Customarily I end my year-in-review series with resolutions for the coming year. This year, as part of my broader overhaul of this series, this post now begins with a recap of the previous year’s resolutions.
The easiest way to assess success or failure of last year’s resolutions is to recap them by category.
Writing: I was mostly successful on my limited goals (chapter for an edited collection, submit book, one book review, clear back work). I didn’t finish draft the chapter because it is due in 2023, but I submitted my book manuscript, identified two books to review (one academic, one for Choice reviews) that should appear in early 2023, cleared nearly all outstanding work from my desk, missed by just one short piece that I’m midway through. 0.75
Reading: I crushed all of my reading goals for this year, at least if you exclude my belated article resolution. I read 20 ancient history books (target: 12) and 65 other books (target: 52), with the latter tally including 27 by women (41%; target 33%), 6 by African or African American authors (target: 6), and from 13 countries and 8 original languages (target: 10 and 7). But I did make the article resolution, which I abandoned for want of time. 0.75
Exercise: I did lose some weight this year, but the better marker of success is in my activity levels. I started running again in May and ran 213 miles across 75 runs, for almost three miles per run even though I didn’t complete my first three-mile run until July. My longest run was only about six and a half miles, short of my ten-mile target, but I also made a deliberate choice to prioritize regularity over length. Likewise, while I went away from doing YouTube yoga routines, I did a self-paced yoga session 336 days this year. Full marks, in spirit, if not letter. 1.0
Other: I failed to follow through on my artistic goals for 2022 and only sometimes followed through on my intention of taking Saturdays off. This was also a year during which the sheer number of things that I had going on meant that I succumbed to frustration and impatience, to say nothing of existential dread. The saving grace here is that I am better about making myself take a few deep breaths than I once was. 0.25
2.75/4 I’ll take it.
The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable
Learn how to say no.
Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
Be more patient and charitable.
Smile more often.
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.
Continue running, pushing the length past a half-marathon.
Continue two writing practices I developed at the end of 2022: weekly varia posts and a nightly writing exercise in my physical journal.
Draft one (1) chapter for an edited collection due in 2023.
Revise one (1) paper as an article.
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.
Across all types of the lists I keep, my goal for 2023 is 100 books
At least 25 academic ancient history or classics books
At least 65 non-academic books
40% by women
10 by African or African-American authors
from at least 10 countries
10 more from either category
I started practicing photo editing, but I never set up a Flickr account because I became paralyzed by options. This year requires a choice.
Finally, to conclude this series, a message for readers: thank you for following along. Going into the new year I am looking forward to writing more about books, pedagogy, academia, history, and whatever else I happen to stumble upon.
Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may your coming year be filled with warmth and happiness.
So, here’s a thing that happened in 2022: I got married.
I was sitting on the couch with my partner of more than a decade during the last weekend in July. “We should get married,” she declared.
We had talked about marriage a number of times, sometimes seriously, sometimes as part of a long-running joke. We moved in together years ago, entered into a domestic partnership at the start of the pandemic, and bought a house together, so it always seemed like a matter of when, not if, but that when had not yet happened. But this time felt different. The Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade and a lot of political commentary in those weeks centered on what rights might be next. Contraception was (and is) an obvious target, but, before congress codified the statute this year, some were speculated that protections for gay marriage were also in conservative sights. If gay marriage reverted to a matter of state law, we thought, Missouri’s domestic partnership laws could be stripped down as collateral damage, to say nothing of what might happen if we were to leave this state.
A big wedding seemed impractical given both our personalities and the state of the world and we had decided to embargo the information from our families so that there would be no pressure to do a ceremony and no chance that we would end up with soem people coming and others feeling left out, which meant, to paraphrase Rabbi Tuckman from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, getting married in a hurry. We started calling court houses on Monday. None of the judges in Adair County where we live would perform marriages, while Boone County where we previously lived has a regular schedule that was booked until the start of the semester, which would have meant waiting until at least October.
Then we called Macon, the county between Adair and Boone. The judge loves performing weddings, the person told us. How about Wednesday?
Just like that we had a wedding date.
We drove down on a rainy morning, ever so slightly dressed up and with a pair of silicon rings since they were what we could acquire in time. One of Elizabeth’s shoes fell apart outside the courthouse and then ran into a delay because the judge was on a call, but the ceremony went off without a hitch. On the drive down to Columbia for a celebratory day out we called our families with the news.
This week that spanned from July to August was a microcosm of the rest of my year. A lot of things went well. Professionally, I settled into my job and became further engaged in professional activities, both in official ways and by starting a writing group and hosting afternoon tea sessions for students. I also had an article accepted, finished revisions on my first book, and managed to finish most of my outstanding commitments. Personally, I read a lot of good books and started a regular running habit.
But doing more also comes at a cost.
I went into last summer with a resolution to do less, just as soon as I got through a week reading AP exams and book revisions. July was to be a month for sloth. Then I picked up a summer class last minute after a colleague suffered a health crisis and, in a blink, the start of the fall semester had arrived. Not only had I not had a restful July, but I was also barely ready for the fall classes to start. Then I had a production deadline for my book that left me scrambling to keep up with my teaching responsibilities. By the end of the semester I was feeling the cumulative effect of the past few years where a period of unemployment in summer 2020 was my longest “break.”
At the same time, I’ve come to realize that I don’t want an extended period of time off. I habitually fill almost any sliver of time with books and baking and other hobbies, including exercise. My ideal for travel is either to get lost in nature where I can spend my time hiking or to graze my way through cities while visiting museums and archaeological sites, where I invariably take pictures of things I can use in class. When literature starts feeling frivolous, I start reading non-fiction. If I go more than a few days without writing, I start writing here or on various other projects. I also like being involved.
I have spent a lot of time in 2022 thinking about sustainability. How can history and classics departments build sustainable programs? (It starts with stable jobs for faculty who can support students.) How can I create sustainable practices in the classroom that allow students to grow without burning myself out? How can I cultivate sustainable, healthy habits around writing and reading and exercise? How can I contribute to a sustainable environment when the world seems to be on fire?
I don’t have great answers to most of these questions and some of the solutions I came up with this year backfired, sometimes spectacularly. But I think these are the right questions.
As part of my overhaul for my end-of year sequence, I have changed the title format, replacing what used to be “using my words.” This post is the penultimate entry, following Writing and Books. Resolutions will close out this series.
I write enough about myself this time of year through my end-of year reflections (writing and books are up, with a general meditation and resolutions to come) that I don’t feel the need for short essay about whatever I’m thinking about on a Saturday morning this week.
Happy New Year.
This week’s varia:
Peter Kidd documents manuscript provenance on his own blog. I’m not a regular reader, but his post this week caught my attention. For his tenth anniversary post, Kidd relates his exchange with the secretary of an author whose recent book appears to plagiarize his blog. The conversation includes denial, threats of lawyers (not on his part), and the claim that since his blog isn’t significant enough to warrant citation because it is just a blog. The last is particularly galling. Blogs might not pass through peer review and come out through academic publishers, but that doesn’t mean that they are always inconsequential. To paraphrase something that Dr. Sarah Bond has been saying for a number of years now: writing in academic blogs is an exercise in public scholarship that can help ensure the vitality of a field, but they will only be considered legitimate if people cite them. At the same time, plagiarism is still plagiarism. If you use an idea, cite it.
Since the original post went up, the publisher appears to have made the PDF of the book in question unavailable, digitally altered a bunch of the online material, and questions have emerged about both the staff and the physical office of the publisher. People associated with RECEPTIO responded aggressively with reverse accusations, threats to involve the police, and attempts to “anonymously” harass and dox Kidd in an attempt to preserve what increasingly appears to be a scam to funnel grant money through and convince people to spend fees for workshops at this “research institute.” Kidd has written severaladditionalblogpoststhat address specific parts of her responses. I have seen more than one academic demand a movie about one of the most flagrant cases of scholarly malpractice that I can recall and how the whole thing unraveled in just under a week as researchers trained in the very particular skills of identifying how manuscripts influence one another and in spotting misinformation turned their attentions to RECEPTIO.
Hamline University has non-renewed the contract of a contingent professor of religion who offered a lesson in an online class about historical Muslim representations of the Prophet Muhammad after a student complained. The Hamline Oracle has the fullest description of the incident and points out the steps that the professor took to offer content warnings and to allow observant Muslims to opt out of seeing the images. The administration is alleging that the lesson constitutes Islamophobia Rather than standing behind the subject matter expert, or, you know, historical reality, the administration chose to cut ties with the faculty member and could do so with no repercussion because the person in question had no job security. This is one of the major issues with contingent contracts in higher education right now. I also recommend Amna Khalid’s essay explaining why the administration’s actions offend her both as a professor and as a muslim.
A court has ruled that the Marine Corps cannot reject Sikh men who refuse to shave their beards based on their religious beliefs. The Marines claimed that these rules were a matter of national security, but the court sided with the plaintiffs who alleged that the policy reflects “stereotypes about what Americans should look like.”
Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights this week. Weather is partly to blame, but people in the know are saying that Southwest’s antiquated scheduling system and staffing problems bear more responsibility. Pete Buttigieg had asserted that conditions were getting better, but 34 state attorneys general had written to him urging him to impose fines for airlines with avoidable cancellations and delays, something he has not done. Naturally, money that could have gone toward modernizing their systems has been spent on executive bonuses, dividends, stock buybacks, and lobbying.
As part of a broader overhaul of my end of year series, I’m ditching my usual “lists of note” about books and shows and movies and everything else in favor of a single post with both my favorite books and the long list of everything I read (including both academic and non-academic reading lists).
I had planned to release this post on the final day of the year, but I have a good sense of how much I will read tomorrow and the post I had in mind for today is not yet ready.
I see a few trends from this list. My reading volume took only a small step back from 2021, despite the busyness of my year. I increased the amount of ancient history I read, and I generally kept my reading diet stable at thirty percent nonfiction, more than forty percent written by women (among other metrics that I track). As the list below indicates, I was particularly blown away by a lot of the general nonfiction I read below. However, as compared with the past few years, each of which included two or three of my all-time favorite books, almost all of my favorite fiction of this year were fantasy or science fiction. This reflects not only the type of books I had the capacity to engage with most of the year, but also the quality of recent speculative fiction, and I actively disliked the few literary novels I read that have been appearing on “best of 2022” lists.
What follows is three “best” lists for things I read this year: Ancient History, general nonfiction, and fiction of all sorts. Then comes a roughly-sorted list of the remaining nonfiction, followed by the remaining fiction, lightly sorted so that books by the same authors appear together. Links go to any book that I wrote about this year, though time constraints meant that I wrote about fewer books than usual this year.
Top ancient history
Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, David M. Lewis
I have decided to rethink my year-in-review series this year. Where I have traditionally provided separate posts for anything published and anything published here, I am combining those two posts into one as a way to better address my writing as a coherent whole. This post thus includes a status update on projects, a list of things published, the best* posts of the year, and some raw stats from the blog.
2022 was a year of booms and busts for my writing. I started tracking how much time I spent on academic writing back in 2017 and this year marked the second lowest total of the past five years (2019 was a deep nadir for reasons of employment). But my writing this year also swung between periods of exceptional stamina, like a three week period in February where I averaged almost twenty hours each week, punctuated by periods when I didn’t write anything. Even the success of the writing group I started with Vicky Austen couldn’t keep me on track as my semester spun wildly out of control.
The state of my writing projects also contributed to the stop-and-start nature of my writing since the bursts often coincided with imminent deadlines. For instance, every few months this year I had a new deadline while moving my first book through the phases of production. That book is due out in March 2023. The same thing happened on a smaller scale with respect to an article accepted for Classical Quarterly that I am optimistic will appear next year and a book review, and I have also been wrapping up some smaller projects. By contrast, I had to do very little work on the only piece I had come out this year because it had been caught up in the production pipeline.
Finishing, or nearly finishing, these projects, many of which I once thought would be my final academic publications, has also left me thinking through my research pipeline. I have ideas in the works and at least one commitment for 2023, but one of my tasks over the next few months will be to put this in order and figure out where I want to spend my energy.
Perhaps not coincidentally, then, I also did less public writing and fewer presentations in 2022. I still worked on the SCS Blog’s contingent faculty series, but I was not the lead editor for either of the features that we produced this year. (I particularly recommend Kristina Chew’s twopart essay.) I also delivered just one conference paper, connecting the mass of people not from Athens on the Sicilian Expedition to the revolt the following year. My favorite piece of writing of the year was a talk about bread baking for a student group on campus that offered “a family and social history of bread.”
It was a similar story on this blog. I wrote somewhat less frequently, but I produced more words than I ever have before because the average post length ballooned enormously.
“Remembering injustice as the perpetrator?: Orators, Cultural Memory, and the Athenian Conquest of Samos,” in The Orators and their Treatment of the Recent Past, ed. A. Kapellos (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022), 447–63.
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, email me for a pdf or off-print.
I submitted grades a little over a week ago and promptly withdrew, exhausted, into a little fort with curtain walls made of novels. At least that’s what it felt like. The specific details might be exaggerated.
Several times I tried to break through the fog that had settled over my mind, but succeeded only in producing a silly post about pizza TV shows and the weekly varia post that I start compiling as soon as the previous week’s goes up. I could barely think about the semester that had just ended, let alone put those thoughts into any sort of coherent discussion.
Simply put, I had an exceptionally difficult semester, and one that rates among the very toughest I have ever experienced. Some issues stemmed from causes external to my classes (e.g. not getting some much-needed rest this summer and early semester indexing and proofing a book manuscript that put me perpetually behind), while others stemmed from things that happened in the classes, most of which I don’t want to talk about in this space because I don’t like talking about specific student activity in a public forum even when identifying details have been redacted, especially when there is nothing of universal value that can be gleaned by doing so.
Not every problem stemmed from these issues, of course.
Dissatisfied with traditional forms of grading, I dove headlong into the world of Specifications Grading for most of my courses this semester. To stick with the metaphor, I liked these waters but they also sent me crashing into the rocks.
The formula varied a little bit, class by class, but, in general I came up with a system where the students earned credit across four or five categories of assignments (e.g. journal entries, small assignments/participation, papers). Every assignment was graded using a bespoke rubric and it either met the standard and thus earned credit, or it did not. More work, and higher quality essays (the essay rubric had two tiers, one for basic competency and another for advanced) earned higher grades. To meet these higher standards, I allotted virtual tokens that the students could use either to revise their papers or turn work in late, pegging the number of tokens to the number of papers.
I entered the semester thinking that I had worked out a reasonably simple system that would give students the agency to decide what grade they were aiming for, make my expectations for each grade level clear, and provide in-semester flexibility that would allow students to do their best work. However, I had not anticipated that putting these assignments and expectations up front in the course would lead to cognitive overload for a significant number of students. In fact, I had a conversation in the final week of class with a student who said that this semester was much harder than the course they had taken the semester before even though the workload in the two courses was identical except that I had swapped one short weekly assignment for another. While there are other explanations why this student might have struggled with my course, I’m inclined to take the sentiment at face value because I saw evidence of the same struggle from other students who were struggling to interface with the information that I had provided in a way that made it harder to complete the work itself.
The core of this problem, I think is that many students were used to traditional grading schemes that allow students to muddle through to a passing grade without too much effort. By contrast, the system I devised required students to complete assignments in each category to a specified level in order to earn the grade. Passing my general education courses last semester did not require too much work, unless you simply neglected a graded category.
I am treating this as a messaging problem for now. Traditional grading schemes remain stupid and I’m not ready to abandon my attempt to find something better just yet.
However, the issue of students neglecting grade categories dovetailed with the tokens and flexible deadlines to create absolute chaos on my end. Here there were several intertwined issues.
Several semesters ago I developed a system for deadlines where students could receive an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before the due date. This policy has proven incredibly popular with my students. However, while I intend to keep it intact in some form, I am starting to question whether the system is having the intended effect. Rather than providing students the space to do their best work, I am finding that whatever grace I provide is filled by other classes with stricter deadlines such that my students wind up writing their papers at the last minute anyway, just several days later, and I had so many students taking the extension that it became a challenge to return papers in a timely fashion.
However, it was the tokens that turned this semester into a logistical nightmare. I set up the tokens anticipating that most would be used for revisions, knowing full well that revisions coming in at any point would cause some chaos. What I did not anticipate is that some portion of students would use most or all of their tokens to turn work in late. This meant that I had not only revisions, but also new work being turned in on no particular schedule throughout the semester, and I had difficulty keeping tabs on students who hadn’t turned in assignments, some of whom I knew were working on things and some of whom I did not.
Compounding these issues was, I think, a consequence of having a significant number of first year students. Anecdotally, from talking with friends who teach in high school, some students have been conditioned to think that flexible deadlines and the like mean that an assignment is optional. Or that whatever make-up assignment gets offered will be easier than the original assignment. As one explained:
“I’ll allow X to be redone/revised/resubmitted” is increasingly being taken as “I don’t need to do X, I’ll do the makeup Y later which will be easier anyway.”
This was obviously not what had been intended, but this collision of expectations and conditioning meant that I spent a significant amount of time amid the chaos of trying to grade everything just trying to track down missing work so that the students wouldn’t fail on those grounds. Oh, and I had 50% more students than I had in either semester last year.
Then there was the grading itself. I adopted a specifications system because it promised to offload some portion of the grading onto explicit rubrics where I could check the appropriate box. I loved not assigning grades to papers, but I quickly discovered several things that meant the system created just as much work as the mystery black box of traditional grading, if not more. The issues started because, I discovered, many students simply did not complete the assignments with the rubrics in mind and did not use the rubrics to check the work before submission. This meant that I often received work that did not fulfill the simplest rubrics.
These problems were particularly acute on the written assignments with its long, detailed rubric that should have provided guidance for the papers. I quickly realized that many of my students did not have the writing background to achieve the higher proficiencies, so simply checking the rubric box was not going to provide adequate guidance or encouragement. At the same time, while some students were not going to be aspiring to those grade tiers, I also couldn’t in good conscience provide detailed feedback for some students and not for others until the very end of the semester when the possibilities of revision had passed. By the last two weeks of the term it was clear that I would not be able to get caught up, so I offered that any student who wanted to revise their work could come to office hours and have their paper(s) marked in person so that they could receive feedback on how to meet the next tier. These meetings gave any student meant that (I think) any student aiming for higher grade tiers reached them, but they also meant that those weeks were a whirlwind of paper conferences.
Finally, my small assignments policy put a cherry on top of this disaster sundae.
The policy was simple. There were some number of small papers, in-class activities, exit-tickets, one-minute essays, and other activities that took place in class. If you weren’t there, you couldn’t make up the work. Unless you were an athlete at a competition. Or you got sick. Or had other “excused” absences. Right from the start, I found myself litigating what counts as a legitimate absence, which is one of my least favorite parts about taking attendance. Then, like with non-completion of work, I found myself around the middle of the semester worried about the number of students who seemed liable to fail (or otherwise drop grade tiers) because they had failed to adequately participate in the class. Since the opportunities for these points often did not come at regular intervals, I found myself inventing “optional extra” opportunities that would allow the students to bring their grade in that category up, which, in turn, created confusion about what assignments students actually needed to complete. Often, the students who completed the optional assignments were not the ones I had in mind when I created them. And, of course, adding all of these small assignments created a flurry of paperwork that I had to manage.
I should point out that for a non-negligible percentage of my students this system worked exactly as I envisioned, giving them agency to achieve grades based on their goals for the semester. Had I not felt compelled to give the students aiming for the “C” the same level of feedback I gave to those aiming for an “A,” my grading might have even been manageable—but, of course, almost everyone said that they were aiming for an “A” back in August.
I am not ready to abandon this grading mode, just yet, but it needs to be modified in critical ways for it to become sustainable and productive. The changes I have in mind to this point are:
Streamline my messaging and expectations. This means not only being clear about my expectations in terms of earning credit across multiple categories, but also clarifying that this is a labor-based grading scheme. It is designed to be transparent and achievable, but not necessarily easy. At the same time…
I want to submerge the mechanics of the participation grade. Some of the chaos this semester was created by the various points that students earned for doing in-class activities, which meant that this was something I had to track. I am not planning to change the activities that I do for small assignments, but my current thought for this category is to take a page out of the “ungrading” playbook. Instead of me assigning grading, the students will complete three reflections, one at the start, one at the middle, and one at the end of the term. The first one will set expectations and think about where they are at the start of the course. The middle two reflections will both have the students assign themselves a percentile grade for their own engagement with the course material. I will then plug the final percentile grade into a formula that adds or subtracts points based on attendance and maybe what percentage of small assignments they complete where perfect participation and attendance adds to score, a range results in no change, and excessive missed classes and activities results in lost points. I see a number of ways that this could go horribly wrong and I’m still working out the kinks, but it would also relieve the demand for me to track so many different assignments or create “optional” work.
I am going to rewrite the longer rubrics both to make them easier to follow and so that the students can explicitly use them as checklists. Similarly, I am going to print these rubrics and distribute them directly to my students.
Ditto for handouts on things like writing. I provide a lot of resources for the skills that I ask the students to master in these classes, but I find that even when directing students to them via presentation in front of the class, they are not being used because most students forget that they are there. I remember sticking handouts into my backpack never to be seen again, but at least having been handed a physical copy of something might help jog memories.
I am changing the token system. Tokens will only be used for turning in assignments late and probably limited to just 2, with a reward to the participation grade for every token left unused. Revision will be limited to the papers, but allowed for every paper, albeit probably with firmer deadlines for when a first round of revisions need to be complete.
Since none of this addresses how much time I spent responding to individual papers this semester, I am also likely going to lean more heavily on the language in the rubric and invite students looking to revise their papers to higher levels of achievement to come for conferences earlier in the semester.
Looking over these changes, there are still parts of this system I am concerned about. The ungrading formula, for instance, is an awkward beast to explain in the syllabus and it could lead to uncertainty about how the various non-paper assignments contribute to their grade. But I also think that there is a real possibility that these changes might be able to preserve what I liked about last semester while also steering into the sorts of written and metacognitive exercises that I find particularly valuable for students in a way that will make it a more sustainable and productive learning environment for everyone involved.
I am hardly the first person to say that Andor, the latest Star Wars release, is very good. In fact, this seems to be the consensus opinion among both people I know casually online and among critics. But what makes Andor particularly interesting is in how it is excellent.
At the most basic level, Andor is simply well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed television. Tony Gilroy’s show takes the viewer through three separate arcs, each of which gradually adds characters and builds complexity to the story. No episode is longer than an hour and most are less than forty-five minutes, but the spare dialogue packs an enormous punch, which, in turn, allows the show to soar.
I should start at the beginning.
Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) was one of the characters introduced in Rogue One, a daring and ruthless intelligence office who accompanies the raid to steal the Death Star plans. Andor starts years before, at a time when Cassian is living with his adopted mother Maarva Andor (Fiona Shaw) on the planet Ferrix. While trying to locate his sister who he hasn’t seen since before Maarva adopted him, Cassian kills two security personnel, thus drawing the attention of Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), an officious officer who ignores an order to brush the incident under the rug and starts an investigation with no name, but just enough information that Timm Karlo (James McCardle) can respond to the alert because he suspects that his girlfriend Bix Calleen (Adria Arjona) is sneaking off to spend time with her ex, Cassian, when she has been secretly passing information to the Rebellion.
Bix introduces Cassian to Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), and through Luthen to the larger apparatus of the inchoate rebellion. Cassian initially sees the Rebellion as a means to pay back his debts, but, inexorably, he becomes enmeshed in its mission. Andor also adds new characters on both sides of the conflict, including Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Supervisor Dedra Meero (Denise Gough). These stories are happening concurrently, too, which allows Gilroy to start with what could be a solo show and develop it into a complex harmony. In one particularly poignant moment, the show inserts a short wordless scene of an imprisoned and tortured Bix between two other scenes.
A lot of the praise for Andor centers on its sensitive treatment of the very concept of rebellion (I particularly recommend Abigail Nussbaum’s review). Where shows that broach this theme sometimes speak of rebellion as a good in its own right, Gilroy uses Andor as a vehicle to explore how oppressive systems drive one to rebel, and weaves that central premise deeply into the fabric of the show. Cassian is obviously exhibit A for this process, but it also manifests in Mon Mothma’s arc when she gradually realizes that her diligent opposition in the Senate is futile and Keno Loy’s (Andy Serkis) epiphany that the prison industrial complex is rigged, as well as in a host of smaller characters and moments that reveal the myriad of ways that can lead people at all levels of society into rebellion.
But Andor is also a show about how an empire sets in. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) memorably declares to Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977), “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers,” but the Empire by this point is fully-developed. They have a space station capable of destroying planets. The Empire clearly has a war machine in Andor, but it is hardly unassailable and if the Death Star is under construction, as there is some suggestion that the parts the prisoners are assembly parts for, we don’t know about it. Rather, the cruel machinery of Empire churns in more mundane ways: the board rooms of the security services, the imperial courtroom of the imperial magistrates, the prisons that despoil the environment, and the decisions to deter indigenous communities from their sacred spaces to clear the way for a new installation. More people interface with these systems than would have seen the Death Star. And, critically, they are created and perpetuated by people. Not faceless systems or the embodiment of evil, people.
And these systems are hard to resist, especially when you can’t see the whole picture. Resistance is a lonely, dangerous path that requires sacrifice, as captured in an exchange between Luthen and Lonni Jung (Robert Emms).
Lonni: “My sacrifice, it means nothing to you. Does it?
Luthen: “I said I think of you constantly, and I do. Your investment in the Rebellion is epic. A double life? Every day a performance? The stress of that? We need heroes, Lonni, and here you are.”
Lonni: “And what do you sacrifice?”
For all of this, I was particularly struck by how little this show relies on the existing mechanics of Star Wars canon.
Back in June I lamented that the attempts to “fill in the gaps” of the Star Wars mythology were strangling the franchise. Even a film like Rogue One, which I generally liked, tried to tell a fresh story while still bringing in Tarkin, Leia, and Vader–a choice that I thought undermined a lot of what it did well. By contrast, Andor brings in Cassian and Saw (Forest Whittaker) who had been introduced in Rogue One and builds out the character of Mon Mothma, who was briefly introduced in Return of the Jedi (1983, played by Caroline Blakiston). The emperor is mentioned a few times and once, that I caught, as Palpatine, Coruscant, the capital is a frequent setting, and the visual language is unmistakably Star Wars, but there the connections end. There is no Tatooine and no mention of the force. The doings of the Jedi and the Sith might as well be mythology, for all that they affect these people’s lives. Instead, Gilroy breathes life into a series of specific settings and characters, whether for the full twelve episodes or just a few minutes, which makes this both more harrowing and more memorable than anything Star Wars since the original trilogy.
In other words, this is exactly what I had hoped for from a Star Wars show.
Confession: I don’t know what is meant by “the college essay.”
This phrase has been the shorthand for a type of student writing deployed over the past few weeks in a discussion about the relationship between college classes and AI programs like ChatGPT-3 that launched in November, which I touched on in a Weekly Varia a few weeks ago. These programs produce a block of unique text that imitates the type of writing requested in response to a prompt. In its outline, input/output mimics what students do in response to prompts from their professors.
The launch of ChatGPT has led to an outpouring of commentary. Stephen Marche declared in The Atlantic that the college essay is dead and that humanists who fail to adjust to this technology will be committing soft suicide, which followed on from a post earlier this year by Mike Sharples declaring that this algorithm had produced a “graduate level” essay. I have also seen anecdotal accounts of professors who have caught students using ChatGPT to produce papers and concern about being able to process this as an honor code violation both because the technology is not addressed explicitly in the school’s regulation and because they lacked concrete evidence that it was used. (OpenAI is aware of these concerns, and one of their projects is to watermark generated text.) Some professors have suggested that this tool will give them no choice but to return to in-class, written tests that are rife with inequities.
But among these rounds of worry, I found myself returning to my initial confusion about the nature of “the college essay.” My confusion, I have decided, is that the phrase is an amorphous, if not totally empty, signifier that generally refers to whatever type of writing that a professor thinks his or her students should be able to produce. If Mike Sharples’ hyperbolic determination that the sample produced in his article is a “graduate level” essay is any guide, these standards can vary quite wildly.
For what it is worth, ChatGPT is pretty sure that the phrase refers to an admissions personal statement.
When I finished my PhD back in 2017, I decided that I would never assign an in-class test unless there was absolutely no other recourse (i.e. if someone above me demanded that I do so). Years of grading timed blue-book exams had convinced me that these exams were a mismatch for what history courses were claiming to teach, while a combination of weekly quizzes that the students could retake as many times as they want (if I’m asking the question, I think it is worth knowing) and take-home exams would align better with what I was looking to assess. This also matched with pedagogical commitment to writing across the curriculum. The quizzes provided accountability for the readings and attention to the course lectures, as well as one or more short answer questions that tasked the students with, basically, writing a thesis, while the exams had the students write two essays, one from each of two sets of questions that they were then allowed to revise. Together, these two types of assignments allowed the students to demonstrate both their mastery over the basic facts and details of the course material and the higher-order skills of synthesizing material into an argument.
My systems have changed in several significant ways since then, but the purpose of my assignments has not.
First, I have been moving away from quizzes. This change has been a concession to technology as much as anything. Since starting this system on Canvas, I moved to a job that uses Blackboard and I have not been able to find an easy system for grading short answer questions. I still find these quizzes a valuable component of my general education courses where they can consist entirely of true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, and other types of questions that are automatically graded. In upper-level courses where I found the short-answer questions to be the most valuable part of the assignment, by contrast, I am simply phasing them out.
Second, whether as a supplement to or in lieu of the quizzes, I have started assigning a weekly course journal. In this assignment, the students are tasked with choosing from a standard set of prompts (e.g. “what was the most interesting thing you learned this week,” “what was something that you didn’t understand this week form the course material? Work through the issue and see if you can understand it,” “what was something that you learned this week that changes something you previously wrote for this course?”) and then writing roughly a paragraph. I started assigning these journals in spring 2022 and they quickly became my favorite things to grade because they are a low-stakes writing assignment that give me a clear insight into what the students have learned from my class. Where the students are confused, I can also offer gentle guidance.
Third, I have stopped doing take-home exams. I realized at some point that, while take home exams were better than in-class exams, my students were still producing exam-ish essay answers and I was contributing to this problem in two ways. First, two essays was quite a lot of writing to complete well in the one week that I allotted for the exam. Second, by calling it an exam most students were treating it as only a marginal step away from the in class exam where one is assessed on whether they have the recall and in-the-moment agility to produce reasonable essays in a short period of time.
What if, I thought, I simply removed the exam title and spread the essays out over multiple paper assignments?
The papers I now assign actually use some of the same prompts that I used to assign on exams, which were big questions in the field the sort that you might see on a comprehensive exam, but I now focus on giving the students tools to analyze the readings and organize their thoughts into good essays. Writing, in other words, has become an explicit part of the assignment, and every paper is accompanied by a meta-cognitive reflection about the process.
Given this context, I was more sanguine about ChatGPT than most of the commentary I had seen, but, naturally, I was curious. After all, Sharples had declared that a piece of writing it produced was graduate level and Stephen Marche had assessed it lower, but still assigned it a B+. I would have marked the essay in question lower based on the writing (maybe a generous B-), and failed it for having invented a citation (especially for a graduate class!), but I would be on firmer footing for history papers of the sort that I grade, so I decided to run an experiment.
The first prompt I assigned is one that will, very likely, appear in some form or another in one of my classes next semester: “assess the causes underlying the collapse of the Roman Republic and identify the most important factor.” I am quite confident in assigning the AI a failing grade.
There were multiple issues with ChatGPT’s submission, but I did not expect the most obvious fault with the essay. The following text appeared near the end of the essay.
Vercingetorix’ victory was, I’m sure, quite a surprise for both him and Julius Caesar. If I had to guess, the AI conflated the fall of the Roman Republic with the fall of the Roman Empire, thus taking the talking points for the Empire and applying them to the names from the time of the Republic. After all, ChatGPT produces text by assembling words without understanding the meaning behind them. Then again, this conflation also appears in any number of think-pieces about the United States as Rome, too.
But beyond this particular howler, the produced text has several critical issues.
For one, “Internal conflict, economic troubles, and military defeats” are exceptionally broad categories each of which could make for a direction to take the paper, but together they become so generic as to obscure any attempt at a thesis. “It was complex” is a general truism about the past, not a satisfactory argument.
For another, the essay lacks adequate citations. In the first attempt, the AI produced only two “citations,” both listed at the end of the paper. As I tell my students, listing sources at the end isn’t the same thing as citing where you are getting the information. Upon some revision, the AI did manage to provide some in-text citations, but not nearly enough and not from anything I would have assigned for the class.
A second test, using a prompt I did assign based on Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, produced similarly egregious results. The essay had an uninspired, but a mostly adequate thesis, at least as a starting point, but then proceeded to use three secondary sources, none of which existed in the format that they were cited. Unless the substantial C.V. of the well-published scholar Sarah C. Chambers is missing a publication on a topic outside her central areas of research, she hasn’t argued what the paper claims she did.
A third test, about Hellenistic Judea, cited an irrelevant section of 1 Maccabees and a chapter in the Cambridge History of Judaism, albeit about Qumram and neither from the right volume nor with the right information for the citation. You get the idea.
None of these papers would have received a passing grade from me based on citations alone even before I switched to a specifications grading model. And that is before considering that the AI does even worse with metacognition, for obvious reasons.
In fact, if a student were to provide a quality essay produced by ChatGPT that was accurate, had a good thesis, and was properly cited, and then explained the process by which they produced the essay in their metacognitive component, I would give that student an A in a normal scheme or the highest marks in my specs system. Not only would such a task be quite hard given the current state of AI, but it would also require the student to know my course material well enough to identify any potential inaccuracies and have the attention to detail to make sure that the citations were correct, to say nothing of demonstrating the engagement through their reflection. I don’t mind students using tools except when those tools become crutches that get in the way of learning.
In a similar vein, I have no problem with students using citation generators except that most don’t realize that you shouldn’t put blind faith in the generator. You have to know both the citation style and the type of source you are citing well enough to edit whatever it gives you, which itself demonstrates your knowledge.
More inventive teachers than I have been suggesting creative approaches to integrating ChatGPT into the classroom as a producer of counterpoints or by giving students opportunities to critique its output, not unlike the exercise I did above. I have also seen the suggestion that it could be valuable for synthesizing complex ideas into digestible format, though this use I think loses something by treating a complex text as though it has only one possible meaning. It also produces a reasonable facsimile of discussion questions, though it struggles to answer them in a meaningful way.
I might dabble with some of these ideas, but I also find myself inclined to take my classes back to the basics. Not a return to timed, in-class tests, but doubling down on simple, basic ideas like opening student ideas to big, open-ended questions, carefully reading sources (especially primary sources) and talking about what they have to say, and how to articulate an interpretation of the past based on those sources–all the while being up front with the students about the purpose behind these assignments.
My lack of concern about ChatGPT at this point might reflect how far from the norm my assessment has strayed. I suspect that when people refer to “the college essay,” they’re thinking of the one-off, minimally-sourced essay that rewards superficial proficiency of the sort that I grew frustrated with. The type of assignment that favors expedience over process. In this sense, I find myself aligned with commentators who suggest that this disruption should be treated as an opportunity rather than an existential threat. To echo the title from a recent post at John Warner’s SubStack, “ChatGPT can’t kill anything worth preserving.”
One of two things happens when I submit grades at the end of the semester. Sometimes, words start flowing, as though they have been building up behind a dam of grading that has now opened its sluice gate. Other times, I emerge from the final push in a fog that takes several days to dissipate. The harder the semester, the higher the odds of the second outcome.
This was an exceedingly difficult semester for me and its conclusion coincided with a storm front that brought both ice and snow ahead of a holiday weekend, all of which made settling in for a few days of inactivity an attractive proposition. I’ve relished how much time I’ve been able to spend reading the past few days—in addition to the lengthy round up below, I’m on my third novel since the end of the semester—and I’m getting back to my usual routine of baking bread (sweet treats can wait until there is less candy in the house). I suppose that this is how holidays are supposed to go. There will be time to return to more substantive posts next week and in the new year.
Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, since the pairing is actually appropriate this year.
This week’s varia:
This was a neat story about how John Gompers repatriated a number of antiquities that had been acquired by his grandmother, the Dutch archaeologist Gisela Schneider-Herrmann, and were now sitting in his mother’s garage. He started by Googling “How do you repatriate antiquities?” If a random citizen can do it, then surely so can major institutions since in his insistence that objects belong in museums, Dr. Jones leaves out a critical piece of information: where that museum is located.
Staying on the theme of repatriation, Germany has returned 22 of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (BBC). These are some of my favorite objects from Africa, but the overwhelming majority of them were looted by European colonizers, removed from the walls of buildings where they told the history of the people, and taken European and American museums. This is a good start.
“I love Higher Education. It isn’t Loving me Back.” Continuing with the theme from last week, Hannah Leffingwell writes in Jacobin about the New School Strike and the cultish atmosphere of academia. I particularly like how she describes her realization that a favorite professor from undergrad was leaving because her contract was up: “I was too young and naïve to understand what she was up against: a system that demanded her full and unwavering commitment to “the profession” while offering only temporary, part-time work in return — or, if she was lucky, a grueling tenure-track position in a state where she had no family or friends and probably didn’t want to live.” I often fear that pulling the curtain back with students will only lead to more disillusion, but I also think that students deserve to know what is happening at the institutions where they are studying.
An interesting piece about peer review by Adam Mastroianni at his Substack. His argument is that “peer review” in the sciences, which developed as a means to prove to funding bodies that the experiments being run were worthwhile, offers at best a marginal benefit to the actual product. More frequently, he argues, it both fails to catch serious flaws and inhibits potentially valuable research. Coming from a field that straddles the humanities and social sciences, I am sympathetic to some of the frustrations with peer review, especially when it is used as a means of gate-keeping, but ditching peer review isn’t going to bring back great discoveries. Moreover, by the end of the piece, Mastroianni acknowledges the value of receiving feedback with an anecdote about a recent paper he published online at his site, making this a critique of the specific peer review apparatus and the rhythms of academic work.
This week in their new newsletter Modern Medieval, Matt Gabriele and David Perry, authors of The Bright Ages, write about the shallow “medievalism” of the architectural trend “Castlecore.”
Kelly Baker, in her newsletter Cold Takes writes about the existential crisis of being a writer who didn’t write for most of a year. I adore Baker’s memoir Grace Period, which is a deeply-moving accounting of her falling out of academia. I’m glad that she seems to have found her words again.
At The Conversation, Casey Fiesler offers perspective on the migration away from Twitter as compared with previous platforms. The short version: no platform will replicate Twitter, but the communities that form in one place tend to be resilient as members find themselves in other spaces.
From The Washington Post, an article with the title “The crisis of student mental health is much vaster than we realize.” Speaking as a teacher at the college level, yup. However, I always get a little bit leery about articles that center mental health services as the solution. They’re important, no doubt, but too often I’ve seen the availability of those services as either as a crutch, or their absence as an excuse, to avoid confronting larger systemic causes of the mental health problem.
A long read in Pro Publica, Lynzy Billing reports on the so-called Zero Units, Afghan forces trained and supported by the CIA. These units conducted night time raids in Afghan villages under the pretense of hunting militia leaders, a practice that carried over from the Vietnam War and with the predictable results of hundreds of civilian casualties. She quotes a US army ranger succinctly identifying the core problem with the US strategy in the country: “You go on night raids, make more enemies, then you gotta go on more night raids for the more enemies you now have to kill.”
George Santos, Republican congressman-elect from New York, has come under scrutiny for having lied about his biography during the campaign, including both his education and work history. The latest fiction seems to be his family history, which, he claims, includes Jewish family members that fled from Ukraine to Belgium, survived the Holocaust, and then ended up in Brazil. Except that there is no evidence of this heritage (CNN).
I’m a recent convert to e-books, but I have recently found the reading experience on Kindle Paperwhite both easy and convenient, so I was both interested and disappointed to read this blog post suggesting that Amazon will be phasing out the devices.
Album of the week: Old Bear Mountain, “On the Run”
Now reading: Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War
Hi there. I have a bunch of more substantive posts in the works, but I took a beating this semester and it is the Friday before Christmas, so I have decided to take it easy for a couple of days. Enjoy this TV recommendation that I’ve been meeting to put up for a few weeks. I have a Weekly Varia post that will go live tomorrow morning and I expect to be back next week with more substantive thoughts on books, pedagogy, and my usual smattering of other topics.
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 an intermittent feature.
This week: Pizza TV
I wrote about the Great British Baking Show back in 2015 and my interest in both food and food TV has only grown in the seven years since. In the past two years alone, I have written favorably about the scripted show The Bear, as well as Top Chef (threetimes, actually), and Best Baker in America. My tastes in these shows usually align with the food I like to make and eat, so it should perhaps be of no surprise that I greatly enjoyed two very different shows, both about pizza.
Best in Dough is a deeply silly show on Hulu. The first season, which debuted back in September, consists of ten episodes hosted by Wells Adams and judged by Daniele D’Uditi and a second chair filled by Millie Peartree, Eunji Kim, and Bryan Ford.
Each episode brings on three contestants (or sometimes teams) to compete in two challenges.
The first challenge flips the contest on its head, usually forcing them to cook something pizza adjacent, but not actually pizza and often something that prevents them from using their dough. The winner gets either an advantage on the final challenge or a prize. Since a ten minute advantage isn’t that substantial when you already have your dough, just choose the prize.
The second challenge has the contestants bake their pizza using dough they brought and any one of the variety of pizza ovens on set. This round of competition is judged by the three judges and a panel of “pizza lovers” whose decision in an adjacent room counts both as one vote and the tiebreaker since, as Wells Adams cornily repeats every episode, “pizza is for the people.” The winner walks away with $10,000
What makes Best in Dough so silly, though, is that each episode has a gimmick that feeds into the challenges. The first, which was by far my favorite, was the “Nonna” episode featuring three Italian-American grandmothers. Few shows have made me laugh as hard as I did at an old Italian woman declaring after she steals someone’s tomato “I do what I want to, all the time.” The other themes were often cheesier, like social media influencers or fine dining pizzas, but I enjoyed the lighthearted competition.
The other show, Chef’s Table: Pizza, is about as far to the other end of the spectrum as you can get. I liked the original Chef’s Table that debuted on Netflix back in 2015 well enough, but it didn’t click with me in the same way that some other cooking shows have. However, I recently returned to the project with its new pizza series that also debuted in September. Without doing anything more than looking at release dates, this seems to be a continuation of what the producers did back in 2020 when they applied the Chef’s Table apparatus and aesthetic to BBQ, which serves to both elevate a type of cuisine not usually considered fine dining.
This season offers a spotlight to six notable pizza chefs from around the world: Chris Bianco in Arizona, Gabriele Bonci in Rome, Ann Kim in Minneapolis, Franco Pepe outside of Naples, Yoshihiro Imai in Kyoto, and Sarah Minnick in Portland, Oregon.
At some level, the Chef’s Table formula makes each story interchangeable. Pizza was usually not their calling, even when they were restaurant industry veterans, until it was. Each suffered some sort of professional or personal setback that caused them to suffer for their pizza craft. Each is deeply moved by where the ingredients come from. Each has food critics eager to declare that theirs is the best pizza in the world. By the end of the series, in fact, I would start an episode asking myself when and where the obstacles would come from—would this one be a disapproving parents or a destructive industry wreaking havoc with a marriage?
Chef’s Table, like many other types of food TV, thrives on the idea of food as a story. The viewer cannot eat the food, so you rely on video of dripping fat (which is parodied to great effect on the finale of Parks and Rec) and sizzling grills, or on Tony Bourdain slurping a bowl of noodles while groaning “that’s good.” Where they thrive, then, is the story of how things get made, both in the historical sense and in seeing the transformation from raw ingredient to final product.
In this sense, I found pizza to be a curious match for the form. The personal history was there, of course, and the show features loving shots of tomatoes and greens, and of Chris Bianco making mozzarella, but it also often struck me that the dough itself was treated as an afterthought in most episodes. There were of course shots of dough being balled up or stretched, but only in Sarah Minnick’s episode where part of her story involved opening a pizza restaurant without really having made pizza before, did I find the dough itself central and, even then, the show focused its praise on her unusual toppings. I completely understand that this show is more about creating an aesthetic than about the process itself and also that watching dough rise does not make for the most compelling television (I’ve even written a tongue-in-cheek story about this), but, as a bread obsessive, I’d love to see a show like this turn the camera in that direction.
And yet, despite these critiques, I thoroughly enjoyed this series. Perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that upon watching Gabriele Bonci’s episode about pizza al’taglio (Roman street pizza), I found myself thumbing through my baking books to see if I could replicate it at home. The answer is that yes, I can, and it is delicious.