Weekly Varia no. 5, 12/17/22

Winter appears to be setting in for real in this corner of Northern Missouri. I am looking out a window at snowflakes bouncing on the wind while I write these words and it has been below consistently below freezing for the past few days, though the forecast is calling for a slight reprieve for a few days before the next polar vortex sets in for the upcoming holiday. I happen to like winter weather, don’t mind the cold, and am not daunted by a few flurries, but I have also been finding myself sipping my tea and wondering how this weather is going to affect my running since this is the longest stretch I have ever managed to run outdoors in my life.

The other topic I find running through my mind on this Saturday morning is related to the Jon Lauck and Steven Mintz links in this week’s roundup (see below). While the job market for history PhDs has been somewhere between bad and very bad for a long time, Lauck offers data that suggests that it is positively catastrophic: of 1799 history PhDs granted between 2019 and 2020, only 175 are “full-time faculty members,” and those numbers are warped by the years of backlog leading up to 2019 that caused people like me (2017 PhD) to still be job hunting. The issue, fundamentally, is that colleges and universities are not hiring to replace retirees. Lauck provides a sample of Midwestern universities, including both my PhD-granting institution and my current employer, that have cut 34% of their faculty lines on average over the past ten years. This is bad. However, as often emerges in these debates, the data is also a little misleading. Truman State (my employer) in his data went from 15 tenured or tenure track historians to 4, but the latter number doesn’t count me or the other two full-time year-to-year faculty members in the department. It is still a catastrophic decline and it is extremely difficult to build sustainable programs that attract students on the back of faculty who don’t know whether they will be teaching the following year, but it also removes nearly half of our faculty from the conversation.

Likewise, while I share the sentiment found online that big professional organizations and a lot of secure faculty at prestigious institutions are complacent about the state of the field in ways that contribute to its degradation, I can say with certainty that my tenured colleagues are furious that their staffing requests to replace tenure lines are routinely approved for year-to-year hires. This is short-term thinking on the part of our institutions, but it is also the state of play. Even beyond self-interest, this is why I have dedicated so much time and energy to contingent faculty issues over the past few years. Tenure is a wonderful idea, but I think that the future of the field requires urgent action to change both perceptions and working conditions of the people who didn’t win that particular lottery. To that end, I am fortunate to work at an institution with colleagues both on and off the tenure line who agree and an active AAUP chapter that has been fighting to create a more sustainable future.

This week’s varia:

  • Researchers mapping the floor of Lake Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake, looking for dumped munitions discovered a shipwreck that could date to as early as the 1300s.
  • At Everyday Orientalism, Rachel Yuen-Collingridge writes about her decades as a contingent scholar. She concludes: “Let us be able to look upon eclectic, experimental, flexible professional identities and pursuits as signs of vitality not of a lack of focus, ambition, and seriousness. If we truly want to change contingency or contribute to its change, perhaps a good starting point is to challenge the cultures of contingency and the hierarchies which feed upon it.” Shorter: we need to change the structural insecurity and pay equity issues, but those substantive changes are impossible without changing the perception that contingent faculty are less than full time ones.
  • Pasts Imperfects is a great weekly newsletter dealing with antiquity. This week (12.15.22): Hpone Myint Tu has a short piece and reading lists about animals in the ancient Mediterranean, along with snippets from Sarah Bond’s recent article at Hyperallergic about new research by Jordan Pickett into the intersection of Christianity and Roman baths and a recent article about excavations at the Aksumite city of Adulis in modern Eritrea.
  • Chanukah is coming up and Alana Vincent has a really nice piece at Time about the rituals around a holiday that is both minor and “the primary festival of Jewish visibility.” My favorite observation is that the current celebration is one that the Maccabees themselves would have hated.
  • Jon K. Lauck offers a stark assessment of the state of history departments in the Midwest in the Middle West Review (from September). I don’t know that his prescription is viable and think both that the causes are a little more varied and the some of the data about support for history softer than is implied here, but, speaking both as a graduate and current faculty member of programs mentioned in this survey: he’s not wrong in the big picture. Lauck’s data provides the foundation for Steven Mintz’ latest column at Inside Higher Ed, where he, not unreasonably, suggests that we’re seeing an “end of history” in the sense that it is a discipline literally being downsized.
  • Paul Thomas adds his voice to the chorus of writing teachers saying that ChatGPT is only a threat to writing assessments desperately in need of changing, pointing out that this is a redux of the Turnitin problem. There were additional articles on this topic last week.
  • If you’ve ever wanted to hear the phrase “the first time anyone ever asserted a First Amendment right to see the president’s son’s penis, an argument that the Framers likely did not anticipate,” then Adam Serwer in the Atlantic has you covered. Starting from the so-called “Twitter Files” being published by Elon Musk’s flunkies and the issue of stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop that Twitter suppressed because they contained nude images, Serwer expands out into a compelling discussion about how the conservative movement is warping interpretations of the first amendment and offers a narrow defense of social media companies.
  • “Free speech” on Twitter means blocking journalists who are critical of new ownership, ostensibly because they are posting information that is a direct threat to Musk and his family even though the alleged footage was nowhere near him (both links to Gizmodo). In the sense that every accusation that reactionary conservatives have levied against people they don’t like has been a matter of projection, capricious bans such as these were all-but inevitable.
  • Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby at Popular Information report on how a man named Bruce Friedman has been exploiting recent legislation in Florida to flood school districts with demands that they remove material from school library without having either read the books in question or providing evidence that the books are causing harm to students.
  • German special forces raided more than 150 properties around Germany and arrested 25 people accused of plotting a coup to topple the German state and establish a new monarchy. The central figure in the coup is Heinrich XIII, the 71-year-old scion of an aristocratic family, but, more concerning, the arrested ringleaders include members of the German security service (BBC).
  • Emily Stewart at Vox lays out the current state of the Sam Bankman-Fried FTX saga and starts to explore what I think are the more substantial concerns surrounding the lurid saga, namely that while the scale of the crimes in this case are spectacular, but the crimes themselves are quite ubiquitous and the media and financial apparatuses in the modern US provide superficial cover for people like SBF to profit.
  • From a few weeks ago, BBC has a story about the kenari nut which could have a future as a dairy substitute and developing commercial possibilities might stem deforestation in Indonesia.

Album of the week: Kitchen Dwellers, “Wise River”

Now reading: Brandon Sanderson, The Lost Metal; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War

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