they had other work due the same day. That in and of itself isn’t a problem—I understand students have other classes and this extension is on offer—but when I scaled back a number of assignments late in the semester because I saw my students becoming utterly overwhelmed, the break I gave them was immediately swallowed by work for other classes. Put the two together, and I can’t help but wonder if building flexibility and compassion into my course as a baseline gets taken for granted and sends the message that what I’m teaching them is not important.

I don’t intend to go away from a compassionate pedagogy because I don’t see rigor and rigidity as synonymous, but it does underscore for me that individual instructors cannot solve problems like the mental health crises on college campuses. We need structural solutions.

What is Making Me Happy: Bluegrass Covers of Pop Songs

Grades are in for the semester and while I will have a reflection ready for tomorrow, today I am finding that I just need to decompress.

In the meantime, enjoy a few of the songs that sustained me while I graded: bluegrass covers of pop songs. I fell down a rabbit hole in this sub-genre a few months ago through the Pickin’ On series of albums that covered, for instance, hits from the 1990s. I found those albums to be rather hit and miss, often because they slowed the tempo of some of the faster songs in a way that I thought detracted from the effect. What changed my mind about the overall potential, though, was Sarah Jarosz’ cover of “When Doves Cry.”

I love this song anyway, and the mandolin/upright bass pairing just works. When you take the same sort of bluegrass adaptation and stick it in a non-traditional venue like, say, a kitchen in this Front Country cover of “Don’t Do Me Like That,” I’m all-in.

Or maybe Honeybucket’s cover of the Kid Cudi song “Pursuit of Happiness” (the explicit version is a bit better, but this is funny, too).

Or from across the pond with the Beefseed’s cover of Dark Horse.

I particularly like the cacophonous energy in these songs that helped get me to the end of the semester.

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.